Eberron: Boromar Ball

Boromar Ball is the third Adventurer’s League adventure set in the Eberron campaign setting.  I gave a negative review to the first release, What’s Past is Prologue. Based on the weakness of that adventure I decided to wait on picking up the second adventure, Murder in Skyway.  But this was one I really wanted.  I will buy any adventure that features the PCs crashing a fancy party.  They’re always a hoot and it’s a trope that I want in every campaign I run.

But because this is the third adventure, I need to figure out what I missed plotwise.  It seems that the Boromar Clan (The Halfling Mafia) have stolen a message from The Swords of Liberty, an anti-monarchy terrorist group in Breland.  The message was to Merrix d’Cannith, the Lex Luthor/Tony Stark of House Cannith.  The message is at the Boromar’s compound in Sharn.  It’s encoded, but they will break it eventually.  Fortunately, the clan is holding a party in a couple days which provides an ideal time to steal the message.

I like the way the adventure describes NPCs.  The member of the Sharn City Watch who gives them the quest is described as “the earnest young cop” on a TV show.  A Halfling Fence with an axe to grind against the Boromars is an “insufferable barista/pawn shop owner with a bit of charm.”

I have mixed feelings on the way this scene with the Halfling Fence who has the information the PCs need.  The important things to communicate here are 1) the message is at the Boromar mansion and there’s a party tomorrow. and 2) For some money he is willing to provide a sketch of the grounds with information about security.  For what it’s worth, I’m going to start taking points off adventures that ask the PCs to provide bribes to NPCs.  Gold is too scarce now to waste on plot coupons.  Fortunately, the PCs don’t NEED this information.  I do like that the adventure says if they Intimidate the guy he tells the Boromars that they’re coming.

Also this adventure carries over the “Playing the Pillars” sidebar that was in the last adventure I read.  I’m not a fan of this sidebar because it seems pointless.  I get why they think they need to put it in.  Because This Is Season 8 Goddamn It and we are going to break the reputation Adventurer’s League/Organized Play has of being all combat adventures with lousy opportunities for roleplaying.  The problem is that this the scene where you give the players the job.  It is BY DEFINITION a roleplaying scene with NO COMBAT and NO EXPLORATION.  Hell it is hardly a roleplaying scene.  For a combat option, the adventure suggests throwing in a mugging or barfight.  If you throw in a barfight here at the start of the adventure you are the wasting the player’s time.  For the exploration pillar, the adventure says maybe the PCs try to infiltrate the Boromar compound early which means the party isn’t going on but the security is all there which isn’t really exploration, it’s the PCs skipping parts of the adventure. It’s not smart but it’s certainly not exploration.  Then for the Social Pillar it suggests that the bartender keeps interjecting with games of chance and bets.  That’s not social, that is adding to the scene.  It has no bearing on the adventure or playing the existing scene.  It’s jangling keys to no purpose.  It feels like I’m getting bent out of shape over this minor thing but this sidebar just baffles me.

I’m convinced that The Powers of WOTC are putting a gun to the writer’s head saying this sidebar must be included for each “act” of the adventure.  I’m convinced of this because I have yet to see one of these sidebars make sense.  It’s the scene where the goddamn PCs get information about the goddamn adventure.  There is no goddamn opportunity for goddamn combat or goddamn exploration.  Y’all, the objective of Season 8 re-formatting should be providing ALTERNATE methods of achieving objectives and more specifically LESS COMBAT.  Not jamming a barfight at the start of the adventure for no story reason.

*Sigh*

As an optional objective the PCs can plan for their heist…Wait why wouldn’t they?  Okay anyways, the adventure suggests that everyone has time to do one thing in preparation.  Right away, throw that out, the PCs have 24 hours worth of actions to prepare.  I would also throw out the Gold costs for forging a document if the PCs have a Forgery Kit or Disguise Kit to make a disguise.  Hopefully someone gathers information because that would tell the PCs that the party is Invitation Only.  Other curious things the PCs can learn are that the Boromars have lots of rare art, there’s a fireworks show, the cops in this area are on the take,  the party is being catered, and most interesting, there’s a secret tunnel to the mansion.  Not sure that’s DC 10 information but whatever.

I like the description of the party, at least what little there is.  It’s full of NPCs and guards and potential things to do.  You could very easily level up the security here to use this map for a different adventure.  Although I would suggest increasing the treasure if only to tempt stupid PCs who might think to steal traceable art and jewels from the Mafia.

I like this map but there really isn’t as much description of the party as one might hope.  There are NPCs but not really anyone who stands out.  There are no hooks for future adventures.  There are no suggestions for how to proceed in the adventure, it kind of just hopes you figure it out.  There is nothing that suggests, “A PC invites The NPC with the key to the safe to dance and lifts it during the performance.”  Or say, “We punch out a guard and the Halfling PC takes their uniform.”

The adventure spends too many paragraphs describing the halfling villa rather than providing interesting things to do at this party.  I would rather have a map of one ballroom loaded with NPCs and people to talk to rather than an exhaustive map of the mansion with its closets and bedrooms.  The implication here is that the mission here is stealth rather than subterfuge.  The writer put more thought into describing this map than describing the story and the adventure which is unfortunate.

Curiously there is no stupid sidebar about playing the pillars here in the meat of the adventure where I would expect to see one.

There are a couple bonuses objectives.  The first one is that the PCs could go to the Cogs to prevent Daask, a smaller and more violent criminal organization from bombing the party.  There is no option given for capturing the bomb at the party or what the bomb will do, specifically, to the mansion.  Really it’s just an optional combat.  More canny players would probably want the bomb to go off if only to strike a blow against the Boromar Clan.  There is also the possibility that maybe the characters are chased.  Again this is just for the sake of having a combat which is smart since someone probably wants to get in a fight by this point.

I like this adventure a hell of a lot more than “What’s Past is Prologue.”  If anything it provides better bones for a great adventure rather than being a great adventure but it is refreshing to see something for AL that really is combat optional, the idiotic suggesting of a bar fight notwithstanding.  I would give this one a B-.  It’s very straightforward and the whole Party Scene is just not fleshed out enough to be more than adequate.

Running Shadowrun in Fantasy Flight’s Genesys

A few years ago I started reading about Shadowrun.  Probably the most prominent of the “cyberpunk” genre of TTRPGs it also blends in fantasy as well.  The setting lore is a fun read.  The game though…

Shadowrun 5th Edition is a rat’s nest of options and rules and granular details that just do not add to making the game more goddamn fun.  Right now if I want to play an RPG I’d probably want to reach for D&D 5E, Dragon/Fantasy Age, or Dungeon World.  All three of these are “rules light” systems.  I work about 50-60 hours a week (hey future me, is life any better?) .  I don’t have time for Eclipse Phase, or Dark Heresy even Pathfinder, I just, I need to be a bit judicious on how I spend the time I have to waste.  Or if I’m going to pay the iron price at work and write down adventure ideas.  However intriguing, Shadowrun just isn’t going to happen with other games on the market with a tenth of the rules.

Enter Fantasy Flight Game’s Genesys system.  You might’ve seen the Penny Arcade crew playing the Star Wars system “Edge of the Empire” at PAX Australia.   Genesys is the generic version of that system.  It markets itself as being adaptable to any genre.  A few genres are in the core book based on FFG’s other IPs, Runebound, Twilight Imperium, Tannhauser, and most relevant to you and I, a science fiction cyberpunk setting called Android.  This was used for a CCG called Netrunner which I’ve never played.  But the genesys system offers a relatively rules light, well-regarded possibility of a cyberpunk system that would meet my wishes.

There is a contradiction here though.  People play Shadowrun in part for that rat’s nest.  Each splatbook has added hundreds upon hundreds of pages of rules and spells and gear.  Someone out there wants that.  Someone out there wants to find that poorly written Shotgun in a splatbook that can actually be as good as a sniper rifle with when combined with the right gear and the right talent/feat/ability.  You reach for 4E when you want tactical grid combat and you don’t reach for Shadowrun when you want a simple rules light system.  But good story, and Genesys’s narrative dice system can potentially deliver a good story, good story is like a good burger or glass of good wine or an adorable kitty.  There’s always a market for it and even if you don’t think you want it somehow you can make time for it.

Genesys does have a big multifaceted flaw.  It’s big enough to be considered a series of flaws and that is you have to do a ton of work to actually make the game you know, function.  Races, talents, skills, monsters, gear, the core rulebook doesn’t really give you enough to start playing out of the gate.  So what I’d like to do here in this post is write what’s needed to turn what little actually in the core rulebook into something playable.

I should point out that at least one person has actually done a very comprehensive conversion of Shadowrun into the Genesys ruleset.  I find these to be too detailed and rules heavy for my taste.  I really like something more stripped down not because I’m lazy and stupid but because I’ve never actually played this at the table and neither have the players I’d be introducing this to.

The best place to start is trying to make some pre-generated characters for people to use.  This will run me through most of the rules to really bring characters that function to the table.  Let’s start with Races.  Fortunately the Genesys Core Rulebook does you some favors here.  Shadowrun has 5 races you can play without reaching for a splatbook: Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and Trolls.  The Fantasy section of the Genesys core book gives you all of those except Trolls.  Races in Genesys are short enough that you can kind of understand how they are balanced against each other.

Warning up front, from here on in we get deep into the weeds of rules for the Genesys Core Rulebook.  This might be really boring, especially if you don’t have the book to sort of follow along with me.  This will be more interesting to people who want to play Shadowrun/Genesys and are trying to find the limit for how much BS I’ll be willing to tolerate at the table.

