What Do I Know About First Impressions? Arcadia Issue 21 (5e OGL)

CoverIt’s October, and the leaves are turning colors and falling, dead, from the trees, sometimes creating a pool of crimson to mark their passing. The dying breath of Summer fades, and the cool embrace of the lifeless Winter beckons. Can you tell I’ve been watching horror movies all month long?

We’re going to take a look at this month’s issue of Arcadia, and I am totally not going to let my grim fascination with cinematic terror color my examination of the damned souls that inhabit the pages if this issue.

Disclaimer

I received this month’s Arcadia as an early review copy, and I have received other MCDM products as review copies in the past. While I received this as a review copy, I also have my own subscription to the MCDM Patreon, and would otherwise receive the magazine. I have not had the opportunity to use the material in this issue at the table, but I have used other MCDM products at the table, and I am comfortable with D&D 5e and both as a player and as a Dungeon Master.

Arcadia Issue 21

Managing Editor Hannah Rose
Lead Developer James Introcaso
Production & Playtest Director Lars Bakke
Editors Scott Fitzgerald Gray, Sadie Lowry
Authors Sharang Biswas, Banana Chan, Celeste Conowitch
Layout Jen McCleary
Title Logo Tom Schmuck
Accessibility Chris Hopper
Community Coordinator John Champion
Customer Support Bobby McBride
Cover Art Nick De Spain
Interior Illustrators “Hunting a Myth”: Zuzanna Wuzyk; “The Fiendish Regulars”: Gustavo Pelissari; “Puzzling Out the Devil”: Grace Cheung
Cartographer Miska Fredman

Autumnal Arcadia Arrangement

This issue of Arcadia is 47 pages, including the credits page, the table of contents, the letter from the editor, ten pages of player handouts, a page of resource links, a page of author biographies, and a full page OGL statement.

The bold orange and black cover is probably one of my favorite Halloween themed gaming magazine covers that I’ve seen. The interior layout, formatting, and artwork continue to be some of the most impressive in the RPG industry.

Trick or Treats

This issue of Arcadia has the following articles:

  • Hunting a Myth (Monsters)
  • The Fiendish Regulars (NPCs)
  • Puzzling out the Devil (Adventure, Puzzles)

I appreciate that whenever Arcadia has more than one article on monsters or NPCs, there is almost always a strong thematic difference between what the articles cover.

Hunting a Myth

This article is all about presenting cryptids in a campaign. While each of these creatures does have a stat block, there is time taken to introduce the idea that cryptids are different than other monsters revolving around their air of mystery. The cryptids presented in the article include:

  • Grey Aliens (CR2)
  • Shuck (CR7)
  • Death Worm (CR10)
  • Mothman (CR 15)

The Greys probably jump out as the least directly connected to a fantasy theme, but given the number of adventures in the past of D&D that have touched on alien technology, and the early pulp inspirations of the game, I like having these in the toolbox. I immediately thought of Expedition to the Barrier peaks (which has a D&D 5e adaptation), and how you could foreshadow events of that adventure with Grey Aliens. They are damn hart to affect with anything that targets Intelligence or Wisdom, and they can adapt to damage types, meaning, just maybe, you can reskin these things as some kind of alien species against whom resistance is futile.

The Shuck is an archetypical creature that has been the inspiration for various creatures in D&D in past editions. They are the black dog that appears and portends doom, but I really like the mechanics of this version of the creature. The Shuck can create a shadow pack when damaged, creating duplicates from which it can trigger a bite attack. This means that the pack doesn’t get too complicated to run, but can be really scary to deal with. In addition, it has an effect that does additional damage to all creatures in range that have already been damaged, and I love monster abilities that have a different effect based on the conditions on an opponent.

Death Worms are based on legends originating around the Gobi Desert, where large worms were thought to burrow out of the ground, discharging electricity and spraying acid on victims unlucky enough to encounter them. While there are already “worm” options for your games, I like that these Death Worms are “only” large, and while CR 10 is pretty hefty, it’s still less than the venerable Purple Worm’s CR 15. In addition to spitting acid, their bites do acid damage in addition to piercing damage. They can also fire off a shockwave that does lightning damage and knocks your PCs on their rear ends. I appreciate that it’s a worm monster that does more than bite, swallow, and burrow.

The Mothman is a really neat singular entity. It creates a new currency, with Doom Tokens, which it assigns to people that interact with the creature. In addition to assigning Doom Tokens, the Mothman has a Penance Gaze which gives the PCs a choice between remaining vulnerable to an attack, or accept a temporary incapacitation. Finally, it has Villain Actions, one of which allows it to cash in the doom tokens it has assigned for massive damage.

