Friday, December 8, 2017

Owlbear's D&D Holiday Gift Guide

The holidays are here, so you might be wondering what to get your gaming friends (or, let’s be honest… probably a little gift for yourself). The great news is that there is a whole plethora of D&D-related gifts for a wide variety of diverse gaming interests.

D&D RPG


The recent release schedule has had quite an array of books for the tabletop gamer. For players and Dungeon Masters alike, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything ($30) includes 32 new class paths and new spells for PCs, as well as offering an array of of advice for DM’s on encounter building, proficiencies, traps, and downtime activities. Volo’s Guide to Monsters ($34) gives DM’s new variants of classic, iconic monsters as well as includes other fantastic creatures that didn’t quite make it into the Monster Manual.

The most recent adventure offerings have included a variety of adventuring locales for gaming groups with a variety of play styles.

Storm King’s Thunder ($34) is sprawling Sword Coast campaign crossing the wilds of Faerun from Waterdeep to Anauroch and nearly all places in between. This sandbox-like adventure path has multitude of hooks and side quests all over its massive Sword Coast map.

Tales from the Yawning Portal ($34) brings back old-school dungeon crawls from prior editions, updating them for D&D 5th Edition. Classics include the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, the Sunless Citadel, White Plume Mountain, and the infamous Tomb of Horrors.

Tomb of Annihilation ($34) is the most recent offering with an Isle of Dread and Tomb of Horrors inspired campaign in Chult, updating the hex crawl style campaign for 5th Edition.

For fans of Critical Role, you can now play in Matthew Mercer’s world, the Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting (apostrophes included at no extra charge) for $26.

Or if Tolkien is more your thing, Cubicle 7 has converted its One Ring game to D&D 5th Edition rules with Adventures in Middle Earth. If you've wanted to play a low fantasy version of D&D, especially set in Tolkien's universe, this is probably right up your alley.

In the accessories category, there is the newly revised Dungeon Master's Screen Reincarnated ($10), the thick, folding cardboard D&D Adventure Grid (more than just a battle mat at $20) and the venerable, but still available D&D Dungeon Tiles: Wilderness Master Set ($18), soon to be reprinted along with the Dungeon and City master sets.

If you’re playing on the grid, you may want to pick up some D&D Icons of the Realms or Pathfinder Battles miniatures… and for the DM who has everything, there is the massively, huge Tiamat Ma’al Drakar miniature for about $100 from Reaper Miniatures. Can that thing even be called a “miniature”?

D&D Board Games


But it’s not all about D&D role-playing. Wizards of the Coast has expanded the brand into some really amazing board games.

Wrath of Ashardalon miniatures
For those who don’t have time for a regular rpg home game, or may be missing a Dungeon Master to run the group, Wizards of the Coast has a series of dungeon-crawl board games that might serve as a reasonable substitute. The most recent version is Tomb of Annihilation (not to be confused with the D&D adventure of the same name).

The Temple of Elemental Evil version introduced campaign play, which the prior versions lacked. However, Wrath of Ashardalon probably comes with the best variety of miniatures, including an amazing Huge Red Dragon. Not only are theses fun dungeon crawl board games, the miniatures themselves make these games a fantastic value if you also play D&D tabletop.

Assault of the Giants takes on the area-control board game with asymmetric play and features a beautiful Sword Coast game board and over a dozen giant miniatures. Even though the giant miniatures are not as large as the Icons of the Realms miniatures, they are still sizable enough for rpg play in a pinch. This also comes in a painted miniature premium version.

Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate reskins a D&D theme onto Betrayal at the House on the Hill. Fans of the original will almost certainly like this version (full review here).

Dragonfire brings Catalyst Games’ Crossfire deck-builder mechanics into the D&D world. This game not only offers cooperative deck building, you can also play campaign scenarios that allow your characters to progress similar to a legacy game. I will have to opportunity to play this title more extensively this weekend and I’m looking forward to seeing how it fares. Fans of the Shadowrun Crossfire game are bound love this D&D themed version.

Tyrants of the Underdark combines deck building with area control in an Underdark themed game board (my initial review here). Like other deck builders, you mix and match cards from different factions to give the game a huge replayability factor.

There are multiple paths to victory and the lead can swing wildly from player to player across turns. Victory points at the end are almost always very close, making the game play exciting to the very last turn. This is one of the top board games in my collection, and probably ranks just behind Roll for the Galaxy as my favorite.

Lords of Waterdeep along with its expansion Scoundrels of Skullport provide a solid worker-placement board game. Though it is now several years old, it is still in print and is well regarded even among the most jaded board gamers. This is also a great “gateway” board game for D&D groups that may not be as into the board game scene.

D&D Adjacent Games


Though not strictly D&D themed, there are several fantasy games that give a similar flavor.

If you are lucky enough to live near a 5 Below thrift store, keep an eye out for Magic the Gathering: Arena of the Planeswalkers for only $5 ($10 - $12 on Amazon)! This Heroscape-based game uses characters and creatures from the Magic the Gathering universe in an entertaining, squad-based miniatures skirmish game. But the best part is that it come with 35 miniatures. That’s a fantastic value at $5 or even $10.

It’s $5 expansion, Battle for Zendikar come with another 16 miniatures. That over 50 miniatures for between $12 to $18!!!  If you are really lucky, you can also find Shadows over Innistrad for less than $10 and add another 25 figures to that total! Hell, even if you hate skirmish board games, you can pick up 75 miniatures for under $30… and the game is pretty fun, too!