Races, Specifically Trolls

Compared to D&D, the Genesys races are far shorter and the system is a lot more transparent about what each option is “worth”.  This is intentional; they want you to be able design your own races.  Because of that, each part of the race is assigned a specific “XP Value” and then balanced against each other.

Everything is based around the default Human.  Default Human has a “2” in all their ability scores, very similar to D&D.  You have six abilities: Brawn, Agility, Intellect, Cunning, Willpower, and Presence.  Brawn is a bit of a combo between Strength and Constitution, Cunning is a bit of Intelligence and Charisma.  Default Human has one special ability, “Once per session you can move a story point from the GM’s pool to the PC pool.”  Genesys story points are basically Inspiration.  Default Human gets 1 “rank” in two different “Non-Career” skills.  At character creation you have career skills and non-career skills.  Career skills you get one free point in and they’re cheaper to upgrade.  Default Human finishes off with 110 XP spend on skills, abilities, and talents (the feats of Genesys).  This is very similar to character creation in Shadowrun where you spend points on skills and various other qualities.

From this model all other Races flow.  The Core Rulebook has several different examples of Human.  These all have one “3” in one ability score, one “1” in another ability score, “2” in everything else.  Each other type of Human (Laborer, Intellectual, Aristocrat) has one rank in a specific skill rather than one specific skill.  This is kind of balanced against Default Human, you either pick two non-career skills or any one skill.  Each has an ability that does something to Story Points.

Some of the Humans have 12 Brawn (your HP) with 8 Strain (your mental HP) and some are vice versa instead of the default 10 HP, 10 Strain.  These other humans also each have 100 XP to spend instead of 110 XP like Default.  The idea is that this is a modular RPG.  You could just as easily call the “Laborer” Human a Dwarf instead.

The fantasy section of the Core Book has Elves, Dwarves and Orcs.

Dwarves have 11 Brawn, 10 Strain, Darkvision, +1 Rank in the Resilience Skill, and a special ability to shrug off one critical hit per session by spending a story point.  This is the same special ability as the “Laborer” human earlier in the book.  They have 90 XP to spend on other stuff.

Elves have 9 Brawn, 10 Strain, +1 Rank in Perception, and a Melee/Ranged Defense of 1. This makes them harder to hit in combat. They have 90 XP to spend on other stuff.

Orcs have 12 Brawn, 8 Strain, +1 Rank in Coercion, and a Berserker ability that allows them to do more damage at the risk of a lower chance to hit/causing “threat” from the dice. They have 100 XP to spend on other stuff.

All three races have the ability array of one “3”, one “1”, and “2” in the rest of their abilities.  I think these are fairly decent and logical builds.  They are comparable to the Shadowrun versions of these races.  A player moving from Shadowrun to Genesys would be happy with these.  This isn’t like Eberron where Orcs are Druids or Dark Sun where Elves and Dwarves are well…the same ruleswise but culturally different.

Let’s take a quick moment to contrast this with D&D.  The Ghostwise Halfling in SCAG has +1 Wisdom and 30 foot telepathy with one creature.  The Stout Halfling has Poison Resistance and +1 Con.  The Lightfoot Halfling has +1 Charisma and can hide behind a larger creature.  The designers are telling you that they feel in the system these options are all relatively balanced against each other.  Now, as far as balancing those options and the longer list of Halfling abilities against 5E Dwarves, Elves, Dragonborn and the other races that I feel less certain about.

There is one Genesys splatbook out so far that contains alternate versions of all these races.  This is called, “Realms of Terrinoth.”  Most of it is lore and fluff about FFG’s proprietary Fantasy IP that I don’t care about.  I was actually really surprised when I got it how little crunch there was.  There’s almost no expansion of the magic rules in the Core Rulebook although it does have plenty of Fantasy gear and Talents.  But it does contain alternate versions of these three races and others specific to the setting.  There are like three different types each of Dwarves, Elves and Orcs.  But I think the Genesys Core Rulebook offers fantasy races would please everyone who wants to use this system to play Shadowrun.

So looking at all this information I have one question.  How do I use these rules to make a Shadowrun Troll?  What defines a Troll in this setting?  Well, they’re bigger, stronger, and tougher.  But compared to other races, they’re a bit slower if not necessarily stupider.  They have darkvision.  They have reach in melee.  And they have natural armor.

Lo and behold, the Genesys book does have some guidelines for designing a race.  They suggest sticking with the 3/1/2/2/2/2 model for ability scores with 100 XP.  They explain that Default Human starts with 110 XP because to increase a stat to 3 and decrease a stat to 1 will cost you 10 XP in the math of the system.

Increasing the Brawn of the Troll seems like it fits.  Giving the Troll Race a 3 in Brawn and 12 HP fits the Shadowrun model.  For their 1, Agility seems to make sense.  Remove 5 XP for the +2 HP. Dark Vision takes another 5 XP.  For the armor, the best way to simulate that is with something Genesys calls “Soak”.  This is damage reduction.  Giving a Troll +1 Soak will simulate their natural armor.  10 XP seems a fair price for that.  All in this gives you 80 XP total to spend on other stuff.  This doesn’t have a skill though.  Brawl (for unarmed combat) or Athletics would make sense, although this might be overpowered since the Troll already has a 3 in the Brawn ability.  Also, giving yourself a Soak of +1 is actually a Tier 4 talent which is very high level.  I think this is balanced as is.  The Elf Defense increase is also a Tier 4 Talent.  I think it would still be balanced at 75 XP but 80 seems fair and I like the idea of skilled characters.

So all in that gives us a The Shadowrun Troll Race at 12 HP, 10 Strain, Darkvision, +1 Soak, 3 Brawn, 1 Agility, 2 in all others with 80 XP to spend on other stuff.  By the guidelines of the rulebook that is a balanced race.

Gear

Next up we need to talk about gear.  Talents are another thing you can design, but that seems a bit labor intensive, I think we’ll leave those alone for now.  Gear however is very near and dear to the Shadowrunner’s heart.  Basically the way you improve a character in Shadowrun is either through magic or gear.  Fortunately Genesys has a fairly intuitive system in that an item should either give or reduce the number of Boost Dice (blue d6s) or setback dice (black d6s).  And because Shadowrun is a system where all things are possible through technology, the PC can tell me what they want to achieve and we can work that out.  The idea here is that any gear a player might want is going to give you those Boost dice or take away Setback dice.  What the gear actually is matters less.

Cyberware is another big part of Shadowrun, this is basically cybernetics or robotic parts grafted on to yourself.  The core rulebook does have very simple straightforward ideas for this where each “implant” or cyborg part boosts one of your stats by one point but they each cost one point of Strain from your threshold.  This is a bit awkward because Strain is non-lethal damage.  So you could increase your Brawn, your physical HP, but make yourself easier to knock out. This still fits the Shadowrun model where Cyberware costs you Essence, which is your limit on how much Cyberware you can have.  In Shadowrun if you cast magic, you need as much Essence as possible, meaning no cyberware.  If you don’t need magic, get some cyberware and boost your shit.  The exception there would be Charismatic characters that take strain in “social combat.”  Those people want strain has high as they can get.  So for example, in Shadowrun you might get a pair of cybernetic legs and there are probably 400 different things you could do with them each thing costing different amounts of essence.  In Genesys, things are simpler, you get your cyber legs, they increase your agility by 1, it takes 1 point off your Strain threshold.  Shadowrun also has Bioware and Deltaware which are really just the same as Cyberware, a bonus of some kind that costs you Essence, those two just cost less Essence but cost way more money.  I don’t think we need to go into that level of detail yet for Genesys.

Skills and Hacking

Skills are another thing that Genesys asks you to make up on your own but to a far lesser degree.  The core rulebook already has a robust array of skills relevant to a Sci-Fi setting like Shadowrun.  I went through and selected the skills that are relevant to the setting.  For Sci-Fi, this means we don’t need the Riding skill but we do need the Piloting and Mechanics skills.  In a Fantasy setting, you split up the melee combat skill into Melee Light and Melee Heavy to symbolize fighting with a dagger versus fighting with a battleaxe.  A Sci-Fi setting just has the Melee skill but splits up Ranged combat into Ranged Light (Handguns) and Ranged Heavy (Assault Rifles).

For skills custom to the Shadowrun Setting the only thing I could think of are Languages.  Being a Cyberpunk Earth about 150 years into the future this is not a setting where everyone just speaks English/The Common Tongue.  A PC in Shadowrun can expect to hear Japanese, Chinese, Elvish, Spanish, various Native American languages and literally any other real language you can think of.  Those are just the ones most common to Seattle, where Shadowrun takes place.  In Shadowrun you can invest you skill points into various languages going from basic proficiency up to native speaker capability.  The Genesys rules don’t address this at all and mentions in the description of the Space Opera genre that language barriers don’t really exist there as if approached with any kind of realism it wouldn’t make things more fun.  As much as I want to offer players the chance to use Languages to shape their characters I’m not sure there’s a great way to do it in this ruleset.

