Review: Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium

I received my copy of MME last weekend at PAX. This excellent resource is scheduled to come out September 20th (premier game stores will have it early) and it’s suggested retail is $29.95. If I hadn’t already gotten it, I definitely would be dropping the bucks to buy this beauty.

The book is hardcover, standard D&D book size, with quality glossy pages inside. The spine is sturdy and the binding seems very good. My husband accidentally stepped on the spine of my copy and it did not suffer for it (but my husband did!) it is still in excellent shape. I have to say I really like the cover art more than the Adventurers Vault books, more of a visual kick. Inside is a mix of new and recycled art. There isn’t too much recycled art either, so the book doesn’t feel dated.

Inside is well organized and readable. One thing I really enjoy are the excerpts from Mordenkainens “journal”, especially the tidbits quoted throughout the item entries. They go a long way to making the book feel less like a dry index of equipment and more like an interesting catalog of fascinating creations.

There are new armor proficiency feats to take advantage of the new armor properties. Certain new armors have non-magical properties to reduce damage taken, or thwart critical hits. This is a fun element, I think it will be especially great for campaigns that focus a bit more on realism, or low-magic campaigns were even a non-magical suit of armor is valuable (Dark Sun, I’m looking at you). There’s also a handful of new weapon feats, mainly expertise and strike feats, and the book moves briskly on to the good stuff: magic equipment.

The magic items are varied and interesting. I haven’t had the time to read every single item entry but out of the dozen or so that I have read they all seemed balanced, useful, and sometimes entertaining. Most items include a snippet or two about the item – usually a bit of fluff about it’s origin. These bits are gems amid the item entries. You’ll feel like you actually want to sit down and read this book, versus flipping through it to scan for certain items and only reading relevant sections.

The items run the usual gamut from armor to wonderous items, including consumables, artifacts, and cursed items. The cursed items are well presented and include suggested mechanics for overcoming those curses that are very attainable. After these, the Emporium introduces a new item type: story items. Story items are basically MacGuffins, magic items that are more important as plot devices than they are as equipment. This sounds the same as an artifact, in fact the book even says in the artifact section that artifacts are mostly important as plot devices – so what is the difference between a story item and an artifact? That mostly depends on the DM. A story item could have virtually no mechanical benefits, or it could be completely unique item with powers and motivations similar to an artifact. I have a hard time seeing much separating them other than the story item section doesn’t suggest implementing Concordance. In my eyes, the difference is a blurred line.

Still, the story items section gives useful information for creating and implementing them in your game by providing examples, inspiration, and framework for making story items. New DMs that feel anxious or uncertain about inventing weird items that don’t follow typical item rules will find these guidelines very useful. Experienced DMs that don’t hesitate before inventing crazy magical talking spoons that know the location to the lich’s phylactery may still gain some inspiration by browsing example items provided in this section.

Next is a section on mundane equipment. Great stuff like ball bearings, jar of glowworms, or a charlatan’s kit (which includes great things like a disguise kit, a glass cutter, and gambling cheats) await you in this section. If you have one of those players that come up with a 100 uses for every mundane item in the PHB, reward them with some of the great gear in this section.

Finally, the last section in the book is a number of extremely useful appendixes. Hirelings and henchmen provides costs and services for commoners that might help your players. Magic item stories suggests that even the lowliest +1 dagger can have a unique background and provides two tables so you can generate random item backgrounds with a d20 roll. Item levels as treasure suggest that instead of constantly replacing items, DMs can allow players to increase their items power (some I already do in my home game: I call them “heirloom items”). Last of all is the Items list. This is no squinty-eye list in the tiniest font crammed onto a single page. Spread across multiple pages, with well formatted tables sort the items by level, cost, rarity, and page numbers makes this index a useful and usable quick reference for DMs and players.

Altogether I found this book very satisfactory and one of the best equipment books released by WotC. While the Adventurers Vaults bring a lot of great gear to the table, they’ve never truely impressed me like the Emporium does. If you’re a new DM, I recommend this book because it will be a great resource in multiple ways – helpful DM advice, rarity tables, and story items. If you’re a DDI subscriber and you’re thinking about passing on this book because eventually the items and feats will be in the Character Builder and Compendium, then I must point out you won’t get to enjoy the wonderful fluff text liberally included in this volume. If that doesn’t matter to you, fine, but if you love gobbling up well written fluff then don’t miss out on this book.

