Monday, June 27, 2022

Reviews vs Read-Throughs, and a Fistful of Flowers

REVIEWS vs READ-THROUGHS

 I've occasionally ranted about the lack of a 'proper' review culture in RPGs - especially OSR circles - so let's take a moment to talk about reviews versus read-throughs.  With the recent Doom That Came To Astreas read-through on the blog, and much of July's content also involving read-throughs of giant-themed adventures, I wanted to get some standards straight.

I resolved some time ago not to call something a 'review' unless I'd actually run the adventure or used the material (if a sourcebook or ruleset).  It's that simple.  That's my standard.  It doesn't have to be your standard or anybody else's (although I often wish it were), but when you're here at Wampus Country, that's what that word means.  

Conversely, a read-through is just that - a look at the book and its content (whether quick or more considered), with running commentary and some chat about how I might use what's in the book, and whether it seems useful and a good value.  Some people call this a 'review'.  Those people also review movies by watching the trailer, or restaurants by looking at the menu in the window. 

Read-throughs can be entertaining but they are of minimal value relative to a full review.  Unfortunately it's a feature of our hobby that investing the time to do a proper review can be a challenge - you can only run so much material, and it takes time.  It is with some irony I note that 5e playculture, which often has hundreds of DMs running the latest hardcover at the same time, produces a lot more "so I just ran this, and here's what I did" content than the OSR does.  OSR reviews of tried-and-true classics are out there (imagine if everyone who ran Keep on the Borderlands invested a little time in talking about it), but outside of the top adventures, you're not going to find a deep bench.  Even the haute scenario du jour will get read-throughs when it's published (or in Kickstarter phase), and then not much.  For example, throw 'Deep Carbon Observatory review' into your search engine of choice and see how many essays are by people who actually ran the adventure, relative to how many people really enjoyed reading the book.  And that's a well-received that's been out for years.  Does the "scene" fall in love with a thing, just to abandon it and move on to the next one?  (I think: yes, that's what a "scene" is, but perhaps that's a debate for another time).

Anyway, I encourage you to share your thoughts on products, either in a read-through or a thorough review - just be clear about your actual experiences with the product.


A FISTFUL OF FLOWERS

And now, a read-through of Pathfinder's Fistful of Flowers.

Fistful of Flowers is Paizo's 2022 Free RPG Day offering for Pathfinder 2e.  As you'd expect, it's a short, slickly-produced one-shot adventure featuring a mascot species.  For years Pathfinder gave us Free RPG Day content about goblins, to great acclaim (it's easy to like Pathfinder's chaotic-silly goblins for one-shot content).  These days, it's all about leshies.

The leshy, in Pathfinder, is a nature spirit bound into a plant, which takes on an ambulatory humanoid form.  Little plant-people.  The illustrations of leshy in the Pathfinder materials are suitably cute, so I can see why they have some appeal, and since there are multiple types of leshy crafted from lots of different plants, they are endlessly customizable.  

Fistful of Flowers gives us a short adventure for four 3rd-level leshy (pregens are provided, or roll your own leaf-person -- get it, roll your own?).  In it, these leshy guardians are dispatched to rescue kidnapped leshies from a cruel aristocrat sorceress who's been collecting (kidnapping, buying) the little plant-folk for display in her garden.  Just the latest thing this season, darling, don't you know?  So the hook is pretty good for a one-shot - spend some time as plant-people, liberate other plant-people from the bad guy, and all with this ostensible aristocrat tea-party vibe.  The book does a fine job of having illustrations of everything you'll meet or fight.  There are battlemaps, but there isn't much to them. 

There isn't much to the adventure.  The tracking of the missing leshies, investigating the abandoned campsite of the guy who stole them, chatting with a pixie.  Then it's off to the village to track the thieving alchemist who grabbed the leshies.  The fight with the alchemist is probably interesting, especially since he's backed up by a pair of candle homonculi.  The gimmick of the candle-constructs hopping in the cauldron of hot wax to heal themselves is fun.  PCs will learn from the defeated alchemist that Lady Constance is the one paying to have leshies kidnapped.  You show up at her manor, crash her tea party, and fight her four leshies in a 4-on-4 showdown.  Each antagonist leshy has a gimmick to use in combat, which is good and should keep things interesting.  There are no stats provided for Lady Constance, although we know she's a 5th-level sorceress, so perhaps there's a standard statblock for that in one of the PF core books.  Still, what spells does she have?  And if they're the standard array, why?  Lame.  The adventure has Lady Constance shriek and flee, and not engage if there's combat except as a last resort.  I don't really understand that choice, surely she must be brought to justice?  We're meant to believe that the other ritzy party guests deciding Constance is deplorable is sufficient to curtail her activities (even though she's Neutral Evil).

