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Tag Archive: Dungeons and Dragons



By Art Schmidt

Once upon a time, there was a book called The Cave of Time, which was the first Choose Your Own Adventure book written by Edward Packer in 1979.  In this book, the idea of a fictional story and a fast-paced action adventure game were married into an experience which placed the actions of the story, and therefore the outcome, into the reader’s hands.  Every couple of pages would present the reader with a situation and then a choice: if you turn right, go to Page 29, if you turn left, go to Page 32.  Once you turned to that page, the story continued based upon your choice.  The Cave of Time was the first of its kind, and quickly led to nearly two hundred books of its type being published by Bantam Books for almost twenty years.  Subsequently additional books (and reprints) have been issued and continue to come out every few years, including The Magic of the Unicorn published just last year.

The folks who created the original Dungeons and Dragons product back in the 1970s, TSR Hobbies, Inc., quickly saw the potential of this creative type of book, and published their own choose-your-own-adventure books under the heading Endless Quest books starting in 1982.  Dungeon of Dread was a much longer and detailed novel than the original Choose Your Own Adventure books, twice as many pages and a more detailed story and background for the protagonist whose persona the reader undertook.  The books were popular, and TSR published three dozen over a five-year period.  The Endless Quest books were republished years later, and some more titles added, but with the surge of video games and other cheap, immersive entertainment, the books lost their charm for the fantasy gaming public and went out of print.  Other books were added in the 1990s but were largely out of print until this year.

   

Wizards of the Coast (who purchased the Dungeons and Dragons gaming brand in the 1990s) has revived the Endless Quest line of books and has licensed Candlewick Press to publish four new books based in the world of the Forgotten Realms, available today.  All four are written by Matt Forbeck, an award-winning and New York Times-bestselling author and game designer, whose credits include the Rogue One junior novel, the Magic: The Gathering comics, and Captain America: The Ultimate Guide to the First Avenger.  Unlike the previous books of the 1980s and 1990s, these books are each based on one of the four core character classes from the Dungeons and Dragons game: cleric, fighter, rogue and wizard.  Written in the second person, the novels focus on characters who are nameless but of specific race and gender.

In Escape the Underdark the reader plays a human fighter, and the story follows the Out of the Abyss hardcover adventure from the Rage of Demons storyline from the Dungeons and Dragons season three. The main character begins the story unarmed and enslaved by the evil drow elves of the dreaded underdark, the vast underground world which exists just below the surface of the Forgotten Realms world.  As the publisher describes the novel: “You awaken in an underground cell, stripped of your armor and your sword.  Your fellow prisoners inform you that you’re trapped in the Underdark, soon to be taken to the great drow city of Menzoberranzan and sold off as a slave.  But word is that demons are stirring in the underworld’s depth…”
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Review by Art Schmidt

This week the team over at Wizards of the Coast that produced the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is coming out with the newest addition to the line of hardcover books which make up the rules and playable content for the game.  Fifth Edition is by far the most popular and widely-played edition of the grandfather of all role-playing games for the last few decades and may be the most popular edition ever.  This newest book is titled Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, and its primary function is to provide nearly 150 new monsters for use in the game’s adventures, but the book itself is so much more than that.  Previous editions have focused their monster books on stuffing as many creatures into them as possible.  The more monsters, the more players will find the book useful, and (presumably) the more copies will sell.  What the current team has excelled at is deviating away from that “more stats are better” mentality, and instead focuses on the “why” of the monsters instead of the “how many”.  And Wizards of the Coast continues to pull this off beautifully in Tome of Foes.

Whereas previous D&D editions would have had the Monster Manual, and then Monster Manual II, followed by Monster Manual III, etc., 5th Edition has the requisite Monster Manual (reviewed here) but then wowed fans with Volo’s Guide to Monsters (reviewed here).  Essentially a book full of monsters, Volo’s deviated from previous norms and expectations in that it provided a wealth of information (re: text) about the monsters, their origins, histories, societies, clans and behaviors rather than just their hit points and ever-more-creative ways to wreck a party of characters.  And people bought in, big time.  The stories behind why mind flayers eat brains and how they manage to have a functioning society, or about the different kinds of giants and how drastically different their societies were and how they view their own roles amongst giants and their gods, were fascinating, and provided many a DM (and player) ideas for running their campaigns and players.

