Monday, January 08, 2018

Murphy Bal is Dead. Again.

So last week on the G+, I said: Maximum drama happens when there's more at stake than hit points and life-or-death. Especially in a game where bog-standard 5th level clerics have the ability to return the dead to life.

Zak replied: First sentence: asserted but not proved.

Second: If that cleric is always available and able to resurrect someone, you're playing a very different game than me,


Fair enough. I’m not going to get into too much detail on that second part here. Suffice it to say, my experiences with 5e have been either the party suffers a few momentary casualties quickly resurrected by the cleric, or the cleric goes down and then everybody else follows, leading to a TPK.

Granted, this might say more about the way I run D&D than anything else. A similar pattern emerged in my 2nd edition college game. Basically, a few characters would die, but the rest would do what was necessary to resurrect them (amass the treasure and necessary body-parts depending on what level of bring-back-the-dead spell they could cast), or we’d get a TPK (happened thrice that I can recall, and one of those was due to the party splitting up and wandering off into the dungeon in twos or ones).

Where a 5e cleric of 5th level can bring you back from the dead if they get to you within a minute, 2e clerics need to be 9th level (though the body can be one-day dead for every level of the cleric, so over a week at least). But the campaign was purposefully high-magic, with lots of high-level clerics and wizards running about. If you could scrape up enough cash, you could purchase resurrections from a temple in any reasonably sized town. You had to be on good terms with the priests and the deities involved, but that generally wasn’t a problem for our heroes.

Which was good, because death happened a lot. Most often to the elven trouble-shooter thief, Murphy Bal, who couldn’t resist big, shiny buttons. The poor dear got mauled when she tried to listen at a door that was a mimic, ambushed by a purple dragon, and disintegrated when mucking about in a lich’s lab.

And yet, this remains one of the best campaigns I’ve ever run because the players cared about the world their heroes lived in.

Ok, first, off, yes, the threat of death can be thrilling (though in this case, I think the threat of being mauled in various ways was as great as the threat of death). And we all know that a countdown raises tensions even if we’ve got no idea what’s being counted down, or what happens when we reach zero.

But there’s more to drama than just tension. Conflict, hope, empathy, emotional investment, and giving a damn about the consequences are what really matter here. These are the things that make that countdown of hit points really matter. Sure, it bites losing a character, but it’s even worse when you realize that character never got the chance to tell the elf sorceress he was crushing on how he felt about her, or when the character’s death means the destruction of an in-game institution, a location the players and PCs built their imaginary lives around.

Now I’m going to take this a step further: the best drama happens when you’re not rolling dice, when there’s nothing between the player and their character, when the numbers and the bonuses fade away and there’s just immersion. When the story grips you like your favorite tug-at-the-heart-strings anime, when getting the medicine to your beloved’s sick granny, or two PCs are vying for the same love interest, or the fate of kingdoms hangs on the paladin’s devotion to honesty, or the only way the wizard is going to get her hands on that spell she’s wanted for so long is at the cost of a friend’s soul.

That’s where the best drama comes from. But don’t take my word for it; here’s Jeff Rients in Broodmother Skyfortress:
…for our purposes here you will really need five or six good campaign features ripe for demolition. Do yourself a favor and pick the places that make you ache when you contemplate their destruction. That genuine pain will carry through at the table and help you communicate the pathos of the loss of the Last Faerie Circle or the Blue Boar Inn or whatever. Ideally, your players will grok that this place wasn’t built specifically to be knocked down; rather, Grim Fate has come to rest upon something even you, the Referee, thought might stand for the rest of time.

That’s the best drama, and no dice-rolling or character-sheet tallying required. Granted, you probably can’t pull this off on day one. You need to lull your players into caring, seduce them into an emotional investment, the same way your favorite novels lure you in with empathetic characters who are then tortured for 200+ pages for your sadomasochistic amusement.

Luckily for you DM’s, the players have already done the heavy lifting by creating characters they like and care about. All you have to do is tug on those hooks they’ve given you and raise the s

Monday, January 01, 2018

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth…

...where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal…

So Courtney Campbell wrote a piece on D&D as shamanic vision quest that I’m pretty sure I’m too stoned on flu meds to really understand just yet, but I do want to revisit when I’m lucid. Jacob “Swordfish Islands” Hurst was inspired by it to discuss the difficulties of PC death at the table. He’s got a serious point there, but I’m not going to address it directly. Instead, I’m going to discuss something that would seem to be a natural reaction to the issues Mr. Hurst raises but that we don’t see much of, except from the sorts of players I consider the best and most fun to play with.

