What Do I Know About First Impressions? Unearthed Arcana: Feats (2020)

PHB Special CoverToday saw another Unearthed Arcana drop for the first time in a while, and this time around, it’s all about new feats. I’m going to look at all of them individually, but first, I wanted to list all of the feats that are in the document, and I’m going to put a star next to all of the feats that give you an ability score boost, so I’m not addressing that every time it comes up.

  • Artificer Initiative
  • Chef*
  • Crusher*
  • Eldritch Adept
  • Fey Touched*
  • Fighting Initiate
  • Gunner*
  • Metamagic Adept
  • Piercer*
  • Poisoner
  • Practiced Expert*
  • Shadow Touched*
  • Shield Training*
  • Slasher*
  • Tandem Tactician
  • Tracker*

In addition to the ability score boosts above, Eldritch Adept and Metamagic Adept both require some form of spellcasting as a prerequisite, and Fighting Initiate requires a martial weapon proficiency of some kind.

Artificer Initiate

It’s a little bit more than what Magic Initiate gets, in that it grants a tool proficiency, but that doesn’t feel like a huge problem, especially since tool proficiencies are one of the things you are allowed to pick up with downtime.

Chef

I like the idea of someone being good at cooking, but I wish the effects were broader than extra hit points when recovering and temporary hit points. Some kind of floating “well fed” die that can be used would be something I would like, since that means cooking isn’t only effective at helping the “combat” tier.

Crusher/Piercer/Slasher

I’m looking at these together, because they are structurally similar, with an ability boost, an effect when you hit with something that does the indicated type of damage, and an extra effect that triggers when a critical hit is scored. I like decoupling combat “style” feats from specific weapons and towards damage types, but I’m not sure all of the effects are equal.

I didn’t have a problem with Crusher, but actually, looking at Piercer, I have more of a problem with the differences between these feats. I know rerolling damage is to model Piercing weapons having a more precise ability, but there are already a lot of “reroll damage” feats and abilities. Also, when we look at Slasher in a bit, like Crusher, it seems to have a movement based “kicker.” I almost think instead of rerolling damage, pierced creatures should have a movement rate style effect.

Instead of pushing someone back, this Slasher you reduce their speed, but unlike Crusher, you don’t have a size limit, which feels like this movement base modification is overall more useful. I’m also visualizing the grievous injury portion, only really fits the narrative of something that feels pain. I can understand something hit by something heavy staggering, but this one is a bit more of a fuzzy place for me.

Precision be damned, I think the crit effect for all three should probably be extra damage. I think there either needs to be a size limit for all three, or for none of them. Introducing a save might be more fiddly, but may be better across the board, with the “once per round when you hit” option requiring a save, then either knocking someone prone (bludgeoning), keeping them from moving (piercing), or forcing them back (slashing). But that’s my gut feeling on this one.

Eldritch Adept

I’m not a fan of adding class features from one class to anyone that can take the feat. I think it starts to really muddy the water on the lines between classes and why they get the abilities they get. I don’t think it’s a devastating use of the ability, my concern is more from a flavor perspective.

Fey Touched

Ability boost, grants 1st level spell from enchantment or divination, as well as misty step. These are castable with native spell abilities as well as the normal 1/long rest ability. I think I like the idea of “extra spell” feats based on the “story” of where a character has been and what as influenced them.

Fighting Initiate

Fighting styles aren’t limited to one class, but they are limited to “front line” fighter types, so I think I feel the same way about this feat that I do about the Eldritch Adept feat. Of the “thunder stealing” feats, I’m the least concerned about this one, because it’s already a shared ability and requires some proficiency with some martial weapon. I kind of want to see what this looks like for people that are moved to dabble with it, but I’m on the fence.

Gunner

I like an “official” way for a character to know how to use firearms in the game, and it’s pretty much what I would expect, being very similar to what happens when you are a crossbow expert, so I’m good with this.

Metamagic Adept

So I don’t sound like a broken record, while I have the same problem with this as I do with Eldritch Adept and Fighting Initiate, I think I’m even less a fan of this one than the other two. The most fiddly things I’ve seen done with spellcasters in 5e have been with sorcerer multi-class (or straight class sorcerers), and adding part of the fiddly nature to other spellcasters and giving them the option of when to use or not use their points isn’t one of my favorite things to contemplate.

Poisoner

I don’t know if everyone else has had players like I have over the years, but given that poison is kind of expensive, but maybe effective, it’s nice having a built in “poison specialist” ability for the game, and I’m a fan of this. You can still buy the expensive stuff and take a full round, but if you want to make it your “thing” that you poison people, you have a more instantaneous option with this. It could still get expensive, but not quite as expensive and tedious as looking for the DMG defined poisons.

Practiced Expert

I’m not a fan of class abilities that double proficiency bonus. I understand some of them, I just feel like there shouldn’t be as many of them as there are. So I’m not a fan of this. Part of why is that 5e is built around bounded accuracy. The more ways you have to skew the expected average, the more you start feeling that skill checks are either pointless outside of combat, or that you may need to start going back to 3e era “superlocks” and “ultra-climbs” that require you to boost things past DC 25 to be “really really hard.”

Shadow Touched

This is similar to the Fey Touched feat, except with Darkness and an illusion or necromancy spell. I like the bookends of the Feywild and Shadowfell affecting people that wander too close to them, so I like this one as well.

Shield Training

You get to lose your shield a lot more quickly, which is something that actually came up a few times in games that I have been in, because people remembered the rules for shields. The most noteworthy thing about this is that it means you can have spellcasters that normally aren’t shield wielders using shields for focus objects, like warlocks, wizards, sorcerers, and druids.

Tandem Tactician

This is another one I feel like I would have to see in action, in part because it’s changing the “help” paradigm in multiple directions. It’s increasing the range of help, allowing you to do it with multiple allies, and changing it to a bonus action. Action economy is a tricky thing, and in a way, this thing is messing with that on two axis.

Tracker

I’ll be briefer with this one . . . I feel like taking a ranger trick from the ranger in 5e is just not a good thing to do. Even if you think rangers aren’t underpowered and just need to be deployed effectively, the zeitgeist is really going to turn on rangers if you can pull one of their tricks out of their bag. I would almost rather leave all of the other effects in tack, but instead of allowing someone to use hunter’s mark if they don’t have it, allow hunter’s mark to function without concentration. That makes the feat a lot more limited, but plays into the story of being super focused on tracking.

Summary Thoughts

The last time we got an Unearthed Arcana with a lot of feats in it, my biggest concern was that some of those feats were doing the 3e trick of “backwards constraining” what characters without the feats should be allowed to do. In general, I feel like this batch largely avoids that trap. I’m more concerned about niche protection this time around and probability creep for non-combat skills.

All of that said, I’m kind of interested to see what would happen using some of these instead of allowing for full multi-classing, as the only way of picking up tricks from other classes, in which case, I think these feats work on a different level.

 

When You Want D&D Flavor In a Non-WOTC Container

5eBadge-238x300I’ve got another article on the way that is going to dig a little bit deeper into some of the current issues with Wizards of the Coast and some of the missteps they have made recently, and what that could mean for D&D going forward. I’m not going to advocate for a boycott, and I’m not going to tell you to keep buying. I know some people make money off D&D that are good, and there are people making money off of it that are not, and how to make the best impact when communicating with corporate entities can be difficult alchemy.

That said, I wanted to take a look at how much you can engage with Dungeons and Dragons 5e content without actually engaging with Wizards of the Coast. This is all assuming that you are coming in “cold” and don’t already own a bunch of WOTC products.

The first thing to keep in mind is that even though the Basic Rules exist, the SRD is even more comprehensive. The SRD for 5th edition D&D is not formatted in the most effective way to teach the game . . . but formatting for newcomers can be a tricky thing with D&D anyway. The point is, the core rules are all there, the core classes are all there, so there is a lot to hang other material on.

I’m going to talk about other products that have come out, and how you can utilize them. If I don’t talk about a campaign setting you know and love, or a product you enjoy, it’s not a slight, it’s just that I’m only talking about things that I have had the time to directly review.

Disclaimer

Many of these products use the terminology established in the base D&D game, so the term “race” is used frequently, because many of these products are following the established pattern. Where the game rules have used the term, I have used them as well.

More Support for Player Options

I just recently finished up reviews for several products that address player options that may make more interesting additions to your game. For example, if you want to drift “race” in D&D to ancestry and culture, check out the reviews on the following products:

Between these two products, you will have alternatives if you really miss using “official” Goliaths, Warforged, Shifters, Changelings, or Yuan-Ti.