Let's be clear, the main advantage in using this short adventure is if you're a PF2e person.  The statblocks would be difficult to faithfully translate to another game without considerable pre-work, and I worry that reducing everything to something light (Into the Odd, let's say) would be reductive of the clever mechanical stuff nested in the PC sheets.  Or, in other words, "let's do a session with flower-people rescuing flower-people from a tea party" is probably all you'd need if you're running something light - you wouldn't need these pages.


How to use it?  Well Paizo does a fine job of making sure all their Free RPG Day stuff can be played for Pathfinder Society credit, so the always-hungry org-play folks will be sure to pick it up.  If you're a DM of another D&Dlike, I don't think there's much here for you other than inspiration.  If I were going to riff off of Fistful of Flowers in 5e or an OSR system, I would add more to the tromp through the forest in the first third of the adventure, and I'd probably invest some time in coming up with ways to make the alchemist fight even more memorable.  Then I'd want to insure that the raid on Lady Constance's place had things to do other than "sneak in pretty easily and confront bad guy", which is the default in the adventure as-written.  There are nods to various ways to get in, but the only map provided is the tea party battle map, so don't tell me they expect you to have poke-around exploration time of the garden or manor.  If you don't want to use leshies, you could steal the construction and be rescuing pixies or something.

The adventure tells us that Lady Constance kidnaps leshies, but also that she owns/sponsors the four that are loyal to her.  This is a bit of a weird choice, because it robs us of having Lady Constance go full-on Poison Ivy as a final-battle villain.  I would consider, instead of Lady Constance being a statless generic sorceress, set her up as an evil plant wizardess and do MORE with plants.  Do the tropes; let's have a hedge maze, and some carnivorous plants to fight.  Make her a Zuggtmoy cultist or something.  All these plants and no talk of poison anywhere.  She's a sorceress so she doesn't even have a spellbook you can take (to learn uncommon plant-based spells)!  Give me some plant puns, I want to fight a dandy-lion.  If you're going to do it, do it.  You could expand this concept into a couple-session thing instead of limiting it to "must be playable in a con slot".  You could also plant seeds (ha!) of other adventures - maybe Lady Constance, being a plant-mage, has correspondence with Abelia Prem (The Stygian Garden of Abelia Prem), or the plant wizard from Three Sad Wizards, or any other planty thing you can think of.

The greatest disappointment is that despite the title there are no riffs or gags on A Fistful of Dollars in here, although I'm sure next year's offering will be A Few Flowers More.



Saturday, June 25, 2022

The Nightmare Key

 Back in 2017ish the kind folks who were organizing thelo D&D organized play for MagFest 2018 asked me to get in on their writing circle.  They wanted to produce a trilogy of DDAL adventures - I think it was a tier one and a two-part tier two - and since I'd just been through some of that process and am a super nice guy I was invited.

It was an interesting process.  Lots of throwing ideas around; most of mine didn't stick.  They (I say 'they', but as I recall it was mostly one guy of forceful personality) didn't like my log flume chase gimmick, they didn't looove my adventure proposal.  It's okay, we're all adults.  As my home schedule got crazy, I had the wisdom to bow out of the writing circle at an early date, so that's what I did - wished 'em luck and looked forward to seeing what they came up with.

As it turns out, they went with...well, not only none of the stuff I had suggested, but seemingly none of the other stuff that came up in those discussions.  The whole thing slid to 2020 (ie prepped in 2019 probably) and was spearheaded by different people.  Anyway, you can see what they ended up producing here - a trilogy centered on the 'Magic & Gold Festival' in Thentia.  I say 'trilogy' but you can't play them in sequence, as they're a tier one, a tier two, and a tier three.  This was a common setup for con-created DDAL content at the time.  I don't know the author well at all but I did play with him at least once; I remember him being a very detail-oriented and thorough DM.  As you might imagine, I'm tempted to run some of this content, just to see.  You can also take a look at the CCC that was created for BFGCon around the same time; the adventures aren't linked to the MAGFest ones (I don't think), but there are overlapping creators there.