The first of his “big potential post-death failure points” is:

The player has personally invested hours creating their character. The death has wasted that time.

Fully wasted that time? Depends on what that time was spent on.

Ok, sure, pretty much every number on the character sheet is gone. The other PCs can divide any unspent treasure and salvageable gear, but skills and stats and special abilities are, of course, gone.

That said, let me take an example from one of my games. The bard in the group is the daughter of a prostitute in a high-class pleasure house catering to the rich and powerful. This is far from the most original background I’ve received as a DM; I’m sure we’ve all seen variations on this theme, possibly many times before.

That said, the PCs have, as a group, met this mom. They’ve used her room (naturally warded against divinations and similar spying magics) to plot their moves, dropped her name to smooth their way through high society, and used her to verify what they’ve heard about the character of certain nobles. No matter what happens, Phoebe of the House of Thorns and Roses is now a fixture in the setting. If the bard should die, Phoebe and the House will still be there. They might be enemies of the PCs if she blames them for her daughter’s death, or she might manipulate them into securing vengeance against those she does blame. Or the relationship might be stronger and more stable for the loss.

In any event, the time spent by the player creating Phoebe and the House of Thorns and Roses was not wasted. Nor was the time spent in creating the bard’s mentor, the halfling troubadour Pyle Brandywine. The fact that the bard’s player and the sorceress’ player took the time to entangle their backstories means that these creations exist even more strongly in the setting because they now have links to two different PCs.

Now, I understand that, for some folks, this isn’t what the game is supposed to be about. This sort of working outside the rules feels like cheating to some, or a distraction from the real fun at best. I understand, but I don’t agree, and if this sort of thing is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.

The thing that separates D&D from CRPGs, board games, and (most) war games is the ability to play with the entire setting, in all its many facets. This type of play brings the aspects of the character that are not quantifiable to the fore. And these aspects linger, their impact lasting long, long beyond the lifespan of any single character. The world is richer for it, and the game is more fun because a richer world creates more opportunities for entertainment.

Art by Gustave Léonard de Jonghe.

Not the Heroine You're Looking For

There’s this way people say the word “powerful” when they’re referring to characters, especially female characters, that puts my teeth on edge. It’s far too often public ego masturbation, “Look at what a wonderful and good person I am!” I’ve come to associate it with people who talk a good game about “empowerment” but treat the actual women in their lives like disposable conveniences.

In the literary world, we had nearly a decade of “powerful female characters” who were… well, we get a great example in Last Jedi’s Vice Admiral Holdo.

Holdo looks like an important character in Last Jedi. She’s commanding the fleet, she’s calling Poe down on the carpet, she’s the lady with a plan. The survival of the Resistance is on her shoulders. And like Lea and Rose, she is a font of wisdom and insight. These women are correct and mature at a deep and important level where the men are still growing into their roles, half-formed and immature. Holdo is a far more important and powerful character than Poe.

From a certain point of view.

We’ve seen these kinds of characters before. The Hotshot, whether pilot or programmer or musician or whatever, is frequently challenged by the Voice of Experience. This tempers the hotshot, matures them, gives them the secret they need to raise their already amazing skills to the next level while learning to work as part of larger team. We’ve seen so many variations on this theme, from The Paper Chase to An Officer and a Gentleman to Top Gun to Harry Potter.

The thing about the Voice of Experience is that they’re one of many challenges thrown in front of the Hotshot. But the story is about the Hotshot.

Holdo is all about giving Poe an arc, maturing him from hero to leader. She makes him more interesting. Holdo herself, however, isn’t nearly as interesting as Poe is. She has no arc. She’s not a dynamic character. She gets some good lines, some interesting (if, frankly, bizarre) costuming, and the best special effect in the movie. But she’s the same character at the beginning and the end of the film. And, like the Voice of Experience, she’s removed at a critical point in the film to let the Hotshot take center stage.

