Tag Archives: D&D

The Golden Path – Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook review

I don’t get to play it as much as I’d like to, but I do love me some Dungeons & Dragons. Many people have a fair few criticisms of the latest edition, though. I’ve heard it described as World of Warcraft on a tabletop, which I have no problem with – I like WoW, and RPGs can be as light or as heavy as the DM makes them. I’ve heard people say that Wizards of the Coast jumped out of the traps too early with the release of the Essentials line which isn’t entirely compatible with “regular” 4th Edition D&D – me, I’ve not read many of the later books, so haven’t got an opinion (yet). One thing I hear time and time again though? People harking back to The Good Old Days of earlier versions of the game, in particular the shining diamond that is version 3.5.

WotC no longer support 3.5, left by the wayside so they could throw themselves totally behind the latest edition, but many long-time D&D players have forsaken 4th Edition and have returned to their well-thumbed tomes. The reigns have been taken up by other companies, most notably by Paizo Publishing, who have essentially taken the whole thing over, streamlined, improved and repackaged it into something new but familiar under the rather splendid banner of Pathfinder. And if you’re looking to get into the game, it’s heartily recommended that you pick up the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, 574 pages that contain everything a player needs bar the dice.

Despite being entirely based on the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Edition ruleset, you will not see those words mentioned at all – it’s always referred to as “the world’s oldest fantasy roleplaying game” throughout, but it’s evident from the outset that the whole game is deeply rooted in Gary Gygax’s legendary creation. Thankfully, rather than just being a rehash, Paizo (under the direction of lead designer Jason Bulmahn) have really worked to give Pathfinder a life of its own. This is no cut-and-paste job – Pathfinder is pretty much a total rebuild of 3.5, a new experience in a different world, albeit on some very sturdy (and recognisable) foundations.

When you pick up a copy of Core Rulebook, the first thing you’ll notice first that it’s massive. Literally every rule you’ll need covering is contained in these pages. Want to know how to roll up your first character? It’s in there, of course. Already got some experience in roleplaying and want to take things a bit further? Have a look at the Prestige Classes that are included. Fancy tackling things from the other side of the table? There’s expansive help on how to DM a game (although I will admit that you’ll need something like the Pathfinder RPG Bestiary to get a good array of monsters if you’re looking to create adventures and campaigns). Generally though, this book has all you’ll need in a single (hefty) volume – of course, there are plenty of extra releases available from Paizo should you wish to expand your game further.

Not a lot of art, but what's there is excellent.

The amount of detail that is provided in the book is impressive – you’ll be able to create and develop your character in whatever direction you want to go, down to the smallest detail. There are a huge amount of Skills and Feats on offer, but a nod really has to go to the Magic and Spells that are on offer should you choose to go down that path; over one third of the entire book is given over to the mystic arts, with huge lists and detailed descriptions of spells that allow you to fine tune your character how you please. Combat is easy to understand (even though it seems to be a bit more in-depth than the 4th Edition D&D stuff that I’m used to) and everything in the book is well laid out and easy to find.

One thing that’s missing though? A standalone mini-adventure that could really show how Pathfinder really works, a way to ease players into the world and get them used to the system, because to a total newbie Pathfinder Core Rulebook could appear somewhat daunting. I’d also like to have seen a few more examples throughout the book – the writers presume a level of experience that not all players will have, so in comparison to something like the introductory books you need to play D&D, this is a bit of a slog. I love the huge level of detail that’s available, but simple things like there being significantly less artwork than your average WotC title matter to me – the focus is definitely on information, tables and numbers, and lots of them.

The sheer size of the book could also be enough to put folks off, but if you’re willing to invest a bit of time and are seeking something a little more hardcore from your roleplaying, Pathfinder may well be for you. I’m not going to say which is the better between this and 4th Edition, simply because I see them as two sides of the same coin – both have their place in the gaming world – but Pathfinder certainly has its advantages, if only in the amount of content out there. The fact that it’s compatible with a huge amount of already-released material (that requires a bit of conversion work should you wish to use it with 4th Edition) is great, as is having all you need as a player condensed down into a single book.

