Review: Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica (D&D5)

Let me begin with a disclaimer. I do not play, follow, or even really understand Magic: The Gathering. I understand that Ravnica is a setting in Magic, where some of their cards are set (?),  and that Wizards of the Coast own both properties, so it makes logical sense to bring a D&D supplement covering it as a game world. I had written this off as a game supplement I did not have to get into – that it would be much more useful to players in the intersect of the Venn diagram of RPG/Card gamers. And I’m not a massive fan of high-magic kitchen-sink setttings, so Ravnica probably wasn’t for me. (M:TG has got to be high-magic, yeah? It’s in the name).

GGRThen I browsed the book, and saw it had steampunk mad scientist goblins and anthro elephant men and centaurs and mushroom druids, and shrugged my shoulders and bought it. I’m glad I did. It’s a funky and original setting that shakes up some D&D expectations, and it’s also ideal for one-shot play.

The Fluff

Ravnica is a world-sized city; an entirely urban game world. What areas of ‘wilderness’ there are are rubble pits, ruined parts of the city, or ancient catacombs. It’s steampunky; there’s underground trains, bio-engineered human hybrids, and a scientific approach to magic from many of the guilds that bicker and fuel much of the conflict in the setting. There are ten guilds, each ostensibly running a part of the city’s functions, but also at each other’s throats. A tenuous Guildpact keeps them from open warfare, but it is currently manifested as an actual person, who keeps wandering off onto other plains, so it’s policed unreliably.

The guilds themselves are at the centre of play in Ravnica, and they range from the fairly vanilla (the Azorius Senate are the city watch, the Boros Legion are the army/mercenaries) to the interesting (the Cult of Radkos, led by an actual demon, provide performance and entertainment like bloodthirsty court jesters), to the brilliantly gonzo (the Simic Combine use bioengineering to augment evolution, the Orzhov Syndicate are a combination church/bank/thieves-guild led by a cabal of ghosts).

There’s a chapter covering in just the right amount of detail (for me at least) the Tenth District of the city, with lots of stuff for players to do and trouble for them to get into, and each guild gets a set of random mission tables, an iconic location mapped out, and a bunch of monsters and NPCs. The NPCs are great – the Izzet League, mad scientists and experimenters, have several NPCs who are basically flamethrower-wielding guards. D&D5 could use more NPC stat blocks, and this chapter is full of interesting ones, and they are easily adaptable to other settings.

The Crunch

You get six new races – Centaurs, Goblins, Loxodon (elephant-men), Minotaurs, Simic Hybrids (bioengineered humanoids), and Vedalkin (blue-skinned semi-aquatic humans). There’s an extra Cleric Domain (“Order,” yawn) and the Circle of Spores for druids, as well as detailed guidance for which classes and races would fit for each guild. Each guild also comes with a default Background option that links the PC into the Guild they serve.

There’s lots and lots of random tables. D&D5 has really embraced these and I think it’s a good thing. Where previous D&D settings sometimes left me feeling stifled at the weight of background needed to navigate it consistently (Forgotten Realms in particular), distilling implied setting into random tables is a much clearer way to set your imagination running. If you’re not convinced, you can listen the The Smart Party here use the DMG to create a random adventure, and see what I mean.

The One Shot

While there’s some discussion of how PCs from different guilds could work together, I can see lots of great one-shot play emerging with the PCs working for just one guild. The structure of the guild interactions, and the resources provided for each of them, mean it’s easy to think up some exciting scenarios – pick a Guild for the PCs, pick the Guild they are up against and a villain’s nefarious plan, and then throw in another Guild with perpendicular interests to get in the way and complicate matters.

There’s enough variety within each guild to make a sufficiently distinct group of PCs, and the mission-based structure works really well for a tight opening to your one-shot and an obvious climax. Conversely, the urban environment and the option to move around the city quickly make it easy to have multiple resolution options in the middle of your one-shot (the swell, which I talk about here). It even comes with a sample adventure, which is good (but not Great – I’d have preferred a more exciting enemy than a Goblin gang-lord, and you could fairly easily set most of the adventure in Waterdeep or Sharn), but it gives a good framework as an introduction to the setting. Of course, it’s written more as an intro to the setting than a one-shot, and so provides leads at the end for the PCs to follow up, but having an adventure as a matter of course in a setting book is a good thing generally.

