What Do I Know About First Impressions? Arcadia #15 (5e OGL)
It’s April, and that means the flowers are in bloom, and the sun is shining, right up until it freezes over again, kills the young buds on the plants, and the gray expanse of despair dulls all joy and hope emanating from the sun. You know, Spring!
It’s also time to look at this month’s issue of Arcadia from MCDM. If you started with this First Impression, out of all of those I have written, Arcadia is MCDM’s magazine of 5e OGL (don’t tell anyone, but that means D&D 5e) material.
As per usual, I am subscribed to MCDM’s Patreon, and so receive Arcadia monthly, but I was also provided with an early version of the PDF from which to write a review. In addition to issues of Arcadia, I have received other review copies from MCDM. While I haven’t had the opportunity to use any of this material in my own games, I am very familiar with D&D 5e both as a Dungeon Master and as a player.
Meat on the Bones
First off, because I end up saying this every month, the artwork, layout, and formatting are some of the nicest you are going to see in the RPG hobby, and this month is no exception. This month’s PDF is 31 pages, including the credits page, table of contents, a page of hyperlinks to various map resources, a page of author credits, and a full page OGL statement.
Wherein I Answer the Editor
I don’t always directly answer the editor in these, but I feel compelled this time. James mentions that if Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode knew fireball, Halloween would be a different movie. I just wanted to point out that if a teenager suddenly knew how to throw fireballs in a modern setting where nobody else knew magic, that is another movie, and that’s Firestarter. Ahem, I’ll move on.
What’s Going On?
The following articles exist in this issue:
- Embrace the Flesh
- The Nightmare Dragon
- What They Know May Hurt You
So, this time around, we get a new monk subclass, along with an encounter, a new epic level monster, and a group of informants and information brokers complete with what they might know, and what tasks they may ask of the PCs to get access to that knowledge.
The Way of the Flesh
The primary attraction of this article is a new monk subclass, and one that borrows themes from body horror and body modification stories in sci-fi and horror. Also, this article has one of those shiny new disclaimers on it that James mentioned in a previous issue of Arcadia.
The subclass has the following abilities:
- 3rd–Shape the Flesh
- 6th–Mind is Matter
- 11th–Free the Flesh
- 17th–Charnel Apotheosis
All this flesh talk has me thinking of Candyman. At any rate, Shape the Flesh gives you an increasing reach for your unarmed attacks, as you can lengthen your body and extrude pseudopods. You can spend a ki point to swap Acrobatics for Athletics, and if you grapple a target at range, you can pull yourself towards them without provoking attacks.
At 6th level you can spend a ki point to impersonate someone whose flesh you have ingested (yum!), and you can also interrogate that piece of flesh for one question as if you had cast speak with dead on it.
At 11th level, you can pull someone towards you if you grapple them at range, you can move through tiny spaces without squeezing, you can escape from magical bonds and rough terrain, and you can swim (proficiency bonus) number of times.
At 17th level, you can spend multiple ki points to turn into a tub of goo that can teleport from one spot to another at short range. When you reform, you turn into a whirlwind of bones and sinew that can make an area attack on those around you.
In addition to the subclass itself, there is an Acolyte of the Flesh retainer using the rules from Strongholds and Followers. It’s worth noting that since the new retainer rules aren’t final, this is still using the format from that book, and hasn’t added some of the extra text seen in the preview for Flee, Mortals!, although it doesn’t seem like it would be too difficult to merge those rules to this.
There is also a sample encounter with a monk of this tradition, where she tries to get the party to fight her to the death as she contemplates if life is, indeed, meaningless. She has a list of questions she asks while she is attacking, and if the PCs engage with a certain number of these questions during the fight, she may end up joining them. I like this to introduce the potential for a retainer into the group. It’s a nice way to pull multiple parts of the article together, and honestly, I like opponents that monologue during a fight.
One thing that felt strange to me about this article is that it doesn’t have the table that summarizes the names of the subclass abilities and the level at which they are gained that WotC releases and previous issues of Arcadia have featured. I know not everyone reads things the way I do, but looking at the page without that summary, my brain kind of skipped details of what levels introduced abilities.
I think the Acrobatics/Athletics swap may be a little expensive for a ki point spend. This may be meant to introduce a pseudopod “web slinging” effect, but I don’t know if the skill/ability swap drives that home as much as actually allowing for some kind of biological brachiation. Because Free the Flesh gives a more extensive version of this repositioning, I think it might just be worth it to let someone snag something X distance away and let them reel themselves in, saving the character-based positioning for the 11th level feature.
Outside of those few details, however, this subclass goes hard into its story and communicates it. The 3rd and 6th level abilities are going to be your big “flavor” moments in most campaigns, and you are flailing tentacles and eating flesh to modify yourself, and that’s pretty solid. I would play this monk subclass in a game if it was an option.
The Nightmare Dragon
Since this creature deals with nightmares and potentially traumatic events faced by the characters, it also gets a content warning. This is a CR 24 monster, so this probably isn’t something you can throw into a campaign casually. In fact, a lot of the article revolves around how to set this up something you built towards in a high-level game.