While not quite the stunning Planeswalker deal, Zombicide: Black Plague offers a zombie apocalypse with fantasy flavor. Zombicide has been so popular that it has generated many expansions, but this stand-alone version is probably the best, especially if you like the fantasy theme.

Speaking of fantasy re-themes, Defenders of the Realm generates the race-against-the-clock excitement of games like Pandemic, but instead of fighting disease, you are fighting orcs and dragons!

And lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the old-timer dungeon crawlers, Descent: Journeys in the Dark and its many expansions. Descent now includes an app from Fantasy Flight that allows all the players to play cooperatively against the game without the Overlord player. (Imperial Assault offers a similar dungeon-crawl-slash-race-against-the-clock experience, but in the Star Wars universe).

Final Thoughts


We're definitely in a golden age of gaming. Between D&D and other fantasy rpgs and board games, there are dozens of ways to get your fantasy kicks this year.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Owlbear Reviews Betrayal at Baldur's Gate

With Betrayal at Baldur's Gate, Avalon Hill has expanded the array D&D themed board games published this year. When placed alongside Assault of the Giants (review pending), Dragonfire, and the Tomb of Annihilation board games (as well as prior year offerings such as Tyrants of the Underdark), there is quite a variety of play style offerings in 2017 for D&D board game enthusiasts. If you are already familiar with Betrayal at the House on the Hill, Betrayal at Baldur's Gate will be super easy to pick up.

Like its predecessor, the players move around revealing the board one tile at a time while encountering Events, gaining Items, and discovering Omens. Eventually, the Haunt is revealed which determines the win conditions for the traitor (usually one player) and the heroes (everyone else).

Full disclosure: I have only had the chance to play a couple of haunt scenarios in the new Betrayal at Baldur's Gate, so you might want to keep that in mind when you consider my evaluation.

The Pros


First, I'll start with what I really enjoy about the game.

The new characters all have a special power, like a spell, or ranged attack, or re-roll mechanic for example. This gives each character a bit more flavor and adds to the already high replay factor.

The D&D theme is well done in terms of the scenarios, events, flavor text, etc. I wasn't sure a thematic mashup of Betrayal and D&D would work, but so far, so good. Also, there are quite a few D&D in-jokes and Easter Eggs sprinkled throughout the game tiles and text for those with an eye for detail.

The new haunt roll mechanic also ensures that the haunt cannot happen prior to the 3rd Omen card. Unfortunately, you can't read through the haunts without spoiling them, so I don't have enough data to know how well they fit the theme. However, in one play test, the haunt involved all players versus the game. There was no traitor, and working together to beat the boss monster gave a familiar D&D feel.

I do like the way the buildings and streets combine to make a large "ground level" map, with a smaller catacombs level. I also like that each level has its own draw pile. In the original, a critical room can often be accidentally "buried" at the bottom of the draw pile because of the way the draw mechanic works. This does not occur in the new version.

The sex pre-painted miniatures are also pretty nice and, as a bonus, are sized appropriately for D&D table top.


The Big Con


That said, one of my biggest complaints with the various Betrayal games (the original, Widow's Walk, and now this one) is that the scenarios do not appear to be play tested very well, or well edited in some cases.

How do I know?

We almost always have questions about the traitor powers or actions within the haunt. And I'm not just talking about minor questions, but almost always key issues with the way the powers are worded that make the haunt rules overly ambiguous.

My wife and I are veteran gamers. We have played the different Betrayal games as well as other traitor-mechanic games like Shadows over Camelot, Battlestar Galactica, Dead of Winter, etc... The design challenge with the Betrayal games over other traitor mechanic games is that every scenario has slightly different rules for the traitor and heroes. Because of this, the game designers need to be extraordinarily detail-oriented when writing up the haunt rules.

Due to the age of the original Betrayal game, haunt clarifications can sometimes be found online, but not so for Widow's Walk or Baldur's Gate, so you are on your own to interpret the rules as written.

For the hero group, the players can generally come to a consensus after discussion if there are any doubts. However, the traitor is usually on their own to interpret any potential rule problems or vague wording, unless they want to give away their secret powers or victory conditions.

I have yet to play a haunt that hasn't had an issue where the text was not entirely clear and required some varying amount of interpretation. In almost every case, a single sentence (or two at most) would have cleared up the confusion. A good editor should have caught these ambiguities, but I have the distinct impression the the designers did their own editing... or if there was an editor, the editor was only looking for grammatical issues, and not rules ambiguity. A play test of each haunt should haven eliminated most of these problems.

All boards games have some amount of rules vagueness that often need a forum, faq or site like Board Game Geek to help, but it is more pronounced in the Betrayal games simply because there are some 30 to 40 different haunts that all may have different issues, and you are not able to read the haunt rules in advance without spoiling the game.

This has been a big problem for me in that any win or loss is tainted by the "Hey, did we play that part correctly?" discussion after the game. It often takes away some of the shine of a win, or adds to the frustration of a loss. I don't mind losing. Losing a competitive game can be lots of fun. But I hate losing when it later becomes clear that an incorrectly interpreted rule may have changed the whole scenario or player strategy.

As a non-spoiler example, one of the haunts had a big monster with some smaller minions. The minions came out first, and the big boss a couple turns later. In the haunt, it appears to state that the minions go away once the boss monster comes out, but a sentence or two later, it implies the exact opposite. Within the same haunt, the text appeared to imply that the boss monster may be able to attack more than one character given certain conditions, but it didn't explicitly state it. As a group, we ruled that the minions stayed and continued to attack, but the boss monster did not attack more than once. That seemed to be the most balanced interpretation, and we won the scenario... but we may not have won if the boss monster were allowed a second attack, so the victory felt diminished given that we still don't know what the correct ruling is. Since that we had not just one, but two rules clarifications required for the haunt, I was a bit disappointed in that particular scenario, and that has tainted my view of the game for the moment.