Anyway, I came across my adventure proposal from all of this and figured it was worth sharing as a curiosity.  I reproduce the text of the proposal below without commentary.  There are definitely things in this I still like - maybe it needs completion in a non-DDAL, non-5e format.


THE NIGHTMARE KEY

A DDAL CCC wonderment for Tier Two characters

Prepared for MagFest 2018

Written by Erik Jensen


Original blurb

The second adventure will be a tier 2 adventure and will have the heroes investigating reports of increased monstrous activity in the outlying regions of of the city.  As the demons seal weakens, evil humanoids are drawn to the demonic power, though they don't know where the tomb is hidden.  Aided by the Riders of Thentia, the players drive back the evil creatures and discover the location of the sought after tomb with the help of the trickster.



Rundown

When barbarous minotaurs foolishly assault the outskirts of Thentia - a robustly-defended city with a disproportionate population of wizards - surely there must be a reason.  The vile yak-folk, Varsha, has been guided by dark visions to use a magic item known as the Nightmare Key - also called the Treasure of Tarmin in antiquity - to open a sealed demonic prison and harvest the knowledge within.  To that end, she has served as vizier to the minotaur chieftain, convincing him that the Key, once held by his minotaur ancestors, will open a pathway to the Endless Maze.

The minotaurs throw themselves at the Thentian defenses with heavy losses, mere pawns in Varsha’s game; but the yak-folk gets her hands on the Nightmare Key, and finds access to the sealed tomb beneath a wizard’s guildhall, where heroes will have one last chance to stop her getting access to the tomb.

Thankfully the heroes aren’t alone - a marid called Noor is also working against the sinister yak-woman and the demonic presence.  In recent weeks Noor has guided other heroes to frustrate Varsha’s plans around Thentia and to stave off the return of whatever sleeps within the tomb.


NPCs


Varsha, a yak-folk.  Seeks to locate the seal and either release what’s inside, or learn from it.


Naz of the Cracked Horn, a minotaur chieftain.  Manipulated into attacking Thentia.


Noor, a marid.  Working to stop Varsha and the potential return of the slumberer.



Outline


1   DDAL boilerplate.  Thentia boilerplate.


2   Introduction: the Treasure of Tarmin


3   Minotaur Incursion.  PCs witness, and assist in rebuffing, an attack by minotaurs in a Thentian market; a mysterious woman (the marid, Noor) is sighted.  (COMBAT)

This scene is intended for the adventure to start in media res, dropping right into the action.  Minotaur raiders should not be a difficult combat at Tier Two, which is by design.


4.  Scene of the Crime.  Learning from the Riders that there were several simultaneous minor minotaur attacks, the PCs are called to the location of one such battle - the home of a wizard, where it seems the minotaurs have stolen something of significance.  A clue to their goals? (INTERACTION/INVESTIGATION)

5.  Once More Into the Breach.  A second wave of probing minotaur attacks on the outskirts of Thentia finds the PCs aided by a mysterious woman - the trickster marid, Noor - who of course has her own goals, and knows more about what’s going on… (COMBAT / INTERACTION)

The wide boulevards of Thentia make for an interesting battlespace - if this is set up right we’ll have a very nice set-piece combat with PCs chasing minotaurs in chariots, leaping from one chariot to another etc.  It is in this scene that the PCs may acquire the scenario’s magic item, taken from the minotaur chieftain.  Also a possibility that the PCs may make “peace” with the minotaur chieftain and convince him of Varsha’s treachery (poss story award here?).


6.  Unwelcome.  Varsha, the villain of the piece, penetrates an old wizardly guildhall in order to learn the location of the sealed tomb.  PCs pursue but are harrowed and slowed by the defenses of the guildhall as they make their way underground to the caves containing the tomb.  (EXPLORATION)

.

