Review: Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron (5E)

Yes, this is a hot take, but what else is the Internet for?

I am currently 21 sessions into a 5E Eberron campaign that I have been running, using the 3.5 materials (which I already own) and what’s been released as Unearthed Arcana for Eberron from Wizards. Today I saw in my Twitter feed that the promised setting announcement from WotC was not just one setting but two – one for adapting Magic the Gathering’s setting to 5E, and the other being the Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron for 5E. I know next to nothing about Magic the Gathering’s setting, so I have nothing to say about that one, but Eberron has been my favorite D&D setting since it was released 16 years ago, and I have things to say about the Wayfinder’s Guide. Here we go.

The New

Partly, it just feels good to see something new come out for Eberron. I got excited, and bought the PDF without really thinking about it because I knew it would bother me until I got it and saw what was in there.

The rules for the four unique Eberron races have been updated and, in my opinion, improved. The warforged are expanded and clarified, and they have made them more flexible as well, with subtypes (one that was a Prestige Class in 3.5E) and the ability to reconfigure your defenses as well. Lots of cool fiddly bits for warforged. The shifters have also been expanded and improved, more similar to how they were in 3.5E, with each kind of shifter functioning as a subrace that is activated during shifting. Changelings and Kalashtar similar gain some new abilities that make sense, all compared to their Unearthed Arcana examples.

Dragonmarks are significantly different form what appeared in Unearthed Arcana, brought much more in line with other Feats in 5E, rather than looking like the innate casting that creatures like drow get which improves as you level. They add some bonus dice to proficiency rolls, and in some cases are much simplified but a little head-scratchy (I’m looking at you, new House Jorasco). Right now we are using the old UA version of dragonmarks, and I think it is working well for the most part. I would say that the rules they have for Aberrant Dragonmarks need a lot of work, but are clearly being left as a blank spot for other designers.

The Old

The setting material remains the same – there is no jump in time as there might have been, and no changes in the setting that I could see (from the snippets that are in this PDF). The themes and ideas of Eberron, the advice for applying them, etc. are all there as they have been since 2002. Contrary to what Keith Baker said, there is plenty of information that is rehashed in this Guide, but that’s to be expected.

I also recognized almost all of the art in the PDF, and I imagine the art I didn’t recognize was just from supplements I don’t have, or art that I’ve seen and forgotten. Again, this is only to be expected from a PDF release on the DM’s Guild. At least we got a new-looking piece of art for the cover, and it’s pretty cool.

The Good

I like the new versions of the four Eberron races – all four of them feel flexible, powerful, and cool. I could see some DMs and players thinking they might not be precisely balanced with the core rulebook races, and that’s probably a fair criticism in some cases.

I also like the new tables that have been sprinkled throughout the Guide, ranging from random street-level events for different layers of Sharn to a table with ideas of why your dwarf left the Mror Holds in the first place, or a table of different debts that drive you to adventure in the first place, plus many more. Even if you hate random tables (weirdo) they still function as lists of cool ideas to pick from and add to your Eberron campaign.

The Meh

The setting material doesn’t provide that much beyond a reminder for folks who already know about Eberron. You’ll still need to do a lot of improvising, or go buy other resources for the setting, which was the case before this Guide was released.

I’m fine with the new version of the Dragonmarks, but I also liked the previous Unearthed Arcana versions of them as well. I like how the UA versions mirrored innate spellcasting when we see it in a given race, like the drow. I like how the new versions tie the Dragonmarks into particular proficiencies that make sense, and also how they fit in comparison to the other Feats in the PHB. If anything, most of them are significantly better – and I know a design challenge for Eberron has always been making the Dragonmarks exciting enough that players will want to choose them for their characters (Keith Baker said as much on his podcast).

So the Dragonmarks aren’t meh because they are lacking – they’re fine, I think, as written. The problem is, they were also cool before as innate spellcasting. The Aberrant marks, on the other hand, are just straight meh. Someone has to come along and fix those – which I bet is WotC’s intent.

The Not-So-Good

For the PDF at release, the table of contents is incomplete. It doesn’t mention Kalashtar between Changelings and Shifters, and is missing a few other major headings. I imagine they will fix this after it’s release and perhaps put out an updated PDF, but these are bigger mistakes than just spelling errors, you know? And whether your major headings are reflected in the PDF bookmarks is pretty straightforward to check.

In his blog post, Keith Baker mentioned that the intent with this release was not to rehash material from 3E or 4E Eberron, as those books are still available through the DMs Guild as PDFs, but of course there is plenty of rehashing. The text ends up kind of failing on two fronts – it isn’t all new material for 5E, not by a long shot honestly. On the other hand, it hints at a lot of things that it doesn’t spell out, which kind of highlights the need for the other setting materials to make sense of it.

Just one example, as my PCs are headed to the Lhazaar Principaliesin the near future: the page on the Principalities mentions a half-dozen NPC groups in passing, but gives almost no information on them. This means that I also have to go back and read the pages on the Principalities in my Eberron Campaign Guide, and also have in mind that some of these might be from one of the many other sourcebooks that were released, some of which I have and some not. This comes off as just…unsatisfactory. What’s here would make a good handout for the players on the Principalities, but that wouldn’t have been hard to do on my own with a few minutes of cutting and pasting from a previously published PDF.

