Friday, 25 October 2019

5e: Infamous Adversaries - a review.

Today's post is a review is of Benjamin Huffman presents: Infamous Adversaries, an upcoming product for DMsGuild, which I will hereafter refer to as Infamous Adversaries or simply IA.

Players should stop reading immediately. This is a book for Dungeon Masters, and I'll be briefly summarising all the excellent adversaries that might tempt your DM into buying this book and incorporating its content into your campaign. You'll have a lot more fun if you encounter them for the first time in-game!

Benjamin is a best-selling DMsGuild creator whose previous credits include The Complete Martialist Handbook,  The Complete Devout Handbook, and The Pugilist, among others. The Pugilist is one of my favourite third-party classes, a fact I've previously mentioned on this blog. In Infamous Adversaries, Benjamin and a team of other creators have put together a collection of 40 unique monsters and villains to use in your D&D games.

I was provided a copy for review but like always I endeavour to remain neutral and honest even when I'm a fan of a creator's previous work, and I call things like I see them.


Infamous Adversaries 
The Infamous Adversaries Cover

If you've read any of my other reviews you know I generally like to go into some detail. If you've not got the time for that, never fret! You can skip straight to the final thoughts and rating to get an overview of my findings. If you want that extra level of detail exploring just where my thoughts on the product  come from, read on.

Value

IA has not yet been released to the public, and will be available for sale on the DMsGuild marketplace from Monday, October 28th with a retail price of $14.95. Excluding the cover page, credits, contents, and a blank page at the back IA comes in at a respectable 120 pages in the print friendly version. That's 12 and a half cents per page, which is great value! Especially considering the production values of the book (see quality, below). The colour version with art adds an additional 4 pages.


SCORE OUT OF 4:

Quality

IA will have both a full colour and a black and white print friendly version. The colour version includes art, some examples of which you can find interspersed throughout this review!

I don't want to dwell too much on the cover as it ultimately isn't important, but the art chosen is cool and evocative: I hope one of the monsters in this book is based on the creature on this cover! At the risk of being anal retentive it bothers me a little that the word "Adversaries" is neither centered or justified, since aligning it to the right doesn't feel like it matches the rest of the title. But it's a purely cosmetic quibble. As I said, the cover isn't really that important (though the outward appearance of the book might matter more if it is ever released in print). What matters is what's inside!

The interior has the standard two-column layout and the body text is clear. I'm less happy about the heading font, which is the same one used for the word "Infamous" on the cover. Big, bold, and all caps as it is on the cover it's perfectly clear; when it comes to reading the headings, it sometimes takes a moment to make sense of the letters. This is at its worst on the contents page.

Contents page font choice aside, the book's graphic design game is strong. Furthermore, it makes good use of art, though admittedly the art varies in quality and uses a combination of original art, stock art, and DMsGuild creator pack assets. This is normal for a DMsGuild product, however, and should be expected at the price point. Where existing art is used it's almost always fit for purpose, the sole exception in my opinion being the art chosen to illustrate the Auroc.

It's clear that the editor has approached the writing of the various contributors with a light touch that lets the voices of the authors shine through: throughout the book, the various adversaries are written up in a number of different styles. Whether this is a good thing or not is subjective. For me it was at times jarring to switch between styles when reading the text of multiple adversaries one after another, but not terribly so.

It's a rare product indeed that is entirely unscathed by grammatical and editorial issues. IA isn't immune and I encountered a few as I read through this book: chiefly grammar issues, such as a couple of particularly painful run-on sentences. On the other hand, it was remarkably free of typos: I only noticed a small number towards the end. I don't intend to go into nit-picky details about exactly what these errors are and where because it's not worth being overly concerned. There are really very few, your overall sense of the content isn't going to be critically impaired by them, and they don't make the book any less useful. Additionally, the beauty of a PDF product is the comparative ease with which the release version can be updated and disseminated to existing customers. For what it's worth, I offer proofreading services if fresh eyes are desired.

SCORE OUT OF 6:

Content

As noted previously, this book contains 40 unique monsters and villains at a wide range of CRs. Bear in mind that the introduction makes clear that each adversary is a "unique take on an existing monster from Dungeons & Dragons, with all the story hooks and statistics necessary to insert them in your game". This means that the majority of the adversaries are more powerful variants of monsters that already exist in D&D's lore, usually with interesting new powers, and of course with all the useful hints for how to best use them in your game. If your primary motivation for buying a bestiary is expanding the diversity of the peoples and creatures of your homebrew world, you won't find that here. In most cases, an adversary is given 2-5 pages, with an average per creature of around 3 pages. A monster's entry is broken up into the following sections:

The Hook, a ready to use plot hook to integrate the creature into your campaign and involve your player characters.

Next Moves describes what the adversary will get up to assuming the player characters don't get in its way.

Tactics gives you the necessary information to roleplay the creature in combat, while Traits tells you what you need to know about their ideals, bonds, and flaws to portray them in a broader sense.

The Statblock corresponds to the informational format you've come to expect from Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons.

Lastly, a Rewards section defines what player characters will gain from defeating the adversary, other than notoriety and personal satisfaction! Rewards include magic items, treasures, and even access to new spells.

In some cases a map of the creature's lair is included to help you run their encounter, or additional sections are provided to aid in incorporating the creature and its lore into your campaign.


Adversaries

In this section I'll summarise each of the 40 creatures in the book to give you an idea what to expect from each adversary. I'll also offer my thoughts on any highlights or perceived issues.

1. Abigarrada (CR 9 Celestial) is a couatl whose mind has been broken by arcane experimentation and wrongly perceives innocent humanoids as demons to purge. A unique feature is that Abigarrada's spells and unique powers are randomised every few rounds, reflecting the uncontrolled planar energies coursing through them. It is also immune to nonmagical damage unless the source of the damage corresponds to a particular trait defined by the couatl's current state, such as "flaming weapons", "wooden weapons", and "cursed weapons". This is pretty cool in theory, but in practice? Casters are fine either way. If non-casters have magical weapons, the immunities become a non-issue. But if not all of the party have magical weapons, then whoever doesn't can't meaningfully contribute to the encounter as they're not going to be carrying weapons that meet most of the criteria, and party spellcasters would almost certainly prefer to use their turn attacking than use it to help their fighter friend keep up for only the next two rounds. Combine this with Abigarrada's 90 ft. fly speed and non-casters are going to feel a bit useless in this encounter. I'm also not convinced Abigarrada should retain the couatl's change shape feature without at least a regular chance for it to fail: it doesn't really fit with the monster's story. If Abigarrada's mind is so chaotic they can't control their own natural form, how is it they can they maintain the form of another creature altogether?

2. Aethlin Adamar (CR 10 Monstrosity) is an elf who was reshaped by Lolth into a misshapen drider for daring to court a drow. He is driven by a thirst for vengeance but the target of his revenge has lost its specificity after a long time alone in the dark. He hunts elves and half-elves, particularly nobles. Aethlin is what happens when you combine a drider statblock with the features of a School of Bladesinging Wizard. He's also a legendary creaturethough he belongs to the subset of legendary creatures that lack lair mechanics. The tactics section recommends pairing him with phase spider allies, which on top of his spellcasting, Bladesong, and legendary actions is sure to make it a grueling encounter!

3. The Alchemical Cube (CR 4 Ooze) is a gelatinous cube poluted by alchemical substances. This creature stands out as an oddity. Since it's an unintelligent ooze it has no "next moves", no "tactics", and no "traits". In other words, it doesn't feel like it belongs in this book: it feels like a generic monster that could belong in any bestiary. As you'll see going forward through this list, it won't be the last that could be described this way and I'll have more comments on that when I sum up. That said, the alchemical cube is at least a fun monster! It's full of alchemical sacs which burst when enough damage is dealt, spreading throughout the ooze and imbuing it with additional  strengthening properties. On a critical hit a sac sprays its content outward, splashing a player character the benefit of its alchemical properties.

