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Temple of Elemental Evil Review

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Innovation in game design seems to be in short supply nowadays. Yet you can find it in unexpected places. Take all those wargames that use the same basic rules but have new units, maps and mechanical tweaks for different battles. Playing through these franchises can reveal an ocean of wonder inside those tiny details, making history come to life.

So, just because Temple of Elemental Evil is the fourth game in a series doesn’t mean it’s not going to feel fresh and clever. However, in honesty, it’s going to need to pull out all the stops to impress. A sense of staleness was already present in the last Adventure System game, Legend of Drizzt, back in 2011.

For those unfamiliar, the Adventure System is a series of co-operative dungeon crawl games. The rules are based on a pared-down version of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. Players pick a scenario and build a random stack of dungeon tiles. As they explore the turned over tiles will reveal traps, event and monsters. Each creature has a set of simple AI routines to attack and use its special abilities. Easy rules that bring life and colour to the gray flagstones.

It’s a great system. Separate decks of monster, encounter and treasure cards offer a lot of variety from basic mechanics. Yet for all that accessibility, decisions matter. Many hero abilities are one-shot, and timing can be crucial. A particularly neat twist is that monsters often move per dungeon tile. This leaves precise placement to the players, offering the chance of clever strategic combinations.

It also helps to avoid the boss-player problem that’s such an issue in co-operative games. Each player has their own set of powers and controls their own movement and monsters. They can do whatever they like. Yet the standard balance of abilities across D&D character classes encourages true co-operation. Tanks can tank, but it helps if there are Mages for missile fire and Rogues to bust traps.

The first game in this series, Castle Ravenloft, also used scenario setup to add further interest and imagination. The second, and my favourite, Wrath of Ashardalon, had simpler scenarios but chained them together into a campaign. There was some official and some fan-made material to allow owners to use both games together. By the time we got to Legend of Drizzit, there didn’t seem to be much new to offer any more.

So what do we have in Elemental Evil to resurrect this system? Sadly, not much.

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There are precisely two major innovations. First, traps are no longer the result of encounter cards but get placed as tokens on certain tiles. This feels like a step back. They do offer players the choice between spending an action disarming the trap or risking it and hoping for a “clear” result. But many trap tiles don’t have monster spaces, so the tension cranks down. And the actual traps are just numeric damage. A far cry from cool stuff like the rolling rock trap in Ashardalon, which saw players fleeing and scattering like fleshy ninepins.

That leaves us with a new campaign. This was the big draw for me: the campaign in Ashardalon was the reason I liked that game best. The series seemed to be crying out for some more detailed rules. Most of all what people wanted was a way to build their characters beyond the arbitrary second level cap on the cards.

They didn’t get that. Although what they did get offers much of the same feel and is an improvement on Ashardalon’s campaign. Now, most of the treasure cards are gold pieces and you use them to purchase upgrades. A thousand gold nets you second level. Then you buy tokens for things like dice bonuses or power re-use. Players carry these between adventures and can use each token once per scenario.

The campaign itself also does a fine job of linking adventures into a narrative. Together with the campaign rules, playing through them one at a time builds a proper sense of camaraderie. It feels very much like a full-blooded role-playing game, with more strategy and less rules arguments.

The flip side, of course, is that the adventures don’t work so well played as one-shot games. The fact they build in difficulty doesn’t help. Neither does a lack of imagination. Most of these lack the spark of originality seen in Castle Ravenloft.

I don’t want to denigrate this game: Elemental Evil is a good game. It’s worth your time and money. Especially so if you’re really up for playing through the campaign, which is obviously the focus of the design. And I would encourage everyone to own and play an Adventure System game. Maybe even two. They’re ace, and they all integrate well together. But you don’t need all four.

So the question becomes one of which is better. And in spite of the new material on offer here, the answer is still Ravenloft or Ashardalon. Unless, that is, you’re looking for a top value way of obtaining some plastic figures for your Princes of the Apocalypse campaign.

Tyranny of Dragons and Princes of the Apocalypse Review

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Fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons might be the best ever, but the release schedule is molasses slow. That’s on purpose: fans have said they want it that way to give them time to develop their own campaigns.

