Friday, 2 September 2022

5 Changes I Want in OneD&D

With all the work being done to revise the D&D game at the moment, there are a lot of things I really would like to see. But there are some really simple changes that I think could help a lot. 


One of the most infuriating issues in running the game is having to constantly convert distances. The most simple of these is usually to take a distance (say, 30 feet) and convert that into inches, squares, or hexes on a tabletop (usually symbolic of five feet each). This is even more frustrating for those of us who use metric measurements in our daily lives, who might then want to convert those distances into something we can understand, resulting in those inches being converted again into 1.5 metre increments. It's bloody frustrating.

4th edition tried to simplify this by referring to distances by the square, and that got criticised for gamifying the system too much, but I think a middle ground could be found by introducing the concept of the "pace". A pace could be easily introduced into most gameworlds as a standard unit of measurement which was adopted by X army just like how it was by the Roman legions (the distance from one foot leaving the ground to when the same foot hits again while marching, which happens to be five feet.) The fluff could be easily adapted and discussed, but in essence it is essentially 5 feet, 1.5 metres, or 1 inch/square/hex on the tabletop. Using the pace for all game measurements would make conversion so much easier and would feel equally at place whether talking in-game or out of it.

Hinder Action

The Help action is a great tool that covers a lot of creative and interesting exploits your PCs may come up with into one simple and versatile rule. Use your action to give a mate Advantage. Easy.

But I think there's a place to bring in a similar rule to give an opponent Disadvantage, and the obvious name for it is Hinder. Naturally, there would need to be rules and restrictions to govern it (much like Help does) but it could easily be implemented.

Bloodied Condition

For all of 4th edition's flaws, it did get a few things right, and one of them was the Bloodied condition, which typically kicked in once a creature had lost half of its Hit Points. It's also nice and easy for a DM to use it as a term to vaguely but accurately answer a player's answers as to how injured an enemy is ("Ooh, it's been injured, but it's not Bloodied yet.")

The condition doesn't actually have to do much, but it could act as the trigger for other abilities and effects. For instance, spells such as Toll the Dead which can do extra damage to a creature that isn't at full HP could be reworded to get that change when used on Bloodied creatures (and it would also balance that cantrip much better.) Barbarian abilities might be readdressed to operate differently when the character is Bloodied. Some creatures, such as zombies or oozes, might not be able to get Bloodied at all.

Honestly, this condition would require a bit more work to introduce than some of the other changes I'd like, but I think it's worth the effort.

Versatile Warpicks

This is a small change, but one that would make me very happy. I have a bit of a fondness for dwarves and like the idea of a dwarf warrior rocking a big ridiculous warpick in the same way they are often shown with battleaxes and warhammers.

But mechanically they're simply a poor choice just because they lack the versatile trait. I don't really see any good reason why they shouldn't be versatile, which would make them the piercing equivalent to the battleaxe, longsword, and warhammer. 

Renaming Inspiration/Bardic Inspiration

Honestly, there's a lot of work I want to see done with Inspiration, but the very first thing I'd like to see is addressing the fact that Bardic Inspiration is too similar a name. New players always stumble on this and the term "Bardic Inspiration" is a bit ugly.

Ideally I'd like to see the Bard ability adopt the "inspiration" moniker for itself and have the Inspiration system use another name entirely. However, I don't have a great suggestion for what term it could be replaced with. Destiny? Motivation? Drive? Fate? Drama? Not sold on any of it so far, but I'm sure something could be thought of.

Monday, 29 August 2022

"UA Character Options" Browse & BBQ

The D&D team have just launched the big media assault pushing the upcoming 50 year anniversary new revision of the ruleset that they're calling One D&D, and a big part of their first step was to release some Unearthed Arcana showing the direction they're interested in going. There's also a lot about their digital tools, and there's a lot to say about that, but we're just looking at the UA pdf playtest rulekit here.

The Character Options UA is a solid document, and far better than I was expecting. It effectively covers a whole bunch of fundamental game rules and principles that can be overhauled. Here are the dot points:

  • Attribute bonuses have moved over to Backgrounds
  • It still uses the term "Race"
  • The Races included are all those in the PHB plus a few new ones and the half-breeds have been redesigned. They also don't give Attribute bonuses any more
  • Backgrounds DO give Attribute bonuses and are far more important to character building than ever before (YES!)
  • A few Feats have been given the old once-over
  • Spells can now be of Primal origin rather than Arcane or Divine
  • DMs don't get critical hits any more
  • 1s always fail
  • 20s always succeed and also grant Inspiration
  • A bunch of other rules have been tweaked and some of them could be reeeeeal interesting
Because it's still in development it seems a bit premature to properly review the changes, but I can certainly assess whether I'm likely to include the changes in my home games. Lets break 'em down. 

Contrary to what I expected, all Players Handbook races are included, though there's a twist with the "half-breeds". If you want to play a character of mixed heritage you now just pick one side of the family for game stats and throw in some cosmetic fluff from the other. I wouldn't be surprised if this gets some feedback, because I'm sure people are going to want to swap racial traits in and out.

