Why I’m not a fan of Shadowrun/Two types of players

I was initially going to call this just “Issues with Shadowrun,” but to be honest if I don’t like a game as popular and influential as Shadowrun the issue is probably with me, not the game. That got me thinking about what became the real theme of this post.

It all started when a former gaming group tried to play Shadowrun. We created characters, started running the intro adventure, and it went nowhere. I spent days customizing my character (a ninja-type investigator/infiltrator) and learning the rules for evasion and using my grapping hook. And I never used any of them, as we spent our entire session debating rules as one person tried have his technomancer create sprits. We spent so much time on the rules of the game we never really had a chance to become immersed in it. (If you’ve never played Shadowrun and have no idea what I’m talking about, that’s fine, it’s just complicated Shadowrun stuff).

I complained on our group chat channel and we never played again. So I was annoyed that I spent tons of time on a character for a game I wasn’t excited about in the first place and then never really got to use.

At first I decided the issue, as I said, was with Shadowrun. It is a very complex game. There are different rules for semi-automatic, burst fire and fully-automatic guns. There are complicated rules for hacking into computer networks or using magic. And, to be fair, by mixing magic, complicated combat and technology the game has a bit of the most difficult to learn parts of other game systems. As a huge fan of D&D 5e I didn’t see why Shadowrun couldn’t be simplified along the lines of 5e’s advantage/disadvantage modifier system.

But then I thought about how much time I spent on my character, mostly after I’d closed my door to my office and kept glancing worriedly at the window to see if anyone was looking in (in a previous job, I am a very dutiful worker now). It was kind of cool to have such a complex, customizable process and I could see how someone could get lost in the very detailed rules for every aspect of the game.

So maybe there are just two types of players. Some of us get really excited about immersing ourselves in an abstract alternate world. We like coming up with character backstories, acting out what the character would do, writing blog posts about their history and personality (ahem). Others of us love the mechanics of translating adventures—combat, exploration, investigation—into dice rolls. Realizing that a burst fire from a machine pistol would do more damage but be less accurate, and seeing how this affects the number of and modifiers to your dice pool, is pretty cool.

Some games are geared towards the immersive. I think the Fantasy Flight Star Wars games fall into this category, as the dice rolls lend themselves to narrative story-telling and slightly abstract action. And then Shadowrun would be—as one of my former group members called it—more “crunchy.” In my opinion, D&D is the perfect blend of the two.

The challenge, then, is finding the right game for the different players in your group or being open to disagreement about your direction, as mine was after I whined about Shadowrun.

Origin Story: Randulf, part 2

In last week’s post, I presented the backstory for Randulf, a Lovecraftian warlock in Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition. This is part of a series of blog posts I’m calling “Origin Stories,” in which I’ll present the lore and mechanics behind characters in D&D and other RPG systems. This post will be part 2 of the piece on Randulf, in which I  discuss how I translated that backstory into a D&D character

The idea for Randulf came from H.P. Lovecraft, the influential early 20th-century author of “weird fiction.” Lovecraft wrote of ancient alien beings that still threatened and were worshiped by humans. I saw similarities between some of Lovecraft’s cultists and D&D’s warlock; indeed, the PHB’s entry on warlocks even gives Cthulhu (a powerful being Lovecraft created) as an example of a warlock patron. The name Randulf Cardr comes from Randolph Carter, a recurring Lovecraft character who is constantly seeking forbidden knowledge.

Most warlocks are played as fiends or charlatans (charlatan is actually the recommended background for warlock in the PHB). I wanted to play a warlock as a reluctant servant of a powerful being, which was the basis for my character. I thought he could be a bored noble who sought forbidden knowledge and ended up being bound to a Lovecraftian Great Old One. I used this starting point to flesh out Randulf’s backstory, as described in the last post.

Warlocks are kind of a mix of a wizard and a fighter. They have magical powers in the form of pact spells and evocations; the former are chosen from the spell list while the latter are magical effects that can take a variety of forms, such as added damage for spells or the ability to see in the dark. But they also have some fighting ability through armor and weapon proficiencies.