Nightmare Dragons aren’t born to regular dragons, but form from the collective fears, traumas, and grief of people in a specific region. There are tables for Nightmare Dragon origins, names, and long-term plans. What is interesting in the presentation is that the Regional Effects of the Dragon can serve as a long-term storytelling device, communicating the collective dread of a given region, and hinting at a very long-term villain.
The dragon itself lives on the Astral Plane. Yes, it has fear effects and psychic damage, as you would expect from a dragon that is born from nightmares, but it also has a couple of abilities that change the fight based on conditions.
Characters build up points of Lull every turn in the dragon’s lair, until they fall asleep. The dragon can then use the player character to carry out one action, at which point they wake up. Characters that are covered with the dragon’s breath weapon cannot benefit from any effect that makes them immune to fear until the end of their next turn. I’ve said this before, but I would love to see more monsters that can inflict a condition, but then, as long as that condition is in effect, the monster gets more options. It feels more dynamic than just the effect, and makes those conditions feel more dangerous than just their base effect. I really like both abilities.
This is another Arcadia article that makes me think of how I would use it in a Ravenloft game. I love the idea of a land traumatized by what it did to appease a dragon, only to have that dragon turn on them and raze their lands anyway. The resulting Nightmare Dragon believes it is that dragon, so one of the cool secrets of the dark lord that you could learn is that they are deluding themself about their origin. The only tricky part is adapting how the dragon and the lair existing on the astral plane would translate to this kind of campaign.
What They Know May Hurt You
I wasn’t expecting the journey I went on in this article. The teaser is that these are all informant NPCs that may know information that your party may find useful, and they have their own tasks they want you to complete to trade for that knowledge. That means this is both a collection of contacts and quest givers.
The first quest giver is an awakened rat with a network of street children working for him. The rat was awakened by a druidic prophet that died years ago. The rat took the druid’s name, and now provides for his army of informants and has them drop his name to confuse anyone looking for him. He can work as an informant about docks, warehouses, or criminal enterprises. His quests involve foiling the plans of rat catchers and a woman obsessed with her pet cats, including some panthers.
The second informant is a retired adventurer that settled down and started an inn. Her inn was burned down, and now she wanders around, doing good deeds for adventurers and welcoming them to her fire. Interacting with Magda can reveal why she retired and what happened with her inn, and she has some adventuring lore to share with the PCs. Her primary favor that she asks involves the people who burnt down her inn, but there is another mystery surrounding a magic item she owns which could resolve a number of ways.
Remember when I said this article took me on a ride? I like both of the above. They are good NPCs with utilitarian purposes to add to a campaign, and they do a good job of providing what the article promises, namely contacts with knowledge to trade for favors. The next “informant” is a moving gala created to unify warring assassin’s guilds which moves all of the time based on the whims of The Host, and requires a magical invitation to attend.
Once the PCs get a magical invitation, they are teleported to the event, and have until the gala is over to find The Host, which could involve doing something noticeable and entertaining at the gala. Once they catch The Host’s attention, they might receive a mission based on spying, assassination, or theft, and if they complete that task, they can learn about noble bloodlines, treaties, bribery, vaults, secret deaths, and other noble secrets.
If the PCs rub The Host the wrong way, The Regulars, all the people that The Host convinced to work together to end the assassin’s guild wars, attack as a swarm of dressed up, dancing assassins. And I mean a swarm, because that’s how they are statted up.
I like the first two informants and their quests, but I love The Sable Gala. As someone that likes grim fantasy that deals with criminals in fantasy cities, this is just a wonderful setting element to introduce into a campaign. I love the idea of a formalized, magically hidden party that just knows everything about all the dealings in a city. It’s also a great way to drop the PCs into a mission, in order to get their information. This is my favorite part of this article.
I’m going to call it a win whenever I want to play a subclass as soon as I read it, or use a monster as soon as see it. I was briefly contemplating how I could work the Nightmare Dragon into my Mharoti Empire campaign, which is set in part of the empire that isn’t too far removed from being subsumed and conquered in warfare.
The next time I run a grittier city-based game, I really want to work in the Sable Gala. I probably would have hammered it into shape to use in my Streets of Avalon game that I was running before my current D&D game, had I seen it back then.
I am hoping we get the subclass ability by level chart back into the mix the next time we see a subclass in Arcadia, but I have really enjoyed the variety of subclasses we have seen in the magazine. I am way more invested in subclasses when there is a strong story connected to them, and I think most of the classes still have plenty of room for unique subclass stories.
I can understand why very high level content doesn’t come out as often as lower level content, and I don’t think that a lack of high level content always means that high level content is filling an unserved need. I think most people do start at lower levels, and most campaigns aren’t going to go all the way to the end of the scale. That said, when we get high level content, I really like having the groundwork set down for how that high level content may affect even a lower-level campaign. High level monsters as a campaign framework are great. Smaug would be proud.
I also think it takes skill to create unique NPCs that aren’t so tied to a particular setting that they can function in multiple games, and I hope that we continue to see NPCs with enough personality for them to make an impact, but without so much attached to them that they have to have heavy modifications to use them in a game.
Time to start thinking about next month.