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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.

Thrower’s Tallies: Games of the Year 2014

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Another year, another end of year wrap piece. Time to reflect on the past 365 days as you force down another sweetmeat and another glass of cheap sherry and then to wonder what the future holds.

This has not been the best gaming year for me, personally. Not just in terms of titles released but in terms of finding opportunities to play. For one reason and another, I just haven’t spent the time at the gaming table I’d have liked.

That makes me sad. Real life is important, of course, but you only get one shot at it, a thing I’ve become increasingly aware of as the years slip past. Since gaming is one of my favourite things to do, I ought to be able to find more space for it. Other things just always seem to intervene.

So I look at my collection, much of which is gathering dust in the attic, and wonder if I’ll ever play most of them as many times as they deserve. Or that one day I might look back and regrest not making more time for my favourite things, which so often get lost in the push and shove of family life.

I guess that’s a game in and of itself.

Anyway, enough of the melodrama. This long preamble is setting up the point that a lot of the games I’ve played this year just haven’t lasted beyond the required review plays. Not because they’re bad games, just because they weren’t quite good enough to elbow their way in to a very crowded itenerary.

But when I looked back on what I’d played this year, I conveniently found that there were exactly three games that had broken that trend. Three games that had forced themselves back onto the table after I thought I was done with them by virtue of their brilliance. I was also exceptionally surprised by what they were. Can you guess?

Before I reveal all, I wanted to mention something that’s been bothering me more and more in recent years. I’m just not seeing as much fun in new titles as I used to. I still want to game as much as I ever do, but that itch of excitement when you read a preview or tear the shrinkwrap has gone.

The problem, I think, is that game design has become a process of iterative improvement rather than fizzing creativity. When I got back into board gaming at the turn of the millenium, the design community was still buzzing with the influx of ideas from Germany. Over the next few years, recombining this new paradigm with the traditional American model of gaming proved a fertile furrow.

Now, those ideas seem to have run dry. Genre-breaking games seem to be few and far between. I think this is because, with the market glutted by kickstarter titles, we’re near the limits of what can be done with mere card, wood and plastic. Newer titles are, for the most part, still a step up on older ones. But the improvements are so small, it’s not worth the money or the effort to acquire and learn them over existing games.

We’re done with the misery. On to the awards.

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#3 Band of Brothers: Ghost Panzer

Don’t judge games by their boxes. I was put off the original game in this series, Screaming Eagles, by the small publisher and the bad art. Then, while it had its supporters, it didn’t seem to gain much fan traction either, so I wrote it off.

That was a serious mistake. I enjoyed its perfect blend of realism, accessibility, tactics and excitement so much that I played it solo, something I never do. I enjoyed it so much that I went right out and bought Screaming Eagles second hand in case it never got reprinted. The components still suck, but these may be the best tactical wargame rules ever made.

#2 Splendor

This was the real shocker. In many respects, Splendor represents a lot of what I dislike about modern game design. But it keeps coming off the shelf, again and again. And it keeps finding its way into friends collections, again and again. It’s a keeper and, on reflection, one of the best Eurogames I’ve played.

While everyone was mistakenly raving about the way Five Tribes had cross-hobby appeal, Splendor was quietly doing just that in the background. It has one page of rules, can be played competently by my 8-year old, yet is challenging to win at consistently. It’s got gorgeous pieces, a smidgen of interaction and can be completed in 30 minutes. When you step back, what’s not to love?

#1 Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition

Ok, so I’m cheating slightly. But in terms of table time, this is the undoubted winner this year. I thought I was done with role-playing games. I thought over-heavy rules and anti-social players had ruined the genre for me forever. Then fifth edition came along and reminded me of just how amazing, how limitless and soaring, role-playing can be when it gets things right.

I have never seen a rules system which achieves so much with so little. Yes, there’s still lots of spells and magic items and stats to remember. But the actual play mechanics are lean and mean, yet manage to cover almost any situation, allowing groups to mine whatever rich seam of fantasy they choose. I’m so looking forward to where this system is going to go next year. More so than any board game in the pipeline.

Well, except XCOM, perhaps.

Speaking of which, I guess I spend enough time iOS gaming nowadays to make a best of year list for that platform too. I have an odd love-hate relationship with my iPad. Part of me longs for the hours and hours of total engrossment that only a AAA PC or console game can provide. On the other hand, in a busy life I’m grateful that I can now enjoy such excellent bite sized gaming.

It feels like 2014 is the year mobile gaming came of age with meaty franchises and big studios finding their way to the app store. But these are the top of the pile for me, staying installed long after their peers have been deleted.

#3 Hoplite

I’m a big fan of rogue-like games but the classic model doesn’t tend to port well to tablets. It’s too involved, too stat-heavy. Hoplite hit the nail on the head by reducing the genre to a kind of puzzle game, with role-playing elements. It sounds dull, but isn’t, because the procedural generation ensures every puzzle is unique.

#2 FTL

FTL may be the most perfect game in the most perfect genre ever devised, an endless story generator with strategy and role playing thrown in for free. I’ve yet to beat it, even after about twenty hours of play time. And I’m still trying, even after about twenty hours of plat time. This might be number one, were it not marginally better on PC than tablet.

#1 Hearthstone

FATtie Erik Twice has asked me several times why I complain about it all the time on social media, when I profess to love it. The answer is simple: it’s the same reason drug addicts complain about crack. Addiction is a terrible thing, but it doesn’t make the high point of the trip any the less sweet.

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.

Now Playing: Lords of Waterdeep

Lords of Waterdeep - a European style worker placement game made by an American company for a fantasy setting

At a pre-Christmas gathering, I ended up chatting to a friend about worker placement games, as you do. He’d enjoyed a lot of Puerto Rico and Agricola with his family but, it transpired, he’d never played Lords of Waterdeep, which I’d been playing loads of on the iPad.

So the next time I visited, I took it round, Skullport and all. We threw in both expansions and played a six-player game. It turned out to be quite a ride: I drew a lord card that got a bonus for each building owned and focused on that instead of quests. As a result I lagged way behind the leader for the whole game, was able to deflect attention away from myself when take-that opportunities came up and then got a truly massive end-game bonus that tied me for the win, only to lose the tiebreaker.

Stupid tiebreakers.

The family were about to go on holiday and begged me to sell them the game to take away with them. Although it’s a game I’ve extolled the virtues of in the past, I readily agreed. Why? Partly because I knew I could just play on iOS if I wanted, partly because I knew I could pop round to the families’ house for a game if I wanted. But partly because all that time on iOS convinced me it’s not quite as good as I originally thought.

Don’t get me wrong. I still think it’s good. I still think it’s about the best worker placement game around. I still think it’s a game anyone with a passing interest in the genre, or indeed with sampling a diverse range of game styles, should play.

But what repeated exposure to this, my most-played worker placement game has convinced me of that is worker placement games are fundamentally not as exciting as they should be. The game state just isn’t fluid enough, and there’s not enough interaction. Sometimes, you’ll take a turn and wait in tense anticipation to see if someone grabs a space you need before you. Sometimes you’ll artifice a delightfully creative plan to work around the game and steal a boost over your opponents. Sometimes, but just not often enough.

It doesn’t matter how many “gotcha” cards, or how many on-board variables you throw into the mix. Lords of Waterdeep integrates both with great skill and gleeful abandon. It’s just struggling manfully against the drab, weighted straitjacket forced on it by the fundamental mechanics. Sad that I’ve ended up in a hobby where these things are celebrated as the pinnacle of entertainment.