Additionally, if you want to look at some other products that expand player options, you can pick up these, which give you more options for “race” in the game (as well as some custom classes):

Both of these products provide some non-standard player character options that might be interesting to explore, especially if you want to avoid the official expansions in WOTC products.

If you are looking for some new, contained class options, especially class options that hearken back to 4th edition D&D classes, Robert Schwalb’s Max Press impress created the following classes:

There are lots of other examples, but I wanted to highlight these classes as potential expansions because of their history with D&D in general, and Robert Schwalb’s work with the 5e rules.

Campaign Options

Currently, official WOTC options include support for the Forgotten Realms (Sword Coast), Ravnica, Eberron, Exandria (Wildemount), and Theros. That means if you don’t want to build your own campaign setting from scratch, WOTC has given you a few options to provide a framework. If you are looking for non-WOTC options, however, several campaign settings have come out that will help you with this a pre-determined setting.

If you really want to engage with Critical Role content, there is a campaign setting book that lets you do this without the direct purchase of any WOTC product. In this case, it’s the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting that was published by Green Ronin several years ago. This covers the lands visited in the original campaign, and it has the least amount of player-facing materials of any of the other campaign setting information that I’m posting, but there are still some options, and this is a good candidate to use with the player options mentioned above (especially using giant kin to represent goliaths).

What Do I Know About Reviews? Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting

If you were really looking forward to the Theros setting and getting a feel for the amalgamation of Greek mythology with Dungeons and Dragons, thankfully there is an extensive product that came out recently that will allow you to explore some of those options. Odyssey of the Dragon Lords also contains a long term campaign in addition to laying out the lands encompassed by the setting, and has many new races and subclasses included.
What Do I Know About Reviews? Odyssey of the Dragon Lords

If seeing the Ghost of Saltmarsh adventure anthology made you curious about a nautical campaign, you also have non-WOTC options for a campaign. While Seas of Vodari only has an introductory adventure, the setting of scattered islands of adventure gives plenty of opportunity to sail ships and use vehicle rules, as well as providing a new class, a ton of new subclasses, and various options for player races.

What Do I Know About Reviews? Seas of Vodari

The next setting I’m going to post about has had a long history, spanning all the way back to 3.5 D&D, 4th edition D&D, and Pathfinder, and has supplements for 13th Age and Green Ronin’s Fantasy AGE in addition to the current 5e product line. There are extensive adventures, player options, and other material, and Midgard is probably more detailed just in 5e products than any of WOTC’s home campaigns.

Midgard Campaign Setting Reviews

The various player’s guides have a ton of subclasses, new races, and expanded spells for players to engage with, as well as some of the best-expanded monster options with the Tome of Beasts and the Creature Codex.

Options

The main reason I wanted to recap all of this is not to advocate for a specific position, but to understand that WOTC has put a lot of people in a really bad position by undermining a lot of what they have been advocating lately. That said, there are a lot of people that have produced some excellent quality material that is associated with 5th edition D&D, but have nothing to do with any of the decisions begin made at a corporate level.

This also allows you to try something different with your games. There are so many third party options, and I know when I have used the settings and the materials I have listed above, often players will still default to official WOTC material. You may get to see some interesting options at play if you only have the OGL and setting specific material available for a campaign.

Also, none of this is meant to slight the Scarred Lands 5e material, Sasquatch Studio’s Primeval Thule 5e conversion, the Arcanis campaign setting, or any other 5e based epic high fantasy games that may be out there. I just haven’t had time to review these products to the degree that I have the above, and wanted to give a quick primer on what might be available.

This is a pivotal time. I think if you have ever loved D&D, you should let WOTC know what they have done to jeopardize your patronage. Keep an eye on them, keep the pressure on them, and communicate.

 

#iHunt: The RPG Review Up at Gnome Stew

298255I’ve got another review up, this time at Gnome Stew, where I’m looking at the fate based monster-hunting RPG #iHunt, which is based on a series of urban fantasy stories set in the fictitious California city of San Jenaro.

#iHunt: The RPG Review

Hunters don’t look for obscure clues in newspapers or on conspiracy theory websites. They look at an app purpose-built for gig economy hunters. These hunters aren’t trying to save the world, they are trying to save up enough to make the rent.

If all of this sounds interesting to you, swing by Gnome Stew for the review, and thanks!

What Do I Know About Reviews? Custom Ancestries and Cultures (5e OGL)

Custom Ancestry CoverI moved my current review up the list, in part because it’s related to another recent review, and in part because I missed this product in the context of another review that I was writing, and it’s relevant to a point that I made in that review. I’m going to look at Custom Ancestries and Cultures from Arcanist Press, a companion volume to Ancestry and Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e. In that product review, I mentioned how much I liked the concept, but that some players might miss the non-OGL options. This addresses that rather directly.

All About The PDF

The PDF for this product is 56 pages long. This includes a full-page OGL statement, a title and credits page, and a full-page table of contents, and then it jumps right into a lot of expanded ancestries and cultures.

The formatting is still very clear and similar in structure to the 5e standard, although it looks a little less like the standard D&D version of formatting than Ancestry and Culture. Unlike Ancestry and Culture’s line art, this used full-color art from a variety of artists to illustrate various ancestries.

Sensitivity Readers 

Custom Ancestries and Cultures credits its sensitivity readers, but an additional step that I’ve not seen in other products is that certain ancestries are noted as having been specifically developed with the input of those sensitivity readers. This gives more of a feeling of ongoing input from those sensitivity readers, and I like the window into how the product came together.

Roll Call

It’s probably worth the space to call out all of the ancestries in the product. Most of these have an accompanying culture, but a few of them are ancestries only.

  • Awakened Undead (No culture defined)
  • Amazon
  • Aquatic Elf (Deep, Lake, and Sea cultures)
  • Azer
  • Bat Folk
  • Bear Folk
  • Bird Folk (Song, Nocturnal, Raptor, and Waterfowl options)
  • Blood Sprite
  • Bugbear
  • Cat Folk
  • Constructs
  • Couatl Folk
    The Crystar (Crystal constructs)
  • Dhampir
  • Dog Folk
  • Dryad
  • The Dullahan
  • Dwarf (Deep, Rock, and Sea cultures)
  • Elf (Deep and Forest cultures)
  • Entropian (Sort of like Tieflings, but with creatures from Limbo)
  • Fey Kin
  • Fox Folk
  • Gnoll
  • Gnome (Deep and Wood cultures)
  • Goblins
  • Grimalkin (Like Cat Folk, but more subtly feline)
  • Hag Folk
  • Halfling (Sturdy and Urban cultures)
  • Hippo Folk
  • Hiveling (Hive creature with a collective intelligence)
  • Homunculus Folk
  • Ink Hexen (Humans born with a magical tattoo)
  • Insect Folk
  • Kangra
  • Kobold
  • Leomainn (Moth people)
  • Lizard Folk
  • Lycanthrope Descendant
  • Medusan
  • Merfolk
  • Mimic Folk
  • Minotaur
  • Nictator (Frog or toad folk)
  • Noumenon (Living spell energy)
  • Octofolk
  • Oxenfolk
  • Paragons (Culture only, descended from some line of heroes)
  • Qivux (More fox-like fox folk, with fire affinity)
  • Quasi-Phorcysite (Humans that have survived being infected with tentacular larva)
  • Raptor Folk
  • Rakshasans
  • Rat Folk
  • Re-Forged (Humans with construct prosthesis)
  • Satyrs
  • Shapeshifter
  • Snake Folk
  • Spider Kin
  • Troll Folk
  • Turtle Folk
  • Werecat
  • Wolf Folk

There isn’t much that I have seen across the official game settings, or even some of the most well known 3rd party settings, that doesn’t have some kind of analogous example in this product. This is a huge toolbox for a D&D campaign.

The analogous ancestries are strong expressions of those concepts, but in some cases, the features of the individual ancestry have a few new quirks. For example, aquatic elves are given a trait where they gain advantage against being blinded by physical attacks to the eyes, because of the membrane on their eyes. I love that the Hippo Folk not only like to use gunpowder, but adds in their affinity for ballet, meaning that if you take the Hippo Folk culture, you are proficient in dancing.

Some ancestries get similar abilities to an “emulated” element from official D&D products, but with a slightly different rules element associated with them. For example, giant kin can spend their hit dice to lessen incoming damage. Deep dwarves and deep elves don’t map 100% to duergar or drow, but instead present a more “neutral” interpretation of deep Underdark dwelling versions of these ancestries.

