Building Hopeful Bridges — ‘Innocence and Danger’ by the Neal Morse Band

It’s always a great day when I get to talk about some new music by Neal Morse, unequivocally one of my very favorite people making music right now. In times as troubled as these, Neal Morse has a way of injecting freshness and optimism into every piece of music he puts out, and this particular group — joined by Eric Gillette on guitar, Bill Hubauer on keys, and the ever-constant Randy George and Mike Portnoy on bass and drums, respectively — has yet to disappoint. From the opening seconds of The Call, the opening track of their 2015 debut “The Grand Experiment”, you could tell these guys weren’t messing around, and they continued the streak of progressive excellence with 2016’s “The Similitude of a Dream” and 2019’s “The Great Adventure”, the former of which remains one of the greatest albums I’ve ever listened to. They return to their roots from the heady, conceptual meanderings of their last few albums with their latest, “Innocence and Danger”. How does it all compare? Pretty damn well, if not quite as well as it could.

I’ll start by saying this — Neal Morse is one of the most consistent songwriters out there. If you’ve heard essentially any of his projects of the last decade and a half or so, you pretty much know almost exactly what you’re in for here (with room for a few delightful surprises along the way). His siren-like keyboard swells, spiritually uplifting lyrical motifs, and perfectly-orchestrated themes and reprises are nothing new to anyone who’s been paying attention. Of course, that’s not a bad thing in almost all cases. Morse is an expert songsmith, and where his solo works (like last year’s “Sola Gratia”) sometimes fall short is in trimming the fat, delivering ear-catching hooks, and trying fresh sounds and styles. Thankfully, his bandmates are equal to the task.

The Neal Morse Band seem to be undergoing a rebranding of sorts, stylizing themselves more often as “NMB”, and the shift makes sense considering just how much his collaborators are clearly influencing the process. While Neal’s fingerprints are all over the place, there’s plenty to be said for the contributions of Gillette, Hubauer, and Portnoy to the songwriting. Dream Theater fans will be able to pick out the motifs and lyrics that their former drummer is bringing to the table throughout this new album, especially in the shorter, more sprightly tunes on the first disc. Meanwhile, Bill Hubauer’s keyboard parts inspired by some of the best ’70s prog are prevalent as well, and Eric Gillette’s guitar is equal parts soaring and shredding, channeling David Gilmour in one piece and John Petrucci in another. And that’s not to mention their vocal contributions, which have never been better-utilized and balanced than they are on “Innocence & Danger”.

All that being said, the track list is something of a mixed bag. The opener, Do It All Again, is about as Morse as it gets, bringing to mind some of the hooks from Spock’s Beard’s “Day for Night” album. The song is catchy and uplifting, and a serviceable opener, but it repeats itself a bit and tends to run long. Ultimately the song feels a bit like a weaker rendition of The Call, but with Eric Gillette’s excellent turn on vocals, and a chorus sure to get stuck in your head, it doesn’t overstay its welcome and leads well into Bird on a Wire, one of my absolute favorite tracks on the album. The second track is a much better confluence of the band’s talents, and once again features some brilliant vocal work from Gillette on the choruses. There are some truly tremendous instrumental breaks that ramp up in intensity as the song wears on, and though it’s almost as long as than the first track, it feels like it flies by. Portnoy’s drumming is monstrous here, and the energetic keyboard riff around the verses is a blast.

The next two tracks take a turn away from the proggy ideas of the previous ones, taking some heavy influence from late-’70s/early-’80s pop rockers like Toto and Foreigner and delivering some really tidy radio-friendly tunes. Your Place in the Sun is a jaunty piano-driven shuffle that has Portnoy channeling Jeff Porcaro and features all four vocalists in equal parts. While it tends to repeat itself, it’s a relaxing number and serves well as a companion piece to Another Story to Tell. This one sounds like it could’ve come off of “Toto IV” or perhaps as a B-side to Rev on the Red Line, a clear retro rocker with some typically optimistic vocals from Morse and some chunky guitar riffs. A brisk guitar solo after the bridge breaks up some of the monotony here, and the choruses are certainly fun to belt along to, with some choral swells behind Morse’s gruff lead.

The Way it Had to Be is an odd duck, a Floydesque bit of guitar experimentation replete with synth waves and a subdued rhythm section laying behind Gillette’s smooth vocals. It comes off as a sort of slow-jam version of The Great Despair from the band’s previous album, thanks to the emotive singing and a somewhat similar melody. There’s not too much going on here, and I will say the song perhaps runs a bit long, but it’s a fine transitional track — into … another transitional track. Emergence is a classical guitar showcase that bridges the gap into Not Afraid, Pt. 1. Emergence is a fun enough little tune, reminiscent of Steve Howe’s showoff track Mood for a Day, but likely could’ve been left off the album without affecting much.

Not Afraid, Pt. 1 feels like a sequel to Waterfall, from the band’s debut album, with some four-part vocal harmonies and an acoustic backdrop. It’s a fine enough tune, but certainly feels the most like a Morse solo track compared to the others. That said, it’s catchy enough, and the acoustic work is delightful. Bridge over Troubled Water completes the first disc, a near-unrecognizable cover of the Simon and Garfunkel classic that hearkens back to NMB’s excellent cover of MacArthur Park. They turn the simple tune into a veritable prog epic, with some excellent bass and keyboard bits throughout and the three primary vocalists trading verses back and forth. Another perhaps unnecessary bit of fluff, but certainly a fun listen and a nice capper to the first, somewhat lighter disc.

Disc two is a beast, comprising of just two tracks — the 19-minute Not Afraid, Pt. 2, and the monstrous 31-minute Beyond the Years. There’s so much going on in both of these tracks, but ultimately I have to say they are among the weaker entries in Neal’s extensive backlog of epic-length prog tunes, clearly behind most of Transatlantic’s longer output and a handful of Neal’s solo songs as well. Not Afraid, Pt. 2, aside from having apparently no relation to Pt. 1, does feature some typically excellent instrumental breakdowns, with some incredible shredding from Gillette, but the lyrics are all over the place and seem to be a jumble of vaguely-related concepts. That said, the tune definitely picks up about halfway through and takes some really fun turns before turning back to the familiar. Beyond the Years has some great swells and vocal lines from all involved, but feels particularly disjointed, feeling rather like a handful of smaller songs stapled together rather than a cohesive epic. Most of those smaller bits are perfectly fine listens (barring some rather boring diversions halfway through), and there is some excellent instrumental work from every member of the band — with particular shoutouts to the crazy breakdown three-quarters of the way through — but ultimately it does leave some to be desired and demands a lot from its listener for being as lengthy as it is. Additionally, it manages to end disappointingly twice — once with a fadeout of the band into some orchestrated synths, which then cut off seemingly at random a la Pull Me Under, but in a much less effective way.

Overall, “Innocence and Danger” is a lovely album, and showcases some wonderful work from the members of the Neal Morse Band, who once again prove to be greater than the sum of their parts. While the first disc holds most of the prime musical moments, the second disc has its share as well, and fans of any Morse project will find something to love. While it lacks the tightness of “The Grand Experiment”, and the cohesion and grandiosity of the band’s concept albums, it’s a fine musical showing from some of the finest and most prolific musicians in the genre.

A Tumble of the Dice — Too Many Bones

I’ve made a habit of having a weekly board game night for the better part of a year, running through some campaign/legacy board games with some friends in order to have a chance to try out some of the headier games that wouldn’t fly with my usual board gaming group — namely, my parents. We started with Gloomhaven, and moved on to Clank! Legacy and, most recently, Too Many Bones, a self-proclaimed “Dice Builder RPG” from Chip Theory Games. I must admit, after the first play or two I was a bit disappointed, but mainly because I went into the game expecting something other than what TMB provides. Once I was able to temper my expectations I came to discover that Too Many Bones is, in fact, a rich and well-developed RPG in-a-box that manages to hide a substantial amount of depth behind a handful of mousepads, a bunch of poker chips, and a mountain of dice.

Why Are We Here? Because We’re Here

If you’re expecting a level of progression on par with games like Gloomhaven, or a rich and well-written narrative like the ones you’d find in games like Pandemic Legacy or Clank! Legacy, you’re going to be in for a bit of a rude awakening in Too Many Bones. Apart from its so-called “campaign expansion”, Age of Tyranny, there’s no carry-over from game to game. Too Many Bones provides a short and sweet (for a given definition of “short”) RPG campaign out of the box, and each time you sit down to play you’ll be running through an entire adventure, replete with daily encounters, character advancement in the form of Training Points that let you increase your stats or gain new skills — which all come as new dice unique to your character of choice — and loot, both of which you’ll be gaining from the completion of your random daily events.

Too Many Bones almost feels like an adaptation of a larger work none of us has read, with its encounter cards, tyrant descriptions, and flavor text all hinting at a vast world full of interesting lore that we never actually get to see. We’re introduced to places like Obendar and Daelore, characters like the Gearloc Council, the Mohlnor, or our myriad tyrants, and struggles and tribulations going on, ostensibly, behind the scenes, but we never have any real idea of what we’re doing, who we’re doing it for or to, or why any of this is happening. It makes some of the encounters feel half-baked or just plain strange, and doesn’t supply us any motive beyond “hey, go kill that guy.” That said, the “kill that guy” part is a ton of fun.

At the start of each of your treks, you and your fellow players will largely have the same abilities and stats, and your turn-by-turn gameplay will be nearly identical. However, as you rack up Training Points from your encounters, which take the form of both battles and narrative decision points, your chosen Gearloc (a sort of cross between a goblin and a gnome) will have access to a completely unique set of skill dice that will drastically impact your choices in combat. By the time you’re facing off against your tyrant of choice, everyone will be filling completely different roles in the battle.

The defense-heavy Picket will be fully covered in shields, and will be tanking big hits, sharing his defense with his allies, and using massive Shield Bash attacks to debilitate his foes. The barbarian-expy Tantrum, on the other hand, will be managing his deceptively complex rage dice each time he gives or receives damage in order to pull off massive attacks, disabling enemies, and eating body parts to replenish health (ick). Patches, the healer, will essentially be present to buff and restore his allies while putting some debuffs down on the enemies on the mat. Boomer, the last of the four that come with the base game, deals with an intricate dance of finding components, building bombs, and tossing all manner of different grenades that can damage enemies and allies alike, provide defensive bonuses, or debuff foes.

Roll the Bones

Turn by turn, TMB smartly reduces your action to simply selecting a handful of dice available to you (how many you can choose is limited by your Dexterity stat), picking targets for your various abilities or attacks, and tossing them all, hoping for a good result. Being a dice game, there’s naturally a lot of luck in Too Many Bones, with every die having at least one side with the game’s titular bones upon it. Luckily for those of us with terminal bad dice luck, bones aren’t simply a useless roll, they can be stored in your play mat’s “Backup Plan” area and used later on to great effect — each use of which is naturally unique to each Gearloc. Additionally, most skill dice can simply be replaced to their position on your mat if you don’t like what you roll.

While the mechanism of play is itself as simple as can be, the minutia of adjudicating every die roll and every enemy turn becomes an enormous feat of memorization, planning, and constant referring to rules — which not only come on full front-and-back sheets for each Gearloc, but also on another sheet describing how to unlock chests and what all of the dozens of different enemy abilities do, the massive rulebook, and even on a whole playlist of lengthy YouTube videos which are linked in the rulebook to better explain some of the more headscratch-y events. It was not uncommon for us during our various plays through the game to choose an encounter option based simply on the fact that we didn’t want to sit through a half-hour YouTube video to figure out how to throw darts.

Too Many Bones boasts a wide variety of types of “baddie”, each lumped under one of six categories, only some of which will be present in each adventure based on which of the final boss “tyrants” you chose to deal with. Thankfully, their actions on each turn are much simpler to negotiate than in similar games, and the rules for TMB flat-out state that the players can judge any and all ties that ever come up in whatever way they deem fit. It felt much nicer to simply make decisions like that based on player fiat rather than following a complicated flowchart to figure out who the hell an enemy would be attacking in Gloomhaven.

The initial setup for a game of Too Many Bones is a bit daunting, but eventually you will be able to simplify and build your encounter deck — which always begins with the same three encounters, unfortunately — pretty quickly, shuffling in the appropriate encounters unique to the tyrant you selected, and setting up your Gearloc mats and the battle mat that sits in the center of the table. The battle mat, obviously enough, is where battles take place, and is a simple 4-by-4 grid with basic enough rules for placing units, moving around, and targeting enemies. Each combat, you construct a “Battle Queue,” which cleverly has you face off against increasingly tough and numerous enemies determined by how far along in your adventure you are.

As you progress, you’ll pick up Loot cards and Trove Loot cards, which in my experience tended to be almost completely useless apart from a select few items, which were usually Heavy items that took up most of your slots or were instant-use cards that gave you access to special Consumable dice that went away permanently after use. We almost always opted for whichever encounter option gave us Training Points over loot, especially in instances where we had experienced a party wipe on a prior battle and were in a deadly game of catch-up as we faced off against ever-stronger Battle Queues and were already behind in our progression.

At times, Too Many Bones can feel a bit like an exercise in futility if you make poor decisions early on, and it can swiftly become completely unwinnable without a lucky streak of encounter draws to pick up some free Training Points. Some of the non-combat encounters take the form of simple narrative choices that can have impacts like adding other, special encounter cards to the encounter deck, and some of them are bafflingly weird scenarios like physically flicking dice across the mat or killing rats represented by single health chips.

Cylindrical Adventures

Right out of the box, it’s hard not to be struck by how gorgeous and well-made every single component in Too Many Bones is — and they better be, considering the game’s hefty price tag. The dozens of dice are well-weighted and feel satisfying to roll, and all of them have distinct enough iconography to quickly pinpoint what their different faces are (so you can look them up in one of half a dozen different places). The player mats and battle mats are made from nice neoprene, and the punched-out holes to slot your various dice into are tactile and satisfying, as well. Enemies, Gearlocs, and health are represented by glossy chips, which also feel nice and have incredibly substantial weight. Health being represented by stacks of chips is a bit of an odd design choice, and has the visual effect of each battle being a conflict of giant cylindrical towers.

The general decision behind this seems to be an effort to make the entire game … waterproof. Indeed, even the instruction booklet, reference sheets, and cards are made of thin plastic. I don’t know who, exactly, is playing Too Many Bones in the bathtub, but I guess it’s … nice to have the option? It certainly makes the game feel of a superlative production quality, but one has to wonder if it wouldn’t be worth it to have some cardboard in there in order to get that price tag at least down into the double digits.

As far as the rest of the game’s quality is concerned, the rules are certainly a bit lacking in depth — providing little icons that are shorthand for “go look this up on YouTube, where we actually explain it” at a rate of three or four a page. That certainly makes for a steep learning curve and a disheartening first impression. That said, the rulebook is quick to empower the player to make judgment calls that make sense to them in the case of any ambiguity, and though it feels a bit like cheating the first few times, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s absolutely necessary in order to keep those longer adventures from taking seven hours.

Campaign Manager

The Age of Tyranny expansion, the only one I’ve purchased thus far, serves to add a handful of mechanics to the game that seem like they should’ve been there from the start. Perhaps the most important among these is the addition of several new encounter cards for the first three days, which add some much-needed variety to the beginning of each adventure. Additionally, AOT adds a “campaign” option, which takes the form of you and your party essentially fighting all seven tyrants in a row, carrying over a couple of trained skills, loot cards, and debuffs between each adventure, and … not much else.

Each campaign card provides a tiny bit of lore, along with each epilogue you get to read after defeating a tyrant, but again, much of this is obfuscated and indecipherable, and still feels like the prologue to something much bigger. Perhaps it’s provided in some of the other expansions, or will be in the future, but it’s still a disappointing coda to an already somewhat lackluster attempt at a campaign.

While it is fun to carry over some of your skills and to have a chance at unlocking the use of your defeated tyrant’s unique die, it’s hardly a true campaign and essentially feels identical to just playing the game seven times in a row. As I say, much of this feels like it could have easily been included in the base game, and should have. While the four included characters in the base game are entertaining enough, I’ll certainly be venturing to purchase some of the much more interesting-sounding expansion characters, and eventually I’ll probably also pick up the Undertow standalone expansion since it seems to provide some much-needed clarity to the game’s flimsy lore.

On the whole, Too Many Bones provides a unique experience and manages to cram the feeling of a full-fledged RPG with lots of cool character progression, fun decision points, and tense tactical battles into a relatively short time frame (but still a significant one). That said, the base game can and will get repetitive; there’s only so much fun to be had in its relatively scant encounter deck and the four starting characters, and while the expansions will add some clever variety, it’s a somewhat big ask when you’ve already dropped a buck and a half on the game alone. Still, if you like rolling dice and want the feeling of a fast-paced D&D campaign in three hours or less, it’s hard to go wrong with Too Many Bones.