Final Thoughts 


Don't get me wrong. I don't dislike the game. If you are a fan of the other Betrayal titles and you like D&D, you will almost certainly enjoy this mash up. However, my recent experiences with poorly worded haunts in the various Betrayal incarnations has tarnished what would otherwise be a really fun experience. It may be that I'm pre-judging Baldur's Gate too hard based upon the play experience with the other Betrayal titles. But it does not bode well that one of the first haunts I encountered had the same problem.

I would give it 3.5 stars of 5. It's a strong Buy recommendation for fans of the Betrayal line, but if you are also annoyed by rule ambiguities of the haunts in the other titles, you will likely find the same issues in this one. The great news is that there are plenty of D&D themed board games to choose from if this one is not your cup of tea.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Raging Owlbear Interviews Chris O'Neill

Continuing my "interview series" (used very loosely) this month, I speak with Chris O’Neill, co-founder of 9th Level Games, best known for the comic RPG "Kobolds Ate My Baby!"  9th Level has also broadened its offerings in recent years with card and board games like Schrödinger's Cats, Knuckle Sammich, Bearicades, and Hot 16.

This month, 9th Level launches its newest Kickstarter, Tragedies of Middle School, a collection of tongue-in-cheek RPG horror games about the nightmarish experiences of pre-teen grade schoolers. Tragedies of Middle School includes 21 short-form storytelling RPGs, LARPS, and activities for only $10 in PDF and a mere $20 in print.


Thursday, October 26, 2017

Gargantuan Dragons invade Owlbear Lair!


Gargantuan Red and Green Dragons from
the Pathfinder Battles miniatures line.
I’m a bit of a miniatures nut when it comes to dragons (or really, just a miniature nut... period). I was lucky enough to chance upon the Paizo website when they had both the Pathfinder Battles Gargantuan Red and Gargantuan Green dragons temporarily in stock over the summer. Both of these models have been out of print for some time, but Paizo occasionally gets restock from random distributors. The Gargantuan Red Dragon is complete sold out now, but Paizo.com still has the Gargantuan Green Dragon in its store (last chance to pick one up for under $50 with shipping).

I was extremely surprised to see the Gargantuan Red come back in stock, and I’m pretty certain I got one of the last, if not the last one on their shelves. I had been hesitant to buy both of these models earlier due to luke warm reviews, but the Green and Red were the only chromatic dragons I did not yet have in the Gargantuan/Colossal size category. No one else, to my knowledge, has put out a pre-painted green dragon of this size, and the larger pre-painted red dragons are all ridiculously priced on the secondary markets. I kick myself to this day that I did not pick up the ICONS Colossal Red Dragon when they were only about $60!

Both models are beautifully sculpted. From an artistic standpoint, they really do stand out with very dynamic poses. However, they both suffer from what I consider a serious design flaw when it comes to tabletop play… They are both looking up. Both poses have the neck and head craning in something akin to an upward roar. From an artistic standpoint, I suppose I understand why the sculptor went in that direction, but I am disappointed that they are not looking down at the PC miniatures with an “I’m totally going to eat you!” menace.

The Gargantuan Red also has one wing folded inward in what appears to be a packaging consideration. I may try to use the heated water method to see if I can get a little bit more spread from the left wing. The painting on each is reasonably good, although I think the green dragon's color palette could have used a little more contrast.

The Pathfinder Battles Gargantuan Dragons are slightly smaller than the amazing WotC ICONS from 2006 - 2007.
From a size perspective, the models are unsurprisingly smaller than the legendary ICONS miniatures from Wizards of the Coast, but they are decently large, and considerably more bulky than the Elder Dragon models that came out later in the D&D Miniatures line.

While these may not be my absolute favorite dragons in my collection, they are impressive models and I am glad I was able to pick these up for retail pricing. The secondary market for large dragons is quite ridiculous. Don't wait until they are gone!

The Gargantuans fit favorably well in size category with the huge WotC Elder Dragons from 2009 - 2010.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

GM 101: Basics of Stealth and Hiding in D&D

Dragon Magazine #88 cover by Jim Holloway
Why is stealth so hard in D&D?

Based on recent social media chatter, it appears GM’s have some confusion when adjudicating stealth and hiding, and players believe their Rogue skills give them Advantage more than the rules as written would suggest. A re-review of the rules as written with a few examples should help.

To break this down a bit, let’s start with the rules as stated in the SRD 5.0 (bold emphasis added).
___________

Stealth

Make a Dexterity (Stealth) check when you attempt to conceal yourself from enemies, slink past guards, slip away without being noticed, or sneak up on someone without being seen or heard.

Hiding

The GM decides when circumstances are appropriate for hiding. When you try to hide, make a Dexterity (Stealth) check. Until you are discovered or you stop hiding, that check’s total is contested by the Wisdom (Perception) check of any creature that actively searches for signs of your presence.

You can’t hide from a creature that can see you clearly, and you give away your position if you make noise, such as shouting a warning or knocking over a vase. An invisible creature can always try to hide. Signs of its passage might still be noticed, and it does have to stay quiet.

In combat, most creatures stay alert for signs of danger all around, so if you come out of hiding and approach a creature, it usually sees you. However, under certain circumstances, the GM might allow you to stay hidden as you approach a creature that is distracted, allowing you to gain advantage on an attack roll before you are seen.

