Aquaman

When I left the theater and got into my car I felt I wasn’t going to write anything.  15 minutes later here we are.

Main reason I thought I’d give this one a pass is because 15 minutes later I am struggling to remember what the hell actually happened during Aquaman.  I actually did not get Willam Dafoe’s character’s name until I looked it up a few minutes ago.

There is a scene about halfway through, or two hours in, or 15 minutes in, I couldn’t tell, when Aquaman and Amber Heard’s character Mera (Mira? Meera?) are in this ancient temple.  They need to use an antiquated yet greatly advanced piece of technology to play a message which has the location of the magic trident they need to save the world.  The recording rattles off some vague technobabble prophecy.    Mera then immediately destroys the computer so that no one else can hear the message.  Aquaman asks if they had written it down.  Mera says she remembers it, Aquaman doesn’t (and neither does the audience).  Then he asks if they couldn’t have just peed on the ancient liquid driven computer instead of using magic to power it through Aquaman’s sweat.

This scene really is the entire movie.  This is cool! Wait was that plot/backstory?  Doesn’t matter move on.  Make an out of place joke!

I’m not angry though.  This movie is cotton candy.  It is in one ear and out the other.  It was fine.  I wish we had more world building to understand what life in Atlantis or some of the under the sea kingdoms is like.  I wish we could’ve cut the gladiatorial arena or just ten minutes of something to give regular Atlantis some time.  I feel like Jason Momoa must’ve felt silly waving around a stick with three tennis balls to stand in for the CGI trident.  Just give the guy a real physical trident for chrissakes.  Is it weird that the Justice League Trident looked way more badass with its five points and less like bad CGI?

I liked the first half of the movie more than the backend when the Trident hunt starts.  The CGI trident looks like shit.  Also the battle sound effects underwater sound like Space Invaders.  It’s not out of place because it is in keeping with the kind of silly feel of the movie.  One weird thing was that there seemed to be a lot of traffic to get into Atlantis.  Does Atlantis have suburbs?  Rush hour?  Where the hell is everyone coming from/going to?

I felt a little uncomfortable in that last battle, which was only like five minutes, because Aquaman and his giant Kaiju monster crash into the scene and kills shitloads of people on all sides of the battle.  Aquaman is doing all this to stop the war but first we have to kill all these innocent soldiers going to war at the behest of their shithead politicians.  I kind of wish Aquaman showed up like 15 minutes earlier.

It was also grating to hear everyone going on about revealing the true king, finding the true king, or that only the rightful king of Atlantis could seize the magic trident.  I recently finished reading “Fire & Blood Volume One”.  I have been steeped in GRRM’s ideas about what makes a good ruler.  Thousands of years into this Underwater society’s future and they still have hereditary monarchy centered on male primogeniture?  This is Atlantis, you need a magic trident and a dick if you want to rule here.  What is King Orm’s tax policy?  What will be Aquaman’s tax policy?  Ah screw it, action scene!

This movie and Doctor Strange both fall into the category of having animated movies that are about an hour long and far more enjoyable.

This was fine.

Eberron: Curtain Call & Dragon Age

At the urging of a friend and in my somewhat desperate hunger for more human contact I started a 2nd Dragon Age game with the intent of trying to make it a new show on the Encounter RP Twitch channel.  Encounter RP put out a call on Twitter for shows, I sent in a pitch, got a response back, I responded but there hasn’t been anything yet.  It did take about a month for the first response so I’m telling myself it’s not too late yet but the “You Failed” voice is getting louder.

Still, the potential for a 2nd Dragon Age game with members of the DA community is not to be spurned regardless of whether or not it makes it online.  We decided to set the game in Nevarra, land of Necromancers and Dragon Hunters.  Unlike most games I have a pretty good idea the direction I’d like to take it.

Like most of my campaigns, I decided to start things off with published adventures until I get a better sense of who the player characters are and what their goals might be.  I adapted D&D adventures which can be challenging.  Dragon Age is not a world one can just port D&D into.  It lacks D&D’s “Mos Eisley Cantina” of different races, Planar Creatures and Undead are very different/Mostly Non-Existent, and Magic is viewed more negatively than as a way of life.

I started with “The Changeling Baby” or “The Night of A Thousand Hours.”  This is an adventure you might’ve seen in Penny Arcade comics or at PAX Unplugged 2017 with The C-Team.  A dying woman stumbles into a bar with a baby, bandits come to kill/take the child, and the PCs strive to bring it to a local priest for safekeeping.  Instead of a Changeling, I made the baby some kind of magical shapeshifting prodigy sought by local werewolves as a cure or sorts.  The players immediately called out the fact that the church they brought the kid to, or Chantry in Dragon Age, did not have Templar Guards.  Again, you really have to think when adapting D&D to DA.  In DA, every church has at least a small contingent of Templars, the standing army of the faith.  But it was fine.  This was really more of a one-off to learn the rules of the system.