Steer the Airship Right Across the Stars — Transatlantic’s The Absolute Universe

One of two Portnoy projects from the late ’90s making a triumphant return this year (the other, of course, being Liquid Tension Experiment), Transatlantic comes back from a 7-year hiatus with The Absolute Universe, their fifth album. … Albums. One album and a half? The Absolute Universe: The Breath of Life and The Absolute Universe: Forevermore are the two versions of the latest effort from the prog supergroup composed of dynamic duo Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy, Roine Stolt of Flower Kings fame, and Pete Trewavas of Marillion. The Breath of Life labels itself an “abridged” version, while Forevermore is evidently an “extended” version. This alone is a bit odd to me as both of these labels would seem to imply a secret third version of The Absolute Universe that sits somewhere between The Breath of Life’s 64 minutes and Forevermore’s 90, but not quite. You can think of The Breath of Life as the theatrical version of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, while Forevermore is the director’s cut. While the casual fan is more likely to enjoy the shorter, pithier abridged cut, the superfan may enjoy some of the longer, more abstract prog meanderings of the extended edition. Let’s cut to the chase. Is The Absolute Universe good? Definitely. Which version is better? Well … that’s a bit more complicated.

There’s a Nathan Pyle comic where one of his trademark aliens says to a companion headed off to bed, “imagine pleasant nonsense” as a play on the phrase “sweet dreams.” I have to imagine someone wished the same to Morse and Co. before they wrote and recorded The Absolute Universe, because “pleasant nonsense” is perhaps the best way to describe the album. By the way, “Morse and Co.” is a completely accurate way to describe Transatlantic on this effort, as — much like The Whirlwind before it, to which this very much feels like a sequel — The Absolute Universe is certainly a Morse-helmed ship. While all four band members get to share vocal duty much more evenly than ever before, The Absolute Universe is otherwise very dominated by all the usual Morse trappings, from his vaguely sanctimonious lyrics to his siren-like keyboard swells to the angelic choruses behind some of the album’s emotional highs. If you’re a Neal Morse fan like me, this isn’t a bad thing, but if you’re expecting something more along the lines of the band’s first two efforts or even their 2014 release Kaleidoscope, you’ll be in for a bit of a rude awakening. Many of both versions of the album’s rhythms and riffs wouldn’t sound out of place on The Great Adventure, Sola Gratia, or some Spock’s Beard albums like V or Day for Night.

I’m going to step through both versions of the album separately and point out some of the higher highs (of which there are plenty — these albums are tremendous if somewhat formulaic for anyone who’s been following the Morse/Portnoy musical story of the 21st century), starting with The Breath of Life. Like basically everything Neal Morse does, it opens with a mostly instrumental Overture, masterfully tying the musical themes of the album together. Reaching for the Sky and Higher than the Morning are both highlights of the album for me, the first an up-tempo rocker with all four band members represented on vocals and an anthemic chorus. We get some hints that the album is definitely the product of the lockdowns of 2020, with lyrics like “now we’re all locked away inside”. On that note, Transatlantic’s style of writing lyrics separate of each other lends this album a bit of a confusing quality, making it somewhat difficult to discern what exactly some of these songs are even talking about — if anything. The bridge is classic Morse, sounding like a cut off of The Similitude of a Dream, and Stolt’s solo at the end of the track is a treat. The “belong” theme starts Higher than the Morning, a mostly Morse-sung track that borrows from Vanity Fair and features some great Geddy Lee-esque bass work from Trewavas. The chorus is more catchy choral swells, and leads into a calm instrumental segment before the funky bass-driven The Darkness in the Light. This has some of Stolt’s best vocals on the album; his voice has always been an acquired taste but Transatlantic always does a great job of knowing when to utilize his talents. There are some great synth hooks between the choruses here.

Take Now My Soul is textbook acoustic Morse, injecting some of the strongest religious overtones (which are, interestingly, largely lacking from the extended version). Portnoy gives a wonderful turn on lead vocals on the second verse here. Over the last few years, it seems the drummer has come out of his shell a bit in terms of trying his hand at lead vocals, and it’s always a treat to hear his rough-edged tones on tunes like this. Take Now My Soul has one of the better choruses on the album and another nice, sweeping guitar solo near the end that eventually takes us into Looking for the Light. This has a more sinister-sounding edge, with Portnoy almost entering the realm of harsh vocals (thankfully not all the way, though, lest we repeat the cringe-inducing backing vocals he did on his last few Dream Theater albums). Apart from another vocal showcase from Portnoy and some fun riff work at the start, this is an otherwise straightforward track that leads into the album’s midpoint, Love Made a Way (Prelude), a short acoustic interlude with Morse hinting at the album’s finale.

Owl Howl starts with an exciting, angular instrumental segment that never gets quite as complex as I’d like it to, but it does lead into some really wacky vocals from Stolt before going full prog and finishing with a quieter, bass-heavy segment with sparse synths and flutes before finally swelling into some fun, chaotic noodling with some of Portnoy’s usual bombastic percussive work behind. Solitude is, ostensibly, the emotional heart of the album, though once again it’s rather difficult to discern any sort of through-line or overarching meaning. Trewavas takes vocal duties on this one, and I must admit his nasally voice does very little for me here. It’s a nice, piano-driven song with some good guitar and drum flourishes throughout, but it doesn’t really please the ear until Morse takes over at the end in a section backed by choral swells that may have literally been ripped from The Great Adventure. Belong begins with some sort of strange yodeling/crying sound effects that never cease to bewilder me, before leading into a Yes-style instrumental/vocal jam that, like most other tracks on the abridged version, doesn’t outstay its welcome. Can You Feel It features some more excellent tom work from Portnoy and another hopelessly catchy Morse vocal line. This track, in particular, feels like it was created with concert performance in mind.

Looking for the Light (Reprise) is a Kaleidoscope-esque instrumental jam for the first two minutes or so, with each instrument trading turns in the spotlight before Morse takes over Portnoy’s rough vocal line from the previous appearance of this track in a slightly darker reprisal. The Greatest Story Never Ends is a short-and-sweet almost ’80s-sounding anthem that reminds one at times of Mr. Mister’s Kyrie Eleison before becoming another instrumental jam very reminiscent of the back half of 2014’s Black as the Sky. Love Made a Way, the finale, sounds almost like a piano-driven Flying Colors epic, and is notably the only track on the abridged version that’s longer than 6 minutes. Like any good concept album finale, all of the musical themes get a reprisal here, in a way that’s predictable at times while still hitting the right emotional beats. It would easily fit in on The Whirlwind (featuring quite a few lyrical references) and ends with a two-minute long echoing final chord that seems to echo the classic Dream Theater epic Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence.

Phew. And that’s the “abridged” version. There’s an awful lot to like here, and of the two versions this one definitely feels like a Neal Morse vehicle featuring some other musicians and vocalists. There’s lots of spirituality in the lyrics, lots of his trademark emotional beats and acoustic sections, and choral backings behind some of the stronger musical climaxes. While some of the shorter song lengths are appreciated, as they tend to keep some of the more tired themes from overstaying their welcome as the runtime wears on, it does lend the album a bit of a samey feel and definitely tends to give the impression of missing out on some more, well, progressiveness. While Morse does most of the vocal heavy lifting, Portnoy, Stolt, and Trewavas all get spotlight time on a few tracks, and are mostly a welcome addition to the palette. So, what makes up that extra half hour of music that’s not in The Breath of Life?

While Forevermore is considered an “extended edition”, and in some places that’s precisely what it is, the band has gone to great pains in all of the album’s promotional material to explain that The Breath of Life isn’t simply a shorter version of the album. Forevermore, thus, has quite a lot of similarities to its shorter counterpart, but also a lot of changes and tweaks that amount to more than just longer songs. The Overture adds quite a few new segments and musical themes, but as you’d expect serves the same purpose as it does on the abridged cut. At first blush, Heart Like a Whirlwind almost feels like a retitling of Reaching for the Sky, but the vocal parts actually have entirely different melodies and rhythms. I tend to prefer the abridged version, but I really enjoy the differences between the two. Higher than the Morning, similarly, adds more complex rhythms and switches some of the lead vocals around to different singers, but otherwise maintains essentially the same energy and structure. The Darkness in the Light, I’m fairly certain, is the same on both versions.

Swing High, Swing Low takes the place of Take Now My Soul, removing Portnoy’s lead vocal and some of Morse’s religious overtones and giving us an otherwise very similar track with different lyrics. Bully and Rainbow Sky are completely new additions, not present at all on The Breath of Life. The first is a short, organ-driven song with instrumentals that borrow from Emerson Lake and Palmer and a fast-paced vocal line that Morse has a lot of fun with. Rainbow Sky is an absolute delight, a patently Beatlesque track that Portnoy obviously fought to add here, with some really fun piano lines, and excellent vocals from Morse and Stolt. Looking for the Light is a little bit heavier on the extended version, but is otherwise essentially the same. The World We Used to Know closes the first disc, and opens up with some Keith Moon-style work from Portnoy, some really catchy thrumming bass from Trewavas, and some wonderful guitar and key flourishes over top. The instrumental work for the first couple minutes are a highlight of the entire album, but the song eventually sort of undercuts itself and turns into some saccharine melodies and vocals that are straight out of The Whirlwind and mostly seem to work toward the purpose of closing out the first half of the album in an almost obvious way. That said, it does serve that purpose, and hearkens back a bit to some of the older Transatlantic epics.

The Sun Comes Up Today works as a sort of entr’acte, and works great as a second overture. Trewavas has some good vocals here, though like much of the rest of the album, the lyrics make very little sense. We get a sort of unnecessary Love Made a Way (Prelude) featuring some of Morse’s weakest singing, and clocking in at just a minute and a half it feels like an afterthought to try and introduce the theme of the album’s eventual finale. It’s basically Morse and an acoustic guitar and unfortunately breaks up the flow between the previous track and Owl Howl. This track is basically the same as the abridged version, albeit with a longer, more complex instrumental section at its end, which makes it one of the extended version’s standout tracks. Solitude is essentially identical to its abridged counterpart and as a result is still a low point for the album. Belong, likewise, still opens with that weird sound effect before becoming a slightly-longer-but-otherwise-identical Close to the Edge-style jam. Lonesome Rebel takes the place of the far superior Can You Feel It, a much gentler acoustic track with Stolt singing. The final three tracks, Looking for the Light (Reprise), The Greatest Story Never Ends, and Love Made a Way are again very similar to their counterparts, with the second being a few minutes longer thanks to some great chaotic instrumental jamming. The final track is different insofar as it quotes Heart Like a Whirlwind‘s verses and melodies rather than those of Reaching for the Sky.

Oddly enough, Mike Portnoy’s vocals play a much, much smaller part on Forevermore than on The Breath of Life. By the same token, though Forevermore adds great tracks like The Sun Comes Up Today and Rainbow Sky, it’s missing Can You Feel It and the catchier versions of some of the modified verses and choruses from The Breath of Life. Trying to determine which of these two versions is superior is a bit of a fool’s errand, and ultimately I don’t think it matters particularly much anyway since most who listen to the album will already be Transatlantic fans and will thus be listening to both (or the actual third, “Ultimate” version which promises to combine the two). While I recommend the album as a sequel to The Whirlwind, some of Morse’s best work, and would posit that any fan of the Morse/Portnoy dynamic duo will be exceptionally pleased with this music, fans of Transatlantic’s first two albums or their last may feel this is a bit underwhelming. There are no true “epics” here of the proportion we’ve become accustomed to from this band, and where other albums had more complex musical and lyrical themes this feels like a bit of a step backward into Morse’s comfort zone.

Is more Neal Morse a bad thing? Almost never. Speculation about the process that went into the creation of this album aside, it’s clear to me that The Breath of Life was Neal’s preferred version of The Absolute Universe, where Forevermore was decidedly the result of other members wanting to go back to the original Transatlantic style. The results are mixed, but there’s not really anything bad here, and if you’ve got a spare afternoon (or three), I highly recommend giving both versions a few listens and drawing your own conclusions. With the amount of talent between these four musicians, you’re in for some serious prog goodness regardless of which version you choose. We can only hope it’s not another seven years before we get another album (or two?) from them.

From Labyrinths Below — A Continued Diatribe

Welcome back, folks. Last time I went on a lengthy, somewhat-incoherent tirade about my experience as a DM running Waterdeep – Dragon Heist. Today, I’m taking a look at its (alleged) follow-up, Dungeon of the Mad Mage.

As I noted last time, to say that these two adventures are dissimilar is an understatement of the highest caliber. Apart from a geographic connection that’s tenuous at best, Dragon Heist and Dungeon of the Mad Mage have practically nothing in common, and that’s not a great thing if your group enjoyed Dragon Heist.

In fact, before I start here, it might behoove me to recommend that, if you fall into the category of DMs whose players really loved Dragon Heist, you might consider … not running Dungeon of the Mad Mage at all. There are plenty of other published 5th edition adventures like Curse of Strahd and Descent into Avernus that lend themselves a bit better to roleplay-oriented groups (and I can’t go without mentioning the phenomenal 3rd edition adventure Red Hand of Doom). You could also build a campaign out of the micro-adventures in Ghosts of Saltmarsh and Tales from the Yawning Portal using Waterdeep as a hub, and even the hex-crawly Tomb of Annihilation gives a better balance of combat and exploration with still a decent chunk of roleplay opportunities. That said, if you’re running Dungeon of the Mad Mage (henceforth acronymed as DotMM) and are interested in my thoughts on it, here they are.

It’s not that great.

If you want my considerably lengthier thoughts on it …

Undermountain and Motivations

I’m gonna start by going over a general view on the dungeon followed by my group’s experiences with each individual floor. First things first, as you likely know, DotMM is a “mega-dungeon”. 23 floors of dungeon, to be exact, with each floor likely being bigger than one single dungeon you’d find in a regular published campaign. With that being the case, there is a lot of content to go over here, a truly massive number of rooms. As such, it’s natural that there will be a lot of hits and misses, and to be frank both the writers/designers and any DM who decides to undertake it are to be commended. It’s a behemoth.

That said, there’s a lot more bad than good by my estimation. Each floor has perhaps 3 or 4 rooms where there’s an interesting encounter or puzzle; a lot of what’s left is obscure, weird trivia no one cares about, empty rooms or rooms that might as well be, and puzzles that are either so obtuse as to make no sense to a normal player, or so easy as to make a group feel like they must be missing something. There were a lot of times where I had to almost force my players to leave an area after they spent hours investigating something that simply didn’t matter at all (most notably, this happened in the very first room of the dungeon they reached).

The dungeon has almost no tangible through line, indeed, no plot at all. Basically, your strongest motivation to get down to the bottom, as written, is some vague idea that Halaster Blackcloak is a bad dude, and we gotta get 23 floors deep and punch him in the face. There are “hooks” at the start that range from the incredibly boring to the … slightly less boring. Such quests include “find magic items and sell them for money,” “find the brother of this NPC you may have met in Dragon Heist [spoiler alert: he’s dead], “find this magic chair that weighs 12 tons and figure out how to get it out of there”, and my favorite, “some dwarf guy had a gem and died”. Yeah, your party is going to need much more substantial reason to go down there at all if they’re at all like my group, and (as I maintain) if they’re a group that enjoyed Dragon Heist.

Every floor of the dungeon is very different from the other floors, which is both good and bad. It’s good because it gives you a lot of diversity and stops things from getting too stale as you go from floor to floor, but it also means that you end up with a lot of pointless rooms that exist solely to adhere to whatever weird theme that floor has. If you’re in the swamps of floor 7, for instance, get used to lots of bullywugs and naga, and not much else. If you’re in the mazes of floor 12, hope you like minotaurs. If you’re on … well, one of basically 10 different floors, prepare for drow. Tons of them.

DotMM is absolutely obsessed with drow and duergar, and you’ll find them on over half of the floors as their primary resident. As someone who came to this set of adventures after running Out of the Abyss, I was … less than enthused. There are tons of crazy monsters in D&D’s menagerie, especially in books like Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, and I can think of no better place to exhibit some of the truly weird creatures those books boast than this fabricated dungeon of insanity, but instead we get drow after drow after drow. Your players will likely get bored with the stagnation, as well.