4. Anhktepot (CR 25 Undead, or 26 in his lair) is a mummy lord who in life slaughtered thousands in his quest for immortality and cursed the gods when he failed. Ra cursed him with a twisted immortality, and his lands shared his twisted fate, becoming a demiplane of dread. This guy is oozing flavour, but takes a little more work to use as you can't just slip him into a location of your choice: characters have to come to him, not the other way around. Given his CR, this guy is probably either your campaign's primary antagonist, or the adversary you select when you finish your main campaign and realise you're not ready to say goodbye to the player characters just yet. Once you've figured out how to get the player characters to Anhktepot's Dread Domain of Har'Akir, the hard part is done. Actually planning adventures in the domain itself is considerable easier, since there are extra sections in his entry to flesh out the important characteristics of the domain as well as the adventuring site of Anhktepot's tomb. Anhktepot is a particularly powerful version of a mummy lord with a few unique capabilities, including the ability to grapple creatures with his linen wraps, conjure an eclipse, and summon a dragon ally via the gate spell. It should make for a pretty spectacular boss fight! 

5. Archibald Sinister (CR 3 Elemental) is an unusually intelligent gargoyle who guarded a Zhentarim college of wizards until it was attacked by agents of the Harpers. He is now on a quest for vengeance against that organisation which has taken him to Waterdeep. Sinister's statblock is only slightly different from a regular gargoyle, though he can summon mephits. What makes him special is that although he isn't a legendary creature, he has the unique ability to rapidly establish a lair wherever he is by making contact with cut and worked stone. This is a very cool mechanic that makes him a particularly dangerous hunter on the rooftops and in the alleys of Waterdeep. A missed opportunity here is that although Sinister's lore tells us he enjoys using wordplay to trick people, this characteristic is not reflected by a Deception skill nor a unique feature in his statblock. 


6. Ausroc (CR 13 Monstrosity) is an intelligent variant roc called the "faux-phoenix". It chooses to live in volcanic areas, where it can take advantage of magma flows to set fire to logs which it can drop on prey. There's not much more to say about this one: the ausroc's unusual intelligence and tactical savvy, along with burning log drop feature, are its unique selling points. 


7. Baxter Brundle (CR 5 Humanoid Shapechanger) is a classic self-experimenting mad scientist. His initially well-intentioned research on lycanthropy escalated to an obsession and has resulted in him becoming the world's first werestirge. With an arsenal that includes unique lycanthropic abilities, stirge allies, wizard spellcasting, as well as legendary and lair actions; Brundle is a formidable encounter for characters reaching the end of the heroic tier. This section includes an additional Swarm of Stirges statblock.



 
Baxter Brundle

8. Beast of the Eternal Blaze (CR 5 Fiend Shapechanger) is a unique fiendish wereboar. The Beast is a violent and sadistic killer, but is also looking for a soul evil and foolish enough to consume the Beast's heart, which is the method by which the fiend prolongs its stay on the Material Plane. Aside from the combat abilities you'd expect from a wereboar, the Beast is also able to hurl hellfire and use legendary actions. One of the latter is a fun ability called Number of the Beast, which deals 6d6 + 6 (get it?) fire damage and curses the target with disadvantage on its attacks.


9. Black Nightmare (CR 6 Monstrosity) is an extremely large displacer beast which becomes master of its pride and leads them on aggressive campaigns against blink dogs and humanoids near its territory. This is one of the less interesting monsters in the book, as it really is just a bigger, tougher version of the standard displacer beast. It does get legendary actions, but they're the default detect, move, and attack. 


10. Cheddar (CR 1/4 Beast) is a rat who was awakened by a druid and has since embarked on a life as crime, forming a thieves guild named the Cheesemongers. With the ability to call rat swarms with his legendary actions and summon bandits or trigger traps with his lair actions, Cheddar is a much nastier boss than his CR would suggest if he's played correctly. In theory Cheddar and his guild would be best suited for some comic relief in between more serious adventures, but owing to his low CR that might not be practical without buffing him. My suggestion is to build an adventure around him next time you need to run a one-shot! 


11. Chief Klanklack (CR 8 Humanoid) is a kobold who stumbled upon a workshop left by a modron which was once stranded on the material plane. After learning how to control some of the workshop's wonders, she used the automatons she reactivated to unite the kobolds in the region. Her minions are equipped with mechanical gadgetry that allows them to terrorise other humanoids in the area. Klanklack wears what is essentially magical power armour, complete with a beam (read: laser) cannon, a flamethrower, and a lightning whip! She also has some great lair actions involving reinforcements and mechanical traps. Klanklack and her tribe ought to be extremely fun for the DM to run: Tucker's Kobolds meets magipunk. 


12. Dione the Beautiful (CR 10 Giant) is a vain cloud giant who made a fiendish pact to eternally secure her beauty, only to be inflicted with a curse that turns creatures to stone. While she may not be wildly original, Dione serves as an excellent example of how to take two monsters (in this case, the Cloud Giant and the Medusa) and combine their statblocks together into something new. She also has legendary actions, which she can use to attack and cast spells.


13. Ebonbeak (CR 7 Monstrosity) is billed as the "original owlbear", a monstrosity fueled by its hatred of the wizardry and magic which created it. It has been hibernating since who knows how long, but its sleep has been disturbed and it is very, very angry: woe betide any arcane spellcaster caught in its path! Take an owlbear, make it bigger and tougher, give it extreme resilience towards magic (especially arcane magic), and add a handful of innate spells and a thunderous screech legendary action. That's Ebonbeak! He ought to be a fun little encounter, though might be frustrating for the party spellcasters (of course, that's the point). What I like best about him is the way he playfully expands on the lore of an iconic creature.  There's also a fun new spell here that combines two beasts into one creature, and a bonus statblock of one example: the Mulelion. As an aside, reader, I happen to sell a product that lets you create hybrid beasts like the owlbear. It would pair very nicely with adventures involving this particular adversary and the wizard who created it! And it happens to be reduced by 50% until the end of October! 


14. Enlightened Piercers (each a CR 1 Monstrosity) are crystalline piercer that resembles quartz and have unprecedented intelligence and cunning for their kind. Their numbers and intelligence are growing with each successive generation. Conceptually, these monsters rely on the notion that crystals have inherent psionic properties. If you're familiar with psionic lore from previous editions that's a given, but since we don't have official psionics support in Fifth Edition yet I think this connection could have been made clearer in the text for the benefit of newer DMs. Individually the enlightened piercers are quite weak. In fact, there's only a little in their statblock to separate them from a regular piercer. What makes them unique is the fact that they lair in groups called clutches, and each enlightened piercer in the clutch's lair can take advantage of a lair action each round, for 8 lair actions total. A combination of stun effects and hide bonuses in the lair actions could make this encounter a lot more threatening than it looks at first blush. There's also no reason you can't increase the immediate threat by increasing the size of the clutch the characters encounter, or the long term threat by spreading multiple clutches throughout the underdark.


15. The Eye of Frost (CR 14 Beholder, or 15 in its lair) is a variant beholder with ice-themed powers: its central eye emits a cone of cold energy rather than antimagic, and several of its eye rays replace a beholder's normal effects with icy alternatives. Eye of Frost can also take advantage of some great ice-themed lair actions that change the landscape of the battle.


16. The Giant Crawling Claw (CR 3 Undead) is the horrifying guardian of the island lair of a coven of three sea hags. Aside from its size what sets this creature apart from a standard crawling clear is its ability to leap large distances, which is a pretty horrifying image. To be honest, I think the designers should consider beefing it up a bit more if they ever revise the book. The three sea hags that made it are each worth CR 4 because they're part of a coven, which means a party capable of dealing with them will trivialise their supposed guardian. As it stands, I would either use more than one of these things or consider creative alternative lore. 


17. Grand Sabaar (CR 11 Plant) is a huge saguaros cactus that has been awakened through exposure to ambient magic. It has powerful physical attacks and an extremely nasty needle attack that deals d100 damage! It can also split into smaller creatures when damaged by slashing weapons, much like an ooze does. Grand Sabaar is the first of these adversaries to have a good alignment. Normally this is a tricky quality when designing a monster for publication because a full statblock for a creature that most parties are more likely to talk to than fight might be considered wasted space. In this case, the scenario hook sets events up so that the characters are likely to antagonise Grand Sabaar before they realise it's not a mere plant. They still might be able to apologise and talk their way out of any additional unnecessary aggression, but that depends on them. 


18. The Jabberkoth (CR 16 Undead, but with scaling guidance for CRs 13, 9, 6, or 4) is perhaps best described as a zombie dragon, the result of a dracolich ritual gone awry. There's a lot of story potential in this adversary, because the mind of the good dragon who was the victim of the Cult of the Dragon's ritual is still in there somewhere. Dealing with the Jabberkoth could involve as much a social interaction as combat encounter—probably at the same time! The Jabberkoth has a rotting breath that deals necrotic damage and can raise creatures it kills as undead. This breath weapon is all the more dangerous because it can be used again as a legendary action, and any targets close to the Jabberkoth become vulnerable to necrotic damage due to its aura of decay! A useful sidebar provides guidance on how to adjust the Jabberkoth to lower CRs. 