From the point of view of the Star Wars universe, Holdo is a powerful, important character. She’s a war hero, a high-ranking military officer, and the one who rescues the Resistance from nearly certain annihilation.

From the point of view of story, she’s yet another in an ancient and long line of female characters who exist solely for male characters to bounce off of. Ditto Rose, though she (maybe?) goes from being an engineer to a warrior, so she at least gets a little arc. But story-wise, these characters can be replaced with challenging terrain features like mountains, or being diagnosed with cancer, or a demanding client.

I’ve seen this sort of bait-and-switch pulled too many times now. Characters billed as being “strong” and “independent” and “powerful” who, yeah, sure, might be all those things in the universe of the fiction, but in terms of story they’re more background than people. Typically, it’s a way to have your cake and eat it to; look, here’s a powerful female character, but don’t worry, the story’s still about the guy.

What makes Holdo (and to a lesser extent Rose) interesting is how in-your-face she is. Because Holdo is making many of the decisions, is (kinda-sorta) justified in her reasoning, and has only a sorta sideswipe reconciliation with Poe, she comes across as abrasive and overshadowing Poe as a character. There’s also a strong element of bait-and-switch; we know Poe is a hero, so we want to peg Holdo as a variation on JK Rowling’s Umbridge. But she’s not that sort of character, and her death robs us of the sort of reconciliation of mutual respect we expect from this character arc. (As an example of what I’m talking about, see the cigar-lighting scene near the end of the first Hellboy movie.)

So fans of Poe can feel miffed that this overbearing second-rate character seems to be stealing the spotlight. And fans of “strong” female characters can whoop about how this makes the Star Wars universe more inclusive.

Unfortunately, the whooping sounds hollow because, as I pointed out above, Holdo isn’t a main character and her existence in the movie is all about giving Poe something interesting to struggle against. So yeah, I suppose, her presence might create a more inclusive Star Wars universe, but at the end of the day, she’s there just to make Poe a more interesting character.

Her presence serves the needs of a male character.

So, “strong?” “Powerful?” “Independent?” Perhaps. But without expert handling, Holdo was bound to piss people off, both fans of Poe and those who want greater representation for female characters in the Star Wars universe.

Which, I suppose, is perfect, if your goal is to create controversy and buzz. But storytelling-wise, it turns poor Holdo into an idiot who withholds vital information to the point where the enemy knows more about her plans than her own bridge crew. She becomes yet one more female character who supposedly exists in a military chain of command who isn’t taken seriously by the men and women who serve under her.

In short, this is not the “strong, powerful” female character you ought to be looking for. Sci-fi and fantasy novelists moved past this tokenism back in the ‘80s, in no small part thanks to authors like Anne McAffery and Elizabeth Moon. Hell, Last Jedi gives us a legit female hero in Lea (and, kinda-sorta if you’re willing to look past the androgyny, Rey).

So that all said, and at risk of beating a dead horse, let’s look at Poe. He gets the classic Hotshot arc: reckless and cocky competence. It looks flashy but it fails to further the actual aims of those he claims to support and serve. It gets people killed. He gets demoted, he rails against authority in classic angry-young-man style, he struggles to prove himself.

There are echoes of the classic hero’s journey here as well. Lea calls on him to be a more than the hero he is but he refuses that call at first. Holdo serves as his threshold guardian, the monster that must be overcome by recognizing how it is a part of himself, which Poe does when he points out that Holdo wasn’t running away. He “dies” (gets stunned by Lea) and then buried in the vast tomb of the old hidden Rebel base. When he sallies forth with his team to slay the drag- er, I mean, battering laser, he recognizes the poor trade-off between certain self-sacrifice of his entire squad and questionable damage to the laser, and calls off the attack. He then recognizes that Luke is buying them time. By this point, Poe’s proven his transformation of death and resurrection and Lea literally tells the others, “Don’t look at me; follow him!” thus reconciling the hero with his father figure/goddess. Finally, Rey literally rolls stones out of a cave mouth to complete his resurrection.

It’s a lot clumsy in the writing and execution, but Poe gets a classic protagonist’s arc and hero’s journey in this film. Poe fans have some legit gripes about the clumsy, but he gets the goods storywise. Fans of Holdo probably need to raise their standards.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Last Jedi?!? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Wow! It was fun! It was exciting! It was everything Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets wasn’t!

