Friday, September 17, 2010

4E Dragon Magazine Annual - A Review

Continuing a bit with the unplanned theme of the week my favorite resource during the 1E & even 2E era was Dragon Magazine. I have a copy of every Dragon Annual published to date. This includes the first one with the original ads from 1980 which I use as back-to-basics inspirational material when I feel a little lost running a campaign.

The second volume had a bunch of material from my original time with AD&D and Dragon

The third volume had Roger Moore's races and racial god articles among other things.

These first 3 volumes were much-used resources during my AD&D years in the 1980's. I was constantly going back and reading through them when starting or running campaigns or when trying to figure out a new angle for a new character. I would recommend them even today if someone was running a 1E campaign - they give a very good sense of the feel of the era. Love those cover prices too.

Volumes 4 &5 pretty much finish out the 1E/2E era for these things. I acquired these later so I was not as attached to them as the first 3.

There were several more traditional volumes during the 3E era but I was not terribly impressed with them, especially compared to the older volumes. However, once Paizo took over publication from WOTC they went and put together a very cool product called the Dragon Compendium which included 3E updates of things from all through Dragon's history. This include 1E material like the Death Master class. It was definitely a grab-bag approach but there was some good material in there. Plus it was a nice, big full-color hardback - that doesn't hurt. There was hope that there would be additional volumes, but that never happened.

 With the launch of 4th Editioon D&D in June of 2008 WOTC adopted a new policy. Dragon would now be on-line-only, ending the 30+ years of the paper magazine's run. This did nothing to convince me that 4th was a good idea and in fact was a mark against it in my eyes as it was behind a paywall. I ignored it, much as I ignored 4E at the time. Fast-forward to 2009 and my interest in 4E begins to come back around after a year or so of ignoring it.  In August of 2009 WOTC published the Dragon Magazine Annual, billed as a collection of the best material from the 1st year of the 4E online dragon. I read some reviews not long after it came out and was unimpressed - the reviews had a lot of "I already have this online" and "this is pointless" type comments and the material discussed didn't seem all that impressive or useful.

Fast forward again to August of 2010 and I am actually running a 4E campaign and have been furiously playing catch-up on 4E books. I came across a very reasonably priced copy of this book online and decided to pick it up for completeness sake. It's a nice 160 page full-color hardback and having read through it now I have to say this is actually a very useful book - details below.

 DM Material: The book opens with an article on Yeenoghu, demon lord of Gnolls and reading it after having read Manual of the Planes it fits extremely well into that material - stats, new monsters, descriptionos of Yeenoghu's home plane, and a sample secret cult of his followers.

Next up is an article on Kobolds that includes 8 new kobolds and some suggestions on traps they might use in their lairs. It's only a few pages but it's immediately useful in a low-level campaign as kobolds show up regularly in levels 1-5 especially. It just so happens that the area of my campaign that my players are getting to happens to be infested with kobolds - and yes they were revised a bit after I read this article.

The Ashen Covenant is an article on cults of Orcus, specifically one that is not just about random destruction and sacrificing of maidens, but one that has a larger goal and several plans on how to get there. It includes adventure hooks, NPC stats for the cult leaders, and some new monsters & magic items. I like this kind of thing because even though Orcus is not set to play a big role in the campaign right now, knowing I have an article like this gives me a pre-made cult to drop in if a player takes an interest in fighting Orcus or picks some kind of paragon path or epic destiny involving him. Basically something could come up in one session and knowing that I have this I could lay some groundwork and then make it a set part of the campaign by next session.

Mithrendain, Citadel of the Feywild is a location description of an Eladrin city in the Feywild. It reads like an entry from Manual of the Planes. It includes a description, NPC stats for notables and guards, some new powers and feats for players associated with the city, a paragon path, and some new magic items. Again we have a nice drop-in location that gives me a specific place in the Feywild if I need one on short notice for the campaign. If I have a player who wants to be from the Feywild, I have a nice little article to give them. If the party ends up spending time in the city then i have some specific goodies to give them related to it- this is exactly the kind of material that 4E needs more of - useful nuggets.

Later we have the Bloodghost Syndicate, a secret criminal organization run by bugbears. This didn't tickle my fancy  as much as some of the others but it's a nice descriptive article that includes some NPC's, some new monster types, and a sample hideout. Again it's a nice drop-in organization with a short history and some defined goals that's not tied to any particular campaign world so if the need arises I have another badguy group I can play if I need one.