The Pathfinder Core Rulebook was published by Paizo – they’re currently on their fourth printing. Available in all good game stores (as well as from the Paizo website), it retails for $49.99 in the US, while in the UK the RRP £38 – shop around and you’ll find it for less though (like on Amazon, where it’s around £26 – well worth it!). Now, where’d I put my dice bag…?

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Absolute Beginners – The Essential Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set review

Legendary. That’s the word I would use to describe the first Red Box I saw. The set, originally released back in 1983, was the gateway into gaming for so many friends. The iconic artwork by Larry Elmore led caught the eye of thousands of would-be warriors and potential paladins, sending them tumbling into a world of fantastic stories and battles. In living rooms and basements around the world, people got together to battle against monsters and quest for glory. Forget the iconic scene in ET where the kids fly in front of the moon on their bicycles – for me, I’ll always recall them playing Dungeons & Dragons (or at least something like it).  I wanted to do that, and the old Red Box was my way in.

Nearly thirty years later, the licence for D&D has passed through a handful of companies but players are still joining afresh. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson are long gone and the game now sits with Wizards of the Coast. Members of the new generation tend to get preoccupied with their dragon games online, but we all know where it
all started. According to them it’s as big as it ever was. The 4th Edition of the game was released back in mid-2008, complete with a Starter Set based around the new streamlined rules. In late 2010 this was rebranded and repackaged using the artwork from the famous original Red Box – a clever move on WotC’s part, no doubt done to try and entice all those players of a certain age who had fallen by the wayside, reminding them of the classic box they’d played with many years ago… After all, that dragon looks bloody brilliant.

So, what do you get in the box? Actually, a fair bit of stuff. There’s a couple of books in there; one specifically for players that will help you create a character of your own and send them off on a solo adventure, the other a stripped down version of the Dungeon Master guide. There’s also a stack of tokens to punch out that represent the heroes and monsters from the various adventures included in the pack alongside a double sided grid map to put them all on (one side a leafy forest, the other a grim dungeon). A bunch of character sheets are also packed in, a selection of Power Cards and – as it wouldn’t be D&D without them – a selection of different dice, ranging from d4 up the the ubiquitous d20.

The contents of the box! Plenty of stuff for not much outlay.

Now, let’s get this straight. This is not a set for people who’ve had a fair bit of experience in playing D&D before. The 4th Edition Red Box is very much aimed at two crowds: either total newbies to the game, the kind of kids who grow up not having a hobby or comic shop within reachable distance, or people who haven’t even thought of D&D in over twenty years and have an itch that needs to be scratched. Everything you need to get a flavour of the game is in the box, but that’s it – a flavour. This is the equivalent of a tasting plate, a one-shot to see if you like the streamlined experience that is on offer. You get to choose from a small selection of races and classes, roll up a basic character and play a short solo or group adventure – that’s your lot. It’s still 4th Edition D&D but pared down, and far less terrifying than the three hefty hardbacks that I tote around when I want to play. The key word here is accessible.

The all new Red Box does a lot of things well. The solo adventure does a good job of getting players used to the rules and how the game itself works and the group adventure is challenging, especially for those new to the genre. Including the Power Cards was a great idea – it makes life a lot easier when you have them all laid out in front of you, flipping them after use – new players won’t have to scrabble amongst their character sheet to see what they could possibly do. Character creation is reasonably straightforward and the writing is entertaining hooking you into the mythos quickly. Also, considering that it’s not a very expensive product, the production values are pretty high – you certainly feel like you’re getting your money’s worth from the set.