Overall

I love Eberron and still think it is the best setting D&D has ever produced. It beat out 11 thousand other submitted settings for a reason. I bought the PDF and don’t necessarily regret it, but on the other hand, if you are like me and running Eberron using the previous materials and Unearthed Arcana materials and a little bit of adaptation, you can continue to do that without buying this Guide to Eberron. If you would like another version of all of the Dragonmark Feats, as well as updated rules for the four unique Eberron races, and some advice on the magical economy as well as a few examples of magic items to add into your game, then this Guide is probably worthwhile.

If you don’t already have other 3E and/or 4E Eberron material, this Guide won’t be enough, especially in the category of the setting. Each section on a part of the setting is a glance at most, with the exception fo Sharn, which is fleshed out a bit more. Again, this Guide is a starting point, especially if you are setting your campaign in Sharn to start, but you will still have to do a lot of work on your own, or shell out the money for the previously released setting materials.

Ultimately, it’s $20 for Unearthed Arcana materials – that will be worth it to some of us, and not worth it to others. You can definitely run Eberron in 5E without this Guide if you already have plenty of Eberron materials and a little time to adapt them to 5E – that’s as true now as it was before this Guide came out.

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Thoughts on Vampire the Masquerade’s V5 Preview

Related image

I just downloaded and read the V5 preview that White Wolf made available today. It’s 27 pages, and contains sections from the final, published book (though I hope they gave it one more read-through, as I found one typo without looking very carefully).

Dossier of the Damned

These are interesting snippets of information intended to set the scene – notes from vampires and from those who are researching vampires. The Masquerade simply can’t be maintained in 2018, but the question is, who knows about vampires, and what do they know? This introduces the new terms they’re using for vampires among those who study them – blackbodies, or blankbodies, drawn from the Pre-Alpha scenario and referring to how vampires show up in IR scans.

Concepts

This is really more like “themes”, concepts the guide you in understanding the World of Darkness and creating a chronicle together. One theme has always been that vampires are not the good guys, and White Wolf hits this theme here as well. You are playing a predator who feeds on human beings. Maybe you cling to humanity and maybe you don’t, but you are not a Good Person.

Fashion

Basically a few examples of imagery, and the repeated reminder that you can’t dress like a vampire in public. Sort of the “This ain’t the 90s Goth scene” section.

Clans

We get write-ups of the Brujah and the Toreador, and both are very much in line with the past of those clans. I like that they list more than one nickname for each clan, and I like the artwork of sample Brujah looks in that section. Well, I like that it’s there, and I like the concept of multiple views. Unfortunately, the four female examples are all models with hooker shoes, and the four male examples are all models wearing fashionably ripped street clothes. I would have much preferred a variety of body types here, as well as some indication that one can be a vampire and not necessarily be fashion-forward. They’re also all posed as if they are at a fashion show instead of caught in the action, so the art fails the test of “Show me what my character can do in the game.” Unless V5 is about standing around and looking cool.

We don’t get the same images for the Toreador, ironically, since that’s the only clan I could imagine composed mostly of people who stand around posing in over-priced distressed clothing. But, again, in both cases, these are recognizably Brujah and Toreador as far as the text goes. Clan flaws are now Banes.

Speaking of which, the Toreador’s Bane got a lot worse in this version. Not only do they lose themselves in beauty, but when surrounded by ugliness (according to their particular aesthetic), Toreador lose dice from all uses of Disciplines equal to the Bane score. So…ouch. Also, flavorful. Why do they surround themselves with beauty? In part, because they have to. Overall, though, this feels like giving them two Banes instead of one (albeit weaksauce) flaw.

Beliefs

Characters begin play with between one and three Convictions, which are up to the player at character creation; things like “Thou shalt not kill.” These are the moral lines that the character has set for themselves (surely to be stressed and pressed upon by the Storyteller). We read that incurring Stains in pursuit of your Conviction might mitigate Stains, which is confusing and, since this is a sample, unexplained. Violating a Conviction might also, at the ST’s discretion, incur a Stain.

I’d have to see the full text but we might have Capitalization Creep here.

Chronicle Tenets are kind of like themes combined with lines and veils from other systems. You are setting the genre conventions, key ideas, and also limits of your chronicle together, and I like the way this is handled. This is the kind of conversation that games increasingly call for, and it looks like these will have mechanical weight, as violating Tenets can apparently be a source of Stains. Basically, you’re postmodern vampires and you are creating a shared morality together that will be in effect over the course of your chronicle.

Touchstones sound similar to what is used in Chronicles of Darkness and Vampire the Masquerade 2nd Edition. They are specific things in the world that keep you grounded in your humanity (or threaten your humanity when they are threatened).

Ambitions are just what they sound like – the general things that drive your character from night to night, beyond the hunger for blood. Desires are specific, and must be connected to something that’s come up in the relationship map for your chronicle already (i.e. must be connected to an existing NPC or key aspect of the setting for the chronicle). I like this – knowing what a character’s Touchstones, Ambitions and Desires are is pretty much all an ST needs to know where to push a character from night to night, and are all of course “flags” that let the player say “This is what I want to see in this chronicle.”

Celerity

Explicitly recreated so as not to mess with the action economy, Celerity has variant powers for each level (and it isn’t clear if you choose both or have to pick one or the other). The powers also don’t build on each other like previous versions of Celerity, but rather give the character a specific ability or move they can use, often by making a Rouse roll. So you can dodge bullets, rush around the battlefield in a blur, and run across ledges without having to roll to keep your balance. Feels like Celerity to me, and I like it.