Intelligent items is a short article on adding intelligent magic items into your 4e game. This is a callback to older editions of the game and I like to see this kind of thing showing up in the current edition. It's mostly a discussion of how to implement them and it contrasts them with artifacts which have already been described in the game as being intelligent. It's a good article and has a lot of examples and sample items to illustrate the techniques and approach described.

There is a short adventure description about a red dragon. It's a level 11 encounter with some setup that is kind of a reverse-Christmas scenario. It's only a few pages but it is again a nice drop-in thing that could help out if the players are traveling or to set up a future fight at low levels.

The biggest section of the book is a 30-page section (divided into 2 articles) on arena fighting and gladiators. I have to say this was the section of the book I enjoyed the least. It's a good article and all but this is not something that has ever come up in my D&D games in the past (I did run some arena fights in a Rifts campaign but that's the only time) and I don't expect it to come up in a campaign anytime soon. Plus, this isn't the kind of thing I would just drop in to a game either - it takes some setup and planning to integrate into an ongoing campaign and it's not part of the classic dungeon romp so it seems to me to be a bit of a limited subject for such a big chunk of the book. I also suspect that it's been superseded by material for the Dark Sun campaign, making it even less useful now. Maybe not, but outside of Dark Sun I can't see it coming up regularly. I don't dislike the material, it's just of more limited usefulness than a lot of the rest of the book.

The book wraps up with 4 articles that are mainly player-focused.

Playing Dhampyr is of consuming interest if you have a player that wants to play a vampire PC right from the start. I haven't tried it but it looks well done and gives background, feats, powers, paragon paths, and a few new monsters. With all the attention on vampires ala Twilight and True Blood I can see this one getting some use in an otherwise typical campaign.

The next article is Masters of the Planes which is a set of epic-destinies related to the various outer planes. I thought the Prince of Hell was pretty interesting as it's somewhat similar to the ascension of a chaos lord in Warhammer.

Playing Shadar-Kai is the next article and it's as complete as the Dhampyr article, so if you have a player that wants to play something pretty exotic then this should work. They don't strike the same chord with me as the vampire article did but I can see them having a place in some campaigns.

The final article is Art of the Kill, a discussion of assassins and assassination that includes backgrounds, feats, paragon paths, and items related to these things. I can see it being somewhat useful but my players aren't really inclined  in that direction so it will probably not see much use in my games. It does look like a pretty thorough handling of the non-shadow powered assassin in 4E.

So what do I think overall? I think it's a damned handy resource for the 4E DM. I thin kit's a waste of money for a player as most of the content is aimed at DMs.  Those first six articles make the book for me as I can see ways that all of them could come up in a game in general and in my game specifically over the next few months. I can't really give it any higher praise than that.  I will say however that the $29.95 cover price is high for this book. Compared to something more focused and mechanically useful like the power books this is a grab bag product that will likely be used in limited chunks over several years. Look for it on sale or online or in some discounted form and I expect you will be happier with your purchase.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Useful DM Resources

My review of Dungeon Delve got me to thinking about other products that have been useful to me in running games over the years - not planning a campaign, not organizing material, but actually running a game, with players. So I will talk about a few of them below:

For 1st edition AD&D it was definitely Dragon. Adventures, new monsters, new magic items, new NPC's, spellbooks, articles on and descriptions of monsters that lead to an idea on doing something new - old-school Dragon was a regular source of great fluff, great crunch, and a ton of usable stuff.  It seemed to drop off to me somewhere in the early 100's but up until then there was something in almost any issue that I could use very quickly. I initially thought "Pages from the Mages"was a stupid series until my PC's killed a fairly tough wizard and I had no notes on his spellbook contents - guess what they found? I had PC's wash up on a strange island and I didn't want to use a "regular" monster - thank you Creature Catalog. Running into something you don't recognize after perusing the Monster Manual regularly for several years packs a pretty good punch. Low level PC's supposedly on their way to catch a ship to Bone Hill stop for rumors in a village bar and end up going into Little Boy Mountain to fight Chagmat. It was a very broad resource but a very handy one at times and I miss it even now.

