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Sunday, 20 April 2014

Dungeons & Dragons 4.95?

So when I said in my review of Against the Slave Lords that it was the only ‘official’ release from Wizards of the Coast for Dungeons & Dragons, this was not exactly true—there was one additional release. It was a release not for any previous edition of the game, but for one to come, one that had not yet been released, that is ‘D&D Next’, the development version that will be released in 2014. Whether it will be released as Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition is another matter, but that essentially is what the new game will be. In the meantime, there is Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle: A D&D Next Preview, which was an exclusive release at GenCon 2013 and has since been made available as a PDF.

Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is two things in one. First, it is a mini-campaign consisting of four adventures designed to take a party of adventurers from first to tenth level. The second is an explanation of the rules, complete with monster statistics, spell descriptions, magic item descriptions, pre-generated adventurers, and setting material to support the campaign. Together, these two parts provide a preview of D&D Next—or at least a version of it. For at the time of the publication of Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, the rules for D&D Next had not been finalised. Nevertheless, this preview presents a version of D&D Next that essentially has the feel of Basic Dungeons & Dragons, but with some influences from more recent versions of Dungeons & Dragons. This means that Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle could actually be run with any version of Dungeons & Dragons—bar Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition—and indeed any Dungeons & Dragons retro-clone.

The campaign, Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, consisting of ‘Fane of the Sun Swallower’, ‘The Cursed Crypts of Ambergul’, ‘The Fall of Illefarn’, and ‘Dragonspear Castle’, takes in and around the town on Daggerford on the Sword Coast of the Forgotten Realms. It opens with ‘Fane of the Sun Swallower’, in which the adventurers, either locals from, or visitors to, Daggerford, are attending the town’s midsummer festival. Unfortunately, the poor weather and the recent attack on a local noble’s estate has driven everyone indoors, except that is, for the public hanging of a Red Wizard of Thay who is believed to have been responsible for the attack. Whilst at this hanging, the adventurers are approached by Sir Isteval, a retired Paladin who resides in Daggerford to ride with him to the aid of Cromm’s Hold, a nearby keep that has been attacked by a black dragon! When they arrive, they learn that the dragon was after something—and that is enough for Sir Isteval to direct the adventurers to find what and why…

After a trek through a foetid swamp, this leads to the first of the campaign’s three mini-dungeons, a sun temple that has been desecrated by pestilent lizardmen. It is also the first of the campaign’s well-designed and inventive dungeons, which although quite small, is full of flavour and detail. This is not a dungeon that needs to be fought through, but rather it needs to be explored and learned from. Although there are plenty of combat encounters, there are also plenty of encounters where the DM gets to portray interesting NPCs—sections of boxed text throughout give advice as to how to roleplay each of the more important NPCs—and the player characters get to achieve their objectives without the need to draw a sword or prepare a spell. The dungeon has some memorable moments—the player characters gain an interesting pet, deal with an interesting family or two, and finally get betrayed.

This is perhaps the first and biggest weakness in Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle. Its plot revolves around not just one ‘MacGuffin’, but a quartet of them. Each once belonged to an ancient elemental cult, each is now sought by the Red Wizards of Thay, and each is unlikely to remain in the hands of the player characters—if at all. Which leaves the adventurers chasing, if not after what is in effect nothing, then at least after something to no obvious effect; all right, so they are chasing after a set of ‘MacGuffins’ and not getting hold of any of them is the point of the ‘MacGuffin’ or the ‘MacGuffins’, but the first scenario, ‘Fane of the Sun Swallower’, goes further and ends with the party’s betrayal. Simply, their success in the scenario is snatched out from under them, so not only is this plot device tiresome and heavy-handed, it is dispiriting too. This plot is part of the NPC’s desire for revenge on another NPC.

