Sunday, January 30, 2022

Vox Machina: Good for a Few Laughs


TL;DR: it’s ok.


How’s that for brief?


Ok, seriously, it’s got some fun moments, but isn’t nearly as clever as it thinks it is.  Better?


Digging in a bit more, it looks in many ways like a D&D campaign.  The world (read DM) is largely the straight man who gets to be the butt of the players’ jokes.  (A palace guard who bears an uncanny resemblance to Matt Mercer in episode three kinda rubs our noses in it.)  While the world mostly plays it straight, the PCs engage in all manner of shenanigans that range from the anachronistic to the post-modern to the disturbingly bloody.  There’s a running gag with a severed hand in the first episode that almost doesn’t work because it skirts to the edge of being too graphic, and probably crosses it for some folks.


The thing is, all of this stuff is exactly what happens at our D&D tables: jokes about the bard out seducing people, the “innocent” character barfing after having half a drink, the character who steals unattended drinks in the middle of a bar fight, the endless scatological humor, the jumping-to-conclusions, the joke about the giant pile that results when the PCs are told to leave their weapons behind.


And then there are the things that don’t feel like D&D at all.  There’s a gunslinger character who appears to have the only firearm in the entire world, and that’s all he can do: shoot things.  When his gun works.  The druid’s only spell is summoning giant thorny vines.  The ranger doesn’t appear to have any spells at all.  The cleric’s magic looks about right, and runs the range from healing to enchanting the weapons of others, but is unreliable, failing even to work sometimes. 


Plotwise, this is very paint-by-numbers.  You’ll see the big surprise twist in Episode Two probably in Episode One.  You’ve seen this all before so many times that even the “shocking, OMG where did that come from” moments are anything but.  Most of the characters are tormented by past tragedies or self-doubts that quickly get shed when they need to be heroic.


That all said, it is entertaining.  Willingham’s barbarian Grog Strongjaw is a one-note joke, but its utter lack of tragic backstory or self-doubt stands out and is refreshing.  The action involves a lot of swooping, spinning camera that moves smoothly and draws you in. 


The real stand-out performance comes from Riegel’s Scanlan.  He provides the biggest laughs, the bawdiest moments (mostly in the first episode), and the most uplifting stand-up-and-cheer moments during the action scenes.  And his songs are a real hoot, especially the one in the third episode.


About the only thing you’ll likely steal for your own campaign is a blue dragon using the conductivity of the gold in its hoard to zap characters hiding behind cover.  The most interesting magic item in the first three episodes has been a blood-drinking sword, but we’ve all done that before.  The look is so generic gamer-fantasy that it won’t even occur to you to screen-cap anything to use as a visual prop in your games.  Even the villains are straight out of central casting.


So yeah: good for a few laughs, a fine way to pass a lazy afternoon or to kill time after dental surgery (ask me how I know), but probably not something you’ll be returning to unless the later episodes really hit it out of the park. 



Tuesday, January 18, 2022

A Most Dangerous Library


This... actually kinda exists in one of my campaigns.

One of the new cool things in the 5e MM is that green dragons don't just hoard art, they hoard *artists.*  So I had a green dragon obsessed with books.  His name was Namzugingal, but most called him Vermillion.  His library was rumored to be the largest in the world, and his slave-librarians could find the answer to nearly any question... if you were brave enough to dare Vermillion's lair to ask them.

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Quick Thoughts on Thirsty Sword Lesbians

 It mechanizes things I don’t normally want mechanized but doesn’t get stupid about it.  The rules are simple and not overbearing.  They mostly focus on individual personal relationships, and while they’re lacking a bit in nuance (there’s basically friendship and being “smitten” and nothing else) this also means you don’t feel railroaded by them.  

In spite of the art and the examples, there’s really nothing here insisting that the PCs be thirsty or lesbian.  Heck, there’s even a section on replacing the swords with anything else that inspires personal, one-on-one combat, like wrestling or mecha (Achilles Shieldmaidens, anyone?)  That said, characters who are not “thirsty” for romance and messy interpersonal entanglements will be missing a lot of the fun.