There are a few issues, however. Some examples given in the rulebooks contradict the actual rules which can lead to a bit of confusion (in which case, going to the default ‘Let the GM call it’ rule can feel like a bit of a cop out). While this is meant to be a very basic introduction to D&D, it can sometimes feel like you’ve got someone holding your hand, leading you around in certain ways – in other words, there’s not a huge amount of room for experimentation. However, as I said above, this is aimed at players coming in on the very ground floor – perhaps they will appreciate the limitations placed upon their characters? If you focus on trying to do a few things well, it’s a lot better than flustering about attemping to manage a wide range of powers and items. I also found that the group adventure is more an exercise in getting the rules of playing with others straight rather than actual Role Playing – understanding the game is certainly important, but so is the RP in RPG…

This new version of the Red Box is very much 4th Edition at Entry Level – though I don’t necessarily think that’s so bad. Characters will max out at level 2, meaning that this is truly just a taste of what may come. One major complaint coming from experienced players who have checked out this package is that your creations are not easily transferrable into the Essentials line that WotC really seem to be pushing – quite the oversight. Of course, once you’re finished with the Red Box and all it contains, you’ll invariably discard your first characters and want to roll up something a bit meatier. If you take this release at face value I think it’s worth investigating, especially if you’re looking to get younger players interested in role-playing games. The Essentials books, though excellent, can still come across as a little daunting to those totally new to D&D – and though it’s not perfect, the all new Red Box is a good stepping stone to get people into the game.

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The Essential Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set (colloquially known as The Red Box Starter) was designed by Mike Mearls, Bill Slavicsek and James Wyatt. Released in 2010 by Wizards of the Coast, it caters for between one and five players and is available for around £13 / $20. For more information, check out the official site at http://www.wizards.com/dnd/Product.aspx?x=dnd/products/dndacc/244660000

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Basements and Beholders

Here’s the second part of Chris’ splendid tutoreview (it’s a new word, honest) of Dungeons & Dragons. If you’ve missed out on the first bit, it’s right here: Kobolds & Cave Crawling. Enjoy!

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Dungeons & Dragons‘ focus is on combat: this has been the case since the earliest editions, and this continues to be true to date. As mentioned before, when picking attributes, most decisions will relate to how the choice will affect your class in combat. That said, attributes are also the base for the limited number of skills you can choose from, that will be of use outside the realm of bashing in skulls. D&D4E is not a game where you will find ‘Basket-weaving’ on anyone’s character sheet, and the skills that are present are all tightly focussed around the games core aspect. They cover the essentials of What You Know (such as Religion, or History), What You Can Do (including Stealth, Endurance, and Athletics), Interacting with Others (Bluff, Diplomacy) and What’s Going On Around You (Insight, Perception). Each skill is based off of a stat, and then a small number of skills can be increased further by being Trained in them. At early levels, if you are Trained in a skill, you’ll probably be quite good at it, otherwise, you’ll probably be quite bad at it.

You don’t have much choice when it comes to skills; you’re either Trained or Untrained, and you won’t be trained in more than three or four of the seventeen skills on average. Compared to many other roleplaying games, this is very limited, but that’s not the point of D&D. If you want to play a deeply political game, with intrigue, subterfuge, with an emphasis on specialist skills and very little combat, then you can do that with D&D, but that’s not what it is best at. Criticising D&D’s lack of skill depth would be like complaining that Fluxx is too random, or that Diplomacy isn’t fast-paced enough. Combat is what D&D is all about, and that’s what it does well.

All of this focus on combat might lead you to think that there’s not much scope for roleplaying in D&D. Thankfully, this is far from the truth. You don’t need hundreds of stats to role-play a character well, in fact, too many rules can stifle a character, or distract from the elements that make them entertaining. The key details to flesh out your character’s personality are there in D&D4E. Is your character a scoundrel? Then take the Bluff skill. Are they big and tough? Endurance sounds good then.

By focussing on a few key aspects, D&D characters keep that fantastical, larger-than-life element that fits the game so well, and also means that there usually won’t be one character who can do everything, out of combat: usually, each person in the party will have a skill that will allow them to shine. There’s plenty of scope for dialogue and discussion in town, and the Dungeon Master is encouraged to fill the game world with as much, or as little, roleplaying and character interaction as their players want. It’s quite possible for entire sessions to pass without the immortal words “ok, roll for initiative” being spoken, if the group is enjoying some tense negotiation, or investigation, in-character, with a few Skill Checks thrown in to help determine how their efforts are received. Even once the gridmap goes down and the dice get picked up, that shouldn’t be the end for roleplaying: combat contains plenty of opportunity for heroic action, or amusing banter between the characters, and angry taunting of their enemies. D&D4E can be tailored to whatever the group finds enjoyable: it’s playable as a pure dungeon-crawl, with little or no roleplaying, right through to constant roleplaying with a detailed and exciting plot for the heroes to solve.