So, what did I change at the macro level? Basically … basically, everything but the maps themselves. With regards to the dungeon itself, the biggest change that resulted in the most positive result had to do with the gates. Each floor has a number of gates that can be used to teleport from floor to floor — with a couple of catches. They all require strange things be done in order to use them, and there’s a level restriction to use them. After the first time my players tried to use one of them, I decided to do away with the second restriction. If they wanted to bounce around between the floors, I figured I might as well let them. A cursory glance revealed that not too many of the rooms they deposited you in were especially deadly, and with proper planning and stealth they could document what they saw and decide on a path forward. My wizard also decided to do some research on the dungeon beforehand, and with a good enough roll I gave him a chord diagram that documented which gates went where, which they were eventually able to decipher (it wasn’t labeled so they weren’t sure for a while what it represented).

You have to make sure you have an appropriate level of trust between you and your players if you attempt this, though. If your players are … well, stupid, they’re likely to just end up as paste, especially considering that some of the early gates jump really, really deep into the dungeon. You could have Jhesiyra Kestellharp (the disembodied force for good that inhabits the dungeons walls and gates) warn them about what they do before they attempt to traverse one, but I do think half the fun for my players was figuring out what gates when to which floors, and using them to get around pretty quickly. Floor 6 turned into a hub for them due to the sheer number of gates it contains. If your players play smartly they can use them to great advantage.

The biggest overall structural change I did to the adventure was providing plenty of content for them to play around with outside the dungeon by continuing many of the plot threads they began tugging on during Dragon Heist. As my players moved up in the ranks of their various factions, people like Laeral Silverhand, Mirt, Vajra Safahr, and Jarlaxle made many appearances, as did a lot of my own NPCs created for their adventures, like shopkeepers Merric Fastfoot and Celniana Queyore, Harper agent Juliana Greenhand, and my druid Gardenia’s terrorist uncle. I encouraged them to venture upward from time to time, and tried to make sure everyone even had a reason to go back down into the dungeon at all.

My warlock Nia ended up being the biggest boon in that endeavor — by the end of Dragon Heist the group had cemented themselves as True Companions (give or take newest member Humphrey), and Nia knowing that she had to investigate … something down in the dungeon was generally enough to convince the rest of them to go along, too. Wizard Wobbles was keen on discovering what the deal was with Nia, and Copper and Gardenia were, essentially, his adopted children at this point. In addition, Copper was tasked by Force Grey with looking into Xanathar (who had retreated into Skullport after their brief encounter with him in his lair), and Humphrey had a link deep in the dungeon as well, in the form of a former companion he’d abandoned down there years earlier. Said companion turned out to be Fargas Rumblefoot, an incidental NPC from Out of the Abyss who appears as basically one paragraph and grew into a bona fide party member over the course of that adventure. I thought it would be fun to drag him back into this one, too. Speaking of NPCs who start as single paragraphs and grow into fully-realized characters …

The Tale of Halleth Garke, The Little Revenant that Could

In the very first floor of the dungeon, there’s a room with a hole in it, and in that hole there’s a revenant named Halleth Garke. He doesn’t know he’s a revenant, but he knows he was betrayed by his former adventuring companions, collectively known as the “Fine Fellows of Daggerford”, who have absconded with his map and holy symbol (he’s a cleric of Waukeen) and ventured further to floor 2. If the party agrees, he’ll tag along and try to get revenge on them, rewarding the party with the map to floor 3 (which is wildly inaccurate) before finally going on to the afterlife.

That’s the sum total of his character. In my game, he became … considerably more. As I always say, every party needs a cleric, and if you don’t have a cleric one will be provided to you by the state. Halleth seemed to me to have all the makings of a great ally for the party, with a few tweaks. I knew that Nia’s player enjoyed a good graph-paper romance in her D&D, and with her background as a noble and high Charisma score courtesy of being, you know, a warlock, I decided that Halleth would easily become attached to her, and through the following days as they tracked down and finally disposed of his former companions, he realized that there was something else keeping him “alive”, namely Nia and by extension her mission, though he had also become close to Wobbles through their journey. I made up some bullshit ritual they could use to un-revenant him via Nia’s patron (secretly Halaster, if you’ll recall) and firmly plant him as a part of her ultimate goal.

I had, a while before, decided that Nia’s goal would involve collecting 7 “apprentices,” as Halaster had before her, and that once all 8 of them were assembled in Halaster’s lair, they could perform some sort of ritual to “untie the Knot” in the Weave. I didn’t know anything other than that, other than, of course, the rest of the party would make up 4 out of the 7 apprentices. With Halleth, I had a 5th. Who were the other 2? No. Damn. Idea.

Halleth grew into a party favorite, and I enjoyed running him and his awkward flirtations with Nia that eventually (of course) wore her down. I decided his background needed some embellishment, and ultimately landed on him not only being from Daggerford, but actually nobility there (or whatever passed for it in a place as small as Daggerford). Then, I could have some movement from Gardenia’s terrorist family target Daggerford, and thus target Halleth, and really bring some of the threads together. It worked out pretty well as an extra-dungeon excursion for them to take when Halleth was kidnapped by the druid terrorists and Daggerford briefly taken over by their sect.

I know a lot of people frown upon the “DMPC”, and I see those arguments as incredibly valid. I go back and forth on the concept, myself, but I think, ultimately, in a game like DotMM, I really needed to have Halleth there just to prevent myself from going insane. I’m a big believer in the idea that you should try to have fun as a DM, too, because that fun is going to ripple out among your party. There are exceptions to this — I’ve had plenty of DMs who prioritize their fun at the expense of their party (or demand payment, but that’s a long post for a different day (which will never come)). However, I know my style well enough to know that I need to have at least one voice in the mix to be a creative outlet for me, a way to get them unstuck in certain situations where they think there’s a puzzle and there isn’t, or to provide some much-needed levity when there’s a lull. These lulls are bound to happen with frequency in DotMM — it’s a slog. So, Halleth the DMPC cleric healbot was born, and I have no regrets. I don’t think my party does, either. I imagine that, without Halleth in the party, the adventure could’ve taken twice as long. Sometimes you need NPCs around to clear the fog, and the fact is that there simply aren’t very many of them in DotMM, especially in comparison to what came before. Not only that, our little NPC romance plot was really one of the only instigators of roleplay that I was able to provide in many of the dungeon’s emptier floors. My players are always good about picking up the ball and carrying it but the fact is a lot of the floors in the dungeon had no such balls. … Yeah, I should’ve phrased that differently.

Floor by Floor

All right, at this point I’m going to run through my copy of the book and see what pops out to me as something worth remembering. I don’t know if this section is going to be very useful, but if I have any advice based on our experience, I’ll share it, along with any stories I remember. It’s worth noting that my players didn’t necessarily go through these floors in order — they used the gates to jump ahead and then retrace backwards quite a few times, especially in the home stretch.

Floor 1, the “Dungeon Level”, took the longest, as I recall. The first room alone, where there’s basically water, an old statue, and nothing else, took them an hour in itself. I was about ready to get the noose. There isn’t much that’s exciting here, kind of the usual dungeon fare. You’ve got a gelatinous cube near the bottom, which I don’t think they ever even found, our first gate to another floor, and a bunch of Xanathar Guild people that they didn’t really bother with. For the first two floors, since they did some research on the dungeon before entering, I gave them some distorted maps with stuff written on them that was vaguely indicative of what was on the floors. The manticore fight was pretty dull, and I’m pretty sure the only real thing of note from floor 1 was Halleth.

Floor 2 has the goblin bazaar and all of Halleth’s former traveling companions. I had some fun with the refrigerator (they saw “fridge” and “spiders” beneath it on the map I gave them, so they assumed there were “fridge spiders” somewhere in the dungeon, which was hilarious) and the walking ballistae, and the fight in the brewery with the beholder zombie was neat. Tracking down all of Halleth’s companions was amusing, and the best part of the floor was definitely the Circlet of Human Perfection in the goblin bazaar, currently on the head of the goblins’ leader. It’s an awesome item and gave Copper a lot of enchantment ideas. I don’t think they ever found the gibbering mouthers, but they did find that weird drow guy who has a map of the floor in his room. I don’t really know what that guy’s deal is. The “Kalabash” area is fun but kind of pointless.

Floor 3 was the last place where they spent a long while. They knew coming in that Xanathar was nearby, and they dispatched basically all the drow pretty quickly. The hags were a fun little encounter since they didn’t really feel like attacking them, resulting in some humorous roleplay, and Azrok’s Hold was a delight, especially Kinrob the Oni and the fact that all the characters have to fill out ID cards when they first show up. They knew Azrok was a jerk, but they couldn’t really do anything, and were thoroughly creeped out by Preeta Kreepa, who was transmuted into an abomination by Arcturia. Skullport was moderately interesting, with them meeting a Harper contact and buying some pets, learning about some duergar who may have stolen from Azrok, and then facing off against Xanathar.

The fight against Xanathar was the most memorable session, I think — it was the only one our group had as an in-person session (otherwise we played over Fantasy Grounds), and I built a ton of plaster terrain using molds from Hirst Arts (highly recommend their stuff). I even painted a mini! The fight was intense; Wobbles got disintegrated and Halleth got dead, and they got some great loot. Afterwards, Wobbles was reincarnated using Gardenia’s druid grove (from Matt Colville’s incredibly hit-or-miss Strongholds and Followers) and turned into a halfling. Not bad. Halleth got better, as well. From this point, the Blackstaff gave Copper a promotion and let him send some Gray Hands operatives down to floor 1 to create a base of operations before sending him further down to deal with Halaster. This is also when I finally convinced them not to be completionists about the dungeon so we could finish before we all were drinking Moon Juice with president Ariana Grande. As such, they began to jump around and only spent time looking into the things that they actually thought were interesting.

I don’t have anything to say about floor 4 because they completely skipped it! As I recall, the party jumped down from floor 3 to floor 6, which is kind of a “hub” of gates given that it connects to a whopping 11 other floors. As such, when they got to floor 6 and were thoroughly underwhelmed by it, they dug around through a few more floors and eventually decided to climb back up to floor 5. They had actually already looted the lair of Tearulai — the dragon with a sword embedded in his brain that makes him good — by sneaking in through another gate. They didn’t realize for a while that that was actually what they’d done, so it was kind of fun for them to learn later on that they’d accidentally stolen a bunch of stuff from him. Wyllow is a somewhat interesting character, on whom they’d also already spied thanks to a different gate bringing them into her attic, but unfortunately the book doesn’t really give you a lot to go off of for her. She’s got a sufficiently tragic backstory, but there’s no hint as to what you’re actually supposed to have her … do. So they talked to her, got sad, and then left and never bothered to deal with her again.

As mentioned, floor 6 is kind of stupid. It’s nice in that it serves as a giant train station for gates, but if you’re running the book as it’s written you’re not going to be able to use many of them. It’s kind of neat because it’s sort of a “recently uncovered” floor dug into by umber hulks, which are basically the only combat encounters you can hope to find here, so floors 5 and 7 actually connect to each other, as well. There’s some interesting stuff here involving Clan Ironeye and the history of the dwarven king buried here, but a lot of it is shit you can’t hope to ever do anything with unless you think to cast Legend Lore, which … who ever prepares that spell? For being as massive as it is there’s shockingly little going on here. Floor 6 also has what’s probably the dumbest thing in the entire book, which is the revelation of a magic word — namely, “xunderbrok.” After some convoluted puzzle-solving, the book rewards them with a word that, if they say it in certain rooms, reveals a secret. Of course, the rooms where this actually works are insanely few in number (I think there are maybe four places, total), and much, much deeper than floor 6. Your players are going to forget. You’re going to forget. And it doesn’t matter at all. As I recall, my party went through every gate, and then decided to stick around on floor 13. They did, eventually, make their way back to the floors in between.

I can’t say I remember exactly when in their excursion they touched on floor 7, but I really enjoyed it. The concept of Maddgoth’s shrunken castle doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, and is pretty clearly a hasty adaptation of an older, famous module, but it’s fun nonetheless. The area surrounding the castle doesn’t have much going on, but the idea of the players approaching the castle and getting shrunk down to a tiny size where Otto the faerie dragon can actually be a threat is great. I also really love the absurd magic shit here, like the buttons that electrocute the whole castle, the lost homunculus wandering around aimlessly, the room with an oven that lets you make golems, and the helmet that gives you immunity to all damage while inside the castle. All really fun stuff but ultimately rather pointless. There isn’t much to do here other than harass Otto and pick up the ship in a bottle (which ended up being extremely useful later on), a fun magic item that turns into a full-sized longship. They came back through here another time and I decided to have Maddgoth (basically a garden-variety lich) show up. He killed Wobbles, since they definitely weren’t expecting to actually find him here when they traipsed back on one of their journeys back to the surface.

Floor 8 is pretty boring unless you love bullywugs, and I’m pretty sure we spent less than a session here. It’s just super underwhelming for a level 10 party, which is what they’re expected to be. The temple is moderately interesting but ultimately lacking in anything worthwhile. There are nagas here, which can pose something of a challenge, but my players never had a reason to go very far south in this floor, especially once they found the gate to floor 10. Floor 9 is actually very cool. My group’s druid Gardenia had them ‘special eyes’ (high wis, proficiency in perception, and the Observant feat) so they came out of the staircase and immediately found the secret door, causing them to sort of circumvent the primary entrances. The trapped demon in the southwestern rooms was a treat for them to contend with, and they ended up letting him free. They slaughtered a few of the students before eventually finding the professors, and also shoved a petrified dragonborn in their bag of holding, leading to the worst NPC in the entire godforsaken game. They found him in their bag maybe ten sessions later and decided to use a greater restoration to bring him back to life, and of course the book gave me exactly nothing to go off of regarding who the hell this character is supposed to be. And thus was born Bartholomew Rafghanistan, a dragonborn sorcerer who was essentially just an expy of Tiberius Stormwind (but significantly less creepy) who screwed off after precisely five seconds.

Nester the necromancer ended up being a hilariously awesome fight, with the party split and Wobbles and Nia being forced to contend with him alone (it didn’t go well). The rambling professor orb was a lot of fun, too (one of those pops up again in Rime of the Frostmaiden), and even though I accidentally let it slip that the headmaster was a yugoloth pretending to be Halaster when they conversed with another professor, it was still a pretty fun romp through the segments of this level that they chose to deal with … and then there are the statues. At a few points on this floor there are sets of statues of Halaster that say random things when you walk between them. All of them are stupid. All of them are harmless. Except for one. If you roll an 8, the statues yell “Die!” and cast power word kill. It’s kind of an insane thing to even think about putting here. And I knew as soon as I read it that someone would die here. It ended up being Halleth, contributing to our party’s meme about his life being a colossal disaster (I think at last count he died 7 times, including one time when he was killed by his own mother (which we’ll get to)). Luckily, it ended up being a great narrative moment for his burgeoning romance with Nia when the time came to bring him back to life (thanks be to Matt Mercer’s resurrection rules, highly recommended).

Floor 10 was an odd one, since they’d come through here in different places several times thanks to the numerous gates that spit you out here. The drow intercom that constantly drones platitudes and orders is a nice touch, and when they came down for the last time they finally got a taste of their own medicine when a veritable army of drow came bearing down on them after they thought they’d escaped safely through a gate right inside the throne room. They fought basically the entire population of the floor in one room, and then had to contend with Muiral, the floor’s namesake. This was where I decided to start enacting my plan to have them face off against Halaster’s apprentices, only a few of which are actually present in the book. Muiral was a worthy opponent, using walls of force to lock down single targets and wail on them. It was a tough fight and well-memorable. Then there was the room with a statue that made Wobbles go nuts and try to kill everyone, which was also a great time. that room is famous in our group for being the one where everyone learned that gaseous form is kind of a shitty spell. This floor is probably among the best-designed in the book, despite the fact that it has the same problem as the others: way too many goddamn drow.

Level 11 is rather pointless. It’s basically just troglodytes and drow, and an admittedly cool encounter with a behir. This was the floor they went as their first foray into the dungeon with shopkeep Merric Fastfoot, who officially joined the group after they did him a big favor up above. Other than the behir, I remember precisely nothing of interest about this floor. Level 12 is the Maze Level — a bit of a misnomer because it’s really less of a maze and more of a handful of tunnels full of minotaurs (a huge step down from the Labyrinth of Out of the Abyss, if you ask me) and, of course, drow. This was where Fargas, or as he was known to Humphrey, “Silk” (a codename he chose based on being stuck in a bunch of spiderwebs in the Underdark when the old party discovered him) was wandering around after having gone insane. The gang had seen him a couple of times after gate-hopping and just knew him as “that guy eating bugs”, which Humphrey never realized was Silk because … why would he? They came to this floor rather late in the game and Wobbles and Copper managed to get themselves charmed by a pair of incubi, which led to a pretty awesome fight by the rest of the party to go and get them back from the otherwise rather dull drow fortress taking up the northern chunk of the map.