That means the half-elf is gone, but it also means that orc is now on the standard menu, and it's pretty much what we saw in Mordenkainen's Multiverse of Monsters. The big shiny distraction is the inclusion of the ardling race, which is like a beast-headed variant on the aasimar.

As mentioned above, the big difference is that Attribute bonuses have been thrown into Backgrounds, but your race still gives you some racial abilities. Some of them are obvious, such as Dragonborn who still have their breath weapons and damage resistance (and now get darkvision), or halflings, who still get their various tricksiness. Elves are pretty much as expected with the change that each breed of elf gets a different suite of spells as they go up levels, and tieflings now have a similar approach with Abyssal and Cthonic heritages now available. Dwarves now get Tremorsense, which is a really nice idea and I dig it a lot. The items that rock gnomes can make have now been declared to be bound to effects limited by the Prestidigitation spell, which I like but it makes me wonder if they'll do some proper overhauling of the spell system.

But, as always, I want to know what they're doing with humans, because that's where the real action tends to take place. 

I'm glad to say it isn't bad. Humans get to grab a skill and a Feat of their choice, which is completely unsurprising, and also the ability to get Inspiration for finishing a Long Rest. That last sounds pretty solid, especially considering that you now lose Inspiration at the start of a Long Rest, but it means we'll have to learn more about what the rules for Inspiration are gonna be like... but that'll have to wait to come up.

Will I use it: I'll certainly give it a go. There are no immediate red flags, and I can't say ardlings inspire me in any great way, but some of the changes are quite intriguing. However, including these Race changes depends on the Backgrounds changes as they seem to go hand in hand, so it all rests on our next section... 

One of my favourite inclusions in 5e was the introduction of Backgrounds and I've long thought more attention should be given to them, so I'm very pleased to see that the team has finally agreed with me. Backgrounds are now incredibly important and seem to be one of the most customisable aspects of character creation.

All Backgrounds are now cut from the same cloth. The default is to build your own, but pre-made templates are offered which can further be tweaked using the same rules for building them. A Background grants you:
  • +2 to one Attribute and +1 to another (as mentioned earlier, this has been shunted over from Races)
  • Proficiency in two skills
  • Proficiency in a tool
  • Proficiency in a language
  • A Feat
  • 50gp to spend on equipment
The prepackaged Background templates are the same as was in the PHB but with a few new faces and some changed names. Acolyte, Charlatan, Criminal, Entertainer, Gladiator, Sage, Sailor, Soldier, Hermit, Noble, and Urchin are familiar, though some that greatly relied on their Features have had to make do with Feats that don't really seem to cover the old territory (such as Charlatans losing their fake identity and getting the Skilled Feat).

Folk Hero is gone and replaced with Farmer and Laborer, which are pretty much the "commoner" archetypes that Folk Hero was always going for. Artisan has replaced Guild Artisan. Outlander has gone, but Guide and Pilgrim offer two interesting takes on the same premise. Guard offers a henchman/watchman angle on the Soldier, while Cultist is a very interesting variant on Acolyte.

Will I use it: On the whole I like this a lot. Replacing the old Features with a Feat is a mixed blessing as some of the old Features were weird and unbalanced, but some of them did have some interesting character to them. I'd like to see the tools and languages interchangeable, so you could ditch tools for two languages or vice versa. But these are minor quibbles. I'll move to this in an instant.

Languages and Feats
The Language selection is slightly overhauled, with notable inclusions being Common Sign Language and Primordial now covering all the elemental languages (Aquan, Auran, Ignan, and Terran).

Only a few Feats are included, and they have some solid errata. Lucky now gives you a number of Luck Points equal to your Proficiency Bonus, which is a standard yardstick used for a lot of batteries moving forward it seems. Savage Attacker has been reworded and Tavern Brawler seems a bit more fun. Healer is a lot more useful and can let you reroll 1s on a healing spell die. Crafter and Musician not only grant Tool Proficiencies but also other little boosts.

Will I use it: Sure, whatever. They're small changes and basically errata.

There are a whole bunch of other rules of interest that have been tweaked and modified.

D20 Test: A catch-all term for the core of the game, which covers the three main rolls (ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws). If a rule affects d20 tests it can be assumed to affect all three of the main rolls. Importantly, a 1 on a d20 check now always fails and conversely a 20 always succeeds. Additionally, a 20 also grants Inspiration.
Will I use it: Absolutely. These rules are basically in my games already.

Critical Hits: One of the more unpopular rule changes, critical hits now only affect weapons and unarmed strikes from PCs. Spells and incidental damage (such as creating an avalanche to crush your foes) are no longer covered, and DMs now don't get them at all. I think this will get a lot of feedback and will probably be changed before publication.
Will I use it: Probably not. I kinda like that it gives martial characters an edge, but there's something about the craziness of crits that can veer a game off into great directions and limiting that wildness is counterintuitive to me. But I'd like to look more into the philosophy behind why they've chosen to do this, and I'm open to the idea that I could be swayed.