For anyone looking to use this with Eberron, the Constructs, Lycanthrope Descendant, and Shapeshifter map pretty closely to the Warforged, Shifter, and Changeling archetypes. Cat Folk, Snake Folk, and Turtle Folk are all pretty obvious stand-ins for Tabaxi, Yuan-Ti, and Tortles.

Some of these ancestries and cultures aren’t directly drawn from official D&D inspiration, but they are logical extrapolations. For example, it makes sense to extrapolate more anthropomorphic animal humanoids. There was a prestige class for characters that were partially transformed Illithids in 3.5 (my daughter played one), but the Quasi-Phorcysite helps envision this background from the start of a campaign.

There are some really imaginative ancestries included, some of which I’d be really excited to include in a campaign, and a few that are great ideas, but I’m not sure exactly what their story is from the text. For example, I like the idea of Fey Kin (humans that have spent enough time in fey realms that they are changed) and Hag Folk, and I love how all of the fey ancestries and cultures mixed and matched could help to create a more traditional (not Eberron) changeling narrative. I love the idea of moth people that are pretty good at imitating humans.  On the other hand, the Ink Hexen seems cool, but it’s a little confusing.

I can’t help but think about mixing and matching a human ancestry with an Amazonian culture to make a version of Donna Troy, or using almost any Ancestry with the Paragon culture to make families of ancient heroes raised to do “great things,” and expected to go out and adventure to live up to that training.

Infinite Variety

There is a lot of imagination on display here. The more cultures and ancestries are presented, the more they can be mixed and matched for a strong, custom-built character concept. The wide range of examples makes these easier to implement into even highly specialized D&D settings.

Encroaching Chaos

Because there are so many options presented, it’s hard to wrap my brain around anything that might jump out as out of whack. For example, I’m not sure if letting a Giant Kin use their hit dice a number of times equal to con versus once per short rest is too much of an ongoing advantage. A few of the mechanics feel a little muddy, and some of the “story” of the ancestries aren’t expressed as well in the space they are given.

Recommended—If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

I really hope that eventually, WOTC adopts an approach to ancestry that looks like what the Arcanist Press solution looks like, and I love the character concepts you can build by mixing and matching Ancestry and Culture. I think this product should appeal to anyone that likes to tinker with rules in D&D, as well as anyone that really likes to have additional options for their D&D 5e games.

I’ll be honest, I’m keeping my eyes open for a Custom Ancestries and Cultures 2 product down the road.

What Do I Know About First Impressions? The Art of Conan

CACoverI mentioned when I did my line overview article on Modiphius’ Conan line that way back when the line started, I purchased the “get all the PDFs” bundle, so I’ve been watching the line progress. I received another PDF, but this was sent to me as a review copy from Modiphius.

This product is a little different, because it is a collection of the artwork that has appeared in the Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of RPG line. This is just titled The Art of Conan, and while it has the 2d20 logo on it, there aren’t any game rules in the product.

I’m going to do this particular article as a First Impressions article. I’ve looked through the artwork and have seen how the chapters are structured, but I haven’t done a front to back read through of the content.

Overall Structure

The book is a full color PDF that is 120 pages long, and it has the same style and formatting as the RPG releases for the line. There are introductory paragraphs that are usually excerpts from Howard’s stories, two column formatting where the chapter discusses the product where the art originally appeared, and then sidebars about the artists and their thoughts on the images that they produced.

There is an introduction, and then a separate chapter for each of the books that has be released for the line so far, with the exception of the cross promotional books which had RPG material from the Monolith board game and the Conan The Exiles MMO. The front and back of the book contains the two page spread of the Hyborean era map that has appeared in several of the RPG products before.

Chapter Structure

The individual chapters include the quote from Howard, a description of the product from which the art was derived, and the artist’s discussion of the two-page spread that served as the cover piece from the book in question. Some of these pieces are representational works, not taken from any specific story, but just portraying Conan in some iconic situation. Other cover spreads, like the image of the Frost Giant’s Daughter, where Conan is pursuing a woman while fighting her brothers, are taken from the various stories written by Howard.

The introduction to the chapters often has an image taken from one of the character type illustrations for the player options in that book, and after the two-page spread that served as the cover of the book, the rest of the chapter is often a half-page illustration and two quarter-page illustrations, or occasionally a full-page image taken from a particular book.

Character Studies

It is interesting to contrast how the different artwork in the books evokes different feelings. The individual characters that are presented in the books as example character types often look like strong, competent, respectful representations of the cultures from which the Hyborean era has “borrowed.”

This character archetype artwork often portrays female and male presenting characters almost equally, and the ethnicity of the characters in the given sourcebook usually determines the degree to which the book presents people of color. For example, it’s hard to find any people of color in the Conan the Barbarian sourcebook, because it is depicting cultures that were drawn from Celtic, Germanic, and Nordic sources, and despite Conan’s own travels, apparently he’s the only person that visits other cultures as an adventurer in the Hyborian age.

So, let me take a moment here to say, I like the character archetype artwork. While its not as varied in some of the sourcebooks as it could be, the people portrayed in the archetypes across the whole line tend to be a bit more diverse, not overly sexualized, and not framed in a derogatory manner. I wanted to point out that in this instance, I’m talking about the archetype artwork.

RidersSourcebook Images

What I mean by “sourcebook images” are the images that are meant to be scenes from various locations that are being detailed in the individual books. In other words, in Conan the Barbarian, once you get past the archetype images, you are seeing barbarians from the northern Hyborean age regions. Once you get into Conan the Brigand, you are seeing the lower middle nations that are drawn from middle-eastern cultures, etc.

These images can vary greatly and can play into a lot of stereotypes. Because the middle eastern-influenced Hyborean nations are detailed in Conan the Brigand, most of the Mediterranean presenting characters in the artwork are thieves, bandits, or merchants. Because Conan the King deals with the nations that are drawn more of medieval cultures, the white European presenting characters have architecture pulled from a later period in history, so have more intricate castles and homes, plate armor and steel.

In this case, it’s a matter of the artwork mimicking the problems that Howard introduced into his setting by creating a patchwork world where some influences were drawn from the bronze age, others from medieval era sources, and we see those disparate cultures as contemporaries in the Hyborean era instead of seeing the actual nations that were present with one another in history.

Conan the Wanderer, which touches on the Hyborean version of Asian cultures, seems to indicate that only China, India, and Mongolia exist beyond the European influenced cultures that we see, and the Hyborean east is a lot more pan-Asian than the west is pan-European.

It is also noteworthy that Conan the Adventurer, the book that portrays the “Black Kingdoms” of Hyborean, has a cover that defaults to featuring Conan and Belit, rather than any Black characters.

The exceptions to this are the chapters not based on the “Conan the” theme, which included the sourcebooks dealing with magic, cults, monsters, and Atlantis. These don’t portray real-world analogous cultures, so much as they portray themes. Kull of Atlantis was a different style, regarding the artwork, however, as Justin Sweet’s art is used throughout the book.

Frost Giant's DaughterThe Male Gaze

There are many images of female-presenting characters that are not overly sexualized, nor framed in a way that sets them to the side of the male presenting characters. There are female-presenting warriors with similar weapons and armor to the male presenting characters in these images, that look like component and dangerous adventurers. Unfortunately, there are a lot more images that just don’t feature female-presenting characters at all. In mass battle scenes, everyone appears to be male presenting. Many of the “cultural context” images show male presenting characters are armed and female-presenting characters as more passive.

This disparity skyrockets if the image includes Conan himself. Everyone wants to emulate Frazetta, and by that, I mean that if its an image with Conan, and there is a female-presenting character, odds are she has fewer clothes than in any of the other artwork. If she’s got a weapon, she’s probably not aggressively using it, but brandishing it passively. Conan is probably standing between her and danger, unless it’s the Frost Giant’s Daughter image, in which case, he’s the danger to her.

I know that the covers and the Conan specific images have a lot of pop culture inertia, but it feels very strange to go from the character archetype artwork to the Conan-centric spreads and look at the differences. 

ArcherBut Do You Know If Its Art?

The maps of the Hyborean Age are gorgeous. I love the archetype artwork in these books, and a lot of the atmospheric pieces do lovely things light lighting and color. Orange and yellow booths in taverns, unnaturally lit blues and greens when undead rise, and muted greens and yellows swirling around unnatural tentacled creatures all look great.

As much as the story is very fraught, from a “we’re suppose to be rooting for a guy chasing a naked woman because he’s obsessed with her” angle, I love the two page spread of The Frost Giant’s Daughter, as its clean and cold, and the greys and whites contrast sharply with the reds and browns in the images.

