The Origin of PCs

Please forgive me stealing the title of this from Order of the Stick.

I was giving some more thought to PCs.  I’ve been a player in hardcover adventure playing group for over a year now.  I seem to have a bad habit of playing the PC I should have played in the last adventure.  Or I just pick the wrong PC.  This kind of made me think of old adventures and what PCs I shoulda coulda played.  For example, in Dragon Heist, which goes up to level 5, Knowledge Cleric kind of sucks at low level.  And if you need to be a Bard, Lore Bard is just straight better before level 6 when Valor Bards get extra attack.  There are these mechanical considerations but also story to consider.  Savitri, my Aasimar Cleric, didn’t really have a strong motivation to own a tavern or seek out large piles of gold which made them a bad choice for Dragon Heist.

A better choice for Dragon Heist would have been Tando Tossbottle, my halfling rogue.  I’ve spoken of Tando before.  Tando is My Character.  He is the character I would like to play in preference to all others.  His origin is back in the 5E playtest days.  I wanted to make a rogue in contrast with the 4E Striker Rogues that dealt shitloads of damage.  Every rogue played like Ezio Auditore from Assassin’s Creed, I wanted to play a rogue like Varys (look this was a long time ago).  So I made Tando.  I pictured him as a courtier, a functionary, a tax collector, and he’s out adventuring to get noticed, get wealthy, and find a comfortable place in some lord’s court.

Unfortunately and maybe a bit ironically I keep bringing Tando along for adventures he’s not really suited to.  His first adventure in the playtest was the Caves of Chaos, a dungeon crawl.  And I really wanted to try him out in my first foray into playing rather than DMing 5E so I brought him along to Tomb of Annihilation.  It actually works out to be very funny in a kind of Fish Out Of Water Sam Gamgee way.  Tando was also not mechanically suited to ToA because the Mastermind’s core ability, granting an ally advantage on an attack, was completely wasted on a group of spellcasters who didn’t make attack rolls.

I have no idea what I “should” have played in Tomb of Annihilation because as smarter people like Mike Shea have pointed out, ToA is not one adventure.  You start in Port Nyanzaru which is a cool city made for bopping around, having fun.  Then you have the Hex Crawl exploring the jungle looking for treasure, exploring ruins, ending with puzzles and the fight with the Yuan-Ti.  Then you have The Tomb Itself which is extremely deadly and difficult.  That’s more like three different adventures and you stand a good chance of not surviving.  Tando made it out less a few teeth but a lot of the time he couldn’t contribute because he was not a spellcaster.

Tando would have been well suited to Dragon Heist, despite the “canon” Tando being Level 12 after Tomb of Annihilation.  But someone else wanted to play The Rogue after ToA and I wanted to play The Healer.  I also could’ve been Blackwood Heckman, Tiefling Lawyer, who is also a Mastermind Rogue but with a few levels of Bard for healing and inspiration.  I would’ve also liked to play Tando in the Tyranny of Dragons adventures, Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat.  In my headcanon, the Forgotten Realms version of Tando used to work for Dagult Neverember in Neverwinter to hire adventurers while the city was being rebuilt.  Neverember is a big NPC in both Tyranny and Dragon Heist.

I’ve already said that for Descent into Avernus, if I don’t DM it, my eye is really on a Tiefling Bard-barian based on Dragon Age’s Iron Bull.  He’s a blood soaked reaver in the war between Demons and Devils but he’s also a spy.  I think it’s a good idea.  In Dragon Age, Iron Bull’s real name is “Hissrad” which means “Liar” in his culture.  I kind of like the name Khadab which is Arabic for “Liar.”  Then maybe some kind of pastiche name of Iron Bull like…Steel Ox or something less of a ripoff.

Hidden names are a concept I’ve also brought to my Triton PCs.  I’ve played two, one was a Barbarian for Cloud Giant’s Bargain, a one-shot adventure from a few years back.  The other is my current Valor Bard character I’m playing for Dungeon of the Mad Mage.  I think naming your character is an important step in making them that people overlook.  It also advertises what kind of player you are.  If you choose something difficult to say, maybe don’t do that because it says that you might be difficult to work with.  If you choose some common American name like “Jim” maybe you’re not taking the story seriously.

My Triton Bard is probably the most difficult name I’ve done before because it has kind of a specific non-intuitive pronunciation.  I went with Saaragar, with “Saara” as a nickname (Pronounced Sare-Ah).  I based it on Saagar, the Hindi word for Ocean.  Mechanically, I brought them to this adventure for the sake of playing The Healer.  I kind of wish that I had played “None,” The Warforged War Cleric instead.  The Valor Bard feels a bit underpowered in this adventure, I think the War Cleric packs a bit more offense, defense, and healing into the package.

My other Triton, the Barbarian, I named Nymeros after Prince Namor and Oberyn Nymeros Martell.  I would’ve gone by Nym for short.  I played them in Cloud Giant’s Bargain but I would’ve liked playing that character for the rest of Storm King’s Thunder too.  I originally envisioned them as being captured and shrunken by the Xanathar as a fishbowl decoration or gladiator but SKT’s general “Shit is Going Down In The Ocean With King Hekaton” also fits well.  As an AL character they were also rocking a Giant Slayer Greatsword which is coloring my opinion a bit.

I think Saaragar the Bard would’ve worked nicely for Princes of the Apocalypse.  I think Princes is the most underrated of the 5E Hardcover adventures to date.  From one perspective, it is, like Mad Mage, a series of dungeon crawls.  There are 13 dungeons, each of them is geared towards a specific level, and each one is one level of experience.  My least favorite part of it is that the PCs are meant to be able to tackle these in any order when they’re supposed to go Air, Earth, Water, Fire in that order through the entire book.  But I respect the tightness of the design.  This is one level and the content on this level equals one experience level.  What I remember now years later are the NPC Cult Leaders.  I really liked the story behind those villains.  Vanifer and Gar Shatterkeel especially.  I want to use them in a different adventure.  Princes has very good bones to build on for a new campaign.

I’ve been playing with idea of a Rogue Scout for a little while now.  I’m playing one in a 5E PBP game and this is all based on Elhar, my Dragon Age Elf Rogue whose life was cut sadly short by the end of a campaign.  The folks at Total Party Thrill put out a build for a character that combines the Rogue, Fighter, and Cleric classes for a kind of ranger Without Ranger but for Drow Specifically there is the idea of using the Hexblade and Gloom Stalker Ranger from Xanathar’s Guide to make the kind of ultimate Underdark Ranger.  I would love to play this kind of character in Out of The Abyss.  I read a couple Drizzt books and didn’t really care for them but I wish I could play a kind of Lolth Loyalist character.  This character is a cousin to the Iron Bull type character.  Both of them are loyal servants to an evil or at best highly authoritarian state but they’re not in that state right now.  At his core, Drow Elhar knows his ass belongs to the priestesses of Lolth and boy he’d like to kill some surface elves but he’s not in Menzoberranzan (which I just spelled correctly without looking first, Nerd Alert) right now.  He’s evil but bordering on a heel-face turn.

This leaves us with Curse of Strahd.  This is the only one of the hardcovers I’ve had the good fortune to DM and numerous sites consider it the best of all the 5E hardcovers to date.  My group for this one all had characters “from” Ravenloft, we were not a group of Forgotten Realms characters trapped there.  I haven’t the faintest clue what PC I would like to play in this one.  The group I DMed could have used a martial character like a Valor Bard, Barbarian, or War Cleric as they were mostly spellcasters.

But that gets to the core of a playstyle I think and its that I tend to want to fill missing slots in a pre-existing group.  My first choice is the Rogue but not if someone else wants it.  I brought one to Tomb of Annihilation because no one else had one.  I went with a healer for the Waterdeep adventures because no one else wanted to be The Healer and with new players in the group it’s not fair to force that role on them.  I am really looking forward to Descent into Avernus, as a player or DM.  I feel this hunger for a narrative and right now treading over PC backstories in the only place I can find it.  I had someone tell me that they miss doing AL stuff in the game because it gave them something mechanical to tinker with outside the game.  I wish for something similar but for a story to plan and plot and sink my teeth into.

The D&D Version of The Iron Bull

I’m dipping my toes here into Character Creation Speculation.  Every week the Total Party Thrill Podcast creates a new character trying to hit a new archetype.  Sometimes they make character from fiction like Spiderman, sometimes they make a character who fights different, an archer who fights in Melee, or exploit a specific rule like how The Faustian Fiddler gets the highest possible performance check.  The many many posts on my PCs to the contrary, I don’t usually play with 5E D&D character creation much because 1) I don’t play many different characters 2) I tend to build single classed characters and 3) I tend to make specific characters for specific games.

But I got a bug in me to make a character (probably because D&D and Dragon Age have been off for a couple weeks) based on The Iron Bull from Dragon Age: Inquisition.  The Iron Bull is kind of the only character in the Dragon Age Universe that really merits thought about their build in 5E since it is a low-magic setting.  Blackwall is an interesting character but he’s just a human guy.  A Fighter maybe with some Rogue.  Varric is a Dwarf Rogue with a Crossbow.  Cole would be the only other character I’d take a hard look at creating but his abilities and nature are so unique to the rules of the Dragon Age setting.

Iron Bull though, or rather, The Iron Bull.  I think this is a character that could inspire a unique 5th Edition D&D PC.  Who is The Iron Bull?  To answer that you have to know a bit about Dragon Age Backstory and I’m going to try to skip the pages and pages of lore to give you the nickel tour.  Iron Bull is a Qunari.  This Q-Word refers to two things in the setting, a race of tall powerful grey-skinned horned humanoids, and a philosophy/religion that almost all members of that species follow.  This philosophy is referred to as the Qun.  TVtropes says it is most similar in real life to a mixture of Islam and Confucianism.  It governs all aspects of life for those who follow it.

Iron Bull was born into this philosophy.  Like all raised under the Qun he was raised communally and his caretakers watched to see what job would suit him when he grew up.  Iron Bull was a born fighter but he could also lie.  So he was trained for the Ben-Hassrath, the secret police of the Qunari, as a spy.  Like all Qunari he got a name at this time.  Iron Bull would be a nickname he chose himself, his given name is Hissrad, which in Qunari means “Weaver of Illusions” or more bluntly, “Liar.”  He served on the frontlines of the Qunari’s brutal and never-ending wars until he developed severe PTSD and asked for a new job.  So he was sent out into the world away from the frontline to pretend to be a mercenary while making occasional reports to his superiors.  Out in the world he took the name “Iron Bull” for his hard nature and giant rack of horns.

Thus we have The Iron Bull.  He’s a hard fighting, hard drinking, pansexual commander of his own mercenary company.  He offers to sell his swords to The Inquisition in the video game and makes no secret that he’s a spy to get that into the open.  I must point out that Bull is not a bumbling brute.  Iron Bull is one of, if not the most, intelligent, insightful, and perceptive people in your Dragon Age Inquisition party despite having one eye.  He’s equally capable of playing chess in his head with no board against the Elf Wizard, the smartest member of the party, or cutting an enemy in three pieces with a single stroke.  He notices everything, lies effortlessly, and subtly manipulates everyone around him to stay in control.  His battlecry translates to, “I will bring myself sexual pleasure while thinking of this later, with respect.”  He gave his eye for a man, a stranger to him, being attacked by soldiers.  The core of his conflict in the story is, will he turn his back on the mercenary life he enjoys to remain loyal to the philosophy that gives his life purpose and order?

What does this mean to 5th Edition D&D?  At his core, Bull needs to be a Strength based melee character skilled in the arts of a spy.  In canon he is in no way magical and in fact spent most of his life fighting against Mages.  The typical D&D setting typically has less of a stigma against mages though.  So you have a few choices here: What race, what martial class, and how to get those spying abilities?

On Race I think you have several good options.  Again, remember that what makes Iron Bull immediately unique is that you expect him to be a big dumb fighter when he’s actually extremely intelligent.  He plays against a stereotype.  Unfortunately this will fall heavier on RPing these traits since abilities are so expensive in 5E.  Goliath is probably the closest in size and nature to Dragon Age’s Qunari.  Minotaur from Ravnica gives you the horns that make the name Iron Bull fit.  But I would also consider Eberron’s Warforged, Dragonborn, or the Zariel Tiefling Variant from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes.  All five of these get a Strength bonus, some get Con bonuses, and the last three get a Charisma bump (at least Envoy Warforged can).  The Triton gets all three although by canon the Triton actually shorter folk but you could always change that.

