Monthly Archives: November 2016
- Best of DMs Guild
- Campaign Builder
- City Maps
- Critters DnD Articles
- Dungeon Maps
- Friday Fight Night
- Friday Fight Night
- Friday Fight Night
- Monday Maps
- Publishing An Adventure
- Random Lists
- RPG Blog Carnival
- Stat Boost
- World Building
Something I’ve said quite often on Twitter and the forums I visit is that 5th edition feels a lot like 2nd edition to me – not in the way the mechanics work, but in the way it feels to play. There’s less emphasis on having a rule for every situation than there was in the later days of 3rd edition (and certainly in 4th) – instead, the focus seems to be on keeping the game moving, on everybody having fun and telling cool stories, and in allowing yourself to embrace weird, truly fantastic things.
[That image is an affiliate link. Don’t click it if you hate them.]
Volo’s Guide To Monsters is a book I’ve looked forward to since it was announced, precisely because it’s a throwback to 2nd edition. The Volo’s Guides of 2nd edition were some of my favourite books when I first started playing D&D, even though they didn’t contain any rules information. They were pure fluff1, nothing but world-building, guidebooks to parts of the Forgotten Realms written by a character who existed inside the realms and annotated by Elminster himself, and I loved them. (I’ve talked previously about how much I miss the giant campaign setting boxed sets TSR used to produce, and the Volo’s Guides occupy the same space in my love for this game.)
The other thing I’ve always loved – something I suspect any GM who chooses D&D over other systems loves – is monsters. I own pretty much every book of monsters produced for both 2nd and 3rd editions – even when the 3rd edition books started being filled with monsters nobody would ever actually use, I still bought them – but I always wanted something less focused on numbers and abilities and more akin to the Ecology of… articles that used to show up in Dragon Magazine. Something that lay somewhere between the Volo’s Guides and a monster manual. Something like Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, but for D&D.
And now, finally, after 22 years of playing D&D, WoTC have obliged me.
As you may be able to tell, I’ve been looking forward to this book for a very long time.
So, how is it? I’ll cut right to the chase – I love it. It’s not perfect, but then that’s more due to my own preferences for what could have been included than for any other reason. It’s certainly a very high-quality book, leagues above the majority of the splat books that Wizards produced for 3rd edition.
The joy of this is that it’s a book you can sit down and read – it’s not just a collection of numbers and tables. There’s charm and heart to it, and that makes it fun. Elminster’s annotations and notes are always entertaining (“VOLO’S GUIDE TO FLEEING ANGRY MOBS” is a hilarious little detail that I hope one day becomes a real thing, as ridiculous as it would be), and there’s a real sense that the writers were passionate about this project.
I’ve already mentioned the Ecology of… articles from Dragon Magazine. They were mostly fluff, but they were always a great source of inspiration for me and helped me to build some really fun, memorable encounters and adventures. Once Dragon Magazine went away Wizards published a few more of these articles online – and third party publishers started to produce similar content in their splat books – but they soon dried up, and I was sad to see them go. (As, it seems, plenty of other people were, too – ‘Ecology of…’ posts pop up on r/dndbehindthescreen and r/UnearthedArcana fairly regularly).
The first chapter of Volo’s Guide is essentially a return to those articles, though with a little more emphasis on interesting ways to use the monsters in combat. This is what I initially thought would be my favourite chapter in the book. It’s just a shame that there are only 9 monsters talked about in this chapter, though of course that makes sense – they have to save space here so they can pack the rest of the book with more monsters. The selection is decent too – there are iconic D&D monsters like beholders, mind flayers, and kobolds, as well as a couple of interesting choices in Yuan-ti (which are criminally underused) and hags. (And, while the section on kobolds is good, one of the most useful things you should read if you’re planning to use them is Tucker’s Kobolds).
One of the most exciting parts of this chapter for me was the entry on the mind flayers’ Nautiloids – the ships they use to navigate the astral plane. These are very cool, and with them and the mention of githyanki in the book’s introduction, I’m hoping we’re going to see Planescape get some more attention soon.