Spell Lists: There are now three branches of magic; Arcane, Divine, and Primal. Primal covers the spells cast by Druids and Rangers, though I imagine the Barbarian Totem Warrior might have their spells fall into this category as well. I'm not surprised by this inclusion, as it has been seen in previous editions (notably 4th).
Will I use it: Until further rules changes are introduced this is a moot point. I'm not against it in principle.

Conditions: Incapacitated now specifies that concentration is broken, the character can't speak, and they get disadvantage on initiative rolls. Grappled now specifies how the condition can be broken, grants disadvantage to attacks against anyone other than the grappler, and the grappler can now move the character they've got hold of but suffer the Slowed condition. Slowed is brand new which effectively halves your movement, gives attackers Advantage against you, and gives you Disadvantage on Dex saves.
Will I use it: Absolutely.

Tool Proficiency: The big takeaway is that your Tool and Skill Proficiencies stack, meaning a first level Rogue could potentially get +8 on a roll from their Expertise specialties alone before even looking at Attributes. All Artisan's Tools now cost 15gp and Musical Instruments all cost 20gp.
Will I use it: I'm prepared to give this a whirl, but will be watching to see if it gets exploited.

Resting: Long Rests specify needing at least six hours of sleep during the eight hour window to get the benefit. An interrupted Long Rest can still potentially grant the benefits of a Short Rest.
Will I use it: Simple errata. It's fine.

Tremorsense: A natural ability for dwarves, this feature lets you detect creatures and moving objects that are on the same surface as you. Very interesting. I like it.
Will I use it: Yep. Seems like it could be a load of fun.

Inspiration: A few changes here. For one thing, you lose Inspiration at the start of a Long Rest, though Humans gain one at the end of a Long Rest and a few other methods exist for doing the same (such as the Musician Feat). A 20 on any d20 Test now also rewards Inspiration (as noted above). Though you can still only bank one at a time (boo!) if you gain Inspiration while you already have it you may now pass it off to the others in your team.
Will I use it: Passing Inspiration around is something I've played with for a while, but honestly I think a lot more work needs to be done with Inspiration entirely. The whole Inspiration system barely scrapes the bare minimum of what could be done with this mechanism, and tying it to Bonds, Ideals, and Weaknesses is an obvious first step. I'll continue to develop my own far more interesting Inspiration systems.

Monday, 15 August 2022

Eldritch: The Book of Madness (review)

Hmm... I wonder if the whole "dark fantasy" tag has become a bit... basic. It seems that it has become the go-to genre for anybody wanting their fantasy roleplaying to be a bit more nuanced. After the initial child-like phase of playing D&D for fun and laughs, it's quite common for players to ditch the power trips, fart jokes, and escapism for something a bit more emotive and stylised as they step into their angst-ridden rebellious teen phase.

The trend has been around long enough to have a whole catalogue of dark fantasy rpg games and settings out there. In-house, the Ravenloft setting has been D&D's flagship dark-fantasy for decades (arguably more horror than dark fantasy), though Dark Sun and Fantasy Flight's Midnight setting have also had great popularity. Outside of the ever-looming market leader, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay always prided itself on being pretty dark. Stormbringer had the advantage of drawing on the peerless Mr. Michael Moorcock's iconic Elric novels (which formed the template for dark fantasy as a genre). The '90s had a shadow cast over the entire rpg landscape as the industry seemed to suddenly get engulfed in gloom (this period saw the "World of Darkness" games dominate the market, after all, but let's stick to the dedicated fantasy games.)

Right now, indie darling Mork Borg is the dark fantasy that all the cool kids are into, and its satanic metal art makes a bold claim to the top of the pile in a much more convincing manner than some other games. Gemini called itself "the dark fantasy roleplaying game" and though the setting was exceptional I'm not sure if it earned the right to be THE game of that genre. Evernight was the first setting released for Pinnacle's Savage Worlds system and its tag of "The Darkest Fantasy" is an embarrassing display of braggadocio. I was intrigued by the claim of The Dark Peaks as a "pitch black" setting, but the last I read of the game it was still in development and I thus can't judge it. Blades in the Dark is right up there, but I'd argue it's more of a crime story or heist drama.

But today our dark fantasy rpg setting is a preview for Eldritch: The Book of Madness for D&D 5th ed by Stewie Black. As a dark fantasy it clearly has a lot of work ahead of it if it wants to stand out, especially as the last "book of madness" I read was the wonderful sourcebook of that name for Mage: the Ascension (man, I still need to get another copy of that...)

Note: My pdf preview copy is not a complete document. This review may contain obsolete opinions and information once the final copy is released.

Beyond the Black Mirror

Eldritch: The Book of Madness opens on an epic scale, positing an alternative cosmology to the 5th edition canon where an ancient and alien dimension outside of reality insidiously intrudes into the multiverse as we know it. This "Realm beyond the Dark Mirror," called the Kra-Xalar, is a primordial shadow universe filled with sadistic powers and creatures who delight in bringing suffering to mortals. The evil powers here are not just driven to destroy and corrupt; they actively revel in it, taking perverse glee in their atrocities.