Computers is a skill used in non-fantasy settings but the Rulebook advises that if you plan to make Hacking a part of your game then it advises you split the skill in two.  Like Melee or Ranged combat.  In this case, it advises you split them into Hacking (Offense against computers) and Sysops (for defending against Hacking)

Magic

Magic in the Genesys system is something that I’d like to see work at a table before I pass judgement on try to fix it.  In Shadowrun at its most basic, you pay for spells with XP (Karma in the system).  In Genesys you point points into a Magic skill.  The Core book has Arcane, Divine, and Primal as the three magic skills just as Melee Light and Melee Heavy are for melee combat.  The book then suggests a few different broad categories of spells.  Blast for your standard wizard evocations like magic missile.  Augment, Barrier, Conjuration, and a catch-all called Utility.  There’s a menu of mechanical effects that “one spell” can cast and then for each additional effect you put on a spell it makes the spell harder to cast by adding an additional Purple D8 up to five additional dice.

The idea is that each magic skill is supposed to be able to perform only certain functions.  The Arcane skill lets you blast foes with harmful magic but you can’t do that with The Divine skill.  You can heal with The Divine skill but not The Arcane skill.  All three can cast Utility spells.  At least that’s the default.  There’s nothing saying you can’t blast people with Divine magic it’s just not normally how fantasy magic tends to work.  Realms of Terrinoth mimics the core book with the explicit types of spells you can and can’t cast with different forms of magic and then adds Rune and Verse magic on top of that.

The problem with this is that Shadowrun magic is supposed to be extremely broad in application.  Illusions, blasting, healing, conjuring, all of these fall under what a magic user in Shadowrun can do.  The limiting factor is that you can only buy so many spells.  You can’t buy Wish when you first start playing.  But in Genesys if you say, “all effects can be cast by a magic user” you run the risk of making magic too powerful.  One of the things a GM is advised to do is make sure that magic doesn’t make things easier than say, doing them with a skill but really without seeing the system work I just don’t know what kind of brakes or limitations would make it more balanced.

I think for Shadowrun, the Arcane skill gives you your Magics, the Primal skill gives us Shamans, and I suppose you could use the Divine skill to mimic the effects of Adepts.  But you’re not supposed to be all of those things at once.

Conclusion

I think the Core Rulebook has enough to make this work.  Not the hundreds of pages that Shadowrun is known for, but enough.  This doesn’t give a good example of the Physical Adept/Mystic Adept archetype but this is enough to start I think.  With that I think we have enough to start making some pregens.  I’m thinking a Hacker (called Deckers in Shadowrun), a “Street Samurai”, a Weapon Specialist (basically a street samurai without a katana), a Mage, and maybe a face/leader type.

There’s still plenty to look at.  Spirits and elementals are an important part of the Shadowrun rules but I’m not sure how they work even in the Shadowrun rules.  But we can make a Shadowrun character with these rules and we can run some missions with this.  This can work.

I should mention that about two weeks after this post went up Fantasy Flight Games announced “Shadow of the Beanstalk,” a Genesys splatbook set in the Android/Netrunner universe I mentioned earlier.  The Beanstalk refers to that setting’s Space Elevator, a sci-fi concept you can check out on Wikipedia.  It is apparently going to be playable at PAX Unplugged 2018 but I would expect the release to be in Spring 2019, one year after Realms of Terrinoth.

Dragon Heist First Looks

So far so good.  You get a sense that there is definitely a vibrant and large city here to work with.  I like city games, they’re tough to run but they can be very fun.  I’m not crazy about the breadcrumbs trail thing where each bar/shop we go to has someone we ask about the next clue but I’m having too much fun to care.

One weird thing is how ever-present The Law is.  Our party is reminded that the City Watch is on its way to the Yawning Portal.  We walk past a crime scene and the Watch tells us not to get involved.  Every NPC reminds us about the law in the city.  The adventure must be telling the DM to do this.  I’m guessing because this is the first adventure really set in a population center for an extended period of time.  The Laws and Punishment section of the Port Nyanzaru description is basically nothing.  Other adventures have towns and cities but you’re not there very long, they’re not where the adventure is, and many are ruled by the evil aligned NPCs.  I kind of want to tell The Watch, “sorry I guess I’ll go back to the tavern and work on my novel.”  I can appreciate the realism of it, but this is the first adventure I can recall that features being hassled by The Man.

The omnipresent law is juxtaposed against a gang fight between the Xanathar and Zhentarim.  That seems to be something we’re getting involved in but the NPCs are all very furtive and don’t want to volunteer information.  Then the cops tell us to not get involved.  Being Lawful Neutral my inclination is to believe them and not argue.  I can’t tell if we’re supposed to push back against this or listen because our party is leaning towards The Cassalanters as “The Villain” for this playthrough of Dragon Heist.  Word to the wise, if the Gang NPCs and the Cop NPCs keep telling you to not get involved eventually the players will listen to them and not get involved.  It’s like the adventure sets out a hook but then baits it with shit.

We did almost have a moment where the Wild Magic Sorcerer went Murder-Hobo and triggered his wild magic thing in a shop.  As a 1st level character who knows for a fact that reincarnation exists my character would not be too too upset at being fireballed for no reason.  But as a matter of policy I think you want to step on Murder-Hobo behavior and specifically crack down on players damaging other players outside of combat.  From a method actor/storyteller player perspective, my character wouldn’t wanna hang out with someone attacking shopkeepers with chaos magic.  I’ll give it another session before I decide if maybe I want to play a character who would be a bit more tolerant of the chaos-jokey-ness.  The party still needs a cleric, I was hoping to play this cleric.  This gets back to the social contract of the group.  If the group is fine with murder hobo and you’re not, you are the one who needs to change.

The New AL gold rules definitely change playstyle.  NPCs have their hands out for bribes.  The DM is asking “do you walk for hours across the city or do you get a cab?”  These are flavor questions.  They’re important for character and world-building but now you’re demanding a scarce resource for them.  Gold has become a catch-22.  You give PCs too much, nothing has a true cost.  You don’t give them enough, they don’t spend what they have.  It has to be stressful for the DM because you run into situations where the players are expected to either make a persuasion check or bribe someone.  I think we almost ran into this in the Skewered Dragon.  The PCs fail that persuasion check, now they need to get this information from an uncooperative NPC, and no one is going to part with the gold to get this plot coupon.  Now you have a bottleneck in the adventure, which is something you want to avoid at all costs.

I think what has to happen at least while playing a hardcover adventure is you need two gold tracks.  You have your “AL gold” where it’s the fixed quantity per level to be spent on permanent AL stuff.  Your gear.  Your spell components.  Then you have your “Adventure Gold” the rewards indicated by the book.  You have AL rewards that you can take to any AL game and then you have your Disney Dollars, your money that is only worth something at the table during this hardcover.  Because otherwise this doesn’t work.  You can’t gamify a mechanic and abstract it but then the hardcover book still operates as under the simulationist model of “persistent characters in a real world.”

I’m seriously thinking when NPCs offer us a reward to do something, I’m going to ask them to pay it directly to the city wagon drivers or give us some kind of “Volo Bucks” that they will make good on in the event we need to bribe people.  Pay us in anything but gold. Pay us in gift cards.

I think what this first session hammered home for me is that I want to roleplay my character “to a point.”  I have my naïve sage character here to learn everything they can about Waterdeep.  Me the player knows I can’t be wasting money at the trinket shop because money is going to be very scarce and I’ll need it for spell components or When I Really Need It.  My Character is fascinated by the Wild Magic Sorcerer suddenly levitating and summoning unicorns.  Me the Player isn’t going to be writing down 1d10 necrotic damage on my 9 HP 1st level character because The Sorcerer is being a problem player.

Slightly more defensible is the insistence at using Healing Word to heal the dying PC because I don’t technically have the movement to get over to him after the fight’s over and cast Spare The Dying.  I prefer Theater of the Mind so I rolled my eyes at this but the table culture is “we use a grid” so social contract dictates this is the norm even if I disagree.

All in I’m really looking forward to seeing where this goes and exploring the different NPCs we’re going to meet.  I am curious if we will continue to feel the pinch of not having enough gold to feel like real people who would live in this city.  It is very difficult not playing a charismatic character because inevitably persuasion checks are asked for when you talk to people.

I think Mike Shea had mentioned some time ago that Adventurer’s League is almost like a different game on some level for some players.  There are players heavily invested in trading items, collecting magic items, carefully tracking and spending their downtime days.  I look at my complaints and where I’m having trouble and I see that what it fundamentally comes down to is this: I don’t want to engage with the D&D metagame on this high a level.  I’m very happy about having more roleplay and social interaction opportunities in Season 8.  But for the loot changes part of it, this additional abstraction or gamification, whatever you want to call it, that part isn’t for me.  But that part of it is a core part of the social contract you agree to when you play AL. Admitting this makes me feel better, like I’m starting to diagnose my problem in a more constructive way as opposed to bitching on the internet.

I think one thing I can do to help myself is DM more.  When I’m DMing I’m not rolling my eyes at the concept of downtime days, I can run Theater of The Mind, and when I do feel the urge to get on the player side of the screen I have a big pile of rewards I can just spend and not feel the irritation of so much bookkeeping to go along with this fun hobby.

Dragon Age – Getting Out of the Modules

With this new session I’m starting to “feel my legs” is the saying I think I want.  We started with modules, namely, The Dalish Curse to get a handle on the rules.  Then we moved into “Curse of Strahd but set in the Fade.”  Now I feel like I’m comfortable enough with the characters to get out of these modules and really open this campaign up.  I’ve set out some hooks that have nothing to do with published modules and I’m ready to start reeling them in.

We’re still in Curse of Strahd a bit.  Namely, I have some ideas that draw heavily on Argynvostholt, the Wizard of Wines, and the Amber Temple (the dungeon that keeps on giving).

