Monday, May 20, 2019

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

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. 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 04/24/19: The Amazon price has already dropped to $17.50 on this box. This makes the value marginally better, but I expect to see more discounts in the coming months.

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

Monday, April 1, 2019

GM 101: Memorable D&D NPCs in 5 Minutes

Episode 6: A discussion on social media led me to record some of my ideas on making NPCs memorable. Although the explanation of the ideas in this video goes a wee bit more than 5 minutes, the method itself is quick and dirty, and takes very little prep time for a large return. Hopefully, this will give you ideas on how to pull memorable NPC rabbits out of their respective hats.

This was also recorded as a companion piece to an earlier post:
GM 101: Quick & Dirty Memorable NPCs

00:35 How do you make characters care about NPCs?
     01:30 Player will do what you least expect, including by-pass your favorite NPCs.
     02:30 Ways to make your NPCs stand out.
     03:10 Quick steps for generating an NPC on-the-fly.
     04:20 "I need an NPCs right now!"
 05:20 The 5-Minute NPC Worksheet
     06:00 The Four... or five-ish... Things that can make NPCs memorable.
     05:50 NPC Worksheet - List of Names, Personalities, Quirks, Catch-Phrases / Accents, Picutres
07:40 Prepare a list of NPC names.
     08:12 Picking a name out of thin air can go... poorly.
     08:30 Lots of places to find name lists including Xanathar's
     10:25 "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"
     11:10 Pick names that fit the culture of the region.
     12:45 Also select a few names that are foreign/exotic to the adventure setting.
15:25 Prepare your list of personality types and quirks
     15:35 Lots of resources for personality types and quirks on the Internet
     15:55 AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, page 101
     18:55 Use tropes. Use pop culture references.
     21:20 Play against type.
     21:40 Everybody loves Party Dwarf!
     22:10 Don't be afraid to be over the top. Larger than life NPCs are memorable.
23:10 Catch Phrases
     24:30 It can be a way of speaking, instead of a specific phrase.
     26:10 The tropes can work for you, or you can work against tropes.
27:05 Catch Phrases, for real this time.
     27:30 Google translate can give you a phrase in other languages.
28:45 Voices and Accents
     29:25 Nobody is really good at accents (who isn't an actor).
     29:55 Your players won't care! They will love the effort.
     30:15 Creating the "Hondo" character.
32:15 The Big Mistake - Do not kill off your players' favorite NPC!
     34:45 Don't kill NPCs they like OR hate.
35:10 Back to Voices
     35:15 Don't portray a horrible cultural or racial stereotype!
     37:15 Use phrases in another language to bring a differing cultural flavor.
38:40 Bonus Points - Visuals
     39:00 Use the NPC artwork from Wizards of the Coast or other sources. Don't Pirate!
     40:35 Pathfinder Face Cards
     41:10 Guard Guy, Femme Fatale, Vampire Guy, and Freaky Helmet Guy
43:15 Pick names that fits the genre, but try not to get too "weird" with the names.
44:45 Recap
45:10 They will remember the NPCs that are portrayed as larger than life.
45:45 Write down where you used that NPC name/personality.

B/X-5 Design Log: Revised Elf

In creating B/X-5, a 5th Edition  homage to early D&D, I've tried to stay close to the spirit of the early Basic box sets. As such, I've tried to model Race-as-Class in such a way that would make sense within the bounds of D&D 5th Edition, giving them a familiar flavor of B/X while making them mechanically similar to a 5th Edition class. You can read more about B/X-5 here. Without further ado, the Elf. (No, this is not an April Fool's joke).

Source: Wizards of the Coast
Elves are human-like fey whose origins are wrapped in myth and legends. Elves have a strong magical tie to Feydheim, a plane of existence where nature and magic exist in a chaotic union. Because of this, they live in close harmony with nature -- their cities and dwellings often interwoven with their natural surroundings rather than carved from them. This Fey ancestry also extends their lives well past most other mortal humanoids.

Elves have a reputation for being haughty, aloof, or reclusive, but that is largely due to a misunderstanding their culture. Due to their extended lifespan, they harbor a perspective much different than most other sentient beings. Most other creatures live and die at a frenetic pace as compared to Elves, and as such, they are ambivalent in becoming emotionally involved with those who pass quickly from the world.

Elves also do not comprehend the tendency toward specialization by other humanoids. Due to their long lives, Elves have time to pursue the martial and arcane arts at leisure. To only use magic, or to only brandish a sword in combat is a concept alien to an Elf. To them, it is akin to going into battle with one hand tied. They wield swords, bows, and magic in equal measure. As such, there is no such thing as an "Elven Fighter" or "Elven Wizard"... They are just Elves, utilizing their martial and arcane arts together.

Elves do not worship individual gods as much as they venerate the pantheon of Elvish deities. The gods of Elves, whether good or evil, all represent aspects of the Elvish existence. Even "good" Elves will pay homage to the "evil" Elven gods, depending upon the needs of the individual or the customs of a particular religious ceremony. Elvish morality and ethics are a bit more complex than what one might witness or understand as an outsider.