One of Dungeons & Dragons’ strengths is the amazing number of supplement books that are available to buy, to flesh out characters, add new features, and to describe the fantastical worlds that the game is set in. There’s a wonderful history that has been built up over the various editions; or I should say, there are wonderful histories, as a number of different D&D settings exist, many of which are supported with their own rulebooks today. Alongside this, there are books for the domain of the gods, books about demons, books for each of the varieties of character classes, books about the different races and peoples… If it’s part of the setting, chances are there’s a special book telling you more about it that you can add to your collection. This gives the option of tremendous depth, and is an excellent source of inspiration for any budding Dungeon Master, but can also sometimes be a drawback to the game however: there’s just so MUCH stuff out there that it can be overwhelming, and the books aren’t exactly cheap.

Thankfully, to be a player in a D&D game, you only need one book: the Player’s Handbook, which contains all the rules, and core races and classes (human, dwarf, elf, eldarin, dragonborn, halfling, and fighter, paladin, wizard, rogue, cleric, ranger, warlord). The DM (Dungeon Master, the person running the game, controlling all the monsters, describing the setting, and ultimately making sure everyone has a good time!) will also need at least a copy of the Monster Manual, which contains rules for bad guys to throw at the player characters across all levels, and will benefit a lot from a copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which contains extra rules, info on traps, and general good advice on how to run a game. Any of the other books are entirely optional: a tasty sauce to go with the meal.

I’ve been playing roleplaying games for many years: 18 of them in fact, ever since I started going to school on a schoolbus every day, and played freeform roleplaying games with my friends to pass the time. Despite that, I’m a relative newcomer to D&D, having only been playing for a year or so. The things I like about D&D4E are the combat system, which has satisfying depth without being overly complicated, the wide choice of characters that there are to choose from, the simplicity of the skills setup that doesn’t distract the player with too many variables, and the rich background(s) that can be used as inspiration for your game. As with any roleplaying game, what you get out of D&D4E is very much dependant on what your group put into it. With some thought and effort from the DM, and a group of players working together, very soon you’ll be raiding the Dungeon of the Dragon Lich to seize the Eye of Vecna before it can be used by the Cult of the Hidden Eye to conquer the world, and all before bedtime to boot!

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition was released in June 2008 with the three core books, and supplements have been released almost constantly from then on. The D&D Player’s Handbook 1 can be acquired from games shops and good bookstores, for around £20/$30, or for a basic introduction that covers all the important bits you can also check out the recent reprinting of the legendary Red Box Starter Set – it’s around £15/$20. Availability and prices for the other books vary, but usually weigh in at around the £20/$30 mark. Many games stores will advertise local gaming groups who are looking for players, which can be a good way to find a group to play with if you’re new to the hobby. Give it a try, you never know – you may actually enjoy it.

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Episode 19 – Down in the Dungeon

This episode kind of unintentionally turned into a bit of a Dungeons & Dragons special! I was recently asked to tag along to the UK D&D Tweetup, held in Nottingham’s rather splendid Mondo Comico store. A whole bunch of people hanging out, having a grand old time and playing D&D was too much to turn down, so I grabbed the laptop and did a bit of recording (so apologies for the slightly dodgy sound quality!). There’s a chunk of the adventure I got involved in as well as quick chats with Sy, our illustrious DM, and event organiser Adam – an excellent time was had by all! I also got to speak to Sersa from SaveVersusDeath.com about the rising Fourthcore movement, taking Dungeons and Dragons to the limit. He firmly believes that it’s possible to push players into challenging scenarios without turning yourself into a Killer DM, as shown in their first published adventure – Revenge of the Iron Lich!

