Is Dungeons & Dragons over?

Based on everything I’ve seeing and hearing about it, the release of the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons last year appears to have been a huge and total success. Lots of people really love the game and it appears to sell very well. I’ve seen mention that the Player’s Handbook had been on the number one spot for best selling books on amazon.com, and store owners and employees talking about it on rpg forums very consistently say it is selling well.

When the signs were piling up that WotC would end the 4th edition after a relatively short run, I made the prediction that they would be announcing a 5th edition pretty soon (which they did) and that it would be their last chance to revitalize the game. 4th edition was very unpopular with many old fans (though it is a decent game in its own right from what I hear, just not very much in the long tradition of D&D) and when they prepare to abandon ship after just 3 years, you just can’t get around the perception that the game was a failure. With 5th edition they had (have?) the chance to try to get the brand back into the tradition and style that people think of when they hear about D&D. But if that edition also stumbled and didn’t work out as intended, there wouldn’t be any real chance to fix its damaged reputation. Trying to fix things with a 6th edition wouldn’t be really an option, because who would buy a (pretty expensive) game that gets completely new rules every three or four years?

But they were lucky and the game actually was very well received. Disaster averted, brand saved! But everything that has happened since the release of the three rulebooks has been very puzzling to me. Because based on everything I hear and read, the people who are handling the D&D brand don’t really seem to be interested in the roleplaying game. The focus seems to be on licensed novels and videogames, as well as board games and other stuff. But as far as I am able to tell, there are the tree rulebooks and that is it. Everything else there is for Dungeons & Dragons are adventurers, which they want to tie in with the planned novels and videogames. I think because D&D has been a roleplaying game for 40 years and you can not have a D&D brand without it including a roleplaying game. But this game, as well done as it is, really seems like an attempt to do the absolute barest of minimum to convince people “D&D is still a roleplaying game”. They also really seem to have no idea what to do with it.

A few days ago I found this interview, which really is just painful to read. It really sounds to me like that poor guy is trying his best to make it sound somewhat positive when he is still saying “we don’t know yet”, “probably not”, and “we won’t do that anymore”. As I see it, it’s over. There won’t be any Dungeons & Dragons as most people know it for a very long time. Possibly forever. This is it. There won’t be more than perhaps one or two additional books that are not adventures. I highly doubt we’ll see campaign settings as in 4th edition, which consist of just two books, and certainly nothing like in 3rd and 2nd edition, where settings got a dozen or two of books dedicated to them. Maaaybe a Monster Manual 2 one day, but again nothing like the amount of monster books there have been for the previous editions. It’s not as if there wasn’t any demand for them, but really that WotC isn’t in any way interested in making a successful roleplaying game anymore. The four people who are working on D&D might, but that’s not their choice to make.

So yeah, I think this was it. I wonder what Pathfinders plans are for the future. I think there’s a big untapped market opening up right now.

Fantasy Safari: Monsters of Faerûn (D&D 3rd ed.), Part 2

More Forgotten Realms goodness:

The Chosen One is essentially a ghoul who causes temporary Constitution damage instead of paralysis. It doesn’t say why it is named that way, and only that chosen ones are made by the Red Wizards of Thay as servants. Very weak entry. (Variant Ghoul +1)

Crawling Claws

Crawling Claws

Crawling Claws, on the other hand, are awesome. They also are the other hand, as they are created only from left hands taken from dead or even living humanoids. They don’t have any special abilities or fancyful backstory. They are just animated hands that crawl around and attack people, which is cool and fun enough by itself. Creating one is only a 3rd level spell and each claw is automatically under the command of its creator. For some reason the spell is also evil, even though nothing about it indicates why. Ah well, alignment! Never made any sense, never will.

Darkenbeasts

Darkenbeasts

I am not sure where the idea of monsters being the creation of crazy wizards comes from, but it might very well have been Forgotten Realms. Darkenbeasts are somewhat reptilian and bat like monsters created from ordinary small animals by the Red Wizards. As their name hints at, darkenbeasts can not tollerate sunlight and after each ten minutes of exposure there is a 25% chance that the magic will end and the monster return back into an animal. In addition to being winged servants with a high resistance to magic, a wizard can also use a darkenbeast to store a spell for later. When the darkenbeast is near its master, he can retrieve the spell and aim it at whatever target he pleases, which destroyes the darkenbeast in the process. I think these are cooler than winged monkeys.