7. Death in the Sea Caves.  Confronting the yak-folk Varsha in the sea caves, the PCs face off with her enslaved dao and other minions.  The dao smashes through rubble-filled apertures, letting the tide crash in.  The final battle involves preventing Varsha from using the Nightmare Key (Treasure of Tarmin) to gain access to the sealed tomb, all while the cave is rapidly filling with water -- it’s a race to the top of a subterranean step-pyramid before time runs out and the chamber fills!  (Good thing the PCs maybe know a certain marid…)  (COMBAT)

At the conclusion, either the PCs have defeated Varsha and control the Nightmare Key (and thus the option to pass into the dream-realm within the tomb), or she has escaped into the sealed tomb and they may chase after her (depending on table continuity; should work either way).  In some plays the PCs may feel they have no choice but to enter the strange realm of the tomb if they don’t want to drown.


MAGFest being first and foremost a video game convention, I was fixated on doing something related to the AD&D Intellivision releases.



Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Vast & Curious

 Here's a blurb that never amounted to anything.  Vaguely gameable, got some chuckles on G+ years back, but I never did anything with it.


Our first real alien contact in the twenty-third century was with the necropolis of a dead civilization.

An immense Texas-sized hunk of alien planet tumbled out of warpspace and just hung there near Mars orbit - a honeycombed piece of a dead world, the size of an entire country.  The press dubbed it Cloudcuckooland.

Initial explorations revealed two important facts.  First, Cloudcuckooland was a vast conurbation - forgotten, decaying sprawl and subterranean complexes as far as the eye could see or radar could penetrate, all scaled for aliens three or four times the size of a man. 

And whoever had built the place left behind valuables - rare earth, precious metals, chunks of mind-boggling tech.  Things worth scavenging.

And second -- Cloudcuckooland was inhabited.  Chitin-clad, hive-building quadrapeds, something between a spider and an anime robot.  Our pilots called the little ones on the surface “goblyns” and it stuck, but the beasts came in many sizes and shapes.  They had their own ecology, they’d been living off this colossal alien corpse-city for millennia, and they were more than happy to attack and eat humans.

A deadly and dangerous place, unexplored and unmapped, yet teeming with untold riches.  It’s a place for an independent contractor - someone willing to get killed, an expendable thrillseeker - to make a fortune.

So here’s what you do.  You piss away your savings into a sweet ride with all the right modifications and an air supply, and you weapon it up bigtime.  You throw your lot in with a handful of comfortably psychotic like-minded treasure-hunters.  And you get a military dropship to plunk you on the surface of Cloudcuckooland in exchange for a cut of your haul upon pickup.

Gotta explore, get in there, dip into the labyrinth.  Go deep.  Go fast.  Map what you can.  See what’s down there.  Outrun and outgun the goblyns and any other alien critters lurking down there.  Grab something worth selling and haul ass out of there as fast as you can.  Stay frosty.  Stay loyal to your crew.

You’re not a soldier, or an archaeologist.  You’re a daredevil idiot with a fast car looking to score by drifting through the cyclopean halls of a long-dead alien civilization.

Hell to the yeah.


the VAST and the CURIOUS

A campaign guide and kit for turning any old dungeon into an insane stunt-driving sci-fi action flick.

Get out your dungeon tiles and Hot Wheels.  This is going to get weird.



It's about fam-- no, screw that, it's about XP.




Sunday, June 19, 2022

Skirmish at Hoochie-Coochie Creek

 Purple Druid over at Wargame Culture is running a Campaign Carnival.  This means a bunch of people all running the same wargame scenarios, using different rules, then comparing the results.  Wampus Country is on board!  Four scenarios over eight weeks should be easily accomplished, so I enlisted my teenaged son as my opponent.


Up north at the edge of the Lumberlands, the hungry and cruel assembled forces under the banner of Lord Atrocious (a dark wizard) have been raiding for months now, seeking the secret squirrel city, and hoping to control some of the nearby territory rife with valuable and enchanted trees.  This week, blood was spilled as a punitive expedition from the squirrel city of Baudekin clashed with Atrocious' horde multiple times near Hoochie-Coochie Creek.  Lord Atrocious' trusted general, General Hamfist (a towering pig-man) was too bold - not only were his forces repulsed, but Hamfist himself was captured by the squirrels.  The Atrocious army was forced to fall from the field, leaving a small rump to guard the retreat...

Ruleset: Song of Blades and Heroes.  We chose an easy skirmish ruleset to help guarantee we got the battles done!