What’s out so far, though is epic in scope. There’s the two-volume Tyranny of Dragons comprised of Hoard of the Dragon Queen followed by Rise of Tiamat. Now we’ve got Princes of the Apocalypse. Both are full campaigns, starting at level one and going up to fifteen.

The similarities end there, however. In fact, these two adventures are fine examples of the two main, contrasting, approaches to adventure building.

Tyranny of Dragons represents the classic way of doing things. It herds the players through a series of linked locations as they battle the latest machinations of the Cult of the Dragon in the Forgotten Realms.

There’s plenty of variety on offer. Some are classic dungeon crawls, others outdoor adventures. There are encounters based on pure role-playing and some that are little more than sequences of battles. The quality of individual chapters varies. But they all link together into a grand narrative, an epic sweep that groups are likely to remember for years to come.

Although lacking a bit in imagination, it should be a great starting point for new groups. It covers a lot of the arch-typical encounter types and monsters that make D&D so beloved. There’s lots of tips for the Dungeon Master including some “do this” or “read this” box-outs that might irritate more experienced players.

Against this, however, is the difficulty curve. It ramps up sharply after the opening chapters. Right until it gets to the point where the books end up advising the DM to be unafraid to kill players, since they ought to have access to Raise Dead spells.

Whatever magic they’ve got, frequent player death isn’t something to be aiming for. On the flip side, you could always start this after running the Ruins of Phandelver from the starter set. The players would go in at fifth level, and you could tweak some early encounters. But the challenge level should feel less intimidating.

It’s also fond of railroading the players. Not in the awful way that the Dragonlance adventures did, but the more common “go here next because it’s the plot”. I imagine most groups, and especially new groups, will do just that without prompting. For those that don’t, there’s enough background information here for a good GM to wing it. Neophytes may find these departures a struggle.

The adventure got a lot of criticism from seasoned gamers because of the railroads. Mostly, this is unfair. It’s supposed to be suitable for players new to the game, where nudging players along a fixed path is a bonus rather than a boon. And besides, it’s hard to write such a vast narrative sweep without keeping players on the rails a bit. That’s the way campaign-level modules have always worked.

The alternative, a more free form romp through a detailed area with some sort of event timetable, is great in smaller adventures. But on the campaign scale, it’d be a nightmare to organise, right?

Well, here’s your chance to find out. Because that’s pretty much what Princes of the Apocalypse is.

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Indeed, it’s so fragmentary that it’s worthy a look even if you’ve no intention of running the campaign. Almost all of its dungeons, towns and scripted encounters could be split out and dropped in to another campaign. They’re detailed and self-contained enough to survive the transition.

The adventure claims to have taken inspiration from the classic Temple of Elemental Evil campaign from first edition. In truth, the only relationship is the nature of the villains the players will be up against. And the adventure is all the better for it.

The bulk of the book describes a series of locales in intricate detail. There’s the towns and wilderness of the area where the plot is due to unfold. There are lots and lots of dungeons, filled with a staggering array of different traps and monsters. At times it feels like the designers were trying to cram the whole Monster Manual in here.

This material is bookended with a description of the plot, and a chapter full of encounters for an enterprising DM to slot in anywhere for a change of pace. There’s a neat gimmick to ensure the unfolding events keep pace with the players. Each “boss” they encounter has a several slightly different setups, which increase in difficulty depending on how many other big bads have already fallen.

There’s almost nothing not to love about this. It’s bold, imaginative, unusual and well designed yet retains a solid grasp of what makes D&D the classic it is. The one problem is, as you might expect, that it’s challenging to run well. The DM must digest this material in full if she’s to avoid having to constantly reference the book, and to make the most of the opportunities offered by the modular structure.

So, two adventures, two different approaches to adventure design. The first not entirely deserving of the criticism it got, the second perhaps not quite deserving of the level of praise it got. You pays your money, and takes your choice. But with the dearth of published material for the game, Princes of the Apocalypse has to be the better pick. It’ll be more use for those trying to write and run their own campaigns. And as a standalone book, rather than a pair, it’s a darn sight cheaper too.

