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.

Mad Mage – The Bardic Set List

Last session of Mad Mage went a lot better.  We found the stairs which gave us our sixth level milestone then we decided to keep exploring Dungeon Level.  I would be okay not doing that but I’m okay for now.  I didn’t even get to use Extra Attack but I feel better about my character.  6th Level Bard makes me feel good.  Everyone’s schedules are hinky the next month so who knows when we’ll play again but I can suggest to move quickly when we return.  We did not have an above the table conversation about pacing but I got something I wanted so maybe avoid that uncomfortable conversation a bit longer.

Since I’m playing not DMing I feel like I’m in a zoo pacing and trying to find something creative I can do with regard to this campaign.  In an earlier post I wrote about two alternate characters I would like to play, Elhar the Drow “Ranger” and None the Warforged War Cleric.

My attention has now turned to the character I’m actually running.  This is the first time I’ve played a spellcaster for long enough to get good spells.  Like the Sorcerer and Warlock, The Bard chooses a fixed number of spells.  You lack the sheer versatility of the Wizard, Druid, and Cleric but those classes have a pretty firm ceiling on what they can actually prepare.  Bards get up to 4 cantrips and 16 Bard spells along with 6 spells through the Magical Secrets class feature which can be from any class.  The Bard gets two of the Magical Secrets Spells at 10th, 14th, and 18th level.  The Lore Bard gets two additional secrets at 6th Level when the Valor Bard gets extra attack.

I’ve been thinking about what choices would be fun to make with this character.  The two parameters for these choices are 1) We are playing Dungeon of the Mad Mage and 2) My role is this party is to be the primary healer.  We do have a druid but they’re a new player and a moon druid and I don’t think they should get stuck with the healer role their first time out.  They can always prepare healing spells as needed.

The Bard gets a new spell at almost every level and each level you can retrain an old spell for a new one.

For 1st level spells I’ve taken Healing Word, Cure Wounds, and Faerie Fire.  These are my workhorse healing spells, gotta take ‘em to be a healer.  I went with Faerie Fire over Dissonant Whispers to get a Dex Save spell over a Wisdom Save.  In addition, granting advantage to hit is, in my opinion, more beneficial to our party.  The Necromancer wants a horde of bow wielding skeletons, the Warlock is Eldritch Blasting, the Moon Druid is attacking and summoning things that attack, the Rogue be Sneak Attacking.  Boosting their attack rolls is better than using their reactions in a fear effect.  I might retrain Faerie Fire at some point but the healing spells will be here to stay.

For 2nd Level spells I took Lesser Restoration as my Healing Must Have.  The rest is a grab bag: Heat Metal, Silence, and Hold Person.  Heat Metal is free damage with no saving throws but no one seems to have metal in this dungeon lately.  I might retrain this as we seem to be hacking our way through monsters rather than weapon wielders.  This is an example of a spell that would probably be more desirable outside of Mad Mage.  Same thing with Hold Person and other “Person Targeted” spells.  I want to keep Silence for the sake of using it against mages.  My vision is, Silence the Mage then charge in an Extra Attack their ass.  I haven’t had a reason to use any of these spells yet though.  I’m thinking about bringing in Blindness or Phantasmal Force to use them against more monstrous foes.

The Bard has a lot of great 3rd level spells.  I took Dispel Magic first for its utility value.  It’s often used as a plot coupon spell in adventures.  But I would like to eventually take Hypnotic Pattern because it is Broken Overpowered and at least one other spell.  Part of me wants to take Major Image for its utility but I think Bestow Curse would be a more powerful choice.  Fear would be a good choice but it’s competing for my Healing spells and I don’t think I’ll take it.  I have Nondetection on my “Maybe” list because we keep seeing Halaster or some other Arcane Eye watching us.  But what am I going to do, burn three third level slots per day so it’s always up?

The 4th level spells are good but they don’t really speak to my role as a healer.  There are better options out there.  I start getting these at 7th Level, we’re 6th Level now.  I think I’d like to take Greater Invisibility first.  This is mostly a sop to the Rogue.  If I can fit it in I’d probably take Polymorph as well.

At Level 9 the must have at 5th Level spell is Greater Restoration.  It’s been used as a plot coupon (poorly) in numerous adventures including Mad Mage.  We’ve already run into a bunch of petrified people and promised to come back for them later.  On my maybe list here I have Geas.  I would like to use it to make an instant companion.  “Fight for us or suffer psychic damage.  I also have Mislead and Seeming on my maybe list.  I’m thinking Mislead because we need a scout.  Mislead creates an illusory double you can see through.  It doesn’t really help with offense though.  Seeming is basically disguise self for the entire party.  We aren’t going to get through this dungeon in a timely fashion if we don’t start skipping fights.  However, at 5th Level, these are expensive spells.  I feel like we can do this more cheaply with other spells. But we may not be able to if we are touting around a party of skeletons and summons and geas’ed conscripts.

At 10th Level the Valor Bard gets Magical Secrets.  You can pick any two spells in the game up to the level you can cast, so up to 5th level.  I’m going to come back to these.  I’ll probably just ask my Local Power Gamer what to take and heed their advice.

6th level spells is where shit starts to get real.  You get one slot at 11th Level and a second slot at 18th Level.  I’m going to take True Seeing because I feel like I have to for Dungeon of the Mad Mage.

For 7th Level spells I’ve heard that Forcecage is one of those game changing broken spells that 5E has.  Like Counterspell, Hypnotic Pattern, and Twin Polymorphed T-Rexes it’s just something everyone takes if they get the option.  It has an expensive material component however in the form of powdered rubies.  I would also like to take Regenerate but I’m not sure I should given the scarcity of slots at this level.  I think I should take it anyways just for the RP value of my Triton regenerating like a starfish.

As keenly observed by Total Party Thrill, 8th level spells in 5E are pretty lackluster.  They’re very situational.  I’m aware from the cover of the book that there are Mind Flayers and Githyanki lower in the Dungeon.  If they become a problem I’d take Mind Blank for the psychic damage immunity and we might want it to foil High Level Divinations but I think I’d rather take something else.

At 17th and 18th level the Bard receives its last slots.  Level 17 unlocks 9th level spells and I think there’s no other way to go here except Foresight.  At 18th level you get two more Magical Secrets spells.

That’s my 16 Bard spells.  Those 2nd level slots are the most likely to get retrained to something situational.  If we hit Drow maybe get someway to cut through magical darkness.  If we hit a water level, well I’m a Triton, I’ll be fine.  I still have to consider my six Magical Secrets.  At 10th, 14th, and 18th level you pick any two spells up to a level you can cast.  Meaning you can take 5th, 7th, and 9th level spells respectively.

Obviously, I want something to bring people back from the dead.  At 10th Level, Revivify would be a good choice, Raise Dead is more powerful but more expensive.  Counterspell might be a must have but I could also get Mass Healing Word, Spirit Guardians, or Circle of Power.  Bards get Mass Healing Word but the other two are cleric spells.  I think outside of a must have like Revivify the rest of these will be determined by our needs and the advise of my friendly local power gamer.

For 14th level secrets I think I should get either Simulacrum or Disintegrate but not both.  Simulacrum is obviously a very powerful choice but I’ve always kind of hated having a companion, hireling, or pet.  I don’t want to take too long on my turn.  I’ve found that the chief effect of the conjure spells is to vex the DM into needing to deal with the new tactical situation of 8 new creatures on the board.  I also hate “gaming” the conjure system where you really want pixies to show up and you have to force the DM to decide if they want to be nice and allow eight creatures to cast polymorph or give you a worse choice.  If I could change one thing about 5E it would be to force all conjure spells to either use a genericon monster stat block for what they produce (Which is no fun) or have a random table for what they produce.  Otherwise players always ask the DM to summon broken monsters.

For 18th level secrets obviously the Granddaddy of them all is Wish.  But, it has serious serious drawbacks that take days to recover from if you don’t use it to replicate another spell.  Depending on how people are feeling it’d be great to take True Polymorph so someone can become a Dragon.  I kind of want to take Anti-Magic field as an Ace in the Hole vs. Halaster.  But this doesn’t have to be a 8th or 9th level spell, it can literally be anything.

I have a bunch of spells I’d like to take that are just not powerful enough compared with other options.  As a Triton I’d love to take Tsunami but I think I can get more mileage out of the other options I’ve considered.  Were I a Lore Bard getting bonus secrets I might take Guidance and Bless but I chose the Valorous Path.  Of course, I’ve also heard that the best form of healing is to slay all of your foes.  I’d really like to take something from the Paladin spell list like a Smite to give me some offensive punch when I’m in the frontline with my weapon and shield.

I still have a good long time before this comes up.

Mad Mage – Dungeon Level

This is part calling myself out and part review of Dungeon of the Mad Mage.  We recently concluded I think our 6th Session and I thought it was time to put words to screen about how I was feeling in order to learn more about myself and get better at running my own games.

There was a version of this post up earlier that I took down. I wanted to make it nicer towards our DM.  He’s doing a great job.  It’s just that the last session contained a kind of perfect storm to drive me insane and I’ve spent far too much time the last week obsessing over it.

Readers of my long dumbass essays will recall that I was not positive on Dragon Heist.  I came away from that book realizing that I’m tired of low level 5E and I don’t like Waterdeep The City.  I don’t think Running A Tavern is a clever and universally beloved masterstroke of game design.  But like other 5E hardcovers it suggests more interesting places to go after its conclusion.

We started Mad Mage with the money earned in Dragon Heist as available to spend on resources.  In practice that’s an infinite amount of money.  I spent about 5000 gold on potions and scrolls and loaded up on mundane gear as well.  I actually went through to calculate the weight and it isn’t an unrealistic amount.

