Murder in Baldurs Gate: reviewed

I’m going to take you back. Back to the interregnum. The time last year when 4e was being wound down, and the playtest for 5e was underway. It was a big transition for D&D, one that continues today. It was also a time when the D&D fan didn’t really know what to look for on the shelves. WotC experimented a bit, and this is one of those offerings.

It’s an adventure, for levels 1-3, and it’s set in Baldurs Gate in the Forgotten Realms. Now, I’m a real novice when it comes to all things Realmsian, but I’m led to believe that Baldurs Gate has a lot of traction in the wider hobby, what with those new fangled computer game things. This adventure is subtitled as being part of an ‘event’ called The Sundering. Not sure what that is, but like comics, it’s safe to assume there’s always some meta plot going on in the background, probably to allow for crossovers, into novels etc. so that’s fine. The intro says it’s set in the years following 1479, when the gods designate mortals to be their Chosen with a capital C.

It’s written by Ed Greenwood (Realms creator), Steve Winter (TSR alumni) and Matt Sernett (who I last saw writing for 4e) so there’s a spread of talent right there. Steve Winter ended up at Kobold Press who delivered the less than stellar Hoard of the Dragon Queen for 5e. Hmmm.

A word on format. The adventure itself is a 32pp magazine style offering. It’s accompanied by a 64pp city/campaign guide, and the whole shebang comes wrapped in a custom 4 panel, landscape, DMs screen, plus paper sleeve. I love that. It reminds me of the old school 1e adventures that came with the card covers that doubled as screens. Photos of all this below.

Plot wise, this is a murder story, and not a dungeon or hex crawl. It’s designed to be one where the DM is forced to improv along the way, and pursue factional agendas which the characters interact with throughout. It’s flagged up as experiential rather than a straight down the line mission. I’m down with all that, because it’s laid out early so there’s no surprises. Even the stats will need a DMs intervention, because this one is written with no edition in mind. The stats for 3.5, 4 and Next are available online to be plugged in. Even the number of foes is malleable. I’m not convinced that 4e especially will be well served by this approach, but we will see.

Ok, I’m excited by this set up, and the materials are enticing. I’ll set to spoilers next time out and let’s see if it lives up to its initial billing. Here are those shots.






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Hoard of the Dragon Queen reviewed: the final chapter

Ok, let’s round this sucker up. Ultimate spoilage. The Cult have made a somewhat unlikely alliance.

There’s this Cloud Giant, and he flies around in an ice castle powered by his dead wife’s spirit right? The Cult use his castle and hospitality to ferry the hoard to the Well of Souls so they can bring Tiamat back from Hell. There’s a pair of Red Wizards in tow also, and they… Well, I don’t know what they’re really doing there to be honest. Anyway, the castle has an army of ogres garrisoned there, they look after the ballistas and try to stay away from the vampire who patrols the place after dark. Oh yeah, there’s some Stone Giants too, but they don’t like the plan. And then there’s old Rezmir the half black dragon, who’s all tooled up and locked in her room sulking waiting to be murdered. She’ll have the last laugh though as her treasure somehow teleports away when she dies. Ha! Oh, and there’s a big white dragon guarding the hoard at the centre of the flying iceberg that castle is built on.

You read that right. Now, at this stage the only thing to do with this whole adventure is smile, and stop trying to take it too seriously. The authors didn’t. This is right up there with the best/worst of D&Ds crazy menageries like White Plume Mountain. Seriously, I hate/love it! It’s bonkers/brilliant. It makes zero sense. There’s a door that has DC 70 to open. Some walls disappear when you touch them just like in video games. There’s a chamber you can’t get to, but if you do you have to work hard to get inside a sarcophagus, and it’s empty. There’s a kitchen full of kobolds, and they are led by a griffon.

I’m barely scratching the surface of the madness you can find in this episode. And that’s not mentioning the bit before you get into the castle where you have to talk to the strange eyed villagers and their incorrectly numbered map. You might get a free Wyvern flight out if it though.

