Friday, November 27th, 2009


I have a couple of new reviews up over at Pop Bunker. Specifically, “The Men Who Stare At Goats” and “Away We Go”. I am emo.

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It’s the post you have been waiting for! Or fearing. Or saying “meh” about. Or laughing at in an embarrassed manner. Well, let me tell you something, you who find Dungeons and Dragons hopelessly nerdy. It… is. But lots and lots of other things are as well. Hey, World of Warcraft player who “grinds” for 20 hours a week: do you *really* think your pastime is less nerdy than me hanging out with a bunch of my friends for 6 hours every other week? At least I have 5 guys pretending to slay the dragon with me (no, that last sentence does not help). For that matter, is there *really* a large difference between this and, say, poker night or being a “fan” of a sports franchise that has absolutely nothing in common with you save the fact that they play home games in a city near you and occasionally allow you to buy tickets to see them?

THE ANSWER IS NO. BE QUIET.

Moving on… I assume you have the DM’s guide, the Player’s Handbook, and the Monster Manual, since these are required to play the game. You also need dice, of course, and your mother’s basement. You can rent it out during the week to baseball statheads.

Monster Manual 2. I will give you Reason #1 why you need to buy the Monster Manual 2: the rust monster. Yes, for some reason this beast was left out of #1. It’s at once perhaps the stupidest monster idea and the greatest ever. Basically, when you encounter one, it is the DM telling you that you have too much cool stuff and he needs to balance the game, with feet. Now they have a new iteration of the rust monster called the dweomer stealer, which… steals dweomers. WTF is a dweomer? Anyway, it eats magic items the way the rust monster eats plate mail armor. I always find these things to be f’ing hilarious: they flat out suck but the fighter in your party who will charge at an adult red dragon will run from one of these things like a little beeyotch.

Featured on the cover, the Demogorgon. Yeah, it’s a two-headed baboon orangutan with tentacles for arms. Say that five times and you will become as autistic as Jenny McCarthy’s child.

Not featured, and by “not featured” I mean “they damn well better be in MM3”: blink dogs.

Dungeon Master’s Guide 2. I am really high on this guide, which could have been a really useless piece of crap… or could have been useful by having stuff in it that should have been in the original DMG. Instead, it’s a great supplement. It’s not as heavy on paragon-level attributes as it advertises, but that’s really fine with me – I think the other books that are out there do a good job of that, particularly if you choose to play in one of DnD’s pre-created gameworlds (more on one of them in a bit).

What the DMG II adds more than anything else is a really, really nice blueprint for adding some heavy RPG elements to your game. DnD has long been the last bastion of fantasy tactical wargaming before you dip over the edge and into Warhammer. It’s decidedly to the RP side of that but at the same time it’s built nowhere near, say, a White Wolf game of Fantasy Monster: The Adjective. 4E is deceptive in this regard: mechanically, it’s a lot more complicated for some classes and only a little bit less for others. Also, virtually all the powers, skills, abilities, magic items, and so on are designed to have some sort of direct application in combat.

The deceptive bit is that this “mechanics are everything” dynamic actually makes it *easier* to roleplay a character of your choice. First of all, there are lots and lots of decisions to make at every level for every character. No longer is your character development limited to a feat every other level, a few spells, and maybe a STR gain at 6th and 11th. Now, every time you gain a level, you literally add a new wrinkle to what your character does on the battlefield.

But that’s not all or anywhere near close to all. By moving all those BS skills like Cooking or Singing off the character sheet, you actually free your players to come up with their own backgrounds to a much greater extent. Was the character a master pastry chef (note: ridiculous example used for effect) before embarking on a life as a bard? Well, you just note it in the background and roleplay it. In 3rd, you had to spend skill points on Cooking: Pastry, skill points that would not be spent on things like Spot Hidden or Appraise and which would therefore make your character less aWesome than a guy who concentrated on nothing but combat.

The DMG2 expands on this by giving the intermediate GM a set of questions he can ask of all new characters as they’re being created. This allows the players to create a fairly complicated backstory without having to do a bunch of homework and in turn allows the DM to get something that he and the rest of the party can work with to generate a campaign around. This was, of course, possible before but it’s nice to see a game company codify things. Additionally, it provides a means of literally allowing the entire party to help provide flavor, more input in the world than “I choose to fight the goblins”, and to stay in the game when the plot calls for the party to split up or for some backstory or a major decision to be explored via a dream sequence.