Last session the PCs were headed back to Broken Vale Village (my Barovia analog).  After defeating the evil Bann Doran Tyraxes in the Fade they were put back in the “real” world.  They wanted to check out the village and make sure it still, you know, existed.  I threw in one random wrinkle, there were two children awaiting a pickup to go to the Circle of Magi.  The party immediately decided they were to going to “rescue” these kids.  I figured they might because this is an Anti-Templar party, but I think there’s a big gap between supporting mage freedom vs. actively taking children out of a Chantry.

Hooks I’ve Set Out

The Evil Orlesian Magic SlaveTraders

One idea I think was pretty clever is that the Fade Realm the PCs went into was basically the same place 40 years ago.  This created a reason for when PCs are poking around his library they find a ledger that this evil Bann was selling people, specific magically inclined kids, into slavery rather than sending to the Circle of Magi.  This activity is continuing into the current timeline, although the PCs don’t really know that yet.  As an added twist, the family doing the trading is one that The Party Rogue has a rivalry with.  I figure, this gives the players kind of a big job to do, to expose or stop this ring of slave traders.

I haven’t completely decided what the next step of the chain is here.  It would be logical to say they’re being sent to Tevinter.  But there are any number of factions that might have an interest in siphoning off recruits for the Circle of Magi.  Tevinter obviously, but also the Qunari, Evil Templars, Grey Wardens, or straight up Evil Family of Demon Worshipping Blood Mages.  I would love to get the Qunari into this campaign at some point, this idea needs time to ripen.

Wisdom the Sentient Book

Wisdom is very much My Answer to D&D’s annoying habit of giving you combat capable NPCs in its hardcover advenures.  Full disclosure, I have three PCs in my group so I’m considering that maybe they need someone combat capable to help out.  I’m thinking about it.  Wisdom however, is a spirit possessing an inanimate book.  My original idea was, again inspired by Curse of Strahd, was that instead of gathering three magic items to defeat Strahd: The Tome of Strahd, the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, and the Sun Sword, the PCs would instead gather three items that contained Spirits of Wisdom, Faith, and Valor.  But the party went straight after Strahd and rather than kill them with an overpowered Enemy they weren’t ready for, I decided to subject them to a tough boss fight.  I haven’t decided What To Do with Wisdom yet, but they’re with the party making their opinions known.

Scenic Antiva City

I decided to substitute another NPC for Rudolph Van Richten when the PCs got to Blackmarsh.  When you first meet him in Curse of Strahd, Van Richten is disguised as a half-elf circus performer.  I decided to have my Van Richten also be an Elf Bard and the first accent I pulled out of my ass was kind of Spanish/Italian.  What I did not expect was that one of the players would have a strong attraction to “Antivan Elf Guy.”  Being a DM worth their salt, if a PC expresses a strong interest in something then goddamn it we are going to do that thing.

Like all of these other things, I haven’t really put a ton of thought into what this person’s true goal is.  I came up with a name and have a general idea as far as who they are and what they’re up to looking at ancient Tevinter Ruins and Grey Warden rituals in the Fade.  But goddamn it there is adventure to be had in Antiva City.

The Failed Willpower Save

During the big boss fight in the Fade there was a brief moment of possible TPK.  In Dragon Age, if you hit 0 HP, you have Constitution + 2 Rounds to get healed or get dead.  Two characters were down, the last one barely managed to hold things together.  But, one character did truly die.  Their time ran out.  So, mulling it over, I randomly asked them to make a Willpower (Self-Discipline) test.  They failed.  This test is used in The Fade to resist demonic possession.  I have no idea what I’m going to do with this yet but it is a ticking time bomb I can pull out at any time.

The Tevinter Magister

One thing I wanted to do when I joined this campaign was I really wanted to use the NPC from Dragon Age: Awakening and The Calling named, The Architect.  This is an intelligent Darkspawn trying to “free” the rest of “his people” from the rule of the Old Gods.  It’s rumored that he is one of the Tevinter Magisters who originally entered the Golden City, like Corypheus.  I’m not crazy about the Elven Gods Lore in Dragon Age but the Darkspawn lore I find a lot more interesting.  This is a cool NPC, and I’d like to put in another one of these ancient Tevinter Magisters somewhere in the campaign.

I’m playing with a few different ideas here.  What if one of the Seven Magisters stayed in the fade?  What if they’re possessed by a Remorse demon, wracked with guilt for what they’ve done?  I’m almost picturing a Cole style being but for a Remorse Demon rather than a Compassion Spirit.

Morrigan

Just like one PC expressed a desire to see their Antivan Elf Guy, another PC would very much like to interact with Morrigan.  I have no problem with this.  At some point the PCs will be doing something before they hear a voice call, “Well Well, what have we here?”

Going Home

All three PCs have left home, either Orlais or their Avvar strongholds.  Assuming the campaign keeps going well we’ve got to go back to these places at some point.

But Don’t Prep

One habit I’ve wound up keeping is that while I seem to keep writing down ideas I am only really prepping for a session about one hour prior to starting.  This started out of laziness combined with the fact that I don’t really want to put a lot of prep into an online game for people I don’t really know.  Not that there is much to prep, we play online in theater of the mind.  However, the sessions keep turning out really well so I’m not writing down stats, spells, maps.  I’ll jot down ideas but I don’t do a lot of work prior and things keep going well.

Eberron – What’s Past is Prologue

“What’s Past is Prologue” is a Level Zero adventure, and the first of 12 adventures being released for Eberron.  What that means is that the players are given a pregen and asked to fill in some details about the character like their name and race and background.

The setup of the adventure is very simple.  The PCs are hired in a bar.  They’re accompanying Professor Moonsong, a guy from Morgrave University, to a mysterious location where they will recover arcane artifacts.  There is no mention as to what they’re being paid.  I understand why, because Gold is No Longer A Reward, but it’s weird.  It reads like the PCs are just being impressed into servitude.  They might overhear someone mentioning something about “The Boromars” funding this thing.  The Boromars are a Halfling Clan that acts as the Mafia in Sharn.  They are very cool.

The next morning the PCs board an airship.  It strikes me as weird that the people backing this operation could afford an airship but not Level 1 characters to do the job.  The adventure says that House Lyrander has nothing to do with this ship or this job.  “Not every pilot is a Lyrander Heir and this ship has no affiliation with the house.”  Well actually (there I go) you need the dragonmark to command the elemental and fly the ship.  Also the art that they chose to recycle is a dragonmarked member of House Lyrander.  I guess they’re junking that to make things more flexible.

At this point I go on a tangent.  Skip down to the part that says “okay back to the adventure” if you don’t care.

Okay I can’t put it off anymore we need to point out the elephant in the room.  This adventure has lore errors.  And they’re distracting.  An earlier version of the adventure said in its opening paragraph that the Last War was fought in Cyre, a kingdom to the north.  This page was corrected although the word “Galifar” doesn’t appear in this adventure.  They then repeat the error on page 5, referring to the Civil in the “kingdom” of Cyre.  This will probably get corrected too.  The tone of the flavor text is just off.  It’s not how I think I as an Eberron fan would write it.

I think we Eberron fans need to calm down though.  We got very excited to see that Keith Baker was involved with the release of the Wayfinder’s Guide and that product was very good.  Then this is the second 5E Eberron release and oh no there’s a lore error in the first paragraph.  Put down the torches and pitchforks people.

Let me indulge Eberron Fans for a moment.  If you’re not a fan of the setting skip this paragraph. All right, it was a boneheaded error and I don’t think someone familiar with the setting would’ve made it.  We know Cyre is a province of Galifar and its ruler, Mishann, was the rightful heir to King Jarot before her siblings challenged the succession.  Having said that, the succession politics of Galifar are poorly written.  When the King died, his eldest took over and their five children would become the governors of the five nations of Khorvaire, the continent where Galifar is located.  In the extremely likely event that the heir to the throne does not have five children they just figure it out.  That’s some messy writing and hard to understand if you are brand new to this setting. End paragraph

I think part of the problem here is that the writer(s) seem to be intentionally trying to reduce the number of Proper Nouns.

Take a step back with me.  Eberron is the first campaign setting in 5E where the proper nouns matter.  Think about this for a minute.  The proper nouns matter in Eberron.  Really chew it over.  The Houses, the nations, the NPCs.  Forgotten Realms is so big and so generic that writers can essentially put anything anywhere they want.  Nothing really has weight in that setting.  We’ve had this progression of hardcover adventures all ostensibly in the same canon and nothing really matters.  Dragons steal 75% of the GDP of the Sword Coast and it’s a blip.  Who’s Dagult Neverember?  Who gives a shit?

But in Eberron every PC will have an opinion about the Day of Mourning or Cyre or King Kauis in a way that no one in the Forgotten Realms really gives a shit about Neverwinter.  That’s a fun place to visit, cool name, but it isn’t something you shout as you run into battle.  In Eberron, a DM can ask, “What did your character do in the Last War?”  It’s an instant character building question.  Eberron is full of these kind of questions that immediately say something about your character.  Forgotten Realms doesn’t have this and that makes it a lot easier to say, “My parents were cobblers.  I decided to become an adventurer.”  You can definitely make up more if you want but being from Waterdeep doesn’t suggest a story or differentiate you from other characters in the same way as being someplace in Eberron.

Okay back to the adventure

The Airship takes off the next day.  The players don’t really seem to have anything to do but explore and if they explore they find that the thing is loaded with explosives!  This would explain why level zero PCs were hired, because listen up y’all it’s a sabotage!