For 2E this boxed set inspires very mixed emotions among Greyhawk aficionados as it's cool to finally have a boxed set on the center of the campaign world, but Gary Gygax, creator of the whole thing, had nothing to do  with this product. Elements of it are there, but it doesn't feel quite like the description in the earlier material or Gary's novels - it feels more like a Forgotten Realms city in some ways. Anyway, it's not the city itself that I am focusing on in this case but the adventure seeds included in the box on cardstock. These are small adventures taking up one 8 1/2 X 11 card front & back. There is usually a small map and some monster stats and the rest is description of what's happening and why. I used some of these cards in every 2E campaign I ran, at different levels, and in different campaigns. There's a low-level one that involves a faerie dragon and some goblins making mischief in a winery, one involving ogres that have been converted to good by a local cleric and what happens when they revert to evil, one about watching a store for a merchant friend while he takes care of some other business, a bathhouse full of frogs, and others that deviate from the typical dungeon full of badguys format. They are nicely different and very easy to drop in wherever needed. A book full of these things would have been an incredible resource but these filled the bill for several years.

For 3E I pulled down OGL stats for the monsters in MM1 and printed them out on index cards and kept them in a box at the table behind my screen. I added more over the years including unique creations with templates and class levels and that's pretty much how I ran my monsters for 3E - I didn't need to stat them out in my notes as I had my cards. I just noted something like 10 Human Bandits Class D, 4 Class C, and 1 Class B and then referred to the cards when it came up. Where this broke down was Dragons. Dragons have a bunch of special abilities including spells that make it nearly impossible to fit onto a card. Even the monster manual entries (my usual fallback for non-carded monsters) don't detail spells as those are chosen individually for each dragon. In 3E they tend to show up more than in earlier editions because of a refocus on classic D&D themes and because there are appropriate versions at all levels They're complex and have huge statblocks too, so a book of prefigured dragons complete with lair maps was a very nice thing to have. It also makes it much easier to include dragons on random encounter tables which I have always liked, especially for cross-country travels. It was a very focused product but a very handy one if Dragons popped up with any frequency in your game.

Yes, I'm looking at games besides D&D too. For d6 Star Wars this book contained Equipment, Vehicles, Ships, Races, Creature stats, Stormtrooper stats, and prominent NPC stats. With the rulebook and this book, you could run a rebellion era game for a very long time. Now a lot of material was added later, but if it was in one of the first 3 movies, this book covered it and that was good enough for most of us at the time. It was a monster manual, arms & equipment guide, rogues gallery, and a race handbook all rolled into one.

For Hero System, mainly Champions, this is a very handy resource. The Bestiary is the best but I'm assuming anyone running a campaign already has that book. This one might be overlooked though as it's nothing but NPC's. Wonderful, pre-statted pre-personality'd NPC's, from cops to crooks to mad scientists to reporters to truckers - all there to be used as contacts, dependent NPC's, hostages, victims, anything, really. They can be dropped in to any modern setting and they will work just fine. They are built at various point levels from incompetent to skilled to low-end heroes to specials like Sparky the Wonder Dog. It's just very handy in actually running a game. Champions is a game where you can make anything but you don't always want to have to do it in the middle of a game and this book helps quite a bit in avoiding that.

For Shadowrun this book contained new contacts, new archetypes, a bunch of maps of things like a subway station and various apartment buildings, and some short adventures that could be dropped in at almost any time. Plus it detailed how credsticks work in the world and how the law codes and equipment worked in the game world too. It was just a big batch of awesome when it came to actually running a game - not advice, not background fluff, but good small scenarios, maps of places shadowrunners were likely to be, and stats for the opposition you might find. I used it well into 3rd edition SR and would probably do it again if I ran a new campaign today.

Finally the Traveller book that saved me the most work, 1001 characters. This book has a bunch of statlines for characters created using the normal chargen system in Traveller Book 1. Seems pretty mundane, right? It's not because it saves actual work and time.  Most Traveller fans would probably list 76 Patrons here but I always thought it was overrated as it only gave adventure seeds, not actual adventures. I never had a problem with ideas, but not having maps and stats and details to back them up makes them difficult to use in play on the fly. Supplement 1 however could be used both in advance (Pilot sitting at bar is #45 in S1) and on the fly when one needed stats for an NPC. Yes, I could probably make them up on the fly but I've noticed I tend to repeat myself if that happens too much so I like the unbiased list to pull from rather than handwaving it myself. It's not a flashy or pretty book but it is very handy at the table in play.