Ironically, the images that capture my imagination the least tend to be the images of Conan. Everyone wants their turn at being Frazetta, and I’ve already seen Frazetta. Some of the most compelling images of the man himself for me are the ones that play against type. Shirt, armor, pants, using local weaponry instead of a sword that looks like it can straight out of Arnie’s movies.

I really want to like the image pulled from “Beyond the Black River,” as it’s one of my favorite of Howard’s Conan stories, but there is one too many images in the book that is Conan standing in a mound of bodies that are all people of color, and the Picts in these stories are at least partially analogous to the indigenous people of North America.

There really are some gorgeous long view images of countrysides, castles, and cities in these sourcebooks as well.

Beyond the Black RiverChecking for Danger

There are a lot of quotes that get picked for these chapter headers that make me wonder why that particular passage had to be reproduced. The descriptions of the Zamorians, the framing of native people afraid of their own environment before Conan comes to tame it for them, comparisons of the Picts to beasts, and the constant reflexive use of “black” for anything ominous . . . in all of Howard’s body of work, there have to be some illustrative quotes that don’t showcase his worst aspects, right?

Final Thoughts

Conan is such a twisted heap of emotions for me. It’s such a foundational element of modern fantasy, and I have fond memories of many of the stories that I read, but there are also so many problems, problems that have gotten embedded in modern fantasy. The artwork in the books is often gorgeous, but it is very much entangled with themes and tropes that Howard established.

This book, not entirely like modern fantasy, replicates a lot of the problems of the past, under the aegis of reverence and nostalgia. I wish more of the book looked like those archetypes.

What Do I Know About Reviews? The Underworld Player’s Guide (5e OGL)

UWPG CoverIt’s no secret that I’ve invested a lot of my gaming efforts to Kobold Press’ Midgard in recent years. I ran a campaign set in Zobeck, and am almost finished running the Tales of the Old Margreve adventure anthology. Because of that, it’s probably not a surprise that I backed the Kickstarter for the Empire of the Ghouls adventure, and my pledge included the Underworld Player’s Guide.

I’ve got a semi-strange disclaimer, in that I backed this Kickstarter, but then received a review copy from Kobold Press.

Content Warning

Before I get into the review proper, I wanted to put a content warning here. This content warning is as much because I want warnings and safety discussions normalized, and there is no reason that material produced for the World’s Most Obliquely Referenced Roleplaying Game to be exempted.

The material in this book addresses violence, slavery, mental illness, cannibalism, blood, dismemberment, seduction, and the removal of personal agency.

Product Synergy

A few of the spells granted by race or subclass give certain options that are also listed as granting options in Kobold Press products instead, if those sources are available. Some of the spells default to summoning creatures from the Tome of Beasts, rather than any of the core D&D products, so you may need to reference similar CR “official” monsters if you don’t have that resource.

Book of the (Nearly) Dead

This review is based on the PDF of the product, which is what I currently have available at the time of this writing. The PDF is 70 pages long, with a credits page, a table of contents/legal text page, and a full-page ad for other Kobold Press products on the final page.

The formatting of this book is two-column, and has a similar look to many other Kobold Press books. The pages are a light cream color, with a watermark like skull behind the text (which is similar, but different, than the Margreve books). There is a skull and bones red border and red headers throughout the book.

The artwork is attractive and full color. In some places this is artwork that has appeared elsewhere in Kobold Press books, but some of the new options presented in the book, like the Dark Trollkin, Drow, and Mushroomfolk, have new illustrations.

Red WinterOrganizations

The opening chapter details several organizations that are tied to either the Ghoul Imperium or the Blood Kingdom of Morgau. That means many of the ins and outs of these organizations will be casting them in contrast to the status quo of the ghouls and vampires of the Midgard setting.

The Order of the Ebon Star is an organization of dissidents from the Ghoul Imperium that have embraced Sarastra, the Queen of Night and Magic. For her own reasons, the fey queen is aiding these rebels in their efforts against their former domain, granting the ghouls pledged to her the ability to resist the daylight.

The Red Winter is an organization within the church of Marena, the blood goddess, who believe that vampires shouldn’t be in a position of authority over living priests of Marena, and secretly work to undermine the efforts of the vampires.

Both organizations have notes on how they are structured, how they interact with other organizations, what the goals of the organizations are, and advice on how to play a member of the organization.

I wasn’t expecting new organizations at the start of a player facing book, but I love both of these. There feels like just enough wiggle room to not play either organization as fully evil, and both of them give characters a reason to be close to vampires and ghouls. It might even allow for some double agent action that could be very compelling for campaigns centered around the Imperium or Morgau.

ShadeRaces

This section introduces player character options for playing Darkhul (ghouls), Dark Trollkin, Derro, Dhampir, Drow, Mushroomfolk, Satarre (kind of like Dragonborn affiliated with Nidhogg, so more nihilistic in tone), and Shade (mostly dead people).

Darakhul have what are effectively subraces for several different Midgard people from whom they may have sprung. Dark Trollkin are presented as a subrace of the main Trollkin races presented in the Midgard Heroes Handbook. Derro, Dhampir, Drow, and Mushroomfolk all have subraces presented for them as well.

Darakhul, Derro, and Dhampir have appeared in other products, but get a revision for this book. The changes to Darakhul lowers the ability bonus gained from being a ghoul, and shifts the +2 bonus as part of the subrace heritage that the character gains. Additionally, the heritage now adds a twisted version of a past racial ability. For example, halflings now inflict bad luck on enemies instead of having good luck themselves, forcing the adversary to reroll 20s against the former halfling.

Derro have been changed to having three subraces, based on how they were affected by being exposed to cosmic forces mortals were not meant to encounter. One subrace is affected mentally, another physically, and the final version are Derro that have managed to avoid any effect from exposure to the wrongness of the multiverse. This also shifts the +1 that the Derro used to have assigned for the base race to a different +1 for each subrace.

The Dhampir in the Midgard Heroes Handbook had a Predatory Charm ability that was specifically magical, and once it was no longer active, characters effected were automatically hostile towards the Dhampir. The new version isn’t noted as expressly magical, and doesn’t leave targets hostile afterward. Additionally, there is an option to play Feral Dhampir, which don’t have Predatory Charm, but have a better bite attack option.

There are some great traits across all of these player options. Dark Trolls have malleable bodies and can make their skin slimy. Drow and Mushroomfolk have subraces that are based on different cultural positions within their communities. Sartarre can cause opponents to start rotting. Shades become more ghostly the more injured they are, or the less they remember their mortal life.

I love the change to the drow origin in the Midgard setting. They are nearly extinct, as the ghouls have ravaged their underground communities. However, instead of being an evil empire of matriarchal demon worshipers, they have always lived underground, and have always placed a high value on studying arthropods in their environment to learn how to contribute to society.

The “evil banished elves” origin is mentioned as a false rumor about the drow, and notes that drow may be related to elves, but aren’t an evil offshoot that was cursed. Their subclasses are split between Delvers (physical labor background), Fever-Bit (survivors of ghoul attacks), and Purified (spellcasters). The “fey that always lived underground” reimagining reminds me of the drow lore in Spire, without the explicit marginalization by high elves.

SatarreThere are still a few areas I wish were a little less absolute in these entries. There isn’t really much of a discussion about actual mental health issues with the Derro, and being insane is their primary trait. I do like the expanded lore that the Derro feel that something apocalyptic is coming, and they expose their children to something “beyond” to prepare them.

I also appreciate that there are options to lean into physical mutations, or without any traits gained from outsider exposure. There is also an odd reference to the relationship between the Derro and the Drow where Derro are mentioned as long ago serving as the Drow’s slave keepers, but nothing in the Drow entry bears this out, and it almost feels like it might be an artifact of creating a relationship that made sense for “standard” D&D drow.

The Dhampir are noted as being almost unconsciously good at the things that vampires excel at, so their charming ability is just kind of a reflexive thing. Since so much of the entry is talking about how the Dhampir can resist the vampire traits of their undead parent, I wish Predatory Charm had been named almost anything else. It’s a more loaded name for an ability that isn’t nearly as sinister as it sounds. I am glad that the Feral Dhampir is included as an option.

I’m kind of fascinated by the Sartarre, but there is a heavy push towards them being drawn to evil due to their connection to Nidhogg and the end of the world. So much so that most standard Sartarre are born into serving evil cults. Given that some of the Sartarre are mentioned as not being especially drawn to accelerating the end of the world, I almost wish the emphasis had been more on entropy rather than malevolent cults.

Regardless, I like the imagination on display here, and I appreciate that some of the mechanical things done here aren’t likely to be seen in a WOTC book (i.e. creating subraces for all the common races in the game for the Darakhul), but are great for making content for campaigns dealing with specific topics and themes.

