Eberron: Revision After the Edition War

I’ve found Wizards of the Coast’s official offerings this year for D&D to largely be of little interest to me. There was a new Essentials Kit which seems to provide a followup to the Starter Set with more character generation rules incorporated in it. There’s been the Baldur’s Gate and Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign adventures, but I haven’t been too interested in the official campaigns for 5E. And there’s been various tie-in materials – starter sets riffing on the popularity of Stranger Things and Rick & Morty, and a supplement covering the setting of Acquisitions Incorporated. None of this especially floats my boat.

However, the last major release of the year I find a real treat. This is Eberron: Rising From the Last War. With its main designers credited as Keith Baker (the creator of the Eberron setting) and Jeremy Crawford and James Wyatt, major 5E rules wranglers (Wyatt also worked on the original 3.5E release of the campaign setting), it updates the classic setting from its original presentation in 3.5E-era D&D to provide a basis for running games in it, including a fat stack of religions, cosmological details, races (including honest-to-goodness shapeshifters, dreams in human form, and of course the iconic Terminators Warforged, and even an entire character class (not just a subclass – a whole class, the Artificer) distinctive to Eberron.

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What Music They Make!

Some recent discussions on the Discord channel had prompted me to take a second look at Ravenloft, and as luck would have it I had a chance to pick up Children of the Night: Vampires at a very reasonable price. This was the first of the Children of the Night series, conceived as a sort of companion to the popular Van Richten’s Guides.

Indeed, the credits include a dedication to the late Nigel Findley, who wrote the classic Van Richten’s Guide to Vampires, both setting the format for the rest of a series and providing a classic examination of how to take a generic monster manual entry and extrapolate an interesting villain for it. The Children of the Night supplements carry that idea forwards by providing sets of “worked examples”, if you will, of distinctive characters of the relevant type, fleshed out into fully-developed NPCs. In a nice touch, each NPC writeup also has a mini-adventure associated with it, providing an instant hook for getting the character in question involved in your campaign. Whilst optimised for Ravenloft, as with Van Richten’s Guides themselves it’s no big burden to adapt the material here to other campaign settings, which was an aspect of the Ravenloft support line which I always thought TSR didn’t make enough of.

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Pounded In the Butt By An Alphabetised Bestiary

Chuck Tingle’s famously rapid pace of production evidently applies to RPG material as much as it does to his unique “Tingler” brand of erotica. Hot on the heels of the core rulebook to his The Tingleverse RPG comes The Tingleverse Monster Guide, covering monsters ranging from “Abracadaver” (an undead stage magician) to “Zombie Bicycle” (a zombie bicycle).

A small bestiary is presented in the core Tingleverse rulebook, but Tingle evidently understands the joy of monster books. Of all the original AD&D hardbacks, it seems to my anecdotal experience that people have more fond memories of leafing through the Monster Manual than any other book.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide is often praised for being a dense pile of both useful refereeing tools and Gygax’s extended explanation of why the game is structured the way it is, but is organised so strangely and hops between those two different modes of writing so randomly and is generally so dense that it doesn’t lend itself to idle browsing very well. The Player’s Handbook is rather lightweight, especially when compared to the Player’s Handbooks of subsequent editions, partially because both TSR and Wizards would dial back on Gygax’s philosophy of keeping as much of the system opaque to players as possible and because Wizards-era editions would include substantially more character customisation options than core 1E AD&D did.

The Monster Manual, however, was endless fun to dip into. You had those charming (if rudimentary) illustrations of the monsters, you had those fun descriptions of them, what’s not to love? In general, this has remained true for subsequent editions too, with 2E in particular going the extra distance in terms of rooting the monsters in their ecosystem and the setting, an approach which Tingle takes here.

By and large, then, we have here a conventional monster book – each NPC or creature depicted here has a jolly little illustration by Chuck, and each entry provides the creature’s stats, physical description, combat techniques and lifestyle. The make or break question when it comes to this sort of thing is the imagination of the contributors and their ability to come up with interesting and unique monsters, or distinctive variations on existing themes (like the various flavours of dragons in D&D, or the various types of Reverse Twins or physically embodied abstract concepts or living objects in The Tingleverse). Fortunately, the imagination you are dealing with here is Chuck Tingle’s. ’nuff said.