Unlike the rest of the group I’m switching characters.  We need a weapon wielder and a healer, so I am taking the route of the Triton Valor Bard.  This creates one problem in that this character was not around at the end of Dragon Heist when the DM called an audible and had the Cassalanters slip in to steal the gold to the utter indifference of the party.  “We’re gonna sacrifice it to Asmodeus and give you a cut.”

It’s not that our group didn’t care about the Cassalanter offer or think it wasn’t evil but the adventure kind of beat us down with a sense of powerlessness.  The gold had been stolen in a cutscene so we all kind of assumed the premise we were being presented was legitimate.  Then later we find out:

“Also, we have to kill 99 people, mwhahaha!”

Well they didn’t tell us about that part.  It seemed like a long and impossible combat to try and stop the Cassalanters.  At no point did it feel like this was an outcome we could affect.

So we began Mad Mage.  We decided to abandon the Adventurer’s League Rules because, well speaking for myself, I hate the Treasure Point, Gold, and XP system.  I see their value for convention play but for a home game they’re not what I want.  Or are they?  More on that later.

Coming off Tomb of Annihilation we have been methodical in our approach.  Every door gets checked by the Rogue to shouts of “Will someone Help me?” and “GUIDANCE!”  My way of curbing Help at the table has always been demanding that the helper roll too, with a DC 10 to actually help.  As a DM, I wish I gave out more inspiration or advantage but The Help Action makes advantage too common to give out.  It gamifies something I wish was more roleplay intensive.

I looked up the Table of Contents to Mad Mage and it is interesting.  There are cool sounding levels.  Wyllowood, Dweomercore, and Sea Deeps are names that evoke fantastic adventure.  However, for 6 sessions now we’ve been on Level 1, “Dungeon Level.”

I sigh to even type it.

Here’s the thing, it’s not bad.  It is exactly what it should be, a standard dungeon to get in the mood for the adventure to come.  I don’t want to engage in hindsight DMing.  I love getting into the sausage making of DMing but that works with the DM, not on your blog working through feels.

Suffice to say I’m finding level one slow paced but hey it’s D&D with my friends.  As much as I want to write down new stuff on my character sheet I’m still getting an enjoyable evening with friends.  I also really want extra attack to double my Valor Bard’s damage.

Where things really came to a head with me becoming a problem player was the last session.  We started off the session getting attacked.  The DM changed the monsters from Shadows to Skulks.  He wisely realized that Shadows would likely TPK the largely magic based party where everyone’s strength is kind of shit.  But Skulks are also permanently invisible and they have a +7 to hit with 13 average damage compared to the Shadow’s +4 to hit, no invisibility, and 9 average damage.  They’re tough enemies and we needed A Long Rest after.  Our party headed back to the Yawning Portal to recover and back down into Undermountain we went.  We head back to the same corridor to finish exploring it.  This triggers the same encounter with the exact same monsters as before.  “Can we run?”  We tried.  But like last time we were surrounded on all sides.

It was at this point that I got angry.  And I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I have trouble gauging what is the correct amount of anger to display and what that display looks like.  My anger display tends to always be interpreted as a 10 even when I’m feeling a 3.

The reason I was angry was because it was the same encounter, exactly.  If that encounter had been with goblins I might never have known.  But it was with the same monsters, same area, same tactics.  I was really pissed.  It felt like I had wasted one of the three hours a week I get to play D&D with my friends.

When I thought about it a bit more, from my character’s perspective, they learned an important lesson.  They are thinking, “Oh, these thrice damned traps reset if our party leaves this accursed dungeon.  This is good information to have and this sacrifice of combat is a worthy one.”  But me the player is thinking that my game time is being wasted.  We could’ve gone to a bar, we could watch something, we could stop the game early and I could get more sleep instead of staying up late to play D&D.  But we chose to be here and doing the exact same thing again for no incentive (because Milestone XP) is disrespecting the sacrifice of everyone at the table.  It’s an above the table penalty to a choice that our characters made in game.

This told me something about my playstyle too.  I always thought I identified more with the Method Actor/Storyteller archetypes as set out in “Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering” but it was another thing to see myself act that way in practice.  I’ve find it a bit pretentious to call one’s self a “Storyteller” but it’s accurate in this context.  According to Robin D. Laws, the Storyteller “may get bored when the game slows down for a long planning session.  As Total Party Thrill said, the storyteller needs advancement.  A stale plot is a boring game.  Maybe a more tactically minded player would be pleased to speed run this encounter through their superior command.  Me, I was sulking on my phone.

This also made me realize that our group needs to re-open the discussion of how we’re going to be assigning XP.  I hate the idea of assigning XP for the bookkeeping aspect and least of all for combat.  It’s not the players’ fucking problem if there’s no combat in the session or if the player’s get creative and skip the combat.  This worked to our favor during Tomb of Annihilation where we wound up outleveling the dungeon.  It still felt challenging enough.  I also don’t like the AL rules which assign milestones on a completely time-based system.  You play x amount of hours to level up.  Again while I see the value for convention play for a home game I want the DM to have discretion.

Here is my view on it.  I don’t want to assign XP purely based on Monsters and Traps that the players face.  There is some non-zero amount of XP I want to give for Roleplaying, I’m not sure what that number ought to be, and if that’s the case why not just make life simple and abstract to milestones?  Optimally it works out to the same pace.  But does it?

With Mad Mage it boils down to that the level we’re on, the first one, has taken way longer than I expected.  I wanted to do Milestone XP for the reason above, that I don’t really want the bookkeeping of XP.  I but I had the assumption that it would be 3-5 sessions per milestone because that’s what I would do.  Instead we’re heading into our 7th session and I think we might be little more than halfway through this level.

The power gamer option to get the faster advancement I’m seeking would be to try to be stealthier, avoid any fights possible, and seek the most expeditious route down.  It reframes the adventure as a mission to find the stairs down instead of a story or place to explore.  I would like to find a compromise between “I want to explore this book” and “I want the numbers on my sheet to increase.”  Maybe we can do, every 5th session or when the book says so, whichever occurs first.  Although the book has 23 chapters, so it can’t be a Princes of the Apocalypse thing where each chapter is one “level” of content.

But it still seems to be a ton of material between levels up, longer than previous hardcovers.  Dragon Heist was like this too where level 1 as written was like 3 sessions which seems way way too long to me.

I’m optimistic we can work something out.  The DM’s fun is important too and I can’t imagine he enjoyed running the exact same encounter twice.  Then again that’s me looking at things from my point of view.

Mad Mage Backup Characters

We are now 4 sessions into Dungeon of the Mad Mage.  It’s a little slow paced but I’m hoping it will pickup as we get past this first level, which according to Enworld is named, “Dungeon Level.”  As opposed to later parts with names like “Arcturiadoom.”

When we started these two books I resolved to make myself The Healer of our merry band.  I really liked the Warlord-y flavor of the Mastermind/Knowledge Cleric in Tomb of Annihilation.  In hindsight I probably would’ve liked playing The Leader roles in 4E if they were strapped to a big ole goddamn sneak attack instead of handing out Gatorade to the Strikers.

I like the character I have now.  I’m playing a Triton Valor Bard.  I’ve reflavored a longsword as a trident and I’m taking all the healing spells.  We’re currently level 5 so I’m watching level 6 and extra attack like a poor orphan child with their nose pressed up against the window of a toy store at Christmas time.  This is very close to the same character as my Triton Barbarian but we needed that Healer.  I chose to name him Saaragar which sounds kind of like Saagar, the Hindi word for ocean.  I like to think he’s spent less time on the surface than Nymeros so he is a bit more dismissive of non-tritons.  I keep playing him a bit more tanky than I really should in combat.  The Wizard actually has a higher AC with frequent Shields.  The Moon Druid has more HP.  But I didn’t roll this character to play like a chump.  It’s the Valor Bard not the Hide-Behind-The-Wizard Bard.  This has led to some near death experiences.  In fact it’s led to being critted and dropped in one hit.  Twice.

I’m feeling resigned to “I’m going to die at some point.”  I hate the idea of intentionally leading my character to their death.  But surely I can lie to myself enough to believe there’s no harm in making some backup characters (surely).  Let’s discuss them.

Elhar C’Rintri Housename: Drow Scout/Samurai/Knowledge Cleric

This character is a bit more mechanically thought out than I tend to be.  I usually don’t multiclass because I’m terrified of making a bad character.  This character is based on Total Party Thrill’s “Rangerer” in their Character Creation Forge.  The idea is that The 5E Ranger is not a great class compared to The Rogue, The Bard, or The Druid.  These classes can all do the Nature-Themed Lightly-Armored Warrior-Spellcaster role better than the Ranger depending on how they’re built.

So how do you do the Ranger better than the Ranger?  Well while you should totally listen to the episode and could do just fine playing a single class Rogue, Bard, or Druid their build goes further to soak up Ranger Flavor.  The Scout Rogue gives you two extra expertises in Nature and Survival on top of the four the rogue already has.  Then you add the Samurai Fighter which gives you InstaAdvantage 3 times per day.  You also gain another skill.  Then you have the base fighter which is going to give you Extra Attack, Action Surge, and Second Wind.  Their build also includes Knowledge Cleric which gives two more expertise skills (8 total) and The Bless Spell.  The idea is to go Rogue 13/Fighter 6/Cleric 1.  Sure you could just play an Archer Bard or Rogue or Fighter and still be fine but this breadth of options appeals to me, the player who wants more stuff to play with.  Admittedly this class doesn’t really come online until high (8+) levels but it seems like it would be a good bit of fun.