This was easily one of the prettiest Star Wars movies ever. Maybe a bit too pretty; when we first saw Snokes’ throne room, I thought it looked like a dance stage, something from a ‘50’s film where we’d see a large, choreographed number. “Ah ha!” I thought. “We’ll be seeing a big lightsaber duel in this room.”

I was mostly right. Completely right for certain definitions of “lightsaber duel.”

Yeah, there will be spoilers below.

This film does have issues. It’s embarrassed by lots of things. It’s embarrassed to be an action-adventure movie and self-flagellates over the excesses of the genre. It’s embarrassed to be the movie following The Force Awakens, though I have to admit, the digs it takes at that film are some of my favorite moments.

The point is, it’s not the free-wheeling swashbuckler the original three were. A bit too much of Rogue One’s earnest war movie has rubbed off on it. Still, it’s not nearly as heavy as that one was, and our heroes get to be heroic and our villains get to be vile. It just has to make a big plot point out of the issue of all the people dying for the cause, where a New Hope deftly encompasses the issue with tension in the Rebel control room and a look of fear and shock and loss on Luke’s face when Biggs dies. I understand; there’s been a lot of big blockbuster action films with massive body counts. People die left and right in Valerian and hardly anyone seems to notice most of the time. And it does give Poe a nice arc from hero to officer. But Lucas did it far more gracefully in ’77.

Like Episode VII, VIII still feels stupidly small. In the original trilogy, the Empire was a freakin’ empire, with a military force capable of subduing a galaxy. Entire star systems slipped through Gran Mof Tarkin’s squeezing fingers. The battle of Hoth involved hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers, pilots, support personnel, etc.

The First Order feels like its got maybe two dozen starships; the entirety of the Resistance fits in the Falcon at the end of the movie. Neither side has the industrial infrastructure to produce their own armaments and end up buying their weapons from the same dealers. (Kinda makes you wonder why the Order hasn’t just said, “Hey, you know, these tie fighters are totally naff. Let’s just buy a bunch of those totally boss x-wings and paint ‘em black and white.”) When the Resistance sends out its message asking for help and nobody responds, the truth becomes obvious: nobody else cares. The Resistance vs. the Order feels like a slap-fight between the last vestiges of two once-glorious powers now deep into their respective sunsets.

But let’s be honest: the action in this film is top notch. Not only is it obvious what is happening, it’s obvious why it’s happening. We can see the move and counter-move of both sides and we know why they’re doing what they’re doing. I’ll admit, I wasn’t always sure how they were doing what they were doing; the whole hyperspace tracking thing felt odd and full of Geordi-speak, but even worse was the Order targeting the cloaked Resistance shuttles. Maybe they explained how the thief guy learned that while I was in the bathroom? (Hey, it’s a 2.5 hour movie, cut me some slack!) And there’s waaaaaay too much characters not telling each other things for no good reason.

Beyond those little quibbles, we know why the fights take place and the strategies employed make sense. When Kylo turns on Snoke, when the Order brings a big gun to the planet to blast through the massive doors and the Resistance flies out on outdated gear to destroy it first, when Luke strides out to buy time for the escape, we know what’s at stake. Even when Poe launches an attack at the Order’s dreadnaught and then gets castigated by Lea for it, we understand why he did what he did and why Lea took issue with it.

And then there are the lightsaber duels. The one in Snoke’s throne room was lovely and fit in perfectly with the duels we’ve seen after the original trilogy: dance-like choreography and spectacle galore. But it’s the Kylo/Luke duel at the end which is the real thing, worthy of standing beside the lightsaber duels of the original trilogy. It’s not about killing but things far more important than mere life and death. It takes place on a plane elevated from all the military hardware and mere lightsaber technique. For that reason alone, I’m miffed that Luke is relegated to the role of Force ghost in IX. Yeah, ok, moping for however many years on his island is lame, but everything else about this Luke, from his frustration with Jedi tradition to his old-guy been-there-done-that attitude, to his disgust with fame, is awesome! I want more adventures of old-fart Luke and I’m really, really annoyed I’m not gonna get ‘em.