Deepspawn

Deepspawn

The Deepspawn had the potential to be one of the truly iconic weird monsters of Dungeons & Dragons, but somehow it remained limited to Forgotten Realms and didn’t really make any appearance after 2nd edtition. It’s on the cover of Lost Empires of Faerûn, but I think that’s it. When I first got into D&D with the Forgotten Realms campaign setting box (the 3rd edition FRCS had not been released yet), I thought that this creature was the fourth member of the exclusive group of aboleths, beholders, and illithids. But no it’s not, which is a shame. The deepspawn is a monster with a large spherical body over 5 meters in diameter and has six long tentacles. Three of the tentacles are used as arms, while the other three end in large maws full of sharp teeth. Its eyes are all over the body. The deepspawn by itself is not a terribly dangerous fighter and has only little magic abilities that would make any difference in a fight, but is completely immune to any poison and has a high resistance to magic. Its main ability is to spawn copies of any kind of living creature it has eaten, which takes between 1 and 4 day for each spawn. As a result, a deepspawn is never encountered alone but always surrounded and protected by a considerable force of other monsters it created. While the spawning ability is a bit dubious to me, I really do like its appearance and the idea that something like that would be the mastermind of a dungeon that rules over all the lesser monsters. The deepspawn got updated in Lost Empires of Faerûn, since the stats here are pretty shoddy. Size got increased from Large to Huge (which for a 5 meter sphere with long tentacles seems more correct), Strength got increased from measly 19 to 29 and Charisma bumped up from 4 to 10, which makes much more sense for something with Intelligence and Wisdom of 17. Now that looks a lot meaner, like something of this appearance should. Continue reading

Anton and Erwin are taking the train (or not)

The Alexandrian has been writing (a lot) about railroading over the last weeks and I read an older article by the Angry DM from a couple of years back a few days ago, in which he touches on Schrödinger’s Gun (among several other things). Which made me think some more about both subjects and how they are related, and resulted in some of my own thoughts I want to share. The reason why you should read this article and not just the two I just linked, is that this one almost certainly will be a lot, lot shorter. ^^

So the basic question that has been pondered a lot among gamemasters for the last years, and almost certainly to some extend for well over three decades, is to what extend GMs could or should change their prepared and randomly generated material to compensate for shortcuts the players unexpectedly discovered. There seems to be a certain segment of paleo-academia disciples who advocate that GMs should be completely impartial and the game essentially randomly generated by dice, which will be used exactly the way they fall. What the players will do is entirely left up to them, with the GM not taking any action to promote or inhibit any decision the players might make. To keep it short and civil, I personally don’t see any appeal in that kind of game.

I am much more interested in games that have some kind of story, but one in which the final outcome is very much determined by the course of action the players decide on, with a slight random factor introduced by the dice. But I think that to have an interesting outcome and an interesting journey to get there, the adventure needs to begin with an interesting setup. Which in practice means that I begin an adventure by establishing that the village is getting attacked by a monster at night. The monster has a reason and the monster has a plan, and if the players don’t do anything to prevent it, the monster will continue with its plan. But what the players decide to do about it is entirely left to them. Theoretically they could decide they don’t care and leave the village to its fate, but in practicae all players understand that preparing an adventure takes work and time, and if they like their GM, they always go and investigate and won’t decide that todays game only last 5 minutes and go home. Which is why I always play with people I already know or who are good friends of my good friends. Among friends, people are normally happy to run with whatever makes the whole group happy, even if it’s not 100% exactly what their personal preference would be.

