I was the only gamer geek in my family growing up. We played Monopoly, Clue, Risk, and so on, the staple games of the twentieth-century American experience, brought to you by Milton-Bradley, but my mother wasn’t a fan. She and my grandmother both tended more toward word games like Scrabble and card games, particularly Rummy variants. I became an avid Solitaire player early on. And we had an Atari, of course, then a Nintendo. So I was a gamer from an early age, but not a board gamer.
From high school and through college, I pretty much abandoned board games in favor of roleplaying games. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2nd edition) at first, but eventually I became engrossed in the World of Darkness system from White Wolf Games (now published by Onyx Path Publishing).
Board games had completely fallen off my radar by the time I got out of college and began actively adulting. Board games, after all, were for kids, right? In the age of roleplaying games and video games, including an array of online roleplaying games, surely there was no way a board game could be nearly as engaging, nearly worth the time commitment to play it.
It was Betrayal at House on the Hill (Amazon) that dispelled that illusion, showing me what board gaming had become while I hadn’t been paying attention.
The newest Dungeons & Dragons adventure supplement, Curse of Strahd, hits the stands at gaming stores around the world and brings the classic Ravenloft gothic horror setting alive for the 5th edition.
The game is built around the classic 1983 Module 16: Ravenloft adventure, written by Tracy and Laura Hickman. Ravenloft centered on the land of Barovia, one of the Domains of Dread that has been pulled from its home world and now exists in a cross-dimensional form within the Shadowfell region of the Dungeons & Dragons multiverse. One key aspect of this is that any world, any setting, can have contact with Barovia, as the barrier between the “normal” world and this dark gothic realm become weak. Adventurers become lost in a bizarre mist and find themselves in Barovia, the village that is home to Castle Ravenloft and the realm’s mysterious ruler, Count Strahd von Zarovich. This makes Curse of Strahd a potential resource for any campaign.
Curse of Strahd is really a mix of setting manual and adventure module in one, with a storyline that is extremely open-ended, with endings that (assuming the players survive) allow for continued adventures centered around the consequences of the players’ actions in Castle Ravenloft.
The rollout of Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition has not been a rapid release of materials, as in some past editions, but a slower and more steady release of consistently good products, which focus on telling great stories over inundating players with new rule options.
I’m currently running my 10-year-old son and his friends through the Rise of Tiamat storyline – the first adventure released for 5th edition, spread across the two volumes of Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat. One of the more intriguing aspects of the storyline is a month-long caravan trip north to Waterdeep, with intrigue and subterfuge as you spy on the dragon cultists in the caravan without giving yourself away. Not necessarily the most natural storytelling option for a group of 10-year-olds, but they handled it well, and it gave an interesting change of pace for those who were used to more shoot-em-up style adventure play from video games.
While considering where to go when the dragon-themed plotline finished up, I was thinking of continuing with one of the other adventure books that’s been released so far: either the Elemental Evil storyline in Princes of the Apocalypse or the Rage of Demons storyline told in Out of the Abyss. Then came today’s press release that Dungeons and Dragons is releasing a new adventure module, Curse of Strahd, that returns to the classic Ravenloft setting.
Ravenloft is the classic, gothic horror setting for Dungeons and Dragons, and has long been a fan favorite. While the traditional enemies encountered are thought of as orcs and goblins, in Ravenloft these enemies look like pussycats (very ugly pussycats, to be sure), as dark forces and undead take a far more prominent role. Ravenloft is a realm where even an orc fears the sounds that come from the dark of the night. …
The newest edition of Dungeons & Dragons, 5th edition, recently passed its one-year anniversary. Though I reviewed the books when they first came out, my gaming group didn’t want to give up their current systems to switch over. They’ve been playing edition 3.5 for years, are comfortable with the rule structure, and like leveling up into prestige classes.