Warlocks are also very customizable thanks to the choice of patron and pacts. Patrons are the powerful beings the warlock is tied to—a fiend, an archfey, or a Great Old One. And pacts are the type of connection one has—Chain (use a familiar), Blade (summon a magical weapon), and Book, which I will discuss below.

I initially wanted to make Randulf bookish, using the Pact of the Book feature. In this customization option, the character gets a book from his patron that grants forbidden knowledge; in gameplay, the character gains several extra cantrips and has the option of transcribing ritual spells using an evocation. This fit my idea of a character who was constantly seeking out lore he should have avoided. But the group needed a front-line fighter, so I tweaked things a bit. I went with the Pact of the Blade. This gave my character a lot of flexibility in front-line fighting, as I could summon any weapon needed and gain proficiency with it. For example, I decided to prepare the stats for a spear, maul (a giant club), and long sword, depending on the situation I encountered.

I decided to be a human, to fit the backstory of a Baldur’s Gate noble. But I chose the “variant human” option, which gives a character boosts to two stats, an extra skill, and a free feat. Feats are customization options that give character special bonuses or powers. And of course I chose the Noble background; this doesn’t give many useful traits for a Warlock, but I liked the flavor. Moreover, as Randulf was trying to be good, but struggled against the chains of his family obligations and was under the spell of a dark power, I thought Chaotic Good would be most appropriate for an alignment.

For stats, I needed a powerful Warlock who would also be good at front-line fighting. So I prioritized Charisma (the warlock class stat, which affects spell attacks), strength and constitution; the last two would help me out as a front-line fighter. And I used my variant human feat to gain moderate armor proficiency and boost dexterity. My lowest stat was Wisdom; while Wisdom is pretty useful, I thought this fit with my backstory of a dissolute noble youth.

For skills, I tried to think of ones that Randulf would have gained through his noble youth and his time with the Harpers. Randulf has skills in Arcana, History, and Investigation; I thought this made sense for someone who spent most of his time searching for lost knowledge. He is also skilled in Persuasion from his noble upbringing, and Intimidation, due to the dark powers he was aligned with. Finally, Randulf is proficient in stealth from his Harper training (unlike the other skills, this is not an option from the Warlock class or Noble background, it is the extra skill gained as a variant human).

For spells, I tried to pick ones that fit with his backstory. I chose Eldritch Blast, basically a missile of arcane force; it’s kind of required for all Warlocks (see this post from the great Harbinger of Doom blog for a criticism of this aspect of warlock design). The rest of my spells were part of a theme of using my mystical powers to manipulate minds and matter. The second cantrip I chose was mage hand, which can be used to move things around or lift them up. I picked a few spells made available by the Great Old One pact that involved mind manipulation: dissonant whispers (which causes the target to take psychic damage and run away), detect thoughts and mirror image (which creates illusory copies of the character to confused attacks). Finally, I chose arms of Hadar, which causes tentacles to appear and attack all close to me; I thought this made sense in terms of extra-dimensional beings breaking into our reality. Finally, for the evocations, I picked agonizing blast—increasing the damage of Eldritch blast—and fiendish vigor, which increases hit points temporarily, making me a better front-line fighter.

And that’s Randulf. I started with my initial idea—a Lovecraftian reluctant warlock—and crafted him according to that backstory and my group’s needs. He was a fun character to play, as I added in occasional touches of madness in role-playing and the flavor of his powers was interesting.

Origin Story: Randulf, part 1

This is a type of post I’ll do occasionally in which I discuss characters I’ve created. I’ve had fun coming up with backstories and translating them into game mechanics, so I thought others may be interested to read them. Each of these will have two parts: the first is the backstory and the second is the actual way I created the character.

The first one deals with Randulf Cardr, a warlock I created for D&D. The backstory of the warlock class comes from both the PHB and the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide.