Class Options

The next section adds several subclasses to the standard classes available to characters, including:

  • Barbarian (Path of the Ebon Star)
  • Bard (College of Echoes)
  • Monk (Way of Sated Hunger)
  • Paladin (Oath of Consumption, Oath of the Plaguetouched)
  • Ranger (Imperial Hunter)
  • Rogue (Herald of the Ebon Star, Soulspy)
  • Sorcerer (Hungering Origin, Spore Sorcery)
  • Wizard (Gravebinding, White Necromancy)

All of these class options tie into the themes of the Empire of the Ghouls adventure in one way or another, whether it’s through a connection to the undead or underground locations. Many of these have restrictions, so that only Darakhul or Dhampir can access them, or Darakhul cannot take a given option. One thing I wasn’t thrilled with is that the White Necromancer is mentioned as being “non-evil,” and that’s a restriction 5e has removed from class-related mechanics.

The Path of the Ebon Star is touched by The Queen of Night and Magic, which grants them the ability to blind opponents with their strikes, gives them resistance to necrotic energy and adds force damage to their attacks, makes them immune to disease, and lets them charge undead enemies.

The College of Echoes can use abilities like echolocation, enhancing, dampening, and distorting sounds, and adding thunder damage to ally’s attacks. They also gain the ability to disrupt enemy spellcasters by altering sound to force them to make a concentration check to successfully cast their spell. This doesn’t mention using a reaction, just a use of bardic inspiration, so in theory, they could disrupt multiple spellcasters in the same round.

The Way of Sated Hunger is a monk tradition that allows you to add necrotic damage to unarmed bite attacks in exchange for ki, can heal others with ki as well as remove their hunger, and at 17th levels grants them the ability to incapacitate opponents for a round by inflicting hunger on them. I really like the . . . um . . . flavor of basing this monastic tradition on Darakhul and Dhampir that have mastered and harnessed their hunger, and I like how the story of this subclass can play into a heroic portrayal of those people.

The Oath of Consumption feels like it would be a hard sell for unproblematic play, as their tenets are Devour, Debase, Demoralize, and Despoil. You may have a really intense person on your side, but some of those tenets are leaning heavily into “but my character” facilitation. On the flip side, the Oath of the Plaguetouched is all about someone surviving darakhul fever and being driven to mitigate the harm caused by the undead. They gain a channel divinity that effectively “marks” undead, making you the most optimal target, and you radiate resistance to necrotic damage. You also get really good at curing disease with your lay on hands, and at 20th level you can shed sunlight for a minute, adding advantage and extra damage to your attacks against undead.

Imperial Hunter rangers are, by default, scouts for the Imperium, but can be deserters or rangers that happened to learn similar skills. They gain bonus spells based on the general undead theme, and can have an undead animal companion. At 7th level, your companion can attack as a reaction and do extra necrotic damage, and can share regained hit points and eventually share damage from non-radiant attacks.

The Herald of the Ebon Star rogue can summon a special weapon from the Queen of Night and Magic, can turn invisible in dim light as a reaction once per rest, can save against critical hits at higher levels, and eventually can add force damage against undead when sneak attacking. The soulspy is a divine spellcasting progression rogue that also gains a holy symbol that can morph to a multi-tool of sorts. They also gain a ranged “touch” ability to target others at 13th level, and can channel healing into an ally when you harm something with your spells once per rest at 17th level.

The Hungering sorcerous origin gives you the ability to know how injured others are, gain hit points when you drop opponents to 0 hit points, regain sorcery points when dropping opponents, regain sorcery points for intentionally failing saves against hostile spells, and reduce the cost in sorcery points for metamagic or spell slots. Spore sorcerers can pick up some druidic spells, use spores to communicate telepathically, modify metamagic with released spores, release spores that hinder enemies and add temporary hit points to allies, and finally as a capstone, assume spore form.

In addition to the sorcerous origins, there are five new metamagic options. These allow characters to do things like gaining hit points for dropping someone to 0 hit points with spells, bypass immunities, or cast a concentration spell without requiring concentration. I imagine that one might be popular (it will cost you 3 sorcery points and changes concentration duration to 10 minutes, and you can’t have more than one spell modified this way at a time).

Gravebinding wizards lose the ability to animate, conjure, or create any undead, but can inscribe runes on corpses to keep them from rising as undead. They gain special spells geared towards fighting undead automatically in their spellbooks, and can ward their allies to impose disadvantage on undead opponents. At higher level, they gain bonus radiant damage to spells against the undead, and eventually can generate a radiant nimbus that can frighten undead and cause damage to undead attacking you once per long rest. White necromancers get spare the dying, and have a limited ability to heal. When they animate or summon the undead, they actually bargain with them to perform tasks, which then allows them to move on to their final rest. Eventually you emit a field around you at high level that grants advantage to effects that reduce hit point maximums.

Whew, that’s a lot going on in the classes chapter. Much like the races chapter, this allows for some very custom-tailored class options for the campaign at hand, for example with the Ebon Star related classes. I appreciate the thematic strength of all of the classes, and there are several that I couldn’t help thinking “I want to play one of these.”

There are some specific little touches that I love. I want to be a wizard drawing a little rune on a fallen ally to keep them from coming back from the dead. I want to be a monk that has transcended the need to eat flesh or drink blood, so I can focus on being a heroic character. One thing that I wish were easier to address is that many subclass options hit at 2nd or 3rd level, so a character may need to have their “story” in mind before they pick up the subclass that supports that story, and I would hate for some of these stories to not be affecting the character until they took their subclass.

Really not sure I can wrap my head around a non-party disruptive Oath of Consumption character. I’m also interested to see how a bard spending bardic inspiration to counter spells will feel in a campaign, and I’m curious to see what making a metamagic ability to ignore concentration will do as far as other sorcerous options.

Backgrounds and Trinkets

The backgrounds presented in this section include Ghoul Imperium Deserters, Red Winter Adherents, and Diwali Embalmers. I like the features of these backgrounds. Deserters have alternate identities set up, Adherents can call on help in Morgau from their coconspirators, and Embalmers are really good at researching burial locations and making history checks about people whose gravesites they have visited. These remind me that I wish people would remember and play into their background features more.

There are a few options under the traits, bonds, ideals, and flaws that make me a little concerned. For example, the deserter has a “revenge against my spouse for taking my kids” motivation that makes me really uncomfortable, and the Adherent has an “I like the seduction part of Marena’s portfolio a little too much” that is just open-ended enough to make me worry about how that plays out.

Speaking of things I wish people (including me) remembered, I love the Underworld Trinkets table. There are so many creepy, gross, or just subtly haunting items on this chart. Also, in-world political commentary items. I now want to think of other items that might be made from hardened gelatinous cube. I am also upset with myself for not making or looking for a custom trinket table for my last two campaigns.

Spells

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that most of the spells included have themes of necromancy, blood magic, or warding against the same. For what it’s worth, not all blood magic is sinister, although even the more utilitarian spells are still creepy.

There are blood magic spells that allow you to physically control a target whose blood you have, inflict extra damage on them by injuring them through their blood, and cutting them with magic to make them bleed. There is also a divination spell that lets you learn about a target whose blood you have secured.

Some of the necromancy spells mimic undead abilities, like a necromantic wail or the paralyzing claws of a ghoul. Others allow the caster to tuck their consciousness into a dead body and animate it, or to summon specifically spectral undead.

In some cases, the spells allow you to bolster a linked ally, letting you split regained hit points or stabilize one another through the link. There is also a spell that protects against any ability drain or maximum hit point loss.

has an interesting “At High Levels” effect. It’s an 8th level spell with a duration of Concentration, but when cast at 9th level, the spell duration changes to 10 minutes and is no longer a concentration spell. I don’t remember seeing that “upcast” effect before. In this case, 8th to 9th level isn’t too dramatic, but I wouldn’t want to see that on too many lower-level concentration spells. That said, I actually would like it amended to some things like Hunter’s Mark or Stoneskin.

My SonUnderworld Beasts

Before we look at what beasts are included, I just want to point out that I really want to see more beasts. I think there should be a lot more beasts that are just animals we don’t have in the real world, but still in that niche. I think more beasts should have flashy recharge abilities or special abilities that reflect how actual animals hunt, to make them more interesting.

Many of the creatures we get here exist to provide more familiar or animal companion options. We get the bilby, cave goat, fennec fox, ghoul bat (the only non-beast here), giant armadillo, lantern beetle, and sniffer beetle.