In general, I’m really pleased with Ravnica as an addition to the D&D stable, and I think it’ll make for some excellent one-shot play. Now, how’s about Spelljammer and Dark Sun?

Review: Warhammer Fantasy Role Play (4e)

WarhammerFor a certain demographic of gamer, Warhammer Fantasy Role Play (WFRP) will always have a special place in their heart. The first edition was the very first RPG I owned, probably bought with some Christmas money, and first read sat on a crowded diesel train back from Leeds, rat-catchers, road wardens, and stevedores pressed up to my eager eyes.

If you’re not familiar with the hold WFRP has over gamers, you could do well to listen to the Grognard Files episodes about it. It’s history is storied; it was a lumpy, workable but odd (although it felt fine at the time) 1st Edition, and a tidied-up and well-supported (which also took some magic out of it) 2nd edition, before Fantasy Flight debuted the funky-dice shenanigans they would later scale down for Star Wars with a massive boxed set of 3rd edition. The system was completely different (although recognisable now with FFG Star Wars being a stripped-down variant) and the idea of £70 for a base game was sniffed at by many in the hobby. Oh, those innocent years, before slipcases and Invisible Sun and kickstarter add-ons (and postage) made such a price seem mainstream.

But, anyway, the 4th edition is out, from Cubicle 7, and it stays closer to the original system while tidying it up and making it work. A few key design tweaks make it a much better game, in my opinion, and it’s crawling with C7’s usual high presentation standards. But is it one-shot suitable? Let’s see…

The Fluff

This is proper grimdark fantasy. Late medieval pseudo-europe is great for a one-shot, and all the Germanic names give plenty opportunity for accents at the table (always a winner form me). Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, and an assortment of colourful Careers make characters easy to inhabit for players, and the setting is realistically grimy while still leaving plenty to do for erstwhile protagonists. The 1st edition supplements are now available in .pdf, which detail locations full of plot hooks, and there are rumours that the classic Enemy Within campaign is to be updated for 4th edition.

It’s a great example of system wedded to setting; it’s clear when you look at a WFRP pregen what kind of world they’ll be adventuring in. The Reikland (the default setting) is beset on all sides by skaven, orcs and goblins, and the insidious taint of chaos in the form of beastmen and chaos cultists, so there’s lots of obvious opportunities for adventure and low-down heroics. And, as you’d expect from C7, the book is a thing of beauty – the art is lovely and harks back to the old 1st edition illustrations.

The Crunch

WFRP has always been a percentile system; where it differs from other D100 games is that you roll against characteristics, with bonuses for skills, rather than skills themselves. Historically combat in particular could be a drag; when you’ve both got a 30% chance to hit and a 30% chance to parry it can take a while for somebody to score a blow. A small tweak has solved all of that and made combat much more exciting – it is now opposed rolls, so you only have to score a better success (or a less-worse miss) than your opponent to make contact. Degrees of success determine damage, so no extra dice roll, and damage takes from Wounds until those are used up and a set of amusingly lethal critical hit tables are rolled on.

Combat is lethal, and rightly so, but it plays out as giving plenty of options in the game. PCs have a Career rather than a Class, and these ground them very much in medieval society rather than setting them up for orcslaying (excepting the Slayer, of course). In contrast to previous editions, each Career is given 4 levels of expertise, so your Townsman can progress from a lowly Clerk to a powerful Burgomeister. Each level unlocks new Talents and Skills, and manages to capture a level of progression while still remaining very much low fantasy.

The One-Shot

There’s a few reasons why you might think is a long-form game rather than a one-shot; the richness of career progression, the wealth of lore about the world, and the prospect of the legendary Enemy Within campaign being some of them. But I’d urge you to try it as a one-shot too. I played it at Grogmeet run by Evilgaz of the Smart Party and it was an excellent game.

Firstly, the setting is so familiar and cosy to so many gamers it really does feel like slipping on a comfortable pair of slippers to adventure in the Old World. Having so much of the setting baked into the characters makes it easy for players to inhabit the setting, and the streamlined combat system of opposed rolls makes combat fun and fast. And never mind Enemy Within, C7 have released Night of Blood, a classic one-shot from the days of old White Dwarf, as a free download, with more to come.

So I’d heartily recommend a doom-laden adventure with WHFRP. It’s definitely something I’ll be bringing to the table soon at Go Play Leeds, and you should too.