It would be dreadfully easy to run this as Lesbian Stripper Ninjas: the RPG.  Even one of the example settings involves holy stripper warriors who use their polearms as dance poles.  You’re going to want the right group to play this with.

The mechanics work best in a “hothouse” environment, where they’re forced to encounter the same individuals over and over again.  Which kinda works contrary to the free-wheeling, swashbuckling mood the game is aiming for.  The result is probably like a French novel, where no matter how far the characters travel, they just keep encountering each other again and again.  But I can’t help thinking it would work best in a constrained setting like a generation starship, a prison, or a harem.  

The game really wants you to acquire insights about your foes and then use those insights to either seduce them towards goodness, or help them find true love (and, it’s assumed, they’ll start being good after that).  It’s got a lot to recommend it as a gameplay loop but leans very, very heavily on the GM to bring novelty to each iteration and doesn’t provide much help in doing that.  

What does mitigate this somewhat is that the “classes” of the game (playbooks since this is a PBtA game) are all based on a personal conflict, mostly revolving around the individual’s relationship to society.  A player who’s getting bored can resolve their character’s conflict and either retire them to a happily-ever-after, or transform their conflict into another (and thus start playing with a new playbook).  There are rules for how that would work mechanically as well as suggestions for making it feel organic in the fiction.  

What’s really interesting is what’s not here: no equipment lists, no vehicles, no skills or weapons or treasures (other than, of course, the friends we make along the way), which does kinda run counter to the whole swashbuckling adventure thing.  This game is extremely Old School in its reliance on rulings, and I wouldn’t recommend it as the first game you GM.  I’d want a lot more detail about the PCs backgrounds than the game demands, and would likely include a handful of questions to give me some idea of what the PCs are about beyond their trauma.  This game really doesn’t want to get hung up over how fast your starship can go or how many cannon are on your pirate ship, which means the GM is going to be winging it pretty heavily while trying to steer things towards emotional moments that will have the PCs going through emotional wringers and then turning to each other for support.

Saturday, January 01, 2022

Three Swords and a Mask

Here are some magic items that have made an appearance in some of my gaming recently.  They're designed for D&D 5e (because that's the game we were playing at the time), but can be used in TSR-era D&D with little tweaking.


Swish is a +1 swept-hilt rapier with a blade fashioned from gleaming mithril and tower engraved on the pommel.  For every opponent personally attacking the wielder of Swish beyond the first, Swish grants its wielder a +1 to AC up to a max of +5.

The Lady

The Lady, so the joke goes, is disarming.  Swish is a +1 rapier with a silvered blade, orichalcum swept hilt and pommel, and an ivory grip.  Whenever the wielder of the Lady makes a successful attack with her, the wielder can choose to forgo doing any damage and instead attempt to disarm the person they attacked.  The target must roll a Strength save with a DC of the wielder of Lady’s spell save DC (or their Dexterity bonus + 8 + their proficiency bonus if they don’t have a spell save DC) in order to keep their grip on the weapon.  Otherwise, it is tossed 5d4 feet away from the wielder in a random direction.



Polydipsia is a +1 longsword that thirsts for blood.  In addition to its usual +1 to attack and damage rolls, when used against a living creature with internal fluids (blood, ichor, etc.), the blade does an additional 1d4 necrotic damage as it sucks these fluids into itself.  Against constructs, most undead, and other creatures that lack internal fluids, it simply works as a normal longsword +1

If Polydipsia is ever sheathed without drinking blood, it will bite whoever sheathed it for 1d4 necrotic damage.  

If Polydipsia ever deals the finishing blow on a creature it can drink from, it gorges itself on the creature’s fluids.  Until the wielder’s next long rest, it acquires an additional +1 to attack and damage rolls.  The DM may decide that gorging this way on particular creatures (angels, demons, mindflayers, etc.) might grant the wielder additional, one-use powers.

If the wielder of Polydipsia gets into a heated confrontation, the blade will murmur and whine thirstily.  If Polydipsia’s wielder gets into a fight but doesn’t draw Polydipsia, the wielder must pass a CR 12 Charisma saving throw or use the blade to deadly effect.  Some of Polydipsia’s wielders have taken to chaining the sword in her sheath.  While chained, while Polydipsia can’t force her user to wield her, she will rattle and hiss.  (Chaining the sword in its sheath requires a full action to get Polydipsia free.)