As a GM, I don’t have any predetermined outcome planned. I assume that the players will be able to solve the mystery and put an end to the monster attacks, saving most of the villagers. But if for some reason the players make descision or false conclusions that result in their failure, then that is what is going to happen. If the players have a good idea to become friends with the monster and help it in destroying the village, I am not going to stop them. If they screw up so badly that they can only watch the village go down in flame, then that’s how it will end. I think I am fairly laid back and don’t make it very hard for the players to accomplish the outcome I assume to be the most likely they want to get. Which in this scenario would be finding the monster and stopping it before it causes too much more damage to the village. But I think it’s important that other outcomes are possible and that the players know that other outcomes are possible. There needs to be a chance that the players will be unsuccessful and there needs to be an option for them to decide on a different goal than the one I assumed they would want to pursue. Because I believe that this is what ultimately gives meaning to the adventure and to all of the players actions. If events A, B, C, and D will happen no matter what the players do, then there will be no feeling of accomplishment at the end, and no feeling of urgency or suspense during the adventure. So if the players come up with a plan that goes straight from B to D while completely avoiding C, then I think a GM should still go with that. (Which is why I am no fan of the adventures published for D&D 3rd edition and Pathfinder, as those usually can not progress unless the players are going through each of those events in the predetermined order.)

But sometimes C is really, really cool…

Continue reading

Fantasy Safari: Monsters of Faerûn (D&D 3rd ed.), Part 1

I have been given a number of interesting suggestions for more monster books, among them Creatures of Barsaive for Earthdawn and Creatures of the Dreamseed for Engel, which I am currently trying to hunt down. In the meantime, we’re going to explore Monster of Faerûn, the last Dungeons & Dragons book I have on my list of books I want to cover.

Monsters of Faerûn was one of the very early books for D&D 3rd edition and the first monster book after the original Monster Manual. The cover of the book matches the Monster Manual and not the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting as all other Forgotten Realms books later would. It is also the only book that has the title “Monster Compendium” in it’s name. I assume it was planned to have it as a distinct product line, but all further monster books were 200+ pages hardcovers, unlike this 100 page paperback.

I started with fantasy stuff in 1999, the year before 3rd edition was released, and that start was Baldur’s Gate, the game that made BioWare the giant of Western RPGs that it had been for until recently. (Really not a fan of any of their games since Mass Effect 2, which is the best videogame of all time!) A game that just so happens to be set in the Forgotten Realms, so I had to get this book right when it came out. And even though it’s by far the smallest monster book ever released by WotC, and also just the second they made, I think this one really the best one by a far margine. When I went to get the monster pictures from the old art archive from WotCs website (they are still up, but you’ll only get there through search engines), there was barely amy that I didn’t download. And most of those that I am not going to cover here aren’t boring, but they are either beefed up versions of monsters from the Monster Manual (cloaker lord, greater doppelganger) or I already covered them when I did the 1st edition Fiend Folio (bullywug, fire newt, giant strider, gibberling, quaggoth). Truly wonderful book and almost all of the creatures can be imported to other settings without problem. I think a good dozen of them directly inspired monsters for my own Ancient Lands setting. If this book were Star Wars, it would be The Empire Strikes Back.

Monsters of Faerûn

Monsters of Faerûn

Monster Compendium: Monsters of Faerûn for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition by Wizards of the Coast, 2001; 86 pages of monsters.

Aballin

Aballin

The Aballin is a type of ooze whose most distinguishing trait is that it looks just like water. It also can change between two different states, one being a thick slime, the other a water like liquid that is almost impossible to harm. It is one of the many classic creatures of the type “everything is trying to kill you”, but I think actually one of the less implausible ones. It’s just another slime like all the others, except that it has a clear color. When in its semisolid state, an aballin is quite strong and can slam enemies with considerable force. However its main mode of attack is to engulf its victim and simply drown him.