Pounded In the Butt By A Handsome D&D Reskin

Chuck Tingle is probably our greatest living satirist, his primary platform being the titles, blurbs, and absurdly photoshopped covers of his short stories (“Tinglers”) on Amazon. Oh, sure, there’s the content of those stories too – but I would be willing to bet that Chuck works on the basis that 99% of people wouldn’t actually sit down and read any of his erotica about urbane dinosaurs, friendly living objects, manifested abstract concepts, or sexy unicorns and bigfoots; the joke has to be delivered in the title and blurb, ideally just the title, and then the actual action of the story is fairly self-evident from there.

Nonetheless, for what’s basically a long-running repetition, refinement of, and iteration on the same basic joke, the whole Tingler thing seems to be going from strength to strength. It certainly help that Chuck – despite portraying himself as a somewhat naïve figure on his Twitter feed and reliant on his “son name of Jon” to get by – actually seems to be remarkably savvy. When the Rabid Puppies’ block voting attack on the Hugo Awards was at its peak, they got Tingle’s Space Raptor Butt Invasion nominated in the short story category. Whilst this seems to have been intended both to denigrate Chuck and the Awards by making them look silly, Chuck took things in hand, turning the incident into an opportunity to advocate for more or less all the causes which the Puppies disliked. (The peak of his counter-trolling came when he declared that if he won, he’d have primary GamerGate target Zoë Quinn collect the award on his behalf.)

That’s the thing about Chuck – he’s got this magic touch which has taken his long-running joke about getting pounded in the butt by sexy night buses or billionaire dinosaurs or alluring manifestations of abstract concepts or your own butt and made it strangely wholesome for work that still retains one foot in the world of erotica. His Twitter feed is a mashup of his surreal take on the universe and moments of clearly expressed, unequivocal good lessons about self-acceptance and treating each other right. He’s like the Mr. Rogers of Dadaist literary pornography who just wants to prove that love is real.

Now the long-running Tingle joke has taken on yet another dimension – that of a tabletop roleplaying game, The Tingleverse, named after the multiverse which his stories take place in. The concept of the game has players taking on the role of inhabitants of this universe – Humans, Unicorns, Bigfoots and Raptors are viable PC races in the core book, and you get to choose from classes like “Sneak”, “Wizard”, “True Buckaroo”, and “Bad Boy” (Chuck notes that being a bad boy doesn’t limit your choice of gender in any respect). Beginning your adventure in Billings, Montana, Chuck’s hometown that prominently features in all his stories, you’re encouraged to go forth and do good in the world against the encroaching forces of the Void, as represented by evil Void Crabs, dubious Reverse Twins, and the vile force of darkness and destruction known only as… Ted Cobbler, who anyone who’s not sufficiently high level just perceives as a perfectly normal resident of the neighborhood.

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From Ronin To Radiation…

Postapocalyptic tabletop RPGs are a small but notable niche subgenre, with their influence perhaps most felt via Fallout – which, whilst a CRPG, was very much developed with a tabletop game fan’s sensibilities (right down to the designers originally planning to use GURPS as the underlying system before their agreement with Steve Jackson Games fell through). The forefather of them all is, of course, Gamma World – but Gamma World tends much more towards the sillier end of the postapocalyptic setting spectrum, with very unrealistic, borderline cartoonish mutations being very much the order of the day.

As such, the first clutch of games to come out following Gamma World all seem to have positioned themselves to try and offer a more serious-minded approach to the subject matter – and interestingly, they all have different ideas as to how long after the initial civilisational collapse the game should be set in. 1980’s The Morrow Project followed Gamma World in setting itself a comparably long time after the big kill; the specific conceit of the game is that PCs are all volunteers in the titular continuity-of-civilisation project, cryogenically frozen when it looked like things were about to go to shit with the intention of being thawed out after a reasonable time period had passed so that they could take the lead on rebuilding, only for the cryogenics computers to malfunction and leave them frozen for 150 years.