Limited edition, alternate-art cover by Vance Kelly.

At its core Tome of Foes still is a book full of monsters, but the background information it provides is just as deep and satisfying as that found in Volo’s.  The chapters on The Blood War and the Elves are especially valuable in providing players with more sparks for their imagination.  There are many new player options available in Tome of Foes in the form of playable races and sub-races.  Of particular note are the new options for tieflings (a playable race from the Player’s Handbook) and the gith (a D&D favorite dating all the way back to the 1st Edition Fiend Folio).  The gith are a race with two sub-races who roam the Astral plane with their silver swords, marauding and fighting each other in an endless conflict that sometimes spills over into the players’ world.  Tieflings currently have only one race option in the Player’s Handbook, as compared to other playable races such as elves, dwarves, and halflings, who each have two or more sub-race alternatives to customize their characters.  In the Player’s Handbook all tieflings are described as being infused with the essence of Asmodeus, the ruler of the Nine Hells in D&D lore, and they have one set of abilities for their race.  In Tome of Foes tieflings are provided with eight other alternatives, one for each of the rules of the eight layers of Hell that are ruled in Asmodeus’ name (he himself rules the bottom-most, or ninth layer of the Nine Hells).  These options provide a wide range of play for tiefling characters, specifically different stat modifiers and innate spellcasting abilities.

For the gith, the playable race is an interesting addition to the game, with two sub-races, the githzerai and the githyanki, the two original 1st Edition races of gith.  The gith are structured as other races, with a major and minor stat bonus (depending on sub-race chosen), additional abilities, alignment tendencies (though again, as with all previous 5th Edition publications, no restrictions or mandates), and of course, psionics.  As with previous psionic abilities, these are spellcasting abilities with a “psionics” attribute, which allows for casting without components.  In other words, a mental method of casting.  Although many players continue to clamor for a psionics mechanic in this edition, it seems as though the designers are sticking to their guns: psionics is just spellcasting without mumbling, hand-waving, and balls of bat guano.  And in the current version of the game, which nicely balances a wealth of meaningful character-building choices with rules mechanics that are easily accessible to the game-playing public at-large, this seems a wise choice.

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Review by Art Schmidt

Wizards of the Coast has been judicious in releasing a measured, steady flow of materials for the 5th Edition of the self-proclaimed “World’s Greatest Role-Playing Game,” Dungeons & Dragons (commonly referred to as “5E” by the roleplaying public-at-large).  WotC releases two adventure campaign books per year, one every six months (give or take), in addition to one rules supplement per year.  Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is the latest offering of new character subclasses, spells, magical items and a meaty section for the Dungeon Master (i.e. the person running the game for all of her players).

Aimed primarily at players who are looking for new classes to play, new spells for their characters to cast, and new ways to define their avatars inside the collaborative storytelling game, Xanathar’s Guide (or XGE, as I’m sure it will be come to be called) hits all of the expected marks.  Drawing on a wealth of material released by the D&D creative team via their popular Unearthed Arcana section of the D&D website and reprinting materials, primarily spells, from the Elemental Evil Player’s Guide, Xanathar’s Guide provides thirty-two (32!) new sub-classes for all of the current class types, including some new sub-classes not previously seen in the Unearthed Arcana material.

Unearthed Arcana was a hardcover book waaaay back in the early first edition of the game.  Similar to Xanathar’s Guide, the original Unearthed Arcana was an expansion of material from the Player’s Handbook, the standard players guide to the character classes and mechanics of the game itself.  This book title has been re-used throughout D&D’s over forty-year history, and its latest incarnation is the online “alternate rules” or playtest material which the D&D Team puts out for players and dungeon masters to use, experiment and, well, play with.  The Team asks for feedback from users on the material, trying to gauge game balance, player likability, and general “fun factor” of this material.  When material is popular, well-balanced, and fits a niche in the player character milieu that the D&D Team feels makes it worthwhile, it’s include in a hardcover book.  Such was the case with the previously released Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide for 5E, and it is the case again with Xanathar’s Guide, though on a much bigger scale.