19. Kranklob'Obgund (CR 9 Monstrosity on her own, but usually part of an encounter equivalent to a CR 19 creature. Guidance is given for alternative encounters equivalent to CRs 13 or 21) is an oversized roper which migrates through the underdark carrying her smaller roper and piercer children. She has a hatred for drow and prefers to eat them. However, since she can't tell drow and other humanoids apart, her actual hunting is indiscriminate. Kranklob'Obgund is fundamentally just a much bigger and more dangerous version of the roper, but this does give her the ability to swallow creatures whole. Furthermore, one of her legendary actions allows her to hurl a piercer up to the ceiling, from where it will be able to make another attack. Encounters with her family are likely to be nasty affairs!


20. Leda Altmar (CR 5 Fiend) is a courtesan with fiendish powers owing to a heretofore unknown diabolic heritage (she thinks she is a tiefling, but is actually a cambion). Leda is a classic manipulator villain, pulling strings and ensnaring the player characters in her machinations from a distance for as long as possible. Her statblock resembles that of a typical cambion with a few changes, the most significant of which is a feature which allows her to charm creatures for an extended period of time if they have already fallen prey to the fiendish charm action multiple times previously. Obviously it's up to you to decide what NPCs are already victim to this extended charm effect, but it could be a genuine threat to player characters too if they fall victim to her tricks enough times over the course of a campaign!


21. The Leechking (CR 6 Monstrosity) is a nightmare made flesh: check your players won't be triggered by this wriggling horror! Technically, the leechking is a swarm of leeches that have mutated and formed a hive mind, but they can wriggle together into a larger form made from the swarm collective. The design of this creature is handled sensibly, as it's  got the same challenge rating and posesses legendary actions in both its swarm and "golem" forms. Its hit points carry over when it transitions between forms. I prefer the swarm form since the devour and envelop actions are so scary, but the size of its golem form grows as the leeches are fed (ie. when they reduce a creature to 0 hit points), which introduces a fun mechanic. Small quibble: in my opinion the rules for this growth really ought to be described in a within both statblocks, not the Tactics section. I would argue that I only want to read the Tactics section in advance of the fight, and if I need to look anything mechanical during the fight it should all be in one place.  


22. Liu Shui (CR 8 Undead) is a revenant who seeks revenge on the couple that drowned her, but is thwarted by their magical protections. Driven mad, she has taken to attacking innocents who venture too near the site of her drowning. The hook provided suggests that the party be hired to kill Liu Shui, so whether they ever find out the true story will depend very much on the party! Whether they learn that they've been duped or not, they'll attain excellent rewards for resolving the matter.  Liu Shui has some unique features for a revenant themed around her connection to water: she can teleport to bodies of water, and has an action to drown a creature and take its body for her own. 


23. Madadh (CR 5 Fiend, but with scaling guidance - note that the CRs of the scaled versions are not given) is a powerful three-headed hellhound who was bred to guard a portal from the Nine Hell to the Material Plane, but has slipped his leash and is causing havoc across the countryside. The hook provided has the adventurers approached and hired by an imp named Beag who is responsible for Madadh. They can either kill the hellhound or return it through the gateway, with different rewards associated with each approach.


24. Madcap Mraz (CR 6 Humanoid) is a goblin who accidentally consumed fungi that had absorbed nutrients from an ooze. He began seeing visions from Ghaunadaur, god of mad abominations. He now leads a monstrous army to spread ruin and madness in his master's name! Mraz combines the features of a goblin and a cleric, and he is equipped with a magical staff that shares the property of a gray ooze to dissolve armour. If encountered in his mushroom-overgrown throne room he has oozes and goblins at his command, and has lair actions to cause mushrooms to explode in a cloud of blinding spores, as well summon goblin fanatics (a statblock is provided for this creature).



 
Madcap Mraz

25. Margrim (CR 7 Monstrosity) is a legendary version of the bulette, with some nasty multiple target options on its legendary action menu. Burrowing Assault in particular has a cool visual, with Margrim burrowing underground and attacking a line as it passes.


26. The Mirrorborn (CR 5 Monstrosity Shapechanger) are a cautionary tale against spending too long in front of a mirror. They're variant doppelgangers that dwell within mirrors and become obsessed with a particular person whose life they attempt to claim. They can only shapechange into the form of their obsession. They can walk through mirrors (pair them with a hall of mirrors to increase their tactical options!) and as a legendary action use abilities and attacks that belong to the subject of their obsession.


27. Neith-Arach (CR 4 Monstrosity) is shudder-some if you're an arachnophobe. A deadly giant spider created by drow Lolth worshippers, she has many arachnid minions and the ability to charm her prey into walking straight to their doom. In my opinion she should be an excellent and memorable encounter, but I think there's a missed opportunity here by not including a web-themed set of lair actions. Might be something you'd want to whip up for your own game!


28. Nocri Dragonwing (CR 4 Dragon, or 5 if she has laid her egg) is a unique draconid somewhere between drake and true dragon, born out of mysterious circumstances unknown even to her. Her kobold minions grow bolder as they gather treasures for her hoard along with other, stranger items to satisfy Nocri's increasingly erratic cravings. Unbeknownst to Nocri, she is about to lay an egg. Nocri's most unique feature as a leader of monsters is her protective instincts, which allow her to protect her allies. She can also fly into a Barbarian-like rage if her egg is harmed.


29. Ondual (CR 18 Celestial) is a Planetar angel who fell to corruption and has embarked on a personal quest to quash the forces of evil among mortalkind, no matter what unseemly actions it must itself take to achieve its ends. After taking control of a fort on the Sword Coast, Ondual intends to expand his influence across Toril and take charge of mortalkind to save them from themselves. To me, Ondual is one of the stand-out villains of IA, his good intentions twisted by millennia of ceaseless and thankless toils against the forces of opposing alignments and the foolish fickleness of mortals. His unique powers are themed around oppression and tyranny, which means events in play might be triggering for some players. Handle him with care, and he ought to be one of the most memorable villains of your campaign. 


30. Reijla (CR 5 Fiend Hag) is a night hag who has made a pact with Dendar the Night Serpent, a primordial whose portfolio is nightmares. Dendar featured in the last campaign I DMed and a recent campaign I played in, so I have a soft spot for her which immediately elevates Reijla to among my favourite adversaries in this book. It helps that his backstory is creative and his scheme grand and terrible: he uses sand from the Demiplane of Nightmares to corrupt mortals dreams and kill them in their sleep.  This feeds Dendar but also allowing him to lay claim to their souls when they arrive in the Nine Hells, empowering both of them. Reijla is based on the night hag statblock, but he can summon chain devil mercenaries and cause nightmares. If you move his killing spree to Baldur's Gate Reijla would be a good side-quest for characters in the Descent into Avernus campaign: you could have them stumble into his schemes before they leave Baldur's Gate. If not dealt with at the time, they might get a second chance when they encounter Reijla directly in Avernus.      


31. Scarlet Stone-Eater (CR 2 Monstrosity) is bigger than your average cockatrice, and her name suggests she's developed the extraordinary ability to eat stone. That naturally pairs very well with a cockatrice's natural capacity to turn a creature to stone, which has become the Scarlet Stone-Eater's hunting strategy as opposed to merely a defensive mechanism. Her geovore ability ("consumer of stone", if like me you're not up on your latin) does double damage against stone which means Scarlet Stone-Eater is a sort of hyper-specialised Siege Monster. In my mind's eye I see an encounter where a low level party are barricaded into a cottage and she starts tearing through the wall. The Scarlet Stone-Eater also gains a screech ability. Interestingly enough, instead of thunder damage (the usual choice for sonic attacks) this deals psychic damage and disadvantage on saving throws vs petrification). A magical screech, then!


32. The Sea-Ambling Mound (CR 5 Plant) is a shambling mound that has adapted to hunting underwater, and plagues the boats of fisherfolk! Its preferred hunting ground means it has the option of drowning a creature it engulfs, and its long survival and experience of fighting humanoids has taught it to disarm creatures it engulfs to make them more vulnerable should they escape its grasp. 


