Friday, February 18, 2011

DnD: Review - Soldiers of Fortune

There is something Matt James wants you to know: Being a mercenary does not make you a bad person. A fact he repeats often and emphatically in his new book Soldiers of Fortune. Despite the common stereotypes associated with soldiers for hire - that of unscrupulous, amoral cutthroats looking for easy money - this material encourages your PC's to dive into the often grim and gritty world of professional soldiers paid for their martial expertise and willingness to fight, and quite possibly die, for a cause not their own.

Written by Matt James and published by Kobold Quarterly
The supplement, written in the context of the Midgard campaign setting, is broadly divided into two parts: fluff and crunch. The fluff, comprised of the first three chapters of the book, starts off with a discussion about the reasons for war, the various Midgardian factions and alliances that often wage war upon one another, and strategies for successfully waging war. The last part of Chapter 2 being comprised of several skill challenges.

The second half, the crunch, occupies most of the book's 79 pages. Features in this section include new feats, powers and paths; magic items, rituals; and a slew* of new monsters and templates. Included in the crunch, but separate from the lists of new material is The Battle of Sanguine-Crag Pass, an adventure for five 7th-level characters.


As someone who grew up hearing a lot of military stories (my father served in Vietnam and my brother currently serves in the National Guard), and eventually getting into table-top wargames myself, a lot of the background and information presented in the fluff about war in general was nothing particularly new to me. I realize, however, this may not be the case for a lot of readers. I will acknowledge, though, that the focus on the role of mercenaries in larger conflicts presented in this work was something I don't recall seeing before in material such as this.

The most welcome portion of the first three chapters, to my mind, were the Skill Challenges. I particularly liked the fact that the Besieged challenge - in which the PC's are tasked with holding a defensible location - could be flipped around to recast the PC's in the role of the besiegers. Another idea presented in this section that I'd like to experiment with is the long-form Skill Challenge which might be conducted in stages over the course of an adventure, or possibly even a campaign.

It is the final four chapters of the book - the crunchy portion - where I felt Soldiers of Fortune really succeeded as a source of inspiration. I frequently found myself stopping and mentally expanding or elaborating on material in the book. Magical banners and standards (including one for Gnolls!), rules and stats for siege engines, templates for PCs and NPCs alike, formations, minions on the battlefield; each of these sections fed my anticipation for my next campaign, and an opportunity for these ideas - some as-written, some tweaked or expanded - to be implemented.


The book is laid out in a straightforward two-column format, with a fairly polished feel to it. I wasn't a fan of the page borders or the occasional 3/4 width image that had text crammed around it, but these are minor quibbles and shouldn't detract from the overall reading experience. Stat blocks with titles and descriptions split across pages were probably the most annoying thing; thankfully, this was a rare occurrence. I was also curious as to why certain sections, such as the Skill Challenges, were placed as they were within the overall structure of the book - again, not a deal breaker, just something I noticed.

The full-color cover by Malcom McClinton and interior black-and-white art by Joe Slucher, all original save for one stock image, are average-to-above-average in quality - my personal favorite being the image of the old man at the opening of Chapter 3. Each piece had at least one detail that really stood out and drew my attention.

Crystal Fraizier's encounter maps were well-done and easy to read. One gripe, though: there is no indication of where the PCs are supposed to start, on the map or in the encounter description.


Overall, I thought this was a solid effort. I would have liked to have seen some of the material elaborated and expanded upon, but taking it upon myself to do so draws me to the product in a way that it might not have otherwise if every possible detail were spelled out. I don't know if Matt James has written any other sourcebooks, but, should he continue to build upon and develop the skills and ideas demonstrated in Soldiers of Fortune, I feel certain that he could produce some great RPG material.

Buy Soldiers of Fortune if:
You are planning to run a military-themed campaign; your PC's enjoy the tactical nature of combat encounters; your group enjoys the role-playing opportunities that occur in a profession where money and violence are inextricably bound together; Your PC's have expressed an interest in operating heavy weapons; Your group would like to participate in epic, large-scale conflicts.

Consider Soldiers of Fortune if:
You appreciate reading others' ideas and tweaking them to fit your particular campaign or style of play. You want to give the forces that oppose your PC's some depth and character. You're considering increasing the scale of your combat encounters and skill challenges.

Avoid Soldiers of Fortune if:
Your PC's like to play wondering heroes answering a higher call - righting wrongs, dealing out justice, and slaying evil monsters; hate taking orders from NPC's (even ones paying for their services) and/or don't really care about the consequences of their actions (and you don't care to enforce them); Your group prefers small, quick encounters and simple resolutions to clearly defined problems.