The rest are a little disappointing, though; Orcs and Goblinoids have been written about hundreds of times, and the chapter doesn’t really do anything new or exciting with them (though the section on Orc superstitions is interesting). And adding Giants seems a little redundant when Storm King’s Thunder just gave us so much stuff about Giants, though I suppose it makes sense to include them here from a cross-marketing perspective. (That said, I thought the section on giant language was fascinating. It may not be immediately useful in your game, but it’s the real meaty kind of fluff that I love, even though I encourage people not to go to this level of detail in their own worldbuilding unless absolutely necessary). I am glad that they didn’t do anything on dragons – as fun as it would be, do we really need more information about them at this point? – and (as I mentioned) they tease that they’ll include githyanki in a future release, but I want them now. NOW, DAMN IT.
Something that will definitely be useful in your game, though? Let’s take a second – just a second – to talk about the maps peppered throughout this book. They’re great, and I really didn’t expect to find anything like them here. Some of the lair designs are really interesting and give a nice visual reinforcement of the ideas being talked about in the text – plus, they’re just gorgeous. If you’ve looked at The Wheelhouse, you’ll be able to see that this is the kind of product I really like – it’s not just a bunch of monsters and their stats, but a toolbox to make your game better.
The races chapter is good and gives some interesting new options. Aasimar bore me, to be quite frank, but given that Tieflings were in the PHB it makes sense to include a good-themed alternative here. It’s nice to see Kenku getting some love again (though I’m not sure about the specification that they lack any and all creativity – somebody roleplaying that with any kind of seriousness is going to butt heads with the party the second they get in trouble), and I really enjoyed the Firbolgs and Tabaxi (the latter of which are a throwback to Maztica, a setting I used to love). Tritons are an odd choice, but it might be a nice option for anybody wanting to run an entirely underwater campaign. And, like with Aasimar, I’m bored of Lizardfolk by this point.
This post is getting long, so I won’t go into too much detail about the monsters listed in the final chapter – really you should buy the book and explore them for yourselves. Instead, I’ll just give you my top 5 [or 6, whatever], with as little explanation and context as I can get away with, because I’m a dick like that:
- Banderhobb – Between this and the section on hags, you could build an awesome adventure. In fact, I might do just that. Watch this space.
- Boggles and Darklings – The feywild has so much potential for weirdness and darkness. It’s nice to see some of that coming out here.
- Deep Scion – These things are weird horrific, and I love them. I don’t actually know if they’re from an older edition or not, but I don’t care. I’m using them as soon as possible.
- Neogi – Holy shit, Spelljammer is getting some love now? You have no idea how excited that makes me. If you don’t know what Spelljammer is, you need to Google it right now. It’s batshit crazy, and it’s one of my all-time favourite D&D settings. It’s seriously weird. It’s ’90s weird.
- Tlincalli – More Maztica critters getting me excited. Scorpion folk are a weird concept, and one that I’ve always loved (one of the first races I ever created – in about 1995, when I was 9 years old – was essentially a were-scorpion that could also take a hybrid form. It was fun, and that character died in a very messy way).
Honourable mentions: It’s nice to see Barghests, Cave Fishers, and Elder Brains here. I really felt their absence in the Monster Manual, and though they were printed in some of the adventures Wizards have published it’s nice to have them all in one place.
There’s a lot to like about this book. You may have noticed that I get really excited every time WoTC bring back something from an old setting; some of my best memories of playing D&D come from Spelljammer, Dark Sun, and Planescape campaigns, and it’s great to see that those properties haven’t been forgotten. The relaunch of Ravenloft seems to be going well, so I hope that we’ll start to see some of the weirder, more esoteric settings getting a supplement or two thrown their way in the future.
You can buy Volo’s Guide To Monsters from Amazon, or direct from your favourite local gaming store.
Footnotes [er…footnote. Singular.]
1 For those who don’t know, “fluff” isn’t me making any kind of value judgement. It’s a way of differentiating rules content (“crunch”) from world-building/lore/etc. (“fluff”). Similarly, “splat books” just means source books that exist as optional material that isn’t part of the core rules.