The players don’t really have anything to do during this scene as the airship accelerates and rams into another airship that mysteriously appears.  The adventure can’t seem to decide if we’re supposed to use the Thug stats or the Bandit stats for the crew here, both are used in relation to this encounter.  If you decide to fight the crew in the hold, they’re thugs, but on the decks they’re bandits.  Not that it matters though.  It’s just kind of a cutscene as the ships ram into each other, the crews on both ships die, and the PCs are the only survivors.  Mention is made how Professor Moonsong strides onto the deck with like ten wands strapped to his wrists.

There is a little section at the bottom of a page in this chapter called “Playing the Pillars” that describes how to use the three pillars of D&D in this section, those pillars being Combat, Exploration, and Social Interaction.  But the adveture says, well combat isn’t an option, exploration only reveals the ship is packed with explosives, and the NPCs have little to say so social interaction is kind of out.  It feels like the author was required to put this sidebar in here but had no idea what to do with it.  This is understandable because of the new format, but it’s weird.  It’s one thing to tell your authors, “Hey feel free to write an AL adventure with no combat required,” its another thing to say “Each Scene Must Take The Three Pillars Into Consideration and then explain how to use them.”

The adventure expects that the PCs will jump for the other airship as Professor Moonsong and the first ship are destroyed.  The PCs can explore this new airship and find that it was developed without the use of House Lyrander’s dragonmark.  The adventure doesn’t really convey how big a deal this would be in Eberron.  One House breaking another house’s monopoly on their Dragonmarked Magic Stuff is something you could do an entire campaign about.  Again this chapter has a sidebar about “Playing the Pillars” that basically just says “this is a puzzle with no combat or social interaction.”  The writing seems to try and argue that cutting wood to solve the puzzle is a combat option…uhhh…no it isn’t?  The adventure doesn’t point this out as much as it should, but the ship is carrying a cargo loaded with Dragonshards, the rare magical gemstones that act as the fuel for Eberron’s magitech stuff.  That is the important detail in this scene that you want to get across to your players.

So the players need to fix the airship and secure its cargo, a bunch of inert warforged, to get the ship to move again.  Apparently the ship is self-aware or sentient or something because it talks and brings the party back to Sharn.  For those keeping track, Professor Moonsong hired a bunch of nobodies to go on an expedition.  Despite the extremely short distance from the city he managed to finagle an airship, which is extremely expensive, for the sole purpose of blowing it up so he could get a different airship.  The PCs survive and are being brought back to Sharn  where this all started.

The Airship flies itself back to the poor section of Sharn…which is weird…only to find that their faces are on wanted posters.  At this point they’ve been out of the city for like, six hours.  That’s damned fast work.  Also the adventure makes a point of saying that Lower Dura, where the ship docks, is an area the city watch has basically abandoned, yet the players need to be on the lookout for the watch and there are wanted posters.  The objective given here is that the players need to prevent the dock officials from searching the ship and…wait why would the PCs care?  If the ship is searched, the Boromars come after the PCs and there’s a combat.  At that point any logical PC would be surrendering because this is all a Cohen Brothers style misunderstanding.

Okay whatever the PCs get the ship inspected or don’t and now the adventure says “The PCs need to get their ship repaired and Sebastien is the best” woah woah woah “Their Ship?”  Who in the hell said this was their ship?  At this point the PCs should be running away from this thing.  Why would they care?  This is like if you were hired to rob someone’s house and then you hit someone with a car during the getaway and then you decide to wait with them.

After the PCs get “the Ship” repaired or say if they run away from this cursed thing Professor Moonsong shows up.  He apparently survived the crash of the first airship and he just starts monologuing about his Cannith blood and being abandoned by his families but he’ll show them HE’LL SHOW THEM ALL!!  A fight occurs but it doesn’t matter how it goes because the crossbow on the ship automatically shoots the shit out of him and he goes flying off a cliff like Wiley Coyote.  At this point, more Boromar halflings show up and the adventure kind of just assumes the players will jump on the ship which flies them away to safety.

This adventure really needs a synopsis where it lays out the plot to the DM.  Otherwise you’re not really sure what the most important stakes are as you go into each scene.  As a service to you, let me lay this out for you.  Your chief villain, Professor Moonsong, is actually Merrix d’Cannith, an established Eberron NPC who is very much a Lawful Evil, Mad Scientist, Ends Justify Means type.  He has put together a crew that nobody will miss to pull a false flag operation.  He is trying to steal this fancy airship and its cargo of Dragonshards from his own house, House Cannith.  He fails initially, but it seems like such a fancy ship returning to a shithole like Lower Dura is part of the plan.  At this point, the PCs know too much.  Even if they just ran for it, they’re witnesses.  So the Boromars and “Moonsong” come after them and the PCs get away.  The third act here is kind of a mess in terms of what it expects you to do and why you’d want to do it.

I can’t sugarcoat it, this is a bad adventure.  It seems to expect the PCs to take certain actions but doesn’t give a strong enough incentive for the PCs to care about doing those things.  The plot is a series of bottlenecks and if the PCs don’t act a certain way you’re no longer playing the adventure.  This adventure feels like a DC movie in the style of Justice League or Batman vs. Superman.  It is trying to cram in “Things you find in Eberron.”  There are famous NPCs like Merrix d’Cannith and airships and warforged and Boromar halflings and Sharn without an idea of how to make a coherent adventure out of those elements.

This adventure really doesn’t work and requires enough labor on the DM’s part to fix that I can’t recommend you buy this.  A few lore mistakes are easy to fix, the third act isn’t.  Especially since this is a level zero prequel adventure and these are not the PCs you play with going forward.  They become NPCs in the storyline, apparently, but there’s no indication how that will pay off later.

Other Odds and Ends

Slow Progression

I see that this game and Dragon Heist both implore players to use the “slow progression” option.  What this means in the context of the new season 8 Adventurer’s League rules is if you choose to go with “slow progression” you get half of the checkpoints you would normally get to put towards your characters.  This “permits” you to play your character longer at lower levels.

I’m struck with the opinion that this is not my problem.  If your adventure takes x hours to complete, and rewards are given based on playing for x hours, those are the rewards.  I didn’t choose to gatekeep the adventure based on an abstract concept like “Adventurers of 6th Level or Above Need Not Apply.” How about I put those checkpoints towards other characters?  How about I do anything else other than “accept half of the reward out of the kindness of my heart.”  If it’s not a compromise don’t market it like one.  Just tell people, “hardcover adventures give half the rewards because that makes the math work.”  I’m not taking half the reward for a fictional character because a PDF asked nicely.  Does anyone really care if I have I stable of level 3 characters running around?  Or that I’ll keep this level 3 chap going and put these rewards on different characters?  Who’s doing the math here?

I’m not usually the person who complains about what is owed to my fictional character for playing a game I enjoy.  But I also don’t want to be a chump for the sake of not complaining on the internet.

Pricing

I see in the online reviews price is being brought up.  I think the following things are both true.

  • DM’s Guild content has created this kind of race to the bottom pricewise to the point that a creator can’t really make a living wage for writing DM’s Guild content, be they Joe Blow or Established Guild Adept.
  • $4.99 per adventure for a 12 part series of 2-4 hour adventures is a lot of money.

I’m thinking back to my thoughts on the Guild Adept program back when I reviewed Ruins of Hisari (which I recommended buying).  I said the program seems to be aimed at rebuilding the market for short, moderately priced adventures with some guarantee of quality but on terms that are more favorable to Wizards of the Coast.

Having said that, 2-4 hours is a bit shorter than I would like see.  I would much prefer like a 4-6 hour adventure or maybe 6-8?  Not everything needs to be that strict 2-4 hour one-shot formula.  And it’s a 12 part adventure, the adventure itself is not a self-contained story.  With WotC trying to write adventures with less mandatory combat I think by necessity you’re going to have adventures that should take longer as players have fun roleplaying their way through situations.

My “But What About” in this instance is usually, “But What About Whisper of the Vampire’s Blade?”  You can get it on Amazon in hard copy for $10, on Drive Thru for $4.99.  As written, it’s a 3-4 session adventure.  I usually cut it down to about a six hour session when I run it.  It’s part of a series, but the adventure itself tells a complete story.  I think this is the model they should be reaching for.  Instead of twelve, 2-4 hour adventure for five bucks a pop, put together 3-4 adventures that span about twelve sessions and charge $15-20 each.  Maybe I’m hoping for too much, that’s too much project to pull together.  Again, I get that having twelve freelancers each do a one-shot is going to be more profitable to WOTC than 2-3 people who now need to be managed and edited putting together a longer project.

There are adventures in this Embers of the Last War season that I want to buy.  Boromar’s Ball, The Kundarak Job, Blades of Terror, based on the taglines alone these sound like adventures I definitely want to read.  But based on the quality of this Prologue and the pricetag, beyond these three I’m going to wait until I actually run these to pony up for them.

Dragon Heist: Session Zero

We had our session zero for Dragon Heist.  It was fairly low-key, everyone came in with a pretty good idea of the character they wanted to play and I don’t think anyone changed their character too much.  The main thing we established were what languages our various characters spoke to cover multiple bases.

Again let’s think of the goals for creating this Dragon Heist Character.  I’ve already expressed a stated preference to play a Cleric and I think they hit all these points.