Ghoul bats are often used as messengers by the Imperium, and lantern beetles and sniffer beetles are also used by the ghouls as light sources and to use as guides or to search for contraband, respectively. I’m not sure why the giant armadillo was included (in this case, that makes them small), but I love them and you can’t take them away from me ever again. They get a special ability to tuck into a ball and gain resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing attacks. But you shouldn’t attack them, because they are precious.

I may have wanted a few more “niche filling” creatures for an underworld game, but there are also lots of options in the enormous monster books published by Kobold Press, so I’m not going to complain too much. I’m also making a drow ranger with a giant armadillo companion because I need to do it, and you can’t stop me.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

There are some wonderfully imaginative options in this book, and while they are tailored to an underground/undead themed campaign, that’s not as restrictive as some other themes might be. I love the support for the organizations introduced, and I love the various subclasses that help reinforce a heroic narrative for some of the people with grimmer reputations.

There is a strong element of customization with the subraces, and allowing for a less narrow narrative of some of the people presented because of those subraces. I like that many of them seem to exist less because of divergent branches and more along the lines of societal backgrounds within the same society. I love what was done with the drow, and if a background like this, that completely removes the intrinsic evil/curse elements while still adding a strong underground/insectile narrative could be worked into the core assumptions of drow, I would love it.

Dark Caverns

I wish there were more discussion about safety in general, and specific topics like mental health and avoiding stigmatization with the derro, as an example. While the sidebar on Derro is more open-minded, the core discussion of the race still hews a little too close to mental illness = evil. I understand thematic naming conventions, but the implications of the Dhampir’s abilities tell a story that a player may not be fond of implying, and as an aside, why is the human parent for the Dhampir implied to be female?

There is a lot of good, solid, imaginative material that still occasionally falls back into well-trodden tropes that may cause more harm than good.

Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

There are a lot of reasons to recommend this. It’s a great resource if you are already into the Midgard setting. It’s still a great resource if you want to run an underground/underdark/undead themed campaign. It’s an even better resource if you want to see how you can reimagine a race like the drow and remove the harmful tropes attached to it, while still keeping some of the aspects that have been associated with them in the past.

There are imaginative subclasses and trinkets, and reading this just reinforces that I want to use these elements in a game. But the most compelling thing I can say is, it has a giant armadillo in it.

What Do I Know About Reviews? Ancestry and Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e (5e OGL)

CoverThere has been a lot of discussion about race in Dungeons and Dragons, and what the mechanics and terminology says about the biases we have in the real world. There have been several passes at this concept so far, including James Haek’s article on D&D Beyond, and Grazilaxx’s Guide to Ancestry (which I reviewed at the link). This has become important enough that Wizards of the Coast as addressed this here, and will be taking some action based on this in the future.

Before I dive in, I also wanted to touch on a few other RPGs, especially with the terminology that will be used. The first RPG I recall to use Ancestry instead of Race was Shadow of the Demon Lord, although it doesn’t radically alter the way Race/Ancestry has presented rules to reinforce that concept. I am almost certain someone more knowledgeable will be able to find an even earlier example.

Pathfinder 2nd Edition uses the term Ancestry as well. What D&D calls race and subrace, Pathfinder calls Ancestry and Heritage. Ability flaws are still tied to ancestry (flaws in Pathfinder are places where you take penalties to your ability scores). This means that the concept becomes more customizable, but still, one that leans into biological determinism on some level.

Okay, now that we took a tour of the RPG landscape and some D&D adjacent rules, let’s look at what I’m planning on reviewing today, Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e.

PDF Characteristics

The PDF for Ancestry & Culture is 71 pages long, with a title and credits page, a table of contents, and two pages of legal text. The greater legal text is due to this product being an OGL product rather than a Dungeon Masters Guild Product.

The cover art makes an impact right from the start, with a female-presenting orc wearing a detailed gown, knighting another character. Internally, there is detailed line art depicting communities with multiple ancestries, and also character studies of character with mixed ancestries (Dragonborn/elf characters, halfling/Tiefling characters, etc.) and cultures.

The formatting is very similar to the standard Dungeons and Dragons 5e core rulebooks, including page backgrounds and headers. One difference from the 5e standard is that the pages are single column instead of dual columns.

Ancestries and Cultures

The first section presents the “core” Dungeons and Dragons races, but divides them between traits that are gained from Ancestry, and traits that are gained from culture. To decouple ability scores from reinforcing biological determinism, any ability boosts that a character gains come from culture. Weapon proficiencies, skills, and even spells that a character might cast all come from culture, with size, age, and traits like Darkvision, breath weapons, or speed all related to Ancestry.

What this means is that it’s very easy to play a Tiefling raised in just about any culture, a dwarf raised among humans, or a halfling raised among elves. When discussing how these were divided, the text mentions that one goal was to avoid a point-buy version of ancestry, so that choices, at base, are only transitioning from one decision to two.

One thing worth pointing out is that, as an OGL product, this only touches on the races that were free to use. That means there are only Hill Dwarves, Lightfoot Halflings, High Elves, and Rock Gnomes presented in this product (along with humans, Tieflings, and Dragonborn).

Mixed Ancestry and Diverse Culture

After the section that is presenting Ancestry and Culture, there are several options for customization. There is a process for creating mixed ancestral traits, which includes comparing ages and walking speed, then picking from among the presented ancestral traits of the character’s forbears.

There is a similar section for amalgamating the cultural traits that were presented in the previous section. This also includes a section on personalized cultural traits that are more flexible and can be used to represent a wider range of character types.

Because there is a limited range of races that could be adapted from the OGL, the next section deals with custom building races that might appear in other sources, with guidelines on how to split racial traits into ancestry and culture. This uses the existing OGL racial traits as examples of where to draw the line when converting.

I fully understand the limits of the OGL, and I really appreciate the process that went into this section of the rules. The division of culture and ancestry gets me excited for the concept of customizing, for example, elves from Evermeet versus elves from Evereska in the Forgotten Realms. I do wish there had been perhaps an example of a “new but similar to” race, but I understand not wanting to skirt the line of what might be allowed.

Light of Unity, Helping Hands

The first 30 page is dedicated to the OGL conversion to Ancestry and Culture, as well as the guidelines for making conversions. The rest of the product is comprised of two adventures featuring either a multi-cultural village (Light of Unity), or the need to bring together neighboring settlements (Helping Hands).

Light of Unity revolves around a growing corruption spreading from a warded area whose magic is failing, investigation, and interaction with different cultures that are present in the town to learn how to repair the ward, before facing down the monsters that have already breached the ward.

Helping Hands revolves around an elven settlement harmed by a forest fire, and potential negotiations to get nearby orc, gnome, and halfling villages to band together. In many cases, this involves solving problems for those neighboring villages, which may also come down to either negotiation on behalf of the settlement, or facing a threat to the village.

One of the interesting aspects of these adventures is that some of the level adjustments to encounters include modifying the recharge ability of some monsters, which is the kind of ability tweaking that I appreciate for bumping the D&D dials up and down. I also like that even with the strong “communication between cultures” theme of both adventures, that there are still action scenes, playing to a lot of D&D’s core competencies.

Expanded Horizons

The opening discussion about why race needs to be addressed in Dungeons and Dragons and the ongoing issues is one of the best laid out that I’ve seen on the topic, and there are hyperlinked references for the various sources referenced. I love the possibilities for mixing and matching culture and ancestries, and I appreciate the step by step procedure for producing customized results.

The adventures have some inventive ideas about varying encounters, and provide short, thematic adventures that are easy to follow and have just enough of variance on a theme to make them stand out.

Shadows of the Past 

While both of the adventures are solid and engaging, some buyers may not want 50% of the product to be adventures based on the theme. As I mentioned previously, I understand the limitations of the OGL, but I still wished for an extra ancestry/culture or two beyond the standard OGL examples.

Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

This is an important topic in gaming at the moment, and this product addresses it well. If you are the type of gamer that is inspired to tinker based on examples, this is going to be a great resource. Beyond the game material in the product, I’d recommend it for the introduction and its engagement with the topic race and the problem with the concept in D&D. If you just happen to want some additional one-shot adventures as well as a product that will address the topic, this is even easier to recommend.

Looking at the Building Blocks in Mothership

One of the things that convinced me to do my first impression of Mothership is that, as I’ve been playing the game and reading the Player’s Survival Guide, it strikes me that it’s a pretty flexible system for running science fiction that is based on stressful situations with mysterious developments. The system itself is billed as a science fiction horror RPG, and I definitely won’t question that, but there are a lot of “sci-fi horror adjacent” science fiction stories that use the same tropes as science fiction horror.