While you could easily make the Fighter your martial class I prefer Barbarian.  It fits Iron Bull’s inherent nature as The Big Guy as opposed to Another Fighter Guy.  In Dragon Age he is a Reaver which deals out more damage the more damage you take.  His size and constitution provide as much protection as the heavy plate a fighter depends on.  Also his art mostly depicts him without a shirt, so, Barbarian.  But what path?  This isn’t exactly low fantasy but I like Zealot.  Iron Bull is a zealot for the Qun.  He is a believer.  This especially fits a Tiefling of Zariel which really leans into a Fallen Angel vibe I dig very much.  A Zealot barbarian also costs nothing to raise from the dead other than a spell slot which matches Dragon Age where if one person is still alive at the end of the fight, everyone in the party just gets up.  Zealot gets a leaderly battlecry at level 10 and at level 14 you don’t die while raging.

Making this character a good spy is a bit trickier.  You should give him the spy background feature but good spying takes Expertise with a capital E doesn’t it?  And maybe a few tricks up your sleeve.  The idea here is to multiclass and you have two options.  First, Rogue.  Straightforward.  Take one level for Expertise and Thieves’ Cant, two levels for Cunning Action, and three levels for an archetype.  Probably Inquisitive although Assassin gives you some spike damage.  I think I would prefer Bard, for 3 levels.  This gets you Bardic Inspiration, Jack of All Trades, The All Important Expertise in Two Skills, and a Bardic College.  Since Valor Bard gives you mostly the same crap as your Barbarian levels I’d recommend Lore.  This gives you 3 more skills and Cutting Words.

In addition, three levels of Bard gives you spells, 2 cantrips, four 1st level slots and two 2nd level slots.  Granted, Iron Bull isn’t supposed to be a mage of any sort.  If I was playing this character in Thedas I wouldn’t do Bard.  But this probably ain’t Low Magic Dragon Age, it’s High Magic D&D.  Lots of tricks you can pull at these low levels although the fun ones like Detect Thoughts, Suggestion, Charm Person or Zone of Truth require saving throws and I’m not sure how much you want to put into Charisma.  You may even want less Barbarian.  Total Party Thrill has a build called the Savage Sage that uses 14 levels of Barbarian, 5 levels of Warlock, and 1 level of Knowledge cleric for goodies like Guidance and Bless.

You could start Bard or Rogue to get more skills and proficiency in Dexterity saves while your Barbarian-ness will cover your Strength/Con saves.  But with Zealot Barbarian and maybe even lower Con if you go Bardbarian you really need to start with Medium Armor which you don’t get multiclassing into Barbarian.  Recall the Barbarian gets Advantage on Dex Saves against “Effects You Can See” (Traps/Spells).  A breastplate and +2 Dex will give you more AC.  A Zealot barbarian doesn’t tank as well as a Bear Totem Barbarian so the High AC is probably better, objectively speaking, but maybe not.  I’m not good at this.  It usually takes me a couple sessions before realizing something like, “Oh, Dragon Heist doesn’t go to level 6 so Valor Bard is kind of shit from level 3-5 compared to Lore Bard.”  It really depends on the campaign you’re in and the party makeup.

If I was doing this character in Thedas I would likely go Goliath Barbarian with 2 levels of Rogue.  Goliath’s big feature, damage reduction once per short rest, is better for a Bonus Action hungry character like this rather than Minotaur.  You would need those bonus actions for Raging and Cunning Actions.  The Minotaur lets you do your Horns (1d6+Str) as a bonus action IF you use the Dash Action, which you’re not going to be doing since you already used your Bonus Action to Dash so you could use your big goddamn weapon.

I think if I wanted to do this character for something like Avernus, I might go Tiefling, Zealot Barbarian, and Lore Bard.  Get your Barbarian to level 5 for extra attack, then do your Bard, then the rest Barbarian and you can also bail out and get more Bard if you want.  Probably no less than 14 levels of one class, no more than 6 of the other.  Put the two Expertise Skills into Deception and Insight for the most Iron Bull-y spy instead of Perception since he does have the one eye.  Downside for Avernus is that your Tiefling Bonus Spell, Searing Smite, deals fire damage which will probably be completely useless in Avernus.  I’m curious if they’ll come up with a way around that so PCs dealing Fire Damage or PCs resisting Fire Damage won’t have too hard or easy a time.

So who is my Iron Bull?  Well, if I’m going Tiefling Bardbarian for Descent into Avernus, she was or maybe is a loyal agent of Zariel.  A planetouched soldier in the Blood War sent to infiltrate this band of upstarts mucking about in Baldur’s Gate.  Demon originating Minotaur would work the same from the other side of the Blood War.  Maybe she serves another Devil Lord of Hell and is a double agent.  Maybe a reskinned Fallen Aasimar (which could also be a good race) on a redemption arc.

Iron Bull’s background in Inquisition mimics Zariel’s rule with few changes.  Zariel is the newest Duke of The Nine Hells.  She was an Angel who grew corrupted by her zeal to fight The Blood War.  It makes sense that she would want to build her own bloodline of Tieflings and have more control of them than say, the default Asmodeus Tieflings which have spread thoughout the multiverse.  It makes sense that she would want to breed more soldiers.

In Dragon Age, Iron Bull’s great choice is between his comrades in arms, the mercenaries he leads, and whether or not to sacrifice them for the government he serves.  It is a classic choice between being Chaotic Good or Lawful Evil.  In the game, this choice falls on the player.  An alliance with Iron Bull’s Qunari or the lives of the quirky soldiers you’ve come to know over the game.  From the way the Dragon Age Inquisition DLC goes the writers seem to indicate strongly that there is a right choice and I won’t spoil that here.

I said I don’t like to randomly build characters because I tend to build specific PCs for specific campaigns but I think I just did.

Acquisitions Incorporated

I have been an Acquisitions Incorporated fan since the beginning.  I was into Penny Arcade and PVP for about 5 years, 4th Edition D&D got announced, and then they bring on these guys to play D&D and then they release the recording.  And it was funny!  And interesting!  They did three podcasts before moving to PAX live shows with the occasional podcast or youtube series.  It used to be just PAX West.  Now they do one every PAX.  Surreal to think how far we’ve come.  Now the internet is lousy with streamed D&D.  Not in terms of quality but that it is everywhere.  And thank God it’s no longer 4-5 cishet white guys sitting around the table as it was back in the starting days.

And now the C-Team series has been on youtube for a while and we have in our hands a D&D book that says Acquisitions Incorporated on the cover.

My intention for this post is to read through the book and give my thoughts.  Starting with the intro and the Company Roles.  Hopefully getting through the rest later.  I wanted you to know where I’m coming from first.  I’m a superfan, I get the inside jokes, and I know who all these goddamn characters are.

If you know nothing else about Acquisitions Incorporated I will try to summarize it for you.  Start with Omin Dran, Cleric, who follows a deity of trade and fortune.  His deity commands him to seek fortune and adventure as a sacred rite.  Naturally, it follows that he would hire adventurers to go out and adventure and recover treasure for him.  It’s inherently a 4th Wall Breaking Concept: A powerful adventurer hires a bunch of lower level characters to go adventure for him and he takes a cut of the money.  It’s actually pretty close to my concept of Tando Tossbottle.

The book starts with a kind in-character history from Jerry Holkins’s cleric PC, Omin Dran, about Acquisitions Incorporated from inception to the present.  The Present seems to go up to the 2019 PAX Shows with WWE Superstar Xavier Woods’s character being thanked in the credits.  This history and the entire book so far is missing Binwin Bronzebottom, Scott Kurtz from PVP’s character, and Aeofel, Wil Wheaton’s character.  They are in the credits at the start of the book but otherwise these characters are scrubbed from the narrative.  It’s almost in character for Omin to have this partner, Binwin, that he pretends never existed.  Both of these guys no longer do Acquisitions Incorporated.  Wil Wheaton stated publicly on his blog that he refuses to work with Scott Kurtz ever again.  Scott Kurtz talked a bit about why he left on a podcast ( but it coincided with WOTC’s press release from a few years ago that they were going to put money into more streamed D&D games.  I’m bastardizing Kurtz’s reasons but Acq Inc was becoming more a Penny-Arcade thing and he wasn’t really interested in doing an elaborate performative show he had no creative control over.  My point is, to me, an Acq Inc fan, the removal of Binwin and Aeofel from the narrative is weird.

After the history we get into items with mechanics behind them.  This starts with an overview of your Franchise Headquarters.  This has some crunch to it, your HQ costs this much to maintain, your HQ has this many people as staff.  This is mostly flavor though.  It’s not really that important or a big deal that your Level 4 Franchise HQ has an escape pod.  It’s good flavor and it can inspire you to write a thematic setting.

One thing I noted as I read this section is that there are repeated suggestions to use rules from the Dungeon Master’s Guide.  In the section on hirelings this book refers you to the relevant section in chapter 4 of the DMG three times in two pages.  The next section suggests you read chapter 5 and the section after that suggests you read chapter 6.  This reminded me of a moment from Season 5 of The Wire where a journalist tells a story, “Mr. Mayor my desk wants to know” and the guy keeps going back to the mayor with questions “from his desk” and the mayor puts his ear to his own literal desk and says, “My desk is telling your desk to go fuck itself.”  I feel like this book could’ve saved some words with one sidebar or one referral to the DMG.  Every paragraph having a referral feels excessive.

This section on your HQ and your hirelings brings to mind Running The Tavern from Dragon Heist.  This was one of my least favorite parts of Dragon Heist.  I share some of the blame for this.  My character, which seemed like a great idea at the time, was a sage explorer who wanted to gather knowledge about Waterdeep for their God, Savras.  So when tasked with running a For-Profit Tavern I…didn’t really want to?  This was my mistake.  I should have played a character with a reason to buy-in to what the adventure was about.  My error was in assuming that the First 5E Adventure about Waterdeep would be more about Waterdeep or that Waterdeep would be more interesting.  We also played Dragon Heist under the AL Rules For Running A Business and no one wanted to engage with those rules.  Rolling on a table to find out how our business did felt uninspired.  And the adventure isn’t actually about running a tavern so there’s no penalty to ignore it.  So not enough benefit to commit, nothing happens if you skip that content.  However, if building that business had been part of the story there would be a reason to get interested.  With Acq Inc, you have a cost to maintain your business and staff and untold riches if you succeed.

After the Franchise HQ info we get into the Company Positions.  This is the real mechanical draw.  If you want to be a documancer like Walnut Dankgrass this is your section.  A sidebar suggests if you want to use these rules you should also use the “low magic campaign” rules again from the DMG.  I look askance at this.  I know they’re suggesting it because these Acq Inc rules, these roles, are purely extra features and power to add to your PC.  A Rogue Assassin has fewer options on their character sheet than a Rogue Assassin Occultant.  This is in the same way that in 4th Edition D&D, Dark Sun introduced the concept of Themes.  And Themes were again, purely extra power to add on to your character.  I loved Themes though and they were so popular they eventually became the Background mechanic in 5E.  But to put a campaign in Low Magic Mode because of these mechanics seems excessive.  For one thing, they are not that powerful.  For another thing, all of them are very magical in nature.  It doesn’t really make sense to say, “we’re making this a low magic campaign because we’re using the Acq Inc Rules,” and then include something like the Hordesperson who gets a Bag of Holding literally connected to the Acq Inc Head Office or the Documancy Satchel which does the same thing.  In addition, the adventure that makes up more than half this book is certainly not a low magic adventure.

One thing we need to mention is the concept of ranks.  This is part of the C-Team show.  When the C-Team starts their adventure, they are all Rank 1 at their positions.  The Franchise HQ is a Rank 1 HQ.  All of these powers are tied to your Rank.  Acq Inc Powers start at Rank 1 and go up to Rank 4.  Rank increases with CHARACTER LEVEL and is separated by Tier Of Play.  Rank 1 is Level 1, Rank 2 is Level 5, Rank 3 is Level 11, Rank 4 is Level 17.  I am not crazy about breaking things up this way.  Most of my skepticism stems from my opinion that a level 11+ character would not be worried about Acquisitions Incorporated matters.  After watching these games for 10 years I have the perception that Acq Inc is a low level thing.  Level 11+ characters got shit to do.  They have worlds to save.