For the second game, I began running “Curtain Call,” an Eberron adventure by Keith Baker, Robert Adducci, and Wayne Chang.  This is a great adventure you can get off the DM’s Guild.  It came out around the same time as Wayfinder’s Guide.  I would say it is well worth the $5 pricetag.  This post is going to partially be a review of Curtain Call so SPOILERS later but I would highly recommend.  If you liked Rats of Waterdeep, another great adventure by Lysa Chen and Will Doyle, you’ll love Curtain Call.  They’re both mystery stories with noir elements and great NPCs I would really recommend them.

The premise of Curtain Call is that it takes place in Sharn, City of Towers, Eberron’s version of New York.  A ne’er do well friend of yours comes to you in a panic, the husband of a wealthy woman he knows for some reason has gone missing.  She has hired him, a private investigator, to find him.  Trouble is, he’s just pretending to be a detective, I assume for the Whiskey and Fedoras.  So he hires you to help make him look good.

 

From here in it’s all spoilers about adapting the plot beats of “Curtain Call” to the Dragon Age Setting.  If you would like to enjoy “Curtain Call” as a player, and I think you will, this is the point to stop reading.

 

 

 

You track the missing husband to a bar in the bad part of town where he liked to drink and think.  He was kidnapped out of this place by a group of people.  The clues you find there lead to three different parts of Sharn reflecting its lower, middle, and upper class.  You only need to go to one of these locations because all three point you towards one of three theaters in the district where you interrupt an evil ritual sacrificing the missing husband.  Turns out he and his wife were in an evil cult, he thought they left, she didn’t, she set him up then empties his bank account, moral of the story is that communication is important in a relationship.

Adapting this adventure from Eberron to Dragon Age was easier in some parts and harder in others.  Since I knew we were taking this to Nevarra there was only one choice of location, Cumberland.  Cumberland is one of the biggest cities in the Dragon Age setting.  It doesn’t really have a strong analog towards another city, real or fictitious.  Like for example, you could compare Val Royeaux to Paris or Denerim to White Harbor from A Song of Ice and Fire.  This is mostly because it hasn’t been defined at all really.  None of the games have sent you to Cumberland and it lacks strong characteristics.

The opening acts of the adventure are far easier to adapt.  You receive the hook, investigate a mystery.  I’m starting to buy in to the idea that mystery adventures, more than dungeons or a combat, are the best way to start a new campaign.  If you can give the PCs a problem and a reason to give a shit they will take care of the rest.

I started making changes with the next phase, where the PCs get to the tavern.  The Husband went missing from this tavern and the PCs have to investigate the scene.  In Curtain Call, it is called the Half-Pint Tavern. I decided to add some flavor here.  I called the bar “The Wild Hare” which is a reference to “Rabbit,” a word used as an anti-elf slur in Dragon Age.  I think the party was expecting an elf strip club with a sleazy human owner but I decided the owner should be an elf and the tavern should be near the Alienage, where the elves are forced to live.

The elf tavern owner turned out to be my great delightful surprise for this session.  He’s a fun NPC and the players are going to remember him.  He calls himself Luck and I peppered his speech with Qunari words.  This makes him immediately stand out in the players’ minds.  All I had in my  notes was that he was a Tal-Vashoth Elf who owns a tavern.  And then as the PCs kept asking questions of him and investigating his bar I kept putting in little bits of characterization that really made him stand out.

As an aside, but I think you get the best results in Tabletop RPGs when you take a short prompt and are then forced to improvise with it.  This is what makes Dungeon World so much goddamn fun.  This is why people still roll stats in order sometimes.

Anyways, an investigation of the scene yields up three distinct clues.  First is blood.  Not enough to be fatal (indicating the Husband is alive) but a homeless witness behind the bar says that one assailant was wounded and they were seeking medical attention.  So the PCs could try to follow them to a healer.  Second, a torn chunk of cloth, in Eberron this is identified as Glamerweave, a magic fabric that can change appearance, give bonuses to stealth checks, and anything else you might want.  In Dragon Age I said this was a “Lyrium Weave” thinking it would be the kind of thing mage robes or magic resistant clothing.  This stuff is pretty rare and traceable back to a specific tailor.  The third clue is some broken porcelain among some glass that can be traced by to glass masks worn by actors in local theater productions.

Each of these clues lead to a scene in these different districts.  The point is to show off various parts of the city.  Each scene points the PCs to a different theater or if you’d like to extend the adventure they can point to a theater in a different district.