Should the adventurers decide to persevere, they are asked by a young pregnant woman to go after her child’s father who has been hired by a wanted Red Wizard, Darwa Dalion. She plans to explore ‘The Cursed Crypts of Ambergul’, the last resting place of the Ambergul family. The family were notable members of the ancient elemental cult, so in bringing Darwa Dalion to justice, the party may also be able to find the young man and learn more about the aims of the Red Wizards. In comparison to ‘Fane of the Sun Swallower’, this dungeon is much more sophisticated in its design, with an emphasis on traps and tricks as well as curses—lots and lots of curses. In fact, the player characters may well become tired of being cursed in this dungeon. Nevertheless, there is an inventiveness to the design of this dungeon and lots of interesting NPCs, most of them members of the Ambergul family.

Unfortunately, there is less inventiveness on show in the third part of the campaign, ‘The Fall of Illefarn’. This takes place in a collapsing Dwarven city that is inhabited by a Dwarf clan that has interbred with an Orc tribe. The underwhelming design of the dungeon owes much to its Dwarven heritage, but at least it maintains the same high standard in terms of its NPCs, and it does present an interesting puzzle when it comes to find much of the treasure scattered through its levels. Finding the final MacGuffin is also possible if something of a challenge, and of course, the player characters are unlikely to hold on to it for very long.

Sadly, the dip in quality continues with the fourth and final adventure, ‘Dragonspear Castle’. Although the adventure comes with a rousing though somewhat scripted denouement, getting there feels flat and something of a plod. It also seems rushed and out of step with the rest of the campaign, almost irrelevant to it the plot that the characters have been involved in, rather than the one that the major NPC has been orchestrating. Rounding out the adventure is a section on Daggerford and the surrounding Sword Coast, which should help the DM add flavour to his portrayal of the town and its inhabitants.

One interesting aspect of Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is the magic items it includes. There are almost no ‘+1 swords’ or other archetypal weapons usually found in Dungeons & Dragons. There are scrolls and potions aplenty, but there are items such as an animated dwarf skeleton that will do your bidding and a music box of sobriety whose sober tune negates intoxicated condition. These and similar items are minor pieces of magic, but they are notable and any one of them is a worthy addition to a player character’s possessions.

The second problem with Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is how experience is handled. ‘Fane of the Sun Swallower’ is designed for characters of first level, ‘The Cursed Crypts of Ambergul’ for characters of fourth or sixth level, ‘The Fall of Illefarn’ for characters of sixth or seventh level, and ‘Dragonspear Castle’ for characters of ninth level. The campaign advises that if the adventurers have not acquired enough experience points to reach such character levels, then the DM should add random encounters to boost the party’s experience point reward. Not only is this weak advice, it should be unnecessary advice—the adventures should be awarding sufficient experience points. Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle compounds this by not giving any advice in the DM Guideline chapter as to experience point rewards, nor any advice as to when the experience rewards should be given or levels awarded.

Half of Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle provides a version of D&D Next, covering ‘How to Play’, magic and spells, equipment, DM Guidelines, and a Bestiary. Of course, it is impossible to detail exactly what will be in D&D Next, but some impressions can be gained from reading through the second half of the book, even if, by the time of the publication of D&D Next in 2014, the version here will be a year out of date. The fundamentals appear not to have changed in terms of what the players can play—Elves, Dwarfs, Humans, Halflings, Fighters, Clerics, Wizards, Rogues, and so on. Characters very much look like Dungeons & Dragons characters, though more like those of Basic Dungeons & Dragons than those of other editions—though this does not mean that Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings are Classes in their own right. Characters do have Backgrounds, such as Soldier or Priest or Sage. Each provides a few quite significant bonuses.

The first notable omission to D&D Next is that of skills. Everything is done by ability modifiers—need to ride a horse? Make a Dexterity check by adding the Dexterity ability modifier to a roll of the twenty-sided die. Or a Recall Lore roll? That requires an Intelligence check. In addition, a character can also have one or more proficiencies, which either grant the ability to use various items—such as weapons or dice and cards, or grant a bonus to these checks. A +10 Lore check is one common feature of the book’s given player characters and is typically granted by a Background.