And nothing you do actually matters. This castle has one destination, no matter what approach you take. It doesn’t work. Nothing you can do. Actually maybe that’s for the best, because if you’ve been busy keeping tabs on the regional map during this epic overland crawl you’ll find that the proper destination for the adventures conclusion is a stones throw from it’s starting point. Yep, a massive circuitous route, almost entirely back to day one. Brilliant!

As you can probably tell, I’ve started to lose the plot a little by now (and I’m not alone in that). Sorry.

Let’s sum up.

This series of adventures tries ever so hard to not make the mistakes of 4e adventures. It does that by being hard to follow, vague about its contents, and over emphasises the possibilities of non-combat without backing that up with anything solid. It’s an epic plot, albeit one that could be said in one sentence, and then it gets smudged together with faceless factions and ludicrous situations. It’s been edited in the dark by someone who had more pressing things to concentrate on. It’s been packaged beyond its station. It’s simply not cohesive, coherent or competent in any form.

For the flagship game in the hobby, as it’s opening salvo from the ‘story first’ cannon, it’s a wet, rushed, wobbly, underachieving squib of a product.

If you get quality gaming out of this, bow down before your DM and thank them from the bottom of you heart. They spent good cash on this, and through the power of imagination, improvisation, and sheer bloody mindedness, they delivered you a great experience, in spite of the shoddy tool they had to work with.

Shameful. And it’s only part 1 of 2.


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My favourite RPG

For me there can only be one answer. Drum roll please. It’s…


Not really.

It’s Dungeons & Dragons.

They say your first love is the one you’ll never forget. And so it is. From the earliest experiences of opening up the biggest rulebook to a game I’d ever seen, to finding out there was no board, no winner, and no end, I was hooked. Even then I knew it was bonkers, that it made little sense at best even when it was trying so hard to be accurate. But it was the only game in town. The other choices were Tunnels & Trolls (I was way too serious for that), Traveller (couldn’t get a handle on it) or Runequest (same). AD&D made it easy, because that was what everybody had played, and it was in stores, and even normals had heard of it.

I loved D&D.

She became my best friend and confidant. She was a little older than me, and sophisticated to my eyes, even though I already knew some people thought she was a bit silly. Gauche even.

Over the decades she had always been there, sometimes only at high days and holidays, where I politely enquired after her health and asked what she was up to. Sometimes she looked a bit sad, a bit down at heel. I hugely regret leaving her behind in the 90s to take a gap decade. Sure, I travelled, I met interesting new things, and some of them turned into extended relationships, but they never lasted. I knew I was searching, questing, and I never thought to look so close to home, to that crazy, sassy, clever girl I’d put back on my shelf in 88.

It took the end of a millennia for me to realise what I’d missed. I saw her then, and she had never looked better. She had a new style, but it was still her underneath all that modern glamour. She spoke sense, and warmth, and she had ideas. She was an inspiration, and I fell into her embrace, abandoning all others.

It was a whirl. I’d never felt so alive. I was crazed with creativity, working all hours on little creations to make her happy. I wasn’t alone. She had so many suitors. But she always looked at me with her own special way, one meant only for me, and I knew that.

They say things have to change, that nothing can stay the same for ever, and they’re right. But when she changed, so did I. I was ready. She got a bit intense for a while and started being more picky and demanding of her friends. I was fine with that. Screw them. I had to defend her honour many times, sometimes making an idiot of myself in the process. I didn’t care. She was worth it.

Now she and I have that kind of relationship where we can just exist together in comfortable silence. We don’t have to try so hard. We still have amazing times, and always will, but usually we just sit and smile, and reminisce. We decided it a long time ago, we were going to grow very old, and very happy together.

My name is Baz, and I fucking love Dungeons & Dragons.