Luke vs. Kylo was not quite the Luke/Darth fights, but wow! The magic is back.

I can’t way to see episode IX!

Next time: Everything wrong with Vice-admiral Purple Hair, where everyone I didn’t piss off with this post gets to hate me. 😉

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Cheaters Never Prosper Until They Stop Playing D&D

There’s an interesting discussion about cheating over at the Farsight Blogger. I can absolutely understand a player who’d quit because they can’t cheat. That’s a player who probably shouldn’t have been playing D&D in the first place.

If you must always win, if you find missing boring but don’t find always hitting boring, if the thought of your character being tied to a chair and interrogated like James Bond in just about every movie in the franchise leaves you cold, then you should be looking to games other than D&D and the many, many others built on a similar chassis, for your RPGing fun.

The Cypher System puts nearly all the mechanical heavy-lifting in the hands of the players, allowing them to effectively purchase success. The Leverage RPG assumes the PCs are hyper-competent individuals who simply do not fail. No matter how badly you roll, you succeed. A poor roll just means a new complication has arisen and must be dealt with. Further along that spectrum are GMless games that give narrative power to the players, allowing the group to dictate what does and doesn’t happen during a game.

D&D, and the many games built in its image, embraces randomness and chaos. As many have pointed out (and complained about) in the past, the d20 is an incredibly swingy thing to build a core mechanic on. Out of 100 rolls, even the best swordsman, the slickest thief, and most knowledgeable wizard is going to roll a 1 an average of five times. Stack critical success and fumble rules on top of that and you’ve got a recipe geared heavily towards the random, the zany, and the unexpected, rather than the competency porn of other games.

D&D is about the unexpected, the unplanned, the curve ball that came out of nowhere. It’s the anticipation as everyone waits with baited breath while the die bounces across the table. It’s the sure-thing that was whiffed and the long-shot that connected.

This is why pages and pages of random tables make sense in D&D. These are the crazy props you toss to the improv troupe that is your game to see what they’ll come up with this time. A world built from randomly generated hobgoblins eating pie and drunk PCs making clumsy passes at witches.

I have often said that when you’re rolling the dice you’re not playing the game. That’s not the same thing as saying the dice are not important to the game. If your game is D&D, the dice, and the randomness they bring, are vital. If you don’t like that, there are many, many games that will be more fun for you than D&D.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Why You Should Pay for Xanathar's Guide to Everything

Which isn’t to say that you must go out and buy it today! This isn’t a review of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. If you’re curious and want to know if the stuff in the book is good for your campaign, well, the first hit is free.

Those links don’t go to torrent sites or dodgy Russian pirate servers. They go to official WotC D&D pdfs. Specifically, they go to what are called Unearthed Arcana articles. They’ve been cranking these out on their web page for years now and while some are fluffy bits of “here’s what’s happening in our campaigns,” most of it is new not-yet-official material to be trialed by players. The WotC team follows up occasionally with surveys asking what folks think of the content, in addition to reading what folks say on forums or just straight email to them, and stuff that needs and warrants it will get revised and republished in a new form.

This, of course, is a huge boon for D&D. The WotC team keeps in touch with their players, material gets a strong shakedown before “official” publication, and the players who want it have a constant stream of new material to inject into their games.

So what’s this got to do with the Xanathar’s book? Just about all the content in that book has seen the light of day before, either in free pdf format (like the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion) or as Unearthed Arcana articles. Which means, technically, you could cobble together your own copy of Xanathar’s from the various free sources still available from WotC.

So why buy the book? First, you’d have to do a lot of hunting for the stuff you wanted, plus you’d have to make sure what you find is the latest version. Second, there have been some “tweaks” to the material before final publication. (Just how serious those tweaks have been, I can’t say, but what I have seen mostly looks fairly minimal to me.)

But more than that, you’d be supporting the ongoing effort to create the content for the book.

Way back when, Mearls told us that they were tossing the old hardback-a-month game plan in the trash and exploring alternative methods for supporting an RPG line. What they have adopted appears to take full advantage of the diversity of D&D players.

