Ready Player One

Just finished this. Reviews are ten a penny everywhere, so I’ll simply say this. If you’re a gamer, of a certain vintage, then this will suit you down to the ground. I really enjoyed it. Get it before Hollywood makes it all wrong.

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The decent writer in the house delivers the goods

About five or six years ago I convinced the missus to try this old role playing game thing I’d been banging on about forever. She gave it a go, and played a brilliant PC for four years. She’s been “too busy” to play since then because she’s been busy writing a book. And now it’s done, and it’s apparently bloomin good (I wouldn’t know. I’m not allowed to read it in case I pick apart all the tropes. As if!)

So if you like fantasy adventure, from a fresh faced and hungry author (who knows her Fireball from her Hold Person) then you could do worse than point your browser and wallet in this direction.

Claire says thanks. As do I.


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Setting out a new stall for 2015

I’m full of good intentions, though mindful that real life has a tendency to get in the way of those. There are a few things I’d like to achieve for the coming year, so I’ll set them down now so I can at least get them out of my head and onto a screen.

D&D. Always my fallback position, but I’d like to get something going with 5e this year. I’m very tempted to stick to the three core books and cook up a homebrew campaign. I realise that’s the default set up for many, but I’ve always been attracted to published stuff in the past. Doing my own thing will scratch a creative itch, and save me a few quid too.

For that to really work I’ll need to get the gaming gang back together in earnest. We’ve become too distracted by other one shots in recent months to get a regular game in, but with 5e in particular, I think we could pull a campaign together.

Playing. G+ seems to be the place to try things out as a player.min recent times I’ve had a go at Delta Green and Numenera. I think I’d like to do more, as its low on investment and high on output. I can’t shake the feeling that it might be exactly the right format for something Gumshoe, and I’m glancing at Eternal Lies for Trail as I type.

One shots. I’m already signed up for the Seven Hills Con in April, and that will be here before I know it. The theme this year is ‘Steel’ and I’m tentatively thinking of a Red Steel game to run. Also, I’m pretty sure I’m going to get some Club action in, or possibly some pub meets, and they’ll provide the impetus for some scenario writing too.

Speaking of writing, I still have a few columns for UK Roleplayers in my mental pipeline. These are always well received, and I love having them done and up on the site. By their very nature they’re about nostalgia and reminiscence, but I think I can broaden the scope a little to more current projects.

Where I might do less is posting on fora. RPGnet has stopped being a must read for me for a while now. I think the posters on there are (like policemen) getting younger, and I don’t follow the same styles and ideals as they do. Even UKRP, which I’m a huge fan of, is sometimes a bit of a one way street. I put quality time into posting, and I think it might be more fruitfully spent being creative on actual gaming content. Dunno.

Reviews. I’m blessed in that people are sending me more and more stuff for review (I’ve got about five products in the pile right now) It’s a dilemma at times though. If it’s something I’m not massively interested by (or impressed by) then I don’t want to post negative comments just out of a sense of completeness. I’d rather say nothing. On the other hand, when it’s good stuff, then I like to think I can put together a good case for it, and my reviews are always the most visited part of the blog. Either way, they can be a real time sink. So, you tell me, reviews, or not reviews?

Art. If painting minis counts (and I think it does) then I’ll get some of that done. My Island of Blood set is coming along, and if I get free time, I’ll set about it again. Actual drawing though? I’d like to do more, and illustrating scenarios is the most likely spur to that.

Publishing. I’ve messed around with some zine stuff recently, and really enjoyed that. Perhaps I’ll dig around in the archives and polish up some stuff for printing. Treehouse Annual? A scenario compilation?

So loads of possibilities, and posting this is step one. Work and family demands are always pressing, but gaming is my passion, and that’s where I’d like to get more done. So I will.


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Dungeon Masters Guide: Chapter by Chapter

Now that’s done, here’s the individual chapters all linked in one place. Let me know how it went for you.