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Hoard of the Dragon Queen review: episode 7, Hunting Lodge

Here’s another kinda-sorta standalone episode. The party could apparently completely skip this part if they wished, and skirt around it giving chase to the proper baddies who have already moved on to the finale. I think this is somewhat unlikely though. Mainly because there’s no way of knowing that the villains have already gone, and there’s no map support for the environs. This despite the text referring to ‘area 1′ which I certainly can’t see anywhere. 

The party arrive with a pop through the portal and find themselves looking at a Hunting Lodge high in the forested mountains. Who wouldn’t want to at least check that out? There’s a mention of extra portals nearby, but they can’t be used, so I’d forget about even mentioning them if you want to get on with the game. You know what players are like. The Lodge is the home of (yet) another sub-boss for the Cult of the Dragon, this time Tanis the White. We haven’t been introduced to her as yet, so no foreshadowing or anything clever like that. The introduction mentions yet another Cult notable called Varram, and the possibility of rivalries, but he’s nowhere to be found.

The Lodge could be approached as a kill and clear, or as a chance to negotiate and build alliances. Frankly I suspect the former is going to get more table time. The concierge of the Lodge is a massive four armed hunter, a troll no less, called Trespin. He’s a demon worshipper, suitably bloodthirsty, and rather hungry for battle.  He wears a soaked set of furs all the time, protecting him from fire attacks you see. Looks like he really is ready for a scrap. So much for diplomacy then.

On the other hand, inside the Lodge proper, there’s only Tanis in residence as a senior member of the cult, and all servants are expecting only friendly visitors. I guess if Trespin is dealt with fairly quietly, then there’s still a chance for the party to smile and wave their way past a lot of trouble. Actually no, there are a pair of gargoyles that attack as soon as they see drawn weapons just inside the front door. Essentially, it’s going to be a DM call as to whether or not the Lodge reacts to the parties entrance with fear, respect or hostility.

The Lodge is laid out over two floors and a basement, all keyed and inhabited by a variety of foes and challenges. Of interest, there’s some prisoners that can be found which will give the party pause. There’s no right or wrong way to deal with them, but they will be difficult to ignore, no matter the alignments in play. By the way, area 12 is unlabelled (sigh) but it’s likely to be in the top right corner of the map. There’s 24 kobolds in there so good luck tracking initiative and HP if it does all kick off.

It turns out that there are two main things for the party to learn from this episode. First, where to go next, which given the manner of their arrival here, isn’t obvious even when they learn the name of the place. Second, to get some handy ID in the form of a banner which is found in the linen room (where else?). I don’t think either of these are particularly obvious, so as DM I’d advise listening to the players closely to ensure they have a sense of plot direction at this point.

All of this can be learned from today’s Cultist in Residence, the aforementioned Tanis the White. She’s got bodyguards, dangerous stats of her own (level 9 wisdom spellcaster. They never refer to class in the statblock), and home advantage. Despite all this, the assumption is that she sees the party as potential allies (not burglars), and she waits in her office for them to come on up and parley. Again, at the risk of banging on about typical party approaches, I suspect the first thing she sees of them is when they kick in the door and seize a surprise round. I could be wrong. In fairness, she doesn’t fight to the death, and the text gives the DM plenty of info she’s more than willing to dump having surrendered, been bribed, or what have you.

I actually quite like this episode, even if the assumptions therein probably don’t line up with reality. There’s interest in most rooms, and some loot too. I think it’s unlikely every nook and cranny will be explored, but it’s a decent place for a rest up. Although presented as a side quest, or at least as optional, it offers the best chance yet to really get a grip on the cult’s plan’s and movements. It would be a shame to miss out on that. As is sadly typical by now, the poor relationship of map to text lets down the utility value of the episode. Nothing fatal, but still, an irritation.

Next: The Final Episode! Castle in the Clouds.


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French letters

A while back I wrote an adventure supplement for 13th Age. It was a great experience, and people have been very generous in their feedback.

Turns out there’s a sizeable 13th Age community in France, and they’ve done me the enormous honour of asking if they could translate and promote my work.

“Oui d’accord!”

And here it is:

Which makes me an internationally published author. Or, smug in two languages. Your choice!