In the C-Team, the characters are rank 1-2 and they’re level 10 now.  So they are practicing what they’ve preached to us in terms of how fast your Acq Inc Rank increases.  At the same time, I don’t really like having this linked to your character level.  In the C-Team, where these jobs are used, the DM seems to have an elaborate subsystem in terms of tracking rank.  During one game he mentions that the Decisionist got one point every time they called for a vote on something.

I should also point out that these abilities are not very powerful.  The Rank 4 powers especially seem weak when you consider they are meant to be for Level 17+ characters.  But they are fun so let’s go through them.  Hopefully a Documancer will tell me to delete this if it is a violation of Acquisitions Incorporated copyright.

Each job gives a few benefits at each new rank.  The first role, the Cartographer, gains their proficiency bonus to checks involving maps and trailblazing.  These might normally be a Wisdom (Survival) check or even straight intelligence.  Also at rank 1 they gain proficiency with cartographer’s tools and land or water vehicles.  Lastly, at rank 1 the cartographer gains the ability to requisition transport, either a wagon, horses, or passage on a ship.

At Rank 2 the Cartographer gains a magic spyglass.  This is a weird one.  If there is something blocking your view, you look through the spyglass, you make a DC 15 Wisdom check (with Proficiency because it’s with your tools), you can now map the natural terrain within 3 miles of that thing.  So is the idea that if nothing was blocking your path, if it was completely open terrain, a person can normally map three miles of a point?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to make the check and then you magically gain a map of the terrain within three miles?

Also at Rank 2 the Cartographer gains the ability we see Rosie Beestinger use most often on the C-Team.  This is a 45 minute ritual that lets you teleport to a location within one day’s travel that you’ve been to before.

At Rank 3 you gain a magic map case, or rather, your Cartographer map case becomes magical.  You can look in your case, make a check, and then find a map in your case to reveal a shortcut that cuts your travel time by half.  If you succeed by 5 or more you gain advantage on an ability check within an hour.  So hopefully your travel time is going to include some tactical elements.  Also, once a week, you can make a check to find a map in your case relevant to your mission or inspiring a new one.  This map case and the spyglass are both kind of asking big questions of the DM.  To use this ability is to ask your DM to be prepared to adjudicate miles and miles of terrain.  Theoretically, if you are DMing a game with the Acq Inc rules, and you know you have a cartographer this is something you can prepare for.

At Rank 4 you gain two more benefits.  First, a magic book that grants you advantage on intelligence and wisdom checks related to geographical locations.  Second, your 45 minute ritual can teleport you to a location within 3 days travel and you can also teleport your franchise HQ is mobile and 2000 pounds of goods.  Two things jump out at me here.  Number one, 2000 lbs of gear, is that just whatever’s in your HQ other than your stuff?  I guess the idea is that your tavern full of stools and ale is never a mobile HQ.  Number 2, this is a teleport ritual at Level 17.  A Wizard gains 7th level spells at Level 13.  My point here is that at most D&D tables, three day’s travel is a problem that’s solved by this point.  If you happen to be at a table with zero full spellcasters maybe this feels strong but probably not.

The Decisionist is very different from the Cartographer.  While the Cartographer gets a lot of toys to use which really depend on the DM’s responsiveness to make useful the Decisionist’s mechanics manipulate the party.  At Rank 1 you add your proficiency to certain charisma checks which would likely overlap with Persuasion.  You also, by mechanic, get two votes whenever your party needs to take a vote.  I can’t remember a time when our Tomb of Annihilation party, Curse of Strahd party, Dragon Heist, or Mad Mage party ever decided something based on a vote.  Most times, we agree by acclimation.  Everyone kind of goes along with one decision.  If the party had a mechanic for formal votes maybe you take more votes.

At Rank 2, the Decisionist can proxy for absent players/characters and call for recounts if they themselves are absent.  You also get a magic coin and can decide what side it lands on.  This is a bonus action which is kind of weird.  Why?  Just make it a free action.  A key point here is that only Decisionists are supposed to know that Decisionists can decide which side the coin lands on.  The other players at the table might catch onto this pretty quick when they read their Acquisitions Incorporated book.

At Rank 3, the Decisionist coin functions as a kind of Augury spell.  The DM has to adjudicate on the fly which of four results on a random table apply to the coin flip.  Most importantly you also gain a kind of Inspiration mechanic.  Once per day, when you vote and make a Persuasion check your party gains advantage to the next check within an hour.  That’s fairly powerful and the first mechanic that can be directly combat related.

Rank 4.  Boy howdy I’m hating these rank 4 abilities.  Once a week, the Decisionist can grant themselves three votes instead of the normal two votes.  Which…okay so the rest of the characters might still choose to go their own way.  Also this might piss off the players at the table.  The Decisionist really assumes that voting is a part of the social contract at your table.  Your Level 17 character also gains the ability to cast Charm Person once per day at Save DC 15 with their “voting kit.”  Which, I don’t know how big it is or what.  You just present this big huge box and charm someone, well probably not since 15 is kind of low at Level 17. You can also put tools in there….umm…okay?

Ahh Documancer.  When I think of the Acquisitions Incorporated Jobs, Documancer is the first that comes to mind thanks to the AMAZING portrayal given on the C-Team by their Documancer Druid, Walnut Dankgrass.  At Rank 1, you get your Proficiency to document-related checks.  You gain advantage on Intelligence checks to decipher codes which is going to be big in a certain type of campaign.  I’m imagining right now a game that uses both the Guild Rules from Ravnica, the Dragonmark rules from Eberron, and these Acq Inc rules to make the ultimate puzzle solver.

At Rank 2, Documancers get their magic satchel.  You can send and receive messages with Head Office through the satchel.  There is some overlap here with the Hordesperson and Loremonger which I will get to.  You can also cast the Augury spell to decipher the will of Head Office once a week.

At Rank 3, your Documancy Satchel now becomes a Bag of Holding and once per day you can produce a scroll of Comprehend Languages.  It would be more useful to just cast the spell but it’s a documancy satchel.  The Documancer Arcane Casters will be fine with this.  The Martial and Divine Documancers will begin looking around for someone to cast for them.  I would say as a DM, just let your Documancer use the scroll.  This is a level 11 class feature, Comprehend Languages is a 1st level spell.  You also gain proficiency with the Forgery Kit, which you probably already had if you wanted to be a Documancer in the first place and there is always a kit inside your Satchel.

At Rank 4, you can make an Arcana check to gain a spell scroll of up to 3rd Level from your Satchel.  If you Succeed, this works once a week.  If you fail, you can try once per day.  Your Satchel can also hold up to 30 scrolls in a special compartment.  Drawing the Scroll from your Special Pouch is a Bonus Action…was it not a free action before?  Casting it is still an action right?  Depending on the scroll I assume.

The Hordesperson might be the most useful low level job.  At Rank 1 you can use Proficiency in price negotiation, appraisal, and resource analysis.  “Is this Gold or Fool’s Gold?”  You gain Jeweler’s Tools.  You can also have anything in the PHB’s “Mounts and Vehicles” section or “Trade Goods” section delivered to your Franchise HQ with the chance for a discount.  This one is weird, if you fail this is a daily, but if you use this feature twice you cannot use it again until your Franchise levels up.  I choose to interpret this as The Discount works up to two times, not the Acq Inc Prime feature.

At Rank 2, a Hordesperson gains the Living Loot Satchel aka the Hordesperson’s Bag from the C-Team.  A guaranteed Bag of Holding at Level 5 is not to be scorned.  The bag can also be used to move valuables between itself and the vaults of Head Office.  In addition, you can now live a Wealthy lifestyle.  This is flavored as “All Hordespeople Skim From The Profits.”

At Rank 3, your Satchel is now also a Leomund’s Secret Chest as the spell.  I don’t really understand how this is different from it being a Bag of Holding.  You can also make a Sleight of Hand check to pull out virtually any piece of adventuring gear up to five times per day.

At Rank 4, your Satchel is now a Portable Hole.  I think the difference between this, the Chest, and Bag of Holding is a matter of how large a thing you can get into the bag.  You can also pull anything out of the bag now up to 250 GP of value.

I don’t know how many adventuring parties really struggle with not having access to low cost gear.  When I did Tomb of Annihilation I brought a lot of gear and in a high level adventure access to skills and spells matters way more than a Climber’s Kit.  The Hordesperson also uses Dexterity to pull the right thing out of their bag.  Most of these roles have one stat that is most important to any skill checks relevant to the role.

The Loremonger is the first of the four jobs not held by the members of the C-Team.  You add your proficiency to checks to assess records and decipher codes.  You gain one proficiency in artisan tools, navigator tools, or vehicles of some kind.

At rank 1 The Loremonger gains a magic device called a Whisper Jar.  This is a recording device.  It records an unlimited amount of spoken words and you can playback anything you want.  This is going to be tough to adjudicate at the table and I think is going to be vulnerable to asshole players.  Your character’s recording device has perfect recall and infinite space…so you the player better write down or remember everything perfectly.  Player and DM both need to cut each other some slack here.  The DM respects that the player has a device that says they can record things, the player respects that it’s not the DM’s job to do all of this perfect recall for them.

Rank 2 grants the Loremonger the ability to, as an Investigation Check, use something very similar to the Battlemaster Fighter’s Know Your Enemy feature or the Mastermind Rogue’s Insightful Manipulator feature.  You can also use the Whisper Jar to gain information on any one subject.

The Rank 3 Loremonger reduces the Franchise upkeep cost by 20% per month and the Franchise HQ gains a “secret feature”.  They also can use their Whisper Jar as a Wand of Enemy Detection once per day.

At Rank 4, the Loremonger grants the Franchise HQ a weapons feature above and beyond normal.  They also can cast one spell from a short list of divination spells once per day.  These are all low level spells, 1st or MAYBE second.

The Obviator is the role that caught my eye as maybe being the best fit for my Rogue Mastermind, Tando Tossbottle.  Of the 8 roles, only the Documancer so far does not have a strong D&D like position in an adventuring party.  What I mean by that is the Cartographer, Decisionist, Hordesperson, and Loremonger are all tasked with doing things someone at your D&D table is likely already doing.  The Documancer is…not really doing something that happens in D&D.  It’s funny to have someone sweating the paperwork of adventuring but this isn’t a thing in more vanilla D&D.  It’s kind of like, if the Loremonger is recording the STORY of your adventuring party the Documancer is handling the BUSINESS side of your party.  What’s in the Quest Journal and what is the letter of those quests?  What debts and credits are owed?  Obviator is kind of that same not really a Classic D&D Role.  An Obviator’s job in the company/party is to solve problems.  From the description, they are basically a professional Munchkin.  This kind of sounds like Tando’s personality but it’s not really my playstyle so maybe not this role.

At Rank 1, the Obviator adds their proficiency bonus to checks to make sense of enemy tactics, discern hidden threats, or intimidate foes whose weaknesses you’ve already assessed.  I’m trying to think if there is anytime “discern hidden threat” would not overlap with Perception, Insight, or Investigation skills.

Also at Rank 1 the Obviator gains proficiency with Alchemist’s Tools…I don’t really see the connection there.  More relevant to the description, at Rank 1 the Obviator can make a Wisdom (Insight) check to learn three details about a creature.  Like the Loremonger, this is a baby version of similar Battlemaster and Mastermind class featues.

At Rank 2 the Obviator doubles down on those weird alchemy tools.  You can use your kit to identify an unknown substance once per day.  I’m wondering if this was supposed to be the poisoner’s kit, but the designers felt the alchemy tools were broader.  Poison is pretty specific.  I think the idea here is that an Obviator has an analytical mind and is thus interested in analytical pursuits like alchemy.

In addition, the Rank 2 Obviator gains a pair of magical lens/spectacles which function as Eyes of Minute Seeing or Eyes of the Eagle.  One gives advantage to Investigation, the other Perception where those skills relate to sight.  This is very good and it is permanent.  These don’t last one minute, they last until you change them.  This is one of the most powerful features so far.