Each clue can be traced back to a specific portion of the city in a different socio-economic level.  The Blood traces back to the middle level Adventurer district, Clifftop.  Having a specific district that services Adventurers doesn’t really work in Dragon Age.  “Adventuring” isn’t a widespread profession like it often is in D&D worlds.  People are more likely to use words like “Mercenary” or “Murderhobo” to describe some openly identifying as a professional adventurer.  In Curtain Call in this district you get jumped by half-orcs and after you kick their asses a healer shows up on the scene to patch folks up.  The same healer that happened to treat a weird person the day before.  They were heading to a local theater after they got patched up.

The mask shards leave to the poor district, called Callestan in Sharn.  The PCs are pickpocketed and a chase scene ensues.  I thought Coppers would be a good name for a Slum district.  The thief, when caught, directs the PCs to another theater.

The option the PCs went with was the lyrium weave cloth.  In this option, the PCs go to the fancy part of town to find an upscale tailor.  I’m glad they went with this choice because I think it’s far and away the best written option.  In Curtain Call this takes place in the “Gnome District.”  Dragon Age doesn’t have gnomes but it does have Dwarves, they have money in Cumberland, and they love to enchant shit so this seemed like the best choice.  Curtain Call uses this chapter to introduce players to the Gnomes of Eberron.

Eberron does various races in slightly different ways that the 5E PHB and while Dwarves are pretty much the same as Forgotten Realms, Gnomes are very distinctive.  I would direct you to Total Party Thrill (http://www.totalpartythrillcast.com/2017/05/25/tpt-95-playing-gnomes-the-breachgnome) and this article on the WOTC site (http://archive.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/ebds/20041129a) to get a sense of them.  Very basically, Gnomes in Eberron are information hoarders, spies, and blackmailers.  Varys from Song of Ice & Fire would be the peak Eberron Gnome.

So Curtain Call has these three potential random encounters and they’re all kind of fast and Eberron specific.  I decided not to use these and instead rolled randomly on the Eberron Wayfinder’s Guide chart of random encounters in Upper class districts.  I got “The City Watch stops you and asks, ‘Can I help you?  Are you sure you’re in the right part of town?’ ”  It does a good job of invoking the stress of needing to deal with a police officer and being stopped for no reason other than racism.  Depending on your group you may not want to simulate this random street encounter.  Honestly this was perfect for our group.  The party entered “The Dwarf District.”  None of the PCs are Dwarves.  They have a Dalish Elf with them.  This PC stood out.  This also allowed the Rogue/Bard/Social PC to go apeshit on this watchman who dared to engage in some casual anti-elf racism.

The Watch is present again outside the tailor’s.  I’m not sure what to do with the City Watch while our campaign is in Cumberland.  I certainly don’t want to do the kind of omnipresent Watch like in Dragon Heist.  I kind of like how Eberron depicts the Sharn city watch as present but corrupt as hell.  I decided to go with the name from the adventure since it still sounded Dwarfy.  This time it isn’t the PCs.  They are staking out the tailor’s.  The reason for this is because the tailor is tied with the Thieves’ Guild.  In Eberron this is one of my favorite factions, The Boromar Clan.  They are the old money mobsters of Sharn.  They’re the Mafia, not Marlo Stanfield.  Sadly they are halflings, also not in Dragon Age. Once again I must turn to the Dwarves.  When I hear old money mobsters in Dragon Age I think of the Carta.  Honestly it doesn’t need much more explanation.  The Carta is The Mafia of the Dragon Age setting.

This is where we ran into what might be considered an oversight in the adventure.  At the bar, the PCs find those little shards of mask and remember them from posters in the city.  The PCs asked at this point, “wait those posters will have the location of the theater, right?”  The correct way I should have handled this was that the theater on the posters is an old poster.  The adventure advises doing this in the event you want to extend the adventure but I was not that fast on my feet.

The players split the party here.  Two of them went into the tailor’s and two of them went looking for the theater.  I decided to name the theater after Ortan, the Dwarf Paragon/playwright.  The tailor encounter did not go great, it was basically a social roleplaying encounter with one of the more socially anxious players who wasn’t really willing to engage with the scene.  Basically you need to persuade or bribe.  The persuade failed and they weren’t willing to bribe.  I try not to let any encounter come down to “fuck or walk” bottlenecks as long as the PCs are still willing to engage with the scene.  But, when the PCs are planting their feet demanding plot coupons in exchange for nothing there isn’t really a way to fail forward to the next scene from that encounter.