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Hoard of the Dragon Queen Review; Episode 6, Castle Naerytar

This is a big section, clocking in at 18 pages. It’s essentially a stand alone episode, as most of them are. The ‘in’ is that this is where the baddies are putting all the loot they’ve gathered (for now), so finally the party can take some kind of proactive action to take the fight to the Cult. The ‘out’ I’ll come to later.

This castle is sat in the middle of the Mere of Dead Men, and it’s seen better days. There’s some history behind the crumbling pile, and it’s all evocative enough, and explains why there’s an old observatory on the top of it. Running around in this episode are at least three factions of bad guys; the Cult of the Dragon, some indentured Bullywugs, and a meek tribe of Lizardfolk. There’s also a big old black dragon lurking around, though mainly in the background. These factions all have bonds, but they’re straining. Now, reviewers tend to love stuff like this. It stops the episode being static, and drives events on spurring parties to action. While that’s all true, it also serves to make the sessions that bit trickier for the DM to handle. Rather than taking things one discreet location at a time, you have to allow for movement, timing and agendas. It’s good to see it allowed for, expected even, but don’t be surprised if a lot of that good reading never really gets the spotlight time it deserves. 

Here’s an issue. Unless I’ve missed it, and I’ve gone back through the text a few times, they don’t tell you where to find the chief NPC in the castle. The other sub-chief is listed. And then there are two big-chiefs that don’t have a home but we are told will run for safety during a confrontation. All that prep text, and all that conditional advice, and it’s let down by the basics of placing the obstacles in the right places in the text. Where are they?!

Also, and this is just odd, rather than a difficulty, only some of the locations get boxed text, seemingly at random. The boxes simply stop half way through the ground floor locations. Again I have to ask, was the editor asleep on the job? Some of these parts would really benefit from a box out, yet they’re strangely abandoned. Odd. 

I say all this because the Castle’s three levels and one dungeon are laid out in the standard keyed manner, and in my experience, that can mean parties adopting a room by room clearance approach. The Castle gives them lots to explore, and some interesting scenes to chew on. Interestingly, not everything is immediately hostile, and it’s largely a judgement call as to when the bad guys wake up to the presence of the good guys and do something about it. There will come a time when there’s a running battle through the castle (again, easy to say, trickier in practice) and as soon as that happens the rest of the castle will be left behind. That’s the ‘out’ I mentioned up-post, the party will head through a portal at the finale which draws a line under their previous movements.

Good stuff? There’s actually loads. The castle is nicely put together and feels like a living. breathing environment that has been affected by the inhabitants presence. Some of the foes are classic D&D fare, and that’s what you want from an adventure. There’s allowance made for various ways to approach this situation, even if the finale is inevitable in a sense. And the maps actually line up with the text for once (the first one is misaligned though, it needs rotating 90 degrees).

Bad stuff? The lack of definition of major NPCs is becoming an ongoing annoyance now. Despite all the good work on factions and background, it’s wasted if you never encounter it. Also, I think this is going to be a serious challenge for any party, purely from an attrition point of view. This is a big location, and it needs solving in one go. The party are likely to take a battering and there are not many places of safety to hole up. With the magic item famine (I mean really? there’s been a handful of potions and we are five levels in at this point) the odds are stacked against the party.

Overall: my interest has been grabbed back to this adventure after a couple of dodgy opening episodes. This seems to be the meat of the adventure, and there’s loads to do here. Without an actual run through I’m just estimating the episode’s quality if I’m honest. Would I run it? Yes. I’d like to see how it goes. That’s a positive.

Next: Episode 7, Hunting Lodge


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Rise of the Runelords stopped in its tracks

It’s been a long ride, but Valeros, Seelah and Harsk finally reached the ultimate encounter and put the villain to the sword. Well, I say sword, really it was a runeforged punch backed up by a pair of charmed red dragons, a swipe spell and a bunch of fervent praying for blessings. 20 on 5d10? Bring it.


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