The Rank 3 Obviator gets an extremely vague yet potentially very powerful ability to “ask yourself one question, then make a DC 15 Intelligence (History) check.  On success, you recall info you could have uncovered through earlier research about your mission.”  They also gain proficiency with that poisoner’s kit I thought made sense at level 1.  Now at level 11 and everyone’s immune to poison so this is a good time to give it to you.  This is also a travel kit andyou never need to draw it I guess saving you an action?  And it’s hard to find it on you if searched.

Ahh the infamous Rank 4.  Your Spectacles are now both Eyes of the Eagle and Minute Seeing.  And you can gain advantage on a weapon attack roll once per day.  The specificity is a bit odd but it is mechanically the strongest thing so far.   Last thing, if you fail on your baby Battlemaster/Mastermind check you still gain one detail and you can use it more than once against a single creature.

The Obviator is a practical and powerful job.  Would play definitely.

If the Obviator is a professional munchkin, the Occultant is the job I recommended to my friendly neighborhood power gamer.  This role’s responsibility is to track the party’s kills.  At Rank 1, you gain your proficiency to intimidation but only against those close to death, although isn’t that anyone in contact with an adventuring party?  You can also add it to checks to determine fatal diseases or poisons which would traditionally be Medicine checks.  Also like the Obviator, the Occultant gains proficiency in a grab bag of potential tools.  Choose between Cook’s Utensils, Leatherworker Tools, or Weaver Tools.  Like I said, grab bag.  Is that they use materials from dead things?

Also at Rank 1 you gain a kind of Bardic Inspiration.  You can grant someone who dealt a fatal blow 1d10 to spend on an Attack Roll, Ability Check, or Saving Throw.  This is once per day and it takes one minute to do so you can’t do it in combat.

At Rank 2, like the Bard, your Inspiration now recharges on a Short Rest.  Once per day, you can also cast Augury when near a creature recently killed.

Rank 3 Occultants can, as a reaction, impose advantage or disadvantage to a creature’s attack roll, ability check, or saving throw.  It doesn’t say this is once per day, just that it uses a bead from your “Occultant Abacus” and the art of this tool has 22 beads.  For this to be balanced it would have to be once per day.

You can also make an Insight check to determine if a wounded creature’s death would impact you and the franchise positively, negatively, or have a neutral outcome.  One thing I don’t understand here, it says “If the ramifications are different for you and the franchise, you learn this as well.”

Rank 4 Occultants can use their Abacus bead to know beforehand if someone has to make a roll with disadvantage.  Then you can use your reaction to give your d10 to a DIFFERENT creature, not the one with disadvantage and this time the d10 lasts one minute.  It says that the bead reappears at dawn but it still doesn’t say you can only use this once per day.  Daily use would be the obvious limit though.

Last thing Occultants get is another succeed weekly/fail daily mechanic.  You can make an Intelligence (Religion) check to learn relevant information about how a creature’s death affects the world.

The Final Job that a PC can get in Acquisitions Incorporated, the Secretarian.  These are your social butterflies.  They know what the office gossip is and are always branding.  It’s kind of like if the Decisionist manages the party at HQ, the Secretarian manages everyone else.  At rank 1 they gain proficiency in a gaming set, musical instrument, or the most mechanical option, disguise kit.  They can add their proficiency to checks to persuade crowds, hirelings, or perform jingles.

They also gain a Sending Stone.  Unlike the one in the DMG which has a paired stone and the two can just talk to each other, these can talk to head office, other secretarians you know, and the secretarian nearest to you.  You can use the stone once per day.  This kind of steps on the Documancer’s toes.

At Rank 2 the Secretarian gains a leather pouch.  When the PC meets someone their details and a sketch are stored on a small card in the pouch.  You can instantly find any card.  This kind of steps on the Loremonger’s toes of having a perfect record although this is only for NPCs.  Also at Rank two when you start a quest or mission you can make a History check and learn three rumors handy.  This is the kind of thing where player and DM need to cut each other slack.  Any mechanic that requires the DM to improv something fast.  Ideally, you know this mechanic exists so you keep rumors handy.

At Rank 3 you get a sense which parts of those rumors are false.  You can now give out business cards that can be used as sending stones to contact the Secretarian but to contact you.  These last a week and you can give out five at a time.  Once a week, the Secretarian can cast sending back to a card.  It doesn’t specify if this is once per card or once total, I think it would be total.

Finally, the Rank 4 Secretarian can make a Persuasion check to immediately locate an NPC that you need a service from.  I think the intent is that these are the services listed in the PHB.  Really finally, you can cast Charm Person on someone you give a business card.  It’s also another 1st level spell on a 17th level character.  This kind of steps on the Decisionist’s toes.

Coming off the Obviator and Occultant, the Secretarian is much weaker.

Overall I like these jobs.  More than the mechanics I like the idea of them.  Take the Cartographer for example.  At the table I’ve been with the last year, one player always takes it on themselves to map out the dungeons.  It would be nice to give another player a mechanical reason to do that or give this player a benefit to doing so.  I also like the specialization.  The Cartographer, with its ability to psychically determine the natural terrain within miles, is not going to get to use these abilities in an urban adventure.  I keep picking on the Cartographer because it’s the first job.  I like idea of giving people jobs inside the party that correspond to jobs Players take on themselves.  It’s the Decisionist’s job to be the party leader/facilitator.  The Loremonger’s job is to write everything down.  The Hordesperson tracks the tiny loose change and random gear you manage to find.  These are classic D&D jobs within the context of a party.  The Documancer, Oblivator, Occultant, and Secretarian are less rooted in party job archetypes, I think.

The mechanics are wonky as hell.  While the trend is towards ribbon abilities the Obviator and especially the Occultant have strong combat abilities.  The others are more geared towards the Social and Exploration pillars.  The Decisionist seems to be the most ribbony of all with one strong combat mechanic.  The Cartographer is entirely geared towards exploration and specifically overland exploration, not in a dungeon.  The Documancer seems the least D&D thing and doesn’t really have a strong fit.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Walnut Dankgrass and all she does but I can’t really see someone else, someone at my table playing that role without a heavy investment in running an Acq Inc game.

All of the roles gain proficiency in some use of a skill that probably overlaps with something you already took.  If the Role gives you proficiency in specific type of Persuasion but you already took the Persuasion skill, are you making the Role weaker?

Having said all this, so far I’m a fan of the book and would like to run a game for these rules.  I do think this book is going to sell better than perhaps it would otherwise because of 5E’s anemic release schedule of only a few books a year.  Although maybe not with 2019 getting way more adventures than usual.

Part 2 – Downtime and The Adventure

There’s still more than half the book left after these roles.  There’s a section on playing Acquisition Incorporated versions of every class.  This is mostly played for comedy.  There are some tables for every class, again, comedic.  I look with pride on how the Mastermind Rogue is called out as the perfect Acq Inc class, probably because it’s comically underpowered.

More important is the section on Downtime.  These are meant to supplement the Downtime activities in the DMG and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.  Confession time, I don’t think I’ve ever used the Formal Downtime rules in 5E.  And if you watch the 3-4 Acquisitions Incorporated games throughout the year at PAX they don’t have time to engage in downtime.  I’m not sure I would run these in the fashion of the DMG, having never seen that style modeled in a streamed game.  It doesn’t really jive with how we conceive of running an adventure.  Players don’t usually say, “We’re going Carousing for a week.”  You play out these scenes, maybe the DM rolls the result in advance and throws that complication at the players.  For less dramatic stuff like making an item you just do it when you go home.

This is one of the things that messed us up in Dragon Heist.  No one wanted to roll on the “Running the Business” table in part because it was a heavy cost for an uncertain reward but also because we were fuckin’ busy.  We were playing the adventure.  In practice, Running the Business is completely abstract.  You roll on the table for an amount of time, you have a certain result that says the business made or lost money.  We as players however, conceive that we need to be at the Tavern, working, making improvements, reaching out to vendors, and we just didn’t have the time.  We didn’t, but we still could’ve rolled on the abstract chart but that’s not how we picture D&D working.  We picture our characters, in real time, doing stuff.  And if we spend a day at the tavern then we want to roll on the table but then we run into the AL rules.

Nowadays when I write up my notes for an adventure I stick to the format Mike Shea of Sly Flourish uses, the Lazy DM format.  I was doing my own version of this for years but his is a bit more organized and useful.  But it conceives of the adventure through potential scenes and secrets and fantastic locations to explore.  The goal of the format is to make sure you have enough to get through the session and keep the players engaged.  I think the Lazy DM philosophy towards downtime would say, “Great!”  Because Downtime really needs to be player directed.  You can’t put players on Downtime.  What if they want to keep adventuring?

With Downtime, my opinion here is that the 5E rules seem to indicate that there’s daylight between Adventuring and Downtime.  This is false.  It’s all D&D, it’s all character, it’s all adventure.  Some sessions you go investigate the shady noble and some sessions you improve your tavern.  The question is, “What do the players want to do?”  If the players don’t want to improve their tavern or their franchise HQ they’re voting with their dice.  This is one thing I like about Acquisitions Incorporated as an idea.  The players do need to buy in to the idea of joining Acquisitions Incorporated.  Volo is not just giving them a franchise they might not care about.  If no one wants to join Acquisitions Incorporated then great, set this book aside and don’t use it.

Over half the book is given over to an adventure, Orrery of the Wanderer.  I would like to run this adventure and as potential players read this blog I don’t want to get too in depth with it.  But overall I like it.  I especially like that it includes places from previous adventures that your players likely played.  You go back to Phandalin, five years now after Lost Mine of Phandelver.  That’s cool!  The adventure takes you to Waterdeep, Neverwinter, Luskan, and even the Horn Enclave which was featured in one of the Acq Inc Youtube games.  One item that caught my eye, in this adventure, the middle class district of Neverwinter is named Black Lake.  This is what it was named in 4E.  In the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide the district is named Bluelake.  I wondered at the time if this was a typo, obviously it was.  Also Binwin featured heavily in the Horn Enclave adventure and the adventure mentions his actions without actually mentioning him.

The adventure models the rules in this book.  It doesn’t just give you a franchise, it gives you multiple suggestions for where to base that franchise.  It doesn’t give you hirelings but it does suggest which NPCs would make good hires.  It’s got plenty of magic items especially compared to the more stingy Dragon Heist and Mad Mage adventures.  Each chapter ends with giving your PCs some downtime rather than ending on a cliffhanger where the PCs feel the need to get right to the next chapter.  One chapter in particular is depending on the PCs to take that downtime to figure out where to go next.

There are a few hiccups.  In the true Jerry Holkins style, it gets a bit hard to follow as you turn into the conclusion.  Artifacts are being combined, portals are being opened, monsters are getting changed on the fly.  The ending acts sound complicated, doubtless they make more sense when you actually prep them to play.  As in many 1st level adventures, that section goes too long and there’s too much combat.  There is an encounter with giant rats which I feel obligated to roll my eyes at but it serves a real purpose in foreshadowing a trap later.

All in I really like this adventure and this book.  If your PCs like Acquisitions Incorporated they’ll be into this.  If your group has zero interest in Acquisitions Incorporated you could safely give this one a pass.  If they don’t know Acq Inc but they’ve been playing 5E, they will be into this for the numerous callbacks.  I would be happy to run this adventure for a couple months until Avernus starts.  Ain’t gonna be no downtime or franchises in Avernus.

The Dark Tower Novels

It would not be anywhere approaching accurate or just to think I can pass judgement on the Dark Tower series as a whole.  What follows is the briefest of summaries on the seven novels by Stephen King that make up The Dark Tower.  I would recommend you read the series but if you don’t care about spoilers these are my brief takes.

This was the first fantasy series I was ever introduced to.  Probably around the time I saw a trailer for this thing called “The Lord of the Rings” I was handed another book, a slim paperback with some dude in a longcoat with a revolver and a raven on the cover that read, “The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger.”

Now about ten years later I’m trying to re-read the books, a process which like writing the Dark Tower series started off regular, lapsed, and am now in a more or less consistent frenzy, thankee-sai Audible.