Don’t forget to leave your comments on the show here, chuck a review up on iTunes or even drop an email over – my address is michael@littlemetaldog.com. Grab the show off iTunes or (if you’re no fan of Steve Jobs) get it directly from here - just right click and save! Thanks as always for listening!

Show links:

Wizards D&D Page – http://www.wizards.com/dnd/

Mondo Comico’s Twitter, Nottingham’s finest comics store! – http://twitter.com/mondocomico

UK D&D Tweetup Twitter account – http://twitter.com/UKDNDTweetup

Symatt’s Twitter – http://twitter.com/symatt

Andy’s Twitter – http://twitter.com/blindgeekuk

Save Versus Death – http://www.saveversusdeath.com/

Sersa’s Twitter – http://twitter.com/saveversusdeath

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Adventure Time! D&D Wrath of Ashardalon review

It used to be that to play Dungeons & Dragons was to bear the mark of the geek, the scarlet letters D&D were marked on your chest making you the prime target for mockery. Of course, as most of us have grown up, we have moved on and now see it more as a badge of honour, something to wear proudly. All of those evenings spent around kitchen tables, carrying a d20 in your pocket, lugging a stack of books around with you… we enjoy our games, we love to play. However, if you’re going to throw yourself into a decent D&D campaign, you need to make sure you’re there for the long run. You’re looking at hours of play, spread over the course of weeks or months. You’re looking at commitment. But what if you don’t have that time? We get older and our free time goes out the window, but we still want to play. How can we scratch that itch?

Last year Wizards of the Coast released something new in their D&D line – Castle Ravenloft. This was a new bite-sized approach that took elements from the 4th Edition books and turned adventuring into accessible chunks. With no Dungeon Master involved, this was stripped down dungeon crawling, the players versus the game. What WotC didn’t quite get was how ridiculously popular it would be – Ravenloft sold out within days of release as the followers from the Cult of the New fell for it in a big way. Copies of the game exchanged for well above RRP as Wizards scrambled to put together a second print run, which is now at least vaguely available. So what does the company do? Announce a second game in this new modular line and get the hype train rolling all over again – Wrath of Ashardalon!

So, it’s basically more of the same… but considering how highly I regarded Castle Ravenloft, I was incredibly excited about the follow-up. Wrath takes the original game and expands on it, enhancing the streamlined D&D experience a little more – not so much to make it scary and hard to understand, but there are a few differences. More on those soon, but first (if you’ve not tried this format before) how does it work? With no DM, the responsibility for running the game lies with the players themselves. Set characters are chosen with pre-rolled stats and (to begin with, anyway) an adventure is chosen with a set objective – the box comes complete with a book of scenarios to try out. Complete the mission and you win, fail to do so (and there are so many ways this can happen) and your days of glory come to a swift end. Each turn follows a set pattern, beginning with the Hero Phase – here you move around the board and attack any enemies unfortunate enough to encounter you. In traditional D&D style, everything is resolved using the ubiquitous d20 along with any modifiers. Rolling equal or more than the target number generally sees success, and recalling this single rule is probably the hardest part of the game.

The next phase is Exploration. The expansion of the board is controlled by players, as any players who have characters standing at an unexplored edge of a tile draw a new one from the stack. A small arrow shows the direction it should face (pointing towards the character who discovered the new area) and a scorch mark signifies where that tile’s monster should stand to begin with. This monster is decided by drawing a card from the Monster pile, placing it in front of the player and grabbing said monster from the box to be put on the tile’s starting spot. Something else to take note of is the colour of the arrow; white is fine, but a black arrow means another card must be drawn and resolved immediately from the Encounter Deck. This also happens automatically if no new dungeon tiles are drawn, thus encouraging exploration of a new area at least once per turn. Encounters could be anything from stacking the monster deck in a certain way, triggering a particularly nasty trap or (occasionally) spotting some treasure – but yes… most of the time it’s something pretty awful.