I have included a link to the notes I took as I was reading Soldiers of Fortune, written as stream-of-consciousness observations:
SoF_impressions (9 Kb .txt, Mediafire)

Review Disclosure
I volunteered to review this product; no compensation has been asked for or given for this review. A link to an early version of the .pdf was provided to me by the author. All errors encountered in the text were shared with the author and publisher. I have been assured by the author that most, if not all, errors have been corrected in the final edition.
*Slew, in this context, being defined as: 14 templates (2 for minions), 27 monsters, 3 siege engines

Sunday, February 6, 2011

DnD: Through the Eyes of a Newb

The game group that was meeting at my house went on hiatus several months ago. I recently emailed them about getting back together. In order improve the experience for everyone, I sent them a brief survey of seven questions. Their responses follow. First, however, some demographic information about the players, all of whom were totally new to role-playing when I asked them to try out 4e with me (I, in turn, was totally new to being a DM). I will be using their PC names to identify them.
  • Eponine (Half Elf Paladin, female) - female, married to Lucan IRL, 1 yo son, homemaker/babysitter/violinist, 25
  • Erianya (Eladrin Wizard, female) - my lovely wife, School Psychologist, 31 (still looks mid-20's), 5 yo son & 3 yo daughter
  • Lucan (Elven Cleric, male) - married to Eponine IRL, 1 yo son, Public Defender, 38
  • Telfryn (Elven Ranger, male) - married, Statistics Professor, mid(?)50's, 1 son & 1 daughter - both grown. I referred to him as Teflon.
NOTE: Each player was informed beforehand that their responses would likely wind up on my blog.

1) What aspect of our role-playing sessions did you enjoy the most?

Erianya: I liked the dinner, getting together with friends, and the first half hour- so the set up. I liked seeing what [the DM] came up with and the creativity of it. Once there was a box with a logical problem to solve and I figured it out very quickly. I liked that.

Eponine: I enjoyed creating a character and witnessing others' creativity. The collaborative story-telling as well the exploring of the world you set up for us. I also really enjoyed the discovery of our unique roles within the group. I enjoyed being the strong defender. :-) I really enjoyed beginning to learn about the world of D&D -- it was fun how it opened up conversations with some neighbors and many of my college friends (I guess that says a lot about my friends). Thanks for sharing it with us.

Lucan: I agree with Telfryn and Erianya in that the getting together was the main thing. As for the game, I thought the unstructured, open nature of role playing games was challenging. I enjoyed the story-telling aspects of the game, too -- especially [the DM's] work creating the environment. Really the "cooperative story-telling" aspects were quite fun and a very interesting experience to reflect on.

Telfryn: The time together.

2) What aspect of our role-playing sessions did you enjoy the least?

Erianya: I didn't like being bored while everyone else was playing and I wasn't. I didn't like being expected to pay attention when I wasn't playing. I didn't like being expected to have done homework or know what is going on. I liked it better when I'm told "these are rules, here's your game piece, this is what you do, figure out a strategy on your own", rather than "figure out who you are by reading volumes of boring books, figure out what you do by sorting through volumes of boring books, and figure out the rules by reading volumes of boring books." I didn't really like fighting things either, and we did that a lot. The D&D world is vast and complicated. If you are interested in it, could be absorbing and exciting. However, as someone with no interest in those details- I want someone to tell me the minimum I have to learn in order to play, and then be expected to know that minimum- not more- and for that to be okay.

Eponine: The battles seemed to go on for a long time, and at times seemed monotonous and futile.

Lucan: Our mutual lack of experience made the game tedious at times. I suppose that is partly because we were not experienced enough acting in character to be able to know what they would do automatically. We were probably doing too much meta-thinking or at least we were too self-conscious.

Telfryn: The fact that the ads kept popping up on the digital board.

3) What changes would you recommend to make our D&D sessions more fun?

Erianya: Play other games, but we can still be in our character? Keep the sessions to 30 minutes? Here's a good one: When we fight, do speed rounds. Instead of everyone having a turn- set the timer for 2 minutes and everyone silently figures out our attack and then 30 seconds each person to describe the attack. Then the monsters have 2 minutes to decide how to attack all of us. Then we have 2 minutes to decide and 30 seconds to tell and so on. This will get us out of the boring fighting and back into the story. Maybe then I can more easily tolerate more than 30 minutes of play.

Eponine: As others have said - I would recommend shortening the fighting encounters.