One thing that is notable about this edition of Dungeons & Dragons is that players have not been swarmed by supplemental books or a variety of rule options. After a year, it’s rather refreshing that Dungeons & Dragons continues to have retained an emphasis on their core three books:
But this does mean that hardcore gamers like me, who are used to geeking out over systems where you’re really allowed to customize many aspects of your character, may feel like Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t cater to us. This is a bit unfair, and may be a sign that we’ve just gotten too spoiled with abundant choices in other games system.
The Dungeons & Dragons world is ramping up for their major event for 2015, which is the Elemental Evil storyline. I previously discussed this when it was first announced, but it’s worth mentioning again for one important reason: they’ve put out some free gaming materials!
Recently, Dungeons & Dragons released the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion as a free supplement, available through both their website and DriveThruRPG. This 25-page digital supplement contains some good material, a set of new races and spells designed specifically for use with 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons. The 9 of the pages are devoted to descriptions, details, and character creation information for 4 races:
The avian species Aarakocra
The subrace of Deep Gnome
The element-linked Genasi, in air, earth, fire, and water varieties
The mountain-dwelling Goliath
There are also 13 pages of spell lists and descriptions, featuring a total of 43 spells, almost all of them linked to the four elements (or their related damage type, such as the acid-based spell Vitriolic Sphere).
Dungeons & Dragons has transformed itself lately, and that trend continues with the upcoming Elemental Evil storyline set to hit the Forgotten Realms in pen-and-paper, board, and digital formats starting in March and continuing through the summer. In the words of the press release:
Heroes are needed in the Forgotten Realms to discover and defeat secret cults that threaten to annihilate the Sword Coast by harnessing the powers of the elements of fire, water, air, and earth.
Certainly sounds impressive, but before diving into Elemental Evil, let’s quickly review the status of the world’s most iconic fantasy gaming line.
The Road to Now
Back in 2012, Dungeons & Dragons hosted the keynote event at GenCon. Everyone knew that Dungeons & Dragons was in the process of releasing D&DNext (they were avoiding “5th edition” at that time). Among a lot of experienced gamers, their 4th edition was viewed as a step in the wrong direction. This 2012 keynote was the event where they were going to lay out their strategy for the gaming public. And, I am proud to say, I was there. Since then, I’ve been closely watching the evolution of this process and have been incredibly impressed with what I’ve seen coming out from Wizards of the Coast.
In addition to the fact that they were releasing a new core rule set (which we all knew already), they also announced at this time that Dungeons & Dragons was focusing their entire attention on the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, rather than splitting their attention among a myriad array of different worlds. As the start of this, they released a series of 6 novels from August 2013 through June 2014, each by a different author and depicting how the world-shaking event “The Sundering” (also the name of the book series) was impacting the Forgotten Realms world. The 2013 GenCon keynote coincided with Drizzt Do’Urden’s 25th birthday, and also with the release of the first The Sundering book.
Throughout fall of 2014, after the final Sunderingbook, Dungeons & Dragons finally began releasing their new set of 5th edition core books. These have been covered fairly extensively at Black Gate. Here are some of the highlights for those interested:
A fantasy roleplaying game is defined as much by the caliber of the villains and monsters as it is by the caliber of the players and heroes. Though Dungeons & Dragons has always been driven primarily by the imagination of the Dungeon Master and the players, the fact is that you can usually get only so far with just the Player’s Handbook (Amazon). It has the basic rules mechanics for playing the game, but lacks the array of exotic monsters necessary to populate – and threaten – the fantasy world that the characters are exploring.
With the arrival of the new 5th edition D&D Monster Manual (Amazon), that gap has now been alleviated. This book contains a beautifully-illustrated 350 pages of monsters, adversaries, and maybe even a few allies to introduce flawlessly into 5th edition games. The name really says it all; it is a manual full of monsters. There’s an appendix of “Miscellaneous Creatures” and one of “Nonplayer Characters” which are also useful, but there is one stand-out mechanic introduced that is worth mentioning in its own right, for those who might be wondering if the book is worth picking up.