It is stressed that the entities of the shadow are not just evil but worse than that, the choice term being "profane," and this term is one of the two keywords essential to the book (the other being "dread.") It evokes the concept that the Kra-Xalar and its inhabitants are aberrant outsiders to the natural order. Dread takes it a step further, being the influence the shadow has on a mortal and the power it has over it, allowing profane monsters to engage special abilities fueled by a victim's exposure to the darkness' malign touch.

With such horrific themes, the author takes pains to give fair warning at the start regarding content and mentions that real world mental health should be treated with respect, but I appreciate that this section isn't laboured or authoritative (though some might appreciate a link to some safety tools; the current trend is to err on the side of caution.) From there we get into an overview of the setting; systems regarding Dread, madness, and addiction; sections regarding antagonists, including a selection of monsters and their associated stat blocks; a slew of profane spells, and finally a look at the setting for the campaign taking place in a unrelentingly bleak and inhospitable world built on the near-dead corpse of an ancient titan. A glossary is also thankfully included to help with the plethora of names and terms introduced through the book.

Production values on the whole are great. The writing might be a little on the florid side at times, but rarely strays into amateurishness and is engaging and entertaining. Artwork is good and graphic design and layout is clean and easy on the eye. Game system information follows the established template of 5e, including some of the most recent updates to it (such as giving monster stat blocks a proficiency bonus.) As an unofficial 5e supplement this is really quite good and better than most, and though this review is of the pdf only I am confident that the printed copy will show similarly respectable quality.

The Profane

At times the profane shadow seems Lovecraftian in tone, completely alien and mind-bogglingly vast, but in practice it is nothing like it. Rather than be aloof and uncaring it is intimately concerned with mortals, much like the devils of D&D's lower planes. However we are also informed that the dark powers are nothing like the fiends we are familiar with, but are somehow worse.

This concept of "like the bad stuff you know, but worse" permeates the book. The two great dark powers (a Lord of Pain and a Lord of Madness) seem awful similar to their fiendish counterparts, but we are assured they are more terrible. The "bound-dead" are just like undead but with more abilities and the method of their creation involves ensuring the living mind of the victim is constantly tortured. A new condition, Terrified, is just like Frightened but can affect creatures immune to fear. The new profane damage type is kind of like necrotic, I guess, but since nothing specifies that it is immune to profane damage it can hurt anything.

Some of the monsters certainly follow this trope. Dread ghouls and grogres might have some interesting abilities, but they just feel like regular ghouls and ogres given a profane polish. The fell shade is likewise the profane hellhound or blink dog, and the kariad dragon is immensely cool but feels a bit too similar to a purple worm or sandworm of Arrakis (though the fact that it can turn to mist and teleport makes it a terrifying threat.) There's something that's too familiar about these antagonists, and they certainly don't come across as a unique form of malevolence.

There are indeed some great antagonists in the book, my personal favourite being the brokiiri doll. This fabric monstrosity not only makes an ally of a soon-to-be-damned child and creeps off to commit murders but also has the cleric-dampening power of being able to soak up Turn Undead attempts onto itself, screaming off into the dark instead of the intended target. It's a nasty play, but if used correctly can be a great dramatic moment mixed with some black humour.

But on the whole I'd like to see the profane powers be more unknowable and pernicious than presented. (Edit: this perspective is present in upcoming material.)  The very fact that the book encourages a slow burn but simultaneously hits the reader from the outset with the grand cosmic scale shows a missed opportunity to reflect the themes Eldritch is seeking to present. Probably the best way to do so is offered in the section regarding cults, showing how the dark powers subtly exert their influence into the mortal world. 

Dread and Madness

Undoubtedly the most interesting mechanism in Eldritch is Dread.

As characters continue to deal with the profane they gain Dread points. Casting profane spells, encountering powerful profane beasties, and witnessing profane scenes will all contribute to a character's pool of Dread (sort of similar to getting Cthulhu Mythos knowledge.) Thereafter, profane creatures can use this pool against the characters, spending a target's Dread to fuel special powers and abilities, making Dread a powderkeg of danger in any profane conflict.

It's a fun idea, and it also means characters will be cautious about stepping into an encounter with a profane enemy when rocking a high Dread pool. And that pool is likely to be high indeed, as it refills daily unless you are doing something to remove it such as destroying profane monsters or cashing it in for madness.

Ah, yes. Madness. Mental illness is a very tricky subject and a lot of rpgs have had trouble dealing with it appropriately, but Eldritch sidesteps a lot of it by making the afflictions presented less mental illness than an actual outside force that has burrowed into the character and is twisting them. At least it seems that way. There's certainly a paragraph stating that it's a mortal's mind breaking due to its inability to comprehend the magnitude of the horrors assailing them, so the Lovecraft parallels come in yet again. But all of the madnesses listed have their own unique fantasy names (there are soooo many fabricated terms in this book!) so at least an attempt has been made to avoid stigmatization.