Level 13 is one of my favorites, and begins a string of great levels of the dungeon. Not only is it home to the Lava Child, the most existentially horrifying image produced by any D&D sourcebook ever, it’s got a big-ass worm, some hobgoblins, and Zox Clammersham (and his pet badger!). Zox is a rarity in the dungeon, especially this deep, as a person who’s actually rather rational. They popped up in his house via the gate in his parlor the first few times they came to the floor, and indeed the first time they arrived they were rather underleveled for such a deep floor. They stuck around nonetheless, and befriended Zox (who is a goddamn archmage). Taking out the Bore Worm was fun, and though they never fought Shockerstomper in here, he did come back later on … Additionally, the hobgoblins led by Yargoth from floor 14 were fed up with their leader’s weirdness brought on by cavorting with a flumph, so the gang was able to convince them to just make their way up to floor 3 and take up residence in the house that used to be Azrok’s. Neat. Floor 14 is pretty cool, too, and let me make great use of our good friend Vincent Trench (you know, the rakshasa?). By this point, the party knew he was a rakshasa and had been tasked by the city to get rid of him. He had asked them to find an old friend of his in the dungeon named Alussiarr, the rakshasa that Arcturia has locked up in area 39. I thought that might be a good way to give that guy something to do because the book doesn’t explain a single thing about him or why he’s there, really. It worked, and they stayed away from the creepy bone room with a gate in it until later on. Arcturia was a brutal fight (I decided to bring her to floor 14 instead of all the way at the end of the dungeon where she’s supposed to be), and the whole Mecha-Halaster thing is … interesting, I guess? More importantly, there’s a completely inexplicable animated stove. For some reason. Unfortunately, they never used the giant magic thing that disintegrates everything on the floor because, quite frankly, the various keys you need to use to unlock it are way too hard to find. I had Zox mention something about them to try and let them know it existed because otherwise they would’ve totally ignored the whole thing. I mean, they did anyway.

Level 15, alas, was another floor my players skipped, despite how stoked I was for the obstacle course. Ah, well. Don’t worry, Netherskull came back later in a big way. Level 16 is kinda nuts. At first glance it seems pretty basic — a big set of rooms full of gith with weird holes and some constructs. And then you realize that the holes are actually portals to space, and the other half of the floor is a giant asteroid with a dragon living on it. Awesome. At least, conceptually. Unfortunately there’s not much to do here other than look at the cool stuff. There’s not much incentive to fight anything here and the stairs down to floor 17 are, like, right there. Level 17 is another wacky floor. It’s got a gigantic god damn neothelid, some of the scorpion bots from floor 13 but with brains in glass cases, doors that are basically impossible to open, a whole heap of mind flayers at war with the gith from the floor above, and … oh yeah, the Matrix. It was my devout hope that the mind flayers would knock out the party when they confronted them and they would wake up in Alterdeep, the simulated version of Waterdeep run by the illithid, but it never got to happen. Instead, that’s where the gang found Silk and promptly cured his insanity. Shortly thereafter he joined the gang full-time, bringing the 7th member of Nia’s inner circle. 15-17 is honestly the highlight of the whole dungeon.

Floor 18, the Vanrakdoom. There’s a whole bunch of backstory about sad shadow dragons and their special traveling friend who have a serious case of the Not-Gays, and then a whole bunch of vampires. The party came down here way too early the first time, killed some cultists, and then got spooked. I basically had to spoonfeed them the whole story about how to purify the shadow dragon (via some helpful lore dumped on them by Vincent Trench when they blackmailed him into scouting ahead for them … it’s a long story) because otherwise it wasn’t ever going to happen. Then I buffed the vampires considerably and dropped a Nightwalker in as another of Halaster’s apprentices. Let me tell you, those Nightwalkers don’t mess around. It was an amazingly tense fight, with everyone getting charmed and nearly dying to the Nightwalker’s crazy abilities. The whole Shadowfell-adjacent thing this floor has going on is pretty cool but ultimately doesn’t really make a difference. There’s also the random civilian who’s here, who I really didn’t know what to do with. Floor 19 has little going for it, in my book. The genie fight is kind of cool, I guess (though my party totally ignored it and went straight for the spelljammer ship). What’s cooler is the bigass Nautiloid shipwreck with, essentially, Davy Jones aboard. I had him not be instantly hostile, because why would he be, and offer to give them the ship if they could find its helm and help him get it out of where it was stuck. Neat. They spent half a session here and dipped for level 20.

Level 20 is stupid. There’s a lich here, who’s probably a pushover for the level they’re supposed to be, and that’s basically it. It was the first place they sort of interacted with Halaster, through the big chunk of runestone floating in the middle of the cave, and you’ve got to love the giant jigsaw puzzle that blows you up, the magic-8-ball wall that only answers vaguely, and the statue that dispenses moldy cheese and candied plums, but really there isn’t a lot to do here. The lich, Ezzat, is obsessed with destroying Halaster, so he’s probably not going to try and wreck the party if he knows what they’re doing. I had him drop some info about how Halaster’s lair worked and then be completely gone the next time they came down. I guess there’s also a mummy lord in here that’s pretty much impossible to come across, and a room called Toothy Maw that I have to assume is a dig at Matt Mercer. Level 21 has, hooray, more duergar, along with an insane planetar that gives you a stupid social encounter where he’ll basically just fight you unless the players do a very specific thing they have almost no chance of knowing about. So that’s cool. The duergar is kind of a neat tie-in to Gracklstugh if your players have done Out of the Abyss, and he’s also married to a dragon? Which is neat? Not much worth doing here other than finding the dead cleric and figuring out why the planetar is here before you go kill him.

I thought level 22 was going to be a lot cooler than it was, but essentially it just became a sneak-fest down to the bottom where the gate to Halaster’s floor is. The big black obelisk that’s here is a nice tie-in to the other adventures, which all have them as well (pretty much only bother with it if you’re going to run Rime of the Frostmaiden, though), and a pretty dull fight with a Death Knight. Meh. The aberration stuff is kind of neat but really doesn’t actually impact the floor much. I increased the rarity requirement on the gate to Halaster’s lair, because I don’t think by this level giving up an uncommon magic item is much of an issue. Level 23, the final level, is admittedly rather awesome. The tension is ramped up significantly just by virtue of it being the final level, and there are some really interesting traps and areas to explore before you figure out how to proceed. I planted Trobriand here as a sort of traitor to Halaster who fought them because he knew their actions were unwittingly helping Halaster achieve his goals. They mortally wounded him before he explained that by removing all of Halaster’s apprentices, they were actually strengthening Halaster’s bond to the Weave (all a bunch of made-up mumbo jumbo on my part). And man, is Trobriand a cool villain. So long as you don’t just find him as a comatose old man possessing a suit of armor. The tower has some goofy little traps and areas that befit Halaster, and the floor has random gates to, like, everywhere, that you can use as easy ties in to further campaigns. The gnome in the mirror is tragic, and the naked statues of Halaster riding a donkey are the best.

Loose Ends to be Tied

In completing my version of Dragon Heist, the group had a lot of unfinished baggage with each of the villains left over from that campaign. Jarlaxle became a close ally of the group, and they called on him for a lot of favors which he made them swear they would one day repay — and they did. On one of many visits to Luskan to restock on resurrection diamonds, they were confronted by Jarlaxle saying the time had come for him to finally amass his allies and return to Menzobarrenzan to kill his sister, the Matron Mother Quenthel Baenre. I decided this would be a fun little jaunt for my two players who’d been in Out of the Abyss, and provide me with some interesting things to do with Jarlaxle and the drow in the future games I would run. They went to Araj, the tower of Vizeran DeVir (from OotA, natch), and snuck their way into Menzo to confront Quenthel head-on. It was an awesome fight, made even better when they discovered that Vincent Trench, whom they’d sent there to spy on her after arranging for the city to pardon his crimes, was in the room to join the fray. Jarlaxle poetically got the killing blow, and the party was handsomely rewarded for their efforts.

Manshoon was a notable thorn in the party’s side for the entire run. I decided that he was Halaster’s seventh apprentice, and put him in possession of the Hand of Vecna, along with the Tome of the Stilled Tongue. For a time, he worked with Gardenia’s terrorist uncle Nyl and set them on some heinous deeds (including indoctrinating Halleth’s mother and briefly taking over Daggerford) before tricking the party into acquiring the Tome. Halaster’s plan all along was to possess all the Vecna artifacts, but he didn’t want to cede his control to the God of Evil Secrets quite yet. Manshoon was a pawn without realizing it, but he was able to antagonize the gang several times on the surface. One notable mission had them teaming up with Davil Starsong and Ziraj the Hunter, the only remaining members of the Doom Raiders, to find and kill many of the bio-terrorists working for Nyl, and take down one of many of Manshoon’s simulacra. Some stay there are still some out there …

The Cassalanters were a rather depressing case. I decided that Vincent used to work for their family as a sort of fiendish liaison, and that he had orchestrated the eventual downfall of Nia’s noble family at their behest. Not only did this provide some nice tension between him and the party, it also gave me something to do with the Cassalanters, in whom the party was never particularly interested in. They became aware of their dealings with Asmodeus during Dragon Heist, and at a few points idly wondered what had become of their children. They scryed on them and discovered they’d fled to an island far in the ocean and stuck their children in a Mirror of Life Trapping. Pitying them somewhat, the group reached out and found that Victorio had been journeying trying to find a way to break their pact with Asmodeus, while Ammalia waited for the legions of devils to swamp their island. The party cajoled Jarlaxle into bringing them with, and I came up with this group of aging former privateers who had hired Jarlaxle’s services to bring them somewhere where they could fight a monster. Those guys were some neat NPCs but the party didn’t really have time for them so they were effectively written out. Shit happens.

Rather amusingly the party got most of the way to the island where the Cassalanters were to be beset upon by armies of fiends before realizing that they didn’t really care what happened to them. As such, they got about 3/4 of the way there and then turned the ship around and went back home. So those kids are super dead.

The last major excursion was a favorite of mine, where the gang realized that in order to destroy Halaster, empowered as he was by Vecna, they would (of course) need the Sword of Kas. So they called upon basically every ally they’d made in the past years (plus Boogaloo, the slaad friend they made in Out of the Abyss because of reasons) and set sail to far, far away (which they were able to navigate thanks to the one and only successful Divine Intervention Halleth was able to get). I threw a ton of crazy encounters at them that I pulled out of my ass, like a giant rock they could inscribe a vow on to get a feat (which two players did, one choosing Sentinel and the other choosing … Grappler …) massive, insane maelstroms, inversions of gravity, and even passing through the lair of Scylla and Charybdis. I decided that, the farther one went into uncharted waters, the more resistant the world became to further travel. I think the weirdness and tension worked to great effect, and eventually they came upon the massive Zaratan that housed the Sword. The gang split into separate groups to effectively navigate the various threats they faced, and Humphrey had an intense duel with the Aspect of Kas before besting it and receiving the nasty weapon. Hastily, they teleported back before the ship got eaten by an island (with a minor mishap involving accidentally teleporting Merric’s dragon wife into Waterdeep, which has a magically-enforced strict no-dragons-allowed policy).

I managed to wrap up basically all of the extraneous plot threads the group had on the surface before they delved into the final levels of the dungeon to eventually face Halaster. A particularly memorable session had Copper’s burgeoning love interest Celniana captured by a handful of bandits. Preparing for a nasty fight, the party was somewhat shocked to discover that, no, these were just regular bandits who stood absolutely no chance against our legendary heroes. It’s kind of fun once in a while to remind your party of just how strong they are compared to an ordinary Joe Schmoe, and it was a fitting tribute to the countless thugs they faced in their early days in Dragon Heist. Before they went down the final time there was a big meeting of the various movers and shakers of Waterdeep to discuss everything (one of my favorite sessions) where Manshoon was secretly acting as one of the Masked Lords to propose bringing the Walking Statues out of the ethereal plane (so Halaster could use them, you see). It went off without a hitch.

Duel with the Devil Living in your Mind

I’m going to be blunt — as written, Halaster sucks. He’s a total pushover for a 20th level party (which mine wasn’t). I buffed the shit out of him. He was able to, as a lair effect, summon a creature from a random floor each round — this was how they finally did battle with Netherskull and Shockerstomper — he summoned Manshoon partway through to finally kill him and retrieve the Hand of Vecna, and once they put him down and managed to perform the rather involved ritual I made up, he managed to trick them into letting him free to activate the gate back up to the surface. In so doing, he revealed to Nia that he’d been her patron all along (thanks to a carefully-placed journal documenting the other half of the session recaps I’d been writing on our Discord server) and awoke the Walking Statues of Waterdeep.

I had an epic second half of the boss battle planned, but of course Wobbles wasn’t having any of it and used his carefully-preserved 9th level spell slot to Wish Halaster into the dirt. So that was that. And it was awesome. Copper destroyed the Tome of the Stilled Tongue he’d been holding onto, the other Vecna artifacts were similarly dealt with as best as they could be, and everything tied up in a neat little bow with a handful of marriages and the usual end-of-campaign trappings.

If you’ve read the DotMM campaign book you’ve probably realized that this ain’t it, chief. And it’s super not. I changed practically everything to fit the kind of game I wanted to run and my players wanted to play. Does that mean DotMM is a bad campaign book?

Yes. Look, if you want a megadungeon full of drow and duergar and a bunch of samey rooms with boring puzzles and the occasionally accidentally interesting NPC, then sure. But to be quite honest, Dungeon of the Mad Mage is really just a bigger, worse version of Tomb of Annihilation or Tales from the Yawning Portal. It’s not fun unless you put in stupid amounts of work, or if your party is that kind of party who probably decided to do this because they finished Gloomhaven. If that’s your party, great! If that’s not your party, you can either try to enact something like the myriad changes I made to make this enjoyable, or … just … just run a different adventure. If you like one of the floors, steal it and use it as a standalone dungeon. It’ll work just fine. But 23 dungeons of varying quality do not an adventure make.

If you’ve made it to the end of this 8,000 word tirade and still have any questions about my experience with Dungeon of the Mad Mage, please feel free to ask! I love talking about my D&D games to anyone who will listen, and though the book itself is rather weak, I still had a blast with this campaign and I think (hope) my players did, too. I learned a lot from the two years I spent with Waterdeep, and though I’m not in a hurry to get back, I appreciate this one for what it is. Dragon Heist is, by the way, definitely worth the buy. Despite my misgivings about DotMM, its predecessor is one of the finest adventures WotC has published for fifth edition.

All right, my hands hurt. Enough about this. Maybe in another couple years I’ll have something to say about Rime of the Frostmaiden.

Top 10 Games of 2020

Bit later than usual with this one. By my tabulation this is the ninth one of these posts I’ve done across my various blogs (good luck finding 2012 – 2014). I always enjoy putting these together; I’m not sure anyone else really gives a damn, but I find the process cathartic and it’s always good to look back on the year — especially one as gloomy as this one — and remember all the fun. That said, let’s get into it with a batch of honorable mentions.

Honorable Mention: Cyberpunk 2077

Yeah, this one’s not getting placement in the top ten. That may come as a shock to a handful of you, but I’m going to have to blunt here and say that Cyberpunk isn’t really anything especially fantastic. Cyberpunk feels a bit like 10 incomplete, yet serviceable, games stapled together, and none of those disparate parts ever really feel like they’re coming together into a cohesive whole. The graphics are fine but honestly never stood out to me the way they seemed to for many, the music did nothing for me, the gunplay was atrocious, the skill trees and upgrades were uninspired, and ultimately Cyberpunk doesn’t really do anything that the Fallout and Deus Ex series haven’t done before. There’s a lot to like about its vibrant and dense world, and Keanu Reeves is perfectly able as one of our leading men, but when it gets down to it Cyberpunk didn’t even spring to mind when it came time to compile this list. [Note: I’m aware the game is also horrendously riddled with bugs and likely should’ve been put out about six months later than it was, but to be honest the bugs were some of the most enjoyable parts of the game for me.]

Honorable Mention: Spiritfarer

Spiritfarer is a delightful little town-building and relationship-managing game that’s relaxing and charming, full of tasks and chores to complete, and features a sleazy raccoon as a shop owner. I’m pretty sure that’s the only game from 2020 you can say that about. Pretty … pretty sure. Spiritfarer is veritably quaint by the standards of some of the other standouts of 2020, but it offers a wonderful story about loss and grief in a way that previously only hideously boring games have tried to tackle, and manages to do so better than any of them. On top of that framework of guiding souls to the afterlife, you have a nice resource-gathering and town-management puzzle riddled with fetch quests and favors for your passengers that’s reminiscent of a sort of bizzaro-world version of Don’t Starve, where — were they films — instead of being directed by Tim Burton it’s directed by Wes Anderson. A refreshing light in the dark, but when all is said and done, not a standout.