Chapter 1:

Chapter 2:

Chapter 3:

Chapter 4:

Chapter 5:

Chapter 6:

Chapter 7:

Chapter 8:

Chapter 9:

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DMG Reviewed: Hackers Guide, and the conclusion

Chapter 9, the final chapter, and it’s time to tear up the rules and reassemble them in a manner of your choosing. This is where all the options reside for your 5e campaign settings (with a small s). There’s quite a few. Here’s the list:

Proficiency dice
Skill variants
Hero points
Honor and Sanity
Fear and Horror
Alien Technology
Plot points
Massive damage

That’s quite a list. Some of the options are very obvious to be honest. For example healing and rests. Simply changing the timing and durations of these takes you from Epic to Gritty, and you don’t have to be a games developer to work that out. On the other hand there’s some weird stuff, like Speed Factors for initiative, which is up there with Facing for sheer who the heck asked for that? And then there’s the little surprises, like Plot Points which are a pretty modern device to see in D&D, and Trait Proficiency, which basically turns the game into Fate. Well, mostly, but it’s still a big step for this traddest of trad games.

There’s definitely some things I’d use from this menu, and some of them I saw back in early playtests. Other things are mutually exclusive (strangely the sanity rules don’t mix with the fear and horror rules), or a bit out there for regular campaigns (alien tech anyone?). This isn’t the kind of thing I imagined back when the designers were talking about a modular approach where fans of every edition could sit next to each other and play the same game happily. It could never have been that, it was an impossible goal. It does give the DM some levers, and if used will absolutely colour their campaign. But let’s not kid ourselves, these are optional hacks, not replaceable modules.


For the inveterate tinkerers there’s now a meaty section devoted to custom building your own 5e content. Without any news on an OGL or fan policy, this is largely for the home DM or more likely the person with the collection of old stuff they want to convert. This gives us the maths behind monster creation. Does it work? Don’t know, I don’t have the time or inclination to try it out to be honest, and with all the monster manuals I have to hand, I doubt I ever will. Similarly with magic items. Given that this very book contains hundreds of the buggers, I can’t see any pressing need for me to add to 40 years of D&D content. Same with classes, backgrounds and races, for similar reasons. Look, it’s all there and it appears to go into some depth if that’s the sort of thing you like. Bet you liked the crafting stuff from earlier too right?

And that’s it! Almost. Just a few appendices to go.

Which is exactly where they manage to take book that had started great and then been slowly downgrading to merely good over its course, and make it awesome. Here’s why.

This book has been like a chat with a DM mentor for the past 300 pages. Often it’s been a bit scholarly, and sometimes maddeningly vague. It’s given us loads of further reading, and told us not to worry about anything except the story. It’s had lots of tables, but hasn’t shown us what they can do. Finally, in the appendices, we get the bits that make the whole game work. For starters, random dungeons. When these appeared in 1e, I tried and tried to make them work, never could. These tables do work, and they produce actual maps, that make sense, that you can play with. And they’re a little game themselves for the lonely DM. Such fun. It’s not just there to fill a sheet of graph paper either. It gives you all the things to stock the place with. Essentially, it takes all the starting advice from Chapter 5 and goes bigger (monster motivations) and smaller (contents of a container) at the same time.

Appendix B pulls a similar trick, except this time it makes your previous purchase of the Monster Manual entirely worth while. These are the lists by terrain type, and by challenge rating. Now you know what to do with all those beasts, and where to find them. This was a shocking omission from the MM, but seeing it here, it all makes some sense now. It’s the right place.

Speaking of which, Appendix C gives you 9 unkeyed maps, of various generic locales. For the harried DM these are gold dust. Yes, the Internet is full of amateur efforts (and strangely this DMG makes zero reference to the online world) but these are the real business. Useful, and bound to appear in a lot of home grown campaigns.

Lastly (excepting an index) Appendix D is a sibling to the original Appendix N from AD&D, the inspirational reading list. It’s only a page, and although I don’t recognise many of the titles, the ones I do see, I can’t help but agree with. You see, since the original DMG we’ve had near 40 years of GMimg advice, and it’s become something of a well documented art by now. I don’t think this DMG will ever turn a poor DM into a good one (you need the 4e version for that) but at least it knows it’s limitations and feels confident enough to steer you towards other works on the subject. Good for them.