Banedead

Banedead

The Banedead is a variant ghoul created by clerics of the evil god Bane. One of their hands is a large claw, which also happens to be the holy symbol of Bane, and also deals 1 point of Dexterity damage. Which is not as measly as it sounds. Since it’s tied to a melee attack, there is no saving throw and there’s a good chance you’re going to encounter them in significant numbers. This can get quite bad over time, especially as banedead are not very strong otherwise and therefore likely to be fought by PCs of low-medium level. Dealing with larger numbers of them over several encounters could make for a very interesting adventure. An interesting detail of the banedead is that they are also created by priests of the Banes son Xvim, which tells us that this book was actually released before the FRCS, as from that point on Xvim is dead and Bane is back! (Variant Ghoul +1) Continue reading

Review: Death Angel’s Shadow

I think I first read about Karl Wagners Kane a few months ago at Black Gate, and I thought it sounded very interesting. Stories of a true anti-hero whom many consider to be a monster, who is both a great swordsmen and very powerful sorcerer, yet still a character of great depths and deep reflection. I’ve read the story Undertow in The Sword & Sorcery Anthology and while not great, ot really made me want to read more of Kane.

Death Angel's Shadow

Death Angel’s Shadow

So I picked up Death Angel’s Shadow, which is the first collection of Kane stories I am aware of, but that doesn’t have to mean that these are also the first written ones, and I believe they actually are not. So who is this Kane? He is a very muscular and skilled swordsmen, but that is where the similarities with Conan already end. Both Kane and Wagners writing are a very different story from Howards classic barbarian hero and his countless imitations.

Kane was not a man easily mistaken for another. His red hair and fair complexion, his powerful bearlike frame set him apart from the native Chrosanthians in a region where racial features leaned to dark hair and lean wiriness. And his rather coarse features and huge sinewed hands did not make him too exceptional from the mercenaries displaced from the cold lands far to the south. It was his eyes that banded him as an outsider. No man looked into Kane’s eyes and forgott them. Cold blue eyes in which lurked the wild gleam of insanity, hellish fires of crazed destruction and bloodshed. The look of death. Eyes of a born killer.

Kane is an immortal who has traveled the Earth for countless centuries, cursed by ancient gods to never find any peace in death. He is a great warrior, but also a very powerful sorcerer and through the centuries has ruled over many different lands and made his name known throughout most of the world as a tyrant, conqueror, and bandit. He is a man who is feared, and expects to be feared, and has no illusions or guilt about the death and attrocities he brought upon the world. Yet what we see of Kane, at least in this book, is not a mindless raging killer, but a man of many different aspects. Continue reading

Books I have not read yet

But plan to do so in the near future:

  • The Witcher Saga by Andrzej Sapkowski. I am actually already two chapters into Blood of Elves, but for some reason haven’t really been any books these last couple of weeks.
  • Bloodstone by Karl Wagner.
  • The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin.
  • The Saga of King Kull by Robert Howard.
  • The Gods of Mars by Edgar Burroughs.
  • Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky.
  • Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock.
  • The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milan (when it’s out in July), because it has a knight on a dinosaur on the cover!
  • Imaro by Charles Saunders.

Fantasy Safari: Monster Manual (D&D 3rd Ed.), Part 4

Completing the Monster Manual:

Vargouille

Vargouille

The Vargouille is a creature from before there were different creature types in D&D and eded up as an outsider in 3rd edition, even though it could just as well have been made undead like the bodak. As far as I am aware, they first appeared in the Planescape setting and they are a wonderful example of how the setting is full of things that are simultaneously silly, cool, and somewhat creepy. A vargouille is a humanoid head with a large pair of wings that has a terrifying scream that makes any creatures within 20 meters become paralyzed by fear. Their bite does very little damage, but also has a poison that makes it impossible for the target to heal any kind of injuries. But most terrifyingly, a vargouile can fly up to a paralyzed victim and give it a kiss, which starts a slow process of transformation that first makes the hair fall out, then the ears turn into large bat wings, makes it go insane, and finally causes the head to ripp off the neck and fly away as a new vargouille. Funny. But as always, some more description what you’re supposed to do with it would have been nice.

