Review of the 5e DM Screen

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The DM Screen is glossy, full-color (on both sides), with 4 panels. Each panel is about 8.5″ x 11″ and in a landscape orientation.

The following is a quick review, but I won’t explain every single table on the screen (not sure if I’d get in trouble with WotC?).

The 1st panel has a bunch of tables for quick n’ dirty NPC creation. Very basic, tags for things like Ideals, Bonds, Flaws and a name generator. That last part allows name creation with 2 or 3 syllables. Pretty neat: could be used to come up with names of places, magic items and geographical features. However, if your campaign isn’t set in a generic fantasy world, it won’t be that handy. In that case, I’d grab a sticky-note with a Name table from something like Stars Without Number and cover that part with more relevant material. The bottom left corner of this panel is devoted to some artwork. This can be used for inspiration or it’s space for your own sticky-notes. Either way I’m happy.

The 2nd panel outlines Conditions. These are just like the ones in the Player’s Handbook (cute sketches included). Very handy: I love conditions.

The 3rd panel has a few more Conditions, just like the 2nd panel, and the rest has a bunch of catch all useful tables for things like Cover, a Skill list and setting DCs. Not bad, generally it’s all useful info.

The last panel has tables for travel, encounters and basic guidelines for suitable damage ranges for different character levels. Again, useful generic stuff. Although my peers were not impressed with the Something Happens! and Quick Finds tables, I love them. Sure, there’s some cliché stuff in them, but they could help a DM when they’re uninspired or stuck. Like the 1st panel, the last one has a chunk of artwork on it (almost a third of the panel is art). Again, I like it because it’s inspiring (images of giant monsters smashing towns always are for me) and because it’s room for my own notes and campaign-relevant tables. Room for more sticky notes!

Overall I’m very pleased with this product. It has hit all the right notes for me:

  • Elegance (breathing room: it isn’t too crowded)
  • Utility (I can see myself frequently checking all of these tables)
  • Customizability (the extra empty space can be filled with my own material)

For DMs wanting margin-to-margin tables for just about everything: skip this one. Make your own.

For more casual or improvisational DMs who care less about rules-minutiae, I’d suggest googling some photos of this product and see if it might be for you. I won’t post any images here in case of some sort of copyright law.

Related Links

Review of A Red and Pleasant Land

A Red and Pleasant Land is… a great deal many things. It’s an art-book, with gorgeous illustrations throughout. It’s an art-piece, with beautiful binding, paper texture, rich colour and even has a silky ribbon-bookmark. It is a campaign setting for a role-playing game, with a unique, bizarre and yet familiar environments full of unique characters. It is a sandbox, with countless places to explore, strange characters to interact with and frightfully dangerous (and usually insane) antagonists to meet (or avoid). It is a resource for Game Masters, full of fascinating random tables to create endless locations, dungeons, creatures and people. It’s also immensely fun to simply pick up and flip to a random page to read or gaze at the illustrations.

This product is a great example of how a gaming supplement can be more than just its text content. The book itself reflects its material and setting: it has an elegant yet slightly mad look and feel, just like a Victorian novel about high society vampires or bloodthirsty queens. In other words, handling the book and reading the pages immersed me into the world that its author created.

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The author, Zak Smith, is an incredibly imaginative and creative person. While he is seen as a controversial or confrontational figure within the gaming community, his contributions are, without a doubt, worthy to the hobby. Regardless of one’s opinions of this author, I’d strongly recommend that folks give this book a chance.

The material is roughly split into two halves: descriptions of the setting’s locations, creatures and characters and then many pages of richly detailed random tables and tools for GMs to invent and create wonders.

There are some very witty things in this work. While many of the standard Wonderland tropes are included, they’re handled in really clever ways. I won’t go into detail, because I feel that these are to be discovered by the reader: it’s part of the charming experience of reading this book.

A Red and Pleasant Land is one part Through the Looking Glass and one part Hungarian/Romanian vampires. This happened to be a happy coincidence to this reviewer, as I happen to be in the process of writing a campaign set in a location that is based on 17th century Transylvania. This work just happened to be right up my alley, but I’ve read and reviewed several rpg campaigns lately and so I feel that I can attempt to be critical of elements that I dislike or that I feel are “off”.

While this is officially a supplement for Lamentations of the Flame Princess and is, by default, compatible with OSR games such as Labyrinth Lord, I felt that this could easily be used with any edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Any rules or stat blocks are minimalistic and easy to adapt. I actually look forward to running it myself in the recent fifth edition of D&D and maybe, someday, in Dungeon World.

When I GM this, I plan of covering the gaming table is a feverish mess of props including: a deck of cards, a set of Tarot, chess pieces and, of course a chess board for any combat encounters. I’ll perhaps serve blood-red tea…

I’ll have to keep this brief as it is the day after Christmas and I wish to be with my family and away from my computer. Once again, I whole-heartedly recommend a Red and Pleasant Land for any enthusiast of role-playing games, Lewis Carroll, vampires, old-fashioned books or even simply art lovers.