Traditionally, we’ve seen two sorts of D&D players. The first set are the young folks with lots of time and no money. These are your pre-car teens and your college students, who have very flexible schedules, lots of time on their hands, and lots of people in their social circles in the exact same situation. These folks are perfect play-testers for the Unearthed Arcana material. Most play at least once a week minimum. It’s easy for them to keep up with the latest UA articles and pump tens of hours into playtesting what’s new.

Of course, it costs WotC money to do this. Material needs to be written and published. Feedback needs to be solicited and combed through for useful data. Then revisions need to be made and republished, and the cycle begins again.

So WotC collects this tested and improved material, commissions art for it, and publishes it as a book. And the other sorts of players, usually older fans with jobs and families and such, who have lots of money but not much time, can pay for all the UA work by buying the book.

I personally love this system. The lots-of-time-and-no-money folks get lots of free content, though they have to deal with the fact that some of that content isn’t ready for prime time (or is, in fact, kinda bad). The no-time-and-lots-of-money folks get a book full of play-tested material focused on content that players can actually use in their games. WotC is using their customers who have cash but don’t have the time to generate tons of their own content anymore to support the games of players with lots of time to try new ideas, crash those ideas hard, and help cobble together better ones from all the bits. And the gamers with cash get the benefit of these improved ideas to plug right into their game.

It’s too early to tell if this is the sort of virtuous cycle you can build an empire out of, but it’s certainly a better way to support an RPG. It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with next.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Getting the Most From Backstories: for the DM

This is more of those advanced DM challenges that are almost certainly not for beginners. The challenge itself is pretty simple to explain: make the PC’s background more important than the PC’s class.

If you’re playing 5e RAW, your players are picking a background. They get the proficiency pips for the skills that come with that background and then, all too likely, are completely forgetting about it. Don’t let them!

There’s a ton of cool stuff you can do with the PCs backgrounds. Some practically hand you adventure hooks, like the sage’s “letter from a dead colleague posing a question you have not yet been able to answer.” Others imply connections, both good and bad, like the noble, acolyte, criminal, and guild artisan who are members of larger communities. The urchin might be an orphan, but they probably know everybody in the seedy part of town, and the sailor and soldier were part teams whose members are probably still out there somewhere.

Adventure hooks, especially at the opening of the campaign, are wonderfully nice to have, but we’re looking for deeper engagement. Time to put on your Mephistopheles hat. Get the players to start thinking about their backgrounds by making it clear that backgrounds are a good way to solve problems. You might need to prod a bit at the beginning; mention to a player that they might be able to get reliable information by asking this person they know. Need to find the Thieves’ Guild? The urchin knows a fence who used to work for them and probably still does. Need to find out more about the ruin they’re planning to loot? The sage knows a local specialist on the historic period when the ruin was built. Need a guide through the swamp? The locals might open up to a folk hero and divulge which smugglers and poachers are trustworthy.

Keep a list of the PCs’ background handy and consult it often. Whenever a player asks, “Do I know anyone in this town/tavern/jail/etc.?” check the backgrounds first and look for an excuse to say, “Yes!”

The goal is to get the players to bring up their backgrounds whenever they’re faced with a conundrum. If you allow the players to go to that well often and profitably, with solutions, good hints, and timely warnings, they’ll start to rely on it. The goal here is to have one player say to another, “Hey, surely your guild merchant knows somebody who…”

And then you can start to rope them more tightly with conflicts. The local entertainers support the Queen’s faction over the Cardinal’s. The sailors want a more aggressive foreign policy that will sweep the pirates from the Inner Isles. The local community of the learned is riven with internal politics and back-stabbing. Let the PCs get involved and make a difference, especially as success leads to greater prestige.

But if you really want to hook them, give them a big, juicy mystery. The secret leader of the warlock-bandits is really an old chum from the university; the urchin’s childhood buddies from the street are being murdered; a ship the sailor crewed sails in with all hands missing and a hold full of barrels of salt water; the soldier’s old unit is disgraced and cashiered for an offense they couldn’t possibly have committed. Of course tie that in with the larger plots of your campaign. Weave the backgrounds of the PCs into the ongoing conflicts of the setting and the larger mysteries they’ve expressed an interest in.