Loresheets

These are the most interesting thing in this whole preview, an idea that I love. There has always been a tremendous amount of metaplot layered over Vampire, since 2nd Edition at least. It has been something I have seen integrated into chronicles, and the problem has always been that those “in the know” nod sagely when something comes up that they read in a splatbook while the rest of the players are just in the dark, wondering why everyone thinks this weird name is so important.  And I say this as a ST who has included metaplot things in my chronicles to make the in-the-know players nod sagely.

Loresheets give actual connectivity between the mechanics and the backstory of the game in interesting ways. The three examples given are a loresheet for Theo Bell, a loresheet for Helena, and a loresheet for the Week of Nightmares. Each bit of lore is treated like a background, rated from one dot to five dots, with more dots giving you deeper connections to the backstory. For example, one dot of lore in the Week of Nightmares means you tell the story of that harrowing time in a way that vampires find fascinating. You are sometimes invited to retell it in Elysium, and get 3 extra dice to your performance roll. Five dots in Week of Nightmares means you have a vial of the Ravnos Antediluvian’s blood. What you do with the blood is up to you, and the effect it has is up to the ST. That’s…awesome.

Overall

V5 feels like it is trying a bit too hard to be fashionable, but then previous editions all felt like they were trying too hard to be Goth, which is just a subset of fashionable. I did feel like the artwork was more fashion and less horror, which was too bad, despite some of it being beautiful (and full-color).

There might be too many things to keep track of, though I’d have to see all of these mechanics in play of course. But Disciplines, Banes, Humanity, Stains, Convictions, Chronicle Tenets, Touchstones, Ambitions, Desires, Disciplines….and that’s just a taste of capitalized words from this 27-page preview. These are all cool ideas, but they make this already a significantly more complicated game than D&D 5E, for example, and it might just be too much for some players to want to keep track of. Again, though, how this all works in play remains to be seen.

And to be clear, I like this version of Vampire. I like the direction they’ve taken. I think this is an improvement on previous editions of the game in many ways – the way morality is seemingly handled, the way Celerity was reworked, and especially the Loresheets to name a few things I really like. I just need to find some players who want to play Vampire.

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Pathfinder 2nd Edition Demo

It occurred to me that there are probably plenty of folks who are curious about Pathfinder 2nd Edition but have no iterest in my info-dump about my Origins 2018 experience. For all of you, the following:

I got to sit in on the demo scenario for  the current iteration of Pathfinder 2nd Edition. Overall, it is still very much Pathfinder, and it seems like they are taking this opportunity to clean up some of the rules, simplify a few things, and take feats that everyone always takes (Improved Initiative for example, or Precise Shot for archers) and just make them class abilities. Some observations, presented as bullet-points:

  • Increased hit points at level 1. My 1st level goblin alchemist had 15 hit points (Constitution 12 I believe)
    • Speaking of which, goblins are a core race and alchemist is a core class. We had a fighter, wizard, cleric, rogue, and an alchemist. Other tables with 6 players had another character – I’m not sure whom. Except for Fumbus, the new iconic goblin alchemist, the familiar iconics were the pre-gen characters
  • Skills and attacks seem to be ability score bonus + level. I couldn’t tell if it was just that, or if skill points had been spent
  • Fighters can fiddle with shields (and so can wizards who cast shield) by raising or lowering them to provide more cover in a fight
  • Only fighters get attacks of opportunity, which is GREAT, because I really detest attacks of opportunity. It’s just an onerous movement tax in combat that slows down everything and adds nothing and doesn’t make sense in a fight
  • Play is split into “modes” – exploration mode and combat mode. Exploration mode is open, skill-based, etc., and combat mode begins when you roll initiative. A little video-game-y but makes sense and formalizes something that’s always there
    • Your initiative roll is based on what you were doing when the fight started – many of us rolled Perception and the rogue rolled Stealth for initiative
  • Some weapons are “deadly”, meaning they add an additional die to critical damage rolls
  • Critical successes are always 10 over the target number, and apply to skill rolls as well as attacks, and critical failures are always 10 below the target number
  • You get 3 actions per turn, and can make 3 attacks if you don’t move. The second attack is made at -5 and the third at -10, making critical failures much more likely as you go. Still, some third attacks still landed for our 1st level characters against zombies
  • I was watching the numbers, and vulnerabilities are more common. Zombies are vulnerable to slashing, and took 5 additional damage from any slashing attack. Skeletons were resistant to fire, so resistances might be a bit more common as well
  • Speaking of skeletons and zombies, they had much more hit points than normal as well, based on how much we had to pummel them to bring them down
  • Spells take up to 3 actions to cast, and they take 1 action per component required – verbal, somatic, material.
    • For example, the cleric could cure light wounds with 1 action, or cure light wounds 30 feet away for 2 actions, or channel energy for 3 actions, dealing 4 damage to all undead and healing 4 for all living things in a 30′ radius. Undead had to save and if they failed they took 8 damage
    • Same with magic missile – the wizard could send up to 3 magic missiles, 1 per action spent casting, and I imagine other spells scale up as well

And just assume that if I didn’t mention something, it didn’t catch my attention (we weren’t allowed to have our phones out during the demo and agreed not to try to take pictures) or it hasn’t changed. For example, the three saves seem unchanged, and your second diagonal step still counts as 10 feet on the battle map.