This one’s a little late. I drew it while at work and had to wait to get home to then re-draw it properly so I could scan it. But it’s a bonus double map – top-down and side elevation – so hopefully it’s worth the wait!
In the deepest parts of the Glassmine, a terrible rumble fills the air as the roof collapses onto a new dig. As the rocks crash down the ground opens up, sending the miners plunging into the cavern below.
The rescue party found the broken remains of the missing miners, along with a ruined shrine to a long-forgotten god. The network of connecting passageways and chambers has only been cursorily explored; more openings may yet be found.
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Not gold, but obsidian. The Glassmine is an old, sprawling mine a day or two north-east of Standing Rock. The obsidian – shadow glass – mined there is traded all across the world, a valued spell component and a substance in high demand by weapon smiths far and wide.
This is the newest expansion, the deepest part of the mine. New tunnels break into vast underground caverns that must be carefully examined for stability before further digging can take place.
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Revered as he is – as any living deity would be – the Anointed is as much as prisoner as anything else. Confined to his chambers above the basilica, he may only emerge on holy days and when duty demands it. At all other times he is sealed in the rooms above, with only his mute servers – slaves pulled from among the congregation at birth, a tithe to the church – as companions. No stairs or windows provide an exit from his suite – only the Elevator, which lowers him on his throne to the top of the dais below.
I guess this is kind of a cheat, because the ‘elevator’ prompt isn’t really obvious when you look at the map. I’m going to spend some time mapping out the upper floor of the basilica as well, but I wanted to get this up ASAP (given it’s already 2 hours into Saturday here, and this was meant to be up on Friday. Oops).
I’m getting happier with the quality of the maps as far as actual scanning and cleaning up goes, though I’m still experimenting with ways to place a grid on the map that I’m happy with (you’ll notice there’s no grid on this one). It’s nice to see some improvement already, though, now that I’m a third of the way through the challenge.
I am, of course, by no means the first person to decide to spend my time writing about D&D/RPGs in general. There are tons of sites out there, and while many of them contain a lot of the same stuff, there are a few that you can’t afford to ignore if you want to run better games.
The Angry GM offers “RPG advice with an attitude”. He hates players, and he will tell you exactly why you’re playing your game wrong. And he’ll do it brilliantly.
It’s well worth your time to read absolutely everything on his site (which he updates regularly), even if it’s not specific to the system that you play. I’ve lost count of the number of articles I’ve read on this site that have completely changed my game for the better. Most recently I worked through his lengthy posts on building monsters in 5th edition, and my understanding of the way 5e works grew an astonishing amount. I can’t recommend him enough.
I’ve been subscribed to John Four’s RPG Tips email lists for what feels like forever now, and it’s invaluable. How he keeps up with sending daily newsletters I will never know, but they’re always packed with useful tips and ideas. He has some really great insights into the ways RPGs work, and he has some great tips for taking the pressure off when it comes time to run a game. He was the first person to introduce me to the 5 room dungeon format, and most recently his idea of encounter triangles has been making my brain work overtime. Subscribe, read, enjoy.
The idea behind the Dozen is simple – each update provides GMs with a d12 list of awesome ideas. It’s system agnostic, and it’s great. If you love random tables, you’ll love this – and if you don’t you’ll still love the amazing ideas he comes up with. there’s a lot of content here – the blog has been going for years – but it’s worth wading through. And if you’d rather pick from just the best of the best, he sells a compilation book on LuLu and just successfully kickstarted a weird underworld campaign setting that looks very cool.
Courtney Campbell’s blog is a constant source of inspiration to me. Campbell’s basic thesis is that the stuff in the books isn’t good enough – that we can do much, much better, and that he can show us how to do it. And he’s right. The post have dried up a little over the past month or so – I’m not sure what’s going on there – but there’s still a huge amount of content to dig through, both D&D-related and otherwise (he posts about Shadowrun a lot, too). Definitely check it out.
