Review: D&D Monster Cards 0-5 by Gale Force Nine

One of the things I’m slowly coming to appreciate with D&D is just how central monsters are to the game, more so than for any of the other systems I have run. Combat is a central thematic pillar and the majority of the time the expectation is that those combats will involve Monsters as opposed to intelligent NPCs. That one of the core books is the Monster Manual should be a massive giveaway here. As part of our Fall of the Immortals campaign, I’ve been trying to utilise a wider array of monsters than I am naturally inclined to thanks to my previous GM experience.

It quickly became apparent that keeping a copy of the Basic Rules on my tablet for reference just wasn’t going to cut it. Interesting combats should include a variety of creatures, which meant that I found myself flicking back and forth between pages every combat round to double check stats and abilities. It slowed the game down and was generally just a pain to deal with. Printing off the monster stats in advance helped quite a bit, right up until my players turned left and initiated an encounter I hadn’t planned for. Fortunately,¬†Gale Force Nine produce a product that is ideal for this situation – Monster Cards, with sets covering CR 0-5 and CR 6-16.

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The CR 0-5 set covers 177 monsters, presented as a mix of standard and double sized cards. The front features artwork depicting the monster in question while the reverse covers the game statistics, with the double width cards employed when creatures have a number of special mechanics. Due to the size constraints of the card format there is absolutely no descriptive information, you’ll need to refer to the Monster Manual if you need that.

Overall, the Monster Cards do exactly what I need them to – provide a quick reference for in-game statistics. I’ve taken to clipping them to the top of my GM screen during play, allowing the players to see what keeping the multiple stat blocks right in front of me. The artwork is high quality and primarily lifted from the Monster Manual (from what I can tell). There are a few variant pieces featuring backgrounds, primarily used for cards representing tougher versions of a standard creature. Each card also includes a clear artist credit, an especially nice touch that many products would have omitted. The layout is just as professional and ensures that the details are clear and easily readable despite the condensed nature of the card format. Long term I will probably sleeve the cards to protect them, they only just fit the box and I’ve already seen one card pick up a small amount of damage just through the process of opening the box.

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So what’s not to like? I have one main issue, which is the contents. There are a number of creatures that are present in the Monster Manual/basic rules but absent from this set. The various beast forms that a druid might shift into are prominent examples, so if you were buying the set for that you’re out of luck. Similarly, there are no NPC type cards, no guard or bandit etc. While I can’t complain at the sheer number of cards included these seem like they should have been clear inclusions given how often most groups are likely to use them.

That these cards are missing is particularly frustrating because Gale Force Nine don’t list this fact or include the set contents anywhere on their website. Thanks to some research I knew about this going in but given these are officially licensed cards it would have been reasonable to expect either all of the relevant entries from the Monster Manual or a card listing. This problem doesn’t seem to be limited to this set, a number of comments online suggest that the CR 6-16 set omits a number of the most iconic Legendary creatures that grace the pages of the Monster Manual. Presumably, they’ll be included in a third set in the future but the omission is striking.

So would I recommend the Monster Card CR 0-6 set? For a GM seeking a quick reference tool, the answer is yes so long as you know that you will still need to refer to the Monster Manual for a number of entries. For players? No, this really is a GM orientated resource. Even if it included all of the forms a druid could shift into I still wouldn’t recommend it, there are simply too many cards that would go unused. You’d be better off checking the basic rules or SRD and getting the attributes from there.

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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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The Immortals and Ending with the Beginning

Like many gamers when it comes to campaigns I’ve found that the majority tend to end not with a bang but a whimper. They fall apart due to scheduling issues or simply fizzle out when trying to continue on from after epic and satisfying story arc. It’s an issue that has been on my mind with the start of the new D&D campaign – how to end it?

At the moment, two sessions in we have yet to touch on any real plot, the mini-adventure has seen the players investigating an attack on an apparent merchant caravan and trying to rescue the lone survivor. While the adventure is really just aimed as an introduction to the game mechanics I have tried to drop in a few hooks here and there. The caravan was carrying a scroll inscribed with the symbol of one of the Immortals (that burned up before the PCs could retrieve it – yay for natural 1s on investigation attempts) and was being guarded by High Elves, which we established was unusual for the setting.

But where is it going? What is the point of this all? That’s the question that I’ve been wracking my brain with for the last few days. The obvious answer to that is the Fall of the Immortals, the rulers of the Empires in our as yet unnamed setting. We have already established that two of the characters are survivors of a previous rebellion, so it makes sense that they would have an interest in seeing the downfall of the tyrants.

It also fits with a number of standard fantasy tropes. Authoritarian empires? Check. Unknown heroes rising up? Check. Normally I wouldn’t lean so heavily on those tropes, at least not deliberately. However, in prepping for this campaign I’ve been going back to basics. The first of which is that D&D is best when it is tied to those tropes. Indeed from a gaming perspective, many of them originated with D&D (which itself lifted them from the established traditions of the fantasy genre, both Tolkien and its pulpier counterparts). Secondly, I am running a game for a group of mostly new players. Players who haven’t played through those tropes before and who certainly haven’t burned out on them.

So keeping with the basics we already have an ending – The Fall of the Immortals. Thanks to the fact that we established there to be multiple empires we even have our intermediate goals, taking down the first couple of Immortals before building up to the strongest of them. All that’s left to add is a touch of Fate, which I plan to introduce through a little bit of prophecy and a whole lot of dragon.