Old School DMs, you’re not off the hook here, though I suspect most of you already do this to some extent. You just wait later to get started. Building relationships, callbacks to earlier adventures, enemies made and allies won, start to dominate the campaign. It’s a natural progression when the first three or four levels is the PCs’ backstory. Since they build it together, it’s less about this character or that character and more about all of them together. Whether that’s a bug or a feature depends on you and your group.

Art by Rembrandt.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Critique of Xanathar's Guide to Everything

I think I want to like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything more than I do.

This is not to say it’s a bad book, and I suspect it will become the de facto PHB-part-two everyone thinks it is. But it also is certainly not a replacement for the PHB, nor do I think the options in it will eclipse those in the PHB. (Having said that, I’m not a min-maxer and my last dedicated min-maxer left my games months ago. So there may be opportunities/abuses I’m missing in my blissful ignorance. Still, I doubt there’s anything here that’s going to topple the Druid from its top spot.)

What you, DM or player, will get this book for are the evocative sub-classes. That said, the format shockingly reveals just how paltry a sub-class is. Shorn of the rest of the class info, each sub-class fills about a page, art and descriptive fluff included. You get four or five “features” every handful of levels. Exactly how much that’s going to impact your game depends on how you play. The Rogue, for instance, doesn’t get another sub-class feature after 3rd level until 9th. If most of your play takes place in the traditional sweet spot of 4th through 12th level, those features you get at 3rd pretty much define your archetype for the duration of the campaign. Exactly how useful those are completely depends on the sort of campaign you’re playing in. For instance, the Swashbuckler gets to use their sneak attack bonus damage if “you are within 5 feet of [your target], no other creatures are within 5 feet of you, and you don’t have disadvantage on the attack roll.” In my games, having nobody else within 5 feet isn’t going to happen all that often.

Some of the features are even more situational. Also for Rogues is the Inquisitive, an option probably not worth pursuing unless you were able to give yourself a very good Wisdom score (and you’ll probably want a high Intelligence as well). Insight and Investigation checks are central to a lot of what the Inquisitive can do (even dictating when the Inquisitive can get their sneak-attack bonus damage, a la the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes), but the Inquisitive doesn’t get any bonuses to those checks until 9th level.

The Monk’s Drunken Master sub-class is likely to prove divisive. How useful is it to you to wed a Disengage and an extra 10 feet of movement to your Flurry of Blows? At 6th level, the Drunken Master can redirect missed attacks at another attacker within 5 feet; clearly, the Drunken Master and Swashbuckler do not belong in the same campaign.

I love the flavor of these things. Hitting your foe’s friends with their own attacks is fun and not mechanically cumbersome. The idea of a non-magical detective skilled at penetrating lies is appealing. But even more than the options in the PHB, the sub-classes in Xanathar’s are more matters of setting and DM style than preference. Since I do combat via theater-of-the-mind, little adjustments to positioning are less likely to be useful to you. On the other hand, the new Grave Domain for Clerics is something my campaigns have needed for a while now. You’re going to want to talk to your DM about the sort of campaign they’re running before you pick most of these. As a DM, you’ll want to get out ahead of your players by stating the sort of campaign you have in mind and which sub-classes are not suitable for it.

There are some fun build-a-background life-path tables. These include things like tables for why you became whatever class your PC is. The results are purely cosmetic and I’m more likely to come up with this sort of stuff on my own, but for those who love tables, you get lots!

After that is a grab-bag of stuff in a chapter titled “Dungeon Master’s Tools.” Much is the sort of thing you could easily handle with a ruling: sleeping in armor, how to wake someone, tying knots, how to tell if someone is casting a spell, that sort of thing. There’s a long section on tool use that tries to rescue tool proficiencies from obscurity and disuse; I’m not sure how effective it will be, but it’s an interesting read and I think players would do well to peruse it if they have a character with a tool proficiency.

For those who’ve been busting their brains trying to build encounters with the guidelines in the DMG and the CR scores, there’s some handy cheat-sheets for using multiple monsters and mixed-CR monsters. Helpful, if that’s your bag; otherwise, I think six months experience as a DM will take you farther in terms of building “fair” encounters.

“Traps Revisited” is a huge improvement on the outlines for traps in the DMG. It puts a bit too much focus on skill checks for overcoming them, but does (if a bit dismissively) at least nod towards disabling traps with clever thinking. If you’ve been treating traps like Old School puzzles, this won’t convince you to do otherwise. For everyone else, this will make traps a lot more entertaining at the table.