What strikes me more about this series more than anything else as I re-read/listen to these first three books is the overwhelming weirdness.  The juxtaposition (there’s a $5 word) of western, fantasy, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, modern-for-the-time-it-was-written fiction.  It doesn’t stretch the imagination too far to think of a fantasy universe where the knights traded in their swords for six guns but Dark Tower goes so much farther than that.

The idea of the series doesn’t come towards anything approaching clarity until the third book. In The Waste Lands Roland gives voice to the idea that if he can reach the Dark Tower he can fix the general fucked-upness of the universe.  The World Has Moved On but only then does Roland actually state that this might be something fixable and that could be a desirable goal.

I called the first book a series of vignettes.  Episodic would be the more precise word (supplied to me by TVtropes).

The second book suffers more from its weirdness than the first book.  The first book you’re kind of down for this.  The individual episodes the text portrays are good even if they’re individually better than the sum of their parts.  They sort of distract you from the overall jumbled together nature of the story.  The second book, Drawing of the Three, we’re at the beach, our main character is walking to find random doors free standing along the sand.  There is no explanation how they work or why they exist.

The third book is where we start to glimpse the narrative.  The plot sheds off the more experimental episodic weirdness of the first two books and gets linear both in terms of presentation and literal time.  The book starts with them finding The Beam.  The Beam is a kind of air current/psychic force criss-crossing Roland’s world.  Roland says The Beam will take them to the Dark Tower.  He believes that the apocalypse that seems to be evident around them can be reversed at the Dark Tower.  Roland is ironically very right that the reset button for everything can be found there.

More than half and less than two-thirds of the third book, The Waste Lands, is spent getting Jake back into the story.  It works but my christ does it take a long time to get there.  I want to say that maybe any less time spent and their solution, in the end they literally draw a door in the dirt and pull Jake through it, would feel too blatant or silly.  But the characters are all getting psychic visions to tell them exactly how to do this.  The last act of the book sees them entering Lud, a ruined city repeatedly equated with Manhattan in terms of size and appearance.  Here they meet Blaine the Mono, a self-aware train who offers them a deal for their lives.

The fourth book benefits greatly by telling a linear straightforward story.  First comes the Riddle Contest for their lives with Blaine the Train He’s a Pain.  They win.  They arrive in this alternate universe version of Topeka, Kansas where The Stand novel by Stephen King has happened.  They need to find the path of the Beam.  But the sight of this giant green, possibly Emerald palace in the distance fills them with disquiet.  Remember, this is exactly one day after they reached Lud.  Jake’s been with them for maybe a month, maybe a couple weeks after they bring him into the world?  My point is that no one really understands Roland or his quest so in the 4th Book Roland sits them down for his motherfucking backstory.

There’s an elephant in the room with regard to the 5th, 6th, and 7th books.  The first four books were released in 1982, 1987, 1991, and 1997.  The last three books were released in 2003, 2004, and then again in the 2004.  George RR Martin, eat your heart out.  They were released in quick succession after Stephen King got hit by a van while walking on June 19th, 1999.  This is why the number 19 keep popping up in these last three books.  These last three feel different they feel unified they feel like they were written in quick succession.

It’s not fair to compare these Dark Tower Apples to the Song of Ice & Fire Oranges.  Because the last three books benefit greatly from a cascading series of Deus Ex Machinas so rapid you almost lose sight of them.  And they’re completely intentional, in the universe, The Writer, Stephen Goddamned King, is literally writing them in a way to help the characters.

There’s a saying I heard in the last few months about writing adventures for D&D.  When you don’t know what to write for the players’ next adventure, rip off the Seven Samurai.  Sure enough, Book Five, Wolves of the Calla, is in very large part a kind of easing back into these characters and the universe through a Kurosawa ripoff.

Book Six is the one I thought I hated the most, although going back through the series I’m now not sure that’s the case.  What I can say is that you can sum up Song of Susannah in about a page or two and then safely ignore it in the scheme of the larger plot.  It is very much prep work for the last book which is almost double the length of the sixth book.

I think the seventh book is the best one.  The gloves are off.  With its opening scenes of Father Callahan and Jake charging into the Dixie Pig and Mia/Susannah giving birth to Mordred, these scenes communicate that This Is The Last Book.  I like the kind of bleakness to it as the Ka-Tet is slowly whittled down to Roland and a deus ex machina character who are the only ones left to confront the Crimson King outside the Dark Tower.  There’s a weight to the last book, not literal (although it is the longest book of the series) but emotional that fills every section.

You also get a sense of how the story changes over the time it was written.  There are no references to The Beam until the 3rd book.  There are no references to the Crimson King until the 4th book (someone fact check this).  The 1st book underwent rewrites to bring it in line with the last three books, one of these edits includes putting in a reference to the Crimson King.  Even Roland’s final moments of the first book are put in a different context.  In the rest of the books, it’s said that Roland sleeps for ten years on that beach to find Walter dead.  Really Walter just puts his black robe on a skeleton.  The Calla folk in the 5th book have a very distinct way of speaking that is mimicked by all of the other characters in the book from that book on, even the non-calla people.

It’s only in trying to summarize the entire story do you get a sense of the Deus Ex Machinas that run things and would eventually come to be very intentional and 4th Wall Breaking.  The first book introduces Roland and sets up his Western/Fantasy/Post-Apocalyptic world.   The second book introduces our other main characters.  Why are they there?  Because destiny says they have to be.  The third book gives us our main story and more worldbuilding.  We have to get to the Dark Tower to fix the world.  Also here’s a Giant Bear Robot, it’s thousands of years old, and it’s falling apart.  So is everything else in this world.  Book 4 could be considered an aside but it’s such a damn good story with Young Roland.  Book 5 is about Stephen King getting back into the swing of things.  They walk right into this plot also about Ancient Robots and magical artifacts are laid square across their path.  Book 6 is setup for the endgame.  The characters all split up and have adventures across space and time.  They meet Stephen King and convince him he has to finish the story.  And book 7 is that endgame.  Once again the plot lies square in the path of our heroes.  They reunite and take the fight to their enemy.  One by one they are whittled down until only Roland remains.  Finally the story ends.  By now the ending might’ve entered into pop culture osmosis.  People have Opinions about it.

If you have however long it takes you to read/listen to seven Song of Ice and Fire size books I would recommend you give Dark Tower a chance.  The 4th book is the most accessible yet I have a hard time telling you, “please consume almost half this series, it gets really good like 60 hours in.”  I think if you enjoy the first book you can soldier through the next two.

I would recommend you try to read the books before watching The Movie with Idris Elba.  I enjoyed the movie but I can’t defend it at all.  There’s a new series coming out on Amazon, based on one of the actors maybe being a character from the 4th book and the IMDB summary it sounds like it focuses on “young” Roland which was the basis of the comic books they made on the Dark Tower.  We’ll see how it goes but I’ll mark out for it.

Long days and pleasant nights.

Dark Sun: The Vault of Darom Madar

I wrote in a previous post that I’d like to prep a series of “backpocket” adventures for days when my home group is unavailable.  Get some published adventures, prep them, then put them on a flash drive for a rainy day.  Since we’re always doing Forgotten Realms, I figured go for Eberron, Dark Sun, and Planescape.  Dark Sun is toughest of these three to find a low level one-ish shot adventure for.  There are two adventures for 2nd Edition D&D, “Freedom” and “A Little Knowledge.”  But both of them begin and heavily lean into the PCs starting as slaves.  While that’s normal for the Sandals and Sorcery atmosphere of Dark Sun it’s not really something I want to bring to my a table without consent from the PCs.  It could be cut from “A Little Knowledge” but I don’t really like that adventure.  It’s a confusing mishmash of vignettes that don’t really work together.

More suited to my objective is “Vault of Darom Madar,” an adventure from Dungeon Magazine for 4th edition D&D.  It is technically a sequel to “Sand Raiders,” a short set of encounters not really an adventure from the 4E Dark Sun Campaign Setting.  It’s a series of three combat encounters as the PCs trek out into the desert to find a lost wagon and captured drivers.  Not really any plot to speak to beyond those bare bones.

Vault of Darom Madar has a backstory but it’s thin.  Two ancient trading houses, Madar and Tsalaxa, fought for wealth and power.  Tsalaxa, being the evil house, hired assassins to wipe out the Madar family.  Prior to this, the Madar hid all their wealth in a secret Vault.  Go, there’s your adventure.

Your hook here is, again, thin.  Your patron could be literally any NPC.  In the adventure it’s a dwarf trader from one of the city states.  He heard a rumor that this ancient vault lies within a canyon near another city-state.  In exchange for the PCs doing all the work they get to keep a portion of the treasure.

This adventure features what I think are the notorious Travel Skill Challenges that Dark Sun featured in all its 4th edition adventures.  This one is better than I remember.  I remember 4E Skill Challenges being, “This requires Persuasion, the person with extremely high persuasion rolls 6 times while everyone else does nothing.”  This one isn’t like that.  You need to use 3 specific skills, Endurance, Perception, and Stealth, you need to use them all at least once, player’s choice on which you don’t use.  I think this would work to convert to 5E because the benefits and costs are very clear cut.

One thing I might change is that if you fail with Stealth you get a combat encounter.  In a system that uses combat to determine XP, this is a reward for failure.  In a system that doesn’t, you’re taking away the player’s D&D time for failure which seems overly punitive.  I think this was a bigger problem in 4E when a combat encounter never seemed to take less than 30 minutes.

After this skill challenge there are supposed to be two fights in a row.  One is a throwaway fight against some bandits which you can collect a bounty for.  The other is a fight against Tsalaxa assassins, the first of their several attempts to slay the PCs.  You’d probably want to cut these since they really don’t have much to do with the adventure.  This is kind of how 4E rolled.  Many fights.

The PCs first stop of the adventure is Silver Spring Oasis.  In addition to being a necessary stop for supplies your patron also believes the Elf Chieftain here can give directions to this canyon.  Fortunately, at the start of the adventure the PCs are given a message to deliver to him which they can try to decipher.  If the PCs don’t decipher the message, correctly or not, the expectation is that they have to bribe their way to see him.  Why is their patron, the Professional Trader, not bribing his way in to see this elf chieftain.  It makes sense that the PCs are expected to do all the fighting but the trade captain ought to be negotiating right?  I would write this that the Trade Captain has a feud with the elves that they “forgot” to mention previously.  There is little risk of failure here.  If the PCs fail the Elf Chieftain still tells them where this canyon is.  If they succeed he still tells them but they get some additional benefits.

After the Oasis the PCs come to The Canyon.  This is another skill challenge, the third of this adventure so far.  This one is series of “Group Checks.”  Each failure is meant to symbolize another day of fruitless searching.  The PCs stand a real chance of failure here but the penalty is “you don’t find anything, there is no adventure.”  But what’s the better way to right this? An extremely deadly combat encounter and if you beat THAT you find the tomb?  How do you make “find the ancient ruin” a better adventure when the obvious possibility of failure is “you don’t find the ancient ruin.”  What I might do is take one of those combat encounters from the start of the adventure and put them in here.  You find the ancient ruin but you ain’t the first to find it.

So let’s assume the PCs find the tomb for the sake of argument.  This place is undead central because the final battle between houses Tsalaxa and Madar claimed all involved.  They came back, as one might expect.  Two fights follow with these undead followed by yet another Skill Challenge to open the door to the final chamber.  This is the kind of skill challenge where your most skilled player can just slap down the d20 requiring 12 successes before 3 failures.  Other skills can undo failed checks.  If the PCs fail, the door locks for one day. Final encounter is a fight against the most powerful tomb guardian of all.  One thing I like about this adventure and the last one is that they both take into account that the PCs might just kill their patron and keep all the treasure for themselves.  On exit the PCs are once again attacked by assassins.

Next step is to get the loot back to civilization.  The adventure has a mechanic to determine how the random background NPCs on the caravan get killed in the background.  The adventure expects you to have at least two fights here.  The PCs either do or don’t and that’s the end of the adventure.  The adventure has some good hooks for followup as the PCs have made an enemy of this trading house or maybe someone from this family whose ancestral tomb they robbed comes forward.