Honorable Mention: Hyrule Warriors – Age of Calamity

The first Hyrule Warriors was an enjoyable hack-‘n’-slash romp through some familiar Hylian locales with a ludicrous amount of mooks to slaughter and a thin story that sort of, kind of, resembled something that might come from a Zelda game. Age of Calamity improves on all fronts, delivering an effective love letter to Breath of the Wild that manages to expand on its story without stepping on its legacy, and providing an amusing-at-worst, exhilarating-at-best combat experience with surprising depth and complexity. Most notably, where the first suffered for its shoddy co-op and samey character design, AoC (I don’t think I’m going to continue using that acronym) knocks both of these out of the park, providing an insanely large roster of playable characters, each different enough not to get them confused (most of the time), and mostly (mostly) manages to run cooperative play without too many hiccups. That said, it’s effectively still more of the same, and you can basically mash the X button to win every level, but you can also not do that, which is where the fun comes.

Honorable Mention: Microsoft Flight Simulator

This one’s going in the honorable mentions because I’m not entirely convinced it’s actually a game. Whether it is or not, it’s an impressive technical achievement and a downright masterpiece in its genre. Many days have gone by where I’ll set up an autopilot flight across some foreign country and just leave it up while I work on my other monitors — it’s a beautiful and relaxing diversion. Gorgeous models, real-time weather, and amazing AI-generated landscape and structures are only the tip of the iceberg here; from what I understand it’s incredibly detailed and has in-flight software and physics that are true to real life. I can’t necessarily speak to that, because I don’t know a damn thing about it, but what I do know is planes are cool and Microsoft Flight Sim is cool.

Those out of the way, let’s get into the top 10 …

10. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

Valhalla is the most refined, polished, and fun Assassin’s Creed game since Black Flag. Following the reinvention of the series with Origins and Odyssey, Valhalla has trimmed some of the fat off the design, added some creative customization and skill tree elements to let players have more say in how they play the game, and attempted to bring story more to the forefront — with some success. Valhalla’s world is lush and gorgeous, and mercifully a bit smaller than its massive predecessors, though it still feels a good bit larger than it needed to be. The landscape is peppered with things to accomplish, with particular highlights being the various small sidequests that take mere minutes to complete but reward you with some wonderful vignettes of life in the 9th century. The longship feels a bit like an afterthought, but running on autopilot it’s a great way to get from points A to B and have a cinematic view of the landscape while hearing some fun Viking stories and songs that are never quite as great as the sea shanties of Black Flag, but entertaining nonetheless. Once again Ubisofit evidently felt the need to anchor the game to the current modern-day plot of the series, whatever it may be, but does so even less than prior installments. I hope someday soon they scrap this aspect of the series entirely, as I’m fairly certain no one is playing these games itching to find out what happens next to Shaun and … I want to say Lily? Is there a Rebecca in there? I don’t know. The story of our Viking conqueror Eivor is far more engrossing, and at times even manages to be pretty effective. Suffice to say that, while Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is basically just another Assassin’s Creed game, it’s the best one we’ve gotten in the better part of a decade and hopefully signals promising returns in the future.

9. Fall Guys Ultimate Knockout

While it seems like everyone forgot about Fall Guys in favor of a game that came out almost 3 years ago, it may well be the best Battle Royale game on the market right now, or at least the only one I have a shot at winning (which, to me, is the same thing). Fall Guys is colorful, absurd, and chaotic, and is the best BR for a quick pick-up game that won’t leave you with a sour taste in your mouth. The knockouts feel less impactful and frustrating thanks to the fact that the game is simply hysterical to watch unfold, and even if you mess up some of its surprisingly precise bits of platforming or timing, you’re never left feeling like you should’ve done something better, and you’re never down for too long. While Fall Guys is somewhat lacking in variety, its challenges — especially its exceptional batch of final showdown levels — are almost all amusing and exciting, maintaining a pulse-pounding pace better than most other BRs which all inevitably devolve into hiding or waiting for perfect loot. Of course, to compare this to the likes of Fortnite or Apex Legends is a bit disingenuous — where those are fleshed-out, team-based shooters, Fall Guys is a bit more like a gauntlet of the best Mario Party minigames where, instead of Mario and Bowser slapping each other around, it’s enormous jelly beans. Fall Guys is a fun, if shallow, diversion, and it feels every bit as satisfying to win as its competitors in the genre do.

8. The Pathless

The Pathless was a sort of impulse buy for me, looking around on the PlayStation store after hooking up my PS5 and wanting something to try on it. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised by its beautiful and gloomy world design, effortless and satisfying movement mechanics, and evocative soundtrack. Many times while playing The Pathless I was reminded of another favorite of mine, thatgamecompany’s 2012 masterpiece Journey. Like Journey, The Pathless gives us control of a robed, silent protagonist, has a creatively fluid way to traverse the landscape, a subtle but haunting score, and a constant visual representation of our ultimate goal visible in the world at all times. But where Journey presented us with harsh desert sands and maze-like cave systems, The Pathless is largely populated with lush, dark forests, mountains, and plains. The Pathless manages to get its message across with very little front-loading or dialog, has an incredibly simple progression system that still manages to feel rewarding, and presents some great little puzzles reminiscent of some of the shrines in Breath of the Wild. The boss fights are tense, but like everything else, don’t overstay their welcome, and feel a bit like some of the more powerful enemies in Horizon: Zero Dawn. While I’m making a lot of comparisons to other games here, it’s only because The Pathless is hard to pin down, and manages to be more than the sum of its parts. Despite having essentially the same set of goals in every area, you never feel like you’re experiencing the same content twice. The Pathless is short and sweet, and more than worth the hours you’ll spend with it.

7. Othercide

This is another one that nearly flew under the radar for me. Othercide nearly put me off with its gothic horror-inspired design, which is generally an aesthetic that doesn’t do much for me. However, behind that (admittedly very well-implemented and truly unsettling) monochromatic style, there’s a complex and challenging tactical strategy roguelike built on the pillars of short, condensed missions, limited resources and units at your disposal, and grueling boss encounters. If this sounds at all familiar, it’s likely reminding you of my 2018 GOTY — the phenomenal Into the Breach. While Othercide never quite reaches the simplistic and strategic heights of Into the Breach, the customizability and breadth of XCOM, or the story and character design of the Fire Emblem games, it manages to occupy a niche all its own in the tactical strategy genre — a favorite of mine. The key mechanic here is that your units (which you’ll mostly only be using 3 or 4 of in a given level) can never regain health without sacrificing another unit of equal or greater level. Many of their more powerful abilities come at a health cost, and if they die, you’ll have to expend a rare resource if you want to bring them back. These units, your “daughters”, are all essentially identical — which fits into the game’s narrative — and only fall into one of three categories of fighter, but still manage to feel distinct and valuable. The other unique mechanic in Othercide is the Initiative system, where units all act according to a specific order determined at the start of a fight. A satisfyingly devious puzzle emerges as you begin to juggle the various abilities you can use to move your units up the track or enemy units down it, and tough tactical choices have to be made with regards to the Burst mechanic whereby you can essentially have a unit perform twice as many actions — at the cost of moving much, much further down the track and potentially letting some enemies go 3 or 4 times before them. It’s a grueling and unforgiving challenge, especially since it automatically saves your progress after every move you make, but it never feels unfair. Othercide provides some of the most difficult and rewarding tactical strategy of any game I’ve played, and though its narrative is a little obtuse and vague, it’s a serviceable enough coat of paint for its engrossing mechanics.

6. Doom Eternal

One week into the great eternal lockdown of 202X, people all over the world turned to one of two games to satisfy their need for release. Some turned to Animal Crossing New Horizons, enjoying the fictional denizens of their idyllic island towns, and living out the fantasies of being able to go shopping, speak to your neighbor, or pay off your mortgage. Others turned to Doom Eternal, wanting to slaughter demons with a chainsaw. I fell into the latter camp. Doom Eternal feels like a complete refinement of its predecessor, 2016’s Doom reboot, and does just about everything better. Its level design is streamlined and straightforward in contrast to the labyrinthine marathons of the previous game, and the gunplay is even faster, more ruthless, and more explosive. Doom Eternal gives the player a chance to hone their “twitchy” instinct to a fine point, and at higher difficulties (which I wholeheartedly recommend), you’ll be shocked at the amount of split decisions you’re making every second as you jump back and forth between your arsenal of weapons, remember what every individual demon’s weak points are (made easier by how much more visually distinct everything is now), swap between two grenade types, manage your ammo by means of slaughtering weaker mooks with a chainsaw, refill your health with well-placed glory kills, replenish your armor by lighting enemies ablaze with a flamethrower … Doom Eternal almost feels like a resource-management strategy game disguised as a brutal FPS, and once you unlock the insanely powerful weapons like the BFG (literally the core of a planet-destroying cannon) and the crucible (a sword that can slice literally any enemy in two) it becomes a ridiculous puzzle bathed in demon blood and guts. Add in some fun platforming areas, collectibles to hunt, and a badass metal soundtrack, and you’ve got possibly the best FPS in years. There’s also a grappling hook.

5. Deep Rock Galactic

I had almost no expectations coming into Deep Rock Galactic, but I was blown away by how much fun I’ve had with it. DRG is a cooperative game about mining in caves and killing spiders. There’s not much more to it than that, but the depth and breadth of the game come into play with its procedurally-generated tunnels, customizability of its four playable character classes, and the different types of missions you’ll be embarking upon. Some missions are simpler, finding a preset amount of a particular type of mineral, digging for eggs in giant, gross, organic tunnels, or killing lots of monsters. The more complex missions are where DRG really shines, such as the refinery missions where you have to build skateboard-grindable pipelines to giant geysers, escort missions, and the Deep Dive missions that combine multiple other types. The variety is limited enough that you usually have access to a mission type you really enjoy, but big enough that you won’t get bored too quickly. DRG works best cooperatively — I honestly can’t imagine playing it alone — and it shines tremendously bright once you begin to come up with combinations of abilities and weapons that work well together. It even works well to assign players to specific tasks, like having one player concentrate on building pipelines while another keeps enemies off them, or utilizing combinations of each class’s traversal abilities to build shortcuts around the vast caverns. Each class feels uniquely equipped to handle certain situations, but not so overly vital that you feel like you’re missing out by not having some of them present for a mission. It’s a delicate balance that DRG manages to walk better than some other class-based team games. Deep Rock Galactic is perhaps not much to look at (though I love the way lighting works in its gloomy tunnels), and there’s a dearth of unique enemy types, but overall it’s an immensely enjoyable experience if you’ve got friends to hi-ho with. There’s also a grappling hook.

4. Risk of Rain 2

In a year dense with wonderful roguelikes, Risk of Rain 2 was one of my most anticipated releases. The first was a charming if somewhat obtuse retro platformer in the vain of the classic Metroid games, and when its sequel was announced in 2019 as a fully cooperative 3D shooter, I was impressed, if somewhat skeptical. Needless to say, my guilts were assuaged after spending a couple of minutes in Risk of Rain 2’s visually-simplistic but nonetheless appealing locales, ranging from desert ruins, to swamp ruins, to arctic ruins, to … other ruins. There’s a theme, okay? The playable roster is as diverse as they come, with each unlocked character offering a totally unique style of play, with even further customization coming in the form of the various abilities you can swap in and out as you gain certain achievements with each character. That’s not to mention the vast breadth of items and weapons you’ll pick up through the course of each run, many of which can drastically change your playstyle in an instant. Like the best roguelikes, Risk of Rain 2 allows you to build yourself a unique toolbox every time you start a run, and as you progress through challenging boss fights and densely-packed locations (of which there are, admittedly, too few), you’ll begin to develop your own go-to strategies and methods for taking down enemies quickly that’ll be completely different from every other run you begin. Sometimes, for instance, you’ll build your kit around hunkering down in your shield barrier, accompanied by your turrets that gain all the same benefits as you do. Other times, you’ll be dashing around as an aggressive swordsman, with abilities that let you bring enemies into large clusters and take them all down with elemental powers. Other times still you’ll be blasting enemies with bolts of fire, blocking them with walls of ice, and using an assortment of drones and summoned friends to stave off waves. Each run is an exhilarating marathon that gets tougher and tougher as you continue, and the staggering variety that comes with each different character, loadout of equipment you pick up, area you traverse, and boss you’ll have to contend with makes Risk of Rain 2 nearly impossible to get bored of. There’s also a grappling hook.

3. Ghost of Tsushima

From Sucker Punch studios, the minds behind the excellent superhero-power-trip inFamous series, Ghost of Tsushima brings us to a lush, vibrant rendition of feudal Japan, rife with nods to famous samurai stories like the films of Akira Kurosawa and James Clavell’s Shogun. Ghost of Tsushima boasts an impressive open world, which manages to remain interesting, diverse, and dense with threads to chase down in spite of its enormity. While some of the repeated side missions like finding hot springs, writing haiku, or following foxes to Inari shrines become a bit repetitive, Ghost of Tsushima shines in its narrative and its fluid samurai combat. As Jin Sakai, you’re the sole force staving off a Mongol invasion of the mainland, and the abilities you learn from your myriad comrades — each of whom are fully fleshed-out, realized characters with side missions to expand on their own narratives — make you a force to be reckoned with. The sword-based combat is perhaps the best melee combat I’ve seen in a game to date, and will have you effortlessly swapping between sword stances to contend with whatever type of foe you happen to be facing, parrying blows, tossing explosives, firing arrows, and executing brutal legendary moves that can frighten your enemies and cause them to flee the scene altogether. The landscape is dotted with Mongol camps, which can be infiltrated stealthily a la Assassin’s Creed, or faced head-on with a bona fide samurai standoff, which eventually allows you to take out four or more enemies in one fell swoop. The system of progressing and developing your skills is satisfying, and cleverly trickles in more and more abilities, weapons, and tools for you to rotate and juggle in each encounter. Ghost of Tsushima boasts not only intense and satisfying combat, gorgeous visuals, and an excellent soundtrack, it also happens to have the best story out of any game I played in 2020. Without spoiling too much, the narrative is centered around Sakai and his struggle between maintaining his honor by following the strict code of the samurai and embracing his inner assassin to ruthlessly excise the Mongol threat by any means necessary. Its conflicts are somewhat simple, but incredibly human, and though there aren’t many choices to be made (apart from an important one at the game’s conclusion), it’s still a compelling and engaging tale. There’s also a grappling hook.

2. Hades

I’ve ranted and raved plenty about how great Hades is — see my review — so I’ll keep my extolling of the virtues of Supergiant’s latest home run as brief as I can. Hades is likely the best work from the indie developers behind Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre — all of which were also tremendous games themselves. Here, we have everything Supergiant has honed and fine-tuned over the last decade on the scene, and their personality shines brighter here than anywhere else. The narrative takes a simple premise to every possible extreme while maintaining strong character arcs and motivations, the gameplay is fast, precise, and incredibly intense, and the player feels consistently rewarded with progress of multiple kinds no matter how short their last attempt to escape the Underworld may have been. It’s challenging enough for those looking for trouble, but not impossible unless you want it to be. Little needs to be said about Darren Korb’s usual fantastic composition work. The long and short of it is that if you’re looking for a nail-biting action game that you can pick up and put down in half-hour bursts, but enjoy for upwards of 30 hours, look no further.

1. Monster Train

I’ll be completely honest — Hades very nearly took the crown this year. Over the past several years I’ve had trouble selecting a final choice for the game of the year (2017 was a battle between Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild, 2018 pit Into the Breach against God of War, and last year it was down to Three Houses and Slay the Spire), and this may have been the toughest yet. However, as always, I must pick one winner, and despite how much I adore essentially everything about Hades, I adore Monster Train even more. Another deckbuilding roguelike — a bit like Slay the Spire on hefty doses of caffeine — Monster Train is one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had gaming in quite some time. At the surface it bears quite a few similarities to Slay the Spire — you’ve got a small deck of cards at the start that you enhance and expand upon as you make your way through each run, slaying bosses, buying new cards, and developing new strategies as you go. However, Monster Train’s complexity and depth become ever more apparent the deeper you dig into its tangled web of abilities, status effects, and random events. Between its various playable clans of monsters, each with a choice of unique champions that can define your entire strategy, Monster Train is already as wide as it is deep at the outset of a given run, but as you add and remove cards in your deck, invest upgrades in spells and monsters, encounter strangers on the tracks who could completely flip the script on your entire run with one decision, and choose artifacts that can totally change the way a chunk of your cards operate, your head starts to spin. Then you realize that you can build an entire deck around sending enemies up to the top floor of your train to contend with your Pyre, the engine of your train itself. Or you can build a deck around feeding tiny rocks to your enormous champion who nearly takes up a floor all his own. Or around killing your own units off so you can reform even stronger than before. Or around triggering huge combos of abilities on your monsters every time you cast a spell. Or around having very few cards at all and cycling through the same two spells over and over until you nuke the boss in one hit. The synergies possible here all feel game-breaking, but that’s its beauty. You can feel confident that no one has ever tried that particular combination of cards and artifacts before, and it’s so rewarding to feel your experimentation pay off when you can slaughter the final boss with ease. Monster Train takes everything I like about the deckbuilding genre and does them better than any game before, and though there were plenty of strong contenders, it’s undoubtedly the best game I played in 2020.