Since we’re doing Mad Mage I thought Drow would be a good idea.  Plenty of underground darkness.  This would be an amazing character to bring to Out of the Abyss.  And I know it is impossible to say “Drow Ranger” without invoking Drizzt Do’Urden but I want to play a Lolth worshiping Drow.  The Drow Ranger who rolls his eyes and makes a disgusted noise at that name.  “Look, Drizzt has a lot of magic items, okay?”  One reason to continue to play a martial character is that the party still needs a fighter/skill monkey more than a 4th caster  Although this is more of an Archer.  I envision Elhar kind of like Iron Bull from the Dragon Age series.  Sure he’s an agent from a fascist military state that wants to conquer all other civilizations…but he’s not there right now.

Elhar is a name I used for my Dragon Age City Elf character and C’Rintri is a word I remember meaning Noble in Undercommon from way back in high school when I believed Darth Maul was the coolest shit ever.  I figure he’d also have a family name of whatever Drow we might encounter in Undermountain or their hated rivals.  I think that’s the key, he’s from a rival house taking them down.  He’s not doing it for altruistic reasons but he’s not working against you…yet.  Seriously though, I would never screw over the party in a serious betrayal sort of way.  You want to play the fun game of Dungeons & Dragons with your friends right? Don’t do that.  This is not the Dragon Age Video Game where you kill a party member after their shocking betrayal.  If I did that it’d be really awkward as I got up from the table to leave then kind of just hung out for a while since I’m hosting the game.

None: Warforged War Cleric

So while I’d love to play Elhar he has a few drawbacks.  It’s a higher level character that doesn’t really work until it has extra attack, a respectable (3d6+) sneak attack, and a level of cleric.  Also our Mad Mage party needs a healer more than another ranged combatant.  So what to do?  That’s when I hit upon the idea of playing a War Cleric.  I abandoned Savitri the Knowledge Cleric because we kept getting into fights in Dragon Heist and the character just wasn’t that fun to play.  A War Cleric works better at lower levels.  They wear armor and hit stuff.  But what sort of War Cleric would I find interesting?  I wouldn’t want to play “Dwarfy MacNostory,” Dwarf Cleric of Moradin.  I thought about the challenges we’re likely to face in Undermountain and then it hit me.  The Warforged Race, in Eberron’s Wayfinder’s Guide, does not need to eat, breathe, and it doesn’t wear armor, it is armor.

I would justify playing it on the grounds that we’ve already encountered one wacky Shield Guardian on the run.  That’s how I’d flavor it, as a Shield Guardian person waiting in a closet somewhere if it ever came to that.  I think the DM would go for that.  I’m not doing it because it’s overpowered.  It’s just a happy coincidence that Warforged make pretty good clerics.

For mechanics, as I’m playing a Healer I figured I would go with the “Envoy” Warforged as opposed to the Juggernaut or Skirmisher.  The Envoy is supposed to be a “custom” Warforged so it gets a grab-bag of different abilities.  You get +1 to two different stats so I can do +1 each to Str/Con/Wis.  You also get a skill, a language, and a tool.  And Expertise in one tool.

I figured this character was built by the Dwarves and then left somewhere in Undermountain.  So I took Dwarven as my language then instead of learning any other languages like I usually do.  In their place I took proficiency with Alchemist Tools and the Herbalism Kit.  The Envoy Warforged gets expertise in one tool you’re proficient with and it’s flavored as built into you.  I decided to go with Thieves’ Tools and flavor them as surgical tools.  This is me being a filthy min-maxer.  I wanted my expertise to be a tool that actually gets some use and in Undermountain it seems to me that Thieves’ Tools is a mechanically better choice.  Again, filthy, dirty min-maxer.

The big attraction of the Warforged is that they add their proficiency to the AC.  This means at level 5 with the heavy armor of the War Cleric and a Shield that character starts at 21 AC.  Respectable!  Add to all the other healing and buffing that the cleric can do I think it’ll work fine at the table.  I don’t think this would feel underpowered at lower levels like the Knowledge Cleric does.

For portraying this character at the table I’d want to draw inspiration from Great Constructs in History.  Most notably, Shale from Dragon Age.  I like the way Shale refers to other people by physical description and “it” is the only pronoun Shale uses for anyone.  I like the idea that this Warforged just doesn’t really do names.  In keeping with that the name at the top of my character sheet is, “None.”  I also like the idea (from the Wayfinder’s Guide) that this character doesn’t really have an interior monologue and voices its thoughts aloud as they occur.  It’s also continuously analyzing potential threats and opportunities for healing.

I think this is the first character I would go with if something happened to Saaragar.

Faces of Thedas

At long last a day is here.  They announced the next D&D Hardcover Adventure, you ask?  NO YOU FOOL.  Faces of Thedas, the next (Last? Only?) splatbook for Green Ronin’s Dragon Age RPG has arrived.  At least in PDF form.  Still gotta wait a bit for the dead tree edition.

For those interested in the “I Told You So” I did tweet on October 14th that Faces would be out in more than two months and less that four.  IN WITH 16 DAYS LEFT ON THE CALENDAR.  Although it is still The PDF and not The Book.

That will be the last All Caps in this essay.

There’s art on the back cover with the DA Cast.  I see Celene, Flemeth, Solas, a Saarebas, Tallis, Cole, and a variety of other characters from the games.  Someone will have a lot of fun picking out all the people.

The book clocks in at 132 pages with the covers included.  Looking at the table of contents there’s an Intro and then we get right into the Stat Blocks.  From Anders to Zevran we have pages 4-95 loaded with 41 entries for different Dragon Age Characters.  Some are larger than others.  Scout Harding gets one page.  Josephine gets three.  Alistair gets four.  From page 96-121 we have some new organizations like The Carta or The Qunari or The House of Crows.  Pages 122-127 are your relationship rules.  The index and back cover close it all out.

Some of the art is recycled but some of it is new.  It varies.  I really like what they have for Briala and Fiona, not so sure about Dorian.

The character descriptions are not just stat blocks. There are deep dives into the lore of the characters and how to use them.  Since Dragon Age is often about people being not very nice to each other (aka being people) your enemies are often humanoids and this is certainly a big variety of them.  The characters themselves are depicted as level 5, 10, or 15 using the Dragon Age ruleset to create them.  Most of the characters are level 10.  The Origins characters and Big Villains tend to be level 15.  Minor characters are level 5.

First interesting thing is Who Made The Cut?  There are some surprising omissions and inclusions.  Obviously there are fan favorites: Cole, Iron Bull, Morrigan, Flemeth.  On the dark horse side we have Krem and the Chargers, Warden Stroud, The Dog, Marjolaine, and biggest surprise entrant to me, Yvette Montiliyet.  But the list of snubs is also big.  There’s no Bhelan, no Maric, no Blackwall, and no Vivienne.  We have no Fenris which I find shocking.  There’s also no DA2 Arishok (Just Use Iron Bull or Sten).  We got Wynne and Lord Seeker Lambert but we lack Rhys and Evangeline.  We have Meredith but no Orsino.  Tallis did not get reprinted but remains a free PDF online.  We have Sebastian but not Shale or any of the companions exclusive to Awakening.  There is an entry for The Architect and The Mother but their stats are still in the Core Rulebook.  Also no Corypheus nor any Red Templars or Venatori.  And last of all, there is no mention of Solas, not in his Start of Game incarnation and not The Dread Wolf you meet at the end of Trespasser.  This was the first thing I looked for.

So rather than start with #1 let’s look at a randomly determined stat block.  A random number generator gives us 19 because the Dark Tower is eternal you say true I say thankya.  #19 is Scout! Lace! Motherfucking! Harrrding!!!

At about a page and a third this is one of if not the shortest profiles in the book.  But it tells me everything I would need to know about using this character.  The book says she is Scout Harding, Surface Dwarf, her role is “Adorably Sarcastic Lead Scout.”  It explains her backstory, what she would do in an encounter, and explains what she would look for in a romance as her character is romanceable in the video games.  The stat block is honestly the least interesting thing here.  She is a vanilla level 5 Rogue.  This is not D&D where unique humanoids tend to have unique powers.  She is a built just like a PC for the TTRPG.  This character is very similar to my own City Elf I played, Elhar, who was also an archer Rogue.  Her stats are better than I think is normal for a level 5 character.  But if you wanted to make your own Scout this is not a bad template to follow.

Let’s hit the random number generator again and #17 is Flemeth.  This is very appropriate because while Harding is possibly the lowest level character in the book and rigidly built within the Dragon Age RPG ruleset Flemeth…is not.  Flemeth can cast any spell, she has infinite mana, she has permanent 8 Armor that cannot be penetrated, and she can transform into a goddamn Dragon.  I imagine if you wanted to use Trespasser Solas this would be a good template to steal.  This entry does not spoil Dragon Age: Inquisition.  But it does give her history, her relationships, and how a GM might use her in the story.

One thing I was looking for and I’m a bit disappointed were mechanics for how Seekers Lambert and Cassandra would be different than vanilla templars but they don’t seem to be.  Not the worst sin.  I’ve heard that Fenris was not included partly because he has a weird “heart-touching” power but the Seekers lack anything to make them more Seekery.  Cassandra does not, in this book, have a power to let the lyrium in someone’s blood aflame.

Three characters I would like to call attention to, Cole, Iron Bull, and Merrill.  All are level 10 characters.  But in these sections you will find something verrrry interesting, three new backgrounds for your Dragon Age character.  They include: Incarnated Spirit, Ben-Hassrath, and Dalish Mage.