I <3 Engine Heart

I played Engine Heart (which I keep trying to call Gear Heart by mistake) last night at Guardian Games. The game master, called ‘The Programmer” in Engine Heart, was a great guy who ran a fun little game set in a post-apocalyptic future Portland.The system uses a simple d10 system that was easily understood and quick to jump into. Once we understood what our attributes stood for, it was easy to figure out how to do anything we wanted to try.

The evening was full of hilariousness as our bots attempted to make sense out of the strange world around us. Our group consisted of a five bots under the benevolent guidance of an AI named Eve. AIs in Engine Heart have all the “mental” stats and none of the physical stats as they are usually housed in computers instead of mobile bot bodies. Our home was a disused mega church and Eve was tasked with it’s overseeing maintenance. Eve sent us to scavenge solar panels and to repair the local network so that maybe Eve could access the internet again.

The fun thing in Engine Heart is roleplaying the point of view of a bot with limited understanding of human concepts. Your HumanCom score reflects how well you understand humans and human-related things. For example, we stole solar panels from another AI in charge of a Buddhist temple. The other AI was defenseless, so we ruthlessly scavenged 8 solar panels from it’s building while the AI protested uselessly. As we left, the Buddhist AI warned us about bad karma. Our group concluded Karma must be a type of bot the AI was going to send after us to take back the solar panels we stole. We never saw another bot chasing us, but we were certain Karma was a dangerous bot and we were on constant vigilance for it for the rest of the game…Engine Heart

There was much more to the game, we puzzled over human things like money and a gun, traveled across town, rode a train, negotiated with police bots, and pondered why humans never recycled their parts like bots do. The game was cut short when we ran out of time, but every minute of play was fun and I am looking forward to playing the system again.

 

You can learn more about Engine Heart and get the game at their wiki.

 

A Very Brief Review of the New Monster Builder

Cubicle monkey that I am, I only had about ten minutes to pounce on the new Monster Builder released today.  I have been looking forward to this because while the Character Builder had a rocky start – it clearly had a lot of potential even from Day One. I had hoped to see at least as much potential in the new Monster Builder. I didn’t expect anything as versatile as the classic Monster Builder – but I expected a reasonable amount of functionality. I thought I was being fair minded in my hopes for it by being neither overly optimistic or purely pessimistic.

Boy, was I ever overly optimistic.

I don’t have time to write much, but here’s the list I jotted down while perusing the new Monster Builder.

CONS

  • No export
  • No copy/paste
  • No filter by level
  • No ability to print multiple monsters all at once
  • No ability to create new monsters
  • No real customization of existing monsters
    • Change level, automatically recalculates numbers
    • Rename monster
    • Rename attack powers
  • Glitchy
    • Monster block randomly jumps back and forth in the center column, clipping off the right side of the block.

Pros

  • New monster stats (that the Compendium already has)
  • Import custom monsters from classic MB (not tested)
  • Monsters are saved online (yay?)
  • Some monsters have monster art! (actually great!)

That’s it. As I commented on Twitter, the new Monster Builder does not qualify for the term “builder”. It is a Monster Namer. It barely functions as a database of monsters, and the Compendium does a better job for searching and filtering the monster database and it doesn’t require Silverlight. I can rename attack powers with Wordpad, or with a pencil, any day.

From WotC_Trevor:

Over the next few months we will be adding features and content until we meet, and in some ways surpass, what the classic Monster Builder offered.

I hope so! Until sometime happens, there really is no reason right now to use the Monster Namer over the classic Monster Builder.

Dragon Chow

About a week ago, while crazed with insomnia at about 2:00 in the morning, I made this ad for @GeekyLyndsay and her awesome Dragon Chow dice bags.  If you’re curious about the inspiration for the picture: I kept thinking about Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls”. This is my brain; this is my brain without sleep.

In all seriousness: @GeekyLyndsay is awesome, you should buy stuff from her.

Dropbox Review

After reading DreadGazebo’s mention of Dropbox over at This Is My Game, I decided to try it out myself.

Dropbox is a online folder syncing service that has both free and paid subscriptions. There are no ads on the site, even for a free subscription, which is pretty nice and makes the site look clean and simple. The reviews I found online indicates the service is safe and secure. You sign up with an email and a password and you’re good to go.

Once you’re in, you’ve got 2GB free storage space, and if you followed someone’s referral link, you get 250MB more space (and so does the referring person). You can earn an additional 250MB by completing a simple checklist of tasks that consisted of watching the orientation video, installing the Dropbox software, uploading a file, referring another friend, and sharing a folder with a friend, etc.