Here we go:

Randulf Cardr was the youngest of five sons of Elstran Cardr, a lesser noble of Baldur’s Gate. There is little for even the eldest son of a lesser noble to do in that city, let alone the youngest, and Randulf soon lost interest in his obligatory military training. So, of course, Randulf occupied his time with the pursuits of the idle rich; drunken revelry, dangerous pursuits and the occult.  After nights out on the town, Randulf and his friends—also bored noble youth—would stay up late in the night, collecting information and discussing dark, forgotten secrets.

These pursuits led them to the study of the Great Old Ones, powerful beings dwelling beyond the bounds of time and space. Randulf and his friends collected any information they could find—ritualistic materials from cults dedicated to these beings, ancient blasphemous texts, and even hints of their worship in Baldur’s Gate. During an exploration in the Undercity for rumored evidence of Great Old One worship, Randulf stumbled upon a makeshift shrine in an old, crumbling temple. Much of the material in the shrine was worthless or ruined, but he did find a notebook full of mad scribblings. Taking it back with him to the surface, Randulf and his friends discovered it contained a madman’s notes on his search for Zargon, one of the Great Old Ones, and rituals he believed would put a mortal in touch with the dangerous being.

On All Hallows’ Eve, Randulf and his friends gathered in the basement of one of his father’s warehouses, dressed in black robes (there was no indication this is what Zargon prefers, but they thought it looked neat) and conducted the ritual. As it completed, they were shocked to find it worked. A hole opened in the air, a sickly yellow light flooded out along with a booming, devastating voice. All of Randulf’s friends were driven mad, nearly comatose with their horror. For some reason—maybe because he discovered the ritual, maybe because he was slightly smarter and stronger than his friends—Randulf was spared. But Zargon did bind Randulf permanently to him, making him an unwitting servant of the great tyrant.

When his father’s guards stormed in, worried the noise and screaming indicated a riot or fight in the warehouse, they found Randulf wandering around dazed in a now-sickly grey robe and his friends on the ground. His father moved to silence any news of this event, as did the families of the other youths, as they hoped to avoid bringing shame on their houses. Randuf was now the shameful youngest son of a minor Baldur’s Gate noble, and faced even bleaker prospects for a fulfilling life.

But something else had changed. Randulf found himself inexplicably producing magical effects—hearing the thoughts of those around him, blowing open doors with an eldritch force from his hands, imposing hallucinatory sights and noises affecting others. Returning to his studies, he realized his bond with Zargon allowed him to tap into that being’s endless power. With practice he was able to craft more powerful effects, creating illusory images of himself that followed him around and even summoning an apparently real weapon that he could change at will. But this came at a price, as whenever he tapped into Zargon’s power he also made contact with the Great Old One, resulting in lingering effects—the temperature would suddenly drop, mad laughter or threatening whispers would manifest themselves. These images, and the fear of their occurrence, gnawed at Randulf till he often muttered to himself or listened wide-eyed for phantom noises.

His father, ever charitable, attempted to help Randulf. He arranged for a priest of Lathander to meet with the young man. Randulf found solace in the Morning Lord’s teachings, and even began to pray to him, but this only accentuated the constant darkness following him and the growing guilt he felt at what happened to his friends.

Randulf soon decided he needed to leave Baldur’s Gate, to hopefully escape his demons and redeem himself. He wandered throughout the Sword Coast, helping villagers threatened by ruffians or merchants waylaid by bandits. He perfected the power he could draw from Zargon—he sculpted the eldritch force into powerful bolts of energy capable of felling enemies, he twisted his breath into whispers that drove his target mad. But he still felt restless and guilty, unable to find his place in the world.

That changed one day when Randulf was travelling through a forest near Neverwinter. He came upon two travelers who had been set upon by a group of hobgoblin bandits. Drawing on his ever-growing power, Randulf came to their aid. He summoned the illusory multiple copies of himself to distract the hobgoblins’ blows and made one of the bandits run, screaming in pain, from a spell. He summoned a wicked-looking trident, fired a few blasts of his eldritch force, and charged. The hobgoblins were soon dispersed.