Origins 2018

The Origins of Goodman Games|Goodman Games

Clockwork: Dominion

Reliquary Game Studios was in full effect at Origins 2018 – I knew because they are my friends from college 20 years ago and are still my friends today. They had a booth, shared with Fearlight Games, and a demo room that they also shared.

Clockwork: Dominion is a game I have demoed for them before, and I likely will get roped into demoing it again. I edited the core rulebook and Quick Start Guide back in the day, and helped them set up their Kickstarter campaign. It is a great game, and is the only Victorian game I would actually play (and certainly the only one I’d ever run). I’m not a huge fan of Victoriana, but the game is that good.

The Quest for Overlight

There were plenty of issues with events at Origins, which ins in my limited experience not new. For example, the location listed for demos of Overlight by Renegade Game Studios was not only incorrect but maybe a third of a mile or more away from the actual location. Fortunately I was still able to find my way to the demo room and play some Overlight.

The setting is interesting; the art is beautiful. The system…is probably in a final phase, but it made me wish they had refined it earlier in the process. The main issue is that there are two full resolution mechanics, one that is similar to Savage Worlds without a Wild Die and the other that was a target-number dice-pool system. This is just a needless problem – one or the other could have been cut, and honestly needs to be cut from my point of view. It’s as if in D&D you rolled a d20 for half of your tests, and then for the other half used a percentile system.

Oh wait, that’s what D&D was until…4th Edition, to varying degrees. But it was never good game design, and it still isn’t. The guy running the demo was nice and did a good job, but I don’t think I’d be able to get past the parallel resolution mechanics to play the game on my own.

Kids on Bikes

Kids on Bikes is a really fun game, also by Renegade. The killer app is definitely setting creation and character creation – they smoothly tie in blank space for creativity, leading questions about the other characters, and the charaters’ hobbies and fears. The tropes you choose from for your characters make sense, and I like that though the game is Kids On Bikes, you can play kids, adolescents, and adults all together.

We didn’t engage the powered character rules, but I like the options there as described to me by the demo person after our session. You can play the powered friend (Eleven, E.T., etc.) as a character who is shared by all of the players at different times (Maybe E.T.), or as one of the player-characters (Eleven), or you can not include a powered character at all (Stand By Me), or all of the characters can have powers (Supers School). You can build the powered character, or you can use a deck that they sell to draw powers and character traits randomly.

The significant flaw I perceived was with the resolution system. It is very much like Savage Worlds without the Wild Die – roll a die, and all dice potentially explode. D4 if you are bad at a thing, up to d20 if you are great at it. (All six tropes use one each of all six common die types, so everyone has a d4 and a d20 to start) The problem comes with the fact that you roll against a target number set by the GM, and it is very difficult to map, or intuit, the probability with this dice system. It is, for example, much mroe likely that a d4 will explode than a d20, but the d4 lets you roll up to an 8 and the d20 up to a 40.

In brief, you get very swingy results, and our game included difficulties from 5 to 20, which I think is too wide a range. Honestly, I might even end up hacking the dice system, or not going with the guidelines for difficulty in the book (if those were being used correctly in the demo). The nice thing is that the system is simple and clean, so you can probably hack it readily and get on with what is a very fun game. (And when you fail you get Adversity tokens, so maybe the swingy difficulties are a way to build those up? I’d have to play more than one demo to know.)

More Refurbished, Less Art

It’s been about 6 years since I was last at Origins, and since then the whole convention center has undergone an overhaul. More public art (by actual artists – there are touch screens where you can learn about their work) and far more plugs make the whole thing a lot more comfortable for someone like…everyone at Origins. A disappointing difference between this time and 6 years ago (or 11 years ago) is that there seemed to be fewer artists and less art. The last time I was there, a whole hallway was dedicated to artists and their work. Now it was just a smal corner of the dealer hall. I can only speculate on why this is – and to be clear, the artists who were there had a lot of excellent work on display.

Soul Food in Linden

I got to have some legit soul food at an African-American Cultural Arts Center in Linden, across the street from a Nation of Islam funeral home. The food was great, and it was about as far as you can get from Origins culturally while staying in the city of Columbus. A nice break, despite the heat.

Hiding In Starbucks

To be fair, I did a good amount of hiding near coffee at this convention, and it helped me deal with being over-stimulated and anxious as I am at events like this (combined with the parts that are genuinely fun). Right now I am just trying to build up some resolve to go talk to the very friendly Renegade Games demo team about whether the designers are interested in making a connection with The Bodhana Group. (Yesterday my friend the Executive Director gently reminded me that I am on the freaking Board after all)

Heroes and Villains

An unintentionally kind of intimate seminar with Michael A. Stackpole and [person’s name and background here] with only a handful of people there, so it was kind of intimate. We got to ask whatever we wanted. It as a bunch of solid writing advice from two very solid professionals, but it made me wonder as I nodded my head – am I at the point where I know this stuff? I think I might be. What I need to do, that I am not doing, is try my hand at some more actual fiction. Nothing they said surprised me, and it was all things I have heard from writers before. Not that it was run-of-the-mill, I’ve just listened to a LOT of writers and editors talk about their work and process. But did I, like, level?

Video Game Room

Some folks here at the convention are happy about the video game room. It is a darkened room set aside with huge screens and video games you can play on those screens. You just walk in and sign up and play. You might even just watch, or take a nap, or whatever, and it could easily double as a quiet room for people who are somewhat over-stimulated by this whole convention thing.