Onto the next one, eh?

A Companion, Unobtrusive – Top 10 Albums of 2020

[Sanctimonious monologuing about unprecedented times and the joy of artistic creation amidst darkness and dismay]

Here are the top 10 best albums of the year.

10. Ayreon – Transitus

I’m going to come out of the gate here and say that, as a devotee of Arjen Lucassen and his many projects, Transitus was a massive disappointment to me. Its story is trite (ostensibly meant to serve as a movie script, which I have no doubt would’ve produced a borderline unwatchable feature), the cast of guest vocalists is rather weak when compared to prior efforts, it’s overly narrated to the point of absurdity, and its musical themes aren’t nearly as inventive as on albums like The Theory of Everything and Into the Electric Castle. All that said, an Ayreon album is a bit like French toast — even when it’s not very good, it’s still pretty great. And for all the problems I have with Transitus, it’s still an enjoyable and corny prog romp with some outstanding musical performances (special mention goes to Ayreon rookie Juan van Emmerloot and his incredibly inventive and captivating drumming). Doctor Who’s Tom Baker does an admirable job as the narrator, though he overstays his welcome with at least 30 seconds of usually unnecessary exposition preceding every track, and though they only have one song each, Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider and Toehider’s Mike Mills knock their songs out of the park. Tommy Karevik is serviceable, and Marcela Bovio and Simone Simons (all three of whom have previously been on Ayreon records) are always a joy to listen to, but the rest of the vocalists are simply forgettable or, at the least, very much not to my taste. I appear to be rather alone in the Ayreon community with this opinion, but Transitus feels very much like an album that could’ve been cut down to about 40 minutes of music to tell its uninspired story, and suffers from the same bloat as some of Lucassen’s previous work. However, the music on here that’s good is very, very good, and it’s still a worthwhile listen despite likely being Lucassen’s weakest album.

Best tracks: Listen to my Story, Dumb Piece of Rock, Get Out! Now!

9. Dennis DeYoung — 26 East, Vol. 1

Dennis DeYoung is on the short list of artists that I’ve seen in concert at least thrice (amidst such stars as Neal Morse and Al Yankovic), and as a big fan of Dennis’s work with Styx I had high hopes for his first solo effort in over a decade (and the first one that got any notable fanfare since the ’80s). While 26 East doesn’t give us Styx, it certainly gives us Dennis DeYoung hearkening back to his 3-decade tenure as its frontman — one only needs to look at the album art to see the obvious Stygian inspiration — with a batch of tracks that perhaps wouldn’t sound out of place on the B-sides of late ’70s/early ’80s Styx hits like Too Much Time on my Hands or Come Sail Away. DeYoung’s voice has aged, though astonishingly gracefully, and the 73-year-old is still very easily recognizable as the voice and keys behind so many Styx chart-toppers. The saccharine You My Love and To the Good Old Days are DeYoung flexing the same muscles that gave us Babe and Don’t Let it End, and the more grandiose pomp of Styx’s early years can be found in Run for the Roses and Unbroken. He’s managed to reproduce the iconic Styx harmonies in a few songs as well, and that’s not to mention the rather gratuitous album closer A.D. 2020 that directly quotes (one could say rips off) the main theme of Paradise Theatre. A standout is With All Due Respect, which features an incendiary DeYoung telling off the mainstream media with a hysterical chorus: “With all due respect / you are an asshole / With all due respect / you make me sick!” And though, ultimately, 26 East is essentially a Styx tribute album, that’s far from a bad thing, and DeYoung has produced the best batch of songs he’s written since 1981. There are a few misses (A Kingdom Ablaze and The Promise of this Land are perhaps a bit too on-the-nose) and a general air of whimsy and perhaps pomposity, but what else might we want from a Styx alumnus? I look forward to Vol. 2.

Best tracks: With All Due Respect, East of Midnight

8. Paul McCartney — McCartney III

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not what one would consider a Beatles fan. I’ve been known to enjoy a spin of Revolver or Rubber Soul on occasion, and of course I know all the hits, but as far as I’m aware the real gift the Beatles gave us was the latter work of Paul McCartney (with an honorable mention to George Harrison, especially his work with the Wilburys). As the story everyone knows goes, McCartney defied all expectations with his first two completely solo albums, released in 1970 and 1980, on which he wrote, produced, and played all the instruments himself. It was a bold strategy that paid dividends, and though those albums aren’t necessarily among my favorites in his catalog (give me Ram or Band on the Run any day of the week), they were ambitious and showcased a musical genius playing with his craft. McCartney returned to do it again amidst a year rife with isolation and cabin fever; the lockdowns took a heavy mental toll on many, and rather than turn to alcohol or video games like many did (ahem), he took to the studio and turned out a batch of songs that at worst are listenable, and at best rivals to some of the best songs the 78-year-old veteran has produced. McCartney III runs the gamut of the purely acoustic and sentimental with The Kiss of Venus and Pretty Boys, classic diner rock with Find My Way and Seize the Day, longer-form, experimental wandering with Long Tailed Winter Bird and Deep Deep Feeling, and even some output that could serve well on a Mark Knopfler solo effort, which from me is the highest of praise. Not everything here is up to the standards we might expect from a typical out-of-Beatle experience, but the simple fact is that everything here is quite good, and the wisdom of McCartney’s years in the industry is on full display — not to mention the fact that it was all written and recorded by one man during a period of time in which most of us just binge-watched TV and tried to bake bread.

Best tracks: Women and Wives, Slidin’, Seize the Day

7. John Petrucci — Terminal Velocity

In what may be the greatest musical hatchet-burial since the 1993 Simon & Garfunkel reunion tour, John Petrucci’s first solo album in fifteen years sees him once again joined by former bandmate Mike Portnoy, with whom he hadn’t played since the latter left Dream Theater over ten years ago. Joining them again is veteran bassist Dave LaRue (whom I know best from Flying Colors and the Dixie Dregs), and the musical energy abounds. Terminal Velocity is an exciting listen from start to finish, and though at times Petrucci feels like he’s retreading old ground and often can’t help himself from showing off his considerable shredding muscles (and I mean *muscles*) on tracks that he probably shouldn’t, like the otherwise laid-back Out of the Blue, Terminal Velocity is a guitar masterclass and a real treat for any Dream Theater fan. Portnoy and Petrucci seem not to have missed a step, which bodes well for the forthcoming Liquid Tension Experiment release, and you can sense the camaraderie and downright fun the two exude together. The title track is classic Petrucci shreds, songs like Happy Song and Snake in My Boot are lighthearted and catchy as hell, and it’s also good fun to hear some classic riffs Petrucci used to incorporate in solos at Dream Theater concerts in several other tracks. While some of the tracks are predictable and overstay their welcome a bit, Terminal Velocity is a nice return to form and sets a great tone for future collaborations between Portnoy and his former bandmates.

Best tracks: The Oddfather, Temple of Circadia

6. Sonny Landreth — Blacktop Run

Sonny Landreth has been a favorite of mine ever since 2008’s From the Reach, and his slide guitar prowess has yet to disappoint. This year’s release, Blacktop Run, is no exception, and benefits well from Landreth trimming some of the fat off his material to keep the focus where it should be — on the guitar, front and center. Landreth’s aged voice is a peculiar treat as well, not unlike his frequent comrade-in-strings Mark Knopfler. Peppered with instrumental tracks and classic blues rock, Blacktop Run is easy to listen to and flies by more quickly than you’d think. While it’s true that the album can tend to get a little same-y, there’s no question that it’s the work of a virtuoso guitarist with a creative and completely inimitable style.

Best tracks: Groovy Goddess, Mule, Something Grand

5. Darren Korb — Hades OST

It’s no surprise that (spoiler alert) one of the best games of the year would also have one of the best soundtracks. I’ve gushed time and time again about Darren Korb’s unique and delightful soundtrack work in every Supergiant title thus far, and the Hades OST is no exception. Once again Korb pairs seemingly disparate influences from all around the world (his music is the only place you’ll hear a sitar and a bagpipe) with his unparalleled acoustic style and vocal work from both him and his ever-present vocal collaborator, Ashley Barrett. Korb’s wonderful soundtrack expertly punctuates an equally wonderful game, and while it works as a fun and catchy listen on its own, it obviously works even better in the context of Hades’s relentless and pulse-pounding combat. There are some great musical themes throughout that are evocative of where in the game you encounter them, and Ashley Barrett’s gorgeous vocals have never been better accompanied. Hades may well be Supergiant’s magnum opus (at least thus far), and while I don’t think this is Korb’s best soundtrack (that title is still held by Pyre), it’s incredibly punchy and expressive, and worth a listen even outside the context of the game.

Best tracks: Good Riddance, God of the Dead, Lament of Orpheus

4. Ayreon — Electric Castle Live and Other Tales

It may perhaps be unfair to pit material from 1998 up against other albums from 2020, but ITEC Live is such a transcendently good performance that I don’t care. While I didn’t end up able to attend these shows (I had a ticket!), the live album release more than makes up for it. Not only is it one of the best-mixed productions and best-looking concert videos I’ve seen (barring a few issues here and there), it’s one of the best live performances ever recorded. ITEC is my favorite Ayreon album by a wide margin, and hearing it brought to life by most of its main vocal cast (with worthy substitutions where they were needed) is superb. All of the singers perform admirably, with special mention to Fish of Marillion fame and the ever-amazing Damian Wilson. The instrumentalists are all also splendid, with dutiful Ayreon drummer Ed Warby as consistent as ever, and let’s not forget John de Lancie’s turn as the narrator, a perfect casting choice if ever there was one, considering his Forever character is essentially Star Trek’s Q with a fresh coat of paint. The encores are a veritable who’s who of Lucassen’s other work (with an extra Marillion track for Fish), and the new narrations from de Lancie are a delight, especially as someone who has all the original narrations memorized. I would venture to say that this would be a near-perfect introduction to the Ayreon canon, as basically everyone here is turning in a career-best performance. This is certainly not a live album to be missed.

Best tracks: Amazing Flight, The Garden of Emotions, Twisted Coil

3. Neal Morse — Sola Gratia

Neal Morse is as prolific as they come in the progressive genre, with an energy and drive to make music that’s not often seen. It seems like there’s always new work from him to be enjoyed, and it’s always, at worst, perfectly enjoyable. Sola Gratia is a good bit more than that, though it takes a few listens to really settle in. While not as complex or engrossing as his work with the Neal Morse Band, Sola Gratia is Neal Morse in his comfort zone, full of keyboards, extended instrumentals, and God. A spiritual successor to his 2007 masterwork Sola Scriptura, this year’s release is about the life of the apostle Paul and very obviously draws inspiration from some of Morse’s best solo work. There are tracks on here that could fit right in on Question Mark, Testimony, or even some of his Neal Morse Band albums (thanks to the presence of most of that band’s members on one track or another), and for a fan of Morse’s work this album is a bit like a comfortable pair of shoes. All of the Morse staples are here — an overture, some complicated instrumental work, some catchy straight-ahead rockers, a few epics, a healthy dose of religious spiritualism, a few ballads, and some musical and lyrical references to the album’s predecessor. While Morse doesn’t necessarily do anything new or exciting here, it’s still a lovely album that shows him drawing on all of his strengths as a songwriter, musician, singer, and indeed, a Christian. The religious overtones here are as strong as ever, which may turn some away, but considering the subject matter it feels appropriate and not overbearing. While Sola Gratia may not be as strong as Sola Scriptura or the albums from the Neal Morse Band, it’s a wonderful bit of progressive extravagance that sounds like quintessential Neal Morse.

Best tracks: Ballyhoo, Building a Wall, Seemingly Sincere

2. Haken — Virus

Virus was another album this year that took several listens to grow on me, but grow on me it most certainly did. When I read that Haken was coming out with a sequel to 2018’s Vector, I was a bit confused at what that might even look like, but now having heard Virus, I can’t imagine Vector standing on its own. The unfortunately-named latest release from the English proggers is a perfect companion to not only Vector, but the entire Haken catalog. Haken takes a page from Dream Theater’s book and attempts to create something of a sequel or backstory to their most popular song, Cockroach King, with Vector and Virus, and the result is a totally unique concept album pair that sounds at once completely distinct from any other work, and very much in keeping with the Haken tradition of absurdism, chaos, and depth. Virus is simply outstanding, though it never quite reaches the heights of their greatest works. Every member of the ensemble puts in tremendous work here, but guitarist Richard Henshall and drummer Ray Hearne deserve special consideration for their increasingly inventive styles. While some tracks like the album opener Prosthetic and the rambling epic Carousel may overstay their welcome, the new sounds the band experiments with on tracks like Only Stars, a closer that echoes Vector’s opener, The Strain, and Canary Yellow are all rousing successes, and the album’s capstone epic Messiah Complex is one of their best songs, period. Full of fun references to all of their other albums as well as outside references to the genre itself, Messiah Complex could’ve carried the album to the number 2 position all on its own; it just so happens to be in the company of a handful of other great tracks that add some great texture and personality to the Haken palette. I’m very excited to see where the band goes from here, as Virus certainly seems like the end of a chapter of the band’s already storied career of finely-crafted prog metal.

Best tracks: Messiah Complex, Invasion, Canary Yellow

1. Toehider — I Like It!

Perhaps a bit of a left field pick for people who aren’t familiar with my musical proclivities, but Australian songwriter Mike Mills and his work under the Toehider moniker (ably accompanied by artist Andrew Saltmarsh) continues to impress me with musicality, depth, and humor. I was one of the early adopters of the Toehider Patreon three years ago, and since then Mills has written and recorded more than 50 songs — many original releases and a slew of covers — to eventually make up the track listing for this year’s album. Those who contribute to the Patreon were given the opportunity to vote on what songs made it onto the album, so I Like It! turns out to be a very appropriately-named excursion, representing what Toehider fans considered to be Mills’s best musical work. This is by far his most diverse outing, with everything from power metal to synth pop to country rock, and almost everything in between. The trademark zany lyrics are at the forefront here, with some highlights being Moon and Moron, a song about someone who doesn’t believe in the moon, Concerning Lix and Fairs, a Muse-inspired track that continues Mills’s ongoing story that began way back in 2011 with Malcolm Dust ‘Em, and Died of Dancing, a funky bass-driven number that tells the story of the Dancing Plague of 1518. While not every song I voted for made it to the final cut, this still plays like a best-of, which is no mean feat considering the sheer amount of quality music Mills has written and played over the last decade. I Like It! is peak Toehider, and if you’re at all interested in quirky and fresh music, look no further than the land down under.

Best tracks: wellgivit, Bats Aren’t Birds, That Guy That No-One Really Knows

Water Takes You Home — A Rambling Postmortem of Dragon Heist

TL;DR – If you’re a DM thinking about running Waterdeep – Dragon Heist and are looking for tips from someone who barely knows what he’s doing, feel free to skip to the bulleted list at the end of this harangue.

Recently, I finished up the most recent D&D campaign I was running that began back in January of 2019 (diligent readers may recall a short-lived series of campaign diaries I attempted to write — these may return!). Ostensibly based upon the two recent published D&D 5th edition adventures, Waterdeep – Dragon Heist and Waterdeep – Dungeon of the Mad Mage. That said, as anyone who’s played with me can tell you, I have a tendency to go off the rails, speed up toward the finish line, and generally rework the material so I can keep what I think is cool and scrap what isn’t.

What this is intended to be is a way for me to gather thoughts about how I thought the last 21 months of game-mastering went in an attempt not only to make my next game better, but also to provide some theoretically useful insight into the process for prospective DMs, especially those interested in running one or both of the aforementioned adventures. A lot of this is going to be based on several long Twitter threads wherein I’ve discussed this experience at length. I’ll try to keep it as interesting and/or engaging as possible, but as the title of this post suggests there’s going to be a lot of mildly-incoherent rambling and stream-of-consciousness trains of thought that might not go anywhere. I don’t have an outline I’m working off of; I’ll try and keep it roughly chronological but I’ll undoubtedly jump back and forth occasionally. If you’re interested in what passes for “usual fare” on this blog, namely video games and music, I’d advise you basically not to read this, since you’ll probably be bored to tears. As I often say, nothing is more interesting to someone than their own D&D campaign, and nothing is less interesting than someone else’s. Oh well. Let’s get to it.