Two other methods of gaining Dread are of particular note. The first is the spell list, which is always a popular section for players getting hold of a new sourcebook. Dozens of new spells are on offer, but they come with the terrible price of the possibility of gaining Dread (at midnight a save must be made with the difficulty increasing the more profane spells you cast that day.) This is yet again familiar territory for those who have played games involving Lovecraftian horrors or other forbidden magic, but it's not something we've seen much of in 5e and I really like it. There's a great deal of satisfying narrative weight in a game when your own poor choices come back to haunt you later; that's the essence of classical tragedy.

Less satisfying is gaining Dread through addiction. A selection of addictive substances are detailed, and their descriptions are quite interesting and offer great story hooks, but though their drawbacks and Dread increases are clear there is no benefit (temporary or otherwise) for indulging in them. I think this is a great shame, as the temptation to indulge is lost as is the eventual payoff for cursing your own decisions in the past. With the spells we get the wonderful moment where our choice to obtain temporary gain leads to damnation; the drugs, drinks, and possessions of the Addictions chapter offer no such poignant opportunities. (Edit: The Addictions chapter is undergoing a revision with a lot more material being added. Yay!)

The Wastes are an intriguing setting for the game built on the dead or near-dead body of a titanic light-aligned entity that was destroyed by the profane powers. A whole campaign is offered where the PCs are attempting to rescue its power, which has taken the form of birds.

Dark Tidings

Having read through it now, what Eldritch offers is a D&D campaign with a distinct vision. It isn't an addition to a regular campaign, but a campaign in its own right. Taking one or two creatures or spells from Eldritch and plugging them into your Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance campaign might be interesting, but it isn't really what this sourcebook is meant to be about. What this is really about is offering a particular focus for your campaign. Playing a game with this sourcebook is about delving into the particular malignant nastiness it has to offer. And it has a particular tone to it, one which is somewhat reminiscent of an undead or fiend campaign, but has its own unique twist.

The Dread mechanic is the heart of this book, and it would need to take a central place in any campaign using it. And I do like it a lot. I certainly like it a lot more than the bare-bones sanity mechanism offered in 5e's Dungeon Master's Guide or the equally uninspired "Horror Toolkit" in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft. In this regard, Mr Black is doing a far better job of giving us decent tools for telling this kind of story than the official 5e team are doing.

But I came into this looking at it as a "dark fantasy rpg" and the question I have to ask is if it stands out from the pack. It certainly has a good old crack at it. There's no denying this is trying hard to maintain a true course and I think Stewie Black is making a good faith attempt at exploring some legitimately interesting terrain. D&D as a system isn't really the greatest fit for dark fantasy, I'd argue, and the game often impedes the ability to explore storylines of brutality, failure, and loss. But none of that is Black's fault, and he has made a great effort to work within 5e's limitations to offer a dark game.

And I want to make it clear that I mean it as no small compliment that he hasn't failed. I can be a harsh critic, and there's things to criticise, but I'm inclined to look to the positive qualities here. I don't think that Eldritch is revolutionary or a masterwork, but it would have been very easy to screw up. After all, so many others have failed before. But I like Eldritch, and I think there's something quite good here. It's not my preferred kind of dark fantasy, and there's a great deal I would have done very differently, but if I was playing in this game I would sink my teeth into it.

It's certainly better than a lot of others I have read, some of them official D&D products.

The Eldritch: The Book of Madness campaign is going live on August 30.

Concept: 3 (Good)

System: 3 (Good)

Execution: 3.5 (Better than Good) 

Verdict: 3 (Good)

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Candlekeep Mysteries (review)

(Note: This review first appeared on Australian Tabletop Gaming Network. Thanks to Wizards of the Coast for the review copy.) 

Candlekeep Mysteries is an anthology collection of seventeen short adventures from various authors covering a wide spread of levels. In addition, the book also presents the Forgotten Realms’ largest library, which acts as a framing device for the adventures, and includes a large full-colour map of the library-fortress. I’ll confess that I can’t recommend it to dedicated players. Unlike some of the other supplements, Candlekeep Mysteries doesn’t offer any new races, class options, spells, or other toys to play with. It’s firmly a DM resource, but it’s a very good DM resource.

And quite frankly I’m relieved that the book is dedicated to a certain target audience of DM’s only. I think it’s quite a disservice to the consumer to buy a book where a good portion of it is off-limits or superfluous (Tasha’s Cauldron is a good example as so little of it is useful to those who just play.) So keeping that all in mind, I’ll take a leaf out of Candlekeep’s book and note that likewise this review is full of spoilers and probably not for players either.

Each adventure is somehow based around a book of some kind and I’ll confess that they are a mixed bag. As a collection it gets a solid pass (at least a B+) but most importantly it offers a prospective DM a showcase of the variety of adventure styles available when running a game. Some are railroaded, others are more open. Some are dungeon crawls, some are social endeavours. Some are witty and creative, others are more traditional.