Passive Perception

When you hide, there’s a chance someone will notice you even if they aren’t searching. To determine whether such a creature notices you, the GM compares your Dexterity (Stealth) check with that creature’s passive Wisdom (Perception) score.
__________

So there are a few things that are implied by the above rules that could be stated more clearly, or at least clarified with examples.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Raging Owlbear interviews Frank Mentzer

Source: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
This past week I was delighted to welcome Frank Mentzer as a guest in my first video chat. I hope to do more of these with other industry folks in the future, but that's for another day. Forgive my rough style, as I don't usually do interviews, but this opportunity was one I just could not let pass by.

In the chat, we talk extensively about Worlds of Empyrea, his new game setting coming to Kickstarter on October 2nd, as well as anecdotes about his life before, during and after TSR Inc in the early 1980's.

Full disclosure: I did not ask for, nor was I offered, any compensation for this interview. It was my absolute pleasure to talk with Frank as a fellow gamer and fan, and I would be pleased to chat with him again at a future date. I hope I don't come off as too fan-boyish, but I found him to be extraordinarily open and friendly.

Highlights


A couple weeks ago, Frank's website leaked several names on the Worlds of Empyrea project which are mostly unconfirmed (as of this writing) such as Janelle Jaquays, Clyde Caldwell, Jeff Dee, David "Diesel" LaForce, Larry Elmore, and Erol Otus.

Box contents will include perfect bound books, maps and an introductory adventure. Jeff Easley planned as designer of the box covers. Pre-generated characters in small brown character folios reminiscent of OD&D box set.

13:25 Hoping to release Worlds of Empyea in game system specific box sets -- RuneQuest, Savage Worlds, D&D 5e, AD&D, BECMI, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Pathfinder, and Swords & Wizardry all hinted. Chaosium and Pinnacle Entertainment were specifically noted in the discussions, and RuneQuest is one of Frank's favorite game systems. (Hints also at sci-fi toward the end).

15:10 / 23:04 Darlene (World of Greyhawk) confirmed as art direction and cartography. Alyssa Faden (Dragon Kings, Bethorm) also confirmed for cartography and game maps. Hints at an "Anna" which very well could be [unconfirmed] Anna B Meyer (Midgard game setting).

52:00 Looking to release Empyrea box set for Gen Con 2018 and more details about the box content.

Frank also dropped two exciting names off the record which I cannot reveal, but suffice it to say, D&D fans will be thrilled what these folks will bring to the realm.



Video Index:
00:00 Introduction
00:50 Empyrea - TSR/RPGA origins
03:16 Contrasts between Gary's Greyhawk game and Frank's Empyrea campaign in the 80's
05:48 Distinction between I12 intellectual property and Frank's new setting
07:52 Reminiscing about early internet chat room play
09:18 How is the content for Worlds of Empyrea being developed?
10:11 Eldritch Enterprises side bar
11:25 Talking about the setting format for Worlds of Empyrea
13:25 Intent to releaseWorlds of Empyrea for multiple game systems -- RuneQuest, Savage Worlds, D&D 5e, AD&D, BECMI, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and Swords &Wizardry...
15:10 Darlene as the Art Director and doing the large maps, and other well known TSR names adding art and other content. Roughly 35 contributors developing content of some variety.
17:57 Community crowd sourcing setting content as a future project
19:53 Future project to develop a global non-profit gaming database allowing gamers to connect, game together and share community ideas/content.
22:30 RPG Creators Relief Fund - http://www.rcrfcharity.org/
23:04 Darlene and Alyssa Faden contributing to cartography and game maps... Hints at an "Anna" which very well could be Anna B Meyer (unconfirmed).
25:14 Box set content: Maps and perfect bound books, full color bleed. Aiming for top quality contents and product design like you would find from one of the larger game companies. Jeff Easley planned to design box cover. Liz Danforth (Tunnels & Trolls) invited to contribute production efforts or artwork? [unclear]. Character folios reminiscent of OD&D brown books.
29:52 Discussions with Chaosium on a RuneQuest-specific version of the Empyrea box set
31:04 Talking about the history of TSR and breaking into a job during the early days
34:04 Getting the Basic / Expert set project
36:45 Legacy and importance of the RPG design community
41:40 Development of Basic and Export into BECMI
46:20 Life after TSR
48:33 Coming back into game publishing
52:00 Empyrea Kickstarter details
54:07 Genre variants for Empyrea to match the theme of the different game systems, including sci-fiction or space opera.
58:00 Frank's play style

Friday, September 22, 2017

D&D in 3D (printing)

Mixing existing OpenLOCK and OpenForge tiles,
I modified some arched corners for my dungeon.
You may have read in an earlier post that I funneled some funds that might have been spent on other terrain into a new 3D printer. It was a bit daunting, because there seemed to be a lot to learn just to get started, but I found an excellent entry-level printer, the Monoprice Select Mini V2, for around $250 (including the first spool of filament). [PS - Don't buy one off Amazon, they still only have V1's. Go direct to the Monoprice web site].

First Impressions


First, I must say the MP Mini is an amazing entry level 3D printer. The build area is a 120 mm cube, or just shy of 5 inches along the X, Y and Z axis. Note, this does mean some models may be a bit large to print without breaking them into pieces, but printers with a 6’ x 6’ build area are more than I was prepared to spend and I was ok with compromise on this one point. If you do have a little more to spend, consider one with a slightly larger build area.