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition: Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual Review

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I’ve always been amused by the way player and dungeon master materials swapped size between the 1st and 2nd editions of D&D. With first edition, it seemed obvious the DMG should be bigger than the PHB. With second, it seemed equally obvious that the opposite should be true since everyone ought to know most of the rules.

That pattern has persisted with 5th edition. The new Dungeon Master’s Guide is a chunky enough tome to make it appear worthy of the asking price, but slimmer than the Player’s Handbook. What have they put inside?

The answer is a sometimes uneasy blend of advice, fluff and rules. The delimiters between theses types of material are often not clear. So you’re apt to find an important table nestled amongst, say, basic advice on dungeon building for neophyte GM’s.

This lack of struture is the biggest problem with the book overall. It feels as though the authors were never sure what the target audience for the book was, or how it might be used. There’s a lot more hand holding for new dungeon masters than I remember from previous editions. Which is great for newcomers, but conversely, it makes for a lot of material which is going to be almost entirely irrelevant to experienced players.

The best stuff by far is the fluff. There’s a lot more detail on the presumed overarching detail of the Dungeons & Dragons setting than I’ve seen in a core book before. All the inner and outer planes get a brief overview, as do the most common campaign settings. You don’t have to use any of them. Indeed the book offers copies advice on how to construct alternatives. But most veterans will lap this stuff up.

Those who recall earlier editions of the book will remember the reams of near-useless tables for randomly generating things. I was initially dismayed to see that they’re back in fifth edition, but there’s an enormous difference. This time, most of the tables are actually quite good. At worst they make decent spark points for your imagination to build on. At best, such as the dungeon generator, they’re good enough to slot in to pre-prepared play.

There are also a lot of optional rules. Plus advice for tweaking existing rules and creating monsters, classes and items without breaking things. Again, how much you want to make of this is up to you. Personally, I like the relatively rules-light approach this edition takes, allowing the story to drive instead of the mechanics. But if you want lots of add-ons and extras, they’re here.

So it’s a mixed bag, but on the whole, the good outweighs the mediocre. It’s a big boon for people relatively new to being a Dungeon Master. Where I struggle a little is why an experienced role-player would want this over the stripped down free version you can download from WotC. There’s a bigger list of magic items, with some wonderful illustrations, but anyone who knows what they’re doing is capable of winging the rest of it if necessary.

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The same cannot be said for the 5th Edition Monster Manual. It is possibly the best (although not the most important) book in the core set and the only one I read from cover to cover before use.

There’s so much to love about it that I hardly know where to start. How about with every monster getting its own full-colour illustration? Then follow that up with great descriptive text, giving insights into the societies and habitats of the creatures, a reason for them to be in your world and antagonise your adventurers. It lays a wonderful veneer of reality over the pulpy fantasy beneath.

The choice of included monsters is also excellent. In place of the overwhelming plethora favoured by previous editions, this presents a sensibly edited selection. There’s an excellent variety of challenge and type, and not too many entries that seem like rough duplicates with slightly different names and stat blocks. One or two oddities slipped in, like the Flumph. I mean, has anyone really found a use for the Flumph in a game?

If this weren’t enough, there’s a new option for legendary monsters. It’s easy: they get extra “legendary” actions in combat and, if on home soil, additional “lair” actions too. Since most player characters only get a few actions per round, even at higher levels, this makes legendary foes very powerful with a minimum of rules. Frequently-used villains like dragons, liches and vampires are legendary by default but there’s nothing to stop an inventive DM extending it to make an adversary out of any archetype they choose.

One change I’m unsure about is the removal of life drain, that dreaded ability of certain undead to lower the experience of player characters. It was overpowered in previous editions, sure, but it gave undead a unique level of threat and a real reason for the players to fear them. It’s been replaced with necrotic damage that can’t easily be healed without prolonged rest. Nasty, but not in the same league. I’m sure they must have been a halfway house that could have been adopted.

Undead also showcase another interesting change, which is that certain monsters have drastically altered power levels. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this and in many cases it makes good sense. But it makes it slightly harder for DM’s to adapt scenarios from older editions by replacing like with like.