The Wight really is just a very beefed up ghoul. I like this monster and when you go into the details its background and context makes it a quite different creature. It’s still a starved corpse that sneaks around in the dark. (Variant Ghoul +1)

The Winter Wolf is a huge white wolf with who can breath icy cold and whose bite deals cold damage. Just like a color flipped hellhound. It’s bigger and tougher though, and also of human intelligence and with the ability to talk. They are not exactly masterminds, but are smart and dangerous enough to be villains in their own right who command weaker creratures as their minions. (Demon Dog +1)

And of course the Worg, because Tolkien did it. And everything that Tolkien did has to be in D&D! Its a big wolf that is slighly intelligent and evil. (Demon Dog +1)

Xill

Xill

Xills are creatures that come from the novel Voyage of the Space Beagle, which also got us the displacer beast. It’s a four armed, demonic looking humanoid, but it’s actually from the ethereal plane. Unlike most ethereal monsters, it takes a xill significantly longer to move between the ethereal and material world, which makes impossible to quickly blink in and out and avoid any retaliation by its enemies. They are very intelligent and also evil, and as a nice thouch we’re also told that groups are often led into battle by a cleric of a deity of strength and travel. Their four arms help them with wrestling their enemies and when they can get a hold, they use their poisonous bite that can paralyze for several hours. The saving throw to resist it is not too high and there’s a good chance to withstand the poison, but then the xill can just try again the next round until it works. Unlike other monster (foreshadowing!) their ability to grapple is not excessively high and they can not try to bite without grappling an enemy first, which makes the ability not too powerful, but still something that can add a nice touch to a fight. Especially when the xills want to take prisoners, which they do to implant their eggs into them. With a duration of 90 days until the eggs hatch, there is plenty of time to try to rescue those prisoners and get them help. If you make some more backstory and context for them, these could be quite interesting enemies for a campaign. Continue reading

No Hugo for you!

indexSo apparently someone figured out how to rig the entire nomination process for the Hugo Awards, by a slightly more advanced version of the same method that made Corey in the House for Nintendo DS the highest rated game on Metacritic and is sabotaging countless of online polls every year. The Huge Awards, which apparently are a pretty big deal among sci-fi writers, are selected by a jury, but the members of the jury can only pick from a list of five works that have been voted highest by a much much larger group. Since there are hundreds of books and stories that could be voted into the top 5 and peoples taste differ greatly, it doesn’t actually take a very large number of votes to get into the final selection. When 98 books got 1% of the votes each, the one with just 2% of the votes would still be at the top. So instead of simply saying “Hey, let’s all vote for A!” two guys called on all their supporters and said “Hey, let’s all vote for A, B, C, D, and E!”. And apparently they got enough people to go along with it so that over 70% of the candidates they wanted ended up in those Top 5 lists for all the categories.

The main reason that everyone is now getting upset about it is that the whole thing started because some people thought there have been well to many homos and negros getting awards the last few years and they need to take action to make it fair again for the quality work of white american men. And apparently they are using “Social Justice Warrior” as a non-ironic term on their personal websites, which should tell you quite a bit about them even if, like me, you don’t know anything else about them. So yeah. #Hugogate?

But I can’t really get myself to care, even as a queer aspiring writer with a neurological impairment. Because Hugo or not, it’s still just a literature award. It’s nice when you get a high profile award because it’s free publicity, but in the end all such awards are always popularity contests by their very nature and don’t really tell you anything about the quality of the story. They are about as useful as a George Martin quote on the cover. In a world where big publishing houses decided which writers could be read or not, the publicity from an award was probably more valuable (though no more useful), especially for small writers who didn’t have good personal connections with the people who decided who would be printed and advertised. A world which no longer exists. I can just write what I want, let people read it, and let those who like stuff like that share among each other who and what they recommend. We don’t need anyones approval to write what we have fun to write and share it with others. Of course, there probably isn’t much money to be made, but so what?

Fantasy Safari: Monster Manual (D&D 3rd Ed.), Part 3

More Monsters from the Monster Manual.