In addition to rolling the twenty-sided die for attacks, saving throws, and ability checks, characters can now gain ‘Advantage’ or ‘Disadvantage’. Both enable a character to roll two twenty-sided dice, having the ‘Advantage’ lets a character keep the better roll, whereas having the ‘Disadvantage’ forces him to keep the worst roll. Examples given in Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle include a character wearing chainmail armour having the ‘Disadvantage’ when attempting to sneak anywhere and a Halfling always having the ‘Advantage’ when making Saving Throws against fear effects.

The list of spells in Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is not exhaustive, being primarily built around the pre-generated adventurers. What is noteworthy is that spellcasting Classes receive cantrips that can be cast at-will and that some spells, for example, Melf’s Acid Arrow, require an attack roll. Healing from rest enables a character to reroll one or more of his Hit Dice back up to his maximum Hit Points, so essentially, how well a character heals depends on his Class. Healing spells work normally. Lastly, a critical hit only adds one extra die to the damage roll, even if the weapon or attack normally rolls two or more for damage. Presumably this applies to spells because a weapon generally rolls just the one die for damage. For the most part, combat seems to have been simplified and streamlined, but still covers most eventualities.

Rounding out Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is an appendix containing six pre-generated player characters designed for use with the campaign. They include a Human Cleric, Dwarven Fighter, Human Fighter, Elven Mage, Human Mage, and a Halfling Rogue—though no Human Rogue. Each is given a two-page spread, much of devoted to the advances made with each level, from second through to tenth levels. These are all set in stone so that no player has to roll for anything. It does seem odd though, that no Human Rogue is included, especially given that two variations are for each Class. (Note that I had planned to include one here as an example character, but unfortunately the difference between this version of D&D Next and the most recent I have access to was too great).

Physically, Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is well presented and for the most part, well written. It needs an edit here or there, and it does suffer from some knowingly silly anachronism. That said, the authors acknowledge that the book is not the finished article, not the definitive version of D&D Next, and do have some fun with their commentary. The book nicely acknowledges the breadth and feel of almost forty years of Dungeons & Dragons in its choice of art, all drawn from the game’s history—it seems fitting that the main opponents of ‘Fane of the Sun Swallower’ are illustrated with a piece by the late David A. Trampier. The cartography is also well done, although annoyingly, the map of the region over which the campaign takes place, is hidden in the middle of the book, rather than being towards the front where it would have been of better use. Absurdly for a book that the DM is meant to make reference to during play, Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle lacks an index. 

Wizards of the Coast has released two sequels to Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, though not direct sequels as neither use the same player characters. The first is the Dreams of the Red Wizards: Scourge of the Sword Coast, which is designed to be used with characters of second level, and will be followed by Dead in Thay.

The sad truth is that Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is a stop-gap product, a book designed to give its audience a taster of things to come during a period when there is nothing else. Which is fine, as after all, it is intended as a preview for D&D Next. As a taster, it is not an unreasonable introduction to the new game, a more simple, streamlined version of Dungeons & Dragons in which—if the scenarios are any basis to go by—there is an emphasis on roleplaying and exploration rather than on set encounters. As to the campaign itself, Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle gets off to a great start with pair of meaty, well thought out, detailed, and flavoursome dungeons, before becoming losing steam with the second two parts and ultimately failing to quite deliver on the promise made in the first two scenarios. It is hampered by a lack of guidance as to how to handle Experience Points and gaining Levels, and the plotting never really strays too far from being a cliché. Nevertheless, it could still be played throughout, though not without some extra effort upon the part of the DM, using either the version of D&D Next in the book, the one officially published in 2014, or indeed most versions of Dungeons & Dragons. Which can only be a good thing as it means that Dungeons & Dragons, in the form of D&D Next, is not going to be as proscriptive as previous editions, is going to be accessible using multiple versions of Dungeons & Dragons, and thus is going to be ‘our’ game rather than just belonging to Wizards of the Coast.