Honorable Mentions: For 1E the Rogue's Gallery includes some pregen stats and NPC's. For 3E the DMG includes a lot of NPC sample stats and was used a lot by me in the early days. The 3E supplement "Everyone Else" has stats for NPC types like bartenders and blacksmiths and can be handy at times. The Star Wars Revised Core Rulebook contained stats for a lot of NPC types at various levels from stormtroopers to space pirates to smugglers and was very handy for on-the-fly use. Every Marvel Super Heroes supplement was chock full of heroes and bad guys with full game stats. Every Savage Worlds campaign book comes with full stats for opposition, creatures, and even vehicles - they are very well done. Mutants and Masterminds also has a nice list of opponents from ninjas to cops to robots in a section at the back - all very useful when the night goes off track. Drop in some ninjas and watch the action begin.

As you can see IMO anything that gives me statted up and equipped NPC's, maps, usable detailed adventures, and basically saves me mechanical work during the session rates very highly with me. I like a lot of the theoretical how to be a better DM or monster ecology type books too but in the heat of the game when you're trying to make a world come alive for your players there is no better friend for the DM than prepared material that he doesn't have to prepare.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 5: Roadblock!

Over a month ago our heroes completed their quest to slay the goblin chief in the slum section of the ruins. Since then they have been spending their money and time in the civilized section of Phlan. Low on cash, Kordan, Javanni, and Mikal decide to see if the council needs any more help. As it turns out they do.

Councilman Barnabus thanks them for freeing the slums although resettlement is going somewhat slower than they had hoped. Some of this is due to a new problem in that kobolds have taken over Kuto's Well, cutting off a major source of fresh water for the settlement effort. Kuto was one of the original settlers of the area and he built a fort around the well. Early settlers also gathered around what is now civilized Phlan for access to the harbor. The city grew up as these two sections grew together and the Slums are what was once this middle section joining the two early settlements. So reclaiming the well is important both for symbolic reasons and for the practical needs of a) fresh water, b) a buffer zone past the Slums themselves, and c) a fortified location at the far end of the settlement to help hold off attacks from the monster-infested ruins of the rest of the city. Barnabus offers the party 1000gp per person or the choice of a treasured magical item upon delivery of the kobold chieftain's head.   The party agrees and sets out for the well.

Now being unable to locate their wizard the team advances with some caution. Passing through the Slums they see the occasional beggar moving through the rubble but that's about the only sign of life. Finally they come to the end of the slum section and see a stone structure some distance away through heavily rubbled streets. They advance.

Nearing the well the group uses a mostly cleared roadway to speed their travel. Up ahead, though, they spy a roadblock and note that several side streets have been block off as well. Observing for a few minutes, they see small shapes behind the roadblock and a few more figures up on some nearby rooftops - kobolds.

Kordan (Fighter) and Mikal (Warlock) take a left and try to make an indirect advance on the kobold position while Javanni (Bard) advances just enough to put the enemy in range of his vicious mockery and begins taunting the scaly ones.

Turning a corner, Kordan and Mikal exchange fire with the westernmost kobold rooftop sentries. They are slain fairly quickly but not before both heroes have been tagged with seriously foul-smelling missiles. The heroes then close in on the roadblock as Javanni takes the other rooftop sentry out of the fight with his incredibly harsh language.

Battle is joined as Kordan smashes through the roadblock and into a Kobold Dragonshield. Mikal lays down curses and eldritch blasts on multiple foes while Javanni sings a veritable song of abuse, throwing in some common kobold names to spice things up and scoring as several enemies look up in open-mouthed horror at the things he is saying about their nest-mothers.Kordan takes a few good blows from Kobold spears but in the end the trio blows through the watchmen like a summer storm, leaving no survivors.

Looking around the team gathers up what clues they can and decides to go back and find their wizard, and maybe some other assistance, before they assault the well itself.

DM Notes: This was our first D&D session in quite a while and ended up only involving the setup and one encounter, mostly due to excessive chit-chat. I say excessive but part of the fun is a group of friends getting together and catching up on things and that took a lot of time this time. Also, Lady Blacksteel had other plans and was not available to run her character for the evening so the party was down to 3. Now I build my encounters for the 4E standard 5 man party and I'm not inclined to weaken them but the party blew through them pretty well. I admit I didn't make the bulk of the kobolds very active opponents but they were guarding a roadblock so it made sense to me in the context of the encounter. Next time will not be as easy.