I decided I was going to run one or both of these adventures shortly after they were announced in the summer of 2018; at the time I was in the midst of a run of the 2015 adventure Out of the Abyss. The Waterdeep adventures appealed to me for a few reasons. Primarily, OotA was the first time I’d run a published 5e adventure and, simply put, I wasn’t incredibly impressed with it. It was, in essence, a collection of encounters, locations, and scenarios, running the gamut from fascinating spectacles to boring trudges through mires of spiders, drow, and mushroom people. I wanted to run another published adventure to get a better idea of how it worked, and my options were limited by my group’s experiences, given that all of us had experienced most of the published work already, and I’d heard unenthusiastic reviews of the one’s we hadn’t touched.

I’d be lying if I said Matt Mercer’s involvement in the story development if Dragon Heist wasn’t a factor as well, not to mention my general interest in Waterdeep as a setting. I’d gotten a small taste of the Forgotten Realms from OotA, and I was eager to explore it, and my version of it, further with the same group. I also liked the urban aspect of WDH. OotA begins with your players trapped far in the Underdark, and essentially tries (and largely fails) to be a survival-horror type of game where you’re relentlessly pursued by insane drow and facing off against demon lords while you try to escape. And then, after you do escape, you … have to go back down. Kind of a bummer. I didn’t like that whole “your players are trapped in an interesting but incredibly repetitive location for their entire tenure as adventurers” thing, and I thought setting it in a deep, but contained sandbox like Waterdeep would be great.

And it was! I’ve said this on Twitter a lot but I think WDH is my favorite published adventure from 5e (Red Hand of Doom is probably my favorite overall from any edition). It makes a lot of smart changes to the formula, many of which are unfortunately overturned by the adventure that ostensibly follows it (more on that later).

I brought over 3/4 of my players from 2018’s OotA game and started in January of 2019 with one additional player. We started out with a solid group — an elf druid, gnome wizard, human cleric, and warforged craftsman (a homebrew class from Mage Hand Press). The only thing we were maybe missing was a rogue, but between the rest of the group they found they could fill in whatever gaps were left there with clever Wild Shapes, the use of invisibility and knock, and whatever dumb shit the craftsman class could make.

The craftsman was, like a lot of homebrew classes, an interesting idea that was implemented with mixed results. Unfortunately, most homebrew designers seem to kind of miss the point of 5e’s design philosophy — trying to make robust rules about crafting just plain doesn’t work with the limited skills and tools available to players, and without a substantial amount of work on the part of the DM (which I tried to do), it ends up feeling either overpowered or worthless. No one wants to feel worthless, so I opted to err on the side of giving the players too much, as I always tend to. As I often say, I’d rather the players feel like they’re more powerful than they should be than less, and it gives me an excuse to use the cooler monsters against them, anyway. But, ultimately, the craftsman’s costs exceeded its benefits and he began to multiclass a few different times, eventually transferring some levels over to artificer before finally scrapping them altogether and taking fighter levels instead.

In keeping with my philosophy of trying not to make my players hate playing their characters, I’ve always been flexible about letting them transfer class levels around (usually on level up) as they see fit to try and tweak something that isn’t working. One of my players from the previous homebrew game I ran went through, like, four different iterations of her character that just didn’t work at all before finally settling on ranger. Believe me, the irony of going from a litany of shitty homebrew classes to the unequivocal worst class in official 5e is not lost on me. Luckily my warforged PC’s player was more than happy to experiment and I think he was generally grateful at the flexibility I gave him when stuff just wasn’t jibing the way it ought to have. In retrospect, as I should’ve already known, homebrew classes and subclasses are almost never a good idea. We can’t really tell if something is balanced until we play it, though, so I have no regrets about trying it out and I hope he doesn’t either.

Anyway, Dragon Heist. As a general overview, it does a fantastic job of packing a lot of fun into a small package. For starters, it’s interesting off the bat by allowing you to pick one of four villains. I like to suck all the interesting content out of every source book I feasibly can, and all of the villain’s lairs were too cool to pass up (and indeed basically the only real dungeons in the campaign), so I opted to utilize all four villains in some capacity or another, in ways that often managed to worm their ways into player backstories and into the endgame content in Dungeon of the Mad Mage.

At the start of the campaign I gave the party short blurbs about each of the villains — Jarlaxle Baenre, the Casslanters, Manshoon, and Xanathar — with just enough to give them an idea of who they were and why they were after the money without spoiling too much. They decided pretty much unanimously on Jarlaxle — I think in part because they’d met him briefly in OotA and were interested in seeing him again, with a close second in Xanathar. With that in mind, I decided to have Jarlaxle be the primary “villain” (villain in scare quotes because I have a tendency to make 99% of my NPCs insanely reasonable and Jarlaxle’s goals just didn’t seem all that nefarious, as it turned out) with Xanathar being a known entity and consistent threat.

Background-wise, I opted to have our gnome wizard Wobbles be formerly in debt to the Zhentarim, due to a protection racket his father had bought into, and also had him be a semi-recent temporary victim of Xanathar’s wherein he’d been temporarily petrified by him. He was also a member of the Lords’ Alliance. A note for prospective DMs — factions are super important in WDH, so get to know who they are and try and encourage your players to be a part of one of them, because it makes up a large part of the actual questing content in the second chapter of the book and beyond.

Our warforged Copper was an adoptive son of Wobbles and tentatively interested in the Gray Hands. There wasn’t a ton else to do with him, faction or backstory-wise given the fact that warforged aren’t technically people and are generally looked down on. I cleared this with the player before starting, obviously. No one wants it sprung on them that everyone is going to be racist to them. The druid Gardenia was an orphan who had drawn the attention of the Emerald Enclave — she was also a teenager, which is kind of weird as far as elf-human relations go since elves don’t consider you an adult until you’re a hundred.

Our cleric Jo had some background with the Order of the Gauntlet and Force Grey, but she ultimately didn’t end up sticking around in the game for personal reasons. She dipped out basically around the climax of the first act of WDH, so it served well as a time to bring in two new players. I asked two players from another game of mine that was nearing its end by this point if they would be interested — both said yes. The first one came back almost immediately with a hexblade warlock. “Yes, perfect,” I thought. See, I had been reading ahead and — even though we were only in chapter 2 — I was concerned about the internal logic, or lack thereof, that bound Dragon Heist to Dungeon of the Mad Mage. It’s basically a geographical connection, and that’s it. Hm.

With that in mind, I began to come up with an elaborate backstory for Halaster Blackcloak (the titular mad mage) involving the “knot in the Weave” that he’s evidently got … some sort of connection to. I decided that he had gone basically insane and that his mind had fractured into two — a sane version and an insane version, who swapped like Jason Isaacs in that show Awake that got cancelled way too early, every time he went to sleep. The sane version would be fed misinformation by the insane version about how to “untie the knot”, believing that it would free him from his insane self and bring peace back to Waterdeep — in reality it would allow the insane version to regain full control.

I made some bullshit up about a ritual involving seven apprentices that would accomplish this, and decided that Nia, our warlock, would have her patron be sane!Halaster, unbeknownst to her. She gave me some great background of herself as a member of a disgraced noble family in Waterdeep (which coincidentally finally gave me a way to involve the Cassalanters), and joined the Harpers — this gave me an opportunity to make more use of Mirt, basically my favorite NPC from WDH, as a sort of adoptive father. I played her patron as a sort of distant, vaguely confused figure who, as the campaign wore on, got more and more aware and more easily able to communicate with her. From the get-go, I decided he would call her “dear one” in their conversations, as a way to twist the knife in the distant future when they finally realized it was Halaster all along. Great! Now they’ll eventually have a reason to venture below, since they’ll necessarily be among her seven “apprentices”. Who are the others? No idea. What’s the ritual? Who knows? Whatever.

Then, our second new player gets back to me, saying she’s going to play … a warlock. Shit. I had a great idea for the first one, but one idea was all I had. Oh well, she’s going warlock of the fiend, anyway … I guess Asmodeus? He’s got that Cassalanter connection, maybe I can use that? And her character (Hihro “the dragonborne”, a kobold) is part of the Zhentarim? Okay. I can do something with this. I decided that Hihro thought his patron was actually Manshoon — Manshoon did some NPC-only magic mumbo jumbo to sort of intercede between Asmodeus and Hihro and trick him into doing his bidding. I put a glyph on his pendant that served as an arcane focus to Feeblemind him if he ever said Manshoon’s name aloud, which I thought was neat. I still had no idea what to do with Asmodeus, though.

Anyway, I digress. That’s the party. Our first 7 or 8 sessions were glacially slow.

I pulled a lot of extra content in for Dragon Heist. I’m not sure why. I think I was just excited to be doing something so different from OotA and wanted to milk as much out of the urban aspect of this adventure as I could. In retrospect, I’m glad I did. As it’s written, WDH is a lean adventure — it’s most likely meant to take somewhere between 5 and 10 sessions and only runs from level 1 to 5. It’s structured really, really well, though, and I love that. Chapter 1 is your introductory adventure to introduce the plot, chapter 2 is a sandbox where you get settled in Trollskull Manor and run missions for your factions, chapter 3 is where the shit hits the fan, chapter 4 is a long chase for the MacGuffin that’s different depending on your villain, and finally the actual vault and the acquisition of the titular dragons (gold coins). Chapters 5, 6, 7, and 8 are a bit … odd. They’re basically just dungeons, the lairs of each of our villains, but it’s not super clear when exactly you’re supposed to use them. I had an easy workaround for this, which we’ll get to later.

As far as all the additional content I pulled, you can comb through the campaign diaries I did get around to writing, as I call out most of it there. Mostly stuff from dmsguild.com, which I highly recommend as a resource for extra stuff. There’s a lot of trash there, but there are a few diamonds in the rough that will add a lot to your games. The first chapter, apart from the first session, was pretty smooth. I added the Rats of Waterdeep adventure from the DM’s Guild which was a lot of fun, and added some fun recurring NPCs for later. The party was instantly attached to Waterdeep City Watch captain Hysutus Staget, who became a recurring character, as well.

Chapter two was also smooth, and we spent a lot of time just renovating the manor into a functional tavern. This served as an opportunity to introduce Mirt (Nia hadn’t come into the party yet) and get them acquainted with the bureaucracy — we had a lot of fun just talking to the different guilds involved, doing favors for people to lower costs, and exploring the garbage leftover in the manor. I had a ton of fun with Emmek Frewn, the slovenly tavernkeep who moves in across the street, and they loved thwarting his plans and dealing with his poorly-enacted ideas to run them out of business.

By the time we got to the inciting incident of the adventure proper we were already 8 or 9 sessions in. The fireball was a great time to introduce Nia to the group — assigned by the Harpers to keep an eye on the place since Mirt suspected they were soon to be involved in something nefarious. The investigation afterward was a delight, and a good opportunity to have them make use of Vincent Trench’s services — they had gone to him before a number of times and were quite attached to him already. He’s secretly a rakshasa. It’s nuts. The book gives you exactly nothing to do with that, so I had to elaborate on that much later in the story.

They eventually found out that the fireball was thrown by a nimblewright, which gave Copper plenty of fun interactions with Valetta at the House of Inspired Hands, as he’d always been curious about constructs in an attempt to discover his origins. When the investigation led them to Gralhund Villa, I had a perfect chance to bring Hihro in, our fifth PC, as a Zhentarim contact assigned to implant himself in the group.

Things got a bit dodgy with him since the party didn’t necessarily trust him from the outset despite his attempts to ingratiate himself (even though he was a warlock he was dreadful at persuading or deceiving anyone) and even going into the encounter chain of chapter 4 he still wasn’t a really solid member of the group. Before the encounter chain got set off in full, though, they had breakfast with a certain Zardoz Zord … Jarlaxle in disguise, of course.

It was an extremely fun roleplaying encounter, with Jarlaxle using the opportunity to assess their strengths and determine if they were a threat, and them not any the wiser about who he actually was. (He had come into the tavern a few days before, as well).

The encounter chain began, with the deceptive Jarlaxle proving an increasingly entertaining villain — they totally bought every single one of his disguises, even when he pretended to be the Open Lord, of all people, so their confusion at finding out it had been Jarlaxle all along was delicious. I was especially proud of one of my machinations — the encounter at Mistshore with the mechanical dragon turtle nearly wiped everyone out, and they were arrested by the Watch for the ruckus they’d caused. Captain Staget took them in and locked them in a cell, where they attempted to contact Laeral Silverhand with a Paper Bird to exonerate themselves. When their email got bounced back to them, they resorted to having Nia contact her benefactor (Mirt, though the rest of them didn’t know it yet). He told them the constabulary they were in was out of operation — it was Jarlaxle pretending to be Captain Staget all along! Aha!

They found the real captain tied up, and then went to infiltrate the submarine … which went poorly. They learned the truth of Zardoz’s identity, and were unable to avoid his detection. This is where he hired them to take the Stone of Golorr, and find the money for him, offering them 10% of the reward … this was where I decided to embellish even further.

See, the Stone of Golorr gives you three clues to three keys you need to unlock the Vault of Dragons, with a list of random ones to choose from. Some are okay, some are pretty boring. I decided to keep the “you need a celestial” and “you need a shapechanger” keys. The first, they had some discussion about — they thought about trying to use Primara, the unicorn rescued earlier in Blue Alley (another side adventure), and they talked the Blackstaff (to whom Copper had been getting closer) into summoning a couatl for them, but then Wobbles realized that his ever-present familiar Ichabod was actually a celestial all along. Go figure. As for the shapechanger … they had a druid.

I decided to add two extra keys for a total of five, so that I could provide an excuse to have them explore the other three villainous lairs. As such, they had to steal one of Manshoon’s masks, the Mace of Disruption from beneath Cassalanter Villa, and Sylgar, Xanathar’s treasured goldfish.

I don’t recall the exact orders everything went in, but all the while I was peppering in various faction missions — Harper missions for Nia, Gray Hands missions for Copper, Lords’ Alliance missions for Wobbles, and Emerald Enclave missions for Gardenia. I think there might have been a Zhent mission in there for Hihro, too, but those tended to be a bit harder to work into a typically Lawful Good party. Many of the faction missions I ended up expounding on in one way or another. The poop-sweeping mission from the Lords’ Alliance was a particular highlight, as was the Harper mission to find a missing talking horse and the mission involving finding the Intellect Devourer that had taken over Meloon Wardragon — this one led to Copper being granted Azuredge, a powerful magic axe.

Throughout, they also had some great NPC interactions, as well. Wobbles took a liking to using dust of dryness to create small beads of sewage and throwing them into Frewn’s tavern, Gardenia made friends in Fala, the herbalist neighbor, as well as Cat and Maladie from Rats of Waterdeep. Mirt was always a favorite, as well as Esvele Rosznar, the Black Viper, who was a close friend of Nia’s from youth. Copper drew the attention of not only the Blackstaff, but also a jeweler shopkeep I came up with off the cuff, and the gang also became tight with another invented shopkeeper Merric Fastfoot, who was pretty much based on Toehider’s How Much for that Dragon Tooth? of all things. Wobbles and Copper had a lot of interactions with the Doom Raiders, especially Davil Starsong and Ziraj the Hunter, thanks to Wobbles’s history with the Zhentarim, and those were a lot of fun, too. And who can forget Durnan, the gruff proprietor of the Yawning Portal, or the flamboyant Volo, writer extraordinaire?

All that said, nobody was a better NPC companion than their foe-turned-tentative-ally, Jarlaxle Baenre. The guy is just too damn charismatic not to be likable, and though their work for him to retrieve the other keys began under threat of death, they eventually grew to sympathize with him. His reasoning for wanting the money is, after all, far less sinister than the other three potential villains. So by the time they found the vault, they were advocating for him to the Open Lord. Fun twists.

At any rate, they found out that the Vault itself was located under a windmill recently purchased by Esvele (I pilfered this from a different encounter chain since I liked it better), who wanted a cut of the gold, as well. First up of their keys to abscond with was the one in Cassalanter Villa. They managed to sneak in through the mud tunnels (the book doesn’t actually tell you where these go so I said they spat out along the coast) and explored a bit before finding the Mace and then learning that a whole bunch of cultists of Asmodeus had come in behind them. Uh-oh. They snuck out through the house in a hilarious bit of farce, involving Ichabod, Gardenia turning into a cat, and sneaking around through secret passages behind paintings like some sort of maniacal game of Clue, in order to avoid the Cassalanter children.