It gave me the idea that The Bodhana Group might be able to host a quiet room for folks at Origins 2019. I think it’s a good option to have – necessary for some people, and when we’re talking about thousands of con attendees, “some” is a lot.

Pathfinder 2nd Edition

I got to sit in on the demo scenario for  the current iteration of Pathfinder 2nd Edition. Overall, it is still very much Pathfinder, and it seems like they are taking this opportunity to clean up some of the rules, simplify a few things, and take feats that everyone always takes (Improved Initiative for example, or Precise Shot for archers) and just make them class abilities. Some observations, presented as bullet-points:

  • Increased hit points at level 1. My 1st level goblin alchemist had 15 hit points (Constitution 12 I believe)
    • Speaking of which, goblins are a core race and alchemist is a core class. We had a fighter, wizard, cleric, rogue, and an alchemist. Other tables with 6 players had another character – I’m not sure whom. Except for Fumbus, the new iconic goblin alchemist, the familiar iconics were the pre-gen characters
  • Skills and attacks seem to be ability score bonus + level. I couldn’t tell if it was just that, or if skill points had been spent
  • Fighters can fiddle with shields (and so can wizards who cast shield) by raising or lowering them to provide more cover in a fight
  • Only fighters get attacks of opportunity, which is GREAT, because I really detest attacks of opportunity. It’s just an onerous movement tax in combat that slows down everything and adds nothing and doesn’t make sense in a fight
  • Play is split into “modes” – exploration mode and combat mode. Exploration mode is open, skill-based, etc., and combat mode begins when you roll initiative. A little video-game-y but makes sense and formalizes something that’s always there
    • Your initiative roll is based on what you were doing when the fight started – many of us rolled Perception and the rogue rolled Stealth for initiative
  • Some weapons are “deadly”, meaning they add an additional die to critical damage rolls
  • Critical successes are always 10 over the target number, and apply to skill rolls as well as attacks, and critical failures are always 10 below the target number
  • You get 3 actions per turn, and can make 3 attacks if you don’t move. The second attack is made at -5 and the third at -10, making critical failures much more likely as you go. Still, some third attacks still landed for our 1st level characters against zombies
  • I was watching the numbers, and vulnerabilities are more common. Zombies are vulnerable to slashing, and took 5 additional damage from any slashing attack. Skeletons were resistant to fire, so resistances might be a bit more common as well
  • Speaking of skeletons and zombies, they had much more hit points than normal as well, based on how much we had to pummel them to bring them down
  • Spells take up to 3 actions to cast, and they take 1 action per component required – verbal, somatic, material.
    • For example, the cleric could cure light wounds with 1 action, or cure light wounds 30 feet away for 2 actions, or channel energy for 3 actions, dealing 4 damage to all undead and healing 4 for all living things in a 30′ radius. Undead had to save and if they failed they took 8 damage
    • Same with magic missile – the wizard could send up to 3 magic missiles, 1 per action spent casting, and I imagine other spells scale up as well

And just assume that if I didn’t mention something, it didn’t catch my attention (we weren’t allowed to have our phones out during the demo and agreed not to try to take pictures) or it hasn’t changed. For example, the three saves seem unchanged, and your second diagonal step still counts as 10 feet on the battle map.

Overall

For me personally, it seems to be much better, and more enjoyable, to have a loose schedule that is mostly free time. I can do things like have three hour conversations with my friends, and jump in on demos if they interest me, or just sit near a a plug and write (as I am doing now). Origins is a good convention for this method, though I would somewhat prefer the greater numbers of artists and writers in the past combined with the greater numbers of seats and plugs now. Maybe that’s the future of Origins?

The Bodhana Group is looking at attending Origins in 2019 and having a presence there to talk about therapeutic gaming. We need to figure out what this presence will be – a booth? Table? Games? Seminars? The nice thing about Origins is that it is a much more local convention than GenCon – I see people here I recognize from 2007 and 2012 when I’ve been here in the past. Lots of folks from OH and the adjacent states, from what I can tell. This means that we can attend once, or maybe periodically, but don’t necessarily have to be here each year in order to have a Bodhana presence.

Epilogue: Be A New DM

My friend Wendy is thinking of DMing for the first time. She’s been playing D&D for years and is familiar with a number of twitch/streaming D&D folks. She was at Origins playing Adventurer’s League and going to seminars for new DMs.

Folks: be the new DM. DM for your friends. As long as everyone at the table is being nice and trying to have fun, you almost cannot fail, and you will never become great at it until you practice a lot. Running a game is the most fun way to engage with it. At least that’s my experience.

Mage Revised > M20

Image result for mage the ascension 20th anniversary edition

I had really high hopes for the 20th Anniversary edition of Mage the Ascension. Mage is one of my three favorite OWoD games, the other two being Vampire and Changeling. For me, Mage was the core game – a setting that could account for all of the other game lines and settings within it’s expansive, flexible worldview. I got a kick out of PC mages in my games encountering other supernaturals who functioned according to rules they could understand, with some study. Mage was, and is, the game line that lets you peel back the curtain on the World of Darkness and not only learn about its inner workings, but have an impact on what the WoD is and what it means.

Running the Revised, essentially 3rd edition of Mage the Ascension always required pages of house rules. This is honestly true of World of Darkness games in general, at least in my experience, but Mage is definitely a game that drifted a lot as we played it for about a five-year span from 2000 when it was released until around 2005 (we in this case being my college gaming group). But Mage begged for this kind of drift, I think, with a flexible magic system that was, at best, evocative but ill-defined.