33. The Spell Eater (CR 2 Monstrosity) is a rust monster which has become warped by consuming a vein of iron ore contaminated by the magic of a decaying mythal. It has grown to unusual size and gained the capacity to feed on magic itself. This monster is conceptually very cool, and its mechanics are strong: when it "eats" magic it does so by functionally casting dispel magic and gaining temporary hit points. It can un-attune magic items by draining their magic through contact. All well and good, and a nasty encounter to be sure! Even so I'm left slightly disappointed that despite the implication that this monster is very dangerous to magic users, they actually suffer less than martial characters. Why is that? Well, it's still a rust monster so nonmagical weapons and armour can still suffer the normal rusting effects of a rust monster. On top of this, a martial character's magic weapons have a 50% chance of being un-attuned every time they attack. For martial characters, weapons and armour are an essential part of their function and penalties to their use are painful. I had hoped that this monster would be similarly punishing for spellcasters, but they get off comparatively lightly since whatever equipment they lose they still have unfettered access to their magic. Yes, that magic might be dispelled, but having it dispelled after you cast it has no long-term effects on core functionality the way losing equipment can for a warrior. Maybe it should go after spell focuses and component pouches?  


34. Tenser's Experimental Armor (CR 20 Construct) is what happens when an archmage's experimental spells go horribly wrong. There's some real fun lore attached to this one, illustrating the possible consequences when a mage even of Tenser's caliber tries to create a new spell. The armour is a sentient magic item which is treated as a construct. It is worn by an unwilling dwarf who the armour has been forcing to learn wizardry with the ultimate goal of recreating the conditions in which it were made and thus forming an army! The armour is animated so capable of fighting on even without a wearer, but figuring out a way to help the dwarf escape would take away its access to spellcasting and vastly simplify things.


35. Varesso Isaro (CR 5 Undead) is a wight, I believe (it's not spelled out in the text, but contextually it seems appropriate). I really like his background, which is that of a naive officer who conquered on behalf of a corrupt authority, then was executed for war crimes after a regime change. Glowing flowers bloom where he walks, a magical echo of the flowers he planted in the wake of his conquests while alive. Though Varesso and his gathered undead conquer indiscriminately now, he recognises settlements that have architecture resembling his former homeland as allies and will even come to their protection, giving you plenty of scope for interesting engagements. I think Varesso would make a great antagonist for a short arc, except for one thing: there's a gotcha here that might catch out inexperienced Dungeon Masters. Namely that as written, his honour won't allow him to escape from battle: tactically retreat to another location to set up an ambush yes, but not escape the battle altogether in order to survive and fight another day. This is a characteristic that means you should expect the player characters to defeat Varesso shortly after encountering him in battle, if not right then and there. At best I wouldn't expect him to survive the adventuring day. If you'd like to have him recur for a while you'll either need to get creative or remove this particular trait. 


36. The Venus Hydrap (CR 10 Plant) is a legendary carnivorous plant monster created by a non-traditional mad scientist type: a gardener! Its creation was meant to be the solution to a gopher infestation, but it's out of control. The Venus Hydrap has two heads and can grow more when the existing ones are cut off (Venus Flytrap + Hydra, get it?).


37. The Vorpal Flying Sword (CR 8 Construct) is exactly what it sounds like: an animated vorpal longsword. In this case, the sword is imbued with a bloodthirsty intelligence. Be wary of this monster: players have fun when they get to instantly behead a monster; they're likely to have a lot less fun when it happens to them. It's equivalent to the Save or Die effects from 3rd edition which Wizards of the Coast have been careful not to replicate in 5th. For this reason I'm not sure I'd personally use the Vorpal Flying Sword and question the sense of its inclusion. If I'm wrong and there are groups that might enjoy this monster, then in my opinion it should at least be re-balanced to a higher CR because its current rating is likely to cause more drama at the table. CR 8 looks like a monster characters might face at around 5th or 6th level, but I would only consider this monster somewhat safe to use if my players had access to raise dead, which becomes available at 9th character level at the earliest). If you choose to use the Vorpal Flying Sword, consider referring to the monster creation guidelines in the Dungeon Master's Guide and buffing it to around CR 11 or 12.


38. Wyrmslayer (CR 16 Monstrosity) is unusually cunning and mighty manticore which has developed potent abilities for fighting and slaying dragons. Her children, wyrmslayer spawn, inherit many of these characteristics. Compared to some of the other monstrosities in this book I really like Wyrmslayer as she is an intelligent entity capable of short-term strategy and long-term goals. While the provided hook positions her as an enemy (the characters are requested to aid a silver dragon), there's potential there for more complex relations: after all, she's killing chromatic dragons, too. 


39. Zuphrezask (CR 14 Aberration) is a unique mind flayer. Traditionally, the illithids can only create more of their kind by transplant one of their tadpoles into the brain of a humanoid creature. Clearly a group of illithid have been experimenting, as they've created a unique mind flayer ogre. Zuprezask leads a heretic cult of Thoon and attacks other illithids. It might seem wise to just leave him to it, but surviving mind flayers and their servants are dispersing out through the underdark, creating a ripple effect of disruption and displacement that even reaches the surface. Plus, he believes by consuming "quintessence" from brains he can become a god: what happens when he runs out of mind flayers and moves on to other peoples? And what happens if he's right?



 
Zuphrezask

40. Zyldrohar (CR 30 Construct) is the last adversary in the book, and fittingly its most powerful. I mentioned earlier that I hoped one of the adversaries would actually reflect the monster on the cover: well, this is that adversary! Don't expect any swarm-like abilities from all those ravens seen in the art though. There are no mechanics related to these birds, they're simply a part of the monster's lore and aesthetic: They're constantly swarming around it, pecking at its flesh. Zyldrohar is end of the end-game, apocalyptic level dangerous, and indeed that's the hook that goes along with this monster: powerful, trusted oracles are predicting that all life comes to an abrupt end within a year. Depending on how quickly you like characters to level in the context of in-game time, you can build your entire campaign or at least a good chunk of it around the coming of Zyldrohar. In combat, Zyldrohar is extremely nasty as you'd expect from a CR monster. It's harmful just to stand in its vicinity, its an extremely potent spellcaster, it becomes twice as tough after being reduced to half hit points and when it hits zero hit points... well, let's just say one turn of sheer insanity happens before Zyldrohar is truly defeated. Even in claiming victory for the world, the player characters and anyone else fighting with them may find themselves suffering personal defeat. Those are damned epic stakes, but the likely mixed outcome may leave some players feeling cold so you may wish to give them the opportunity to learn about Zyldrohar's powers over oblivion and make preparations to lessen the effects on themselves and their allies. 


Phew! That's a lot of adversaries. As you can see there are a lot of fun monsters in IA. Even if you only find a use for one or two in your current campaign, apply that expectation across all your future Fifth Edition campaigns and it becomes clear just how much value you can get out of this content. 



Rewards

The rewards for defeating a given adversary are a real highlight of this book: they are fun and are in many cases very creative. I'm not going to summarise every rewards the same way I summarised the adversaries because there would be so much to write: there are generally multiple rewards associated with each adversary. The types of rewards are wildly varied and are thematic to the adversary with which they're associated: there are magic items of course, but also alchemical concoctions, cooking ingredients, crafting materials, access to new lairs, and more. I particularly love the optional thematic spells! Rather than learning these from scrolls in a monster's treasure hoard, these are presented as boons that the DM can award to any spellcasting player characters who participated in an adversary's defeat! It's a real fun concept. 



Organisation


Infamous Adversaries has a contents page which does its job perfectly well (though as I've previously noted, I'd prefer a more legible font). The last page of the book is also a thorough index. Relying on the contents page to tell you where each adversary's description begins, this index focuses entirely on the crunch content: new spells, rewards, and stat blocks. Accordingly it's broken up into three sections, one for each type, which makes it even easier to use.  




Analysis 

Now I want to do a tiny bit of analysis. I wouldn't necessarily do this for a larger bestiary, but 40 creatures is a manageable amount so it isn't too difficult to tally up the numbers.

First, let's look at the distribution of creature types in this book:   



Almost every creature type is represented, except one: fey. I'm really genuinely surprised by this. The tricky, scheme loving fey are practically adversarial to their very core and would have been perfect for this collection. Even leaving that aside, it feels like a missed opportunity not to include at least one fey and give each monster type representation. 