I feel like this book should have had a foreword/afterword. I’d have liked to hear directly from the current custodians of the line now that the core trinity is finished. I know they did some last minute work on this book, but I hope it made it better. I actually think it could have done with a light trim in some areas, and expansion in others, but hey, we’re all armchairs editors when it comes to D&D right?

My final thoughts? There’s so much to admire here. It’s not perfect, and that shows up most starkly when it tries to be all things to all DMs. Which is 5e all over. But it does do exactly what it says on the back cover “entertain and inspire your players”. To achieve that, first of all the book had to entertain and inspire me, to which I can do nothing but admit, it did. Welcome back, D&D.

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DMG Review: Open the Box

Chapter 8: Running the Game. Now we’re getting to the nitty gritty. At this point the DMG wants to take the DM through the possible levers to pull or buttons to push in their games. Before that though, a brief discussion on how to address real life issues, like table talk, or odd group sizes. Thankfully we don’t get any nonsense about ‘bad’ player types, or much drama about real life conflicts. Good. A D&D book isn’t the place to learn grown up relationship skills, no matter how high your Cha or Wis.

Best bit? Right at the start, the authors lay out what they see as the three absolute fundamentals of the table contract: foster respect, avoid distractions, have snacks. That, ladies and gentlemen, is 5e in a nutshell. Simple, straightforward, inclusive.


Similarly there’s then advice on the nuts and bolts of the DMs job, making judgement calls, with consistency and accuracy. This includes Inspiration, a new rule for D&D. I’m glad it gets expanded treatment here, in the PHB it was trotted out as an obvious given. It’s not, it’s new, it’s terrifically effective, and with the tweaks and options offered here, potentially a real campaign changer. Like it.

This chapter so far is essentially the DMs commentary track for the PHB rules, so it’s a bit stop/start in its subjects. I think I’d have liked to hear what other DMs actually do with their campaigns, some real examples. Everything here is offered as sound advice, but perhaps we could have had some fleshed out consequences, or at least war stories.

The combat stuff is ok. I know many of us were expecting a full on ‘module’ that might bring the tactical game up to 4e standards. This isn’t it. It’s some nods in that direction, and it does drop the design curtain a bit too. You can see improvised damage, and some mobs stuff as well as a bit of guidance on using minis. Flanking gives you advantage. Simple enough. Facing gets a section, and I’m not sure who was cheerleading that particular bell/whistle. And then a chase rule. Like almost every chase rule ever presented in an rpg, this one doesn’t do anything that a well prepared, or a talented improviser type DM wouldn’t do. It provides a couple of tables for complications. Shame. I know that Paizo managed a lovely sub system for Pathfinder, and there’s plenty of other places to look for inspiration too. Should have done better.

And then siege equipment. Told you it was a bit random.

Poisons and diseases get a story based treatment, meaning low on rules, high on consequence. I’m cool with that. Beating both for word count is the section on Madness, which is a long overdue addition to the core rules. It’s genre appropriate stuff, which needs the sanity rules (presented later, oddly) to fully implement. A pc driven to madness has more story implications than one confined to bed with poison or disease, so I think they’ve got this about right.

Lastly some obvious xp options (faster, slower, or not at all. Fighting, talking, or development based) and we are done.

All decent and workmanlike advice for actually running the game, which is what you’d expect. It runs into an issue in that it expands on stuff presented in earlier chapters, and relies on later ones to fill out what it’s saying now. So, a transitional chapter, and not a straight read for that.

Next up: the Hackers Guide to D&D

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DMG review: It’s (another) Kind of Magic

Magic items, love them or hate them, they’re an intrinsic part of the whole D&D experience, and always have been. Like Vancian magic, they are a big sacred cow, and probably one of those things that turn as many people off of D&D as much as turn people on. Certainly among my circles of non D&Ders, that’s the case. With items, they’ve had a storied history through the editions, which I won’t regurgitate here, except to say they’ve been in and out of the DMG and PHB like a fiddlers elbow in recent times.

