Review: Dungeons and Dragons Art and Arcana

Artwork has been an integral part of D&D ever since its inception, helping to draw in multiple generations of curious gamers. While I missed the first three editions (3.5 was at its peak when I started gaming) I’ve watched the art shift through 3.5th, 4th and into its current 5th incarnation. The story of D&D can be told through its artwork, which is exactly what Dungeons and Dragons Art and Arcana: A Visual History sets out to do.

dnd2 Drawing upon the treasure trove of material available in the Wizards of the Coast archives the authors have created a comprehensive history of the game, told through imagery and accompanied by commentary from the designers and illustrators that helped redefine the game over and over again. I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of the book as a Christmas gift and I think my review can be summed up in a single word: gorgeous.

While each chapter spans a distinct era additional features peppered across the book connect the past to the present. Evilution pages take classic monsters and chronicles their progression from the original edition through to their current manifestations, while Deadliest Dungeons dives into some of the iconic dungeons from over the years. The book is peppered with pages such as these and their addition adds a depth that goes beyond a simple chronological history of the game.

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I d20-20could go on at length about how much I love this book, but I’d rather let this small selection of photos talk for themselves. Having never been a big history buff I’ve gained a lot of insight about the early years of D&D, but ultimately, as a coffee table book it lives and dies by the quality of the artwork. In that category, it’s a Natural 20 and I cannot recommend it enough to anybody invested in the hobby. It’s a book that I suspect is going to be a prominent part of my collection and one that I will go back to time after time, whether it be for inspiration or just to unwind in the evening.

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All reviews are rated out of 10, with Natural 20s reserved for products that go above and beyond my expectations. Unless otherwise stated all review products have been purchased through normal retail channels.

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Forward Planning: Savage Worlds One Sheet Adventures

With the successful completion of the Crystal Heart Kickstarter in December, I find myself in the fortunate position of starting 2019 with a commission to write RPG material for somebody else. The brief for the adventure was broad – something that an Agent of Syn might face, including an NPC ability or hazard to demonstrate knowledge of what makes Savage Worlds fast, furious and fun! My pitch, as presented during the Kickstarter campaign was:

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So where do I start? How do I go from a pitch to a finished adventure? I’m aiming to cover that process through a series of blog posts as I develop Ghosts of Iron.

Right now, that answer is research. While this may be my first commission there are a wealth of resources I can draw on. Firstly, there are my own adventure starters which were designed around a similar framework to One Sheet adventures – streamlined overviews that outline the adventure but require additional GM input to fully flesh out. It also helps that Pinnacle, the company behind Savage Worlds have a treasure trove of One Sheets available as free downloads from their website. I’ve begun mining that to put together a framework – what should be included, how do I highlight sections, how much detail do I give locations vs NPCs vs plot. Once I have identified those I can start to take my existing notes and begin to fit them to the page.

Secondly, there is the Crystal Heart setting itself. While the book is still in development Eran and Aviv have already showcased the world through the webcomic and accompanying page notes. Over the coming months, I’ll be going back to that repeatedly, to pick up on details that I might have missed and to ensure that my adventure embodies the spirit of the setting.

2018 – Reflecting on the Year

2018 has come and gone. It was quite a year for me, both away from the hobby and at the gaming table. Coming out of 2017 my engagement with the hobby was nearing an all-time low. My actual gaming was limited to a game of Deadlands Noir that was cancelled more often than it was actually run and I was largely limited to keeping my interest alive through online interactions with the community.

After moving to Liverpool in April I decided to make an active effort to re-engage with gaming. This started with a decision to not rant about D&D and how it was the only system being advertised across the multiple gaming cafes in the city. It’s a decision that has served me well, to the point that this year I’ll be running my first campaign of 5th Edition for colleagues at work. I haven’t been this excited about D&D since 4th Edition launched, which I enjoyed from the tactical side but couldn’t really get into on the RP side.

Related to this I made the decision that if the games I wanted to see weren’t being offered then I would run them myself in my ongoing series of Monthly OneShots. They’ve been a moderate success but have suffered from the curse of last-minute player drop out. My aim for these going forward is to widen the breadth of games on offer and to burn through my stack of unplayed games. Ideally, I would like to take one and turn it into a campaign but that’ll have to wait for now as I’m not sure I have the time for two active campaigns.

On a publishing front, 2018 was a mixed year. I made close to zero progress on Project Cassandra and it has now been over a year since my last State of the Conspiracy update. The game isn’t dead, I just need to find the motivation to pull it off of the back burner and get it finished.

I was slightly more successful with releasing material for the Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors RPG. I debuted a Victorian-inspired team, The Undesirables, the first step towards an epic adventure that I have been thinking about for a few years. 2018 also saw the release of Lockdown, the second of my Slice of Life adventure starters. I had hoped to release the remainder of the adventures last year, which clearly didn’t happen but I remain committed to doing so within the first few months of 2019. The release of Lockdown also saw my first few paid sales over on drivethruRPG. My total sales may only amount to < £10 but it was a big step forward as an indie publisher putting together material in my spare time.