The good news is that we may have picked up another player, bringing us up to the officially-endorsed 5-man party. Also, clearing a lot of the getting-back-together-after-a-long-gap stuff cleared out and getting the mission set up out of the way means we can dive right in next session and that next session is this coming Friday so we will have some momentum going in. It's good to be rolling again.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

4E Dungeon Delve: A Review

Dungeon Delve is a 192 page hardcover that was published in February 2009 to fairly mundane reviews. I picked it up a while back but it wasn't really a priority. as I was busy designing and starting my first 4E campaign. One of my own rules while doing this was that I didn't want to read any published 4E adventure material as I wanted to figure it out myself.  Feeling fairly solid with those arrangements now I sat down to read it over the weekend and was very impressed.

The concept for the book is to publish a short adventure for every level from 1-30. Each "Delve" starts with a few paragraphs of background, an overview map , a note on what set of dungeon tiles was used to make the map, and some notes on how to expand it beyond the encounters given. Each encounter has a more detailed map including the monster locations, complete monster stats, a setup section, tactical notes, and details on any features in the area like statues that could be pushed over or ledges to fall off of or secret doors or the like. Everything that the DM needs to run the encounter is right there, usually on 1 or 2 facing pages.

The introduction to the book talks about different ways to use this material including a DM Training Tool (not a terrible idea) and as a boardgame type affair where it's openly DM vs. Players - I thought that was Descent . Those are fine but they are not the highest purpose of this book.

The greatness of this book is in having a huge pile of prepared, fully statted-out mini-dungeons with short simple backgrounds. As anyone who has DM'd an ongoing campaign knows, this kind of material is incredibly valuable. If you're running a specific adventure and the players know it or if you're running one-shots then it's not as important as everyone tends to be focused on the task at hand but in a classic open-ended serial campaign the players pretty much decide where they are going next and that's not always some place you have prepared. Even if you are running a known adventure players will go back to town and then go traipsing off in another direction. When this happens it's very handy to have some other material you can drop in as a side adventure - sometimes as the goal of the side trip and sometimes as a delay along the way so that you can finish writing up the goal before the next session.  Plus the size of each - 3 encounters -  is perfect as that's about how many my group can get through in a typical night. The descriptions are also perfect - a paragraph or 3 about the location, who the monsters are and why they are there is exactly what this kind of adventure needs and it's specific to the encounter, not to any campaign world.

Old School Notes - This book is similar to the Book of Lairs or Adventure Pack I - premade encounters with monster stats and maps that can be dropped in as needed. Now the encounters are not as large-scale as some of the Lair setups - no 130 Brigands or 249 Sahaugin - nor are they as involved as the adventures in AP, but they are very similar as far as intended use.

What if you don't play 4th edition? Well, it's not a whole lot of use in that case. The maps are fairly simple and the feature notes include DC's for climbing up on things or breaking things that could be used with 3E characters. The monsters would have to be replaced though, so some of the utility of the book would be lost but the maps and the concepts might be enough of a head start to make it easier than doing your own from scratch. For 1E or 2E DM's there isn't much here. The concept, though, is very good and there's no reason it couldn't be used to make up a similar product for 1E/2E.

This book is a godsend for my own 4E campaign which is set in Phlan and inspired by the old Gold Box game. In that game the main adventuring area is the city itself but there are several small adventures set outside of the city and I have been debating how to incorporate them into the campaign. I don't want them to replace big chunks of my carefully designed city zones but I want players to have the option to head outside of the city -especially those who remember the old game - and look for trouble. They could also be used as XP catch-up missions for characters who sit out a session or two. So I was thinking of making up some set pieces of 1-5 encounters using the themes of the original - an orc lair, a lizardman lair,a wizard's laboratory, and others - but now I don't really have to as I have Dungeon Delve and I can place whatever I need depending on the level of the characters involved. I may still do the laboratory as it was a pretty big part of the original and I had already figured it in as one of my higher-level areas, but the other little side encounters will most likely be handled by adventures from this book. What higher praise can I give than I like it and expect to be using it in the next month or two. If you;re running a traditional campaign using 4E then it's an immediately useful book for you as a DM and it's something you will want in your toolkit.