Mohrg

Mohrg

The Mohrg looks both icky and also pretty cool. It’s a human skeleton whose chest is filled with purple worms. It is however not a worm riding a human skeleton, but really a single undead creature that is created from a murderer who died unpunished. And it seems to be implied that it is the evil soul that makes the criminal return to unlife and not the work of a necromancer, which really raises the question where these worms are coming from? Perhaps the artist got unclear instructions what it should look like. A morg attacks both with its hands and its tongue, which in this illustration is also a worm. The tongue causes paralysis in living creatures, while it can also use the Improved Grab ability when it hits with its arms. Since humanoid ceatures never have the Improved Grab ability, I would guess the best way to describe it in combat would be to have the worms that are wrapped around the arm bones wrap around the target and hold it. The players sure would appreciate it. A mohrg is much more powerful than a skeleton and other than in appearance has nothing at all in common with those. When a creature is killed by a mohrg it raises as a simple zombie, but only after one to four days. Which in completely useless in combat, and you would have to add a lot of zombies to make a fight against a CR 8 monster more challenging. Considering all this, the writer who created the mohrg probably had much more in mind for it than just being a stronger skeleton to jump out from behind a corner and be killed in two to three rounds. This creature is really much better suited as the centerpiece of an entire adventure. One to four days is quite some time in which a lot can happen to a corpse. The mohrg might take it back to its lair and wait for it to rise, or it might be left where it fell. Or it might even have been found and already burried in the graveyard or being prepared for burrial. Suddenly, zombies! Zombies everywhere! A great investigation adventure which at the end will come together with a fight against the mohrg itself. Which being a murderer in life, should also have some backstory to go along with. This is exactly the kind of hidden information I am looking for in these books. Monsters that are much more than something to encounter standing in a dungeon room and to be forgotten four rounds later, but are actually made to have adventures created around them. And I must ask, why doesn’t this book spell this out?! This book is 15 years old, I had it since it first came out, and I have been using it countless times. And only now, carefully disecting each obscure monster and searching for tiny details that might be used as plot hooks, did I ever notice it? “1d4 days” is only seven characters, but they make all the difference. Why hide it? Would it have been so hard to add two more sentences to the description? Imagine if they had made that effort for all monsters in this book? D&D would be a completely different game than it is today and not the rules obsessed tactical combat simulation that it became.

Nightshade

Nightshade

Do I have to say it again? I probably shouldn’t, but I’ll do anyway: This Nightshade illustration is fucking awesome! Like almost all Sam Wood illustrations in this book. The perspective makes it clear that this is a not a human sized guy and when you check the description it’s fucking huge. Not just big, but size category: Huge. A 6 meter tall bastard of pure darkness with blue glowing eyes. Nightshades come in three variants, the nightwing (huge bat), nightwalker (huge man), and nightcrawler (gargantuan worm) and are from the Known World setting of BECMI. Which I think is the reason for its biggest flaw. In BECMI, character levels go all the way up to 36, almost twice as high as the maximum of 20 in the 3rd edition core rules. Unfortunately, when converting the creature this difference was apparently not accounted for making the nightshades pretty high level creatures with a CR of 16 for the nightwalker. Which means I never got any opportunity to use it. Let me get my soap box, I think I need it today. I hate high level play in D&D. My campaigns usually don’t go any longer than 3 years and almost all of them start at low levels, because I very often get lots of people to play who never played any RPGs before. And since I don’t run dungeon crawling grind-fests, I’ve never seen any PCs of a level higher than 8th, either as GM or as player. And the way D&D is set up, that meant a huge amount of content never could be used at all. Like this cool badass bastard. Today I know better and could just rebuild him as a CR 8 creature and use that, but I used to be a young and stupid GM and that never really occured to me. I am afraid I don’t have much to say about the monster itself. There isn’t really any description what it is and what it does, and the abilities don’t seem interesting either. But damn, it looks cool.

Phantom Fungus

Phantom Fungus

The Phantom Fungus looks very weird and kinda stupid in this illustration. Which doesn’t actually matter because it’s completely invisible almost the entire time. The stats for this monster are really very simple. It’s medium size, has animal intelligence, and is only CR 3. It’s natural invisibility is the only ability it has. Actually, you could just ignore the illustration since none of those things on its back or the tentacles coming out of them are doing anything. It is permanently invisible, walks up to you, and bites. Clearly the artist thought that this is totally boring and painted something much more interesting, if stupid looking, instead. The invisibility really is its only thing. I think the best idea is probably to just take this ability and add it to other creatures and make some really interesting monsters. Continue reading