I really like this article. Not only are all of these very flavorful creatures, but from the Dungeon Master’s side of things, they all have fun mechanical toys for the DM to play with. You can’t drop these into any campaign, or drop them in too often, but when they do fit the narrative, I think they are going to create memorable encounters and campaign elements.

The Fiendish Regulars

The hook of this article is that the NPCs presented are connected to a setting with a terrible ruler. While it’s not this narrowly defined, I had a hard time not seeing these NPCs as inhabiting some version of Barovia. The NPCs presented include:

  • The Fanlord (CR2)
  • Doomsday Salesperson (CR1)
  • Personal Assistant (CR3)

As you may be able to tell from the titles, these NPCs are presented in a light hearted manner. If that isn’t evident from the title and some of their abilities, the plot hooks really drive this home. These include ideas like PCs hired to isolate the nefarious ruler from the Fanlords that want to meet them, dealing with the effects of a Doomsday Salesmen’s mutagenic anti-doomsday body cream, or getting hired by the Personal Assistant to help plan a birthday party for the nefarious ruler.

The Fanlord can cause characters to take levels of exhaustion, as well as gaining Vicious Mockery as an attack, while having a weakness for gathering with other Fanlords. The Doomsday Salesperson uses suboptimal products to damage opponents in combat. The Personal Assistant can read minds to better plan their activities, calm emotions, and locate objects.

I have to admit, I’m not against humor in D&D games, but I’m not a fan of hard coding that humor into the mechanics of an NPC. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but it is a bias that I have. The Doomsday Salesmen is the most overtly humorous NPC, using expired food and bobbleheads for attacks. I’m a little disappointed that the Doomsday Salesmen goes so hard, because it feels like you could lean into humor with this character concept without being quite as over the top.

If you want to use them in more serious campaigns, I think it’s a lot easier to reflavor the other two stat blocks. I can picture Barovian characters that virtually worship Strahd, using the Fanlord stat block, and wearing down the PCs as they wade through the obsessive villager. The Personal Assistant is great as a sympathetic right hand character to a villain character that may allow the PCs an “in” to learn about the villain’s plans.

Puzzling Out the Devil

There are a few things that normally concern me when I see them in an adventure. In this case, those concerns would be an adventure that primarily focuses on puzzle solving, and an adventure that is presented as “an adventure for any level.” Despite this, I really like this adventure.

The scenario sees a famous exorcist that dies due to an accident during an exorcism. The PCs need to help complete the exorcism and defeat the devil involved in the possession. In the course of compiling information, the PCs find out about pertinent relationships between characters in the story.

The devil that is doing the possessing can be any devil that fits the CR that the DM wants to use, and can be aligned with a specific element. The devil gains additional abilities whenever some aspect of exorcism wasn’t fully engaged. Some research also allows for weakening the devil based on their standard stat blocks.

The narrative of the adventure has some content that could be triggering for some players, and the adventure addresses how to approach these elements. For example, there is a family history of a character that dies in childbirth, and PCs may uncover a queer relationship that is cogent to the resolution of the plot. There are suggestions for how to avoid death in childbirth as a plot point, as well as ways to use the reticence to reveal a queer relationship as a plot point without including bias against queer characters.

What surprised me the most was that I really enjoyed the puzzle elements of the adventure. I’m not a huge puzzle person, but what I like about this puzzle is that there are a lot of different in world documents that define the different symbols and items to include in the exorcism. The characters find out what different elements mean, but they don’t know how to use that element, until they have a chance to learn about the context of why to use the different elements in different ways.

For example, characters may find out that different symbols represent elements and counter other elements, but they have to learn what element the devil is aligned with in order to pick the proper symbol to counter that element. I really like the concept of the PCs learning in world information to solve the puzzle.

Final Thoughts

This is a solid issue. I think that the magazine continues to follow through on the idea that the articles in the magazine will be easily dropped into a game and clearly actionable. I don’t have a hard time picturing how I would use various elements in the magazine in a campaign. I am also pretty amazed at how much I enjoy such a puzzle heavy adventure. That’s just not normal for me.

Future Wishes

It’s easy for me to say I want to see more monsters, but it’s harder to say “I want monsters that have a theme, and the themes that haven’t been addressed are X,” but so far MCDM has managed to both produce table ready monsters, and monster with a solid theme. I will say that if we have other monster/NPC articles based on humor, I would rather not have quite as much hard coded into the rules for the NPC.

I really like the contextual puzzle in the included adventure, but what really struck me that I would love to see in future adventures are relationship details that matter to the plot, so that the NPCs aren’t just characters that the PCs may or may not like, but that their emotions and connections are important to how everything unfolds.