The software installs pretty fast and I’ve never seen a syncing program work so simply. I’ve had some frustration with syncing programs in the past with my multi-computer home running four different operating systems. Dropbox installed on most of them, and the rest I could access via browser. Once installed, Dropbox behaves just like a regular folder on your computer. You can copy folders/files in and out of it, edit/save files, etc. It was fast, it took me less than a minute to sync the folders I wanted, and less than 5 minutes later they were available online. Online you have the option to share folders with other people, so I set one folder to share with a friend. He was able to see it almost instantly. I have some 1,000+ html files that I needed to share with my friend and this did it in mere moments. All my campaign notes and pictures also took only moments to sync. Files from my desktop, my laptop, and my netbook were all available to me when I logged onto the main site from my work computer. It feels nice and centralized having equal access to all these files from anywhere, any computer. I was also able to access my files on my droid phone. Extra win there.

As far as a free service goes, it’s pretty good. Price-wise I don’t think I’d pay up for the 50gb storage, but for up to 8GB of free storage it is was more convenient than google documents. I definitely recommend this for any DM that works from multiple computers with lots of files to manage for their campaign or anything else.

Fortune Cards – First Impressions Are Everything

Get A GripMy FLGS handed my husband and me one pack apiece of these new Fortune Cards on Monday when we sat down to play our weekly Dark Sun game. They also gave us some index cards and asked us to jot down a few thoughts about them before we left for the day. Well, I glanced at my cards and dashed off a quick line for the store, but I didn’t really get to sit down and take a look at them until now. So here I go…

The Good

Between two packs of cards, I have 18 cards. They are beautifully printed on your typical CCG cardstock. Half the card has a graphic indicating if the card is one of three types (so far) – Attack, Defense, and Tactic. The style of the symbols look like the work of the same hand that brought us the stylish Three Dragon Ante cards. The right half of the card contains the text of the card and below that has it’s rarity indicator. Circles are common, diamonds are uncommon, and stars are rares.
Rare Card - Grim Determination
The rules, once I found them, seem straight forward. You get to draw a card and can choose when to play it or if you want to discard it and draw another. If you play your card, next round you get to draw another. Since most of the cards have specific triggers, I doubt players will use a card every round unless they perpetually discard and draw new. The rules pdf also includes guidelines for building a custom deck with consideration towards how many of a certain type of card a deck may have. This seems wise as it would presumably keep a player from completely stacking their deck with all Attack cards, or no Tactic Cards, for example.

My favorite cards were the cards that included a penalty or a possible downside in addition to a benefit. Risky Move lets you shift your move, but you risk falling on your face at the end of the move. Reckless Violence trades you a penalty to hit in exchange for a double bonus to damage with some combat advantage tossed in for good measure. Most of the cards will be useful in combat and no where else. A few will see their way into skill challenges.
Fuzzy condition card
One card was very different from the other cards – it’s a condition tracking card! With the glossy finish of the cards, it seems like it will do well with a dry erase pen. Nice sort of bonus card, I wouldn’t mind having a few more.

The Confused

Each pack contained 1 card that had an advertisement on the backside instead of the D&D Fortune cards splash. At first I thought it was a rules card – to explain how to implement Fortune Cards into your standard D&D game. I was wrong. There are no rules in the packs, and no rules on the wrapper either. I found the rules on the D&D website earlier this evening.  The lack of rules on or in the packs is very disappointing to me. A brand new product like this should have the rules in every pack – not just online or on the cardboard sales display. Rules should be accessible to the customer off the web and out of the store.

The part about each player can build and bring their own deck makes me a bit wary. Even with the deck guidelines it would clearly be easy to build a deck with predictable results. I feel that betrays the nature of fortune cards, takes away from the randomness the cards imply. Admittedly I can see where some cards will be of less value to some characters than to others though. I recommend DMs inspect their player’s decks prior to game time.

Lastly, out of just two packs, I have a three cards of which I have two each. This makes me wince. Commons are expected to accrue duplicates, and perhaps it’s just sour luck I got this many on my first draw. According to the numbers on the cards, there are only a total of 80 different cards.

Last Impression

I like the cards; graphically they’re crisp and pleasing, mechanically they don’t seem broken. For Encounters, I could see these adding a lot of flavor. I’m intending to take my cards to my next session as a player and give them a trial run. As a DM, I think I’d prefer to implement my own rules about players using these in my home game instead of the guidelines suggested in the pdf.  $3.99 a pack seems a bit much, but I may buy a couple more packs to see what I get, but I don’t think I’ll be trying to collect all 80 cards.