There’s a few interesting particulars worthy of note. The fact that each adventure goes into detail on it’s book of choice is great consistency, as is the illustration of said book, but the same can’t be said of some of the other elements. A big niggle for me is that the maps for the adventures don’t have a common style guide. I can get over the cosmetic issues, but some use ten foot squares and others use five foot squares, and that’s exactly the kind of thing an editor should have been on like a hawk.

Also, most of the adventures mention important details presented in the books which the players will discover, but very few actually offer a handout or other artistic method of presenting this detail. It all becomes very “tell, not show” and it is a sad oversight especially noticeable when an adventure actually does stand out by going to this kind of effort.

But enough chit-chat. Let’s bid the players adieu and give it a blow-by-blow.

By the by, I’ll confess that I’m not that big on the alternative cover. The font doesn’t quite seem fitting. It seems more at place in some kind of game set around 1900 with mediums, carnivals, and magicians or something.


Intro: Candlekeep

The immense library of Candlekeep is undoubtedly a cool location to base adventures out of, so it’s such a shame that so few of the adventures take full advantage of it. Most of them simply use it to throw you a hook in a book and then get you out of there asap. The map that comes with the book is pretty funky though the reverse could have been utilised in some way as well (maybe some maps of the bigger floorplans used in the modules, or something showing where the various adventures are in relation to the greater geographic area.)

The chapter is bare-boned and functional with two notable inclusions. The first is the spectral dragon Miirym, which sadly doesn’t feature in any of the adventures. But I’m most intrigued by the stat-lines for Candlekeep’s master sages who can each cast three fireballs per day. That’s a nifty trick, but considering that “any spell that creates fire is wasted if it is cast within the keep” one wonders why the hell they have that ability… unless the anti-fire enchantment was created because all these master sages kept letting loose fireballs all the time…

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces (Lvl 1)

The premise here is an extradimensional mansion, which is a fantastic reward to give to a party and I simply adore the idea. Essentially, the party get into the mansion easily enough, but then have to work out the secret keyword to get back out.

Sadly, as an adventure it all feels a bit forced. Any cautious party worth their salt won’t fall for the obvious trap of sending everyone inside as written, so most DMs will have to engineer some cleverer way to get them into the mansion. But it’s the justification as to why this keyword puzzle exists in the first place that really bugs me. Apparently the previous owner was really worried that someone would get trapped inside so they scattered a series of books throughout the mansion with letters printed on the side which can be arranged to spell the word in question. Why they didn’t just put up a big frikken sign is anyone’s guess. (A good idea would have been to include some kind of entity trapped inside that can’t work out the puzzle, which not only explains the lack of sign but also would give the mansion an antagonist that the module sorely lacks.)

Mazfroth’s Mighty Digressions (Lvl 2)

The hook at the heart of this adventure is really cute, as it centres around a scam. A group of jackalweres are using some mimic-like critters to take the form of valuable books which they can then sell, the profits going toward a resurrection spell for their late lamia leader.

This is one of those “morality test” scenarios, it seems, and is an example of where the D&D team is heading in terms of removing fixed alignment. Sure, the party can simply hack and slash their way to victory, but they could conceivably also talk their way through the scenario and get the whole thing done in under forty minutes with everyone holding hands and kumbaya-ing their way to a peaceful resolution (because we all know how peaceful and understanding most adventurers are.)

Book of the Raven (Lvl 3)

For those of you looking to get your players into Ravenloft (or the Shadowfell in general) Book of the Raven offers a shadow crossing to play around with the dark and gloomy. It offers a lot of fun toys, such as a good map of a chalet, a very interesting dark magic item, and a really cute handout to give to the players.

The inhabitants of the chalet are a fun device, being more interested in scaring off the party rather than actually hurting them, though there’s also the possibility of sending your party through the shadow crossing for a showdown with some undead. It’s a bit of a shame that this gratuitous fight doesn’t have more of an influence over the module, but at least it does offer a fight.

A Deep and Creeping Darkness (Lvl 4)

Actual villainous antagonists have been pretty lacking so far in this anthology. The level 1 adventure didn’t have one at all opting for a puzzle instead, the level 2 went for a fake-out, and the level 3 also did the fake-out with an obligatory but meaningless fight option. So it’s nice to have an adventure with a traditional bad guy that can be bashed up.

A Deep and Creeping Darkness is a pretty by-the-numbers three-hour convention module which ticks all the boxes without offering anything new or exciting. Everything about this adventure seems like a shake-and-bake packet mix of a module; it’s competent, capable, and entertaining enough, but it’s eventually forgettable. The earlier modules might have been flawed but at least they tried to do something different; Creeping Darkness plays it safe and eventually enters the land of one-session mediocrity.

Shemshime’s Bedtime Rhyme (Lvl 4)

The second level four adventure is one of the best in the book. A cursed nursery rhyme manages to escape the confines of its storybook, forcing the PCs and some interesting NPCs to quarantine themselves within a section of Candlekeep until they can conquer the dark spirit threatening them all.

So much about this module shows why it stands out. For one thing it uses the Candlekeep setting to maximum effect. It offers a proper antagonist and the supporting cast of characters are varied and intriguing without being overwhelming. It also has a player handout, which is very welcome.