The other two PCs went to the Theater.  It is closed and appears deserted.  Inside, the kidnapped husband is about to be sacrificed in some kind of cult ritual.  In Eberron, this is actually being conducted by a Warforged with human flesh, basically a Terminator, on behalf of the Lords of Dust, ancient Rakshasa’s laboring on behalf of immortal demonic overlords.  I figured the PCs would enter and the fight would be on.  But, because they split the party, they didn’t do that.  They heard this ancient Tevene chanting and decided, uh oh, better get the fuck out of here.  At this point it had been about 3 hours and it was time to stop, not start another combat.

I now find myself needing to do another 3 hour episode with only about 30-45 minutes of content left in the published adventure.  I could have the theater be empty when they get back and turn this into a bit of a serial killer drama but I’m not certain what do to.  I have an idea where to go with with the boss fight other than a demon worshipping Terminator which really doesn’t fit with Dragon Age.

One other  thing I want to note.  The adventure comes with some art by Sakimachan, an artist you can find online.  There are three portraits in the art file, for the missing husband, Max the Questgiver, and some other random person in the adventure.  They are very pretty bishonen pictures that made a player in my other game want to know immediately where he could buy this adventure featuring his future husband.  It was unexpected outside of a romance themed adventure.  It’s great that this artist got work on a major project like this and the art is high quality it just doesn’t really fit in with a noir mystery adventure.  The other art is all recycled 3.5 Eberron art then you have these three beautiful men and the half-elf lady on the front cover over the adventure.  She is also beautiful, although her boobs are doing that thing you see in a lot of fantasy art where they float and they’re too huge in proportion to the rest of her body.

Curtain Call is a really good adventure.  It gives you a mystery worth solving and drops lots of threads for future adventuring.  I am usually leery of an adventure that puts you in a new setting and then tries to show you many different factions and geographies because they try to cram too much in and you feel like you’re on a theme park ride rather than experiencing a story.  Past is Prologue did this poorly, Curtain Call does it well.  One thing that threw me about Curtain Call was that it feels a bit like it would fit more comfortably into a two shot than a one shot.  If you are planning to run this, I would call it a 4-6 hour adventure.  I have grown accustomed to DMG adventures always being one shots in spite of openly wishing they would release longer adventures.  Because this adventure only has one mandatory fight at the end you could totally do Curtain Call as a 1st Level 5E Adventure, it is meant to be levels 1-4.  Despite not running it with 5E D&D I recommend picking this one up.

Eberron: Blades of Terror

“Blades of Terror” is the 7th of the 12 Eberron adventures being released as a series.  The adventures together make up an adventure path titled, “Embers of the Last War.”

I was not thrilled with the previous two adventures I purchased, “What’s Past is Prologue” and “Boromar Ball.”  I thought Prologue was bad, and Boromar really didn’t do anything with its setting of a heist at a mafia don’s party.  I know I gave Boromar a B- but according to my parents that is the moral equivalent of an F so let’s not get too excited there.  Based on those I’ve kind of been hesitant to throw down money for the rest of the season.  But the description for Blades of Terror really sold it and I’m a sucker for anything describing itself as a heist.

Your TL;DR review is that I really like this one.

So the plot here is that the PCs are hired by an NPC from House Medani, one of the Dragonmarked Houses.  This was probably in a previous adventure, but she’s investigating the shady shit that Merrix d’Cannith is up to.  Merrix is Eberron’s Lex Luthor/Tony Stark.  These guys are not great at planning because they’ve parked a shiny new airship in the bad part of town and they seem to be acting as suspicious as possible while they load mysterious cargo onto it.

Your contact would like you to get onto the ship, figure out what the cargo is, and report back.  I didn’t think of this until after I read the adventure, but a single, well-trained, half-elf spy would have a way way better chance of accomplishing this mission that takes place on a half-elf captained airship instead of a motley crew of 4-6 adventurers.  And it probably would’ve been easier to sneak a peek at this cargo in transit on the ground than in the air.

But as I say to the Waterdeep City Watch, do you want us to play D&D or not?

The contact also tells you that the airship is going to depart in an hour.  In my own headcanon I picture this as like the scene from The Departed where the cops find out about the mob’s deal but they only have a little time to get ready.  I poke at the story but it is completely plausible that your contact only has recent info and it needs to go down this way.

So with that info you can now prep to infiltrate the airship.  This is exactly the same kind of setup that is in The Boromar Ball.  I mean exactly, Forge A Document, Buy Equipment, Create a Disguise, Gather Info, and Scout.  And like Boromar, the adventure says each player has to pick one of these options.  Unlike Boromar, where the party was 24 hours later, it is plausible this time that your players only have time to do one of these things.  Because these are the same I wonder if this “one action legwork” mechanic is something that WOTC Editorial handed down.  It’s a good way to make sure your players don’t spend 4 hours planning a heist.  This section of the adventure is officially budgeted for 30 minutes when combined with the “get the job” section previously.