First, a character that works at low levels.  While I would really like to do a Rogue/Conjurer Journalist, Dragon Heist is a level 1-5 adventure.  This is the realm best explored by single classed characters.  Fortunately AL Rules allow rebuilding at such low levels.  One of our PCs was taking a hard look at Druid with the Circle of Shepherds but the group consensus was that it was smarter to start Moon Druid and then rebuild to Shepherd later because the Conjuring spells are higher level.

Second, a character who does not know Waterdeep.  Me the player does not know Waterdeep the way I know Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter.  I don’t want to bring a character that makes me constantly think, “Boy this person should really know who The Xanathar is.”  This is expressed by their Aasimar race.

Third, we have some new players and frequent DMs getting a chance to play.  I want them to have a good time.  I should play a more supporting role in the party and give them the chance to put the big damage up on the board and shine the spotlight on them a bit more.  I should not be the Charisma character takes the lead in RP situations.  I want to be the character handing out Gatorade, managing HP scores, and dispensing buffs.  Cleric hits all those marks and the Sage background/Knowledge cleric gives my character the tools to help other people actually solve the problems.

I came away from the session with one idea to ruminate on going forward.  This was the question, “what does your character value?”  The character I’m running is the 4E Deva with multiple past lives, spent chronicling the universe in the service of the deity, Savras.  And there is a sort of problem with this that mirrors the Replicants from Blade Runner which is, the character is formed whole.  You come into the world as a complete adult person with basic skills.  But that person has no concept of emotional intelligence or personal desires.  The character is constantly laboring on chronicling the circumstances around them.  I picture this as information communicated through the holy symbol rather than writing down everything, although me the player will be trying to write down everything.

I can’t remember exactly how the person at the table phrased it, but they asked me what my character valued or desired personally, outside of this sort of greater goal of defining Waterdeep.  And my response was, “I don’t understand that question.”  They’re very much like the Eberron Warforged in a way.  This character didn’t have a childhood, they don’t have an idea that one day they will retire and look back on all their career.  They know, with certainty, that they will be reincarnated and continue their work.  Will it be the same work?  Maybe, maybe you fall and become a lower caste aasimar or even a Rakshasa.

I usually write these centered on my character’s perspective, their experience, and the adventure itself.  That isn’t just narcissism, the other players and DMs might not be okay with me making long posts about their characters and DM styles and I want to be respectful of that.

Story wise, we talked about the choice of villain. Dragon Heist marketing and cultural osmosis has kind of spoiled that this adventure has four potential villains and you can choose one.  It was smart to put this in the marketing because I think some people felt burned by Storm King’s Thunder where you only need to go to one of the five Giant strongholds and the adventure expects you to skip the others.  Putting upfront that the adventure is meant to be replayable is a smart move.  The villain choices put forward are: Jarlaxle, the famous Drow mercenary.  Manshoon, a wizard who founded the Zhentarim, The Xanathar, the beholder who runs the thieves guild named after them, and the Cassalanters, a noble family with infernal connections.

I would love to see what percentage of people go with what villain.  I suspect my thoughts on the subject are not unique.  I really did not want to do the Xanathar.  Coming off Tomb of Annihilation and watching Dice Camera Action I feel Beholdered out.  I suspect with Dungeon of the Mad Mage we’re going to get more Beholders.  I’m good with them for now.  With Jarlaxle I feel like you’re signing up for a whole Drow thing and I just don’t really want to do that.  Does everyone need to speak undercommon?

This leaves Manshoon and the Cassalanters.  As an aasimar cleric, it sounds like they’d have more fun with the fiendish nobles rather than the wizard.  And the twitter buzz has said that the Cassalanter story gets pretty dark and depraved which I’m all for.  The one time we don’t have a Tiefling in our party.

Savitri Part 2: Prepping for Dragon Heist

I won’t be reviewing this adventure because I’m planning to play through it which is a shame because it sounds like a damn good read.  I decided not to write reviews for ToA or a complete Yawning Portal because I have a hard time reading the descriptions for a dungeon.  They’re very technical and I have trouble really understanding them until I’m actually preparing to run them which might be never.  Typically I just read the plot and skip the encounters.  The reviews are looking damn good though and I’m definitely looking forward to picking this one up.

I like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter more than Waterdeep and I’m not sure why that is.  Especially since they are, you know, fictitious.  It’s like the Gate and Neverwinter remind me of Philadelphia and Boston, while Waterdeep reminds me of New York.  I think it’s because Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter have both gotten great sourcebooks in the last 8 years but Waterdeep has not.  It feels bizarre that we’re getting this detailed Waterdeep book 4 years into a D&D edition that has so heavily focused on the Sword Coast section of the Forgotten Realms.  But it seems like a good thing that 5E had a chance to ferment for a few years before they did this.

At first I looked askance at the idea of charging the full $50 hardcover price for a level 1 through 5 adventure.  I knew it was 256 pages but also, how do you spend that long on a level 1-5 campaign?  Storm King’s Thunder has a Level 1-5 section taking up 17 pages, Phandelver is maybe double that.  I kind of assumed that a substantial portion of the book was a long overdue 5E Waterdeep sourcebook and it sounds like that is the case.  I do wonder how long our group is going to spend on Dragon Heist.  Based on the twitter buzz it really does seem like your PCs are encouraged to wallow around and enjoy themselves.  One would normally think a “heist” would be on a timetable but I think that was called out as a problem in Tomb of Annihilation.  Putting the PCs on a literal deadline just meant they couldn’t enjoy the wonders of Port Nyanzaru or explore Chult at the optimal low levels to do so.

I’ve found in 5E that players ought to be 3rd Level within one and a half sessions.  From 3rd to about 10th level you really get into that Goldilocks sweet spot.  From 10th Level onward it gets very difficult to challenge the PCs but 1st & 2nd levels characters have so many limitations they sometimes just don’t feel like competent adventurers.  I have this dread sense that we’re going to be level 1 and 2 for 2/5ths of the adventure and that’s just not how 5E works best guys.  The game starts at level 3, most of the interesting class defining choices kick in at level 3.  That doesn’t really apply to me since I’m playing The Cleric where Domain is level 1, but the channel divinity is level 2.

I have actually come up with a hook for my character, my Aasimar Knowledge Cleric.  When making a character, you always want to ask yourself, why is this person here?  Why don’t they go home and make an honest living without having orcs swing axes at their heads?  Why are they camping out with 3-6 other chuckeheads in some goddamn tomb when they could be anywhere else?  My thinking is that this character is one of the deity Savras’s many “eyes” for lack of a better word throughout the multiverse.  They are tasked with seeing and learning all.  This being has been tasked with learning Waterdeep.  That’s it.  “Define Waterdeep.”  They’re learning all the people, places, things, and anything else in the city.  There are then the secondary goals of attracting followers to the Deity and compensating the city through good works.

This gives my character a reason to talk to every NPC, check out every tavern and guildhall, and pickup every hook the DM is laying down with the goal of defining Waterdeep which is a great pairing for the unofficial Waterdeep sourcebook.  The character is almost like a droid or replicant in its kind of “intelligent but socially inexperienced” nature.  It’s sort of like Ford Prefect crossed with a Missionary.  It’s definitely a fish out of water character which I seem to gravitate to.  Mechanically, I’d be planning to go Knowledge Cleric all the way.  I’ll spread out my stats and plan to prepare Enhance Ability so this character can theoretically be good at any skill, at least a couple times per day.  With the Aasimar +2 Charisma this might be better expressed as a Lore Bard, but I really want that Divine angle.  Tando would’ve been better as a Bard or Swashbuckler too but Mastermind felt right for him and Cleric feels the same way for Savitri.

Sometimes it’s helpful to think about your character in relation to other fictional characters.  For example, Nymeros the Triton Barbarian has a lot in common with Drax the Destroyer.  When I think about roleplaying that character I can think, what would Aquatic Drax do?  Obviously you don’t want to lean on that too heavily but it can be helpful in a pinch.  For this character I can think of three inspirations.  First, Brainiac from the Superman series.  For me, I tend to think of the Warner Brothers Animated Series first.  In that canon, Brainiac seeks to gather all the knowledge of a given planet and then destroys it.  This is perhaps a benevolent version of that character.  For that reason the second inspiration is Geno, the living doll from Super Mario RPG.  In that GREAT video game for SNES, the bad guy lands in the Mushroom Kingdom but he blows through heaven on his way there.  So the Heavens send this spirit to help Mario fix things and it inhabits this action figure/doll named Geno.  These two characters also speak to another thing, when I started this I really wanted to play a non-male character and it seems to make sense that this character is non-binary or agender.  Again, this is very much not the 5E Aasimar but it’s much closer to the 4E Deva in terms of lore.  Last character I thought of was Dax from Star Trek Deep Space Nine.  This speaks to the Deva Lore that they are continuously reincarnated and have past lives that they remember in flashes and whispers.

I think this’ll be a lot of fun and I can sort of playtest the concept the next game when we wrap up The Tortle Package.

Savitri the Knowledge Cleric

My eyes now turn to making a character for Dragon Heist.

A while back I played in a one shot game set in Ravenloft.  I decided to play a Halfling Knowledge Cleric.  I had a few reasons for this.  One, I didn’t know these guys and no group has ever turned away a cleric.  Two, going into a Ravenloft game with no real plan I decided my concept for the character would be the protagonist from HP Lovecraft’s “Shadow of Innsmouth.”  He was basically a Miskatonic University professor who wandered into Ravenloft and was in way over his head.  Which was basically how I felt driving an hour away to meet in-person a bunch of guys I only knew online.