I’ll confess that more tools could have been offered to help DMs stress the power and influence of the catchy mnemonic tune, but despite that minor quibble I stand by Shemshime being one of the better, more creative, and well-designed offerings in Candlekeep Mysteries. Nice one!

The Price of Beauty (Lvl 5)

Another big fake-out, this adventure posits a situation that most players will believe too good to be true… which of course it is. A temple of baths and hot springs belies a sinister secret, which is all well and good, but few characters are going to be at ease and will immediately start trying to uncover what’s going on behind the scenes.

Which is great! That’s exactly what they should do. And I think it’s a credit to the designers that not only will that good ol’ adventurer suspicion be rewarded but it may also turn against them. It’s entirely possible that the poor victim at the heart of this prison will be killed in an overzealous purge by the players. There’s more subtlety to the design here than expected and the cruelty of its villains is more devious than anticipated. I like it.

Book of Cylinders (Lvl 6)

This adventure has been getting a bit of publicity recently due to the designer disowning it. Politics aside, it seems nobody is really happy with it, and neither am I.

It largely involves some grippli frog people caught up in a yuan-ti civil war (I’ve never been really keen to have benevolent snake people in my campaigns, but they’re here if that’s your thing.) At the end of the day, this isn’t a mess but it’s clunky and I’m not surprised it was “ruined by committee.” However, what I’ve heard of the original plan (some kind of setting-shaking major event involving a snake god intended to make a dent on Forgotten Realms lore) seems more than a little like an ego trip on behalf of the designer. Feel free to find out more about it elsewhere.

Mind you, the “book” idea of it being cylinders you read by rolling them in mud is fantastic.

Sarah of Yellowcrest Manor (Lvl 7)

Y’know, this is another module (like Creeping Darkness) that is reminiscent of dozens of others I’ve played. A clue to a murderous crime leads to the investigation of a noble’s criminal activities, which leads further to uncovering a blasphemous and wicked cult ripe for some justified homicide and corpse-robbing.

But despite the fact that it’s nothing new, I still kinda like it, and I think a big part of it has to do with the fact that the NPCs encountered are really likeable and sympathetic. The spirit of poor Sarah elicits a desire to do right by her, Sir Vecken is likeably heroic, and Young Fargo offers a chance of a redemption arc without sacrificing the opportunity to beat up the villain. The NPCs elevate this higher in my opinion than it should be.

Lore of Lurue (Lvl 8)

Here’s one for the fairies and rainbows crowd, which is nice to see. The PCs are thrust into a demiplane following all the classic fairytale tropes, including a magical forest, a wicked witch, interactions with pixies, satyrs, and a treant, a dark moonlit ritual complete with werewolves, and a unicorn who must be cleansed of corruption. So if you’re the kind of person who thrives on pixie dust you’re in for a treat here.

Unfortunately, the scenario is strongly railroaded, which is somewhat alleviated by the fact that it’s all meant to be following the tale set down in the pages of the book you’ve been thrown into, so it’s thematically appropriate. But at the end of the day this module will be subject to taste, and that taste is likely to have a preference for sugar.

Kandlekeep Dekonstruktion (Lvl 9)

Straight up, this is without doubt the best adventure in the book.

Writer Amy Vorpahl shows a great deal of creativity and humour in an adventure that sees an attempt to turn one of Candlekeep’s towers into a rocket that will blast off into orbit within a matter of hours. It’s a novel idea which carries through on its premise with a clever dungeon, some funky new constructs, and a wonderful antagonist (a gnome tinkerer with the wonderful name Stonky Noptopper. So good!)

If you’re not into comedic games or just hate fun you might want to give this one a pass, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice. Kandlekeep Dekonstruktion is well-written, highly entertaining, and very clever. It also reminds us that the adventures set in Candlekeep are some of the best.

Zikran’s Zephyrean Tome (Lvl 10)

There are certain iconic aspects to Dungeons & Dragons that very rarely come up in actual play. The titular dragons themselves are surprisingly absent in most games, as is the opportunity to obtain a wish. So it’s really lovely that we finally get both in this cracking little adventure, along with a cloud giant stronghold haunted by the ghosts of its deceased inhabitants, all in the cause of freeing a trapped djinn.

There’s a lot to like in this module, which could be easily extended with some more encounters on the trek between locations, but the stand-out for me is the bronze dragon encounter. It’s personable enough to engage in some fun roleplaying but also fickle enough to start a fight if the party are belligerent. As for the rest, it’s only just behind in quality. A really good bit of fun.

The Curious Tale of Wisteria Vale (Lvl 11)

The setup here is pretty simple. A heroic bard has been slowly corrupted and his allies have placed him into an idyllic demiplane prison until they can work out a way to save him. Now they’ve discovered a cure and it’s the party’s job to go in and administer some salvation. All pretty straightforward.

But the twist is that there’s a beholder-sized spanner gumming up the works of this operation, and it’s one of the better beholders I’ve come across. The fact that it believes the PCs are harmless figments of its own imagination is not only a fun idea but allows for a load of entertaining roleplaying possibilities.