It’s a shame you can only do one thing because I really like the descriptive options you get for making Charisma or Investigation checks to gather info.  There’s great flavor here, all of this info is useful, and not having this info would hurt.  But the writer went one step further and included fake rumors your players hear if they fail their check.  I love that, that’s brilliant.  The DM should probably make this check in secret so the player can’t be certain if the information is valid or not.

If the PCs are making perception checks I would be tempted to give them a handout or map of the area because the text here is a bit complicated at first glance.  You get used to it the second read-through but the point is that you get an increasing amount of detail on the capabilities and numbers of the guards and if you do well you get advantage to your stealth checks if you sneak onto the ship.  I like that kind of synergy.

This section ends with another one of these “Playing the Pillars” sidebars.  I discussed these in Prologue and Boromar Ball.  I hate them, I hate them, I hate them.  And the reason I hate them is because this clearly something that Editorial is handing down to  the writers to put into the adventure.  And the writer is filling in how to use the Combat, Exploration, and Social pillars of D&D.  And I get that the intent is the “Season 8 Ethos” to create adventures with more equity between those pillars and not the Combat is Supreme option that D&D Organized Play has a reputation for.  Problem.  This is the legwork section of the adventure.  THERE’S NO REASON FOR COMBAT.  The little sidebar just says…uh well…there’s no combat in this section.  But here’s the thing, there is!  The “bonus objective” for this section is an optional fight  Why doesn’t the sidebar mention that?  It’s such a little minor thing but it just irritates  me.  Let’s get rid of this idea that all pillars equally apply to all sections of the adventure or let’s highlight the sections we already have.  One or the other.  I love the idea of less combat.  I am filled with frothing rage when Editorial wants the writer to pretend like combat is an equal part of the adventure in the clearly non-combat sections.

One positive is that this Pillars Sidebar is way better than the Pillars Sidebars in Boromar and Prologue.  In Boromar, the sidebar kept trying to add things to the scene.  For Social, hey what if the bartender tries to talk to the PCs for no reason and has nothing to contribute to the story?  Or Combat, hey how about a pointless barfight because that sounds like the Season 7 and Previous Ethos.  In Blades of Terror, the sidebar gives context to the checks you’re already making.  If Editorial insists the writer must include these sidebars, this is the best possible way to do it.  Exploration, hey if you’re making perception checks, where do you make them from?  A crane maybe?  For social, who do you speak to?  A bartender, a longshoreman, a beggar?  For combat, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Once on deck you need to get to the hold and find the hidden cargo.  I was kind of expecting an encounter specific for getting on the ship, but the PCs can just walk on and make a deception check with their Forgery, Disguises, or fast talk.  Or anything else that sounds plausible.  The adventure is good about not highlighting one option or making one option ludicrously easier than all others.  I’m curious what would happen if the PCs tried to hide themselves in a box.

I know there’s no adventure if the ship doesn’t take off, but if the PCs decide to fight their way on initially why would the ship ever take off?  This is one of those plot bottlenecks that people need to be made aware of when writing an adventure.  You want to avoid these whenever writing an adventure and if there is one the author needs to specifically call it out.  So for Blades of Terror, there are none of the boxes you need outside the ship, the players have to get on the boat and the boat has to take off.  Any challenges you throw at the PCs, any logic you throw at their schemes, do not let them not get on the boat and make sure it takes off.  Otherwise you have no adventure.

So once you’ve made that very big and important assumption that the PCs get on the airship and it takes off, the meat of the adventure begins.  The adventure wisely reminds the DM that if the PCs try to fight their way onto the ship or start fighting once aboard that you should keep an eye on the time.  I assume that’s geared towards rigidly timed store and convention play, also because AL XP is now based on how long you play.  I think better advice here would be that the crew, largely made up of Swashbucklers from Volo’s Guide, might surrender if the Captain and two Storm Mages are defeated.  Blunter advice would be, “If the PCs start a fight they should die since there are up to 18 combatants on this ship at normal difficulty but that sounds like a really boring and miserable way to spend D&D night so do you want to keep playing with a group like that?”

I feel like I’m being too negative right now towards an adventure I like.  My point is that getting onto an enemy airship and getting around it in pursuit of an objective is asking your players to buy-in to an adventure that’s more than just a four room dungeon crawl.  It only takes one asshole, one immature player, to ruin the adventure for everyone.  One person insults the captain and then the DM has to decide if they want to have the NPCs react as they normally should in the context of the story OR do they ignore the problem player for the sake of the others at the table?