A few months ago, we decided to play through a low-level adventure.  I had Dungeon Master Reward XP set aside for a couple low level characters but I haven’t designed them yet.  While I’m quite keen to play a warlock or bard for a long running game I decided to bring my Cleric back.  My biggest problem with this is that I don’t really know the Forgotten Realms well enough to fit him into the world.  He was just kind of this milksop Candlekeep sage without a lot of reason to be out adventuring.

Fortunately, the AL rules allow one to rebuild low level characters.  Not that you really need permission.  Just try something else if you hate the choice you made, don’t abuse this, and don’t call attention to it.  This is supposed to be a fun hobby, guys.

So I began looking through the books.  From a mechanical standpoint, getting to that 16 at first level really feels important for a spellcaster.  It’s fun to be competent.  I want to have a +1 to Wisdom.  I thought about being a Ghostwise Halfling but it feels very gamey and I don’t really understand the race.  I’d be doing it for the +1 Wisdom, not because I really want to play a Ghostwise Halfling.  When I think of my other Halfling character, Tando, he is most definitely a Stout.  I intend him to be Stout.  He enjoys material comfort and urban living.  Compared to other halflings he is not light of feet.  Ghostwise would be pure mechanics and I don’t want to do that.

I don’t really want to be a Half-Elf because they are OP.  Again, there isn’t a story there that I see, I just see the mechanics.  At some point I want to play a warlock and Vaelis Suncedar is a half-elf warlock for a reason.  With him I want to explore that Spock type child of two worlds angle.

My eyes settled on the Protector Aasimar.  +1 Wisdom, +2 Charisma, and a grab bag of other light/angel themed features.  It’s not overpowered.  I used a Deva Avenger in 4th Edition and remember it fondly.  Apparently if I select the Aasimar I am not allowed to choose the seven cleric spells in Xanathar’s Guide, which I do not agree with.  If you’re saying that an Aasimar can’t perform the Ceremony spell and marry a Triton that’s bigotry and I do not allow bigotry at my D&D table.

We have a message thread where we discuss game stuff and players thought they might like to have strong connections between the party members.  Like everyone is from the same village or family.

The other day one of the other players said something that kind of struck me, I described my Aasimar as a Guardian Angel for the party and they said that character sounded more like an NPC.  I’ve been mulling this over and I think I agree with them but I’m not sure it is a problem.  When I look at my other AL PCs, specifically Tando and Kellen, the diplomat and the journalist, they’re both very much followers for the party and aren’t really sure about this whole “professional adventurer” thing.  In the backstory I envision, Tando used to hire adventurers until the Goddess Waukeen called upon him to take up the career.  Kellen is a gonzo journalist chronicling the exploits of the party.  Even my Triton, Nymeros, has been somewhat forced into the adventurer role by the Geas of Dawn’s Beacon.  I haven’t really fleshed out his backstory as much as the others but the trend is still clear.

I think that as a kind of pseudo NPC is the only way to play in published adventures if you’re kind of a method actor/storyteller type player.  In the longer hardcover adventures you have time and space to shape it to the goals of the players but like I mentioned in a previous post, it’s really after the hardcover ends that you have the space to really get into those character motivations.  In a published adventure the characters desires are somewhat supplanted by the text.  And I’m not complaining about that; it is the nature of the beast.  You don’t stand in the front row of a rock concert and complain it’s too loud.  Obviously a DM can work around this.  Recall Dice Camera Action, how in Curse of Strahd, Chris Perkins changed the adventure so that Holly Conrad’s character, Strix, turned out to be the brother of Vallaki bad guy, Izek.  In the proper adventure, his sister is Ireena Kolyana, Strahd’s target.  He changes the adventure and that change is still paying off in just the recent episodes they’re doing two years after the start.

So let’s get back to Dragon Heist and my potential Aasimar Knowledge Cleric.  When I look at Dragon Heist and the posts I see on Twitter, the natural inclination is to remake Tando.  It’s an urban adventure, loads of NPCs, and Tando’s backstory is that he is a former courtier of Lord Neverember, a Realms NPC who apparently features prominently in the adventure.  That character would be a natural fit in this adventure.  But there are a few reasons not to.

  1. I did just play that character for almost 5 months in Tomb of Annihilation. As much as Tando the Rogue Mastermind is “my character” there is something to be said for the novelty factor that AL encourages. I usually gravitate to The Rogue but a push outside out one’s comfort zone can be good.  You play more characters, learn more mechanics, become a better DM.  One ought to try new things.  More than that, the entire book goes to level 5.  I’m not sure how long it will take, but my guess would be not very, especially not compared to the higher level stuff I’ve done like TOA or Curse of Strahd.  We ought to be level 3 within 3 sessions from the way 5E works and the concept of Tando was that he is a higher level character.  It would be strange to make him level 1 again just for the sake of playing him, it wouldn’t be Tando the Mastermind, it’d be…Jeff The Rogue
  2. The Team needs a Cleric. In AL, with each new Hardcover Adventure there is a new “season” of adventures. And the AL players start over with new PCs.  So most AL players seem to have a stable of characters ready to rock that they’ve built over the course of the now 8 seasons.  I don’t play often but even in the course of these few months I’ve built a few different characters.  One of the ways I kind of amuse myself is thinking that all my AL characters know each other (since up until now, AL is FR only).  And that together, they would form a functional adventuring party.  I have a Rogue, a Barbarian, a Warlock, but the team needs a gotdamn healer.
  3. It’s someone else’s turn. This kind of goes with number one. We have one, maybe two people at our table completely new to D&D and the longtime DM is taking a well-deserved turn on the other side of the screen.  If someone else wants to be The Rogue they should get a turn.  The team will need a cleric, no one else has volunteered, so I feel I ought to.  I’m not saying being the cleric is unpleasant or a chore but there is a work element to it that you need to manage health and buff the team.  There is also a Druid, Paladin, and Bard in the party so we’ll have no lack of potential healing but by taking the Cleric I’m enabling the party to focus more on themselves and let me handle the paperwork.
  4. Masochism? Whatever possessed me to take the Diplomancer Rogue into Deathtrap Land is also compelling me to take The Sage into Charisma Check Land. It would be too simple to take Tando into this adventure that his concept is well-suited to.

So who is this character?  To be honest, I’m not sure yet, at least not in the way I felt a strong sense of who my other characters are.  Right now, I’m leaning heavily towards Aasimar.  I have this idea that they are a cleric of Savras, one of the forgotten realms Knowledge deities. But rather than being a mortal servant, they are a vestige of the deity itself.  I have this concept of Savras having many literal eyes throughout the multiverse seeing and experiencing everything.  My character is one of these reincarnated spirits placed on Faerun to learn and die like Brainiac’s simulacrum or something.  In that way, they lore hews much closer to the 4E Deva than the 5E Aasimar.  Back then, the Deva were immortal servitors continuously reborn to fight the forces of evil.  Their racial power back then was to add 1d6 to any roll, to simulate their “remembering” how to do something from a previous life.  This makes a load of sense for the idea of a 5E Knowledge Cleric.

What I need to work on is The Big Why.  Why is this being involved in The Great Waterdeep Caper?  Doubtless that will come across in session zero.  For the idea of “My Character” Tando putting together a party of adventurers, I think he would see the appeal in trying to find this being of pure curiosity that lives to learn and discover all things.  At the end of the day though, the player needs to come up with a reason for why their character is signing up for the adventure beyond, “We play D&D on Thursdays.”

Assuming I stick with the Knowledge Cleric, I’ve decided to name her, “Savitri” after one of the Hindu gods of Knowledge.  This sticks with the 4E Deva theme, they were somewhat Hindu flavored.  Like my Triton, it creates a fish-out-water dynamic being from a less European culture.  I also don’t have any She/They PCs in my AL stable and I would like to remedy that.

For now though, Aasimar Knowledge Cleric for the motherfucking WIN.

Dragon Age Campaign – 3 Sessions In

I have started a new Dragon Age campaign.  This is the Green Ronin ruleset for the Thedas setting.  I set out to lovingly rip-off Curse of Strahd with a trip to the Fade.  But today, three sessions in and over a month since I initially met these folks, I took a step back and saw trying to redo Curse of Strahd/Mark of Mercy in a new negative light.

With regard to those two games I have become the stereotypical high school jock.  I want to bask in that D&D game that went pretty well two years ago and made me feel smart and good about myself.  I want to re-live the glory days.  It took me until now to see what I was doing and now this Dragon Age game feels sour.  Christ, no wonder I can’t get off my ass and write Eberron content.  My D&D brain is still trapped in this little snowglobe realm where I am the tragic invincible magic vampire warlord.

My original idea might not have been original but it was good and in keeping with the spirit of Dragon Age.  It is basically the same as The Blackmarsh plot from Dragon Age: Awakening except I put a spin on it.  What if, a group of demons took a group of people into the Fade to kind of feed off their negative emotions for a good long while?

In Awakening, this Orlesian noble called The Baroness frees these people from a Dragon but then starts killing them to keep her youth.  It is a very Bathory/Ravenloft inspired.  Eventually she drags their souls into The Fade until the player happens by.  The Player kills a fuckton of wolves and werewolves (again very Barovia).  A Darkspawn, called The First, traps the party in the Fade but gets sucked in himself as well.  The party meets up with a Spirit of Justice who urges them to oppose the Baroness.  The party either allies with the Baroness or Justice to get out of this shithole plane.  When they return to the physical realm, the Baroness comes with them and turns into a Pride Demon and attacks.  Then later she turns into a Spectral Dragon for some reason.