You can fall back on the dry stat blocks in the free DM’s rules if you need to. But with so much excellent art and flavour text to add depth, colour and challenge to your campaign world, this is a book few DMs are going to want to be without.

D&D 5e Player’s Handbook Review

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It’s rare that the first thing to strike you about a book is a noise. But here, it was. After being so excited by the Starter Set, I couldn’t wait to get into this. So I ignored the cover and opened the book to a loud crack as the spine flexed for the first time. It was like the sound of the lock falling away from my teenage memories.

Back then, no-one ever read the Player’s Handbook from cover to cover, and I doubt anyone does now. It’s skimmed, flipped, relished. So first impressions count.

They’re good. The pages are thin but printed with a nice fake-age background. Tables are pleasingly infrequent. The art is plentiful, good quality and diverse in its representation of race, class and gender. Male Half-orc paladins stand shoulder to shoulder with scholarly female wizards. Most are sensibly clothed.

This is the first D&D supplement I can remember that encourages players to use the game to explore diversity.
“Don’t be confined to binary notions of sex and gender,” it says. It’s nice to know that D&D has moved into the modern age while preserving the things that made it special in the past.

Alongside those sentiments there are other short, but useful, chapters on role-playing and personification. Mostly, what we want are rules and mostly, that’s what we get.

You have to remember that I haven’t played the game since 2nd edition. So things that stand out to me as big changes might not seem so huge to more dedicated players.

One thing that impresses is the way in which the game has become less about specialists, more about letting players create the characters they want. There are twelve classes now, each with several archetypes.

The Fighter class, for instance, divides into three archetypes. Classic warrior fans can play a Champion. Battle Masters represent tacticians and field officers. Eldritch Knights sacrifice some fighting ability for a modicum of spellcasting power.

At the extremes, this plethora of options blend in to one another. With an Eldritch Knight in the party, you might not need a Wizard. Sometimes the overlap seems too extensive. I can’t quite see why the Barbarian and Sorcerer classes weren’t just folded as archetypes for the Ranger and Wizard respectively.

But on the whole, it works. Specialists are still best at what they do, but players can build characters as they like.

This change of focus is supported by the core mechanics. Everything works on a d20 check now, against a difficulty number. You add ability score modifiers, but also get a proficiency bonus, dependant on level, for things your class is good at.

Fighters get it on all weapons, for instance. But you can now get proficiencies in skills and tools, too. So anyone can use Thief’s tools to attempt to pick a lock. But a Rogue will get their proficiency bonus when they try – double, in fact, thanks to a special feature of the class.

It’s a great way of doing things. It’s more realistic – why, in old systems, couldn’t other classes search for traps if there wasn’t a thief in the party? The broad skill categories make it more comprehensive, so there’s few situations in which you can’t bend the rules to fit.

dnd-phb-02jpg It’s also the mechanic behind the rebalancing of the game. A key feature of this edition is that powerful characters are no longer god-like. A lone fighter will eventually succumb to an army of goblins. It works because proficiency bonuses increase slowly, and max out at +6. So a 20th level figher, with a few stat increases, is only going to get perhaps +6 on the dice more than a 1st level one.

But best of all, people can play the characters of their imagination. Common fantasy stereotypes that were near-impossible in the old system are easy now. Swashbuckling warriors are just as good as armoured tanks. It’s straightforward to combine spell and sword if that’s what you want to do.

To add flesh and flexibility to the character creation process there’s a mandatory background step. This gives you a couple more skills and some starting equipment, as well as a foundation for your character’s back story.

While a welcome addition, it’s perhaps the weakest thing in the book. In contrast to the wide-ranging races and classes on offer, there’s only a limited selection. And they’re painted in narrow strokes where they ought to be board. You can chose to be a Noble, for instance, or a Sailor . But not a Noble Sailor. And there seems an astonishing diversity of semi-criminal backgrounds, from Charlatans to Urchins to actual Criminals.

At the end of the book come spells. These are no longer divided into spells for different classes. Instead, each class has a list of spells they’re able to potentially learn and cast. This makes referencing what spells belong to what class a bit of a nightmare. But it’s nice to see the end of silly duplications of identical effects across different classes.