I remember back when I did my first D&D Epic, The Iron Baron, there are multiple tables symbolizing a wagon train of PCs sneaking into a fortress.  But the first wagon had to give the guards at the gate a password to get in.  And then every individual table had to be interrogated by the guards with a very low threshold to trigger an alarm and if one table fucks up everyone has to face a difficult combat and the base is now on alert.  I told an organizer at the time, the password needs to be part of the flavor text at the beginning because otherwise you’re giving one person a chance to fuck this day up for 30+ people who paid money to be at this Epic.  I get the same sense of leeriness here.

All right let’s set aside projecting my trust issues onto D&D adventures for now.  The airship itself is divided into several areas.  On the deck are the bulk of the NPC combatants.  This is where the PCs need to deceive to enter.  In the helm, the PCs can overhear an argument.  Once it concludes, these guards are bit more in the know that the guards on deck.  There’s a quarters area with the reinforcements should your PCs decide to fight through the place.  In the crew kitchen is very colorful NPC chef.  One thing I like about this guy is that he’s absolutely livid that the airship doesn’t have fresh produce or spices.  But this Airship is going from Sharn to Wroat which is basically like flying from NYC to DC.  It’s a 12 hour flight according to the Eberron Map.  But the NPC is the kind of guy that would get pissed that his spice rack didn’t get loaded onto the ship for a short trip.

Finally we have the Cargo Hold.  There are guards here in different uniforms than the rest of the crew but the text doesn’t say they challenge anyone not in a special uniform.  So that’s a red herring more than anything else.  I can imagine the players scouting the scene getting worried that they don’t have the right uniforms only to not have it come up.  You could always choose to have it come up.

There’s a lot of roleplay potential here and everywhere else on the ship.  You don’t necessarily have to murder everybody because they’re protecting the cargo in a semi-isolated part of the ship.  You could totally kill these guards but you could also bluff or sneak past them.  At 7th level your character probably has at least one thing they do well; do that here. The crates all have a Kundarak bank number that apparently corresponds to a safe deposit box.  This is foreshadowing for the next adventure.  This supports my headcanon that your House Medani contact did not know this deal was going down until shortly before.  It strikes me that hauling big heavy boxes from Kundarak Tower would be pretty damn conspicuous.

Then we have a boss fight.  Flying Warforged show up and start killing folks.  I don’t know how much the Lord of Blades has been in this campaign to date but he is a useful entity to kick in the door. These are assassins with some bonus features.  Assassins are strongest with an ally or surprise to get access to their assassin stuff, here it is being used as a solo monster in a straight fight.  That means it’s going to punch well below its stated CR 8 so I would recommend including some lower powered minions or maybe the assassin flies around the battlefield trying to knock people off the ship deck.

But the boss fight is actually anciilary to this, the real main event is that the ship seems to crashing.  By my reckoning this is the second airship crash of the campaign although you had different characters in the prologue.  The PCs have six rounds to get safety.  Normally Eberron airships have “life rings” that cast feather fall but there’s no indication as to how many there are, instead it just says the ship has life boats.  I would say whatever you do, decide the PCs are one life ring short, make someone sweat.  At the very least, the Warforged should be trying to mess with the PCs while this is going on.

Assuming the PCs survive they check in with their Medani contact and get their House Cannith store credit, redeemable for magic items.  This might be a typo, but the adventure says that the PCs are rewarded with X-Ray Vision rings, while later on it says the item is just unlocked for the PCs to spend points on.

There are two bonus objectives here.  Every new adventure seems to come with two bonus objectives which extend the runtime of the adventure thus netting the PCs more XP.  I was not crazy about the objectives in Boromar Ball because they had nothing to do with the adventure they were just excuses to have a combat and the bonus objectives in Prologue seem to have been accidentally left out of the adventure.  In Blades of Terror however, these are excellent, this is the right way to do it.  The first one is an excuse to have a combat but there is context for it.  There’s a reason for the combat to occur.  If the PCs are scouting the airship or gathering information they will find out that there are some people missing from the crew. Your first bonus objective is a plausible reason they’re missing.  There is also some kind of magic soup that has tentacles which I guess could be your reason people are missing.  Your second bonus objective I really like, basically the PCs can befriend the thing they find in the Cargo Hold.  This reminds me a lot of the Vegepygmies from Ruins of Hisari where you have this somewhat comical almost cute RP encounter with a non-hostile, non-human entity.  I don’t see how this takes 60 minutes unless the PCs resort to combat but I’m not the XP police.

Final verdict is that I really like this adventure.  It’s a good adventure that really allows the PCs to have creativity and use their strengths to solve the challenges you pose them.  This comes with the caveat that you need to be ready to give the adventure a push if the PCs fail.  Nothing worse than giving the PCs a challenge where a failure means nothing happens and the adventure is over.  The players can really dictate how much combat or what kind of skill checks they want to make.  This is how you write a “combat lite” adventure.  I would recommend picking this one up.