Monstrosities are over-represented, with 13 (or 33%) of the adversaries in this book belonging to the monstrosity type. I'm personally inclined to the opinion that most of the monstrosities, plants, and oozes in this book are ill-fit for the book's premise—it's not that they're monstrosities, strictly speaking. It's that they typically lack intelligence and therefore can't take full advantage of the book's format: their Tactics, Traits, and Next Moves sections don't particularly inspire. Additionally the lore doesn't always sell you on the notion that the creature is truly unique, and it may have only one or two new abilities compared to a normal creature of its type: when this happens you could imagine it appearing as a mere variant in any old monster collection, not helping to justify its inclusion among other more compelling adversaries. There are notable exceptions, such as Aethlin Adamar and Wyrmslayer, and these are the ones I'd personally have chosen to keep. In place of the others I would have liked to have seen a few more aberrations, giants, humanoids, and yes: fey. Possibly a true dragon wouldn't have gone amiss, either.

The fact that I think some of the monsters don't suit the collection should not leave you with the impression I dislike said monsters. As I've said, I'd simply see them fitting in better as part of a different bestiary.


I also want to take a look at the CR distribution of IA's adversaries. In the chart below, blue reflects the base CR of all 40 adversaries. Red reflects alternative CRs offered for any reason: be it a CR that applies when a circumstance changes (eg. when Nocri Dragonwing lays her egg), when scaled down variants are provided (eg. The Jabberkoth), or when the adversary is presented in one or more encounter configurations which are measured by CR (eg. Kranklob'Obgund).




What we learn here is that the project lead has done a solid job of ensuring that all tiers of play are reflected and that there is an adversary for most CRs. The distribution skews very heavily to the low end of play, with CR 5 being extremely well-represented. This is actually reasonable, since research by WotC shows that most play is actually at lower levels, and CR 5-6 is appropriate for a boss for adventures in the late heroic tier (levels 1-4). This is a book designed for the play experience most groups actually have, rather than the aspiration of a longer campaign that may never come to pass.


SCORE OUT OF 10:

Final Thoughts and Rating


FINAL SCORE OUT OF 20:
++=   
16 out of 20! A superb hit.


This book is stuffed full of great monsters, hooks, and treasures!

That said, going into a book called Infamous Adversaries I had some expectations for the type of opponent that would feature which weren't always delivered. Your expectations may be differentindeed they should be different now you've read this review! To me, a giant version of an existing unintelligent monstrosity with a motivation as simple as terrorising the countryside doesn't cut it. It's not true of all the monstrosities, but in general I found them the least interesting adversaries in the book. Their Tactics sections often boil down to "they're animals so they act like animals do". A similar complaint can be levied against the Alchemical Cube and plants such as the Sea-Ambling Mound and Venus Hydrap, with the added issue that these creatures aren't even considered intelligent enough to have any traits listed in the Traits section. So many of the monsters in this book failing to take advantage of the collection's choice of format seems a great shame to me. In many of these cases the adversary often doesn't feel as unique as I'd have expected based on the premise, since there could easily be more than one of their kind in the world.

To sum up: some of these monsters feel more like fodder than adversaries, as well as generic enough they could belong in any bestiary rather than this themed collection. Considering they make up a little over a third of the included adversaries, that's a shame.

However, please note: I might quibble over whether some of the monsters within truly belong in this particular book, and I might wish that other more unique adversaries had been in their place. But I'm definitely not saying that any of these creatures are a waste of ink. I'm ultimately here to judge the product on its usefulness to you, and all these monsters are still potentially useful. For that reason the impact on my contents score was minor.

The adversaries in this book that I really loved were those that were intelligent foes with complex machinations. These properly take advantage of the format with compelling Tactics, Traits and Next Moves. Fortunately, there are a healthy collection of this type in the book too. I do wish there had been even one Fey adversary. After Fiends, Fey are probably the best suited creature type to a long-term adversarial relationship with player characters, and their absence is conspicuous. There's really fertile ground here left untouched.

I highly appreciate that some of the adversaries have scaling guidance as it makes them even more useful to more groups, but it's a shame that the approach is inconsistent. For instance the guidelines for the Jabberkoth give the adjusted CR, while the guidelines for Madadh do not. Similarly, giving an "encounter CR" for Kranklob'Obgund may be useful, but this kind of approach to factoring in minions isn't used elsewhere in the book. Similar inconsistencies occur in the handling of minion monsters: some adversaries include extra statblocks for their minions, while others simply list the necessary modifications to an existing statblocks.

I may not have spent as much time on the rewards for defeating adversaries as I did the adversaries themselves, but I really appreciated them as much as the monsters themselves. There are so many: in many cases, three or four per adversary. There is such a wide and creative variety. Some of the most fun are raw materials that can be harvested from the creature as well as spells that characters can learn through the creature's defeat.

Infamous Adversaries may not be perfect (but what is?). It is, however, excellent. At $14.95 for all this great content, it's an extremely worthy addition to any Dungeon Master's toolkit. If you want to pick it up you'll find it on DMsGuild starting next Monday, October 28th! 

Friday, 6 September 2019

5e: Hacking the Game, Horizon Zero Dawn Part II

Read Part I of this series!

Last time, we covered the general themes and gameplay elements this game hack seeks to support in play. We also talked about the concept of character taxonomy in D&D and how Horizon Zero Dragons reworks that taxonomy. Finally, we made a start on changes to the rules as they apply to player characters: specifically, we went into how Horizon Zero Dragons handles abilities and hit points. This week, I'd like to talk about the hack's alternative to classes: the Hunter, a single overarching origin to which all player characters belong.



The Hunter

Note: a complete first draft of the hunter is already written and available for you to read: you can find it here. Please take a look as you follow along with the rest of this article!

As the only "class" in the game, the hunter has to achieve two goals.

First, to quote myself from Part I, "characters need to have the necessary abilities that they can engage with parts of the game players are naturally going to expect when you tell them they're going to be playing in the world of Horizon Zero Dawn". The burden is therefore on the Hunter to provide all characters the necessary capabilities to engage in the expected pillars of play. They need to be capable survivalists, skilled combatants, and versatile explorers. These traits can be reinforced in the proficiencies granted to all hunters, as well as the features gained. The 1st level features are particularly important: along with any proficiencies, these features must enable a bare minimum level of engagement with the pillars of play we're looking to support.

Second, the Hunter "has to be designed to allow a lot of flexibility, giving lots of choices so that no two hunters in the same party need feel the same".

Note that these design goals might seem contradictory, since the first requires the Hunter to be oriented toward a small number of specific things, while the second design goal needs us to open up a considerable variety of options. In fact these goals are not necessarily at odds: it's possible to create a broad selection of choices within a singular theme.

To achieve both design goals, there are certain features that all Hunters must have in order to be Hunters within the context of the Horizon Zero Dawn world. These features should, in my opinion, be immediately available at first level. Any other features should not be prescriptive: they should offer the player choices, ideally between a considerable variety of options.

A screenshot from Horizon Zero Dawn.


Hunter Features

The following are features of the Hunter. 



Abilities

I'm not going to spend much time on this as the variant rules Horizon Zero Dragons uses for abilities were discussed in detail during Part I. In summary: 
  • Assign an array of modifiers (+2, +1, +0, and -1) between Might, Finesse, Acumen, and Spirit. 
  • Increase one ability of your choice by +1. 
  • Assign an array of grades (A, B, C, and D) to the four abilities. The grades work in conjunction to modifiers to allow finer comparison between two creatures' relative power in any given ability: for instance, +2 (A) is weaker than +3 (D) but better than +2 (B), +2 (C), or +2 (D). 


Hit Points

I talked about hit points in Part I too. The default method of generating hit points in HZD is the stamina check. It's a method that tends to be a little more generous, which may be beneficial in a game where immediate damage healing is somewhat less accessible.


Proficiencies

Outfits. Horizon Zero Dawn uses a system of light, medium, and heavy outfits which grant various of defensive benefits. In this hack, outfits will replace D&D's armour subsystem. I'll talk more about this when we start discussing equipment! 

For now I see no practical benefit to restricting outfit proficiencies, and it also doesn't reflect the video game experience to do so. All hunters can wear all kinds of outfit.

Weapons. Likewise, we see Aloy wielding all kinds of weapons with apparently practiced ease in the video game, and I can't see it adding to the fun to require players to spend precious character resources to unlock access to any weapons we see from the video game. Hunters are proficient with all weapons they wield.