The author’s blog (sometimes NSFW)

You can go buy it here!

BONUS LINKS: Alice Character class conversions for other games:

 

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Review of Revelry in Torth

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Revelry in Torth (by Venger Satanis) is a location-based sandbox adventure inspired by pulp Sword and Sorcery and Lovecraft. It is a 39 page book with a color cover and has grayscale interior artwork. This is a review of the PDF version. Sadly I have not had an opportunity to playtest it yet.

Background and Setting Information

The book begins with a couple of pages of fiction: two moody short tales and a bit of background info about the setting. All of this content sets the tone: good stuff so far. Everything is easy to read (except for a few exotic alien or demonic names) and contains many familiar tropes found in the author’s works (for example, those accursed snake-men are always up to no good).

There are two new classes: the Shadow Priest and the Wandering Minstrel. Both gain a new spell-like ability at each level, each of which are usable once per day.

The Shadow Priest doesn’t specify any level progression or saving throws, but since it lists some prerequisites I’m assuming that it is a template that is added top of another class (similar to the Compendium Classes in Dungeon World). All of the abilities relate to shadowy effects. There is one power at level 5 that is a save or “die” (which is reversible under specific circumstances). This seems a bit overpowered to me but I’m not familiar with many OSR specialty classes with which to compare: I’m only familiar with the core classes presented in Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

The Wandering Minstrel is a slightly different take on the Bard, and it uses the level progression of a Thief or Rogue class. Each of its abilities consistently relate to music or social charms that manipulate the emotions and minds of others. As an aside, when I first read the name of this class I was expecting a take on the “Wandering Jew” figure: a character who is cursed with endlessly wandering the land until something very important and earth-shattering happens. I might use that idea some day.

As a quick aside, this entire book is inspirational that way. Either because it taps into familiar media (such as Frank Herbert’s Dune or even the Bible) or simply due to the author’s creativity. I frequently stared off into space thinking of evocative desert landscapes with eerie constellations forming in the sky, foretelling doom and terror. 

Next is some information about the setting, grouped under a few different headers: what a native PC of Torth would know (including what they’d know of history and of some grim portents), an overview of the five historical “ages”, and a rundown of the four most prominent tribal groups, which are kind of like this setting’s races (but without that sort of mechanical distinction).  Each of these tribes have their own core beliefs, favored factions or cults, typical behaviors or philosophies and even colour schemes (a nice little way to help the players recognize each one during encounters). Most of them seem to favour occult study: a nice surprise, as I was expecting warrior-centric tribes.

After there’s information on three secret societies or cults: each of them are appropriately ominous and worship sinister figures. A GM could mix and match these tribes and cults to create a great variety of NPC allies or antagonists. It would be cool to give each of them some defining physical characteristics in order to further differentiate them, such as vibrant color skin tones as on Barsoom or animal traits from those of frogs, insects or, very fittingly, serpents.

Magic Use in Torth has its own unique twists as well. The biggest irony of the setting is that magic and sorcery are taboo and distrusted. Which is interesting considering that three out of the four most prominent tribes appear to value study of the occult, demonology and sorcery. This may be one of the reasons for so much inter-tribal strife, for each tribe, and faction, has their own ideas on how magic works and who’s most worthy to use it. I like this idea very much.

There’s mention of a magic-enhancing drug that feels like an homage to the Spice in Frank Herbert’s Dune. I felt that this was appropriate, considering that both Dune and Torth seem to draw some inspiration from middle-eastern folklore and terminology. Sadly I could not find any descriptions of these drugs other than very brief, yey interesting, flavor text. There is, however, a specified mechanic for nasty side-effects for them. I admit that I was a little confused by this, but then again, most OSR games are gleefully cruel this way.

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The Main Location: Aryd’s End

The main location for this adventure, Aryd’s End, gets its own section. There’s some history, which has nods to Lovecraft, and what I think is another nod to Dune: a secret twist about the city’s established defences. I may have read this last part incorrectly, but my interpretation of it sure felt exciting. I began to hope that this great story hook gets used in the adventure itself (sadly, it doesn’t, but it might in the sequel).

There are descriptions of a quirky cultural habit, as well as some sayings: most of which are ominous, of course, but one or two made me chuckle. I rather enjoyed the small section on cuisine: there are some neat things in there, as well as a possible adventure hook (hint: the town’s precious honey comes from bees… giant bees who live in a mountain!).

There’s a quick rundown of a few interesting locations within town. It is implied that these buildings will all be featured in the adventure later on.