Polydipsia cannot be used to deal non-lethal damage.  Wielding Polydipsia while she is still chained in her sheath will allow for non-lethal damage, but she’s treated as a club and her magical powers are negated until she is free of the sheath.


Polydipsia looks like an elegant longsword with graceful cross guards that curve gently towards the sword’s point and set with small, smokey garnets between the grip and the blade.  The octagonal pommel is decorated with obsidian plates and the grip is wrapped in shark skin.  

The ricasso has two thorn-like projections in line with the edge of the blade.  The ricasso also bears a maker’s mark, identifying it as the work of a particularly skilled but mad swordsmith.  The blade itself is delicately engraved with a roses-and-thorns pattern.

The Mask of Falier


While carried, the Mask of Falier allows the bearer to cast the Minor Illusion, Prestidigitation, and Thaumaturgy cantrips.

While worn, in addition to the above powers, the mask confers the following benefits on the wearer:

Targets of Vicious Mockery had disadvantage on their saving throws against it.

The wearer can cast Alter Self on themselves once per hour.

The wearer can cast Blur once per day, the power recharging at dawn.

The wearer has advantage on Deception, Intimidation, and Sleight-of-hand skill checks.

The wearer has advantage when resisting any sort of gaze attack or magic, such as the gaze of a vampire or medusa.


The mask has the ability to transform itself into any shape the wearer desires, but it must remain a mask.  It always looks like a mask, so while it can form itself into a caricature of a known person, it cannot imitate their exact look.  The mask is immune to mundane damage.

Exactly who Falier is has bedeviled generations of historians.  Some say Falier was one of the nomes de guerre of the half-elven illusion most commonly known as Kmikle.  Others claim Falier is the true name of a demon who is bound inside the mask.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Why Travel to the Grand City of Epic Grandness?


A black magic black market where you can get things you can't get anywhere else.


The Running of the Gorgons.


Win Fame and Fortune in the Arena of Death!


A massive library run by an androsphinx.


There's a mystery cult in the city that worships a mysterious god who grants bizarre powers.


The PCs learn the city is secretly run by:

  • a clan of wererats.
  • a cabal of warlocks.
  • a dragon.
  • an incubus who's seduced the Autocratix.
  • the Beggars' Guild.


The PCs learn that the city's premier sage is actually an arcanaloth in disguise.


The city is a port for skyships.


The city has gates to the City of Brass on the Plane of Fire and the City of Pearl on the Plane of Water.


The city is a teleport hub, with circles going to all the other major cities in the world (and possibly beyond). 


One or more of the PCs' mentors/family members lives there.


The PCs must travel to the city to receive an award (title of nobility, deed to a parcel of land, etc.) they've earned.


The city is built around magical springs that flow with enchanted waters.


The city is considered a neutral zone where creatures of all alignments and from across the multiverse can meet and engage in (relative) safety.


Neighborhoods of the city randomly shift into the Feywild, the Shadowfell, or the Ethereal Plane. 


The city is holding a tournament and the greatest warriors of the world will be competing.


The city doesn't know it, but it's hosting a death-match tournament between warlocks serving demons. 


The city is having a festival of misrule, when crimes are now legal and sobriety is punishable by being transformed into a goblin.


The city is having a masquerade festival, where everyone disguises their identity with masks and illusions and indulges their most secret desires cloaked by anonymity. 


Monday, September 27, 2021

Eating 6row?


I’m on record as saying that there’s no 6e for D&D on the horizon because it keeps selling like hot cakes.  But then Tasha’s came out, and then the expanded publishing schedule, and I started thinking that, whether they liked it or not, they were going to force themselves into 6e.  And yesterday…


Well, it might not be 6e, but there’s going to be a new… something in 2024?  Mike Mearls said thisabout a new edition 6 years ago:


I really don't like doing a new edition. IMO, new editions of D&D would focus on cleaning up trouble spots, applying lessons learned in design, and sticking to the core elements that made a thing successful in the first place.