Building Blocks

Looking just at some of the stories from the genre, you have the Aliens movies, Pandorum, and Event Horizon for movies, and video games like the Dead Space games, and I would argue the more slower paced, survival horror feeling of Doom 3. These movies have a few story elements in common.

  • Limited Access to Greater Resources and Support
  • An emergent mystery that causes complications and tension
  • An ongoing stress that acts as a timer for the protagonist’s actions

Looking at these elements, we can then look at a lot more media that is adjacent to this form of storytelling, even if it shifts the dial a bit from “horror” to “thriller.”

Star Trek First Contact

  • Trapped in the Past
  • The emerging mystery of the Borg having a singular leader never before encountered
  • Ongoing stress with the timetable of getting Cochrane’s launch to happen on time

Lost in Space (Netflix)

  • Trapped in an unknown region of space
  • The emerging mystery of FTL technology and the robots
  • The ongoing stress of being able to return to the colonies

Lockout

  • Trapped on an orbital prison overtaken by prisoners
  • The mystery of where the person that you need to save is located
  • The ongoing stress of the degrading state of the space station

The Expanse

  • Holden and the crew are often on the run and/or reliant on gigs from the outer planets
  • The ongoing mystery of what the proto-molecule is capable of and if it has an agenda of its own
  • The ongoing stress of avoiding the machinations of opposed political factions

None of these stories is a true horror story, although both First Contact and Lost in Space have moments that are closer to being framed in this manner (the Borg are cyborg zombies, and this movie makes that even more expressly clear than any of the TV show appearances). Despite that, there is clear tension, and tension and pressure is the key to using the tools that are evident in Mothership.

Campaign Dials

Looking at those three elements, it’s a little bit easier to see where you can turn the dials up or down to move a game of Mothership from a one-shot, a story arc, or an ongoing campaign. The key is the degree to which you want to play with each of those settings.

How Much of the Game Do You Want to Use

Because there are a lot of modular bits to Mothership, it might also help to think about what bits you want to use. If you want to have space battles, hire mercenaries, and have time for players to use long term advancement rules, you may need to widen your scope a bit.

If the ship is just a location, and the focus is clearly on the player characters, without worrying too much about recruiting outside help, then it’s a lot easier to calibrate for a one-shot or a story arc.

Limited Access to Greater Resources and Support

In a one-shot or a short story arc, this is a dial you are going to turn all the way to “really limited.” Players may be trapped on a single ship, building, or space station (a limited location with many “rooms” essentially) for a one-shot.

For a short story arc, you can expand the number of wider locations. More than one ship, maybe somewhere to land. This gives players options to explore more places and get into more trouble, which can spread out over a few sessions.

For a longer campaign arc, the other side of the dial still needs to be limited. This sector of the galaxy only has backwater space stations and settlements, and doesn’t have the best equipment available. You can’t expect to call in a full-blown military ship for backup if something goes wrong.

This still gives you the constrained feeling that the PCs will have to deal with the stuff they encounter, and not leave it for anyone else. It still leaves room for you to introduce the full range of gear, recruiting mercenaries, and paying for fuel and upkeep for which the game is written.

calibanAn Emergent Mystery that Causes Complications and Tension

The mystery is going to be a key item to incorporate to play with some of the game’s mechanics. The difference between a sanity save and a fear save could easily be that the player characters don’t know enough about something to know how it functions yet, and that challenges their concept of reality. Once they know how something works, then it can just scare them senseless.

In a one-shot, the mystery can be something that isn’t evident at the start of the game. You introduce how things should work, remind them that they have limited access to resources, and then the mystery can show up. The mystery for a one-shot doesn’t have to be deep. An alien artifact is on the ship and it turns people into cannibals . . . that can be a two-step reveal that doesn’t even require much in the way of investigation, but seeing the artifact, then people not acting normally, then evidence of cannibalism, creates interest in finding out more about the situation.

The emergent mystery for a story arc should be something that can be partially revealed from running into trouble, but may require some investigation from the players. For example, you run into a weird techno-virus creature, but you have no idea how long the techno-virus takes to overwhelm the system, or if it can be reversed. That requires active research.

The longest arc for the emergent mystery is going to be for a campaign. In this case, you don’t want to introduce more unrelated mysteries. Traveling from one sci-fi horror trope to another starts to transition from feeling like horror or thriller territory to monster of the week monster hunting, which I love, but it’s different than straight-up horror.

In this case, you need to figure out the “rings” of your mystery, but make sure each ring is related. First, you find out about a weird mutation that hits people in this sector of space, then you determine that it’s caused by a weird pulse sent out by sabotaged FTL drives, then you find out there are mechanics on the take at various space station repair bays, then you find out there is a cult that worships a weird alien space god trying to mutate people into the mutant space god’s image. That’s several nested rings that can take a while to unravel, while still being connected, and flowing from one to another.

lockout 05An Ongoing Stress that Acts as a Timer for the Protagonist’s Actions

Stress gives you an excuse for your characters to make bad decisions. We don’t want our protagonists to be incompetent, but we can totally understand if they drop a wrench into a reactor core when acid saliva starts dripping on their vac-suit.

Stress is what helps to make the characters feel at least a little bit out of control, and feeling out of control is another thing that draws the line between a monster-hunting theme and a horror or thriller theme. You can’t just focus on solving the mystery, you have to deal with the ongoing stress as well.

I would also argue that “Mystery” provides opportunities for sanity saves, while “Stress” provides the opportunity for fear saves, but I don’t think that statement is an absolute, just a trend.

Unlike the mystery, I think you can shift what the stress is that keeps pulling the character’s attention away from the mystery. You can have a space station falling into a sun as the “limiter” for both a one-shot, and for a single session of a longer campaign. You don’t have to go the Dragon Ball Z route of finding a way for the space station to fall into the sun for 12 episodes and pretend there is still suspense.

You may want to tie the stress into the mystery, however. For example, if a space station starts to fall into the sun, and then the next session the ship’s thrusters misfire, causing the group to need to make emergency repairs before they slam into a satellite, that might all tie back to the mechanics on the take from a cult.

Like the mystery, you can also “nest” the stress, by creating a broad theme of stress (we’ll never find the caravan of ships we were traveling with), and then come up with related rings of stress (we’re trapped in an unknown region of space, then we see the caravan, but our fuel source gave out, but we got their jump coordinates, etc.)

ScarecrowThe Mystery Box

One of the other elements of horror stories is finding out what all of this was about. Why would anyone start slipping space gremlins into starships, and where do they come from? Were these really ghosts, or was there some kind of scientific explanation for the residual psychic impression.

You may not want to reveal everything, and you may not have an answer for everything, but you probably should have an endpoint in mind. The big mystery reveal is X, or if they don’t fix Y before time runs out, it’s all over.

My recommendation is not to try to end your horror story with too much of a highbrow, “what did I just watch” kind of ending. It’s fine to give away a major piece of the mystery as the group is roasting to death because they never found the bodies that the mob hid in their air ducts, and they never convinced the specters that they didn’t have anything to do with the last owners of the ship.

On the other hand, making people wonder if the campaign ever really happened, if they are actually in the afterlife viewing events from a different perspective, or are trapped in a simulation may not go over well, especially in longer campaigns where the characters have been invested in finding out about the reality they actively interacted with.

What Do I Know About First Impressions? Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG Player’s Survival Guide

I’ve been playing in Sean P. Kelly’s (of Gaming and BS fame) Mothership game on Thursday nights (which you can see here). As we have been playing the game, I realized I had to do a first impression article for this product. I’m going to write this as a first impression because I think, from what I understand, there is going to be a more comprehensive single volume for the core rules coming out in the future, and the current version is pay what you want.

Publishing Strategy

Currently, Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG is divided between the Player’s Survival Guide, which is what I’m looking at for this first impression, and the various adventures that are published. The reason I’m making this distinction is that there is no game moderation, NPC, or creature stats included in the Player’s Survival Guide. There is a lot that you can infer from the Player’s Survival Guide, but for the full game moderation experience, you need to pick up one of the adventures for a better look at the “other side.”

Deckplans

The Mothership Player’s Survival Guide is 44 pages long in PDF format. This includes a Player’s Cheat Sheet to summarize the rules, a two-page blank character sheet and a two-page sheet for ship creation, a weapons summary chart and a table of contents.

The format of the book is two-column, black and white. Headers are clear and numbered for the individual topics that they cover (for example, the character creation headers are numbered 1.1 to 1.6, in addition to having a topic header.

There are several charts inserted into the book, some sample numbered and filled out sheets, and many of the creation rules for both characters and ships have a flowchart style designs. In addition, in the equipment section, weapons are summarized with illustrations, with stats appearing in call-out boxes for those images.