The Mini V2 comes pre-configured out of the box. Sometimes a little plate-leveling is required, but there are a few YouTube videos to assist the learning curve on this. I had a small struggle getting it just right, but all in all, it wasn’t a major issue and the Facebook communities were a huge help. I selected PLA filament, which is better than ABS for my purposes (and no poison fumes), and I was off to the races!

Friday, September 1, 2017

Chronicles Kickstarter

There’s a new Kickstarter on the block!  (Well, that’s pretty much true every week… but this one piques my interest)

UPDATE 09/15/17: Unfortunately, Chronicles looked like it was not going to fund, so the designers have decided to cancel and review how they might revamp the product. I wish them the best of luck!

Chronicles: The Game

I was lucky enough to meet the guys from Happy Gorilla at 1D4 Con in West Virginia, and I got to try Chronicles out in a demo skirmish. Chronicles: The Game takes the traditional war game niche (like 40K, Warmachine, Hordes, Malifaux, etc) and aims to make the genre more accessible to the board gaming fans (Blood Rage, Conan, Rising Sun, etc).

Full disclosure: I am not a war gamer. I enjoy the occasional casual game of X-Wing and Imperial Assault, but I don’t play heavy miniature war games like 40K, Hordes, Warmachine or their like. Also, while I have met Happy Gorilla guys at a con, I have no other ties, personal or business, with them.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

D&D Beyond: Impressions, Pricing, and Licensing

Just in the past couple weeks, Curse officially launched D&D Beyond and published all of the pricing arrangements for the service. This is not a full review, but just a few impressions on the tool, the pricing and Wizard's content licensing.

First, the Good


As a product, D&D Beyond is slick. The interface is reasonably easy to pick up (the search features could use some minor improvements for usability, but that's mostly nit-picking). All in all, it’s a well polished reference engine. 

All of the content from the SRD and adventure supplement PDFs (as published on the Wizards.com web site) are also included for free. For instance, Snilloc’s Snowball Swarm and other spells from the Princes of the Apocalypse player PDF is included in the free tier. As a player, you also get 6 unlocked character slots for free.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Missing Gen Con (again)

This is me not packing for Gen Con 50.
I am extraordinarily bummed I’m not to be going to Gen Con this year. Due to the 50th Anniversary, everybody is going to be there… and I mean every body. If a designer or artist once worked in RPGs or board games, chances are quite high they will be at Gen Con 50.

It will be an amazing opportunity to get your stuff signed by almost anyone you can think of. Tim Kask, Frank Mentzer, Tom Wham (possibly?), Jeff Grubb, Larry Elmore, Tracy Hickman, Margaret Weis, Darlene, Luke & Ernie Gygax, Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook, Ryan Dancey, Peter Adkison, Steve Jackson, Davis Chenault, Jolly Blackburn, Chris Perkins, Mike Mearls, Jeremy Crawford… just about anyone old school or new school is going to be around if you can hunt them down for a chat and a selfie. If Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson were to rise from the dead like Lazarus, I'm pretty sure you'd see them there.

Monday, August 7, 2017

D&D: Breaking My Dwarven Forge Addiction

My intrepid PCs invading the Caves of Chaos.
I confess I have an addiction to Dwarven Forge.

Years ago, I’d see their resin dungeon sets at conventions or online and always thought “Wow. Those would be so amazing to own and use in play.” Then in 2013, they kickstarted a light, durable plastic version of their Dungeon tiles and I was immediately sold. It was the first product I pledged on Kickstarter. I unhesitatingly pledged two unpainted sets for the amazingly low price of $120. I later regretted not buying painted sets, as I have still not finished painting all my tiles… but I still love the tiles.

In 2014, they introduced the Caverns and I promptly signed up for 2 painted sets at $220 (not going to make the unpainted mistake again). In 2015, I pledge the city builder, but at $250+, could only afford to buy enough for a few small houses and a bridge. In 2016, my Castle Builder pledge was another $200+, but that really only got me a few extra City Builder pieces, another bridge and some terrain bits. I couldn’t really afford any of the actual castles. The pledge amounts were getting higher, but the sets I could afford were getting smaller.

In 2017, Dwarven Forge kickstarted a new set of Dungeon tiles that solved a lot of the issues I’ve had in play with my own DF pieces. You could purchase base trays to pre-set rooms to easily move on and off the table. They added more magnetized parts to hold things together. They introduced large-size elevation boxes to allow easy creation of elevated terrain. They added all kinds of awesome bit and parts to make encounter areas just drip with detail and theme.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

D&D: The Pros and Cons of World Building

(with apologies to Roger Waters)

In a recent Tweet, Mike Shea (@SlyFlourish) made a controversial pronouncement about world building (he has since moderated his stance a bit), but I considered it thought-provoking enough that I wanted to “deep dive” on it a little, especially for those who don’t follow the #dnd Twitter verse… and I also made a bit of a joke that I was going to refute each one of his tip tweets with a blog post (It was only a joke).

I had meant to write this post back when this occurred, but with Origins and other life events, it took me a couple weeks to post about it. Unfortunately, I can’t find the original tweet (possibly deleted, since he clarified his stance later), but you can see a fair amount of the discussion that ensued by searching through the various Tweets and replies.

As noted, Mike moderated his stance after reviewing both sides of the debate, but the original gist of the comments were:

No one cares about your world building. Spend more time becoming a better DM (encounter building, PC hooks, etc) rather than exploring the intricacies of your fictional world, especially given that players will not see (nor possibly care about) most of that effort.

This stirred up a bit of a bees nest, because he is both absolutely correct and utterly wrong at the same time (yes, I know this statement appears self-contradictory).