This adventure bears the hallmark of 4E, way way way too much combat with too little point.  The plot is pretty straightforward, the PCs find a tomb, they loot it.  I remember thinking this adventure had a ton of RP back when it first came out and it does for 4E.  It relies heavily on skill challenges which are pretty well done here.  There are too many plot bottlenecks here but I like how the adventure acknowledges they exist.  The adventure has at least something approaching a plan if the PCs fail.  That plan is rough on them but it’s something.

Of the adventures I’ve read so far this one would be the hardest to convert.  5E doesn’t really have this much combat at low levels.  This is a level 1 adventure and in 5E no fight at level 1 is ever too easy.  This adventure also gives out a shitload of magic items which are much rarer and less powerful at low levels in 5E.  The pacing of everything is just different.  It would probably be a better use of time to reskin a different low level 5E adventure like “The Black Road” to Dark Sun rather than make this work.  I remember this being a great adventure in 4E but it’s just too different from 5E beyond the broadest of strokes.

Planescape: Well of the Worlds, To Baator and Back

One thing I want to do is adapt some adventures from other campaign settings.  This way if my home game has a night where the DM can’t make it the group can see some of the other campaign settings outside the Forgotten Realms.  I decided I would find some low level adventures from Eberron, Dark Sun, and Planescape, and work from there.  Eberron’s the easiest.  Closest to traditional fantasy and I know the adventures well already.  I figured if we ever try it I’d start with the Forgotten Forge although Curtain Call is pretty damn good.  Dark Sun is tougher to adapt because the adventures are higher level. Two lower level adventures,  “Freedom” and “A Little Knowledge” aren’t great, they’re messy.  There is a Dark Sun adventure I liked for 4E called the Vault of Darom Madar but because it’s 4E there are a lot of fights.  I think it would take the most work to adapt into 5E.

For Planescape I wanted to do something different and find an adventure that doesn’t start in the setting proper.  And as luck would have it, there is a set of adventures called “Well of the Worlds.”  It has ten adventures in it and the first of them assumes your characters are not setting natives.  This makes it the perfect starting point.  Planescape is a little harder to get a handle on than Eberron or Dark Sun.  Eberron has a fusion of post war, noir, punk, magitech, and pulp influences but it is still D&D Fantasy at its core.  Dark Sun is the easiest to explain to someone else if not adapt: post-apocalyptic sandals and sorcery.  Planescape is different though.  It reminds me of an episodic TV show like Star Trek.  Nothing is too weird, any kind of situation can be written into the story.  You can go to hell, have traditional D&D fantasy adventures, chat with angels, debate philosophy, and anything can be a portal to anywhere.

The first adventure in Well of the Worlds is “To Baator and Back.”  The PCs go from their traditional fantasy setting through a portal into Baator.  Which is the Nine Hells of the D&D setting.  Specifically they’re in Avernus, the first level of Hell.  You may be familiar with this from the currently recent announcement for D&D’s next hardcover adventure, “Descent Into Avernus,” which is being promoted as a Mad Max style romp through Hell that includes Baldur’s Gate for some reason.

The synopsis is straightforward, the PCs accidentally stumble into Hell.  They encounter strange and evil things as they make their way to a portal out of Hell.  They leave Hell and enter Sigil, the City of Doors.  Welcome to Planescape!

When you get to the specifics this is a cool adventure.  It makes Planar travel accessible to the average Level 2 scrub adventurer.  It has a few points where the PCs need to make a certain choice or they will die, obviously a DM wants to change those.  It also is a bit weird combat wise.  Yes there is combat but I get the sense reading it that the story is pulling its punches.  This a low-level adventure.  Unless the PCs make a dumb choice, the fights are all against low-level threats.  But there are clearly much much MUCH more powerful foes all around them that they have no chance of touching.  You can feel the authors thumb on the scales that the PCs just happened to come to Hell on a day when everyone was busy.  The entire point of Planescape was to make the Planes accessible to adventurers  It’s not accessible if you show up, take 1d6 damage per round from fire, and then a Pit Fiend shows up and kills you.  A 5E caster doesn’t get Plane Shift until 13th level.  The Point of Planescape is to make all this real estate in the universe someplace lowly adventurers can visit.  By necessity that means the adventures must be less combat focused.

The adventure points this out a few times.  The PCs are basically creeping around praying not to be noticed.  If the PCs try to start shit, then the Devils will finish it.  If PCs forget their place in the grand scheme of things and act stupidly or draw attention to themselves they should die.  That can be a hard message to get across to PCs “in game” and it isn’t a tone you want to keep in an adventure all the time.  It’s a hard line to walk between a tense situation where mistakes cause character death and a fun game where the PCs get to feel like heroes.  It’s the essence of a railroad.  The premise of this adventure is you have railroaded the PCs into Hell.  They want to get out and there’s one path to achieve that objective but there are choices to make as they play through the encounters.

All right let’s get into the specifics of this adventure.  Like many Planescape Adventures there is a lengthy bit of backstory with a good conversational tone.  There is also a good summary of the adventure.  I wish it was just the more concise and specific summary with a focus what the characters will experience.  It’s charming but tough to remember on first read.  The text wants to steep you in the unique idioms and phrases of Planescape, the famous “planar cant.”

Because this adventure is about getting characters into Planescape it starts in some random small town.  There’s a rumor about an abandoned Wizard’s house, maybe someone went missing, maybe there are strange noises coming from the place.  The Text is nonchalant on this point.  The adventure is in that house. If your players don’t want to go there there’s no adventure.  There’s a random fight with an owlbear that goes nowhere so probably cut that.  Maybe it belonged to the wizard and got loose after his death?

The Abandoned House has a great map.  If you ever need a house map, this is a good one.  But there’s nothing in the house.  This is a scene to build tension.  You don’t want to keep telling the PCs “You find nothing” for 6 rooms.  There is a green slime in the kitchen.  There are some potions to find which hints that maybe the scavengers who’ve been over this house haven’t found everything.  Then in the Bedroom the drama strikes.  The PCs get attacked by Lemures, the absolute weakest of weak devils.

The portal to Hell is in a secret room somewhere in the house that obviously needs to be not too secret.  The trick here is that the dangerous magic circle in the center of the room is not the portal, the entire room is the portal.  I would like to have something here to draw the PCs to this room, maybe like an Apprentice Wizard or one of the Lemures to draw them here.  The point here is that the PCs should treat the magic circle like the danger not knowing that just entering the room is the danger.

There’s some backstory here that the PCs don’t have access to.  The Lemures were drawn to this house for its powerful planar energy but don’t want to go back to Hell.  And the magic circle in the basement is what is keeping the portal open.  So theoretically anyone who enters the room gets transported.  Meaning it is entirely possible in the story that one player enters the room, disappears, and the party abandons them to their fate.  I almost want to play this like Wizard of Oz where the entire house is suddenly moved.  I think the aesthetic you want to get across to your players is definitely Wizard of Oz.

Now your PCs are in Hell.

The next encounter happens immediately upon being transported.  The PCs are still in the room but now there is a Spined Devil there.  These are low CR monsters that fly and shoot with their spikes.  This Devil freaks out, smacks their head on the wall, and throws itself at the PCs feet.  This is a comic encounter but the danger is real.  The text here is sharp and gives the Devil a motivation.  This is not just potential interrogation time, this Devil really wants to get out of here to warn their superiors.  It’s only job is to watch this portal and it was bored.  Now it sees a chance for advancement.  Your goal here is to provide the PCs flavor of where they are, what’s going on, and what to do next.  The next step for the PCs is to visit the local witch who might know how to escape Hell.  The text says the Devil doesn’t offer this information unless directly asked but this is your goal for the scene.  Otherwise the adventure stops here.

I think the highlight of this adventure might be this moment where the PCs step out of the basement.  They entered through a house.  Now they step out onto a literal hellscape.  You want that “not in Kansas” feel.  The next scene is supposed to be flavor as the PCs make their way from the portal to this witch’s shack.  One important thing is that the PCs are supposed to cross a literal river of blood here.  This is supposed to foreshadow a second crossing later in the adventure.

Like the Spined Devil, the Witch encounter starts as Combat and then moves to being a Social Encounter.  She comes out of her shack swinging a mace, throwing holy water, and casting Web.  She calms down a bit when she realizes the PCs aren’t devils although she does hit them with a Gem of Seeing.  This is another good encounter.  The PCs should be asking themselves why would this random half-elf be living in Hell.  The entire thing screams Hag but she’s really not, she’s just an evil woman who spies for the forces of evil.  There are two things a DM needs to get across in this encounter.  Number 1, the next stop in this tour of Hell.  Number 2, something called a spell key.  The idea is that magic doesn’t work right unless you have a spell key.  This is tricky because this concept doesn’t exist in 5E.  It is in the original 2E campaign setting.  On different planes, magic works differently.  On a plane of water, you can’t use fire spells as effectively.  Healing doesn’t work on the plane of negative energy.  For Hell, this is the plane of Lawful Evil.  So “wild magic” doesn’t work.  I don’t know exactly what this meant in 2E.  In 5E terms it would seem to refer specifically to the Wild Magic Subclass of the Sorcerer.  I think you would want to adapt this so it is relevant to SOMEONE in your group, even if you don’t have a wild sorcerer.

The reason you might want to give them the spell key even if they don’t ask is because it is relevant to point #1, the next scene.  After a hike through more hellscape you arrive to “The Pillar of Skulls.”  This is similar to something you might’ve seen in the film, “What Dreams May Come.”  It is literally a giant column of various heads.  This is very weird and thematic.  I dig it.  This is a great encounter.  A bunch of heads shouting over each other.  The various heads will give different qualities of advice for different advice.  There is one head that is giving advice that is completely wrong.  The adventure is silent on what happens if the PCs follow this advice.  I guess they just die or have to walk away and come back?  You probably don’t want to emphasize this one but I wish they’d included some idea as far as what to do.  One thing the adventure does note is that if the PCs attack the pillar it attracts attention of nearby fiends.  This would be bad for level 2 pcs.

From here the adventure goes a bit confusing.  The PCs have the potential to learn from the pillar what they need to escape Hell.  There is a portal a ways away.  In order to activate it they need to have A Brick from the Great Avernus Road.  Again more Wizard of Oz vibes.  However the path there is fraught with peril.  First, they have to cross the River of Blood again.  The first time they crossed the blood was ankle deep.  This time it is waist deep and the River is twice as long.  And it’s full of vampiric worms.  I think reskinning Stirges would be the best course here.

This next part is where it gets weird.  The PCs encounter the Fortress of Bel, who controls Avernus (this is before Zariel, who enters the canon in 2006).  They must sneak around the Hell Fortress and wait several hours for the Armies of Hell to march out.  That sentence is doing a lot of work.  This could be an entire campaign and I half expect that is the entirety of Descent into Avernus.  Here it is a lot of description and nothing else.  No specific skills or tactics are called out.  The PCs are expected to realize they should sneak around the fortress and wait for the literal Army of Hell to roll out.  This would be a good chance for the PCs to have a long rest.  You should not even request a skill check here because the result of any failure is death.  This entire bit is a cutscene.

When the Army of Hell leaves the PCs can get to the road to claim a brick to open the portal out of Hell.  But when they do that, 50 flying devils come out of the fortress to chase them.  Why does the adventure bother including stats?  The PCs cannot win this.  What follows is a chase to the portal.  I’m on record as hating the chase rules.  Dash and roll to not die. *jerk off motion*  There’s no opportunity for smart play here, either you roll and succeed or you roll and fail.  But you gotta sell it to the PCs.

After this scene you come to the end boss.  The Portal Out of Hell.  Here waits the devil (not The Devil) who discovered the wizard’s portal and has been waiting with the patience of an immortal for someone to come through.  Like the rest of the adventure this is not a combat encounter, at least not right away.  The devil offers to allow the PCs through the portal if they do him a favor.  The devil (lower case d) wants the PCs to carry a mysterious ass orb through the portal.  The devil threatens and cajoles the PCs if they refuse.  While the devil hints that the horde chasing the PCs will kill them if they refuse this is a lie.  If they refuse then they have to fight this one devil.  I don’t know how to read 2E stats so I can’t tell if this devil is supposed to be a badass capable of wiping the floor with the party.  What I can say is that it is worth about the same XP as the Spined Devil which in 5E is a CR 2 monster.  But it’s worth seven times more than the earlier witch who is a level 7 wizard.  Go figure.  I’d say this cat should be a CR 4-6 for a level 2 party.  Fighting him should be a bad idea but not completely impossible.