Midway through a solo adventure. This one ended in an ass-kicking. It *always* ends in an ass-kicking.

The final phase of each turn is the Villain Phase, where all monsters on the board spring to life. Working your way around each player in turn – remember, there’s no DM – any monster cards that are in front of them are activated. Again, the simplified rules come in to play – easily understood and followed explanations are given for each monster that cover every potential possibility, be they adjacent to a hero or on the other side of the board. All you need to know is that eventually they’ll hunt you down and attack, you’ll get poisoned or dazed and eventually get killed.

Death happens a lot in Wrath of Ashardalon, but thankfully you’re on the side of good so you have some Healing Surges. Rather than having individual surges there’s a collective pot, meaning that particularly inept and squishy wizards who enjoy throwing themselves into the thick of battle can use more than one if they need to, not that I speak from experience or anything. All the usual D&D tropes are there, Daily Powers, traps and treasures… but Wrath of Ashardalon expands on the previous experience by adding new tile types and cards. Boons can make your life easier, while the additional Adventure cards give you allies to control. Watch out for the new Chamber tiles though, because that’s where the really bad things happen.

If you ever managed to get your hands on a copy of Ravenloft (which is still quite the challenge, at least here in the UK) you’ll know that WotC really tried to push the boat out when it came to the components. I know that some of the design decisions made by the team rattled some cages – a few folks thought that the minimal approach just wasn’t D&D enough – but they’ve elected to stay with the look for Wrath of Ashardalon. Everything is of high quality, from cards to the thick cut tiles that will make the scene for your adventures. You can certainly tell that Wizards are going for a big franchise here, making a grab for the Descent market, with piles of beautifully sculpted minis that are aching to be painted – the main villain of the piece, the dragon Ashardalon, is particularly impressive. There’s no way I’m going anywhere near these with a brush though – I’d hate to ruin them due to ineptitude and thankfully they look great without the need for my childish attempts at ‘enhancement’.

Calling them miniatures doesn't feel right when one of them is THAT BIG.

So, the game plays very well and looks great. There’s little downtime as players are always involved as they negotiate their way around the dungeons, and even those who may have deemed D&D as frivolous before will admit that this is very well put together. There is, however, something intangible that I think requires a mention. Wrath of Ashardlon really feels like something exciting. It’s taken what Ravenloft started and expanded, adding in new elements while keeping the game system fun. As mentioned earlier, the package ships with a book of 12 adventures, but those merely feel like a beginning. This big box feels like opportunity, it feels like potential. After a few hours of playing, my mind began to wander back to another dungeon crawler that had a major effect on my childhood as a gamer – Advanced HeroQuest. The hours I spent coming up with maps and adventures, writing awful scripts to read out as my friends dragged their way through fight after fight… all this came back to me.

So much is possible with this system that WotC have developed (and are still refining). The fact that you can crossover with Ravenloft (and the upcoming Legend of Drizzt) means that there’s a wealth of opportunity here. To those who complain that the twelve adventures in the included book aren’t enough – and there are a few dissenting voices – I urge you to go back to your youth, go back to the reason you picked up these games, and use your imagination. The route that Wizards of the Coast are taking looks to be one that will provide you with a stack of adventures later down the line (I reckon we’ll see a release along the lines of Descent’s Road to Legend before too long) but in the meantime focus on that one word: PLAY. This is the tabletop equivalent of a sandbox – set yourself a target, randomly generate a dungeon and see what happens. I guarantee you that there’s little else out there at the moment that can provide such depth and enjoyment in comparatively bite-sized chunks. And if anyone mocks you for playing D&D in 2011? Chuck your d20 at them. Wear your badge with pride. It’s the grown-up thing to do.

Wrath of Ashardalon was released in 2011 by Wizards of the Coast and was designed by Peter Lee, Mike Mearls and Bill Slavicsek. Between 1 and 5 people can play and it will cost you around £40-50 in the UK (if you can find it, as it’s currently quite tricky to find in your local game shop!). Persevere though – it’s well worth trying to track down a copy.

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