We are playing Dungeons & Dragons after all.

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.

Engaging from the start…

I ran my first session of D&D 5e this week and despite my issues with the d20 system in general I think my response on twitter summed up the experience:

Why did it feel so good to get back to the role of GM? Partially because I have always preferred it to being a player. I like the role of setting up scenes and watching them play out. I like having to gauge the impact of PC actions on the bigger picture. Most of all I like seeing the response of players as they realise what is going on or come up with a solution I couldn’t have foreseen (as the Happyjacks hosts are fond of saying the GM should create problems, not solutions).

The other reason it felt so good was that I went in with a plan to engage the players and I feel like it worked. I was GMing in what is best described as a community campaign akin to the Adventurers League. There’s a pool of players and GMs but each session will see a different combination of them come together. The big difference though is that there are no parallel sessions of the same adventure. Every session is a unique and self-contained standalone adventure set within the wider campaign world. The starting point for any adventure is the players, they state what their character is investigating or up to and then put a group together.

It’s not the easiest way of doing things. Individual sessions can be a little disjointed with only loose tie-ins to those that came before. For this, my first session, I had to prep an adventure based on brief summaries from one player and the previous GM. Not the easiest of asks, even for an experienced GM. It also had to engage the players in such a way that they would want to follow up on it, to generate enough interest in the events that it could become a plot in its own right.

This meant having a plan – introducing a new faction that could make an immediate impact and that had the potential for being a long-term threat. So in came a heretical cult within the ranks of Lathander that place particular importance on the divide between day and night, for the sun can only rise if it has first set. To establish their importance I put the party in position to witness (and ultimately disrupt) a ritual that had taken place hundreds of years before. It explained why nobody had ever heard of the cult and presented a clear threat to the established status quo in the present.

For me, as the GM, it also presented a way to engage long term with the wider setting as I’ll be able to build up the details of the threat over multiple sessions if and when the players engage with it. Given one of them is already planning a follow-up I’d count it as a success.

Not ranting about D&D

I’d been planning to make this a rant about D&D, about how frustrated I am with it and the fact I’m struggling to find a group playing something else while D&D games fill within minutes of being posted.

But then on the bus this morning I started to think should I really be ranting about this? My answer was no. Does it annoy me that a game I’m not overly fond of is popular? Yes, immensely but right now it’s popularity is part of a resurgence of the hobby I love. The combination of D&D 5e and actual play streams have raised the visibility of tabletop games to a level I honestly didn’t think we’d ever see. I still don’t know if I would call RPGs mainstream in the way that board games might now be but certainly, the level of awareness is reaching that level. I didn’t roll my first skill checks until the mid-2000’s, so I never directly experienced the stigma that was often associated with RPGs during prior to that but as a minis gamer during the 90’s, I knew what it was like. I knew what it was like to have the nerdy hobby, to be labelled as a gamer at an age when I wasn’t confident enough to truly embrace it.

So no, I decided I’m not going to rant about D&D today. It will never be my preferred system, I find the rules clunky and I’ve had one too many negative experiences with gamers that propagate the worst stereotypes of the hobby. But I’m not going to bash the people that have joined the hobby because of it, that enjoy it and flock to it. If it’s the only gaming that’s available then I’m going to damn well step forward and give it a try. I’m not saying I’ll stick with a game or group that I don’t enjoy but I’m tired of holding myself back just because it isn’t exactly what I want.

And who knows, maybe I can introduce a few more people to the joys of other systems while I’m at it. Nothing says anybody has to just play D&D…

RPGaDay 19th August

19th) Which RPG features the best writing?

A quick last minute post here that I might expand on later but here’s a few that I enjoy reading for a range of reasons.
Legend of the Five Rings – Probably the best world building and setting information I’ve come across. The text is just a joy to read and really lets you know that Rokugan is a fully fleshed out setting.

Corporation – Another one that is an easy to read and gives a clear indication as to the potential depth in this post-cyberpunk world.

Demon Hunters – Almost as fun to read as it is to run. The writing does an amazing job at conveying the tone of the setting.

Dungeon World – Clear writing that helped me grok PbtA while simultaneously actually managed to make me interested in standard fantasy in a way D&D has consistently failed at.

D&D 5th Edition Basic Released

So after their protracted open playtesting WOTC have begun their release of D&D 5th Edition, or D&D Next as it’s been known until late. The Basic rules, which include the main system and a core set of options for the classic class / race options are available for download, for free, from the WOTC website. Doing so is a bold move and one that’s probably required in order to push interest in the release, especially given the rise of Pathfinder since it appeared on the scene.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not really a D&D fan but having skimmed through the rules the first thing that struck me was simply… this is just D&D. Sure there’s been some streamlining but really the only thing that strikes me as new is the advantage / disadvantage mechanic. Everything else is just the same old same old, which I guess is fine for the target market but I think I was just hoping for something a bit more of a radical departure from the d20 formula. Something that brought in more of the ideas and approaches that have developed in gaming over the last decade, let alone the last couple of years.

All in all the release of the new D&D can only be a good thing, especially given this initial release makes it look like they’ve learnt from the mistakes surrounding 4th Edition. In the end though this first release just reinforces one thing for me, that D&D isn’t the game for me and probably never will be. Yes I’ll probably play it, but it’ll never be my go to system or even on my top list of games.

I just hope somebody does, D&D started this hobby and it would be a shame if 5th Edition was its final iteration.