The Incarnated Spirit has 10 speed, same as Human.  You gain a bonus to Perception and choose between Stealth or Empathy.  Your random bonus chart includes +Willpower, Dex, or Con, with potential ability focuses Initiative, Investigation, Self-Discipline, Stamina, or Persuasion. You can be a rogue or warrior.  Is it weird that Cole is based on a Mage but incarnated spirits can’t be a mage yet spirits are living magic?  Whatever.  The Spirit can also select a unique talent, Vanishing.  You can make someone forget you just like Cole does.  Curiously the Master Level of this talent is the only part that requires you to pick the emotion your spirit embodies.

The Ben-Hassrath table seems to be incomplete.  Maybe it’s not but there are a few typos which mix up the issue. It doesn’t gain a plus to an ability score, but what I think you’re supposed to is use the relevant parts of another background then you sub in this for your random roll.  A City Elf Ben-Hassrath gains the city elf traits but they speak Qunlat, and they roll on the Ben-Hassrath chart.

And what’ll probably be the most popular background, Dalish Mage.  No more Apostate for you!  Unlike Willpower this one gives you that all-important +1 Magic in addition to regular “Elfy Shit” like +1 Dex, Historical Lore, Staves, and Tracking.

I know there is more to talk about regarding organizations and relationship rules but we came here for these stats, son.  The organization lore is well worth it but I can’t make sense of these organization rules.  The book with shipping was $42 and the PDF was an extra $5.  I’d say Vivienne and Fenris would’ve bumped up the value to make the book worth that.  This is a bit pricey for a not massive book of boss monsters.  The content is good though.  Well worth the extra $5 to start reading this now.  The PDF itself will set you back $19.  There are a few other typos I noticed and I usually don’t catch that sort of thing so there are probably many more for those who notice clean copy.

I might’ve overpaid for this but I consider that extra $10 my, “Please Publish More Dragon Age Content” tax.  I love this universe and I’m running two games with these rules.  Green Ronin, please publish more Dragon Age content, Bioware, please approve this content in a timely fashion.  If they wrote more stat blocks, spells, magic items, and especially adventures I’d be happy to fork over cash for them.  I could take or leave D&D, but Dragon Age is where my heart is right now.

Dragon Heist: Post-Play Review

When I heard “urban heist adventure” I was signed the hell up.  Now Dragon Heist is over.  I played it and now I have read it.

I wanted to like this adventure.  After playing it I came away with a hostile bias.

I found it a parade of NPCs handing you things and not enough plot hooks.  The story was impossible to get invested in because every time I started to enjoy it the writers pull the choke chain and slap you back down.  It was difficult to engage with.

Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, is not a heist.  This little bit of bait-and-switch doesn’t bother me.  It is a treasure hunt although it is set in Waterdeep and there are dragons, real and metaphorical.  Much as I love a good heist adventure good D&D is still good D&D regardless of title.

The book begins with an in-depth behind the scenes look at The Plot Background.

  • There is a hoard of 500,000 gold pieces somewhere in the city of Waterdeep. These were embezzled by former Lord of the City and patron to Tando Tossbottle, Dagult Neverember.  Neverember used an artifact called the Stone of Golorr as a map to where he hid the money.  The Stone absorbs people’s memories so when you lose the stone you lose the memory of where the gold is.
  • Two criminal organizations, the Zhentarim and the Xanathar Guild, are about to get into a mob war.
  • These two plots intersect when the Stone of Golorr was stolen by the Xanathar Guild from Neverember’s agents. Then during a routine crime type negotiation between the Zhentarim and the Xanathar the Stone got stolen from the Xanathar Guild by some guy.  The Xan blames the Zhent and this kicks off a tit-for-tat war of escalation.

Chapters 1 and 2 have the PCs are doing unrelated tasks for a while just being citizens of Waterdeep.  The plot starts in Chapter 3 when a fireball goes off outside their residence.  From there the adventure splits into four alternate paths.  Each path features a different villain with different goals and different encounters.  These take place in different seasons to give the city different flavor and tone.

There are two sections in this first chapter, one about running an urban campaign and one about The Law in the city of Waterdeep.  Guess which section should be longer and guess which section is longer.  I’ll give you a hint, they’re not the same sections.  This is the first time 5E has offered a real city based adventure and more advice on running one would be welcome.  The adventure basically says, put down roots to foster buy-in and Waterdeep likes adventurers (some of them anyway).  This isn’t really enough.  I would recommend you pick up the Eberron book or its PDF, Sharn: City of Towers.  While it is campaign setting specific it is also a great primer on running a city based campaigns.

The Breaking The Law section of this book has become one of the most talked about sections of the adventure and I think the adventure is worse for it.  The thought behind it makes sense. Waterdeep is a archetypical human city and archetypical human cities have laws.  Unlike Random Dirt Town #486 Waterdeep actually has the ability to enforce the rule of law.  How does one enforce law in a world with magic and monsters?  This is the first time for 5E that WOTC wrote a D&D game in a setting not ruled by the red law of sword and claw.  To the average D&D player, this might be the first time their character has been in someplace with rule of law with the ability to enforce it.

It’s sounds like a logical inclusion but for Dragon Heist it is too goddamn heavy handed in practice.  Even for my Lawful Neutral Cleric I felt like the adventure couldn’t make up its mind if we’re supposed to oppose the city watch or support them.  Tip for adventure writers out there: Your players should not be encountering the City Watch more than the actual plot or villain of your adventure.

The chapter then gets into potential PC backgrounds and factions of the city.  There’s one sentence I want to call out, “Assume the characters are familiar with [The Yawning Portal] and have met there before.”  Uhhh, hey writers, The Yawning Portal did not feature prominently in Tales from the Yawning Portal and it may surprise you to hear this but Waterdeep itself has not played strongly into ANY published 5E books to date.  So no, I am not familiar with the Yawning Portal and it’s a mistake to assume the players are.

Where your players come in is that they are drinking in the Yawning Portal.  There is a brawl and in the midst of that the bar is attacked by three stirges.  The bar is also attacked by a troll but Durnan the High Level Barkeep dispatches it.  I would cut the troll out entirely if not the entire scene and start the adventure with Volo giving the players a hook.  Why have the PCs get outshined by a powerful NPC and why have a random encounter they have no stake in?  Better yet, have the bar fight and the troll fight all in the background.  So Volo hires the PCs to find a kidnapped friend of his.  None of this has anything to do with the PCs, the Dragon, or the Heist.

The players begin following a trail of clues.  A couple of these clues involved this routine:  Make a skill check or pay a bribe to get information from an NPC.  I am going to complain about this more later, but we started this book playing with the Adventurer’s League Season 8 rules and part of those rules is that you only get gold for leveling up, not as a reward in an adventure.  You can’t demand gold from the players for plot reasons and then not let them gain gold in the context of the plot.  It just does not work.  Speaking as a Dragon Heist PC, I was not about to give over my fixed income as a plot coupon.  Every time this situation happened it took me out of the adventure.  It reminded me of the Adventurer League Meta.  It’s also always a bad idea to have your plot bottleneck like this.  You need these clues to proceed in the adventure.  Now this isn’t as bad a bottleneck as some adventures but it does require the DM to bail out the PCs if they roll low.

The PCs follow up some clues that lead them to a warehouse where they have a fight with some Kenku.  From the start of this adventure to this point our party met or heard about the Waterdeep City Watch three times.  From the start of this adventure to this point we haven’t heard once about Dragons or Heists.  We also didn’t meet or hear about the eventual villain of the adventure.  In two of these encounters the City Watch tells you to not get involved in “this sort of thing”.  I can’t emphasize enough how damaging it is to have NPCs in an adventure giving the players negative reinforcement against getting involved in the adventure.  It is fatal to buy-in.  Real people in a persistent world should probably not get involved in trying to help the police solve a kidnapping.  Players enjoying a game about being heroes should TOTALLY get involved to help the police solve kidnappings.

Completing this Kenku fight is also the point in the adventure where you should level your PCs up to 2.  Level 1 is way way way too long in this adventure.  The problem is that this warehouse scene leads immediately into the next scene.  There is no appropriate place for a long rest.  You find an NPC, Renaer Neverember, who tells you that the guy Volo wants the PCs to find was hauled off by thugs.  You can’t come back tomorrow and just hope the thugs don’t kill Volo’s friend.  I would suggest you get around this and repair the PCs relationship with the Watch by having the Watch heal the PCs and use the Magic Item ‘Pearls of Power’ to restore their spell slots.  At this point, your PCs have earned a long rest.  Give them the equivalent of one.

This next section killed my interest in the adventure and it never recovered.  The story here is, “Volo’s buddy is in the sewer, kidnapped.  Go save him.”  Okay got it, I can be a hero.  Then we fought some goblins.  Another level 1 fight?  Okay well it’s logical that the enemy base has guards.  Then there’s some bandits.  Fighting again eh?  Then there was a gray ooze in a toilet.  Uhh guys, I’m an adventurer, I don’t want to fight the toilet ooze.  That kidnapped guy is probably getting tortured for the 20 minutes we’re spending fighting this ooze.  Then we walk into a room and there’s a fucking mind flayer.  It leaves, but it leaves behind several monsters including a gazer (baby beholder), intellect devourers, and an arcane caster.  This is WAY WAY WAY too much for level 1 characters.  This might be your 4th – 6th fight of the day.  It’s too much and it is too godddamn long.

I would advise you cut ALL this combat between the warehouse fight and the boss fight.  Don’t waste your players’ time with a toilet ooze.  Maybe keep the Mind Flayer but have him teleporting out of the room.  Don’t even hint that guy is nearby still.