Lucan: Shorter and more focused encounters would help probably. I liked using the table. Perhaps we could work the Wii Fit tasks into it, too. There could be adventures where you have to try to complete some Wii thing like flying to an island or something. I realize that is totally ridiculous from a D&D perspective ;-) The problem with D&D for me is that I am not able to really commit to inhabiting the imaginary world seriously enough to make the action happen spontaneously. I also enjoyed playing some of the other games that y'all have and new games that you would find from time to time -- Settlers of Catan comes to mind. And I don't think that we have to play a game -- I am open to other options, both indoors and out, for our time together. Outdoor activities like cook-outs in the park, drive-in movies, etc. all come to mind for the spring and summer. Of course, I also now have to think about [kid]-friendly activities.

Telfryn: I thought they were great fun, but it seemed like we got awfully bogged down sometimes talking things over and not staying focused.

4) Are there different settings/genres/styles of role-playing that you would prefer to D&D's standard hack-n-slash fantasy setting (please elaborate beyond a simple 'yes' or 'no')?

Erianya: Do not understand the question- but hack and slash does not sound like me.

Eponine: Yes, I am sure there are different settings/genres/styles that I would prefer to hack-n-slash fantasy. Like Lucan, I preferred the exploring part of the game, I don't know what genre would be more like that.

Lucan: I thought the exploring part of the game was more fun than the fighting part. Perhaps the fighting could be modified to go more quickly -- more real time. I like Erianya's suggestion. Also, see my comments on question 3.

Telfryn: Not sure, because I don't know what is out there. I am partial to "puzzle" games (al la "Raven" from several years ago), where there was a puzzle that we had to figure out. However, that doesn't lend itself to the sort of invent-as-you-go flavor of D&D. So...I'm happy with the genre we used.

5) Would having a more experienced role-player in the group make you more or less interested in playing?

Erianya: MUCH MUCH less interested. A more experienced role player would expect us to follow a certain set of complicated rules that I'm uninterested in learning. They would be annoyed with us and I'd be anxious over the fact that I was annoying them and then annoyed with them for being sticklers overs rules I don't care about. It seems too dangerous.

Eponine: Less.

Lucan: I agree with Telfryn and Erianya. I don't think we could handle them or they could handle us.

Telfryn: Having a more experienced role player might help us all learn more, but honestly, the real fun for me is in being together...less so than becoming really proficient in D&D. Not sure an experienced player on our team would be happy with our rather messy way of playing.

6) Did using the digital table make your role-playing experience more or less engaging?

Erianya: The digital table was useful and aesthetically pleasing.

Eponine: More. The table was really cool --- except for the pop up ad of course.

Lucan: Aside from the technical difficulties, I thought the table was a great addition.

Telfryn: I liked the digital table . . . with that birds-eye-view. Helped me visualize things (if we can just keep those pesky ads from popping up!).

7) Time and distance are big issues for our group, do you have any suggestions for overcoming these obstacles?

Erianya: I heard you can purchase a helicopter that you put together yourself for only 100,000. I can't verify this- it was just a facebook post.

Eponine: See Lucan's answer

Lucan: Well, with [our young son] this will only be more difficult in the near future -- particularly the time. I suspect that the game will have to allow for Eponine or I to come and go somehow. The distance isn't a huge obstacle. Obviously, it's not like we lived in the same neighborhood so our get-togethers have to be more planned than spontaneous, but the drive is not burdensome. Y'all's new house is certainly the most convenient in terms of space for kids and adults. Our house is pretty loud and chaotic with all that going on in what is essentially the same room.

Telfryn: Don't know how to over come the time/distance issue. Lucan and Eponine have the biggest hurdle. I'll defer to their ideas and

Thursday, February 3, 2011

DnD: Going Essentials. Now What?

I'll warn you upfront: This post contains no new material or free goodies. Heck, I didn't even get a picture for it. This is simply me asking for advice.

I've decided to go Essentials.

From what I've heard and read online (most of which comes from Twitter, I'll admit), Essentials is simply faster - both for character building and playing. On top of that, it sounds like it is easier for older edition elitists to swallow and easier for newbies (the only people I've gotten to play with) to grasp due to reduced options.

The question for me now, as it has been for every D&D player since Advanced Dungeons & Dragons came out, is 'what should I do with my pre-Essentials 4e books?'

I've got the 3 Player's Handbooks, 3 Monster Manuals, DMG 1 and 2, Open Grave, the DM screen, and Adventurer's Vault 2. I know this is a pittance compared to the hardcore players out there. But for a dilettante such as myself, it was a big investment for the 5 or so games I got out of them.

A lot of attention was paid to the fact that damage and stats were altered in MM3, making it more balanced and 'accurate' (if such a term could be applied), than the first two - so maybe I keep it? Or, maybe all three sold together on eBay would make for a more attractive purchase? I don't know.
Maybe they're worth keeping around as reference material? For the art?

What do people who have been role-playing for years do when they decide to upgrade or switch systems?