In fact, Xanathar’s Guide re-prints a handful of classes from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide as well, such as the Swashbuckler and the Storm Sorceror.  Ordinarily, one might fault a company for expecting their customers to pay money for a new sourcebook which includes a wealth of material already found in other sources.  And one might be correct.  Except that in the case of D&D, these re-prints make a fair amount of sense.  As far as the Unearthed Arcana material, the subclasses in Xanathar’s represent an updated, tweaked and in many cases streamlined class which is now officially playtested and provided with rules, which will make the material enjoyable and avoid headaches for players and dungeon masters alike.  Also, Unearthed Arcana material is not “legal” for the Adventurer’s League, since it isn’t play-tested, so those players who enjoy organized play have no access to any of those options until they are printed in an official capacity, usually through a hardcover book.

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By Art Schmidt

Dungeons and Dragons has long been the most famous and widely-enjoyed of all fantasy role-playing games (RPGs), and for good reason; the various folks who have been behind the brand for the last forty-some-odd years have been putting out quality adventures that capture the imagination and set the standard for RPG campaigns.  From Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson to Tom Moldvay and Dave “Zeb” Cook,  Frank Mentzer, Lawrence Schick, Tracy Hickman, Bruce Cordell and countless others, they all knew one thing: that while the rules are necessary to provide a common framework for play, it’s the adventures that capture the imagination and draw the player into the story.  A good adventure is like a delightful story shared among friends; it entertains while you are lost inside it, and it sticks with you afterward.

Every six months for the past three years, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) has published a thick hardcover campaign book containing an over-arching storyline full of locations, quests, monsters and exotic treasures have which provided players and their dungeon master with countless hours of excitement and enjoyment.  The first was the two-book Tyranny of Dragons campaign, or “storyline” as the publisher calls it, taking player characters from lowly first-level nobodies and allowing them build up through a series of interlocked adventurers into the world’s most formidable heroes.  Then the story pitted those heroes against a five-headed dragon god named Tiamat in a bid to save their world from enslavement and darkness.  Exciting stuff!

Subsequent storylines have followed the same basic formulae, although in vastly different and colorful ways; one storyline pitted the players against elemental cultists bent on (you guessed it) taking over the world, another trapped the heroes deep beneath the earth in subterranean labyrinths in a quest to not only escape the Underdark, but also save the world in the process (of course).  Yet another whisked the heroes away to another dimension ruled by a dark lord, a vampire rivaling Count Dracula in his evil power, and the heroes had to defeat their undead overlord in order to escape.

The last storyline involved rampaging giants wreaking havoc and destruction across the countryside in a bid to rule their kind, and all of the little folk in the process.  Again, players created neophyte adventurers and ran them through a sandbox world full of colorful peoples, quests both simple and majestic, nasty monstrosities and wondrous treasures, bastions of light and dungeons full of darkness, all in an effort to save the world from giant rule.

But not really.  Sure, saving the world is the main goal of the characters in the story, and that’s all well and good.  I don’t know many fantasy novels where the heroes spend three hundred-plus pages saving a kitten from a tree, or ordering takeout, or trying to find the best deal on car insurance.  Saving the world is a noble goal, and will likely be the objective of story-driven fiction for the foreseeable future.  But the objective of an RPG adventure is, first and foremost, to have fun!  This is the main goal of the players, and anything the characters happen to accomplish along the way is just plain gravy.

In addition, the previous storylines all so far have lacked one thing which long-time players have been craving; a big, fat, old-timey dungeon crawl.  Sure, there have been dungeons in some parts of the previous five storyline campaigns, but none really more than a small section of the overall adventure.  After all, dungeon-crawling doesn’t easily lend itself to a big, wide-world-saving tale.  It’s fun and all, but saving the world often requires traversing it to different locales and interacting with the folks of said world which you are striving to save, most of which are above ground.  But still, the call persists.  “Dungeon Crawl, guys!”

NOTE: Yes, the forth storyline “Out of the Abyss” was essentially one huge dungeon crawl, in that the entirety of the adventure took place underground in the “Underdark.”  But really, that wasn’t one big dungeon, it was a world unto itself, beneath the earth, and had very few traditional “dungeons” in it.