Casting, like almost everything else in the new edition, has become more flexible. Spellcasters can prepare a wide selection of spells during a long rest. When they cast one, they use a slot rather than losing the spell. There’s also a new idea of casting low level spells with high level slots, for a more powerful effect. These are all excellent changes. No more will wizards find themselves stuck in situations without a useful memorised spell.

The other striking thing about the spell lists is the substantial number of non-combat spells. In previous editions, this felt like lip-service to encouraging nonviolent solutions. Here, it chimes authentically with the greater focus on skills and tools rather than just weapons and armour.

So now you know what’s in the book, it’s time to end on a question. Given that you can download character creations rules for free, why buy the book?

Well, aside from the pleasure of the art and the convenience of a hard copy, it comes back to the overarching theme of what I love about this edition: flexibility. Those free rules have only four classes, with one archetype each, and a cut-down selection of spells. Reading this Player’s Handbook felt like unlocking my imagination to polymorph into whatever fantastic character it desired. That’s in stark contrast to the rules, restrictions and specialisms that characterised earlier editions. The free rules feel a bit like those earlier editions. If you really want to let your mind run free, this is the book for you.

Five days with Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons

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At age eight I was rummaging through a book stall at an agricultural fair, and I found a book that would change my life. It was “What is Dungeons & Dragons” and it stood out like a monstrous thumb among the worthy tomes on seed rotation. If I hadn’t bought it, it’s unlikely you’d be reading this column right now.

I haven’t played D&D in 20 years. I gave up at the advent of third edition, deciding it wasn’t worth re-learning the rules all over again.

Now, fifth edition is out. And my eldest daughter is eight, the age I was when I discovered the game. The co-incidence felt like a sign: it was time to teach the game to my kids, and rediscover it myself, too.

So I picked up a copy of the Starter Set.

Day 1

The box contains some nice marbled polyhedral dice, some basic rules and an adventure. Tempting as it is to start with the latter, I felt I ought to brave the rules first.

It felt intimidating after such a long time. And while the booklet is slim, it was a little hard to piece things together. There’s no character generation material. Instead you’re given five pregenerated adventurers to run. Some of the rules you need to understand things like levelling up is printed on those character sheets, which is a bit confusing.

Once I had it though, it felt like slipping into a warm bath of wonderful nostalgia. These rules didn’t feel like third edition, with its confusing plethora of feats and tables. This felt like the game I remembered, but cleaned up, streamlined yet at the same time made more flexible.

Every stat now has a plus or minus modifier, and it’s used to change a d20 roll. You compare the result against a difficulty number to see if you succeed.

Sometimes that difficulty is fixed, like the armour class of your enemy. Sometimes it’s a vaguer call from the DM, like the 15 that’s suggested for a “difficult” task in the rules. But that basic system, supported by simple rules for a broad sprinkling of skills and proficiencies, is all there is. It’s all the game really needs.

Everything else is just like it used to be, only better. Everyone levels on the same advancement tables. Spell casters have flexible “slots” instead of having to memorize fixed spells, but the principle is the same. And the maths of the system have tweaked to ensure that the power differential as characters advance is big, but no longer vast.

Quite suddenly, after 20 years, I’m desperate to play this thing again.

Day 2

First things first, though: I need to read that adventure. It’s called The Lost Mine of Phandelver, a corny title right out of the D&D history books.

With that emblazoned on the title page, I’m expecting a classic, by-the-numbers dungeon crawl. But I’m in for a surprise. The adventure has four parts, the first and last of which are standard, but exciting, dungeon delves.

Between, however, are two glorious free-form sections. These see the characters exploring first a town and then a number of wilderness locations, looking for clues. No railroads here: the players can, and likely will, wander around until they’ve gathered the clues they need.

This might seem a big ask for a novice Dungeon Master. But the adventure book is full of helpful hints on how to keep things running smoothly.

After all these years, I think I’m going to need some of that advice. I do the rest of my prep work as best I can. I collect all the figures from my D&D board games and make copies of the character sheets. Just standard fighters for the kids so they don’t get bogged down in rules, and a cleric for me, so they don’t get killed.