The downtime section is nice. It includes carousing tables! Not nearly as fun as Jeff’s, and the only benefit is making social connections. Still, social connections are damned useful in some campaigns. The downtime section also includes rules for buying and selling magic items. The assumption is still that you can’t just go down to the local shop to buy them off-the-shelf (unless you’re talking healing potions or scrolls, both of which have rules for manufacture in the downtime section). Buying and selling magic items is a long, drawn-out process that involves spending 100 gp per week in your search. The time and money spent improve the roll you get on a random table to see what’s actually available. PCs can seek specific items, but that just raises the difficulty of finding anything. PCs could potentially spend thousands of gold and months of time only to come up with nothing, or, if the DM uses the complications table, something that’s cursed or draws the wrong sort of attention. It’s a system that’s both flavorful and easily handled via email between sessions.

Downtime can also involve rivals, people who live to make the lives of the PCs more difficult. The idea appears to be to create a sense of a living world by putting a face to the problems the PCs might encounter during their downtime activities. The idea has some potential but it’s not the sort of thing you want to toss in the path of murder-hobos.

There’s a collection of “common” magic items, most of which have only cosmetic abilities. I think the designers sold unbreakable arrows short; using them to block doors and the like seems like a pretty potent ability. Otherwise, most of the entries are cute (a cloak that billows on command, armor that smokes ominously) but hard to take seriously.

Then we get the spells. There’s a fair number of them, but most fall into the does-damage-and-something-else category. Damage-plus-potential-blindness has a few entries, there’s one damage-plus-heals-the-caster, and lots of damage-plus-move-the-target-around spells. There are some deliciously atmospheric ones, like a spell that does damage plus kills all non-magical and non-creature plants in a 30-foot cube, a spell that allows you to give your hit points to others (or, more appropriately, take their damage onto yourself), a darkness-plus-gibbering-that-causes-psychic damage, and both water and acid versions of fireball. Some old favorites also return, like mud-to-stone/stone-to-mud and homunculus. There are also a handful of spells for summoning devils and demons that villains will get great use out of and require material components that could potentially tip off PCs before the spells are cast.

We also get the just odd and disappointing. For instance, apparently couples who get a real cleric to perform the ceremony get an AC bonus for their first week of married life. I can understand the type of thinking that went into insisting that something like a wedding needed to include a mechanically significant combat component, and that sort of thinking makes me cringe. Even then, a +2 to AC feels kinda lame, especially when you compare it to the wedding magic from Krull. Weddings are once-in-a-lifetime affairs (especially fantasy versions of them). If you’re going to give them a magical effect, make it truly momentous!

Finally, we get the appendices. These start with suggestions on how to organize a campaign in which the DM duties are shared, whether that’s just friends taking turns in a private campaign or a wide-flung thing like Flailsnails.

After that comes 17 pages of names, arranged in tables you can roll on. First we get one for each of the PC races listed in the PHB (but not from the Volo’s book). Then we get numerous real-world cultures, ranging from ancient Egypt and the Celts to a mix of modern and medieval German and French and English. The range is incredible, including Polynesian, Hindu, Norse, and Mesoamerican.

I would have given my eyeteeth for lists like these back in the ‘90s. Today, however, I have the internet, with resources like behindthename.com that not only gives me more cultures to pick from but also tells me the meaning of the names. Add in the quality random generators available online as well and these tables really only become useful when I’m trying to game on a campout or the like.

The stuff I like, I really like: some of the spells, some of the subclasses, mostly. Most of the rest is forgettable. If 5e is your first RPG, you’ll find a lot here to expand and improve your game. Otherwise, you’ll find some nice tidbits. I will get use of the expanded spell lists. I think I’ll get use from the additional subclasses. All in all, I give Xanathar’s Guide a prospective B- and that’s contingent on the sub-classes proving as useful and popular as I think they will. If it turns out I’m only using a dozen or so of the spells, that grade could drop into the C range.

UPDATE: a very different take can be found here:
To put that another way, the first six subclasses seem determined to explode pre-conceived notions of what D&D is about, and that is all I can really want from a book that is pointedly not titled Player’s Handbook II.