The major difference between this setup and Gamma World is that whilst Gamma World PCs are way too young to have any personal memories of the time before (and chances are their communities have little to no institutional memory of it), The Morrow Project presents you with PCs who only know the world before, who are able to explore and make discoveries about the postapocalyptic world whilst making full use of the technological knowhow they’ve retained, are perfectly placed to exploit any remaining technological caches they can uncover, and are tasked with restoring order and imposing their values on a hostile present day. (In some respects it can come across as a sort of time-hopping colonialism…)

Twilight: 2000, by comparison, took the opposite tack by presenting a setting in which civilisation collapsed under the weight of Too Much War within the past few years. All the player characters are not only assumed to have lived through the downfall (and therefore have vivid memories of the way things used to be), but are also among the last representatives of the pre-downfall US Army. The events of the Twilight War have been intensely disruptive – but not enough time has passed to cause people to forget that things used to be better, or the values that held sway before the war, and so when the PCs swing by to help a community rebuild it feels a bit less like colonialism and a bit more like humanitarian intervention. (Unless your PCs go bandit, of course…)

In between Twilight: 2000 and The Morrow Project, both in terms of assumed IC time period and in terms of publication date, is 1981’s Aftermath! by Paul Hume and Bob Charrette. This was a game originally prepared for publication by Phoenix Games, who’d also republished Hume and Charrette’s Bushido after its original publisher folded; however, Phoenix went bust in early 1981. Luckily, Fantasy Games Unlimited’s Scott Bizar stepped in to rescue Hume and Charrette’s two RPGs, making them part of the FGU catalogue and, I suspect, substantially increasing the extent of their distribution in the meantime. (The FGU edition of Bushido is easily the most widely-available version on the second hand market, after all.)

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Over On Fake Geek Boy: Pathfinder: Kingmaker CRPG Review!

In case you don’t follow all my blogs, a point of potential interest: over on Fake Geek Boy I just posted a Kickstopper review of the Pathfinder: Kingmaker CRPG adaptation.

tl;dr: It’s pretty good, the main problem with it being that it keeps going after you hit the high levels where D&D 3.X-derived systems tend to break and the kingdom management system isn’t up to snuff.

Mini-Review: How Long Has This Been On the Cards?

In retrospect, it’s kind of weird that Wizards of the Coast hasn’t done more crossover material between D&D and Magic: the Gathering. One can easily imagine a parallel universe where Wizards churned out worldbooks for the various worlds of Magic to feed the ever-hungry 3rd edition market, had they been less conservative about the number of settings they were willing to directly support for the game (having been, perhaps, scared off the idea of supporting large numbers of settings as a result of TSR’s experience overstretching itself). It would, after all, be an easy enough crossover to accomplish – and you’d have a wealth of art already done for the setting in question in the form of the cards related to it.

As it stands, it’s taken Wizards until their third edition of the game to finally get up the courage to cross the streams. The Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica is a campaign guide to the titular gameworld, dominated by a grand metropolis ruled by a set of ten distinct guilds. Rather than taking the route taken by TSR with the 2nd Edition settings – or even by Wizards themselves for 3rd Edition settings – the major hardcopy products have been kept strictly limited: just the book itself and a Maps & Miscellany collection of useful maps and handouts.

By and large, it’s a supplement much along the lines of the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, giving a range of character generation options, treasures, monsters, and suggestions for adventure design in a package useful to players and referees alike. The Guilds, being the distinctive feature of the setting, naturally get a lot of attention; indeed, between their inclusion, the somewhat more technologically advanced nature of the setting, the idea that the setting is used to Planeswalkers showing up thanks to the central conceit of Magic, and the rules and framework provided for modelling rank and its benefits within the Guilds, the book is highly reminiscent of Planescape, to the point where it could be used as a model for a 5E take on Planescape if Wizards ever decides to go back to that well (or if you want to homebrew one yourself).

Another major commonality it has with Planescape is a really distinctive aesthetic. Here’s the real advantage of drawing on Magic: because in that context a lot of the flavour, lore, and general atmosphere of the game’s various worlds has to be conveyed through the medium of the cards, the artwork for the cards has to carry a lot of the weight of that. As time has gone by, this has become more generally understood and appreciated by the Magic team; if a picture is worth a thousand words, the Magic artists have Ernest Hemingway-esque skills in terms of how much they can cram into those words. This is just as useful in an RPG book as it is on Magic cards, and with full-size pages to work with rather than just the cards themselves the artists do a fantastic job of getting across the atmosphere of Ravnica, just as Tony DiTerlizzi nailed the atmosphere of Sigil.

On the whole, I’d say Ravnica has proven to be a truly worthwhile addition to the D&D campaign setting roster. In particular, it could provide a good example of a Prime Material world with extensive links to other planes of existence – something which the Planescape campaign setting sorely lacked. Indeed, you could run an entire Planescape game using Ravnica as an alternate player character “home town” to Sigil – or replacing Sigil entirely if you find the Ravnica Guilds more interesting than Sigil’s Factions.