A bunch of demons keeping a really horrible person in the Fade to milk for emotions is very Dragon Age.  The moral quandary comes in when you realize this horrible person is also torturing a bunch of innocent souls for his jollies.  Do you take steps to end this whole thing?  What if ending it means the demons escape?  This was the exact problem from Curse of Strahd/Mark of Mercy.  Another thing I thought would be clever but was wholly unoriginal was having one of the Tevinter Magisters, like Corypheus or The Architect, be hiding out in this fade.  Either the Priest of Night or the Priest of Mystery, both would be appropriate.  Coming into this game I really wanted to use The Architect, I think it’s a cool NPC.

I think even though they’re unoriginal these would be some cool ideas for a high level Dragon Age campaign.  This doesn’t really work though for a bunch of people who have never played Dragon Age before, like my group.  Trying to pose them to a beginner group is a naked attempt to recapture the good old days.  What I should do instead is drop these hooks of what might happen and give them something in the real world to follow up on then get them out of the Fade in 2-3 sessions.  My problem with that and in writing something more original is that I’m still struggling to really understand these characters.  A big part of that is attendance.  We’ve had 3 sessions now with two players who’ve attended all of them.  I offered to run for the two of them last time and I normally prefer smaller groups but I think you really need a minimum of three people and a GM for it to feel like a proper game.  If you don’t know who’s going to show up you can’t write for them.  Maybe that’s not a dealbreaker with too many people but it is with too few.

So, I see the kind of error of my ways and I’m going to try and get on a different course.

And Now For Something Not Really That Different (Eberron)

So with the excellent Tomb of Annihilation complete it is time to move on to new territory.  Gods know I’m done giving my thoroughly uninformed opinion about Adventurer’s League rules.  No, where I found my mind wandering today was Eberron.  Specifically Eberron PCs.  Now odds are I will wind up DMing all the Eberron I can get my hands on.  This season of a la carte adventures is gonna bankrupt my ass.  Still one can’t help but think what one might want to play if one gets on the other side of the screen.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I tend to gravitate towards a specific character concept based on the game I’m joining.  I found a place for my beloved AL character Tando in the Forgotten Realms AL system.  I thought of the books that come out every six months with the world repeatedly almost being destroyed must fray the goddamn nerves of the poor civil servants who collect the taxes and hire adventurers to keep their homes safe.  But Tando wouldn’t work in an Eberron game.  The last war, the place of halflings in that world, it just doesn’t sing to me in a way that makes me want to play that character.

I mentioned in an older post from over a year ago I said I wanted to make a Gnome Journalist PC.  The mechanical elements of the character were described on Total Party Thrill’s “Natural Disasters” episode.  Their character creation forge that episode described a “war correspondent.”  This is PC who is also a writer for the Korranberg Chronicle, Khorvaire’s finest news source.  The reason I want to play this character mirrors the reason I play Tando.  Tando is surrounded and mystified by the gamey elements of the 5E FR.  The rapid and bizarre changes in the world every season are in fact an element of the inscrutable gods.  He is by nature a supporting character, here to bear witness to the earth shaking changes he cannot prevent, slow, or reverse.

The journalist is the same idea but more literal.  He journeys with the party chronicling their legends for the broadsheets.  I see him as a Hunter S. Thompson figure, engaging in pure gonzo journalism.  He’s seeing the adventurer’s life from the front lines, just like he probably reported on the final years of the Last War.

Mechanically, the build is very much spoken if I follow the suggestions of Total Party Thrill.  This character is a Swashbuckler/Conjurer.  I grappled with where precisely to put the intelligence score because this is very much a Dexterity/Charisma build.  The Sneak Attack provides the offensive punch, Charisma Powers Panache, and the character largely eschews inflicting saving throws in favor of shields, teleports, and other sorts of tricks.

Focusing on weapon damage makes pumping that Dex up to 20 important, but the concept asks for two feats, “Keen Mind” and “Svirfneblin Magic.”  Smurf Magic gives you Blur once per day and Nondetection at-will.  Keen Mind (in addition to the +1 Int) allows you to recall with perfect accuracy anything you’ve seen or heard in the last month.  A great ability for someone say like, a Conjurer with the ability to create perfect recreations of anything they’ve seen.

If those seem like awfully suspicious abilities for a journalist you would be correct.  Because he isn’t just a journalist no, he also makes a dandy spy which he totally would be for The Trust.  Now I have to briefly explain The Trust.  In case you are just joining us, Zilargo is the “Gnome Land” of Eberron.  While it has a government, an organization called The Trust features prominently in the text about Zilargo. The Trust is, for lack of better terms, The Gnome Secret Police.  Now after you stop laughing, a better analog would the a benevolent version of The NSA.  They use magic to spy on everyone to ferret out their secrets and schemes but they really do act in the best interest of the nation.  So far there hasn’t been a “The Trust is Evil” adventure although you could totally write them like that.  For my character not that I thought, mwhaha he should be a secret Trust person, no it is more that The Trust would recruit someone like this.  He’s immune to scrying and has a perfect memory, he’s basically a walking wiretap.  Really more Colonel Hunter Gathers than Dr. Hunter Thompson.  I’m fine with this.

The Trust as it relates to a party of adventurers would be: The PCs cross the border into Zilargo, legally or not.  The border agents immediately alert The Trust that, a group of five heavily armed foreigners just crossed into Zilargo.  The party now has eyes on them.  The DM should be rolling for divination magic and scrying.  When the party stops for the night, the extremely friendly innkeeper directs them to the best room in the inn which is being magically surveilled.  Everyone will keep asking their business, again very friendly.  And as long as the PCs are not out to harm Zilargo they can expect warm welcomes and great hospitality.  But the Trust knows what they’re doing and is weighing, is this a threat?

For a Background, I chose the “Detective” background from the excellent “Rats of Waterdeep” adventure on the DM’s Guild.  This allows you uncover hidden information about someone by talking to them for ten minutes in the style of Sherlock Holmes.  I decided to go with the forgery kit and a language instead of two languages.  For those languages, in addition to common and Gnomish, I added Dwarven.  There are close ties between the gnome and dwarf Dragonmarked Houses, Sivis and Kundarak, so this seems like a good idea.  A Deep Gnome also gets Undercommon but Eberron doesn’t really have a civilized Underdark in the fashion of the Forgotten Realms.  I wanted Undercommon on my rogue Tando so he could visit Underdark cities like Gracklestugh, Blingdenstone, and trade outposts.  There isn’t really anywhere to go with it on Eberron.  The Drow are on another continent and they don’t have much in the way of named cities.

Eberron does have a variant rule for languages where with the DM’s permission you can swap out your languages.  The reason for this is that in Eberron it makes perfect sense that a Dwarf from Sharn, which is about as far away from the Dwarf lands in Eberron as possible, would not speak Dwarven.  If you asked that Dwarf why, they would stare at you and say, “My Grandfather spoke Dwarven but we immigrated to Breland 500 years ago.  Why would I speak Dwarven?”  How many people do you know who don’t speak German, Irish, Chinese, what have you.  So I think I would swap out Undercommon for Goblin which just makes more sense for Zilargo and Eberron.  I might wind up doing Draconic instead since Zilargo is full of Kobolds, I think I might ask the DM if one language would be less useless than the other in a home game.

I’ve had this character in mind for a while now but one thing I hadn’t considered is what the new AL changes are going to do to the Wizard Class’s ability to copy spells into their spellbook.  A PC can expect to find 1200 gp from levels 1-10.  Just looking over my spell wishlist I can see that between 1st-2nd level spells I would like to spend about 1900 gp on new spells.  Now you get 2 per level free, but that is a real kick in the pants to Wizards specifically.  The Class’s primary strength is its versatility, to overcome challenges through preparation.  I think AL will have to compromise let Wizards spend their “treasure points” on copying new spells into their spellbooks and also creating backup spellbooks otherwise people are going to cheat on this. I guarantee you no DM is going have time to scrutinize the wizard’s spellbook to make sure each of those first level spells are paid up.

For skills they’re very similar to what I had on Tando, Investigation, Perception, Insight, Persuasion, Stealth.  Where I differ here is Deception vs. Sleight of Hand.  I’m conflicted.  In the Meta of 5E, Sleight of Hand does not come up often.  Deception can.  I think where I come down is that just as Tando is not the sort of Thief who needs Acrobatics, my Journalist is not the kind of spy that needs Deception.  He observes and occasionally lifts documents from someone, but perhaps Deception is a blind spot.

For a name I bounced around a few different choices but I think I’ve settled on Keller Sil Zoltan.  I was playing with a few different options but I like the “er” “il” “an” endings I just wasn’t sure what order to do.  Then I remembered Zoltan the magic fortune thingy from the movie Big and that settled it.  Maybe I will go with Kellen instead because I’m not sure I like how similar it sounds to “killer” which is too aggressive for an amiable fellow like this.  Kellen Sil Zoltar sounds a bit better to my ears.

Tune in next time as I consider what character to bring to Dragon Heist/Mountain of the Mad Mage.  I had originally wanted to use the Triton Barbarian, but the group has suggested making characters who know each other.  We have a couple new players so I’m again thinking of a supporting role like a bard or cleric so they can shine a little brighter.  Aasimar Bard or Cleric is where I lean right now.