So it comes as no surprise that the folks at WotC might be looking to put together a campaign hardcover that maybe, just possibly, doesn’t have an over-arching storyline quest to save the world.  Who would have thunk it?  But that’s just what they’ve gone and done.

Tales from the Yawning Portal is the sixth of the storylines in the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons campaign books, and it is the first to leave out the “storyline” part in favor of providing DMs and their players with seven updated classic dungeon crawls for their enjoyment.  And these are some of the most famous adventures ever written for the game.

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Monster Manual cover

Wizards of the Coast gets an “A” for effort

Review by Art Schmidt

So let’s cut to the chase, shall we?  Your time is valuable and so are your hard-earned gold pieces, unless you are a thief, in which case let’s face it, it’s not really your gold no matter how hard you “worked” to pick that fat merchant’s belt pouch (c’mon, be honest, we both know it’s true).  The 5th Edition Monster Manual from Wizards of the Coast (or WotC, for short), which goes on sale on the 30th of this month, is a well put-together book, with tons of classic monsters in it, and is really a must-have for anyone looking to run a homebrew 5th Edition game, or looking to convert any of their existing modules/adventures to 5th Edition.  Go out and buy it, though please do not pay the $49.99 suggested retail price.  Most game stores and online retailers will have it for around $30, including Amazon.

Okay, so… if you are still reading this then I will assume that: (A) you don’t fit the Dungeon Master description I used above, (B) need some more convincing, or (C) you have some time to kill right now.  Either way, cool.

The book itself is nicely bound with thick high-quality covers which are a must for a book that’s primarily going to be hauled around from game session to game session in a book bag, backpack, plastic tote or other means.  So, it’s going to see a lot of handling and miles (unless you are nice enough to be hosting the game, in which case, Huzzah to you!!!), and it should take the abuse quite well.

Monster Manual excerpt A

“Knock, knock.” “Who is it?” “Land shark.”

The pages are also high quality, thick glossy paper stock and the book is lively and colorful throughout.  I was not a huge fan of the background on every page which was introduced in 3.0, but in this series of books (the Players Handbook and Monster Manual so far, anyway) WotC is not placing thick borders on every page which in previous versions squeezed the content and gave it a skimpier feel (lots of artwork, less content).  The Monster Manual is chock-full of good information and continues their current trend of combining good humor and retro-elements into the content, as was done in the Starter Set and the Player’s Handbook.  The references to the Temple of Elemental Evil, Emirkol the Chaotic and the Demi-Lich Acererak are nice touches and an appreciated wink to both older gamers and the previous creators and contributors who have helped keep the game going for so many years.  I especially like the disclaimers at the beginning of each book so far, which are quite humorous and show that while the WotC Team took its work seriously, they didn’t fall prey to taking themselves so.

You will find nearly every classic monster you could ask for in the book.  And while at 350 pages it is a hefty brick of a book, its usefulness to the Dungeon Master can’t be denied.  From the mandatory entries of giants, dragons, fiends, elementals, constructs, undead and humanoids of all flavors, to the more exotic modrons, yuan-ti, the warring githyanki and githzerai, and the ever-present but rarely used axe beak, the book has a ton of monsters across the spectrum of challenge ratings.  (Seriously, how many times have you encountered an axe beak in all of your adventures?)

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Review by Art Schmidt

One of the latest of fantasy pulp novels from Wizards of the Coast, owners of the Dungeons & Dragons brand of games and fiction, the Stone of Tymora is the latest offering from internationally famous best-selling fantasy author R. A. Salvatore and his son, Geno Salvatore.  Or rather, it was written by Geno and ‘overseen’ by his father, according to press releases and interviews with the authors.  The Stone of Tymora compilation was released October 2, 2012.

Originally published as three separate novellas (The Stowaway, October 2008; The Shadowmask, July 2009; and The Sentinels, October 2010), the compilation entitled Stone of Tymora follows the adventures of a tween orphan who has a powerful artifact tied to him while still in swaddling clothes and spends his youth alternately fleeing the artifact’s curse and then struggling to find a way to rid himself of it.

 

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