Models: 54mm American Civil War plastic soldiers, supplemented by a Groot (to represent the treant) and a plastic dragon (to represent the Acid-Spitting Horror-beast).

Scenario One was played 18 June.  The battle lasted about an hour and a half including all the setup, rules-reading, etc.

THE RIGHTEOUS SQUIRRELS OF BAUDEKIN

Squirmishers.  Light infantry, a mix of armed squirrels, marmots, and the like.  They are unhampered by forest terrain.

Squirrelzerkers.  Veteran light infantry.  Larger squirrel-men.

The Nutkin Honor Guard.  Heavy infantry, in heavy armor.  Veterans of a higher quality.

Lumberlands Irregulars.  Riflemen of distinction; mercenary lumberjacks etc.

Crabapple the Treant.

Gunsi the Squirrel (Junior Officer).  My son's D&D PC, risking his hide here on the wargames table.

Captain Walnut P. Fuzzybottom (Senior Officer).

not available this battle: the Chipmunk Trebuchet.


THE SLAVERING HORDE OF LORD ATROCIOUS

Raiders.  Light infantry of low quality.  Mobgobs, petty criminals, poggles.

Murdermen.  Hardened infantry of better quality and vicious mien.  Mix of mercenaries, porcs, and barbarians.

Ghouligans.  Undead light infantry.

Bogar the Befouled, Acolyte (Junior Officer).  A controller for the ghouligans.

Warlord Zum Toad-face (Senior Officer).  Amphibious mutant bully.

not available this battle: Acid-Spitting Horror-beast, half the Raiders, most of the Ghouligans.  I was at ~45% of my army list, while Baudekin had 95% of theirs, as per the scenario.


In Scenario One, Atrocious is attempting a fighting retreat while Baudekin, with nearly their complete army, pursues.  The terrain ended up with a small hill on one flank (represented by a book) and a thick copse of trees on the other (represented by a piece of cardboard) - which of course the squirrels tried to use to their advantage.

These pictures are crap, but here's how it went down.

Zum's forces of evil tried to hold the seeming choke-point with a couple of ghouls, but the squirrels did not hesitate to throw their skirmishers into the woods (in hopes of future ambush), send heavy infantry to hold the hill at Rumbler's Knob, and flood the treant and more troops into the middle.

The fighting seemed roughly even throughout much of the battle.  Baudekin's higher-quality troops should have been more reliable and maneuverable, but Captain Fuzzybottom proved to be untested in real battle, and his soldiers hesitated often (ie took a bit for the player on that side to really wrap his brain around "rolling more activation dice is risky" despite us having discussed it previously - sometimes you have to learn by doing!).

The bad buys held off the treant pretty well, which meant a lot of the big moves came from character models.  Lieutenant Gunsi the Squirrel hopped behind the Atrocious lines and was an effective killer (his 'hero' quality guaranteed his mobility) - he took out Bogar the Befouled early on, meaning the handful of ghouligans sucked even more than they normally would.  Gunsi himself was KO'd later in the battle.

Zum Two-Face and Captain Fuzzybottom fought right in the middle, and Two-Face won handily, capturing the squirrel leader and forcing some morale checks that disrupted the squirrel army long enough for more baddies to escape.  This was decisive in tipping the race for Victory Points and making this a close game!

In the end, though, the squirrels squeaked it out, running down enough baddies to just barely score more victory points.

WINNER: THE SQUIRRELS.

Bogar the Befouled, CAPTURED

Captain Walnut P. Fuzzybottom, CAPTURED

Lt. Gunsi, CAPTURED

I guess we'll wait to see the next scenario before we finalize talk of a prisoner exchange.

Zum Toad-Face was unafraid to wade into battle.

Painful casualties atop Rumbler's Knob (conveniently a copy of Louis L'Amour's Haunted Mesa)


Turning point: Zum Two-Face and Captain Fuzzybottom get into it personally, leaving the squirrel commander captured.



Their leader felled, the squirrels temporarily fall into disarray - including the treant falling back.  This moment of chaos allowed more of the bad guys to successfully leave the table.


All in all, a fine time.  We messed up some rules and forgot a few things in the heat of battle, but that's what happens when you're learning a new game.

THING WE PLAINLY FORGOT:

* that you can shoot at double your range at -2, so we had no real long-range missile stuff going on.  Chalk it up in the narrative to the entire area being lightly wooded.  I expect a lot more pewpew in the next scenario.