Roger Dean paintings always put me in a world building mood.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Origins 2017 Post-Game and Owlbear 500K

Last weekend, I spent my long overdue vacation time attending Origins Game Fair. During that period, Raging Owlbear crossed the 500,000 page view mark. Three years ago, I could have never guessed I’d get more than a couple thousand page views in any given month. It’s been pretty surprising the blog has grown the way it has. Thanks for the support!

Anyway, back to Origins… If you don’t already know, Origins is one of the largest tabletop gaming conventions aside from Gen Con. This year saw approximate 17,000 attendees in the Columbus Convention Center.

In a prior post, I ranted a bit on the issues encountered during pre-registration. Thankfully, the on-site badge pick up this year was fairly quick and painless. This year they had multiple laptops available on which one could perform a self check-in and have your event tickets printed.This was a welcome improvement over the last year where check-in took anywhere from ½ hour to 2 hours depending upon when you arrived. This year, we were in and out of the line in a matter of minutes.

For the most part, the convention appeared to run fairly smoothly, although I did hear from a Mayfair representative that all was not perfect. Mayfair, who is a major sponsor of Origins (and publisher of many popular games such as Agricola, Caverna and Patchwork), submitted over 700 events into the pre-registration system which, due to a technical snafu, were not in the registration system, nor printed in the events program. Because of this, the Mayfair hall was very lightly attended in comparison to other years. There is bound to be some damage to the relationship, as Mayfair has been a headline sponsor of Origins for as long as I can remember. I hope this doesn’t create a permanent rift.

From my perspective, the convention went quite well and some of the lost esteem due to pre-registration was regained over the course of the weekend.

Highlights:
  • Played Castles & Crusades with author Davis Chenault (which I wrote about). He’s a true mensch.
  • Had a chance encounter in the hallway with Chris O’Neill of 9th Level Games. Not only did he remember who I was, we had a pleasant (but quick) conversation about 9th Level and their new releases. Super nice fellow.
  • Briefly watched Ken St. Andre GM’ing a game of Tunnels & Trolls. I would have liked to say hello, but I did not want to interrupt his game.
  • Won a Tie F/O model playing X-Wing. 
  • Played a truly enjoyable home brew Savage Worlds scenario.
  • Participated in a crazy Paranoia LARP
  • And a crap-ton of D&D Adventurers League (probably too much, to be honest).
Misses:
  • I did not get an opportunity to chat with any WotC people.
  • There were a few well-known authors/bloggers I wanted to meet, but did not.
  • I really wanted to get to play a demo of Dragonfire which looks like it could be a hit.
  • There just isn't enough time in the day to fit in all the extra gaming.
  • I don't have tickets to GenCon this year... sigh.

Let me know about your Origins experience in the comments!

Owlbear and the Troll Lord
These come equipped with ER-PPCs, right?
Bit of a furball going on...
7 evades in a row?!?
Hey Guys... What's in here?
Meeting Chris O'Neill in 2016
Dice Tower's Tom Vasel
Acerak demands your.. erm... devotion.



Thursday, June 22, 2017

D&D Character Sheets - a $10 Review

TLDR Summary: Don’t buy this. Not worth the price.

Wizards of the Coast recently released a new character sheet folio for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. I recently previewed this in an article a couple week ago, but here is a “full review”.

The D&D Character Sheets contains a folder with a ampersand dragon artwork, 4 copies each of 3 standard character sheet designs (12 total), 8 copies of the "newbie" character sheet, and 4 copies of the spell sheet. Basically, a folder with 24 sheets of paper.

Don’t buy this crap. Seriously. Just don’t.

With two exceptions, the character sheets included in this folio are all directly downloadable for free from the Wizards.com website. If you don’t have a printer, go to the library. They have internet and printers. I just saved you $10.

http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/character_sheets

The folder? It's a folder. It's glossy. It's made of card stock. It's basically the same as any other glossy folder at an Office Depot (are those places still around?), but with the ampersand artwork seen above on the cover (originally a Dragon+ cover) which I find less than inspiring. Looks a bit like an 80's metal hair band album cover. These are character sheets. Why doesn't the illustration contain characters? Inside, it has a list of actions in combat, but MPMB's combat reference sheet is much better -- see below.

If you want more pictures, you can check out Grand DM's blog.

"Newbie" Sheets


One exception to the freely downloadable clause is the character sheet designed for new players. It uses a larger font with a larger layout area for the most basic numbers a new player would need (AC, Initiative, Saves). It leaves off ideals, bonds, flaws and the full skill list for a shortened fill-in-the-blank one. It also includes two sections called "Things You Should Do" and "Things You Shouldn't Do" to help the players take notes on good and bad idea.

Under "Things You Shouldn't Do" it should have listed "Buy these character sheets" as the first entry. These newbie sheets are not a terrible redesign, but they don't really bring anything new to the table.

Where is the Value?


Is a glossy folder with an ampersand logo really worth the $10?

If you want a fancy folder, buy a 3-ring binder. Print out your own custom artwork for the cover sleeve. Wizards.com even provides the same artwork on their folio as a wallpaper… but you can also just search “D&D wallpaper” on Google image search and find all kinds of awesome imagery... many of which actually contains characters doing character-y things.

Want help making your own character sheet folio with a player reference? Try these links:
http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/character_sheets
https://crobi.github.io/dnd5e-quickref/preview/quickref.html
http://swshinn.com/dnd-5e/rules-summary/
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B2Fbq7v8pucJVENWZlE5Z2h1T00/view
https://olddungeonmaster.files.wordpress.com/2016/04/combat-reference-sheet_b.pdf

Final Thoughts


If you really want to waste $10, go for it... but this just encourages Wizards of the Coast to put out crappy products when they should be focusing resources somewhere else. If they had come up with some interesting character sheet designs that weren't available online, then maybe this might have been worth a look... but as a product, this whole thing is an underwhelming money grab.