Character Creation

The first section of the book is a character creation page, which summarizes all of the steps on a single page. This walks players through randomly rolling for states, checking the right boxes for starting saves, marking off starting skills, rolling for a random trinket and patch, and then finishing up derived stats and gear.

It’s worth noting that part of why the summary is a single page is that the character sheet has various sections that highlight the differences between character types and just require the player to check off the right areas of the sheet to indicate the choices made.

The class descriptions don’t appear anywhere outside of the character sheet, so the sheet does some heavy lifting in defining the differences between character types. Characters include the following:

  • Teamster
  • Android
  • Scientist
  • Marine

Each class has modifications that it applies to stats and saves, and has a special way to deal with stress and panic. For example, the Teamster is specifically the steadiest character regarding panic, the scientist affects the stress of others when they fail a sanity test, androids unnerve others, and marines cause fear saves when they panic.

Dice, Stat Checks, Advantage, & Disadvantage/Critical Hits, Opposed Checks/Saves

This section explains the general rules conventions for resolving tasks in the game. In general terms, it’s a percentile-based game, where rolling under your stat indicates that you were successful. Skills in particular areas allow you to add a number to your stat, giving you a wider range to roll under.

The game utilizes advantage and disadvantage, meaning that characters roll d100 twice, and take the better roll, depending on if they have advantage or disadvantage. Characters may get advantage or disadvantage from circumstances around them, or from having help from allies.

Stats Include

  • Strength
  • Speed
  • Intellect
  • Combat

There are a wide variety of skills, with related specialties representing Trained (+10%), Expert (+15%), or Master level (+20%).

Characters roll saves as a reaction to something happening to their character, as opposed to the active rolls used to adjudicate proactive intervention in a situation. These rolls are affected in the same way, being granted advantage or disadvantage given the circumstance.

Saves include

  • Sanity
  • Fear
  • Body
  • Armor

Armor saves can be modified by wearing different types of gear.

Survival/Combat: Surprise, Turns, Actions, Attacking, Cover/Hit Location, Damage, Healing, Death

This section goes into more detail on how to adjudicate situations that come up in the game. In some cases, it’s just a notice of how long a character can go without food, water, or oxygen, or what kinds of jobs characters in the setting will be taking. However, it also introduces a Crisis check. This is a more complicated form of adjudication that is ranked from 1 to 3, indicating the number of successful rolls, in succession, needed to succeed at the task.

Crisis checks allow for a retry if the character accepts additional stress, which plays into some of the later mechanics in the game.

Initiative is a matter of who passes a speed test, with successful characters going before the oppositions, and characters failing the roll going last. Causing damage in combat is a matter of winning a successful combat versus armor opposed check. There is a chart on how characters that are injured regain consciousness and what happens to them, and optional hit location rules.

Weapons/Armor/Equipment/Trinkets/Patches

The weapons sections include rules on ammunition (untrained characters might unload everything a weapon has whenever they fire), individual weapons (including tools that can be used as weapons), and bonuses from range and aiming.

Armor includes items worn that increase the armor save, even if that gear isn’t primarily used for armor, like vac suits. In addition to the statistics for armor bonuses, this section lists things like how much oxygen certain suits have, and any integrated equipment, like communication devices.

Equipment is summarized on a page and a half with quick descriptions of what those items of gear do, like granting bonuses to different types of skill checks, the range of communication equipment, or the amount of air in an oxygen tank. It also includes some pieces of gear used for alleviating wounds short term, like pain pills and stim packs.

Some rules address addiction and the ongoing, diminishing effects of items that mask pain or other symptoms.

Trinkets and patches are bits of “personality” that a character gets in addition to their gear package or any items that they buy. These are both on 0-99 charts.

Hiring Henchmen

There is a section in the book that includes hiring other characters to aid the group. There is a procedure for negotiating for pay, general stats for different types of employees, and a section on “scum,” cheaper potential employees with troublesome quirks that might make them a liability in some circumstances.

Stress/Panic & Resolve

One of the ongoing elements of the game is the accumulation of stress. Under certain circumstances, a character will need to make a Panic check. When a panic check is made, a roll is made on the Panic Effect chart, adding the stress level of the character. The highest level results include circumstances a character cannot permanently low there stress below a given threshold, the character completely breaks down, or has a heart attack and dies.

Space Travel, Hyperspace/Basic Ship Classes/All Ship Sections

The next eight pages are dedicated to ships and ship operations. Ship classes are given, but the ship classes do not have set stats. Instead, every ship is customized by following the ship design flowchart and adding the number of modules of individual types indicated by the ship type.

There are stats for how long it takes for FTL ships to move between regions of space, how many fuel units are burned up doing different things, how much effort it takes to repair a ship, what ship weapon stats are, and the critical hit effects on a ship.

All of the options up front make this section look a bit more daunting at first than it may actually be. When you follow through the flow chart to the ship components, the process breaks down the procedure to bite-sized bits, but looking at it all at once can be a lot.

Experience Points/Leveling Up

The next section in the book details the number of XP a character gets for surviving a session, as well as bonus XP they get for various emerging story goals, or class-based tasks. Levels go from 0 level to 10th level, and there is a chart showing the ever-increasing numbers needed to gain a level.

Unlike a game like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, characters just have a set number of things they can gain when they pick up a level, rather than a constrained list of benefits that come from leveling up. Characters can choose between improving one or two stats, healing stress, removing phobias or addictions, or getting extra skill points.

What I Have Seen?

We’re currently playing through the Dead Planet adventure. Most of what our characters have interacted with has involved combat, basic tests, sanity, fear, and body tests. We haven’t interacted much with the Crisis check mechanics, or with anything other than basic checks with the ship itself.

What I Would Like to See

I’ll be honest, I’ve had a lot of ideas on how to structure a game using this system while we have been playing, and I do wish there were a little more GM facing information in some kind of core book. I know in this case, a lot of the tone of the campaign is set with the adventure, but it’s such a robust toolkit, I want just a few more tools . . . if that makes any sense.

I’m not sure that the amount of effort spent on ship generation is as fruitful as it could be given the scenarios I’ve heard discussed. It feels like it would be more useful to have a few example ships rather than the modular creation system, especially since the emphasis is that most player characters are never going to own a ship, and are often working on a ship owned by “the Man.”

While I like that the rules are open-ended in their descriptions, I wouldn’t mind a few examples for some of the more interpretive elements. Not only is this good for gauging how broad or constrained your own ideas should be, it also helps to have a list for players that just can’t come up with something on the fly. Some places I’d like to see examples would be in what some common Crisis checks from the sci-fi horror genre look like, or a list of example phobias that a character might develop.

It feels like there is a lot of room to create campaigns based on what classes or equipment you constrain, and the kind of campaign framework you come up with. To that end, I would almost like to see example campaign structures in broad terms, and maybe even a chart that characters could roll on to see how they started working this job.

The actual rules introduce the themes of survival horror in space by mentioning the scarcity of items and introducing the stress mechanic into the game, and in the fact that characters have stress or panic modifying abilities. Beyond that, there isn’t much in the way of a discussion of the horror or gritty science fiction tropes.

This wouldn’t be as much of a problem, but some of the patches and the Hiring Mercenaries: Scum section introduce elements that could signal that content is okay for some players, without much of a discussion on if that content will work for the table. For example, one of the “scum” entries is The Sex Bot, which has sex manuals, and lube and is described as hypersexual.

All of this serves to remind me that I would really be way more comfortable if the game itself were to bring up things like lines and veils and active safety tools. Both gritty science fiction and horror genres are going to bring baggage that not everyone at the table will be comfortable with, and mentioning potentially fraught topics in passing may be worse than not addressing them directly.

Final Thoughts

Its interesting that I see this game mentioned as being “old school,” because while I see some elements of that, like the mercenary hires, a lot of this just feels like applying a d100 system and some fear and stress-based subsystems to the science fiction horror genre. It’s not quite as idiosyncratic about some of its rules as some “old school” games are, but it’s not quite as over-designed as it could be for the style of game it is presenting.

There are a lot of “sci-fi horror” adjacent games I can see this set of rules addressing, because the sci-fi horror structure of Mundane Situation/Mysterious Danger/External Pressure is a pretty broad narrative form that can include a lot of storytelling. Depending on what exactly the “External Pressure” is, that can help determine the length of the campaign you can run for something like this.

Regardless, I’m looking forward to seeing whatever form this game takes, especially with more robust GM tools in a core rulebook, more campaign structure discussion, and more table safety discussion included.

 

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