THINGS WE LEARNED:

* good practice thinking about the activation rules in Song of Blades & Heroes

* dice can be cruel

* low-Quality troops can be pretty frustrating.  JUST MOVE!

* numbers advantage isn't the end-all be-all of wargaming


Zelena's End-of-Year Clearance

 Zelena Dire (Witch For Hire) resides in the always-growing town of Thistlemarch; she has proven a fairly reliable ally to some PCs.  She's also the easiest local witch to convince to make minor magic items.

Some years ago she blew out her stock of lesser magics, as below.  Some of these items were clearly made out of bits and bobs given/sold to her by PCs.


Turkimera-feather charm - wearer gains +2 on all saves against sleep or mind control. (costs $150)


Pauldrons of the Devil-Duck - a shoulder accessory made from twin duckbills; may be attached to armor or to a cape.  Wearer gains a +2 to any swimming checks, and takes half damage from water based effects (note that ice is water, but not all cold effects are ice).  (costs $550)


Imperfect Healing potions - refugees from batches which didn’t turn out up to snuff or meet Zelena’s stringent quality control.  Each of these concoctions will heal 1d4+1 hp of damage, but there is also a 1 in 6 chance the imbiber’s skin and hair will instantly turn to an unfortunate color (effect lasts 2d4 weeks).  $50 each, or $85 for two.  (limited supply of six total)


one “Snollygoster Squeezins” Potion- Zelena got this as part of her payment for services rendered, and as she doesn’t much care for unreliable magic, is passing the savings on to you.  $25  


Spider Juice- An aromatic potion with bits of things floating in it.  Drinking spider juice acts as a counter to poison; the effect lasts 24 hours.  The first time the imbiber is poisoned (whether the save is failed or passed), the effects of a slow poison spell kick in immediately.  $35 each.  (limited supply of four total)


Gigantic Plum- It’s a basketball-sized plum.  Looks tasty.  $30.


Teeky Tooky Mask- A colorful carved wooden mask in the bestial/demonic style of the Black Eagle tribe; Zelena says it “creeps her out”, so she’s letting go of it.  When worn, the mask grants a +1 bonus to saves versus gaze attacks of any sort, and grants 60’ infravision.  It’s very presence _might_ anger certain types of demon.  $45.


Stone Donkey Potion- A swirling, thick, reddish goo of a potion.  When fed to four-legged livestock (anywhere from donkey to cow to horse etc), instantly turns the animal to stone (save vs petrification).  Zelena crafted this for a client who never picked it up and has no earthly idea what the hell it’s good for.  $30. (limited supply of one)


Forget Me Please Potion - An effervescent green liquid which smells of armpit, guaranteed to assist you in getting rid of unwanted paramours.  Upon drinking it, the imbiber immediately loses 3 points of Charisma and much of their good looks, for 1d4+1 hours.  $20.  (limited supply of two)

Zelena Dire, a bit out of sorts judging by her use of her Tuesday bicycle and her Thursday face.


Friday, June 17, 2022

Preview Read-Thru: The Doom That Came To Astreas

 Greg Lambert and the good folks at Chronicles of Aeres were kind enough to slide me a preview pdf of their latest Kickstarter book, The Doom That Came To Astreas.  It's a sword-and-sorcery setting and adventure for D&D 5e, and I figured as an occasional 5e DM and Sword And Sorcery Respecter, it would be fun to take a look.  Am I the target audience for this book?  Probably not, and that's okay - and we'll circle back to that later.

It occurs to me that when you look at a product, there are several important questions we ask that help us decide its quality.  The first two are what does it say it is, and what is it actually.  Sometimes you grab and adventure and it's more of a sourcebook, or vice-versa; sometimes a book claims to support a particular sub-genre, but then you read it and...not so much.  The third, and maybe most important question, is how well does it do it.

In the case of The Doom That Came to Astreas (hereafter just Doom), the answers to the first two questions are clear.  Doom says it's a sourcebook for a sword-and-sorcery continent, and a decent-sized 5e adventure set there.  And, thankfully, that's what it is.  Whether you enjoy the style of presentation is one thing, but Doom is certainly what it says on the tin.