The Red War

Boy this is a great title.  Screw Relics of Khundrukar, I like the short declarative title.  THE IRON BARON.  And now, THE RED WAR.

I cannot believe it was almost two years ago that I started running these Epics.  I also recall with bitter sweetness how the good people of Gamer’s Vault kicked my inexperienced ass when I ran The Iron Baron for them not so long ago but keep inviting me back to run their games.

Red War gets points right off the bat for being significantly shorter than Drums of the Dead.  Now that does come with the caveat that I received only the Tier 3 Segment of the adventure with a 33 page PDF and a 13 page admin document.  Presumably each Tier has a similar packet.  Technically I think this would make it longer than Drums of the Dead if each Tier is getting the same amount of text.  But that’s still almost 25 fewer pages that I need to read to prepare this adventure.

I’ve tried to refine the way I do epics over time growing with each.  I used to run these with my monitor as a game mat because I lack the space for tubs of minis at home but the thing never goddamn works in public with new people.  I am thinking about getting a bigger monitor for this purpose but that’s another story.  Fortunately, Gamer’s Vault generously prints out GORGEOUS maps for its DMs so I am going to bring in cardboard tokens for those.  I’m going to write the encounters on 3×5 cards and put the cards and tokens in plastic bags so they’re all separated and ready to go that way there’s a minimum of fussing at the table.  That brings to my ever updating list of tips for running D&D Epics though:

  • Transparency – Tell your PCs the numbers they need to hit, tell them DCs, tell them more stuff than you normally would. This is in the service of speed.
  • The Time Limit is part of the challenge of the adventure, but it’s the least fun part of the challenge. Help the players and help yourself.  See point #1.
  • Adjust hit points and fudge dice rolls liberally.  Do it to help the PCs keep the game moving if they roll poorly or don’t know what to do and fudge against them in case they start steamrolling the combat.  As long as you cheat both in their favor and against then The Gods are satisfied.  This also includes changing monster spells at will to make things better.  If you desperately could use a lightning bolt instead of fireball but you happened to not write down that the evil wizard prepared it, just do it anyways.  That wizard is going to be alive for 5 minutes.  See points 2 and 3.

That last one is probably most important for the DM who wants to run an Epic at Tier 2 and up.  Cheat. I know that Red War and Season 8 are trying to get away from the AL = Combat and I appreciate that effort, but until I see it at the table I encourage you to cheat.  And I don’t mean just fudge dice to make things harder, I mean cheat thoughtfully and creatively.  This is not an ongoing campaign, cheat to make it more fun.  Challenge the players, don’t let them flounder against the time limit, and help them feel good about themselves and their characters.

I always liken D&D epics to Rock Festivals compared to home games which are more like recitals or acoustic night.  At a Rock Festival, no one in the audience cares if you miss a few notes.  They want to hear Freebird and sing along.  Even if they love your band, there are a bunch of other bands.  At a recital, people say things like “oh the sound was different in the room this time because the acoustic curtains were open.”  We DMs take our DMing seriously but an Epic is just not the same.

Let’s get into the Red War specifically.  As I wrote before, I only prepped the Tier 3 section.  The Red War gets a lot of points for being easy to read.  I was able to get through this in one sitting, something I’ve only been able to do with Relics before which was almost too simple and delve-y.

I find myself a little less enthusiastic about The Story on this one.  A big part of that is I find it hard to give a fuck about Mulmaster.  It’s the city of one-shot content.  Now finally like the third installment of a popular franchise we’re blowing it up.  Thay is attacking Mulmaster.  Really no one has a chance of turning the tide.  Your mission is to evacuate the city.  Tier 3 PCs, level 11-16, are tasked with evacuating civilians, bringing down a massive magical wall penning in part of the city, destroying these elemental crystals that are doing…something, and then finally getting everyone to the docks which has a definite Hardhome feel.

I like the almost incidental way the combat is presented.  Rather than being given a map with strict descriptions like, “Three Thayan Interlocutors and Two Thayan Red Abjurers are here on the map” it almost feels narrative.  There are some guards, how do you get past them?  If they get through them with stealth, use these stats, if they fight them, use these stats.  I almost don’t see the point of using a map, the tactics are almost incidental.  There isn’t really a strict map.  Everything takes place on the ruined streets of Mulmaster.  I would’ve been fine running this as Theater of the Mind but people typically expect gridded combat at an Epic.  Again, rock festival not acoustic night.