Tools. Hunter's are proficient with the herbalism kit (to make potions) and woodcarver's tools (to help them make arrows). I chose to also allow the player's choice of one other tool as an easy means to contribute towards each hunter's individuality.

Saving Throws. Since there are four abilities in Horizon Zero Dragons, there are also only four corresponding saving throws. Given how physical being a hunter is, it felt essential that all hunters are proficient in one of the two physical saving throws (Might or Finesse). To allow as much flexibility as possible, I've left that up to the player's choice. Similarly, the player may also choose between the two mental/social saving throws (Acumen or Spirit). 

Skills. All hunters are proficient in survival, because how could they not be? Other than that, I didn't want to dictate skill choices as this is an area where players should be able to make choices that help give their hunter individuality and specialist purpose within the hunting party. As well as survival, hunters get proficiency in three skills of their choice.


Tribe

The world of Horizon Zero Dawn is populated by a number of distinct tribes. The video game and its Frozen Wilds DLC focus on just four tribes (Nora, Carja, Oseram, and Banuk), but representatives of two additional tribes (Tenakth and Utaru) do appear in the game. For this reason I wanted to create character options for all six canonical tribes, even if it meant taking even greater creative liberties with the tribes we know less about!

Carja concept art by Ilya Golitsyn and © Guerilla Games


Your choice of tribe actually has a fairly minor impact on your character. This decision aligns with the principles of choice that guide the hunter's design: I didn't want a player's choice of tribe to dictate a large number of their features. A tribe typically offers one mechanical feature and one ribbon feature. It also provides recommendations for how you might want to spend your +1 floating ability score increase if you want to play a "typical" member of the tribe, but these are suggestions only.

Your tribe choice replaces a D&D character's Race and Background, though you'll notice you get less features. Most of the other mechanical benefits Race and Background would normally grant were absorbed into the overall Hunter package.


Hunter's Prowess

This is the core feature of the Hunter's design, and the primary mechanism through which the design goal of choice is achieved. Essentially, every time you gain this feature you get to choose a new prowess from among a long list of options.  Some of these options are derived from D&D's core classes. Others are new: either derived from the video game's skill tree or conceptually suitable options created from scratch by me. The current class design grants a Hunter's Prowess choice at 1st, 3rd, 7th, 9th, 13th, 15th, 17th, and 20th. As of now there are 42 options, some of which can be taken more than once. That's more than enough for all player characters to have wildly different builds, and even more might be added going forward. Meaningful variation through feature choice has definitely been achieved! If you're not already reading the hunter alongside this article, be sure to visit its wiki page to check out all the different prowess choices available!

Tribal techniques and prestiges both use a similar model to hunter's prowess and are roughly equivalent to the point that they each interact with hunter's prowess in one way or another. Both are both described later in this article.


Machine Hunter

One of several features that all hunters must possess to provide the expected game experience, this feature grants Machine Knowledge, a combination of acquired lore and practical hunting experience relating to machines. Of course it's unreasonable that less experienced hunters know much about rarer and more deadly machines, so to begin with hunters gain Machine Knowledge for specific machines only. By default, the feature unlocks new Machine Knowledge as the hunter gains levels. The aim of this design choice is simplicity. However, the feature provides for the option of ignoring the level restrictions and instead granting new Machine Knowledge after new types of machine are encountered, tracked, and fought in-game.  

This feature also grants hunters the ability to craft items from machine salvage, allowing access to that portion of the crafting subsystem.

A screenshot from Horizon Zero Dawn.


Survivalist

This feature is also to guarantee all hunters essential skills. In this case, it guarantees the hunter's ability to provide for their own survival, and perhaps the survival of others. Dehydration and starvation aren't issues we need to concern ourselves with in this hack: quite the opposite. Although Horizon Zero Dawn is technically a post-apocalyptic game, its setting is lush and full of life. Food and drink aren't particularly scarce: indeed, animals like boars and turkeys are quite numerous in the wild, and waters are teeming with fish. Since all characters are hunters, it should be trivially easy for the party to keep themselves sustained.

Survivalist also provides access to another essential part of the crafting subsystem: brewing potions.


Action Surge

At 2nd level, the hunter borrows this feature from D&D's fighter. As physically capable, heroic types it makes perfect sense for hunters to be able to push themselves past their normal limits. Combined with all the possible actions a hunter might take through use of their prowess selections or simply player creativity, action surge was a no-brainer that opens the floor to limitless awesome moments in play. 


Ability Score Increase

Like 5e's core classes, the hunter gains ability score increases, which they receive at 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, and 19th level. Since Horizon Zero Dragons does away with ability scores in favour of just using the modifiers, the feature is slightly simplified: you can only increase one ability by +1 (the equivalent of spending both increases on the same ability score within the core D&D rules).

I opted to remove any mention of feats, as I'm disinclined to include feats in the Horizon Zero Dragons hack. That's a discussion for another time, but bears mentioning now to explain the absence of feats within the wording of this feature. 


Tribal Techniques

To fill out the remaining class progression, I conceived the idea of tribal techniques - special features that are only available to hunters who've received the training of a particular tribe. I wanted this to be a separate feature from the level 1 tribe choice because I wanted an option for players to choose a different tribe for this set of features. This flexibility opens up less usual character backgrounds, like a Nora youth who is exiled along with their family to the lands of the Banuk, or maybe a Carja who was trained by an Oseram mercenary.

Initially I envisioned tribal techniques as being equivalent to a class archetype, but I decided that was dictating too many of the character's features. Instead, I changed tribal techniques to be similar to hunter's prowess, though limited to hunters who've received training from the right tribe. They are gained at 6th, 10th, 14th, and 18th level. 

To begin with I've created six tribal techniques for each tribe, though may come up with more in time. Additionally, since a tribal technique is mechanically equivalent to a hunter's prowess, it seemed reasonable to allow a player to select a hunter's prowess instead if they so wish. 

Banuk concept art by Ilya Golitsyn and © Guerilla Games


Hunter's Excellence

Every class progression needs a capstone, but the hunter's capstone needs to be flexible so that all player characters in the game aren't just getting the same thing. I opted for a+3 worth of bonuses to be divided among the character's abilities, and one final hunter's prowess.


Prestiges

Certain abilities gained by Aloy throughout the course of the video game are extremely rare, if not unique. In part, because there are barriers preventing most normal hunters from utilising the same abilities. Many of Aloy's powers rely on her ownership and understanding of a device known as a focus, for example.

In order to include the abilities in the game but also limit access to hunters who meet certain prerequisites, I conceived prestiges. Conceptually, these are similar to the notion of prestige classes which exists in other versions of the d20 rules. Mechanically, they're not quite the same. You don't need to take levels in a new class to gain access to prestige features. Rather, when you meet the prerequisites and join the prestige you simply gain access to its features. A prestige's core features are mechanically equivalent to a hunter's prowess, and you can simply select one instead of a standard prowess whenever you gain that feature.

As of now, I intend to add three prestiges to the game:

  • The Focused Hunter has access to a working focus and its capabilities.
  • The Lodge Hunter (still a work in progress) has proven their skills in the hunting trials and joined the Hunting Lodge in Meridian.
  • The Machine Master (still a work in progress) has gained the ability to override machines and make them temporary allies.

Next Time...

That'll do for now! When we visit the hack again, I'll talk about some rules changes.


Share your thoughts!

As always, thanks for reading! Let me know what you think about some of these changes, as well as any ideas you might have for further development of the Horizon Zero Dragons hack! Either leave a comment, or reach out on twitter

Sunday, 25 August 2019

5e: Hacking the Game, Horizon Zero Dawn Part I

Way back in the mists of mid-2017 (doesn't time fly?) I began a series of articles called Hacking the Game: Fallout. Over the course of 11 posts, I outlined the process of modifying the Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition ruleset, from initial concepts to mechanical changes, in order to facilitate tabletop roleplaying in the setting of the Fallout video game franchise. That hack eventually evolved into a massive undertaking which produced a 231 page PDF and a wiki version of the rules!

Today I'm starting a similar series, with another popular video game as my inspiration: Horizon Zero Dawn. But I'm doing things in a different order this time. By far the biggest single undertaking in Fifth Edition Fallout's life cycle was adapting all the content in the PDF (which at the time was already something like 150 pages) to the wiki. Afterwards, I found updating the wiki to be straightforward, and the wiki to be a useful reference format, while continuing to update the PDF became more and more of a chore. Accordingly, this time I started with the wiki. That means there's already content available for you to see, right now! In fact, there's rather a lot of it, enough to start playing immediately. Currently, players can build hunters of one of four tribes (Banuk, Carja, Nora, and Oseram) and up to 5th level. I also have no immediate intention of creating a PDF version of the rules. If there's demand for it, I might do so as and when I can say that the hack is pretty final.