The sourcebook section of the book gives us the rundown of Astreas, its current status and history, and the major threat (we'll get to that presently in the adventure).  Doom does so, in part, through quite a bit of fiction, and character quotes.  This technique is sufficiently prevalent that I really felt like it was the 90s again and I was reading a White Wolf book (your mileage will of course vary).  Through these pieces we are introduced not only to the world of Astreas, but to some of the NPCs and PCs (you heard me) we'll be dealing with in the adventure portion.  The art throughout is nice enough, and the maps in the book are colorful but maybe a little muddy and cramped for my tastes.  The layout is modern in terms of fonts and color-on-color, but readable throughout (thank you).  Doom is written in a modern style - which is to say on the loquacious side - with some read-aloud text in the adventure here and there.

As far as crunch, 5e folks will find new takes on bird-men, frog-men, lizard-folk, and barbarian types within, each with special qualities that fit with the Astrean milieu.  I don't know how plug-and-play adaptable any of these races would be to another 5e game.  I was a little surprised there weren't new spells to help shape genre expectations.  The five great cultures of Astreas each represent one extreme of alignment (Good, Law, Evil, so forth), and they have monolithic cultures that generally exist in isolation from one another - which is why a mixed group of PCs tromping about to each area in the provided mega-adventure is kind of a big deal.  There are also horgs (they're orc/hobgoblin stand-ins) and kobolds, who are standard draconic 5e kobolds.  

The provided adventure sequence is a strange beast.  Although it can be played with original characters, it is designed to be played with the 7th-level pregens included in the book, who are nicely representative of the vibe of Astreas.  Those characters aren't empty sheets, either - they have backgrounds and deep ties to the storyline.  So in this sense, there's a lot of Dragonlance going on here.  Some of my readers will be cringing at this point, but when you consider that Doom is meant for 5e players, this all makes a good bit of sense.  The adventure itself is designed to run 5-10+ sessions using the pregens -- so maybe this is a good palate-cleanser adventure for a group taking a break between WotC hardbacks, for example.  The pregen PCs are fairly iconic, and have the gimmick of having come together previously to stop the evil sorceress, but failed and were flung back in time a month, de-aged (ie lower in level).  Now their only hope to actually defeat her is to assemble the broken bits of an artifact.  You can see this has all the tropes, stacked nicely - so it comes down to whether running something like this whole-hog is right for your group.  Again, you could run it with original PCs, but I honestly think you'd lose a little something by doing it that way.

The adventure itself is a globetrotting fetch-quest in which the PCs have a month to collect the bits of the ancient axe in question, reassemble it, and use it to whack the BBEG.  However, the substructures of this adventure are not as railroady as that might sound (with the understanding that epic questline stories like this are inherently railroady -- again, "does what it says on the tin").  As the PC are dispatched, via magic, to the different parts of Astreas, they get to do a little hexcrawling in each 'zone'.  Here, the authors want you to keep your strict time records, enforce the need for food and water, and so forth -- nodding to old-school D&D play as the hexcrawl proceeds.  See what I mean by a strange beast?  Neither fish nor fowl.  I wonder if players who are on board for the epic quest will be turned off by the hexcrawling?  There is actual stuff for the DM to track throughout - the ongoing invasion of the horg hordes must be marked on the map, and should influence which way PCs travel (and to what zones they travel first).

Each geographic section of the adventure provides wilderness encounters, and a hexmap with adventure locations of note marked and detailed.  The adventure itself has a LOT OF STUFF in it, plenty to do, with varied combat and social and intrigue challenges.  The authors have inserted innumerable sword-and-sorcery easter eggs throughout, which were quite fun, but I note that for the most part they're second-generation references - ie winking nods to the Conan films, or Fire & Ice, not sly references to a Lieber novel.  I found that kind of interesting, and it jibes with some of the author statements as far as influences.  Regardless, all the tropes you'd think would be somewhere on the map, are indeed somewhere on the map - ziggurats, gladiatorial pits, standing stones, stinking fens, lost temples, etc.  The epic quest is a whirlwind tour of sword-and-sorcery stuff.  Naturally, eventually the PCs assemble the artifact and have their confrontation with the BBEG.