Open Grave. I am not the biggest fan of zombie horror movies, or really horror movies in general. I guess that as far as horror movies go, I like zombie movies more than most other horror sub-genres. That being said, I *love* Shaun of the Dead and the video game Left For Dead and, let’s face it, what would be cooler than moving that meme into a fantasy roleplaying session (note: if you are not a DnD player I forbid you to answer this question)? Again, you could always do it without an official supplement, but Wizards of the Coast make it much, much easier with this bad boy.

Also, there are several mini-adventures in here – always helpful if you, like me, prefer pulling a campaign out of their own rear end rather than meticulously plan out every single dungeon yourself  – and lots and lots of new undead monsters, including several different kinds of brains in assorted jars, disembodied hands if you want to go with an Addams Family theme, and lots more kinds of zombies and ghouls and so on (MM1 and MM2 have plenty of “normal” undead, so the baddies in here tend to be a little creative). On top of that, there are all the elements to play a 28 Days Later style campaign with zombie-ism caused by infection, undead that sprint after you, and so on.

Dungeon Delve. This supplement actually serves several purposes. For me, it is a wonderful piece of insta-encounter that allows me to cover for when the party I am DMing does something that I did not anticipate in a big way. Boom! “You see an abandoned keep”. That buys me 2 or 3 hours, including some extra RPing I like to throw in, and might just allow me to buy enough time to close the session and spend the next week or two figuring out what to do with the PC choices.

It also helps with more or less the exact opposite situation: if you don’t really want to DM but just want to send a party on a quick, level-appropriate one-shot before the regular DM gets back from vacation or perhaps just to test out how some character designs will work in combat, this Delve‘s for you. You could theoretically take a party all the way from level 1 to 30 just by playing through this book. You’d have to fudge the XP a little bit and maybe hand out a few more magic items, but it could be done.

The third and perhaps most important thing that Delve does is plot out a whole bunch of sample encounters: 3 per level for a total of 90 in the book. You can read through this and get a great idea as to how to both set up an individual encounter that’s fun and challenging and also put together an entire day’s worth of matches. The dynamics of the encounter have changed a great deal from earlier versions. This book helps you to understand just *how* they’ve changed.

Eberron: The Campaign Guide and The Player’s Guide. Okay, I cheated on the last one because it’s two books. Since you really need both to run this gameworld, I still stand by it.

First, buying a pre-generated gameworld just plain saves time. There’s still a lot to learn about Eberron and you’d (eventually) do well to go out and buy all the 3.5 material that’s available for this world, but reading a couple hundred pages with pretty pictures and fancy graphs takes a whole heck of a lot less time than making everything up on your own. I know, I know, a lot of DMs do what they do precisely because they *get* to make up their own world, but here’s the thing: that’s really not your job as Dungeon Master. Your job as DM is to facilitate a good time through everyone involved. If that means having your party explore a detailed world because they’re all Storytellers, so be it. If that means getting into lots of combat because they’re all Slayers… well, that’s a perfectly legitmate reason to play as well. If you want to bring those Slayers out of their slaying shells and, you know, roleplay more and get into the milieu, the way to do it is not by forcing them to digest lots of world-related crap but to draw them in session by session.

Having a pre-genned world actually helps with this in that it allows you to take a step back and work more on the game-facilitation aspects of things. I know first-hand how tempting it is to just make your party play the game your way: after all, you’re the one who spent dozens of hours making that world and designing all those maps and creating all those world leaders, and now a bunch of jackoffs who couldn’t even create their own characters ahead of time want to sidestep your main plotline and just go break into houses??? ARGH. Anyway, the players aren’t hijacking things because they hate you, they’re trying to play the game their way. Using somebody else’s game world helps you to see that.

So… why Eberron and not Forgotten Realms? FR has pretty much become the generic gameworld DnD is based upon. That’s all well and good, and I guess if you are bringing older players back into the game, introducing Baldur’s Gate and Elminster and so on can help get them into it, but Eberron is just plain *different*. It’s a lot more Star Wars than the “points of light” system DnD calls its base. You’ve got individuals rather than races embracing good and evil, far-flung lands to explore, creative applications of magic that look a lot like technology (see: sending stones and the lightning rail), and lots of competing factions that can put together a really The Third Man kind of feel if you allow it to. There’s a good deal of Indiana Jones in this gameworld as well, not to mention The Maltese Falcon if you can think that way about an RPG. In its own way, it takes players just a little bit out of the genre without blowing up the game mechanics. And that, to me, is cool.