Fifth ed puts them straight back into the hands of the DM. It’s not even optional. There’s no wish lists, there’s no price lists and the whole magic item economy question is brushed under the (flying) carpet. We get old fashioned tables to roll on, with categories that map to pocket change/lair hoard, seperated by chunks of levels. Loads of entries, and magic items crop up pretty regularly among them.

Items are categorised from common (healing potions are in the PHB equipment list remember) through uncommon, rare, very rare and legendary. Cursed items make a comeback too. The thing that’s really different is the idea that the categories are really only a tenuous guide (well, if you’re rolling on the tables you’ll get a kind of flattening of the power curve over time). I say that because the text comes right out and says, if you want a first level character to obtain a Ring of Invisibility, go right ahead, you’ll get a great story out of it. And this ring is proper Invisible too by the way, none of the riders and caveats and dampeners that 4e put on so many things. Similarly, there are no warnings about Monty Haul campaigns, or about breaking the game with too many +3 Holy Avengers. It’s all back in the DMs hands, and off you go, enjoy yourself.

I think that’s a fine notion. In fact I think it’s great. Fact is, I’ve been too concerned as a GM with balance and being conservative for too long. So what if the party get hold of the Eye of Vecna? The advice is right, how can we not get a great story out of that? It’s good to see the official books loosen up their approach I think. Where they do put a balancing element back in is with Attunement, a rule that says a Pc can only have a max of three items attuned to them at once. Seems simple enough, and avoids all discussion of slots. That said, not every item requires Attunement, far from it. I’d need to read the chapter more closely but I can see the PC Christmas Tree has not been chopped down entirely yet.

The reason I haven’t read the chapter too closely is that basically it’s a giant list, and my eyes always glaze over with those. Worse, WotC took a bland approach to the problem of how to write up items that have been through at least four editions already: they kept it dry and mechanical. The items have no colour text or history at all, they are described entirely in rules terms. What they get instead is a wide array of nicely done colour art pieces. Not everything gets a pic (potions don’t, yet they’re the only ones to get a description) and some of them are a bit cartoony or garish for my tastes, but they do break up the wall of rules.


It’s a shame. I get why WotC did this. This is already the biggest chapter in the book by far and flavour text would only increase that (or reduce the munger of items). But I can’t help but regret that decision. Coming off the back of the wondrous Mordenkainens book for 4e, which is a list book designed to entertain and inspire, this is a step back to mere reference work.

Book ending those items are some inspirational entries though. There are tables to flavour up your items, with quirks and histories. Nice, but functional. Later, there’s the real good stuff, the sentient items and the artifacts. For me, D&D always gives these too short a shrift and they contain all the real magic and wonder. For sentient items, they’ve again kept it simple (they use the three mental stats) and provided some old school examples in Blackrazor, Wave and Whelm from the venerable module White Plume Mountain. And Moonblade too. Good to read these, lots of memories.

For artifacts, the list is short, but good (and evil too). We get full write up of the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords, the Books of Exalted Deeds and Vile Darkness, the Eye and Hand of Vecna, the Orb of Dragonkind, the Sword of Kas and the Wand of Orcus. There are rules, and properties and all that, but basically all bets are off with artifacts. That’s why I like them, they scream story, and challenge, where let’s face it, the longsword +1 just doesn’t.

Wrapping up the chapter, some more lists of possible rewards from supernatural gifts, to medals, to titles, to epic boons. It’s a comprehensive resource of goodies, no doubt. I guess as DMs we will just have to sprinkle all this stuff into our campaigns and see what happens. I can see all kinds of consequences to all this kit and boon, and I think the players will lap it up, but overall?

I left this chapter not terribly inspired and a little weary. It’s the first chapter that is of absolutely no use to non D&D fans (until now this has been as good a GMs guide as a DMs one) and it seems like a bit of a burden for me rather than an assist. Where is the discussion on low or no magic? Or high? Not here. What happens to the rules when you hand out a +3 item with Bounded Accuracy? How do scrolls work exactly? What do PCs spend all their treasure on? None of these things are fatal, but I don’t want to break my campaign answering them after the fact. I think I need to be as. Brave as the author, just do it, and make it part of the tale.

Well, that’s part two done. Looking forward to the toolbox stuff still to come.


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