The manual contains a class of “Legendary Creatures” which “can take special actions outside their turns, and a few can exert power over their environments, causing extraordinary magical effects to occur in their vicinity.” In addition to these “legendary actions,” legendary creatures also sometimes come along with a lair, which gives the legendary creature ability to take extra “lair actions” and may have ambient powers, representing how the legendary creature’s power has physically warped the terrain of the lair.
As previously announced, Dungeons & Dragons has released their new 5th edition D&D Player’s Handbook (Amazon). This is the flagship product of their revamped new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. At a time when every aspect of the gaming industry seems to be going gangbusters, it’s a perfect time for Dungeons & Dragons to relaunch a new version of their rules system. Now that I’ve had the book for a while, I’m ready to give some initial thoughts on the system.
When I earlier reviewed the Starter Set, I mentioned that I wasn’t too fond of 4th edition. Let me clarify that statement a bit in context, because my major problem with 4th edition has a direct bearing on how I view 5th edition. It’s not that I disliked 4th edition, per se, it’s just that I didn’t feel that 4th edition felt like the Dungeons & Dragons game system anymore. If someone had shown up and said, “Hey, I just stumbled upon this brand new RPG system” and shown me a book with the mechanics of 4th edition but without the Dungeons & Dragons branding, I might have been quite impressed. But as a transition from edition 3.5, I saw no reason to give up 3.5 and dive into an entirely new system just to play in the same setting. By contrast, the rules in 3rd edition seemed enough of an improvement over 2nd edition to easily justify the transition.
More importantly, though, I didn’t feel that 4th edition was a good entry-level rules system any longer. A year ago, my aunt approached me about my younger cousin (age 12) wanting to begin playing Dungeons & Dragons. I immediately suggested that I could send him my 3.5 edition manuals. I specifically suggested against trying to learn 4th edition rules, unless the kids he was wanting to play with were already using it.
So allow me to begin my review of the 5th edition Player’s Handbook by being absolutely clear:
If I were to introduce a brand new player to a fantasy roleplaying game today, the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons would be my top choice.
For the last two years, Wizards of the Coast has been getting feedback on their new “5th edition” set of rules from playtesters all across the world. July 15 marks the official release of the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, giving the world the first glimpse of the final version of these rules. Unfortunately, the D&D Starter Set provides only pregenerated characters with some advancement rules through level 5, and some basic mechanics, so it doesn’t consist of a full set of game mechanics or character creation rules.
In other words, it’s not enough to give us a full idea of what the final rules for 5th edition will look like … but it does provide enough information to get some hints about how the upcoming edition of the game will be structured. In general, the goal seems to be to streamline the system, making it very accessible to new gamers, but still providing enough substance and versatility that more experienced gamers will find the system desirable. It’s a tough balancing act, but looking over the D&D Starter Set, I feel a growing sense of confidence that the new system will achieve these objectives.
Setting the stage for the release of the newest set of Dungeons & Dragons rules, Wizards of the Coast today announced that August 2014 would mark the start of their Tyranny of Dragons campaign. In addition to the core manuals for the Dungeons & Dragonsgame system, the campaign will feature adventures within the Dungeons & Dragons setting, both in printed books for tabletop play and also as a new game module released for their Neverwintergame. The adventure begins on August 14 and winds its way through a number of key releases that are looking to modernize the game.
Tabletop fans will be able to join in on the Tyranny of Dragons adventuring action (also released on Aug. 19) with the adventure supplement Hoard of the Dragon Queen, for $29.95 ($35 Canadian):
In an audacious bid for power the Cult of the Dragon, along with its dragon allies and the Red Wizards of Thay, seek to bring Tiamat from her prison in the Nine Hells to Faerun. To this end, they are sweeping from town to town, laying waste to all those who oppose them and gathering a hoard of riches for their dread queen. The threat of annihilation has become so dire that groups as disparate as the Harpers and Zhentarim are banding together in the fight against the cult. Never before has the need for heroes been so desperate.