Problem with this devil’s plan is that its bullshit either way.  The backstory is that this orb will make it possible for the Forces of Hell to attack Sigil but it doesn’t work.  The orb crumbles when the PCs step through the portal and the devil horde descends on their leader.  The PCs don’t really have any way of knowing this in the text.  This kind of falls flat if the PCs say yes.  There should be a cost of some kind but I’m not sure what.

That’s it that’s the adventure.  When the PCs step through the portal they’re in the bustling city of Sigil free to pursue their own course.  They’re not home but they are in Planescape.  The epilogue points out that by this point the PCs are likely covered from head to toe in dirt and blood which is an unusual sight in a Sigil marketplace.  I would end this adventure end by having a passerby offer them some money for the genuine River of Blood blood on their clothes.  The epilogue also points out that any of the NPC devils in this adventure could come back as bigger threats later.

My limited experience with Planescape adventures has told me that they are weird.  I’m not just talking about encounters with squirrel people, trips to Hell, or ancient chalices that poison only the Good.  The adventures are written more like novels.  When I turn to the middle of a book like Dragon Heist I get tight declarative sentences about what’s in the room.

Here’s what the middle in Well of the Worlds looks like

Notice that Dragon Heist (levels 1-5) calls for the Level 9 spell Greater Restoration to cure an NPC which is a personal peeve of mine.  The content of a Planescape adventure is just bizarre.  I’m not complaining too hard, after years of Forgotten Realms I love some bizarre.  But it does take some time and effort read and get used to.  You have to break through the prose to understand, yes, this is a pillar of heads, make insight checks to determine which one is telling you the truth.  That’s the first adventure in this book and it’s a good one.  I would definitely support this campaign setting if it was brought back with modern content.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

If this had been released after the 2014 Godzilla movie I likely would’ve passed on this one.  But Skull Island was quite possibly my favorite movie the year of its release.  King of the Monsters is nowhere near the magic of Skull Island but I was still entertained through it.  It’s an excuse to throw millions in CGI up on screen and it looks good.  Dragons still have some appeal when combined with a story that doesn’t hate its fans.

If you liked Godzilla (2014) you’ll like this.  If you hated Godzilla (2014) and loved Skull Island you might like this.  This really for me defines the “turn off your brain” genre of movie.  It’s not actively offensive like the Transformers series.  No one in it has been accused of spousal abuse that I can think of like Harry Potter.  It’s good clean harmless fun.  It lacks the kind of overriding cautionary tale of Original Godzilla but it remains fun.

I’m going to try to sum up the plot in as short a time as possible.

Vera Farmiga and Tywin Lannister want to enact one of those Thanos/Crazy Robot plans of killing a lot of people so that the survivors can start over.  Their plan is to unleash the world’s Kaiju monsters.  People who oppose this help Godzilla to stop them.  They succeed, setting the stage for Godzilla vs. Kong.

Other than the two Big Gs, Rodan and Mothra are the two other monsters in the movie.  Mothra was used very sparingly in this movie.  It seems like it has some kind of vague healing powers that never get described.  Like Godzilla in the 2014 movie, it always feels special when Mothra shows up.  Rodan shows up a couple times, I have no complaints or high praise.

This movie begs the question, What The Fuck Are Monarch’s Resources?  In Skull Island they were begging Senator Richard Jenkins for funding.  In the last movie they seemed to have two people to tag along with the US military.  In this movie they’ve got dozens of facilities all around the world, including huge underwater bases and a SHIELD style flying fortress.  But they also seem to be working hand in hand with the US military.  Did they hit the lottery after Skull Island?  Did they invest in Apple?

So the terrorists wake up Ghidorah who can control all the other Kaiju.  These things start going apeshit all over the world.  They only show a few monsters.  They don’t show the two I most wanted to see who are codenamed “Tiamat” and “Baphomet.”  It’s possible that the Big Spider, 3rd MUTO, or Big Mammoth are one or both of those but I can’t tell.

The military tries a new missile out which only succeeds in knocking out Godzilla.  Somehow the humans know that a nuclear bomb will heal Godzilla so they go to him in a submarine.  There’s a hard edit somewhere here because the submarine is damaged offscreen.  This is critical to the plot because it requires Ken Watanabe to sacrifice himself to detonate the nuke.  Godzilla and Ghidorah both head off to Boston where Eleven has some kind of signal to attract them.  This is a better explanation than the wishy washy geography that got the monsters to San Francisco last time.

It turns out the nuke gives Godzilla a limit break or something because the humans realize that Godzilla is going to explode.  This concerned me because Ken Watanabe just sacrificed himself to save Godzilla I thought.  It turns out this explosion is more like an AOE effect rather than covering Boston with chunks of Godzilla.  This and some kind of vague Blessing of Mothra allows Godzilla to triumph and the other Kaiju all bow to Godzilla.

SOMETHING I THOUGHT IN THE THEATER AND I FORGOT!  Towards the end of the movie the two parents roll up to their house in Boston to find Eleven.  The house is rubble and they find her in the bathtub unconscious.  This is how War of the Worlds should have ended.  Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning roll up to their house in Boston.  It’s a sunny day, and his ex-wife and son who somehow survived walk out of the house, Big Group Hug, roll credits.  The house should’ve been gone, everyone dead.  Roll Credits.

Thjs movie sets the stage for the inevitable Kong vs. Godzilla Sequel.  I think it might be a rental next time unless it gets hella good reviews.

Dragon Age Recap

In addition to my long ass post speculating on where to take my Dragon Age campaign I thought people might also be curious about where we’ve been up to this point.  Here is an abbreviated campaign recap.  I wrote this a while ago so there is some overlap with the last post.

Near the start of the campaign, the Party met an Antivan Mage in the Fade. Our Avvar Mage immediately fell in love with him.  This Antivan asked them to check out a location in Ferelden.  There they found a Tevinter temple and a tome called The Will and Testament of Archmagister Tenebrious.

Unfortunately the place was corrupted by a powerful Remorse Demon who they talked down to peace.  The Avvar Mage also learned Dream Sending because fun.  They then ran afoul of some Templars in a nearby small town when they sought to prevent a young boy from being sent to the Circle.  Seeing no possibility of long-term repercussions for causing several templars to fail in their duty they lured two templars away and slew a third before skipping town.

While the party was eventually bound for Antiva City they detoured to the Frostbacks to visit the Avvar clanholds.  They found themselves caught in a small war between the outnumbered Stone-Bears and the Laughing-Wolves who were led by The Grey Witch, an Avvar Grey Warden Mage serving some strange master seeking to Taint as many clans as possible.  She had some kind of strange sending stone that a deep voice spoke through.  Seeing no possibility of long-term repercussion, they pocketed it and went on their way.

After the party intervened on behalf of the Stone-Bears they encountered a Sneaky Witch Thief with her half-dwarf son in the mountains who offered them passage to Antiva through some sort of bizarre magic mirror in exchange for a night with their Tevinter tome before giving it back.  Seeing no possibility of long-term repercussions, they accepted the bargain.

They walked through the mirror into some kind of alternate dimension and followed the path.  Along the way they encountered skeletons, a demon of some sort, and a trio of Qunari scouts who were the first of their kind to travel this strange place.  They also met a friendly Elf Mage in a large sarcophagus who joined the party when someone new wanted to join the table.

They emerged in a very quiet grove and found they were in Antiva and made their way to Antiva City proper.  The city is in some turmoil as random people are turning into abominations and some kind of assassin is being blamed.  The party believes this is connected to some rogue agent they assume to be dashingly handsome working their way through the Antivan Crows as the victims so far have been a poisonmaker and the 2nd Talon’s daughter.

The party also fell in with an Alienage Lady who owns a humble tea shop looking to stick it to the nobility of the city.  During a robbery of a corrupt toll collector our Noble Orlesian Warrior Lady was arrested.  She was quickly released but informed that she has been betrothed to an Antivan nobleman named Laurien Montilyet.  Our Avvar Mage secured some forged documents and got into the local Circle where he found that the Antivan Mage who had not Dream Sent to him in weeks has been made Tranquil.

It turns out that when the Avvar used the Dream Sending spell he learned from the Remorse Demon this was not perhaps the best idea.  That, combined with his Antivan Mage friend’s research into unlocking magical potential caused the Circle to make him Tranquil.  And whatever spell is forcing people to become abominations may’ve been stolen from the Antivan’s quarters.  It was all the player’s fault.

The Avvar lost his composure at this and his bound Spirit of Love overcame his self-discipline causing his Antivan Mage Friend to tell him to seek him out in the Fade before Tranquility re-asserted itself but watch out for that Remorse Demon.  The PCs also found out that an agent from Val Royeaux is coming to take possession of the Tranquil and also take his research into spirits into her right hand for some project the Divine is adamant about pursuing.

After this the PCs went about foiled the murders in Antiva City and breaking the Antivan Mage out of the Circle.

Dragon Age: Season Finale and the Way Forward

Lotta people interested in me taking a walk to think about my Dragon Age game.  Thanks @slyflourish!

Dragon AGE has largely supplanted D&D as my primary tabletop RPG over the course of the 9 months after my D&D group finished Tomb of Annihilation.  I got into TOA because I was feeling burned out on DMing and nothing like playing to get you in the mood to start running.

Dragon Age is the very popular Bioware fantasy setting franchise using Green Ronin’s AGE system.  It’s very similar to 5E in that everything is an ability check.  I’ve written more on the System before.  It has some drawbacks, I don’t think it’s as elegant as D&D but it’s a refreshing change of pace.

What I’m stuck on right now is the best way to move forward.  Last session was kind of the Season Finale and right now there is a big wide open canvas.  In order to figure that out though I need to explain even to myself how we got here.

This campaign started with me running Curse of Strahd in Dragon Age.  Curse of Strahd is very much my “big high school football game” that I look back on and try to relive but I need to move on to different stories and games.  But that’s how we started, with that campaign and those NPCs.  One NPC in Curse of Strahd is Rudolph Van Richten.  He is the Van Helsing expy.  The Vampire Hunter with the tragic backstory out to destroy evil.  In Curse of Strahd he initially meets the party as a colorful circus performer, Rictavio.  I introduced my version of this NPC as a Colorful Antivan Mage.  Immediately one player was smitten with love for this NPC.  So I knew I was keeping them around.

This NPC’s backstory has filled overtime as the campaign largely became a journey from a small town to a big city to find him.  I eventually gave him a name, Tomas.  This was not quick to develop because I improvise almost everything in every session.  I basically sit down for an hour prior to the session and then write the session.  Tomas didn’t have much of a backstory to start because I didn’t know how important he would be to this PC and more importantly, he wasn’t onstage.

I came up with an idea when I realized that the PCs wanted to go to Antiva City to find Tomas.  This is nerdy DA lore but they met Tomas in The Fade, which kind of like a plane of dreams.  Every piece of Dragon Age fiction has a “fade section” where the characters confront their past, their desires, or their worst nightmares.  I gave the PCs a quest from Tomas.  He learned, in the Fade, that there was an ancient temple somewhere in the world with an Artifact he wanted.  He couldn’t get near the place himself in the Fade, too many demons.  He couldn’t get near the place in real life, too far away.  But he hires the PCs to do it for him.

The Artifact turned out to have two parts.  Firstly, it was a book.  Specifically it was the Testament of Tenebrious, an ancient mage’s book of his forgotten lore.  It was also home to a powerful spirit of remorse, basically an avatar of this mage’s guilt for all the terrible things they did in life.  The party did not want to fight him but they wanted to soothe the spirit’s guilt and they took the book.  Contact with this book corrupted both the PCs and Tomas when they used the power here to learn the DA equivalent of the sending spell.

I’m still not sure what I wanted this book to do or what it meant in the plot.  It was a macguffin reason for the PCs to go find this NPC.

So the PCs keep adventuring and working their way to this NPC.  Eventually they meet a different mage who does three things for them.  1) She gives them a portal that will take them immediately to the city they want to get to.  2) For this service, she wants their book for a night.  3) The PCs had a spirit traveling with them for some reason and she implanted this spirit into this book.  I also had no idea how to pay this off but this really should be a Dungeon World Style Front.