If you want a truly useful character sheet, download  MPMB's fully-automated printer friendly character generator (mobile link) which is Pay What You Want from DMsGuild.com. This sheet is truly worth $10, but all that is asked is a voluntary donation.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Random Encounters with a Troll Lord

Best SWAG from Origins this year
First a bit of background… In 2004, Castles & Crusades by Troll Lord Games was the very first OSR** game to hit the market. It utilized the Open Gaming License released by Wizards of the Coast to re-create an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ruleset, but with updated mechanics. This was years before anyone used the terms “retro-clone”, “OSR” or had published D&D-adjacent games like Pathfinder.

This past weekend at Origins, one of the game masters in C&C game for which I had tickets did not show up. Even though it was not an official C&C event, the Troll Lords had heard about it and another GM from the community offered to run a different adventure in its place.

As a bit of a “sorry this happened” consolation, C&C author and lead game designer, Davis Chenault, showed up to the game with a handful of C&C beer stein swag and sat in on the game with us. The next day I had a very pleasant conversation with Davis about C&C and D&D 5th Edition, and he generously gave me a signed copy of A1 - Assault on Blacktooth Ridge for D&D 5th edition (I own the C&C version).

Owlbear and Troll Lord
I don’t have any connection to the Troll Lords other than being a huge fan over the last 10 years, but these folks are definitely the Good Guys of the industry and very committed to their fans. I urge everyone to support their work. Davis Chenault is a class act and his modules A0 and A1 are two of the best RPG adventures written. They are up there with Village of Hommlet and Keep on the Borderlands in style and substance and as good as the D&D 5th Edition Starter Set for starting a new campaign.

A0 - The Rising Knight
A1 - Assault on Blacktooth Ridge

Don’t forget that in addition to Wizards of the Coast, there are several other small publishers making awesome content for Dungeons & Dragons. You should check them out!

** Old School Revival or Old School Renaissance depending upon whom you ask.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

New D&D Products in 2017

The Wizards of the Coast "Stream of Annihilation" was accompanied by a plethora of product announcements (in addition to the few that had dribbled out in prior weeks). Some of those products elicit eye raising, while others might be a bit more eye rolling. Here's my take (as if you cared... or perhaps you do, because you're reading this, right?)

First off, on the eye rolling side of things...

D&D Character Sheets


Yes, for the low, low price of only $10, you can get what you already download for free, but in a pretty folder! Seriously, who f@$%ing buys character sheets in this day and age?  Several weeks ago, I noted that there is a huge amount of revenue that could be had for little cost by putting out core book PDFs, and some of the WotC defenders said Wizards had "bigger fish to fry"... Yeah, apparently instead of spending time on PDFs which could net a lot of revenue, they are putting out a product that can already be had for free. Way to build new revenue, WotC!

By the way, if you are not already using MPMB's Pay What You Want character sheet (mobile link), you need to get your butt over to DMsGuild.com and donate to this author. Like, right now. This is the single best character sheet builder you can get pretty much anywhere. Not that I want to dish on Hero Lab and the like, but this guy is essentially giving away (for a voluntary donation) what others are charging $35 for. Toss a buck or two his way. Well worth it.

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything


In the same way Volo's Guide to Monsters was not a Monster Manual II (it kinda was), Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is not a Player's Handbook II or Unearthed Arcana (it kinda is). Xanathar's Guide is going to take many of the UA website articles and combine them into a larger book. I am extraordinarily interested to see exactly what this book contains. I haven't bought SCAG, or VGtM (yet)... but this one is certainly on the "eye-raising" side and I'm pretty certain this will make my own must-buy list.

Hopefully, this will quell some of the bitching over 5e "not having enough character options". Back in my day, we had four damn classes (and 3 race/classes), and we were happy with that!

Tomb of Annihilation


At first, I was a but skeptical because I've had about enough of Tomb of Horrors or other death trap dungeons. It just doesn't speak to my play style... but, the more I've read about it, the more it seems to be a spiritual successor to X1 Isle of Dread. This, I can get behind. I'm not at all interested in running this one, but I am pretty damn sure I want to play in it instead. I think I need a little gonzo in my game, and it zombie dinosaurs sounds about right.

Tomb of Annihilation Dice


I'm a bit of a dice fiend, but have broken my habit in recent years. At first, these prompted a kind of "meh" reaction, but when I looked more closely, I actually quite like the color scheme. At $20, it's a little on the high side, but not a terrible deal for a full set of dice (assuming you want something nicer than a big bag of random dice or factory seconds). It will be interesting to find out if the Epsom salt test shows if these d20s are balanced or not. Pearlescent dice are notorious for bias because the different resin plastics can create density variations. This is generally not a problem with a single color plastic die.

Dungeon Master’s Screen Reincarnated


I've always been a fan of DM screens even though I almost never use them in play. I feel like they are too much of a physical barrier (and sometimes a mental one) to the rest of the table, especially given than I like minis and 3D terrain so much. Despite that, I have a big collection of DM screens from AD&D (first edition) onward.

D&D 5th edition screens have been notable for their lack of utility. Other than the condition chart, the real estate on the screens published in support of the adventure paths has been wasted space. They mostly showcase artwork for whichever adventure path they correspond. With several helpful PDF DM screen layouts on the internet, the desire to purchase yet another condition chart is pretty low.