Genus Traits
Ability Scores. +2 to either Wisdom or Dexterity. +1 to one other ability score.
Speed. Your base walking speed is 30 feet.
Fey Ancestry. You have advantage on saving throws against being charmed or paralyzed, and magic cannot put you to sleep.
Innate Detection. You gain Advantage on Investigation or Perception rolls related to finding secret or concealed doors.
Low Light Vision. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were normal light. In non-magical darkness, you can see the outlines or silhouettes of creatures and objects within 20’.
Natural Stealth. You gain advantage on Stealth checks in outdoor or similar natural environments.
Languages. You can speak, read, and write Common and Elvish.

Class Traits
Hit Dice. 1d8 per level
Armor. Light or Medium non-metal armors, or Elven Chain. Wooden shields.
Weapons. Simple weapons, martial weapons.
Spell Casting. Your spell casting bonus is based upon your Wisdom ability bonus.
Cantrip Recovery. During a short rest, recover 0th level slots equal to ½ your level (rounded up).
Combat Specialization. At 1st level, Elves may select one combat specialization: Archer, Duelist, or Two-Weapon Fighter.
Saving Throws. Wisdom, Charisma

Combat Specialization, Cantrips
Spellcasting, Cantrip Recovery
Natural Explorer
Ability Score +2, Specialization Talent**
Primeval Awareness
Natural Explorer
Extra Attack
Ability Score +2, Specialization Talent**
Land's Stride
Natural Explorer
Hide in Plain Sight
Ability Score +2, Specialization Talent**

** Specialization Talents are like mini-feats, giving a small bump to a PC's melee, ranged, or spell abilities. They are less powerful than 5th Edition Feats, so B/X-5 classes get the full ability score bump in additional to the Talent.

Elf Spell List

1st Level
2nd Level
3rd Level
Arcane Flame Blade
Dancing Lights
Lightning Lash
Produce Flame
Ray of Frost
Sweeping Blades
Befriend Animal
Charm Person
Cure Wounds
Create or Destroy Water
Detect Magic
Detect Poison/Disease
Ensnaring Strike
Faerie Fire
Fog Cloud
Hail of Arrows
Hunter’s Quarry
Purify Food and Drink
Speak with Animals
Animal Messenger
Enhance Ability
Flame Blade
Gust of Wind
Heat Metal
Lesser Restoration
Locate Animals/Plants
Magic Weapon
Pass without Trace
Protection from Poison
Spider Climb
Spike Growth
Call Lightning
Conjure Animals
Dispel Magic
Plant Growth
Protection from Energy
Sleet Storm
Speak with Plants
Water Breathing
Water Walk
Wind Wall

For more about B/X-5, such as my variants on Combat Specialization, Healing, and old school resource management, view my B/X-5 work-in-progress document here.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

GM 101: Con Game Lessons Learned

Paranoia, 2nd Edition cover
PARANOIA 2nd Edition
As with many of my articles, the advice I give is not necessarily "You should do this" as much as it is "Don't do what I did wrong". This is another of those.

Now that I've been to a dozen or so cons over the past decade, I've experienced my share of good and bad GM issues. This year I decided to throw my own hat into the ring to help out my local con by running my first ever con game... and I ran into my own issues.

I've been a game master for various systems over the years, but running a con game adds elements that you just don't get with a home game.

1) Players generally don't know one another, so their comfort level is much lower.
2) As GM, you also are not aware of how comfortable the players are getting into character or immersing themselves into the setting.
3) Players may not be familiar with the mechanics of the system if they are testing out a new game.
4) Time is the enemy. There is a lot to get accomplished in a 2 to 4 hour time slot, so there is literally no time to waste.

I made a few rookie mistakes for my first con game.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

D&D: More Cheap Terrain Options

I've posted before about cheap terrain, but I've also come across some other fantastic options for putting together a table for use with Dragon Heist or Ghosts of Saltmarsh. There are several cardboard-craft publishers that provide genre appropriate buildings and ships.

Medieval merchantsFirst, for Dragon Heist (or any other town, village, or city adventuring), there are an amazing array of cardboard scenery options that are significantly cheaper than resin or other 3D options. These buildings run around $15 to $20 each (if you find them available with Prime shipping).

Burgher's House:
Town Walls:

Search around a bit and you can discover all kinds of variety.

Medieval town wallsstables

CaravelFor Ghosts of Saltmarsh, I also found some excellent naval options to enhance your wharfs and set sail for adventure. Again here, these ships are anywhere from $15 to $20 and would be highly useful for a sea-faring campaign.

It just goes to show you don't have to spend $200 for a sizable ship to add some 😮 to your table. For a little bit more, you can upgrade to a plastic pirate ship model, the Queen Anne's Revenge (requires a repaint).

Queen Anne's Revenge:

CogPirate ship

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