Last but no means least – my absolute favourite blog. This is what I aspire too, though I’m nowhere near yet. Here you’ll find incredible creatures, awesome encounters, and beautiful locations that it feels criminal not to be paying for. Whenever I’m looking for inspiration, this is the first place I go to. I don’t want to spoil anything by linking to specific posts – just click over there, and start reading. You’ll appreciate it.
This is only a short list of some of the blogs I get the most out of. I also spend a lot of time on a couple of D&D-related subreddits – r/dndbehindthescreen and r/UnearthedArcana are my favourites – and the Cartographer’s Guild forums are a must-read if you’re interested in making maps (or if you just like to look at beautiful maps, too).
If there’s anything you think I should be reading, leave a comment and let me know. And drop a link to your own blogs too so I can come and say hi.
The beaches of the northern deserts are cracked, over-baked clay. On bright days they glitter like jewels, the wet salt deposits left by the waves encrusting their shores. In places like this the land is worked to form raised plateaus where the salt can be gathered together into tall white pyramids, ready to be cut and refined and shipped inland for a hefty profit.
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The humourless man behind the counter slides the key through the bars towards you.
“A pleasure as always,” he says, though his face gives no hint of a smile. He moves something below the counter and the heavy doors ahead of you swing smoothly open, ghosting along the deep carpet.
You know that he will be the first challenge, when the day comes. Your source says all the keys are stored in a small room beyond his cage, in a section of the bank not linked to anywhere you have been allowed to visit on any of your previous visits. Not that you have been allowed to visit anywhere beyond this room and the next.
The doors close behind you, while those at the other end of the corridor are already swinging open. The clerk watches you through the bars to the left of the now-closed doors, his eyes never leaving you until you are out of the airlock corridor and have stepped into the main vault.
As the second set of doors closes, sealing you in, the manager is already strolling towards you, hand extended.
“As always, a pleasure,” he says, shaking your hand. “This way, please.”
He leads you along the vault. All around you the walls are lined with small double-locked panels, each one labelled with brass plaques inscribed with identifying numbers and runes of warding.
“Here we are,” he says, stopping half way up the room. From his pocket he produces a key, much like the one you were handed outside, and inserts it into one of the locks on the panel. His eyebrows rise as he looks toward you, waiting.
There’s a crackle of magic lancing across your fingers as you slot the key into its hole. The hairs along your arm spring to attention, though no harm comes to you. This isn’t the first time you’ve wondered what would happen were you to insert the wrong key.
This will be the second challenge. The third will be finding out where the manager stores his keys – and how he gets in to this room without passing through the foyer.
You both turn your keys, and the panel swings away to reveal the small cloth bag inside. You scoop it up, and the manager slots the panel back in place almost immediately. Without a word he turns and leads you to one of the nondescript doors set into the outside walls of the vault. It opens into a square room, richly furnished and holding a heavy desk and a comfortable armchair.
“As always, I will be ready when you are done,” he says, ushering you in and closing the door behind you.
You set the bag of holding on the table, already starting a mental countdown, ticking of a suitable amount of time before you can leave without arousing suspicion.
This will be the hardest part. All the treasures of the bank are stored in bags of holding – which means their contents can only be retrieved if you already know exactly what they hold.
Even if you can pull off the robbery, empty the whole place – how are you going to get paid?
Something I learned while writing The Wheelhouse was that I really enjoy designing high security facilities. The challenges of keeping people – or things – locked up in a world where people can teleport at will is an interesting one.
Here, then, is a bank for a magical world. There’s no need for a giant vault full of gold, guarded by dragons and traps. Instead, a hall of safety deposit boxes, each containing a bag of holding, is all that is needed to protect the treasures of the richest in society. Minimal staff mean that security breaches can be minimised; one clerk, who only has access to the barred-in main counter, which holds the levers that open the doors at either end of the airlock corridor; someone to work in the key office, who hands off the keys to the clerk, who gives them to the customers; the banker himself, who lives in his chambers in the western side of the bank, and accesses the vault through a door that only he knows how to open; and a team of powerful mages in the large study/workshop in the south-east part of the bank, creating more bags of holding, overseeing the wards on the deposit boxes, and ensuring that nobody accesses the vault through magical means.