So now we come to the third question - how well does Doom do what it sets out to do.  I'm content to say it does it very well, but we must understand it's a narrow target.  A sword-and-sorcery setting sourcebook with a Dragonlance-style epic quest as the default mode of play, with small regional hexmaps meant for real crawling, all done up for D&D 5e.  If I'm not the audience for Doom - and perhaps I'm not - then the real measure of its value, and success, will be whether the 5e audience is ready for this love letter to sword-and-sorcery films.  The separate adventure bits are good, but I suspect any old-school DM with a strong pulp background would not find them super valuable to loot from.  However, the encounters and mini-hex-maps are solid enough that a 5e DM would probably find them useful even if not running Doom itself.

Not recommended for: old-school non-5e DMs looking for something to easily cannibalize.  Although you might be entertained reading parts of it thanks to the setup and easter eggs.

Maybe recommended for: 5e DMs looking for something to steal from for their own campaign, especially if your campaign has space for mighty-thewed barbarians, dinosaurs, and ziggurats.

Definitely recommended for: 5e groups tired of WotC/Forgotten Realms adventures and looking for a change of pace, especially if the idea of "sword-and-sorcery plus we do a little hexcrawl" appeals.  (Compare Tomb of Annihilation, though; if your group just did Tomb maybe it's not time to do Doom yet if you're looking to shift gears.)




Thursday, June 16, 2022

(Stirring Tales of) Organized Play, Part Three

 Schism is the normal state of organized play groups.  Whether it's a national-level D&D thing, or a Vampire LARP, or something else, eventually it's going to fork. There will be a rules change, or a change in leadership, or in population, and a group will break off and do their own thing (often while continuing to do the old thing as well).

A couple years back some changes in D&D Adventurers League were controversial enough that we saw some attempts at splinter groups.  One such was led by a guy I knew from work (and a couple other dudes), so I was invited, and I showed up to check it out.

The concept was that they wanted to do mostly-DDAL, but rolled back to the last iteration of the org-play rules (with a couple other small changes).  Ostensibly they wanted more DM freedom, and better-interlinked stories.  All laudable goals.

The issue was, they didn't know how to get there (in my opinion).  I asked lots of questions and didn't get answers to many things - the airplane was being built in flight.  How much vetting does a DM or an adventure need before being run?  If this is Forgotten Realms, what year is it supposed to be (players will care), and how tight is our canonicity?  How do we deconflict DM usage of published material?  Are we soliciting only pick-up groupings of PCs, or can stable tables evolve naturally?  Some conflicting answers on these throughout.

There was a Discord server as the hub of recruitment and play - this was really my first in-depth use of Discord for this sort of thing.  I still think it has both advantages and disadvantages years later!  Immediately it was apparent we had a lot more players than DMs.  A lot more.  As in, this is going to be a problem.  For the couple months I was involved, I only saw two other people running games at all (and no, this did not include the couple people in charge of the whole show).

The first thing I ran was Ruined Tower of Zenopus, which I was eager to try in play after falling in love with it.  It plays as well as it reads, has great old-school feel despite being for 5e, and I continue to recommend it.  I had plopped the ruined tower down somewhere down the road from Waterdeep, near Illefarn, where I was planning to stake my claim to run the area.  Two session of Zenopus in, the PCs in question hadn't gotten very far and weren't enjoying themselves as much as I would've liked.  They were pretty passive and wanted a "mission" to go on, and they wanted things to be wrapped up by the end of the session.  This was going to be a continuing playculture problem with this splinter org - the DDAL model was strong in their minds, and most of them had never played anything besides 5e.  They had certain  playstayle assumptions baked-in.  I kept trying to be the guy running classic-leaning content...

Next I ran several sessions adapting material from Under Illefarn - updating the NPC lore in case anybody was enough of a Faerun-head to care about the time discrepancy, etc. These sessions went a little better, as they were more self-contained and mission-y, but nobody bit on exploring the larger dungeon despite pointers and hooks aplenty.  The idea of spending several sessions (and sorties) into the same dungeon didn't fly with this crowd.

At this point I knew for sure I was in the wrong place.  The organization wasn't very organized, and despite dozens of game-hungry players none of them seemed to want what I was selling.  I had a talk with a couple of the organizers about my observations, made some suggestions, and we parted ways.

I presume the experiment failed and the splinter group faded away.  Sometimes that's what happens.  Enthusiasm and good intentions don't keep an org-play program running.