There was one section of the adventure prep that made no sense.  There were four stat blocks for elemental rifts, which were “Complex Traps” as described in Xanathar’s Guide.  The suggestion in the adventure was to use these as a substitute for one monster in one encounter and specifically if the players fail certain things, use one in the final encounter.  They look like nasty things to try and fight but there was no natural place to put them into the adventure.  It just kind of felt like editorial coming in to shout, “HEY COMPLEX TRAPS FROM XGE! AVAILABLE NOW AT FINE LOCAL RETAILERS!”  Like the writer is asking people looking to DM the adventure, “Hey I know you’ve got a lot on your mind running this adventure that involves other tables and random elements and a strict time limit but do you want to use this random complicated element that isn’t part of the adventure as written?”  I would love to hit players in a home game with something like this and I like the idea of using Organized Play to playtest for a home game but maybe with a bit more handholding than this.

The Final Boss is a giant earth-elemental Kaiju monster.  But I found it a bit underwhelming, you have to really sex it up for the players.  It’s a boss fight for the sake of a boss fight.  I really think your best bet is to make it like Hardhome.  People are fleeing to the docks and this giant earth monster rises up while people are jumping to boats.  Describe it as more epic than the text and cheat to make it harder than a solo monster typically is versus high level players.

All in I really like the Red War.  Something that needs a bit more thought, both this adventure and Drums of the Dead featured fights against multiple spellcasting enemies.  This kind of fight would really benefit from a co-DM to manage running 4+ spellcasters.  I would love to see some more advice on how to run that.  Multiple casters on one side can pull off some nasty combos but an Epic DM has a lot on their mind and thinking of that stuff in the moment doesn’t always happen.

 

I actually wound up not running any of this and instead played in a Tier One game.  I have a pretty wide stable of low level characters at this point so I just changed one of those to Level 4 Tando since I know how to play Tando.  The adventure was pretty vanilla.  The first encounter had a mechanic similar to the Tier 3 adventure where every other round one of the civilians you’re supposed to save dies and you get graded on how many you save.  I would not have paired that with mandatory combat, and Tier 3 doesn’t.

In the final act of this adventure, we were fighting a pair off kobolds piloting some kind of steampunk robot.  We occasionally heard the Tier 4 table next to us.  They had minis on the table for a giant blue dragon on the table and a T-Rex.  Someone said something about being punched into space.  My point is that fighting these fucking kobolds was the hardest thing our characters had ever done.  Meanwhile at the table next to us The Avengers are fighting Thanos.

If I had to run this again, and I certainly hope I get the chance someday, I think I’d insist on theater of the mind for this one.  Maybe that’s a bad idea.  It certainly when I tried TOM for Ark of the Mountains.  That adventure played out as a series of fights in square 50’ rooms.  There wasn’t really enough going on to not use a map.  The Red War doesn’t play that way.  You’re creeping through streets, things are exploding, and the encounters I think would benefit more from not using a map rather than slapping down a grid that can’t help but be less impressive than your imagination.

 

I’m curious how the community at large is handling how adventures have changed with the coming of “Season 8.”  In the coming weeks I’ll be reading some adventures for PAX Unplugged so look forward to a review for the next Epic, “Chaos in the City of Splendors.”

Regarding Advancement and Treasure, I find the treasure point system completely incomprehensible.  I don’t know what anything costs, where to find information, and everything I see is just too expensive to warrant investigation.  I’m not putting this much work into the metagame of my hobby.

With Advancement, I’m fine with it the points but I hate the idea of “slow progression.”  The idea that I should accept less reward because I want to play a hardcover versus the litany of shorter adventures annoys me.  I’m not crazy about the Liar’s Night event, but I get that it’s really not for me.  The AL fanbase is into it, good for them, but I really want to explore what I hope is Waterdeep’s vast urban landscape.  During the Red War we suddenly had a goblin trick-or-treater attack but it literally took 5-10 minutes when it was confirmed we had time to include the encounter.

With downtime and renown I’ve just given up.  I’ll mouth the words to go along with them in public but I’m done keeping track of these things for multiple characters.  It’s part of the AL social contract but this part of it is just too much work to keep track of.

But like I said, these are metagame concepts and not very interesting.  What I was always more interested in is the idea Season 8 adventures featuring less combat, more exploration and more roleplaying.  I am curious as to how that is going for everyone.  Increasing the price of adventures has made me a bit gun shy about picking up different adventures to take their measure.  If you recall my previous cop-out about Eberron, I said that the price of an adventure ought to compensate the creator fairly and that $4.99 for a two hour adventure with three or more installments is a lot of money.  Both of those things can be true.  I don’t want to plunk down $15 bucks for a three part adventure series only to find out its bad or underwhelming, as I’ve found with the two Eberron adventures I’ve bought so far.  I’m still not giving up on Embers of the Last War yet, I’m giving it one more shot to win me over.

So look for reviews on Eberron, the next epic, and PAX unplugged in this webzone.

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.