This time the articles are more of a design diary, explaining why I made various choices after the fact. Referencing content already on the wiki will also make it easier for me to produce these posts as I won't have to reproduce significant bodies of text and sizable tables.

By the way, I'm calling the hack Horizon Zero Dragons ('cause it's a Dungeons & Dragons hack but there's no dragons in it... you get it).

One final thing: a key principle of Fifth Edition Fallout was to reskin rather than rebuild. While some brand new mechanics were absolutely necessary to facilitate the Fallout experience, the core game experience hewed as closely as possible to the Dungeons & Dragons game. This time around, the changes I'm making in the Horizon Zero Dragons hack are considerably more extensive. Some are more necessary than others, but in all cases there is reasoning behind the alteration. I'll be explaining these changes and why I like them for Horizon Zero Dragons as I go.

Now, on to the content! In the first of this series I'm going to briefly describe the setting for the benefit of any reader who hasn't played the game (if you haven't and you get the chance, it comes highly recommended!). I'll then explore some key things the hack needs to factor in, before moving on to discussing Hunters, Ability Scores, and Hit Points.


A Spoiler-Free Summary of Horizon Zero Dawn 

The world is our world, but the time is a very distant future. Somehow in the intervening years our society disappeared. The humans living in the world belong to primitive tribes. These technologically primitive peoples share their world not just with flesh and blood animals, but also beasts of metal: the machines, robots formed in the shapes similar to animals of past ages. The tribal peoples of the world hunt the machines for salvage and use robotic parts in their crafting: they don't necessarily understand the science and engineering behind their salvage, but they've learned how to apply some of that advanced technology in practical ways that create items more advanced than their society's overall level might suggest. Previously the machines were quite peaceful and hunting them wasn't particularly dangerous, but over the last several decades they have become increasingly aggressive and dangerous new machines designed for killing have appeared one after another.

You play as Aloy, who was outcast from the Nora tribe at birth for reasons her father-figure Rost is unable to explain. To find answers she undertakes the Proving, an intense ritual hunt that will grant her the title Brave and the right to rejoin the Nora tribe and get her answer. As events unfold, she is tasked with leaving the lands of the Nora and becomes embroiled in a great conspiracy.


Key Themes and Gameplay Elements of Horizon Zero Dawn

The first thing to consider when hacking a rules system to suit a setting or genre of your choice is what the hack needs to achieve. In the case of a video game world like Horizon Zero Dawn, you're hacking for fans of the game. They'll want to insert their own characters into the world as presented by the game. This means ensuring the rules can support thematic elements of the setting and provide mechanical support to capture a feel as similar as possible to the original gameplay experience. With that in mind, here are some things that Horizon Zero Dawn either is or includes that the hack ought to consider:

Themes

  • The Hunt! In Horizon Zero Dawn, hunting increasingly larger and more deadly machines is a core feature of the gameplay loop. Furthermore, it's made pretty apparent that the world has become too dangerous for persons who don't possess survival and self-defense skills to travel far beyond their settlements. Since the core gameplay experience of both Dungeons & Dragons and Horizon Zero Dawn involves adventure and danger, that means every player character needs to have the skills of a hunter. I'm not saying that other professions don't exist in the world, and I'm also not saying player characters can't choose to have some of the competencies associated with those professions. But ultimately, characters need to have the necessary abilities that they can engage with parts of the game players are naturally going to expect when you tell them they're going to be playing in the world of Horizon Zero Dawn.
  • It's our future, not a fantasy. This isn't a world of magic, which means no playable races other than humans, no spellcasting classes, etc. This obviously eliminates most of the base game's options in one fell swoop, leaving very few choices. Factor in the fact we want every character to be a competent hunter, and the existing class system starts looking like a pretty bad fit for this hack. 
  • Post-apocalyptic. The world is reborn anew from the ashes of an advanced society. Some ruins of that society still exist, introducing an element of exploration and mystery just perfect for a game modeled on Dungeons & Dragons rules. Post-apocalyptic settings often have a scarcity of resources, but that's not necessarily the case here as the resources are abundant. However, gathering many of them requires effort and danger. In Horizon Zero Dawn, especially in the early game when you're not swimming in metal shards (the game's currency), you can often find yourself lacking the resources to craft ammo, potions, and traps you want on hand when undertaking the next quest. So you have to go hunting for them. The hack needs to recreate that loop, implementing a salvage subsystem so that many of the useful crafting items come from machines the player characters kill.
  • Tension between highly advanced and primitive technologies. The society that once existed had access to technology well beyond even our current limits, let alone those of the tribal societies that now call the Earth home. From the point of view of these cultures the machines and the things they're capable of appear practically supernatural. Meanwhile, although the general level of human technological advancement is fairly rudimentary they have learned to adapt parts from the machines they kill. Thus, the existence of the machines rationalises the fact that the tribes have access to some pretty unusual "mad science" weapons, armour, and other items that are well beyond what would otherwise be reasonable for them to create.

Gameplay Elements

  • Damage Types. Compared to Dungeons & Dragons, Horizon Zero Dawn has a fairly limited palette of damage types which should all be included in the game. This includes impact, laser, fire, freeze, and shock. Other damage types may reasonably exist in the world (for example, there is no thunder/sonic damage in the game, but a scenario absolutely could exist where an advanced technology caused such damage. The hack will focus on the damage types absolutely necessary, but acknowledge that other rarer damage types may exist to allow GMs the freedom to utilise them. 
    • Impact Damage. Impact damage is caused by most weapons (and will therefore replace Bludgeoning, Piercing, and Slashing), as well as explosions. Due to the existence of armour modifications that specifically resist only melee damage or only ranged damage, we can therefore further subdivide impact damage into three: melee impact damage, ranged impact damage, and explosive impact damage. 
    • Tear Damage. This is a special type of damage that doesn't particularly hurt a machine, but tears components off their body. Depending on the component, this might prevent the machine from using an ability, grant additional salvage, or pull a weapon from the machine that can then be used by the player! This is something that absolutely has to be included, which necessitates the creation of a whole new subsystem. 
    • Elemental Effects. In the video game, fire, freeze, and shock damage build up over time and eventually cause the target to suffer an effect such as catching on fire, being frozen, or briefly paralyzed. The Horizon Zero Dragons hack should account for these special effects on all elemental ammunition types and other sources of elemental damage.
    • Horizon Zero Dawn also includes a damage type called Corruption, but we can exclude it because:
      • The trail left by corrupted creatures is described as acidic, so it would be more useful to include a damage type that covers all kinds of acids, alkalis, and chemical burns. Fifth Edition Fallout includes a chemical damage type to cover these sources, and that seems a good fit here too.
      • Corruption arrows deal no actual damage, and the effect they cause can be classified in Dungeons & Dragons as a condition. 
  • The Focus. Aloy finds a special device, a sort of miniaturised personal computer called a focus. Among other things, it lets her scan machines for weaknesses, detect and follow difficult trails, and find resources and tactically useful objects in the environment. Focuses are pretty rare in the world so player characters don't necessarily have to have access to them straight away (or at all), but they'll absolutely want the option! The hack needs to support them.
  • Outfits, Weapons, and other Items. Outfits are the game's armour, and they often have special defensive abilities. Using the armour table from the base game won't cut it. Similarly, the hack needs a whole new ranged weapons table, reproducing the various ranged weapon types available in-game. Further, although the only melee weapon Aloy has access to is a spear, we see Carja soldiers with glaives and many other melee weapons could reasonably exist. The melee weapons table will be somewhat speculative, and somewhat slimmer than the base game. Aloy can also buy or craft various potions as well as cool traps, so the hack needs to support those as well.

On the Taxonomy of the D&D Character

A Dungeons & Dragons character is made up of several separate modules that interlock to form a larger whole which interacts with the larger rule set to determine what the character is capable of. These interlocking parts are hierarchical: the hierarchy is fairly flat, but it's there. You can't decide on any options from character modules lower in the hierarchy without first making choices higher up the hierarchy. 