The 20th Anniversary edition of Mage clocks in at well over 600 pages, or twice as long as Revised. Including the How Do You Do That expansion, it approaches 800 pages. But in those 800 pages, there is less clarity than in the Revised edition’s 300 or so. Poor rules were kept and expanded upon (I’m looking at you, Martial Arts/Do), interesting rules (like Resonance) were dropped (though left in as a sidebar and a very optional rule). How Do You Do That, in particular, is a hot mess. For some reason telekinesis requires dots in Mind, and periodically magical effects arbitrarily require the expenditure of Willpower because…they seem hard. As if enlightened magick was not, as a rule, hard.

I like some of the updating for the setting that M20 provides, though that is hardly worth the price of the book (or the time spent reading it). For some players, the grim reality of Revised was too much, and with a more multicultural viewpoint the Ascension War seems far less over than it did in 2000. White Wolf always had a problem with representing non-Western cultures well in their books, and Revised was no exception, fascilating between some real research into Hinduism on the one hand and on the other the hi-ya antics of the orientalist Akashic Brotherhood.

The truth is, thought, that M20 is simply not worth the price of admission. In stark contrast to the overall success of Changeling 20th Anniversary, M20 adds to the noise and the mess rather than refining and clarifying. It does gather up a lot of material from the various Revised splatbooks, but it just kind of crams them together next to each other rather than working to make them more consistent with one another or simpler, which is what I’d hoped for. If you are a Mage the Ascension fan, I think you can stick to Revised and just update the setting as you like. Say the Ascension War was declared over before it truly was, the Technocracy’s victory was premature, and get on with saving the world.

Thoughts on Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition PreAlpha

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What It Is

In a word, interesting. This is touted as Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition, coming from White Wolf instead of Onyx Path. Remember, Onyx Path has been the publisher for the Requiem materials, as well as V20 a few years ago. (There is a kind of tangled history with White Wolf and Onyx Path, a failed MMO, and some other things, but I don’t want to get into all that). Clearly, they are counting VtM Revised as 3rd edition and V20 as 4th, and they are skipping ahead to 5th. As a lead designer and writer, White Wolf has brought on Kenneth Hite, who I personally think is amazing, and a very intriguing choice that wouldn’t have immediately come to mind. His game design skills, and deep knowledge of history and the occult will serve him well however.

What I Like

The feel I get from reading the design goals written in the PreAlpha rules packet is that White Wolf is going for something of a 5th Edition D&D type of coup, drawing elements from all previous editions of the game (including Requiem, as we’ll see) into something that will resonate with all Vampire fans. When WotC said that was their goal for D&D, to take 40 years or D&D rules and mash them together in a way that made their wide variety of fans happy, I thought it was impossible.  In retrospect, I called D&D 5E a coup for a reason – they got about as close as possible to their stated goal.

They are also going for a simpler, more streamlined system that is easier to learn and play. Some choices they’ve made are along these lines, while others are not, as we’ll see.

I like the streamlining of attributes – now there are only 3: Physical, Social and Mental. Each can have a specialty, which would be one of the previous Masquerade attributes like Strength or Appearance. These specialties add one die when they apply. The system is still an attribute rated 1-5 added to an ability rated 1-5 and then rolled as a pool of d10s. The ability list is very similar to previous incarnations of Masquerade, with a few additions like Physique functioning just as it does in Fate Core.

Damage rolls and soak rolls are both out, and I approve. They’re using the Requiem system of an attack roll against a defense, with the remainder being damage applied against the target’s health. I like this – I much prefer an attack resolved in two dice rolls compared to four. And generally speaking, this idea of mixing some Masquerade with a little bit of Requiem, the best parts of it anyway, runs throughout the PreAlpha rules.

Blood and hunger will play a more central role in V5, it seems. There is no longer any blood pool. Instead, you track your degree of Hunger, rated from 0 to 5. Your Hunger has a chance to increase every time you use a vampiric ability – instead of “spending blood” the term is now “Rousing the Blood” in order to power disciplines, appear human, etc. This leads to one of the PreAlpha’s big weaknesses, discussed below, but I like this change. Abstracting blood and hunger out, while also making them central to your dice-rolls, is a strong thematic move. Instead of blood being a resource you manage, hunger is a threat you deal with night after night.

One of the things that Hunger does in this rules set is mess with your mind. Hunger afflicts different vampires in different ways, and one cool thing they have added is Clan-specific hunger afflictions. So a Malkavian, for example, might have an extreme mental illness episode due to Hunger, while a Gangrel might be made paranoid and have to obsessively see to her own security. There are general problems that Hunger could cause, and then each Clan has three or so of their own specific ones, and I really like this. Not only does it make hunger front and center, but it also brings Clan to the forefront. Both good things for a Vampire the Masquerade rule-set, I think.

The last thing that came to mind as I read through the rules was that more things are returned to the 1-5 scale. In particular, Willpower is now rated 1-5, which I like. It’s just more consistent. There is now a companion to Willpower, Composure, which like Willpower can be spent. It isn’t quite clear what the difference between the two is precisely, but I look forward to seeing more. My intuition is that they will be to similar and will be collapsed back down to one, but I could be wrong. For now, it seems that Composure is used to resist frenzy and Willpower functions a lot like it did in Masquerade.