Essentially Unexciting

I’ve been playing in the current seasons of Encounters, in part to satisfy my craving to sit on the other side of the DM’s screen, and in part to see what all this fuss about Essentials is. My verdict: Essentials is really absolutely not “4.5e” as so many are ranting about. It’s not even 4e simplified. I find it feels like just another supplement to 4e. Hardly different than adding psionic classes, or any of the power books. What grinds against me about it is when the player is restricted to “Essentials only” – then it masquerades as “simplified” because you are simply denied the ability to build anything more complex than a basic race/class combo. Supposedly this will be solved as more Essentials material is released – but by continuing to impose an “Essentials only” rule on Encounters they continue to drive a wedge in the community and reinforce the belief that Essentials is an attempt to construct a 4.5e.

I think Encounters would be greatly improved if they allowed all D&D material – with an incentive for Essentials. In previous seasons you were rewarded a renown point if you made your character on the Character Builder, or if you used PHB3 race or class. So reward a renown point for an Essentials class, and of course all the pre-mades be Essentials builds. Simple. The folks that want to make their own – if they make them in the store they can be guided to make Essentials. Everyone else can make their thri-kreen seekers or their shardmind ardents. And you know what? Those new players sitting at the table with their boring Essentials elf wizards will see these interesting and dynamic characters and be curious – and then they’ll buy those books. Those that aren’t curious or prefer stereotypical fantasy tropes will stick to buying Essentials.

So Essentials is fine, and it is clearly not targeted at my demographic. It’s targeted at a newer demographic and while that strangely agitates some people, I don’t find myself getting my panties in a knot about it.

Yet Another Blogger’s “First Impressions” of the new Character Builder

I had the unfortunate luck of having to be at work all day, on a computer that I was not allowed to install Silverlight on. So I watched the flurry of activity on Twitter and grew increasingly anxious as the negative comments began filling the screen.  Now I didn’t have high hopes to begin with, but some of the news was especially disappointing to me. Crashes, bugs, and server issues I expected though.  Finally home now, I hurry to install Silverlight and launch the new Character Builder.

Loading…

The first thing that strikes me is how slow it is. It takes over a minute for the first screen to load. I don’t mark this as exceptionally bad (older desktop + first day heavy traffic). But as I continue through it, the delay after every click makes the program feel clunky and unresponsive. I hope that changes when the load lightens. The screen flicker though – the window ‘dims’ briefly while loading something – ugh, I hope they drop it. It got annoying fast.

Uploading Characters

I attempted to upload a character. Things did not go well.  Selected file, waited 5 minutes for the CB to transfer data. Nothing was happening so I told the page to reload. A really lame loading picture popped up and after 1 minute another pop-up advised me that the character wasn’t save, would I like to recover it? I select yes and was rewarded with a Template Not Found error. The error box had no means of closing it that I could find, so I had to completely close the window and start over. Subsequent attempts had the same results even if I waited longer (I waited up to 35 minutes for a simple 50k file in one case).

Making Characters

I made a handful of characters, of various levels. I tried the Essentials quick build and the custom build.I made a Dark Sun character with ease and played around with everything else. Overall, it was easy and enjoyable, although slow. I see a lot of room for improvements, but I feel this is a good attempt. I was altogether pleased with the building process, but clearly certain things need some tweaking. All in good time, I imagine.

Character Sheets

Oh my… When I saw a certain tweet today saying that the character sheets ‘print’ as large images, and saw the document sizes some people were posting, I cringed.  How did this happen? The Character Builder is just a time waster if printing the character sheets presents any sort of problem. I frequently print-to-pdf so that I can print at the local print shop. The pdf quality suffers from the CB’s terrible character sheets.

Speaking of quality, I can’t say I’m a fan of these character sheet designs. What is with the orientation flips? As someone who has worked in graphic design, these sheet layouts make my fingers itch for my wacom tablet. Both designs waste space terribly. The ‘Character Builder’ sheet’s first page is a good concept, but poor execution, and the secondary pages are just wasted paper. Those aside, the power cards look solid and I am pleased with them. I especially like how the new design will read well even when printed in grayscale. Color is printing is sometimes a luxury for me, so I appreciate the large corner icons.

In summary, I find too much is lacking in the current Character Builder to call it an improvement over the old Character Builder. I do see, however; the new Character Builder could easily persuade me to renew my DDI account if WotC listens to its customers and begins implementing improvements soon.