The modules will largely be familiar to you: ability scores, race, class, background, and so on. The whole that they make up is the adventurer. The hierarchy looks like this: 

The Taxonomy of an Adventurer

A Matter of Class: or, "We're all Hunters Here"

Why is this taxonomy relevant to the Horizon Zero Dragons hack? Well, as I've noted in my discussion of the key themes and gameplay elements of Horizon Zero Dawn, many of the character modules that normally make up an adventurer should either not be available or are severely limited by the laws of the setting. This has a significant impact on the hierarchy.

Firstly, "adventurer" in Dungeons & Dragons is a broad category describing the role of all player characters in the world they live in. It includes all manner of fantastical archetypes with powers strong enough to survive adventures full of monsters and magic. Whereas, anyone daring enough to be an "adventurer" in the world of Horizon Zero Dawn has to be a human (as only humans exist), has to be able to avoid machines where possible and have a chance of surviving battle with them when stealth fails, and has to be self-sufficient in the wilderness. Therefore, in Horizon Zero Dawn "adventurer" is synonymous with "hunter". Thus, "Hunter" replaces "Adventurer" at the top of the hierarchy of player character modules.

But "Hunter" could also be said to be a character's class, right? Conceptually, it's about the same as a "Ranger", say. We could have different classes exist below "Hunter" in the hierarchy, as different types of hunter. But how many classes could we include? We already know we can't use most of the classes that exist in the base game. Not even the ranger is quite right, owing to its use of divine magic. Practically speaking we're left with the barbarian, the fighter, and the rogue, and only a handful of viable archetypes for each. None of them feel quite right. Furthermore, allowing players to choose from only these three classes doesn't provide enough choices to ensure significant variation between all player characters in a game.

Instead, I opted to run with that first instinct: Hunter is every character's "class", as well as their role within the world. Accordingly, it has to be designed to allow a lot of flexibility, giving lots of choices so that no two hunters in the same party need feel the same!

As a consequence of this, all other decisions you make about your player character become subordinate to being a hunter. Decisions like your tribe (which is somewhat equivalent to the D&D adventurer's race) become decisions you make while undertaking the process of what D&D would term your class. It's as though you started making a Fighter and one of your first level class features asked you if you wanted to be a Dwarf Fighter, an Elf Fighter, or so on.

The hierarchy of the Hunter looks like this:

The Taxonomy of a Hunter

As you can see, it's significantly less complex. Though it may seem a little odd at first, incorporating the various player character modules into the same write-up as the Hunter's "class" features effectively streamlines the character creation process. You don't have to go look at multiple chapters, or more than one wiki page: everything you need to do is all in one place.

From the point of view of a designer, having only one "class" has another benefit: while I still refer to D&D's classes for benchmarking, I don't have to worry about balancing multiple classes against each other. It doesn't matter if the Hunter ends up overpowered compared to core classes since it's not intended to interact with classes that don't exist in Horizon Zero Dragons: the only thing that matters is the players end up having a fun and sometimes challenging experience.

Backgrounds are a Thing of the Past

You'll notice that backgrounds have been removed from the hierarchy entirely. This is because I deemed backgrounds an unnecessary part of a Horizon Zero Dragons character. We already know exactly what the character's background looks like: we have their choice of tribe, and the fact that they've been trained from a young age to become a hunter.

Note that the mechanical benefits provided by the base game's background features are still part of the character in some form or another, absorbed into the Hunter's features.


Ability Scores 

The six D&D ability scores have frequently been the subject of intense debate among my circle. It's undeniable that some of the six are more useful than others, except in the case of specific classes that are designed around "weaker" scores. It's also possible to make any number of fairly sound arguments about why a certain aspect of the rules might be equally or better handled by a different ability than the one it's currently assigned to. Further, there's some conceptual overlap between the mental and social abilities. These factors combined lead me to the belief that six abilities may be too many, and the responsibilities of those six scores might be better if divided among fewer abilities. Four, say. That would help ensure that every ability score is fairly important to any character, and reduce if not eliminate confusions about which ability is really best suited to a given task.

Especially in Horizon Zero Dragons, in which magic doesn't exist and social functions may be considered a secondary concern for many hunters, I feel it's disadvantageous to use the current model which dilutes the cerebral and social ability functions between three scores. We want the ability options available to players to be as tempting as we can make them in comparison to physical abilities. Reducing down the number of abilities is one way to achieve that. Making sure there are ways to use all abilities in varied situations, such as combat, is another. However, the first method can help with the second: from a design perspective, ensuring that the mental and social abilities are used in varied ways becomes easier if there are less of them to consider.

After due consideration, I decided on the following four ability scores: Might (essentially absorbing Constitution into Strength), Finesse (Dexterity), Acumen (combining Intelligence with portions of Wisdom and Charisma), and Spirit (combining the rest of Wisdom and Charisma's functions).

The Final Score: Modifiers +1, Scores 0.

It might not have escaped your notice that ability scores in Dungeons & Dragons are practically pointless. They're essentially vestigial things, there now only because they always have been. What's important in the current edition of the game is your modifier. About the only time you'll refer to your score is in the context of either a tie-break situation, such as when you want to quickly assess which of two characters with the same modifier is slightly better than the other and make a declaration without rolling. I don't deny this is sometimes useful, but in those situations there's only a 50-50 chance that the comparison will be useful. The other 50% of the time, both characters have the same score.

So why keep ability scores? Other versions of d20 before this have successfully abandoned them (True20, for instance). For Horizon Zero Dragons, I've chosen to follow in their footsteps.

Making this change does mean that current methods of generating ability scores don't work any more. I plumped for the simplest alternative method: assigning an array, which is +2, +1, 0, and -1.

Grades

As I mentioned, however, the option to compare abilities for quick tie-breaks can sometimes be useful, though it's hit and miss in its current form. I think we can add it back in but do it better. What if an ability modifier was further broken into four bands?

If you've received education in a system that uses letter grades, you'll be familiar with the method I chose: As well as having a modifier, each of a character's abilities is assigned a letter grade out of the following options: A (the best), B, C, and D (the worst). The letter grade helps us decide which of two characters with the exact same modifier has the advantage over the other. To illustrate, imagine that each character that possesses Might +1 took a practical exam to measure exactly how much might they have compared to other characters at their level. Although they all have nearly the same Might for most practical purposes, under rigorous testing conditions it can be shown that some in the exam are just a little bit more mighty than others. The top 25% are given an A grade, the next 25% are given a B grade, and so on. These small differences may not matter in the context of battle, such as hit point damage; they could, however, be a deciding factor in a direct contest of strength like an arm wrestle. Particularly when said contest isn't significant to the story and you might want to avoid bothering with a roll. When we want to make such comparisons, four variations of each bonus is much better than two: That's 75% odds that two characters will have different values when we need to compare them!

Four grades pairs really nicely with four abilities, as it gives us a very elegant solution for determining a character's grades: you get one of each and you choose how they're arranged among your four abilities. Alternatively, they could be randomly assigned by groups who like some randomness in their character creation.


Hit Points and Stamina Checks

A little while back I posted a variant method of rolling hit points which replaces Hit Dice with a Constitution ability check. I really like this as a default for Horizon Zero Dragons. (substituting Might for Constitution, obviously). Here's why:

Firstly, and definitely primarily, characters in Horizon Zero Dragons are going to have access to less healing than Dungeons & Dragons characters typically have. Sure, they can buy or craft healing potions, but they don't have access to convenient curative spellcasting. Additionally, any serious injuries or other consequences of lost hit points (death, for instance!) are a lot more permanent: without magic, there's no way of undoing such outcomes. Therefore, it makes sense to give hunters an extra buffer, making them tougher in the first place. The stamina check variant generally results in a character getting more hit points than they would otherwise have received using Hit Dice.

Secondly, although Constitution is often less useful than Strength, combining the two into Might creates something of a power stat. A consequence of the stamina check variant is that Constitution, or in this case Might, has less of an impact on your hit points: 0.5 per +1, instead of 1 per +1. The impact is nowhere near enough to change the fact that Might is a great choice for a hunter, but it does decrease the comparative value of Might, if only by a little bit. And as they say, "every little helps".


Next Time...

That's it for this installment! Next time, I'm going to explore some more Hunter features, including Proficiencies, Tribes, and more. 

Share your thoughts!

Thanks for following along this far. Let me know what you think about some of these changes, as well as any ideas you might have for further development of the Horizon Zero Dragons hack! Either leave a comment, or reach out on twitter.