When I moved from the rules document to reading the playtest scenario, I found another blood-related rule that I thought was interesting: blood from different mortals will have slightly different effects on those who feed from them. Feeding from a drunk person might give you a penalty, while feeding from a baby (I know) might make it easier to appear alive in the following scene, giving you the blush of health. Feeding from an anxious or athletic person might let you activate Celerity once without having to Rouse the Blood, and most of the benefits were along these lines – letting you use a Discipline once without having to take the risk of increasing Hunger. I like this idea, but I also note that it will involve yet more bookkeeping for the player, which is a weakness. Something they can fix, or work around, but there it is.

Not So Much

One change is a pet peeve of mine in RPGs. For the love of God, don’t make dice-rolls into coin-flips. This PreAlpha pack places the target number for all d10 rolls at 6+, meaning every die-roll is a 50/50 chance. Since they also remove the rules that 1s subtract successes and 10s can be rolled again, the d10s literally become coins. The only remaining reason to have d10s at all is legacy – they lose every interesting element as dice. This is always a design choices I dislike, even in games I otherwise love, like Mouse Guard.

I mentioned the Hunger/Rousing the Blood mechanic above as strong thematic move linked to a serious problem with the system. That problem is that in what should be a move to simplicity, the Hunger mechanics as written actually add a huge amount of bookkeeping to the game. Every time you use an ability that Rouses the Blood in a scene, you note it. At the end of the scene, you roll d10s equal to the number of marks you have, and that determines whether your Hunger increases. First, this will mean that Hunger will be increasing pretty much every scene, which means that frenzying and hunting will happen much more often in V5 than in previous editions. Second, this is an incredible amount of bookkeeping that will constantly take players out of the moment. Each scene has to end with accounting before you can move on. This is just a poor design choice, but again, this is a PreAlpha playtest rule-set, so presumably they will have tons of time to fix this.

Unfortunately, V5 takes it’s inspiration from Requiem’s version of Potence, which was terrible. You still have to ‘Rouse the Blood’ every turn that you use it, making it an incredibly expensive discipline. The reworking of Fortitude is actually similar to Fortitude from Mind’s Eye Theater, which I think is a good move compared to Masquerade and Requiem Fortitude, which is by far the most boring Discipline. But Potence was the only Discipline that stood out to me, as it does in Requiem, as something I would almost certainly never spend experience on. (And, like in Requiem, that’s easily fixed with house rules)

In Conclusion

I keep reminding myself that this is a PreAlpha playtest document. It is far from done. And I haven’t mentioned most of the Disciplines or some of the other things that are in the Appendices because, for the most part, the Disciplines seem very similar to previous versions of Masquerade, with the exception that activating them always requires that you Rouse the Blood. Again, I can see how this might result in a frenzy-fest with so much less room for error in the Hunger system, but we’ll see.

Overall I like the direction they are going – taking things from Requiem like simplified combat rolls and working to simplify and to place thematic elements like blood and hunger in the center of the system itself. I imagine it might result in more monstrous vampires who are less like blood-fueled dark superheroes. (I would not be surprised if Ken Hite was central to this move)

This is a strong showing, and if this is their new direction for V5, I’m on board.

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Changeling 20th Anniversary Edition (C20) Review

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Overall

Changeling the Dreaming has always been a beautiful, broken game. The 20th Anniversary edition is less different from the 2nd edition than I’d expected. It is somewhat less broken, and still beautiful in its way. Lackluster kithain art detracts from it, and I would have preferred a bigger focus on new art in a game that is so driven by imagery (and so flush with new cash from the Kickstarter).

The metaplot is reiterated and updated, but it holds less interest for me than it did 18 years or so ago, when I first started playing the 2nd edition with my friends in college. It remains very US-centric, which is unfortunate, and the rise of David Ardry still comes across as someone’s first brush with fantasy worldbuilding.

All that being said, this remains a game I would run or play, and enjoy. There are solid updates to the rules to help with this, though it remains broken and in need of some house-ruling. If you love Changeling the Dreaming 2nd edition, you’ll love C20. If you already have the various splatbooks, though, I actually think you could skip buying the Anniversary edition. Many of the rules changes can easily be part of house rules, and the stunning new art that I was hoping for in a 20th Anniversary edition just isn’t there.

This is just after a single read-through. I haven’t had a chance to play C20, and I’m sure I’ll find more on subsequent read-throughs. I’ve focused on the main kiths, Arts and some setting updates. I’d like to give more attention to the Hsien updates and other details as well in the future. Still, here is what I found.

Art and Design

A lot of classic Changeling the Dreaming art is carried over, and there are some new pieces. I thought that the new art for the clans in V20 was lacking, and I think that the new art for Changeling often falls flat, especially for the kithain. (For a tutorial in how to do new art for a OWoD line, I recommend M20).

The book is well laid-out and easy to read, and the table of contents has a few, but not enough, links in the PDF version. I prefer M20’s PDF, where all of the page numbers in the table of contents are links – in C20, only the chapter titles are links, which makes navigation a bit more cumbersome than it needs to be.

The Good

Birthrights and Frailties for each Kith are updated, and I like almost all of the updates. No big changes have been made, but they have been cleaned up overall. There are now no Chimerical-only attribute bonuses, which is something that I actually thought made sense for the Sidhe and Trolls, though I might be in the minority there. You can still create a troll with a Strength of 8 (max out Strength on a Grump Troll, add Strength of Atlas merit), but it is all mundane, meaning your Troll is far stronger than the strongest human ever to live. Similar with a side with an Appearance of 7 – so I guess people just collapse screaming in ecstasy in the street wherever you go? I preferred Chimercal attributes that you could manifest by Calling on the Wyrd in 2nd – the sudden reveal was made all the more significant. In actually running Changeling, I would keep those attribute bonuses Chimerical I think.