The grateful travelers turned out to be Harpers, members of that secretive organization dedicated to defending the innocent and fighting tyranny throughout the Sword Coast. They were impressed by his selflessness and power, and offered him a position with their organization. Randulf, wandering and lost for so long, had finally found where he belonged. But deep in the back of his mind were mad whispers and haunting laughter, constant reminders that the price of drawing on Zargon’s power is often madness.

Are the Volo’s Guide Character Races Overpowered?

I recently got the excellent Volo’s Guide to Monsters, a new sourcebook for fifth edition D&D. This includes an incredible set of resources for DMs and players, including extensive information on several popular monsters (like Beholders and goblinoids), an expanded bestiary for the Forgotten Realms, and rules for playing expanded character races. These include some familiar to fifth edition fans (including the Aasimar from the DMG and Goliaths from Princes of the Apocalypse) and some that are new (like the Kenku, previously presented in the Monster’s Manual). There are even rules for playing monster characters.

This is all very cool, and I for one have always loved Aasimar (first encountering them as playable races in the “Neverwinter Nights 2” PC game). But as I read through the rules for creating characters based on these races, I began to notice something: they all seemed really overpowered.

First, they get multiple ability score increases. For example, Aasimar have an increase in charisma of 2 and a 1 point increase in either wisdom, constitution or strength depending on the sub-race you pick. Similarly, Firbolgs get an increase to Wisdom of 2, and an increase to strength of 1.

But they get other benefits as well. Most get some sort of extra skill or innate power. Goliaths, for example, gain proficiency in Athletics, count as one size larger for carrying capacity, and can reduce the damage they take from hits. Others gain spell abilities. Tritons can cast fog cloud—which they later upgrade to gust of wind—and can talk with aquatic creatures.

PHB Non-human races get some of these benefits, although (and here’s a debatable point) I think the Volo’s Guide races get a bit more. For example, Gnomes get a 2 point increase to Intelligence and a 1 point increase in either Dexterity or Constitution (depending on the sub-race). They also get a few other minor benefits, like “gnome cunning” or the forest gnome’s nature-related powers. But these seem less significant than the myriad benefits a player gets from playing one of the new Volo’s Guide races.

Granted, as I said, this is debatable. Non-human PHB races get the same attribute bonus, and it’s hard to weigh the other benefits. But even if the PHB non-human races can kind of compete with the Volo’s Guide races, humans can’t. Humans are designed to be flexible and adaptable. As a result, they get a 1 point increase in every attribute.. Or—if the DM allows it—they get a 1 point increase in 2 attributes, a feat and a skill. These are both great features, and make human a potent choice for character race if you’re not interested in maxing out attribute points early on. But even getting a feat—which can be very fun for low-level characters—can’t compete with a total of 3 attribute point increases and other magical benefits you’d get from one of the Volo’s Guide races.

So if we use the Volo’s Guide races, why would anyone ever play a human?

The only downside I can think of relates to role-playing. Humans are usually the standard race in campaigns, with other PHB races rarities of different levels depending on the specifics of the campaign. Volo’s Guide races, by contrast, would be spectacles in most settings. This should make them kind of difficult to play if—for example—there’s a 10% chance villagers will run and scream when a Firbolg character tries to talk to them. Also, each of these races has rather strict alignment requirements, and personality traits that could make some social interactions difficult.

This does kind of make sense—you get more power by playing these exotic races but it can make your life (and the lives of your party) more difficult in other ways. A lot of this will depend on the DM, however, and it’s possible a DM won’t really handicap players using the Volo’s Guide races via roleplaying. This will lead to a situation of “power gamers” always gravitating towards a Volo’s Guide race, making it difficult for players to justify using a standard race. Absent some mechanism of rewarding flawed characters (such as…maybe this one…), this can effectively limit the variation in gameplay.

I get that D&D isn’t interested in lowering attributes for different races; always getting an increase of some sort is more fun. But I worry that they went a bit too far with the Volo’s Guide races.

Am I being unfair?