Basically, a new edition asks people to re-learn the game all over again. It has to be worth that effort.


But that was before D&D showed so much growth and possibility.  Mearls has left the building, and his wisdom about “too much product killing D&D” has left with him. 


They are using the word edition, but they’re hedging things as well.  For instance, the next thing is supposed to be fully backwards compatible.  That makes it sound more like a 5.5 rather than a 6.  I honestly would not be surprised if they try to keep the 5 and we end up with some sort of “Pentium III” nonsense.  Probably something like 5+ or 5Next.


They did announce a reformed monster statblock yesterday that basically moves attack spells out of a monster’s spell list and moves it into their attack options, limited to once-per-day or with a rolled “cool down” mechanic like for dragon’s breath.  So this new version could potentially be all about quality-of-life improvements.  That being the case, here are some other things I’d expect to see:

  • Simplified action economy that looks an awful lot like Pathfinder’s.  This will likely require heavy modifications to Rogues.  (I also suspect we’ll see an integration of pets/familiars/etc. into this new system that makes them more useful.  Maybe you can make a second or third attack with a pet without suffering penalties?)
  • Changing the level names for spells, so instead of having their own levels, the spell’s level will now be the level at which you get the spell.  So fireball will become a “5th level spell” because you get access to it when your character reaches 5th level.
  • Further tweaks to tool skill rules. 
  • A heavily re-worked character sheet that makes it easier to understand how the different numbers relate to one another. 
  • Milestone advancement becomes the default; the Players Handbook might not even include a leveling-by-EXP chart, relegating that to the DMG. 
  • An attempt to resurrect something like 4e’s skill challenges.  It will faceplant as hard as the 4e system did. 
  • The Artificer will be in the PHB.  I suspect we’ll see at least one new class.
  • Classes that try to leverage the difference between short and long rests will do that less.  I expect the only class to see more changes than the Warlock to be the Ranger. 

I really wonder if the WotC crew realizes what sort of fire they’re playing with here.  5e is beloved; it’s the first system for literally hundreds-of-thousands of new players.  This is akin to doing open-heart surgery on the goose-that-lays-the-golden-eggs, and precedent has been set for competition from past editions.  Here’s the really crazy thing: Critical Role is publishing their own books now.  They don’t need WotC.  If WotC doesn’t bend over backwards to court them, and Critical Role does with 5e what Paizo did with 3.5e, it could get really ugly.   

EDIT: Mr. Brannon is more sanguine about this than I am.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Ghosts, Swords, and Wyrms

This pic, by the amazing Johan Egerkrans, was posted on Facebook recently, and the poster asked what the sword and broach do, and how you'll defeat the ghost to get them.  Here was my suggestion:

You set the ghost's soul to rest by slaying the White Wyrm (actually a black dragon with achromasia) and its servants that have claimed the ruin of an ancient watchtower in the middle of the swamp.  However, you must do this without telling a lie or killing an innocent.

The servants of the Wyrm are the fallen descendants of the ghost, men and women without honor or scruples who've been engaging in illicit slave trading through the swamps.  The Wyrm was wounded by the warrior who is now the ghost, and delights in tormenting the old soul by corrupting his descendants.  

The broach and sword are both fashioned from bronze and set with stones of alexandrite.  The broach confers immunity to poison, but if the wearer ever uses poison to harm another sentient, they will prick themselves on the broach's pin and fall dead from an especially deadly toxin.

The sword rings like a bell when an untruth is knowingly told in its presence, and any attacks made with the sword on the speaker of the lie deal especially vicious wounds.  However, should the wielder of the sword every speak a lie, even a white one, the sword will sap some of their strength.  The lost strength can only be restored by an act of public penance (flogging, climbing a mountain barefoot, crawling across broken stones on your knees, etc.).

In D&D terms, the sword is +1 to hit and damage under normal circumstances.  Against a liar, it's +3 to hit and damage.  Telling a lie while being the swords wielder confers a penalty of -1 to the character's Strength score.  Setting the sword aside while telling the lie is no protection; as soon as the sword is taken up again, the character loses the point of Strength.