So we rescue Volo’s buddy.  Then we leave the sewer.  I was wondering why the map was still on the table when we came to a giant rat at the exit.  Before this moment I was tired.  At the sight of a giant rat fight in a sewer level I started getting pissed.  At this point I’m literally asking, “can we please get back to the story?”  I was being a problem player, at least a bit.  It turns out this was an inversion because the Giant Rat is actually a Wererat.  Lycanthropes, like this creature, are immune to nonmagical weapon damage.  This means they are not appropriate for first and second level D&D characters to be expected to fight.  I don’t make the rules folks, sorry. And the wererat encounter also does not contribute to the overall adventure.  CUT IT.  I would advise you that after you rescue Volo’s buddy (who is not important enough to get a name) you just teleport them in the narrative back to the Yawning Portal.  “You go back to the Yawning Portal.  On the way you see some stuff.”  Teleport them like Game of Thrones Season 7 characters.  Doesn’t involve the PCs, Dragons, or Heists?  CUT IT.

When you get back to the Yawning Portal Volo gives you a Tavern in lieu of a monetary reward.  This leads into Chapter 2.  I have seen people online going both ways on the Tavern section.  Some people fucking love this shit.  Set up a tavern, base, decorate it, go hog wild.  You have a house!  Do stuff with it!  Animal Crossing meets D&D!  For me, I really did not like this section and it for a very specific reason.  The Adventurer’s League version of “Running A Business” rules are ass.  Nobody nobody nobody wanted to spend our limited Gold and Downtime days on an optional activity with an uncertain rate of return.  It just wasn’t going to happen.  We got a good laugh out of comparing the ghost in the tavern to Will from Stranger Things but that was it.

Other than that the tavern element is ignorable because it has nothing to do with the PCs, Dragons, or Heists.  I would advise you to change this in a couple ways.  #1, the NPC you rescued, Renaer, should be sending you story hooks.  The NPCs who are your neighbors should be dropping by with baked goods and story hooks.  The factions that are listed in this book should be hectoring you with fucking story hooks.  And in the middle of these story hooks just have the tavern look nicer.  The nice elf person next door puts some roses in your window.  Just say, “the carpenter down the street fixes the front steps.”  Then the DM rolls the “running a business” chart for the PCs and just tells them the result.  Didn’t make a profit?  Well maybe the other shopkeepers on Trollskull Alley or a friendly NPC contact pay for your debts this time.  What you want to avoid is a parade of guilds and city officials with their hands out looking for gold you don’t have and can’t earn if you play with AL rules.

Also, WOTC, just reprint the rules for running a business in the chapter that features running a business you cheap fucks.  This reminds me of how in Out of the Abyss they didn’t reprint the madness rules from the DMG.  Here they don’t reprint the tiny “Running a Business” table.  It’s irritating and pointless to not just reprint the relevant rules.

The second part of Chapter 2 is a number of “Faction Missions.”  All the factions active in Waterdeep have different jobs to offer you.  You want to offer these early and often.  In general you always want players to feel like they have too much to do rather than too little.  But some of these are pointless because they’re tied to a specific villain.  Some of them are hard to do because they require the players to be in a specific part of the city for days on end.  Be sure to have small encounters prepped for those parts.  Really these missions are busy work.  I think you’re meant to spend a session or two on them but in large part they don’t matter to the plot.  These are tasks given to the PCs.  They’re not originating from the PCs’ goals and they don’t involve Heists, although there is one potential dragon.  I think it depends on the individual group how long you want to spend on these and which ones you do.  As in all D&D, cut the boring parts.

For your leveling it makes sense in the pacing to go to level 2 after the warehouse and then level 3 after the sewer level since it is long and 5E really starts to feel like D&D at level 3.  Depending on your group you may just want to skip chapter 2.  A lot of these faction missions have to do with the Zhentarim/Xanathar war which for the most part stays in the background and never comes forward.  The Gang War has a little bit to do with the PCs, Dragons, or Heists unless you are using Xanathar or Manshoon as the villain of the adventure.  But it doesn’t have much to do with the PCs so maybe CUT IT.  If you cut Chapter 2 you could have each player describe a week in the life of running the Tavern or one improvement they would make to the Tavern.

Chapter 3 is where the plot of Dragon Heist starts.  A Fireball spell goes off outside The Tavern.  People are dead.  I don’t know about you but if I heard a bomb go off in real life I don’t think I would want to run towards it.  That’s the difference between real people and adventurers, right?  I think back to the trailer for the movie, Dawn of Justice.  Superman and Zod are fighting and blowing up Metropolis.  Beneath them on the streets shit is falling apart.  Everyone is running away from this horrific event.  But one person is running towards it.  That’s what you want from your players.  So you better not have had the Waterdeep City Watch on the players’ asses for being heroic.  If the players have no motivation to be heroic then this scene of a fireball going off in the street does not work.

In game my first instinct, as the Lawful Neutral Cleric, was to ask, “what does this have to do with me?”  I felt no incentive to go outside.  I didn’t see anything and I knew if I went outside the City Watch would be there telling me to fuck off.  As written, if the DM doesn’t work their ass off to change the adventure, a fireball going off outside does not tell your players that this has something to do with their PCs, Dragons, or Heists and is thus irrelevant.  I went outside because I wanted to be a good sport for the DM.  “Do you want to investigate the scene?”  Why would I?

What you want to have happen is that when the Watch shows up they say “Oh Thank The Gods Our Good Friends Who Run The Tavern Are Here!  Have you found anything, can you please help us keep all these potential witnesses here?”  The previous session my character had been given a hook to go investigate a problem in the Waterdeep harbor.  I cared far more about doing that task which was just busy work than I did this Plot Relevant Fireball.  I cared more because an NPC asked my character for help.  Sure enough, the City Watch show up and tells you to fuck off.  But the adventure doesn’t happen if you fuck off.  SO DON’T WRITE IT THAT WAY. YOU FOOLS.  It is more realistic for the City Watch to chase off these amateurs but it’s also doesn’t help tell the story so maybe don’t write it that way.  This is also a massive plot bottleneck which you want to avoid at all costs.  If the PCs don’t get involved, and as a D&D player I consider the Waterdeep City Watch telling me not to get involved a strong reason to not get involved, then the adventure doesn’t happen.  If the PCs are reluctant or do not question witnesses and take good notes they won’t know what to do next and the adventure doesn’t happen then either.

So here’s what happened.  A gnome, who is not affiliated with any faction, stole the Stone Key that unlocks the location of the 500,000 gold vault.  The actions of this sideways asshole started the gang war (which probably doesn’t matter to the PCs) between the Zhentarim and Xanathar.  This SOB can’t get out of town.  How this guy could steal the Key to The Treasure from the Xanathar but not leave Waterdeep I have no idea.  But he knows about these people, The PCs, who rescued Renaer Neverember.  Maybe they can help!  So rather than turning himself into the cops he seeks aid from a bunch of level 3 bartenders.  It isn’t a great plan.  He is being followed by Zhentarim agents.  The Zhentarim agents are being followed by a third party, a noble house, which is allied with whatever faction is your villain for Dragon Heist.  Their involvement is what connects the PCs to the Villain of the Adventure.  Their agent is the one who casts the fireball, grabs the stone, and clears the fuck out of there.  This agent, a construct, brings that Stone Key to this noble house.  He then clears the fuck out of there again when the PCs arrive.  He brings the Stone Key not to the villains direct but to some other place associated with them.

This whole part is a bit confusing since the PCs can’t really get the story out of one person.  There are a lot of different factions competing for attention.  It doesn’t help that the plot has been anemic to this point and now the players are being thrown in the deep end of a problem they might not care about.  The people with the relevant information are either dead or opposed to the PCs.  This makes it difficult to understand what the stakes are and come up with a reason to get involved.

Here’s what I would do instead.  The Gnome NPC needs to be foreshadowed or this plot hook is dead on arrival.  Have this guy reach out to the PCs to try and set up a meeting.  Maybe crowbar him into one of those faction missions.  If the PCs hear an explosion outside it’s a tragedy that doesn’t involve them.  If the PCs hear an explosion outside five minutes before this guy who asked them for help and wants to pay them for a meeting they’ll say OH SHIT IS THAT GNOME GUY!?

There are a variety of directions the PCs can go after the bombing.  There are two easy ways forward.  First, have someone to cast Speak with Dead on the gnome corpse.  At level 3, no character has this spell but if the PCs ask, certain factions will cast it for them.  While playing I did not think to just ask an NPC to solve the problem for us.  That would feel like cheating.  It’s not a sure thing though, for starters unless you foreshadow it the PCs won’t know that the gnome is the correct person to cast the spell on.  The second easiest way is if your PCs can’t figure it out (like we didn’t figure it out) then Renaer Neverember drops by to give the PCs the answer, that this gnome guy was looking for them and hey did he drop by okay?

A few times the adventure just wants to hand you an answer (Casting Speak with Dead or Legend Lore on your behalf, asking for help from a Faction) but it doesn’t tell the PCs they need to ask.  Then when it makes sense to ask for help, the adventure slaps you down.  This was a problem for our group because we are just coming off Tomb of Annihilation and we’re accustomed to being forced to do things on our own.

There are a few different scenes you can have between the scene of the Fireball and finding the Bad Guys with the next step of the adventure.  But two of them, a dinner on Jarlaxle the Drow’s ship, and a visit to the Temple of Gond, both really have nothing to do with the PCs, Dragons, or Heists.  CUT IT.  If you are using Jarlaxle as the villain of the adventure then I would keep that scene in and make it more relevant.