Supposedly, the new screen design is going to be better. First, it will be landscape to be lower, which I like... and it also "provides an at-a-glance reference for the most relevant and often used in-game information," according to the Wizards.com website and has been "revisited and refreshed as a direct result of feedback," but that really tells us nothing. This is very much a wait and see product, since they've had several iterations to try to get this right already.

D&D Adventure Grid


This is essentially the competition to Pathfinder Flip-Mats... but at twice the price. For $25, you get a single double sided map, which appears to be 20" x 24" (hard to tell exactly from the images, but that would correspond to fold lines for a map that folds down to 8x10.  The Pathfinder Basic Terrain Multi-Pack offers 2 double-sided maps at 24" x 30" for the same price. I like that Wizards is getting back into the accessories business. I recommended this very thing in prior posts. It's just a shame that they can't be more competitive on price. While I like the color patterns, because of the price, I have to give this one an eye-roll as well.

Nolzur's Marvelous Minis


These have been out for a while now, but I hadn't talked about them on the blog. I love these. I am so sick of random miniatures and these are at an excellent price point for the Friendly Local Game Store because they can match the same price as offered online. Please go out and support your local game store by purchasing these miniatures. They are excellent. I just wish these had been available years ago when I was trying to bulk up my collection of iconic monsters like goblins, kobolds, orcs and gnolls. Now if we could just get an affordable beholder or huge dragon, that would be a major bonus.

D&D Adventure Module Collector’s Editions


This is another item that I am looking at with guarded anticipation. Wizards of the Coast is partnering with Goodman Games to create updated reprints of classic modules. Starting with B1 and B2, they appear to be more than just a stat block updates, and will include some rewriting as well as extra content. Many of these classic modules can be run today with community created conversions. I am hoping Goodman Games brings a little more to the table than just a stat block update given the price difference. Classic Modules Today conversions are an extraordinarily cheap way to have someone else to your conversion leg work.

Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate


While Betrayal at the House on the Hill is not one of my all-time favorites in my game collection, I do enjoy breaking it out from time to time as a light, beer-and-pretzel traitor mechanic game. I am cautiously optimistic about this re-skin of the game. Betrayal is one of my wife's favorites, so this is likely to enter our collection at some point. I just hope they play test it better than the original or expansion. It seems there is almost always some missing text or rule clarification needed for almost every haunt. This really knocks down the overall enjoyment, especially when a misunderstanding of a haunt mechanic can alter how the haunt plays out in game. This is probably the most frustrating aspect and one of the major reasons I do not enjoy the original game more.

Final Thoughts


A lot of people online have been poo-pooing the speed at which Wizards of the Coast is bringing out new D&D product. I actually think the publishing pace has done pretty well for the game. One of the banes of prior editions has been the need for multiple splat books (and the inevitable power creep that results). So far, D&D 5th Edition has avoided this pit fall and the designers appear to be cognizant of that trap. Given the recent Unearthed Arcana articles, Xanathar’s Guide appears to be a step in the direction of providing additional PC options, without creating power-game creep of older editions.

With the addition of more non-book accessories, Wizards also appears to be strengthening their non-book revenue stream, which is a good idea... but Wizards, you really need to learn how to promote on your web site. Your products shots suck. Who doesn't offer zoom-ins or multiple angle product images in this day and age?  Seriously, offer some fracking high resolution images, for Pete's sake.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

D&D / OSR: The Dunning-Kruger Effect on GMs

We are all terrible Game Masters, but we [mostly] don't know it. Why do I say this? Because of Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect basically says there is a bias in cognitive ability that prevents us from evaluating ourselves objectively. Basically, we all think we are better than we are because we may not have the skills (or the lack of bias) to judge ourselves appropriately.

This is especially true for "soft skills" where it is harder to judge success or failure in a given task. If I am a terrible juggler, I know I am bad as soon as I can't make it past the first few seconds of fumbling objects before they come crashing to the ground. If I am bad at telling anecdotes at cocktail parties, my friends are likely too polite to tell me I'm a shite story teller. So I may never know. If I am a terrible leader, I may still believe I am a godsend, even if the press and a majority of my constituents are believe I can't count to 21 without taking off my pants.That is Dunning-Kruger in action. Out incompetence masks the ability to recognize our incompetence.

Real knowledge is to know
the extent of one’s ignorance
So what is a thoughtful Game Master to do? 

Confucius said, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” Socrates was also famously quoted as saying , "The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing," which makes one wonder if he had somehow heard of Eastern philosophy.

As a Game Master, your best bet is to assume you are bad at it. Only through that lens of reality will you aspire to be better. If your initial reaction to reading the first sentence of the post was "I know I'm a good GM because my players don't complain," then it is highly likely you may actually need help.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

GM 101: Just Say No To Fudge

Bonus points if you can spot the Easter Egg.
+Venger Satanis wrote a little piece a while back about GM fudging which I found thought-provoking, but also found the advice a bit concerning, especially for a new game master.

In addition, on my post about Fun and Story over Rules, several comments mentioned "fudging rolls" as a way to bend the rules with the goal of enhancing story or fun.

For the record, I am strongly against this. I am more than willing to change a lot of parameters in a scene or encounter on-the-fly for the purpose of storytelling, but once dice hit the table, reality becomes static. (Read on for the why).

While I agree with a few of Venger’s musings, there needs to be a lot more context for anyone who is a relatively new game master for a role playing game like D&D. Some strong words of caution: Fudging can destroy a game just as easily as it can help it.
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