So the PCs make the bargain and use the portal to get to their destination.  Problem #1, when they arrive, the NPC has been arrested and is going to get shipped off never to be seen again.  Problem #2, someone is killing people using a magic poison that Tomas actually developed.  Problem #3, even they free Tomas from prison he is possessed by a demon, the same remorseful one they met before.  I came up with kind of a BS reason that Tomas wanted to make more people mages.  In Dragon Age mages are kind like in Harry Potter where you’re either born capable of magic or you’re not.

After the PCs stop the murders they go into The Fade to defeat the demon possessing Tomas.  They do so and at the same time they sort of fuse the demon possessing Tomas with the ghost possessing their book to create a new more helpful NPC, named Atonement, who is finally ready to physically make up for those ancient crimes.  They also find out there is a bigger demon waiting in the wings who tells them, if they free Tomas from prison, many more people are going to die.

Writing this out I can see part of where I went wrong.  I’ve put the cart before the horse and overemphasized these NPCs.  In my partial defense, what I’m trying to figure out here is what quests these NPCs that I’ve come up can offer the PCs that would interest them.  Fortunately I have some great cards to work with here.  Before I go on my walk, let’s review them.

There will be some heavy Dragon Age Lore here so apologies if I throw proper nouns out.  I’ve tried to tone them down up until now.

The PCs

  • Jean Allard – A City Elf Rogue from Val Royeaux, the Paris of the Dragon Age setting. He is on the run after slaying a noble who slew his friend.  Jean’s player is a fairly casual gamer.  He’s in a romance with Mundon, an elf who is sort of their comic relief porter.  He is torn between being afraid to go back home and wanting to go back home to protect his family.  Early on he also found out that the noble he murdered belonged to a house that is involved in illegal slave trading.  That hook fell by the wayside but it is still out there.
  • Myra d’Estremont – The Rebellious Warrior Princess. Myra is from the same country as Jean which is basically France.  She left home rather than be married off to some noble by her overbearing mother.  She also left behind family but feels less conflicted about it.  Unlike Jean, her family has the resources to actively look for her.  In a recent game she was arrested when the PCs got hired to do a robbery and was let out in exchange for being betrothed.  The PCs agreed to run security for this noble’s family in exchange for breaking the betrothal but I’m not sure they’re going to keep faith.
  • Karli Slothisen – The big hearted mage. Karli is a mage from the barbarian mountain tribes, which is traditionally a leadership position among them.  He’s also the de facto leader of the group, a title which he loathes.  But his actions have largely driven the plot the way it’s gone.  He wanted to go find his love Tomas in the big city, he wanted to exorcise the demon possessing him, he wanted to break him out of prison.  The question is what to do now since he’s rescued his romance, Tomas.  The group has a whole is very much on the run from The Church since that’s where they broke Tomas out from.  Karli is the healer of the group and usually prefers talking to NPCs over combat which I’m often (perhaps too often) happy to indulge.
  • Shiralvhenas – The newest player to the group. Shiral is an Ancient Elf, basically this setting has Three Kinds of Elves.  The Elves had their empire long ago but it fell and they were enslaved after that.  Then they were freed and became the wood elves people are most familiar with.  Then they went to war with humanity and lost.  So most of them became the bottom of the social order in big cities and some are still wood elves.  But a very small number of elves from way back when put themselves into a kind of stasis.  Their existence is a big secret in the world.  Shiral doesn’t really have a goal yet.  They woke up and are baffled/horrified by the world.  Shiral was in a romance with Electra who sort of ran the Thieves’ Guild in a city the party visited.  I want to bring Electra back since she was a cool character the party really liked.


Then we have the NPCs

  • Mundon – The Comic Relief. Voice and character based on Dolorous Edd from ASOI&F.  In a romance with Jean.  He was a city elf who ran away to join the wood elves, then he left them to join the party.  His goal is to live and be safe.
  • Tomas – The Voice of DM. Originally based on Rudolph Van Richten, his voice is my Spanish accent.  Love interest of Karli.  I’m not sure what to do with him now.  Originally requested the party bring him this artifact but I’m not sure what to do with it.  My first idea was that he wanted to use its knowledge to make more people into mages.  He had a son who died which drove him to research The Fade, where it’s said the souls of the dead reside.  I kind of see him as wanting to seek out death whilst fighting evil but he’s not sure where to direct his anger.  One secret about this NPC, as a Mage he can be magically tracked by the Church.
  • Atonement – A spirit of Wisdom fused with a Spirit of Remorse. This ghost takes the form of an ancient wizard and seeks to undo his wrongs.
  • Electra – Ran the elven thieves’ guild back in the big city. Also a member of the Red Jennies, a sort of world spanning alliance devoted to helping the downtrodden and striking back against the powerful.  She is in a romance with Shiral but the party has left the city and her.  She was trying to earn the elves a place at the table.  She’s torn between being a leader and being a rebel.  I think I’m going to have Shiral make the choice for this NPC.
  • Josephine Montilyet – A skilled diplomat, heir to an old but impoverished house. She sought to marry Myra to her brother but the party convinced them to break the betrothal. Accepted the party’s promise to serve her instead.  But since the PCs left the city in a hurry after their jailbreak I don’t know if this will happen.
  • Brice – A templar (anti-magic paladin) the party met during their jailbreak of Tomas. The party needed a Templar’s help and persuaded him to come along with their extremely high checks.  This NPC is addicted to a drug and going to run out without more.
  • The Chantry – In Dragon Age this is the equivalent of the Catholic Church. If I had to explain this religion to someone who knew nothing about Dragon Age I would say, “It’s Christianity but if Joan of Arc was Jesus.”  Another feature of this religion is that they have authority over the schools of magic in the setting. Again, what if The Catholic Church ran Hogwarts?  The party has an antagonistic relationship with the Chantry.  In one of their first adventures they decided to break two kids out of their custody who were being sent to Magic School.  In their most recent adventure the PCs broke the Mage Tomas out from their custody.  This was not a stealth operation, the PCs attracted the attention of several paladins and ended the adventure running for their ship.  The party’s defiance of the Chantry has attracted the attention of the Seekers of Truth, the Gray Guards/Secret Police of the church.  These guys are coming after the party and most likely the party is going to need to earn a pardon before they get stomped into the ground.
  • Dwarven Merchants Guild – Represented by the famous Varric Tethras, the Dwarven Merchants Guild sold the party magic drugs to exorcise Tomas and gave them a ship to get in and out of the Magic prison. They ostensibly did this for a magic sword, money from Electra, and favors to be named later.  I needed a plausible way for the PCs to get in and out of the prison and this faction supplied it.  The PCs are in debt to them but I haven’t given them an inkling of how far in debt they are because it’s largely a background plot function.  Plus Varric is a fun NPC.
  • Obella – This NPC is an assassin who belongs to the fascist culture known as the Qunari. She was The Killer in the big city, seeking to destabilize things to make things ripe for an attack on the city.  The PCs stopped her and managed to negotiate a truce, convincing her that the attack would be unsuccessful and refusing to help her make it work.  She ran off but she’s still out there.
  • Imshael – A demon the PCs met in The Fade. It feeds off people making evil decisions.  The PCs disrupted his first feeding ground and so he moved on to torturing people in the big city, running an army of lesser demons.  When the PCs came to exorcise Tomas’s demon, Imshael told them how to do it.  But it warned them that if they chose to do this, knowledge of it would spread and many would die.  This might be a Campaign Big Bad.
  • Morrigan – Another prominent NPC from the canon. I think there has to be some kind of revelation from Atonement going back to the knowledge the PCs gave her to create a race against the clock but I don’t want to pull that trigger yet because the PCs will jump at this shit.  I’m not sure what it should be.
  • Isabela – Isabela is a canon NPC from the games who I spontaneously decided to be the one providing the ship helping the PCs with their jailbreak. Honestly I kind of regret putting her in because there’s no reason that boat has to be Her Boat.  She is very similar to Electra.  I foresee she will be one of Myra’s many short-lived romances.

I’m blessed to have an embarrassment of riches to work with here.  I need not search for targets, only offer them up to the PCs and see which hooks they bite.

Avengers: Endgame

Like the rest of humanity apparently I went and saw Endgame this weekend.

It was ok.  All these movies good to some extent.  Even the ones people like less aren’t bad.  For these movies this was fine.

I was initially hostile towards Infinity War because you knew they were going to undo it.  Black Panther had literally just made All The Money in the world.  But it grew on me over time.  It’s rewatchable and its different.  It is the Empire Strikes Back of Marvel Movies.  It has real weight to it and again they finally got a villain right by figuring out you need to give them screentime.

I knew serious film people would like the first act of Endgame which is essentially wallowing in misery.  The second act was the most interesting to me, predictable but I thought it was clever.  Then the last act is a bit of a CGI fuckfest with a lot of group shots.

I was surprised that I really didn’t care for the end battle in this one.  I complained about the Big Battle in Civil War being stupid and it was.  But it was well made and fun as hell to watch.  This one wasn’t nearly as interesting and I’m not sure why.  I know in part it’s because there’s so much kind of sadness surrounding this movie.  There are jokes but I can’t remember any of them.  There aren’t so many memorable one-liners or giffable moments.  It’s a bad way to judge a movie but there it is.

Endgame and Infinity Wars have a very specific thing in common.  They have scenes in their trailers that aren’t in the movie.  And they’re intentionally not in the movie, they’re in the trailer to trick you.  Infinity War has the scenes where Thanos shows off the Purple and Blue stones when at those points in the movie he has more.  And the big hero running scene shows the Hulk when he’s not in that movie in his big green form.  In Ragnarok, the Mjolnir destruction scene takes place in a field, in the trailer it’s an alley. Endgame has the scene with Black Widow shooting and doing a fast reload.  That scene is there to trick you so it’s a shock when she dies.  Personally, this just takes me out of the movie.  I’m thinking, oh, they lied to me in the trailer, at that moment I’m thinking of the trailer and not the scene I’m watching at that moment.

This movie doesn’t have an after-credits scene.  There is the sound of a hammer and anvil at the final Marvel logo but that’s it.  The only loose end in the plot is Loki escapes while gagged, it has to be that right?  It would be great if we didn’t do post credit scenes anymore so long as they tell us they’re doing that.  Kevin Feige should come out and say, “No more post credit scenes guys.”

I liked that this movie undid the Peter Quill/Gamora romance.  We ended Guardians 2 with the two of them very specifically not in a relationship.  And as Lindsay Ellis explained in awesome depth, they should not be in a relationship.  Then Infinity War comes out and they’re in a relationship at the start of the movie.  And they did this because they knew they would kill her and then bring back a pre-romance version of the character.

One problem with this movie is Captain Marvel.  I saw Captain Marvel a couple weeks ago and I really liked it.  More than I liked Endgame.  And she was very marketed as being a part of Endgame.  But watching Endgame its clear the writers didn’t want her or didn’t know what to do with her.  Much like JJ Abrams passing Snoke to Rian Johnson, the Russo Bros just did not have a plan for Captain Marvel.  She’s in the first five minutes and the last five minutes.  Yeah she comes back and kicks a lot of ass but she’s gone 90% of the three hour movie.  I found myself asking every 45 minutes, “where’s Captain Marvel?”  It reminds me a lot of Vision who disappears during Ultron and Civil War when it would be inconvenient to have his overpoweredness in the scene.

They did a Girl Power charge in this movie similar to the last one where all the female characters are suddenly fighting together.  It was gimmicky 30 second scene in Infinity War, in Endgame it’s a little more implausible because like 10 characters have to find each other on this giant battlefield.  If this does something for you I wouldn’t wanna yuck your yum.

I guess that’s all I have to say.  It was fine.  In hindsight Infinity War was very good, Ultron was kind of shit.  This one walks a middle path.  And it provides a satisfactory endpoint for the original heroes.  Cap and Iron Man are out.  I really hope Valkyrie being made ruler of New Asgard doesn’t mean she’s not going to go on adventures.  I have to believe they want to move on to a less integrated shared universe for a little while so they don’t have to work so hard to tie these together.