Arts have also been cleaned up. There was talk, when the rules discussion started on the Onyx Path forums, of eliminating Realms, which I would have preferred; in C20 Realms remain, but it is possible to spend a point of Glamour to cheat and use a Realm you don’t actually have, which is a big bonus to the way the system works. Realms are an element that adds constraints that sometimes drive creativity, but can also easily drive players crazy as they find out their character can’t do what they assumed she could do with her Arts. It’s an annoying element that isn’t present in any of the other supernaturals’ abilities. But the fix of being able to just spend Glamour to affect an Art you don’t have is a step in the right direction.

There is a much better crafting system, which makes up for Infusion being removed from the game. It now makes more sense, how one would create Chimerical objects in-game, something that was profoundly missing in 2nd. Now any Changelings can create Chimerical objects, Nockers are just a bit better at it.

And many things are now under one roof. Gathered up are all the added noble houses, and there are a few new ‘standard’ kith added to the lineup (Clurichauns, Piskies and Selkies) from splatbooks, and they streamlined the Hsien and added them as well. Elements of various metaplots have been brought into C20 together, and I’m not sure they all fit together, but that isn’t a big concern for me.

I like that they kept Naming, though I miss Dreamcraft. The new Contracts Art feels like it was borrowed from Changeling the Lost, but with good effect. It lets you do things that fae are supposed to be able to do, in my view. I think it could have used another pass in development, but, again, house rules.

There are also four new seasonal Arts, clearly drawn from Changeling the Lost, and I like the addition. Autumn, Spring, Summer and Winter each bring different things to Changeling. (As an aside, I personally think the sweet spot for Changeling is somewhere between Dreaming and Lost, but that’s me) Each seasonal Art expands on the idea for that season well, though again, I think they could have used another once-over in development.

The Not-So-Good

Already mentioned, the setting remains US-centric. Understandable, but not good. I mean, it isn’t America of Darkness. Also already mentioned, I don’t like that the Chimerical attribute bonuses are now just attribute bonuses. I get why they did it, but I could see that easily causing problems. I mentioned the poor art for many of the kithain.  The general rule that Changeling abilities are more costly, and have fewer dice, and are less powerful than the abilities of other supernaturals remains true.

Infusion and Dreamcraft both get the boot, among the Arts. Dragon’s Ire is now an Art, and it looks like it would not be a great choice since other arts help you in combat. I prefer the Dragon’s Ire as an ability, since I liked that different kiths got a reduced difficulty to call upon the Ire in different situations. I thought this was a great thematic element – suddenly the boggan is frightening because she is defending her home. Most of the Arts got a once-over at least, and are a bit better balanced with one another, and also stick to their themes more closely (no more using Pyretics to find lost things, that’s Soothsay now).

Unleashing, which is an awesome idea I think, is just not designed well enough. More examples would have been helpful, as there is a lot of hand-waving involved in figuring out what exactly happens. I like the idea of Unleashing – to ‘kick the door open’ to the Dreaming – but the execution isn’t well thought out enough. It’s like a tiny taste of an indie game, where you roll dice to see who narrates the result, and it just doesn’t work as a part of Changeling. Definitely another place where house rules would be required.

The Bad

Bunks that do not take an action are now impossible, which I definitely don’t like. Even the simplest bunks require that a character split their dice-pool for the Art activation roll, Given that Arts are now difficulty 8 base, and that dice-pools will be tiny because of Realms, splitting seems like a non-starter. I see no reason why basic -1 bunks would require one to split their action, and this means that every Changeling fight will be as follows:

Round One: everyone does something silly and waits.

Round Two: the fight actually starts, as everyone’s Art goes off.

Changelings using magical powers would easily be overcome by, say, a jock with a baseball bat.

Combining the fact that Arts require Realms with the fact that no Art can be used spontaneously just feels like a bad relic of the past combined with a nerf. Splitting your first action hardly seems like a viable option, considering how tiny Art dice-pools are to start with – that’s a lot of work to end up rolling 2 or 3 dice at a difficulty of 8 for your magic power.

There are also always issues with the Satyr’s Gift of Pan, and those issues remain. Under their effect, if one fails a difficulty 8 roll (easy to do with low starting Willpower, and Willpower costing twice as much as it does for any other denizens of the World of Darkness), they cannot resist giving in to their secret desires. They just seem to be unable to get away from consent issues with Satyrs, and I can think of plenty of players who would make this into an un-fun evening.

Overall

If you loved Changeling the Dreaming 2nd edition, you’ll also love C20. If you actually played 2nd, you will have plenty of house rules to make the game work, and house rules will still be required for C20, though perhaps fewer of them. You’ll need to figure out what to do with Unleashing, and what it means to have a Strength of 8 or an Appearance of 7 in the mundane world – or house rule those things.

In the end, I love Changeling the Dreaming, and C20 doesn’t change that. I would still play it. Reading through the book still gives me ideas for stories. C20 brings things that were scattered across a couple dozen splatbooks into one tome, and updates some of the metaplot to 2015 or so. On the other hand, I think that someone who already has those splatbooks, and already has some house rules, and could maybe add Unleashing into their game…I’m not sure that person needs to buy C20 at all.