Jarlaxle feels like a late addition to this adventure.  It seems like the scavenger hunt for gold and the Xanathar/Zhentarim gang war was well-developed.  Jarlaxle and the Cassalanters, the other two potential villains, aren’t well integrated into the rest of the adventure.  I like the idea of the Cassalanters, I like the idea of the PCs having to fight against a powerful noble family in the city.  It’s well written if not well executed.  But Jarlaxle feels like some combination of Tyler Durden and Littlefinger and I do not mean that as a compliment.  He is written as a Mary Sue villain which makes me not want to use him.  Unlike the other villains his goal is somewhat laudable.  He wants to buy his way into the Lord’s Alliance organization sort of like Vince Vaughn in True Detective Season 2.

I advise you to cut the Jarlaxle encounter and I also advise you to cut the Temple of Gond encounter.  In that encounter you go to the Temple of Gond.  There is a construct there that made another construct which ran away.  You get a magic device to find the other construct.  This can lead you to the evil nobles who currently have the Stone Key.  But the outcome of that scene at the noble’s home is that the Stone Key is moved out just before the PCs arrive.  They find its next location but not the Stone itself.  The fact that the Key isn’t really there makes it possible to cut the constructs out of the adventure as extraneous fluff.  Your goal as DM is to get the PCs from the Fireball to this mansion scene and to find a way to do this in four hours without confusing the PCs with extra names and details.  One session of investigation to bring the PCs to the noble’s door and next session you actually deal with the evil nobles seems to be the appropriate amount of time to spend.

Finding the evil nobles with the Stone is where our group got into trouble.  In Waterdeep, it is illegal to kick in someone’s door and raid their home on Suspicion of Being an Asshole.  We had been hectored and reminded of the City Watch at every turn so we said fuck it, let the City Watch handle these jerkasses.  It was getting near the end of the session and Combat-Averse player that I am I didn’t feel like going through another map, especially when the sewer level was…well a sewer level with giant rats.  The Book actually has a section for what to do if the PCs turn these bastards into the city watch.  Annnnd it’s a big letdown.  The real story is that the evil nobles where hired by the Zhentarim to get the Key Stone but they’re double crossing them in favor of the Villain, whoever that is.  There’s been a bloodbath at the mansion over this Stone Key which is why it is possible for level 3 PCs to insert themselves and live.  The City Watch doesn’t figure any of this out and the nobles just lie to them and the watch leaves.

By fortunate coincidence there isn’t really a price for involving the city watch here, it just kind of wastes your time.  It also provides a better reason for the Stone to not be in the house when the PCs do enter it.  If they do not enter there isn’t a clue to move them further down the path.  I feel the need to re-iterate that hopefully by now your players have found a reason to seek out this Key Stone and the treasure that it unlocks.  If I had to run this adventure, I would straight up tell the players, in-character, but still be obvious and tell the players that if they do nothing then someone very evil (Xanathar, House Cassalanter, Jarlaxle, or Manshoon) is going to get that gold and the law will do nothing to stop them.  Introduce that villain before the fireball goes off and make sure the PCs know the stakes.

Chapter 4 is where the PCs now begin confronting the villain of the adventure, at least in the text.  The chapter features a number of different locations like an alley, a theater, or an abandoned windmill.  You go through them in a different order with different encounters in each depending on the villain you choose.  This is an elegant way to conserve page space and let you see different parts of the city.  In the book, this all starts after the Evil Nobles.  You go there and…wait nothing happens?  The construct who set off the fireball and stole the key stone from the dead gnome outside your bar has already fled the evil nobles house when you arrive but the evil nobles have nothing to say about its location.  So those evil nobles are just pointless.  Just have them give you the next location instead of needing to track down the construct…again.

This entire chapter is meant to be a tense chase.  I don’t know about you but 8 different encounters sounds a bit more plodding than a tense chase.  There is also a long sidebar about how the Stone Key itself, if gotten early, tells the players to give it away at the next encounter.  This is really stupid, guys if they get the stone they get the stone.  Don’t cheat your players out of their win.  Again it is very important to keep in mind what the player’s goals are.  The DM needs to convince the PCs that this key is in the enemy’s hand and they need to get it.  The Ring is being carried back to Sauron and this is your last chance to get it back.  Don’t screw your players if they out think the adventure and don’t make this so hard they say fuck it and retreat.

As I said before, our group opted for the Cassalanter option which takes place in “Summer”.  Each different season has a different environmental effect.  Like in Spring, there is rain and fog which makes perception more difficult.  In Summer and Winter there is an exhaustion mechanic which is fucking dangerous.  For a chase scene it is a very bad idea to give your PCs more than one level of exhaustion which cuts your speed in half.  And it also kicks in after every encounter which, now I have to ask questions.  Why wasn’t this mechanic detailed in chapter 3 which takes place days or hours before chapter 4?  I know why, it is because the specific seasonal/villain differences in the adventure don’t start until chapter 4 but it makes no sense.  These mechanics are also dependent on your players not doing things.  In Summer you don’t need to make checks if you drink water.  In Winter you don’t need to make checks if you have proper cold weather clothing.  This is also stupid, do the players also need to describe themselves breathing, eating, and shitting?  If you haven’t established that this mechanic is in place and given the players the option to consume water or risk exhaustion then it’s an unfair mechanic.  And if the adventure takes place in Winter why in the hell would the characters not have coats?

The exhaustion mechanic deserves its own paragraph.  5E D&D prides itself on using natural language and elegant rules.  It succeeds for the most part.  The game is the most intuitive and easy to learn D&D ever.  Exhaustion however is the black sheep of the 5E rules.  It first appears as a penalty for the Berserker Barbarian’s Frenzy ability and then isn’t mentioned often until the conditions sections in the back of the book that defines it.  It is an escalating condition track.  Nothing else is like it in 5E.  It starts with permanent disadvantage to ability checks, then half speed, then disadvantage to attack rolls and saving throws, then half HP, then speed 0, and finally death.  A long rest removes one level.  The 5th level spell greater restoration (9th level Cleric gets one 5th level spell slot per day) removes one level.  This is devastating to a character’s effectiveness in an adventure and extremely expensive in terms of character resources to get rid of.  It is cheaper for a character to handle Death rather than Exhaustion.  Many classes have features that prevent them from dying but no one has something to prevent Exhaustion.  Look online at those wacky Character Optimization folks who judge class features and they agree that the exhaustion drawback of the Frenzy Barbarian is too high a price to pay for the amazing benefit.

Exhaustion comes across as a “DM Finger of God” mechanic to beat down unruly or overpowered characters.  If you need to bring players to heel killing them is pointless but exhausting them is cruel.  I encountered it before in Tomb of Annihilation where one of the final bosses can use ALL of its legendary actions to force a very difficult saving throw or the PCs get a level of Exhaustion.  The DM could’ve killed us all with this if they kept using it but after 3 rounds it was abandoned as being unsporting.  Now Dragon Heist is using it by surprise multiple times per day in encounters with henchmen.

We can’t just cut it because then there is no cost at all to the season.  But I’ve gone running in heatwaves before and it doesn’t take a full 6 hour rest to recover completely.  I think the best thing to do here is what our DM did and make it temporary.  This was a good idea because after I had two levels of exhaustion there was no reasonable expectation that my character could participate in a chase scene.  I was ready to say fuck it and retreat.  I was becoming a bit of a problem player again.  Like my irritation with being a glorified exterminator in the sewer level this mechanic coming out of nowhere pissed me off.  There’s just no way to fail forward with Exhaustion.  I’ve sent players into combat against a Dragon before and they lost but that sent the story into a different direction.  Exhaustion is the denial of options rather than presenting new, worse options.  A character who fails sometimes faces a hard choice.  A character who is exhausted often faces that same choice but with less hope of victory.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about the rest of these specific encounters.  There are two different chase scenes which use the DMG Chase rules which are not reprinted.  The chase rules are uninspired.  On your turn move your speed.  Roll for complication.  What happens?  K.  There’s a limit on how many times you can use the Dash action before risking exhaustion…so don’t do that.  I already had two levels of Exhaustion here so I didn’t get too involved beyond my familiar flying along.  I needed to sleep for two days, was out of spell slots, and out of bardic inspirations.  I was perfectly fine saying, “I guess they get away” but I misunderstood the stakes.  I figured this would end with us finding the final location the Key Stone to the treasure hoard was going.  The DM told us “uhh you need to get the stone now or its game over.”  Again the adventure doesn’t really overemphasize the stone compared to the other faction missions so it was hard to give a shit about this thing.  I was in dire need of a long rest and like Chapter 1 this is too many encounters and too many fights.

These chases were kind of pointless because it ends with Nat, Squiddley, and Jenks, who you might remember from Dice, Camera, Action, grabbing the stone.  But you still have to do well enough to keep your eye on the enemy right?  I’m probably misreading the adventure this sure seems like a plot bottleneck where the adventure needs the players to get this fucking key stone to the treasure.  If you don’t get it then THEN you have to pull a heist on the enemy base.  This would be a lot of work for the DM and very challenging for the players.  Me having no resources and 1/3rd of my HP means my character will probably not want to rush into combat situations.

One other thing that threw me here is that the devils we were chasing “just get away” after the Key Stone gets dropped into the sewer.  Instead of continuing your pursuit we just change to a sewer scene.  This made it difficult to explain later to a magistrate judge why exactly we broke off our chase of these devils we were pursuing in defense of the city.

“Why did you go into the sewer instead of going after the devils?”

“I DON’T KNOW, YOUR HONOR, THE DM SAID THE CHASE SCENE WAS OVER.”