I show my eldest the box, and the dice. She recognises the logo and gets very animated. But it’s bed time. To be honest, I’m not sure who’s more excited: me, or them.

Day 3

I’d been planning to wait until the afternoon to run the game, but as soon as they’re up, the girls are pestering me to get going. So we eat breakfast, clear the table and I set up a makeshift DM screen from the box.

I don’t spend any time explaining the rules or the concept of role-playing. The idea of pretending to be someone else in a fantasy world is as natural to them as breathing: they do it playing together every single day. I’m both worried and curious about how they’ll handle combat.

At first, it’s adorably naive. However everyday the concept of role-playing might be, they know nothing about this paradigm. Within ten minutes they’ve fallen into a pit and walked past some gold because they don’t know to check for traps or search for treasure. I use my in-game character to nudge them in the right direction.

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Then they run into some goblins. Their first instinct is to try and sneak past, but the greenskins are guarding the entrance to a cave. After searching for a back entrance, they get stuck in.

It’s a riot. They’re learning to behave sensibly in the game environment. After the guards, they refuse to light a torch in case it attracts attention and ask my Dwarf to lead them around with his night vision. They explore the caves, rescue their friends, down the big bad in the final cavern.

In the showdown, everyone gets knocked out except younger daughter. She’s terrified, rolling the dice then hiding her eyes and squealing in case she misses. But she does it: with a little dice fudging, she saves the day.

Fifth edition has both experience points and a “bookmark” system where you gain levels at specific points in an adventure. This is one: everyone goes up to level two and is very proud, even though they don’t quite know what it means.

Day 4

In the morning I ask the girls what their favourite part of the game was. “When we found the treasure!” says the eldest, carefully toting up the gold pieces and adding them to her character sheet. “When I saved everyone!” says the youngest, her eyes shining with pure, unadulterated glee.

“Do you want to play some more?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

Yesterday, they learned everything they needed to move to the next part of the adventure, but they’re too young to piece it together. They whisper conspiratorially, planning what to do next, but they can’t decide. So I use my character again to help them work out where to go.

This session is much more based on role playing and skill checks. It showcases how powerful and flexible the new system is, but the youngest finds it a little dull, and starts building towers out of all the pretty dice.

They end up scouring the crowd in a tavern for clues. They order “fruit whiskey” at the bar. Elder daughter is loving all the slowly-peeling onion rings of the scenario, and tries to piece the mystery together. They don’t have all the clues yet, though.

Eventually they face off against the main antagonists in this location, a bunch of human brigands. They’re not happy about fighting other people, and decide to use the flats of their weapons to knock them out at first.

It’s interesting that they had no such qualms with goblins.

They hit on a plan to try and scare members of the same band by carrying round tokens of their previous victory, and fronting it out. We use more skill checks to see if it works, which are just as thrilling as combat.

It does work. One of the surrendering guards tells them there’s a horrible “eye monster” guarding the next cavern. They’re both apprehensive and excited about meeting it.

They tip-toe into the cave and ask to see a picture of the dread beast. Usefully, there’s one in the scenario booklet, so I show them.

They both run screaming out of the room, in a delighted panic. I think that’s a good time to end today’s session.

Day 5

It’s Monday again, after the high of the weekend. Time for me to go to work, and them to go to school, and everyone to reflect on how things went.

For my part, I’m bowled over by this edition. These basic rules run fast and smooth. Even the cut-down set in the box feel like they could be easily manipulated to handle most situations.

It’s almost the game I remember, except tweaked to be the game I always wanted it to be.

Although the details you need are annoyingly spread out over the booklets and the character sheets, new players can get everything they need with careful reading. And the supplied adventure is excellent, giving you a reason to buy the box over just downloading the free version of the rules.

As for playing with such young children, it went better than I dared hope. They’re primed by their own play to accept this kind of game. I hope they never grow out of that.

Part of me feels like a bad parent for introducing them to what might be the nerdiest thing in my whole nerdy cabinet of nerd hobbies.

But most of me feels like I’m riding a Unicorn across a galaxy of sparkling pixie dust. I’d forgotten how much fun role-playing could be. And I’d never imagined how much extra fun it would be doing it as a family.

I know what we’re all doing next weekend.