Lastly we get introduced to some important NPCs. These include the rulers of Aryd’s End and their closest associates. There are some neat possibilities here, in terms of motivations, but I wonder how these characters will ever be used in the adventure itself, or how any of their secrets will come to light (regardless, it was entertaining to read this part). These characters are all kind of scummy and would fit in well in the lecherous and “backstabby” courts of Westeros.

The last page before the adventure is a table of Rumors. Each player character will know one of these, determined randomly, and it is recommended that the GM decides on their accuracy or whether to use them as supplementary encounters or hooks. These rumors are mixed in terms of practicality : some are about vague and high-level background material, others could be used directly in social or combat encounters. In addition to this table is a sidebar that presents an Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic. This can be used to simplify circumstantial dice modifiers. Those familiar with the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons will know what this means, although the actual rule is handled a bit differently.

The Adventure

The Adventure takes place within and around the city of Aryd’s End. The author recommends that the party begins about a day’s journey away. There is a table of random encounters (usually monsters); there are some interesting beasties here (the Giant Oozing Slug Brain with Spider Legs stands out) but I don’t find much use for random monster tables in general. After that, there are a few encounters and a mini-dungeon, all of which, I feel, were included to set the mood, if nothing else.

Once the party reaches Aryd’s End they are beset by a variety of encounters, most of which seem to to involve one or more NPCs approaching them and pulling them deeper into the meta-plot or into the general mood of crazed revelry. There are a handful of encounters that, if ignored, can cause huge catastrophes or otherwise greatly affect the setting.

There is one crucial event at the very start which affects the players regardless of how they deal with it or not. What I like about this is that it isn’t railroading – per se. The players don’t have to do anything specific or aren’t expected to react in a scripted way. Nevertheless, this one encounter triggers the main “plot”, if you will, and sets things in motion. I like these kinds of encounters because they give a goal to an otherwise aimless sandbox. Along these lines are one or two encounters that reveal a timeline, of sorts, which will come to pass. This also, theoretically, focuses the players into doing something proactive.

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Strangely, this amazingly detailed image is super-tiny. I was surprised that it didn’t get a full page!

There are a handful of locations for the players to explore with some NPCs to interact with, including a curiosity shop and a bordello. Sadly, neither location has much detail other than basic descriptions and a key NPC or two for the players to socialize with.

There is one encounter which does feel railroad-y: the party is summoned to audience with the King, which cannot be refused. If the party isn’t interested, they will be forced into doing so; if they fight, they will be hunted and killed. I’m not crazy about such encounters, and would rather handle this sort of thing differently (example: I’d have one of the king’s aides personally invite them as guests for a big party, which would feel more subtle and yet allow for more frenzied decadence).

The rest of the encounters follow the same formulae: an NPC approaches the party and gives them an ominous bit of advice or warning; an event occurs which moves the story forward, whether or not the party decide to get involved; an NPC encounter which may or may not be hostile (depending on the party’s reputation, current condition or behavior) or a micro-dungeon to explore and loot.

While all of this felt a bit simplistic and straightforward, it all felt very atmospheric and ripe with chances for interesting roleplaying. Despite one or two encounters that kind of forcefully involve the characters, this adventure is rather open-ended. Because of this, I would have liked a few more locations to explore or things to encounter if the party goes off randomly. If I ever run this, I’ll bring out Vornheim to fill in the gaps, for sure.

The last two pages cover some magic items and spells. A few of the magic items have cool background stories and at least one nifty power that goes beyond the “mundane” +1 bonus. They’re all suitably thematic. The spells are interesting, if not disturbing.

The Afterword illustrates the author’s design goals and plans. He mentions that this is the first part in a trilogy and so I’m eager for more. I admit that after The Islands of Purple-Hearted Putrescence, I’m a bit spoiled: I was expecting a few more random tables of unique encounters and setting-building material.

Summary

Cons

  • a lack of a table of contents; the content felt a bit disorganized
  • the headings were sometimes unclear about what each block of content was about
  • the runic glyph watermark on every page was a bit distracting (note that this is a pet-peeve of mine: many RPG publishers do this)
  • I would have liked a few more locations or random tables of encounters (not strictly combat ones)
  • as with other works by the same author, some features contain subject matter unsuitable to all tastes

Pros

  • lots of rich flavour, colour and mood: it would be easy to create your own material or to hand-pick suitable stuff from other works to add to the setting
  • very memorable encounters: this book can be mined for ideas and inspiration
  • really nice artwork and maps
  • easy to read text and layout: friendly conversational tone

Overall I liked this work, although not as much as the Islands of Purple-Heated Putrescence (IPP). The setting, while open-ended, felt a bit “smaller” than I expected. I’d like to see more information about the key location, Aryd’s End. Regardless, I found a lot of the material very inspirational: whether I end up running this or not, I can mine this for ideas. I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

Revelry in Torth is available at Drive Thru RPG.