This Chapter is intended to end with the players in possession of the key stone to the treasure.  I keep writing it as “key stone” to emphasize the hook and the stakes, something this adventure does not do well enough.  Keep hammering home that the evil villain vexing the PCs needs this money for their plans to succeed and this is the way to do them harm.  The stone is a magic item, which I should mention this adventure has precious few of.  Not surprising for low level characters.  The point here is that a character has to Attune to the stone and then they learn the Vault location and how to get in.  I would suggest you have the stone start speaking right away.  With so few magic items and so few artifacts in D&D none of the players in my group (me included) remembered that “oh yeah attuning is a thing.”

Good thing this encounter ends with you finding the vault because the villain probably IDed you and is blowing up your tavern.

It turns out you need three keys to enter the Vault and the Stone which just tells you where the vault is and what these keys are.  There are eighteen different randomly generated keys.  Most of them call back to moments in the adventure.  If you found the adventure incomprehensible and stopped taking notes at the start of chapter 3 like I did you might be fucked here.  For example, one key is easily obtainable from a shop the players encounter in Chapter 1.  Another is a Drunken Elf, so hire one or an elven PC can get wasted.  Also listed is a Bronze Dragon Scale and it just so happens you can meet one in Chapter 2, hopefully you had that optional encounter.  Some of these are intuitive and fun and some are punishingly difficult to obtain.  It kind of sucks to have a fetch quest at what should be the penultimate moment of the adventure.  Like we were pumped and ready and this is kind of a speed bump puzzle.  But I do like the idea of how this calls back moments from the adventure.  The keys are randomly generated but obviously a DM should mold this to their adventure to not be too easy or too impossible.

The Vault that follows is a nice little dungeon.  Not much in the way of combat and a few nasty traps.  I love adventures with lots of traps that I can steal for other adventures.  After weeks of sewers and chase scenes your players will need a reminder as to how a dungeon works.  It doesn’t overstay its welcome and it gets you to what I assume is the conclusion.  You come at last to the Treasure Hoard and an Adult Gold Dragon.  This is impossible for a 5th level party to defeat.  It all comes down to a Persuasion or Deception check.  The players can gain advantage by bringing a prominent NPC with them…which they have no reason to do.

The pacing of this vault discovery and playthrough is weird.  You found the vault.  Great!  Now go around the city gathering these three keys.  You went through the vault and found the fucking Dragon and the Heisted Gold. Great!  Now leave and return with a prominent NPC to convince this dragon you’re on the level.  It’s okay if this is challenging and I would consider allowing this to proceed without a dice roll.  The players found the gold they should get the sense that they accomplished something.  Don’t deflate them by having a monster they can’t possibly overcome tell them to fuck off.

Your final boss fight occurs as the Villain’s minions attack the PCs on their way out of the dungeon.  How does the villain know where you are when the entire point of the adventure was that no one could find this place without the Key Stone?  Ah fuck it you wanna play D&D or not?  You might get reinforcements from a faction and the adventure allows for the possibility the players will lure their enemies back to the Dragon.  Which would be funny.

And so the PCs have found the hoard of 500,000 gold coins.  The adventure immediately points out that they can’t keep it.  The City of Waterdeep knows it is missing (although the city has sat on its ass in terms of effort to find this gold).  If the PCs don’t hand it over to the city then the city will come after them.  Again, this location can only be found with a secret stone.  “Word will get out.”  From who, exactly?  By the book, the players are allowed to keep 10% which is still considerable.  For parties so inclined there are far worse directions to take a campaign than the PCs trying to hold onto this much money.  I’m reminded of The Shield Season 3 which is all about the Strike Team dealing with aftermath of stealing 2 million dollars from the Armenian Mob.  Leave the stone here, plane shift to Eberron where the good bankers of House Kundarak would be happy to accept an infusion this size and defend those bringing it to them.

The adventure then suggests various people coming to beg them for money.  If you have no intention of following up on any of these hooks or are going to just move onto the next hardcover I wouldn’t include these in the adventure.  I like the hook about a Masked Lord asking them for 10,000 gold (a fifth of what they made) and they have the potential to make an enemy if they refuse but if you’re not going to do anything with it then don’t introduce it.  I wasn’t sure what to make of these.  As a player, I’m all about spreading around Gold to buy influence, that was Tando Tossbottle’s brand, but if you have no intention of allowing players to draw on that influence why bother?

The adventure is now over but the book is only on page 98.   For those capable of math, this is less than half the book.  The next four chapters detail the strongholds and machinations of the adventure villains.  These are Xanathar the Beholder, Evil House Cassalanter, Jarlaxle the Drow Swashbuckler, and Manshoon The Evil Wizard.  Most of the page space here is for their respective Headquarters.  I’ve always found it difficult to write about tactical encounters like this.  By the book you don’t actually need to go to any of these places.  A few of them are mentioned in the Chapter 2 random encounters but those are random encounters that have little to do with the PCs, Dragons or Heists.  This is very lootable material but it has virtually nothing to do with Dragon Heist.

The last chapter of the book is something I expected and was looking forward to, a kind of guide to Waterdeep.  I’ve tried and failed a few times to run a real city campaign but I love books about them.  I very much dig Sharn: City of Towers for the Eberron setting. For The Realms you have Murder in Baldur’s Gate which contains a 30ish page adventure and a 60ish page Guide to Baldur’s Gate.  You also have the 4E Neverwinter book which has a too much Spellplague Nonsense and 4E Crunch but I still like it.

The Waterdeep section is only 26 pages which is hella short compared to other similar texts.  With the extreme focus on the Forgotten Realms Sword Coast we’ve seen in 5th Edition it is strange that we didn’t get a proper Waterdeep focused book until now and 26 pages seems thin.  Then again, quantity does not equal quality.  I’d take 26 well organized good pages over 60 pages of crap.

Opening this up the first page is given over entirely to a description of the Law…again.  It goes Law, Waterdeep History, and then Law Again.  This overemphasis again on the authorities of Waterdeep leads me to ask again, who is the antagonist in Dragon Heist?  What agent or faction is most frequently opposing the goals and actions of the player characters?  If you run the adventure hewing close to the book it has to be the City Watch.

The biggest problem here is that you run the risk of telegraphing to the PCs that they should seek adventure elsewhere.  I get the same vibe from Waterdeep as I get from Thrane in Eberron.  The sense of being unwelcome.  Like John Rambo being run out of a small Podunk town in First Blood.  Waterdeep  is a place where even a Lawful Good character is treated with suspicion and scorn.  This book makes me want to loot this adventure and set it somewhere else.  Most PCs don’t put down deep roots.  If they don’t like where they are they’ll change it or they’ll leave town.  If I had to sell Waterdeep to a party of low level characters…look Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter are right down the road.

Now having said that, if you want to run a game where the players are starting a thieves’ guild or expecting to have repeated confrontations with the City Watch then this is more useful.  If you want to put the players on one distinct side of Law & Order those sections of Dragon Heist become much more relevant.  I would’ve preferred more space devoted to other subject matter.  In my experience most games center on the fight between Good vs. Evil with the PCs more or less on Good’s side.  It isn’t a waste of time to tell a smaller story that focuses more on Law vs Evil.  But it is different and much different than Published 5E To Date.  I picked up Hoard of the Dragon Queen because Adventures Set The Tone For Editions.  Dragon Heist has a different tone than the other 5E adventures which don’t take place in civilization or the civilizations the PCs they encounter are non-human centric or are so beset by evil their ability to enforce law is non-existent.  Port Nyanzaru is a notable exception but you’re not spending more than a couple sessions there.  BTW anyone wants to run a Port Nyanzaru based city campaign I would be down for that shit, Port Nyanzaru is cool.  It’s not cool because it has weak law enforcement, Port Nyanzaru is cool because the pages (its a 21 page section) are filled with interesting material.

The rest of this Waterdeep section is fine.  It goes through the various wards of the city, nobility, and travel within the city.  There’s no listing of shops or NPCs here.  The intention is that you can get these from earlier sections in the book.  The section on Temples gives you an idea of where to find the faithful in Waterdeep if you have a faith based character.  The section is written in a conversational tone as if written by Volo which makes it a better read but is more limiting to a DM looking for hooks for their game.  I have to look askance at spending as long as they do on The Giant Statues around Waterdeep that can come alive to protect it and the holidays of Waterdeep.  At 7 pages, these are 25% of the section, almost as long as the description of the Wards.  I always find holidays difficult to write into an adventure because the DM puts them where needed right?

After this we get into the Appendixes.  Magic items, monsters, lots of humanoid stat blocks which you can never have enough of.  Not sure Hlam the Monk needs a full page since he’s a non-combatant with one scene in this adventure.  Meanwhile Manshoon has to share a page with the Martial Arts Adept reprinted from Volo’s Guide.  Manshoon seems a little feeble compared to the expansive stat block for Jarlaxle.  I think a lot of Manshoon’s punch comes from the idea that he might be using Simulacrum.  Barnibus Blastwind is only a CR 2?  I see why, his Constitution sucks and his spells are entirely given over to criminal investigations rather than anything related to combat.  As a Mary Sue, Jarlaxle has the ability to attune to up to “as many magic items as Jarlaxle has at anytime” which in this case is five.

At some point WotC has to release a PDF of all the custom monsters in their hardcover adventures.  I would definitely buy something that collected that information.

That brings Waterdeep: Dragon Heist to a close.  Now a verdict must be rendered, just as the City Watch judges the PCs.  On some level you can’t take points away from an adventure because, “The DM has to do work.”  Every adventure requires input and creative effort from a DM.