The Book of Inner Alchemy (Lvl 12)

It’s great that we’re seeing more variety in D&D than the tired old Western Tolkien-esque fantasy tropes. This adventure takes its cues from wuxia martial arts cinema with a temple of monks seeking immortality through dark arts.

But there’s very little depth to Inner Alchemy. It’s basically just a big fight scene with a paper-thin plot and some incredibly B-grade dialogue (Steel Crane’s lines in particular are hilariously bad). If you’re just looking for a fight (maybe with a side plate stuffed with ham and cheese) this is fine, but it’s hardly sophisticated.

The Canopic Being (Lvl 13)

Mummy Lords don’t get as much love as they should in my opinion; liches often overshadow them in many published adventures. But I like a good mummy tomb, and The Canopic Being is a solid example of one. It seems to fill the spot of a Tomb of Horrors-lite module, with a few devious ideas but none of the blatant unfairness.

My only real issue with it is the fact that it’s one more module that relies on convenient teleportation portals to move the party to the action, and too many of the modules in this book are going with that clumsy tool. But on the plus side, it does have an actual handout to give to the players, which so many more of the adventures should have also had.

The Scrivener’s Mark (Lvl 14)

I had to reread this one a few times to get my head around it. The players are caught up in intrigue between two major players from the feywild and will have to delve into a subterranean library to do battle with a villainous archfey. The hook that draws them in is blackmail; a magical curse starts covering the PCs with writing bestowing both funky benefits and horrible drawbacks. They will need to destroy their tormentor before the curse turns them to glass.

Unfortunately what interesting aspects the module has is offset by some clumsier elements. The use of telepathy could have been replaced with a less forced method of communication. The battle with the golems and mummies uses an ugly mechanism of dropping a quest item whenever a certain number of them are destroyed whereupon more just spawn in (it feels very much like video game design rather than tabletop roleplaying, and it bites.) Certainly a better explanation of the fae factions at play here would have been convenient. Fun villain, though.

Alkazaar’s Appendix (Lvl 15)

If Kandlekeep Dekonstruktion is the best adventure in the book, this is second best. The background is interesting and well-presented. The NPCs that accompany the party are likeable and the golem that is so integral to the plot is ripe for fun roleplaying opportunities. A side quest involving a dragon tortoise and its chwinga friends is a fantastic optional encounter and I wish more of the adventures had similarly interesting inclusions.

As for the adventure itself, the purple worm-infested Hall of Rainbows introduces the backstory through use of murals which keeps to the theme that Candlekeep Mysteries is meant to be promoting. The dracolich at the tomb can prove to be a worthy recurring foe, and the final matter of the sarcophagus offers a set of options that could potentially drive a wedge between the party. The Appendix is an excellent adventure, and also has a great voice to the writing (well done, Adam Lee.)

Xanthoria (Lvl 16)

The obligatory lich at the end of the book is a really fresh take; a druid whose research into the undead caused her to become a moss-covered horror of lichen and fungus. Furthermore, her necromancy has created a plague that can only be eradicated by killing the lich, which itself may test the moral fortitude of the PCs seeing as her phylactery is a sweet and innocent fairy fella…

This is fairly traditional dungeon delving fare, but there’s enough cute twists to make it stand out. The room with the purple worm is a stand out, but I also especially like the fact that one room has been included specifically with the intention that the party would be able to comfortably rest there. That’s a quality touch.

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Tiny Teddies Go To War ruleset cards!!!

 Melbourne convention staple and tradition Tiny Teddies Go To War is now available in card format and is COMPLETELY FREE FOR DOWNLOAD!

You can download the file here, print it out, cut it out, and get on your way to diabetic disaster before you know it!

Friday, 23 April 2021

The Sad Loss of ATGN

 This blog has been really quiet for a few years, primarily because I've been writing any gaming pieces that come to mind on Australian Tabletop Gaming Network (

Sadly, ATGN is coming to a close. I'm very grateful to ATGN and it's editor in chief Toby for being so encouraging and kind in letting me write for them. I'm sincerely moved.

So without that outlet, I'll hopefully some be returning to this space more. Certainly I'll need it to preserve some of my articles for posterity.

Otherwise, I'll be looking into Twitch...

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Tiny Teddies Go To War rules update

For those of you who love edible tabletop games, the ruleset for Tiny Teddies Go To War we used last year at Pax Aus is now available for your print'n'play enjoyment!

Simply click on the link, muster your forces, and get battling!

We recommend inserting your cards into plastic slips to protect them.

Note: no scenarios included. Tell us your favourites :)

Some optional rules we like:

The Rambo Reroll: The last survivor of a Teddy Trooper squad gets to reroll all failed rolls. Avenge your fallen comrades, little fella!

Into the Fray: During the first Round all Teddy Trooper squads may double their Move. This gets the action happening much faster.

Reroll Pools: Each team gets a number of rerolls to use during the game. We like to use party poppers. Between three and six rerolls should do the job.