Finally, here on my blog, I had what I’m going to class as a successful year. Thirty-eight blog posts pushed the blog to the most views and visitors I’ve ever had in a year. My review of the Savage Worlds GM Screen remains my most popular post. Going into 2019 my aim is to publish more reviews, with a mix of in-depth and quick, single paragraph posts to ensure I get them out promptly. If I can carry the momentum that I built in the latter half of 2018 then 2019 should be a great year in gaming.

Christmas Loot

Thanks to generous family who know me all too well I received a nice collection of loot for Christmas.

The pride and joy is the D&D arcana book, which I’ll be reviewing properly once I’ve read it (spoiler alert: it’s gorgeous), while the special edition of Frankenstein may serve as the start of a new collection of classic fantasy and sci-fi.

That’s a standard d20 next to the d6, which is stone and has a lovely weight to it. Doubt I’ll ever roll it but I am looking forward to using it as a clock / tracker in future games.

Monthly OneShots: The D&D Christmas Special

With the festive season in full swing, it made perfect sense to run a Christmas themed game as my monthly one-shot adventure. Many years ago I ran one such adventure for my group in Glasgow, using the lightweight, and now largely forgotten Big Eyes Small Mouth system. It was chaotic and immense fun so I decided to revive it like the ghost of Christmas past for this year’s game. Only rather than BESM, I’d run it in D&D 5th Edition. This was partially because I knew I would get more players but also because I feel like I need more experience with the system. Between Pale Reach and the upcoming Immortals campaign, 2019 is likely to be D&D heavy, with a one-shot I could experiment and play with encounter expectations.

The setup was simple, a caravan had gone missing during the depths of winter and a small group of adventurers had set out into the wilderness to find it. Becoming disorientated in the snow they stumbled upon a modern Santa’s lair, which had been taken over by a young dragon and her minions. Inside a clan of elves worked away as slaves, constructing toys and trinkets for the dragon’s horde.

Overall the adventure ran well, with the chaos that I had expected as the adventurers delved deeper into the workshop. Due to last minute cancellations, I was once again short of two players, which threw the balance out completely. The easy initial encounter became rather challenging (especially as it was the more martial characters that were missing) while the final boss fight would have been a TPK if two of the players hadn’t taken an unexpected approach, which resulted in offering to serve the dragon by taking on the role of Santa!

It was the middle encounter that I was happiest with as realising that they were outmatched in a fair fight the players tried cunning which we played out as an impromptu skill challenge. For something put together on the fly it worked really well and ended with the PCs freeing the elves and inciting a mini-rebellion to take out the ogres overseeing the production line.

All in all, I feel like the game was fun but also highlighted that I need to re-read the rules, especially for the rarer situations that can come up surprisingly often in D&D. Given I’ll be running a regular campaign full of new people I think this is a must, when it comes to running such an iconic game I want to ensure that they get an authentic experience and come out of it wanting more.

Diving into… my first D&D campaign

I’ve been slowly re-engaging with the hobby since moving to Liverpool earlier this year and one of the things I have really had to get over is my apprehension at playing D&D. I’ve blogged about this already but in short – the game is everywhere and if I want to play regularly then it is likely that it will have to be D&D.

So when the opportunity to run a game for a group of almost entirely new players at work came up? I grabbed it. No hesitation, no grumbling about better games. We had our first session at the start of the week, which covered character gen, a little bit of world building and a single introductory scene. While we’re going to stick to a fairly traditional game I’m making use of the fact that they are new to gaming to just slide some indie approaches into it. The main one – shared world building. I presented them with the following outline

The known world is comprised of six great Empires, encircling a vast wasteland that legend tells was once itself a powerful domain. The Empires are ruled by individuals that, collectively, are known as the Immortals. It is a time of relative peace but not prosperity. The Empires are locked in a permanent cold war, to attack one neighbour would leave them open to assault by another. In response the Immortals have turned inwards, isolating themselves in an attempt to maintain absolute control over their citizens. The old ways and religions are regulated, persecuted or driven underground. Only in the wastes can one truly be free. Bands of adventurers and rebels seek out lost riches and safe havens while merchants risk their wares for the chance of greater profit. Legends and prophecy, spoken only in whispers, speak of the Immortals and their origins.

but beyond that I want them to fill in the details. Who are the Immortals, what are the Empires like, what do the rebels seek? I have a couple of ideas for world-changing events, including a few set pieces. I’m also thinking of introducing something akin to the Last Breath move from Dungeon World. That way I can dial up the lethality while expanding on elements of the setting (fictionally the move will be associated with a possible backstory for the Immortals).

I have no idea if the game will take off, or whether it will fall foul of scheduling problems and player drop out, but for now, I am looking forward to it. I’m excited about D&D, I’m excited about building a campaign and getting to introduce some new players to this weird and wonderful hobby.

Crystal Heart Kickstarter: Final 24 Hours

24 hours! That’s all that is left for you to back the amazing Crystal Heart Kickstarter from Up to Four Comics. If you’re still on the fence then let’s summarise what you’ll be getting at this point:

  1. A full-colour setting book with 200+ pages of details and amazing artwork.
  2. Six, yes count them SIX short adventures, two of which are available now as free downloads and one of which will be written by yours truly.
  3. Ten bonus crystals for use in your games, with suggested adventure seeds for each.
  4. Themed bennies, available as both PDF or a  physical add-on.

You can get all this in digital format for a mere £15, back it while you still can.