Let me compare this adventure with, “Out of the Abyss.”  In that adventure, the PCs walk through over a thousand miles through the Underdark.  In the first half they run from Drow and Demons.  In the second half they run towards them.  Much of the content there is driven by random encounters as day after day passes in the depths.  Curse of Strahd also asked the DM to roll for frequent random encounters.  For CoS I used them infrequently since there was plenty of content in the adventure itself.  I would roll before a session for encounters and then apply the results or not as best suited the group and the session I wanted.  Out of the Abyss had far wider gaps between non-random content.  Your PCs would go for weeks between locations and the random encounters were critical to filling up the time and level up the PCs.  Dragon Heist, by contrast, is plotted out.  Your PCs come in here.  They do this.  Chapter 2 is up to the DM, but after the fireball happens the plot is linear.  The players follow a set path.

My point here is that when I read Out of the Abyss I wonder how these random encounters will work in practice.  Will the players like them, how many of them do I need to do, when will they get boring?  There is a great deal of uncertainty befitting an adventure about Madness and wandering through the dark.  When I read Dragon Heist I think, “oh okay, you need to introduce this gnome in act 1 so his death is meaningful in act 3.”  The challenges and work I would need to do seem much more direct.  I imagine it is less writing and more editing which sounds easier to run.

I was hostile towards this book when I started reading because I saw its problems first.  A DM needs to rein in the City Watch.  A DM needs to be a fan of the PCs and in turn make Waterdeep grow to be fans of the PCs.  A DM needs to get this hidden backstory and great villains (Anyone But Jarlaxle) in front of the PCs.  A dungeon adventure like Tomb of Annihilation or even Curse of Strahd is for the most part a recipe.  Follow it and you wind up with something pretty good.  This is the first time the players and maybe even the DM have been thrust into a City Campaign and it just isn’t the same.  It’s a conversation, not a recipe and some people will find they prefer one to the other.

This isn’t to say I’ve turned a lot more positive on the adventure.  I don’t care for Waterdeep itself as much as other D&D cities I’ve ready about like Sharn or Baldur’s Gate.  Waterdeep and this adventure lack strong hooks.  The gold hoard and the bar in Trollskull Alley attempt to manufacture this but they’re islands amidst a bland sea.  Waterdeep is kind of generic and while that may be a feature not a bug of the biggest city in this Generic Kitchen Sink Setting it sure doesn’t make me want to run an adventure here.  I suspect part of the reason Waterdeep played so little part in the adventures from previous books is because Waterdeep is easy to ignore.  It doesn’t need the PCs to help it.

For Dragon Heist a big part of this is because it is low level.  The adventure itself covers levels 1-5 although the hideouts of the four villains would suit higher level characters well.  I would go one step further and say this adventure is designed for less experienced players more than low level characters.  The City Watch and Renaer Neverember are often brought up as suggestions to bail the PCs out if they’re in over their heads.  I wonder if this appeal to new players is coloring my enjoyment.  At this point I’ve been playing 5E for years and more often than I played previous editions.  If I never have to be a level 1 5E PC again it’ll be too soon.  For me, 5E D&D starts at 3rd Level and the game starts to get good at 5th level.  Being asked to fight a giant rat in the sewer was the closest I’ve ever come to staring at a DM’s question, saying no, and then crossing my arms to wait to see what else they had.  I can see the training wheels and they make me want to rebel.  I chuckle at the idea of coming back to this adventure for a speed run with high level characters where magic would trivialize many of the obstacles.  The game really started to pickup at the end when we felt stronger and more capable.  We felt like real adventurers!

I will say that this adventure is a win for putting more diversity in games.  There are Trans, Gay, and Nonbinary NPCs and they’re right on Trollskull Alley where the PCs will interact with them on a regular basis.

What we’re left with is a low level adventure in a setting I don’t like but the story is good if you edit it to be clearer and about the PCs more.  It is a quicker adventure and smaller story than previous hardcovers and I think their long length is a point against the other published hardcovers.  I think I would enjoy running this adventure more than I did playing it.  Having played it, I have a hard time giving it a straight good or bad.  The villains and plot is in dire need of a few edits to make them work better.  The 1st Level section goes on for too damn long.  I think the difference here is that we need judge an adventure in two ways.  I’ve judged previous adventures for how enjoyable they were to read.  But adventures also need to be judged on how they land with the players.  Our DM did a good job and I appreciate how transparent they were about the parts of the adventure they didn’t like which made reading this easier.

On the whole though this one leaves me tepid.  I said Storm King’s Thunder was a nice tool to have rather than a fun adventure to play and I feel similar here.  There are toys in this sandbox but they weren’t that interesting and every twenty minutes someone came along to tell me how The Code Legal says I should play with them.

Savitri: The Final Form

A few years ago I ran a Dark Sun campaign for 4th Edition D&D. It was a good campaign, one with plenty of maps and ideas I would reuse if I ever ran Dark Sun again.  But there was one thing about it that drove me up the wall.  One player, every 3-5 sessions, would come in with a new character.  One session he went out of his way to annoy the Sorcerer King Andropinis who, in his infinite mercy, only killed the one person irritating him.

Now, being a shy motherfucker I have trouble disciplining problem players.  This is exacerbated in an online game where no one has ever met.  And the problem player in question organized the campaign.

As an aside, the best campaigns I’ve run, 4E Dark Sun, Curse of Strahd, Dragon Age, have all been campaigns where someone else initiated the game and brought me in as a hired gun to DM.  Just an aside.

I bring this up as an example of Crap I Do Not Like.  I prefer to get into one character then stick with that character.  And as a DM it absolutely infuriates me to write a plot for a specific character only to have that character no longer in the story.  How much bad television (Dax anyone?) stems from when an actor was poorly written out of a series for off-camera reasons.  I don’t like when other people do it yet I’ve found myself doing it repeatedly the last few weeks of Dragon Heist.

A fuller Dragon Heist review will be coming once we complete the adventure.  I can’t tell how much more there is to go.  We are level 5 in the levels 1-5 adventure so I suspect we’re in the last act but there’s nothing to tell us that.  There is no Castle Ravenloft, no Well of Dragons, on the horizon to suggest the definitive final dungeon.

Adventure League rules encourage the creation of numerous new characters rather than playing one character in one story.  So in my headcanon I imagine all of my PCs knowing each other and together they might form a competent adventuring party.  I already had a Rogue, Warlock, and Barbarian, so our team needs a healer.  By happy fortune so did my group about to play Dragon Heist.  During Tomb of Annihilation I found that our group tended to punch well above their weight in combat.  So I planned to play an Aasimar Knowledge Cleric.  This noble soul was the reincarnated will of Savras.  They were sent from the heavens to catalog and learn about the great mortal city of Waterdeep.

No plan survives contact with the enemy.  I kind of picture Savitri’s journey to Waterdeep as the alien who has only learned the good things about earth landing in grimy 1970s New York to try and make friends.  It just was not working.  Part of that is that at low levels the Knowledge Cleric is not very good relative to other “magic classes.”  It does not deal comparable damage.  This is the curse of the Bard and Cleric.  You hand out Gatorade while other people play the game.  4th Edition and 5th Edition have fixed this but maybe not for the Knowledge Cleric at Low Levels.  If you’re doing an urban adventure with lots of NPCs and intrigue and maybe doing a combat every other week, the Knowledge Cleric would be great at that.  If you’re doing a D&D game with the normal (higher than I enjoy) amount of combat maybe something like the War, Life, or Light Clerics would feel more enjoyable.

I started looking for other options.  I still wanted to stay in this support role.  As an Aasimar with +2 Charisma my eyes began looking towards The Bard.  And lo and behold our Glamour Bard had decided to join the August ranks and switch their character to a Cleric.  Then the player left the group.  They had been a high AC character so I decided to go from Protector Aasimar Knowledge Cleric to Fallen Aasimar Valor Bard.  This also coincided with my own IRL disillusionment with Dragon Heist.  The opening, tavern-keeping, and the “Stone of Golorr” hunt fell flat for me.  This all culminated in an episode where we put our trust in the city watch, because they’ve been harassing us at every turn.  The city watch failed.  At that point I felt comfortable saying, “I am a Fallen Aasimar.”  Savitri is a bit more bitter and cynical.

Valor Bard seemed like the better choice due to that medium armor proficiency.  It’s true that our party is heavy on spellcasting and short on meat shields.  But a Bard is not a Paladin and valor is a poor substitute for Heavy Armor.  Much of the Valor Bard’s punch comes from getting that second attack at level 6, which we’ll never get to in this adventure.  I think in the short term it might be more beneficial to really lean into the Caster Bard rather than the Combatant Bard.

The Lore Bard also benefits more from being the “Scourge Aasimar” which is closer to where I see Savitri.  While the other two Aasimar are straightforward angel/fallen angel parallels, the Scourge devotes itself to pursuit of righteous justice.  The Lawful Neutral to the Protector Aasimar’s Lawful Good.  In the meta of the adventure this also works well to mimic my earlier optimism about Dragon Heist to my current more jaded and critical attitude.

I started writing this to castigate myself for respeccing my character, not to summarize the changes.  When you start seeing your character less as a character in a story and more like an extension of yourself with stats and magic adherence to those stats becomes negotiable.  This is truer with Savitri being my first foray into playing a spellcaster in 5th Edition in a sustained game.  The Bard is Just Better than the Knowledge Cleric, at least at low levels.  I’ve never played any of these classes and I don’t know what the bad choices are.

This becomes easier to justify with Adventurer League’s stipulation that you can rebuild your character as much as you want under 5th level.  At this point for Dragon Heist our group has junked the AL rules because they don’t work for the hardcovers while keeping the parts that benefit us.

Again it is difficult to feel conflicted about respeccing under these circumstances despite being something I dislike when players do it to me.  Is this hypocrisy or just fantasy?