Next up was Xanathar, and that was a real doozy. Jarlaxle had informed them of Nar’l Xibrindas, a drow planning to blow the place up, and given that they had long since run Emmek out of town I opted to have him here as a statue, evidently a victim of Xanathar’s rage. They blew some of the place up, pooped on Xanny boy, and stole the fish, but not before Hihro met an unfortunate demise at the hands (paws?) of an Intellect Devourer. This was a bummer, but ultimately for the best since, admittedly, I don’t think either of us had any clue where his character was going to go. It was unfortunate that we couldn’t have his showdown with Manshoon, but it was what it was. We also got to meet the best-named NPC ever, Bepis Honeymaker. So that was a win.

After retrieving 4/5 keys, they decided to come clean to Mirt about everything, including their working for Jarlaxle, and he was pretty much understanding of their choices. It was a rough situation, after all. I decided to introduce some much-needed fanciness to our game, here, by having them receive a few different missions at a ball held by Remallia Haventree. I threw a couple of faction missions together and also noted that it was likely that Jarlaxle would be there in disguise along with an old Harper associate of Mattrim “Threestrings” Mereg, namely Humphrey B. Bear (no relation), Hihro’s player’s new character.

The ball was a blast, and it gave them an opportunity to explain how their characters all dressed up for the occasion. I had Wobbles run into his ex-wife, Copper ran into Celniana, the coy jeweler with a crush on him, Gardenia and Nia thwarted some nasty guys from taking advantage of Remallia’s drunken daughter (they ended up being drow in disguise), Humphrey helped root out some doppelgangers, and ultimately Jarlaxle escaped before they could learn who he was … and then came Gardenia’s crazy uncle.

Gardenia had it as part of her backstory that her parents were part of a bioterrorist sect of druids who had staged a siege against Waterdeep years earlier when she was a kid — that’s how she ended up as an orphan. Her crazy uncle worked for Manshoon and had a simulacrum made of him in an effort to capture her, make a clone of her, and implant it back into the group. That would’ve been cool, but … they managed to defeat him. Life is full of surprises.

With their new member in tow, they finally made their way to Kolat Towers and infiltrated it pretty quickly. Jarlaxle waited outside with Humphrey as collateral (his player couldn’t make it), and they got into Manshoon’s sanctum and fought a simulacrum. Bear in mind, they were level 5 for this, so that was no mean feat. The got the mask and got out of dodge, and headed over to the Vault at Jarlaxle’s behest.

The actual Vault is pretty underwhelming, to be honest. It took about half an hour to make it through with Jarlaxle, and when they came out I staged another fight with another Manshoon simulacrum (this is a recurring theme), Skeemo, the traitorous Doom Raider, and some other lackeys. Davil and Ziraj showed up to help, and before long he was vanquished and the Open Lord, the Blackstaff, and Mirt showed up to negotiate with Jarlaxle. By now, the party had taken something of a liking to the drow rapscallion, and they put in a good word for him with the Open Lord. Because of this, she agreed to let Luskan into the Lords’ Alliance (his goal from the start) and to give the party their agreed-upon 10%. How nice!

That’s pretty much how Dragon Heist went. I added a lot of extra shit to it. There was lots of roleplay opportunities, city exploration, development of their tavern business, and advancement within their various factions. I’m much more proud of how this part of the campaign went than with how Dungeon of the Mad Mage turned out. All told, Dragon Heist took us a whopping 29 sessions to complete. 5-10 my ass. With that, we were on to the much, much worse, in DotMM.

https://mobile.twitter.com/Cheddarface_/status/1184677951884840962

WDH is, once again, a delightful urban adventure. It’s got 50 or so pages of campaign guide at the back in the form of Volo’s Waterdeep Enchiridion, which is a wonderful supplement describing the city. I appreciate this setup greatly — having a campaign setting separate from the actual adventure is a much better way to organize things, and I wish OotA had done this as well. DotMM is a much less impressive romp, despite being three times as long.

Lessons learned for prospective DMs of Waterdeep – Dragon Heist

  • Factions – as I mentioned above, factions are a huge part of the middle part of this adventure — between the mission to retrieve Floon Blagmar in chapter one and the fireball incident that sparks the chase for the Stone of Golorr, there’s not much else to do other than renovate the tavern (which doesn’t provide much in the way of experiential gains as written) and deal with Frewn (which could include a couple encounters if you expand on the provided material) unless your players are affiliated with factions. The faction missions are delightful little blurbs that are easy to expand on and provide some really great creative sparks — in fact this applies pretty much to all of chapter two, the Frewn plans and the renovation of the tavern included.
    • If you’re a DM make sure you read up on the 6 factions (the 5 basic factions of Faerun are included, along with Bregan D’aerthe). It’s fairly easy to divide your players into ones that make sense — rogues and warlocks can fit into the Zhentarim easily, bards, artificers, and wizards can fit in with the Harpers, clerics and paladins line up with the Order of the Gauntlet, druids and rangers will like the Emerald Enclave, and basically any class can join the Lords’ Alliance.
    • It’s a little harder to incorporate Bregan D’aerthe — they’re a bit more morally grey and they strictly only allow male drow among their ranks so the likelihood of being able to utilize them is slim.
    • In any case, it’s fairly easy to transplant missions between the factions with a little effort. Harper, Lords’ Alliance, and Order of the Gauntlet Missions can all rotate pretty freely — the Zhent missions are a bit less cut-and-dry and the Emerald Enclave missions are more nature-themed, but honestly you can swap in whatever you think is cool.
    • If your players aren’t receptive to the faction idea you can still introduce the NPCs affiliated with them and give them the missions that way. It’s recommended that they take out loans to build the tavern, either from Mirt or the Doom Raiders’ Istrid Horn. Mirt could sweeten the deal a bit if they do some Harper missions for him, and Istrid can likewise do that with Zhent missions. The Lords’ Alliance could call upon them as a civic duty, and the Emerald Enclave theoretically do so as well. The Order of the Gauntlet missions could slot in if they ever require help from a temple (to cure a disease or revive a fallen party member, for example). Once again, there are barely any ways to incorporate the Bregan D’aerthe missions, but if your players end up in my situation where Jarlaxle coerces them into procuring the hoard for him, he could also use the opportunity of having them under his thumb to send them on some missions. I suppose you could use those as an example of what the drow are up to, and send your players to thwart them.
  • Waterdeep – It may sound obvious, but if you’re going to run this adventure it pays to know as much about Waterdeep as you reasonably can. Volo’s Waterdeep Enchiridion is an invaluable resource in this regard, and I’d recommend dedicating an afternoon to sitting down and actually reading it. Don’t skim it, read it. Take some notes on the wards, what they’re called, what they’re known for, and who lives there. Some of the important figures around town are worth knowing about too, like the Open Lord, the Gray Hands and their leader the Blackstaff, the City Watch and City Guard (yes, there’s a difference), the underground groups, and well-known business proprietors and religious leaders. It’s worth giving this out to your players, too. It’s pretty fun to use the systems of public transit early on to give a feeling of the scale (hire carriages, drays, etc) and make your players pay for it, but eventually you can just handwave it. Remember to point out the most interesting features — Mount Waterdeep, the Walking Statues, the Yawning Portal, Castle Waterdeep, the Market, etc. Know as much as you can about the city, who’s in charge, and what your players are and aren’t allowed to do. (Wearing weapons is a no-no! That’s going to be a tough sell for adventurers.) If you don’t know, don’t be afraid to pause and look it up. And if it’s not there, make it up, and write it down immediately.
  • NPCs – There are a lot of NPCs in this adventure, a lot of them easily memorable. But Waterdeep is enormous and you’re going to need a good way to pull up more people, quickly. My method for this was to randomly generate 40 NPCs (20 male, 20 female) of varying races, with humans being much more present than half-orcs, dragonborns, and tieflings. I grabbed their name, race, age, some basic personality characteristics, and an easy voice reference and put them on a table. Then, whenever the players interacted with someone for more than a few seconds, I could roll on the table and have a fully-fledged NPC ready to go. Then after the session I could repopulate that cell of the table and add the new NPC to their proper location in my notes. You can use this method to generate a random shop, temple, house, etc. There are lots of resources online to generate them, the trick is to do the legwork beforehand so it seems intentional and you can make sure you only have stuff on your table that you’re excited about.
  • Pacing – Me giving advice on pacing this adventure is a bit like a sloth giving racing tips, but ultimately it’s going to vary heavily depending on your group. If your party isn’t interested in roleplay as much as they are in hacking and slashing, first of all you could just skip straight to Dungeon of the Mad Mage, but if you run this you’ll probably want to breeze through chapter 2 pretty quick to get to the more exciting stuff. The encounter chains all include some fun combat scenarios so you could also try and build your own based on what you think are the most interesting ones. They’ll also probably love the villain lairs so try and incorporate those (you could throw some extra Vault keys in there like I did). If you want to focus on excitement and combat, this adventure is likely to take you a pretty scant amount of time, likely around 5 sessions.
    • Conversely, if you want to do as I did and really milk the hell out of the social aspects of the game like the tavern renovations and interactions with factions, definitely look into the added content available on dmsguild.com — there’s a lot there to expand on all the faction mission blurbs and turn them into full sessions of content in their own right — I went kind of overboard, though, and ended up taking a bit too long. Your players aren’t going to be interested in sitting at levels 1-5 forever, so make sure you either scale up the content of the late game here or get them ready for a long haul. My players spent about 8 sessions at level 2. That’s perhaps 6 too many. Adjust as you go, and don’t be afraid to level your players up when you feel they’ve earned it even when they’re moving past where the book says they ought to be. It’s a lot easier to adjust encounters to be harder than it is to make them easier. Adding more of the same monster tends to be an easy way to do that (CR is a bunk system anyway).
  • Milestones – I’ve never been a fan of XP-based leveling. I think CR and the concept of encounter difficulty are far too vague, and every encounter at early levels is insanely difficult, as every encounter at high level is a cake walk. Only you can know how you DM, and it’s up to you to figure out what’s too hard. In a similar vein I think milestone leveling is always better than XP-based leveling simply because it gives you control over what’s important and worth doing, how long they spend at each level, and how important social encounters are compared to combat ones — especially necessary in this urban adventure that’s far more roleplay-heavy than the others. It’s worth knowing how the adventure is going to play out, on the whole. These estimates are rather vague and definitely not reflective of what my group actually did, but should give you an idea of how much time you need to spend.
    • Chapter one is likely a two-session introduction to the Yawning Portal, our key players, and the city of Waterdeep in general. Expect to get finished with the Zhent hideout by the end of the first, and through the Xanathar Guild hideout before the end of the second. Finish by introducing them to Trollskull Alley and level up to 2. If you think two sessions at level 1 is too many (it might very well be), consider leveling them up after the Zhent hideout, or simply start them at level 2. It’s not going to change much in the way of difficulty.
    • Chapter two is the most fluid of the chapters in the book. Depending on how long you want to make renovating the tavern take, you could just introduce their moneylender of choice right away, handwave the time and money spent, and send them on their way in 10 minutes. You could also spend several sessions sending them to guilds, coercing laborers and doing favors to get the renovations they want done. How descriptive and granular you are largely depends on your group. All that said, this is your time to use the first two (or possibly three, if you need more content) faction missions from each of the factions you can reasonably affiliate your players with. Some of the missions will take half a session, some a full one, but none should take more than one. I’d say a good metric to follow here is (assuming you don’t add any extraneous missions from outside resources) to give them between 8 and 12 faction missions here. That seems like a lot, but you can (and should) break up every 2 or 3 with business with Emmek Frewn, excuses to get to know their neighbors, and interactions with characters like Volo, Renaer, and other characters to establish the plot of the later game. I highly recommend involving your chosen villain in some way, here (spies or visits from the villains themselves are fun), give them an excuse to see a nimblewright, and have Dalakhar show up as well. All that in mind, chapter two should probably take around 5 to 7 sessions total — halfway through, get them to level 3. I think it’s important to have them be done dealing with Frewn by the time chapter three kicks off, and obviously you want them all to be in Trollskull Manor when it begins.
    • Chapter three is where the excitement happens. This is a good time to introduce any new PCs you might have, if you have new players or someone managed to die. Lots of fun characters — read up on the Watchful Order — and a quick investigation. This shouldn’t take too long once they get the nimblewright detector, and characters like the Watchful Order, any of their faction contacts, Vincent Trench, Renaer, and Jarlaxle all serve as good sources of info. I think the investigation shouldn’t take more than a session, two at most, and the infiltration of Gralhund Villa should take one as well. Level up to 4 after this.
    • Chapter four has my favorite part of Dragon Heist — the encounter chains! Note, there are ten locations here, only eight of which are used in each chain. Each chain depends on what villain you’re using and thus what season the adventure takes place in. Each location has a unique description and encounter keyed to the chain it’s in. You can swap stuff around to change things depending on what your players have shown interest in. By this point, maybe they actually found another villain more compelling. Maybe they made friends with others of them. You’re not beholden to the chain, maneuver it around so it makes sense and is the most fun for your group. In general, I found that each chain has only two or three combat-heavy encounters, and as such you can probably knock each chain out in one session at the least, three at the most. It’s up to you if you want to level them to 5 here. If you aren’t adding any extra content, any of the villain lairs, or further investigation, then I’d say get them to level 5 now. If you are adding other stuff, just make sure they’re level 5 before they get to the vault. The vault itself is pretty underwhelming and should definitely only take one session. There’s not even really combat in there.
    • Ultimately we’re looking at 10 sessions at the least, provided your players are receptive to stuff like setting up the tavern and connecting with factions. If not, I could see it being even shorter. On average it’s probably around 15, with no real upper bound other than your players’ patience.
  • Heists and Crawls – Okay, so before I transition into my discussion of Dungeon of the Mad Mage, I want to make one thing very clear. If your party enjoyed the roleplay-heavy, social-encounter-centric, urban romp of Dragon Heist, they (and by extension you) are likely to hate Dungeon of the Mad Mage. It’s absurd that these adventures are considered two halves of the same campaign. Mad Mage is a massive (massive) dungeon crawl, spanning 23 floors with almost no further opportunity for RP. If your group likes that, you likely didn’t spend long with Dragon Heist and can rest assured you’re not going to have much trouble with Mad Mage. On the other hand, if your party enjoyed the social aspects of Dragon Heist, Mad Mage is likely to be a massive disappointment. However — there is hope. My group falls into the latter category, and after about 75 sessions, I’m finished with what I think was a pretty good version of Dungeon of the Mad Mage with some heavy alterations. And I’m here to help you figure out how to make it fun for your group, too.

All that said, this post is already by my estimation about 5,000 words too long, and Dungeon of the Mad Mage is considerably more massive than Dragon Heist, so I’ll be getting to that in another post. I hope this was at least barely readable, and if you made it to the end then I admire your patience and hope at least something was informative or entertaining. Please feel free to let me know if this kind of content is even remotely interesting to you and I may continue with it further on this blog. Additionally I’m sure there’s a ton I left out about my experience with this adventure (since this part of it wrapped up over a year ago), so if you have any questions about any of it, ask away and I’ll respond as immediately as humanly possible.

Until next time.

The Netherworld is Gathered — Hades Review

Anyone who’s read my Twitter account, seen any of the horrible musings I inflicted on the internet on my old blog, or heard me pester my gaming friends knows that I adore Supergiant Games. By my estimation, they’re the only developer that’s never released a game that’s weak in any aspect — visuals, soundtracks, gameplay, story — they always work, every time. Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre were all delightful from top to bottom, and with their newest game they’ve delivered new levels of that same delight, bottom to top.

As they always do, Supergiant has somehow reinvented the wheel on yet another genre, this time taking aim at the roguelike. While the usual suspects you’d expect to find are all here — procedurally-generated maps, weapon upgrades, special abilities, constant death, increasingly difficult boss fights, tight combat, etc. — there’s added layers of depth and complexity that set Hades apart as one of the best roguelikes ever made, borrowing some of the best aspects of other giants of the genre. Take the satisfying, chunky combat of Dead Cells, the canonical deaths and progression of Rogue Legacy, and the bullet-hell chaos of Enter the Gungeon, and you’ve begun to scratch the surface of what Hades sort of feels like, but likely not nearly as good. Hades simply feels exciting to play. The combats are quick and responsive, your upgrades are easily visible and feel impactful with each swing of the sword or shot of the rifle, and the sense of progress in spite of countless deaths is felt, not only because of the constant cycle of upgrading and progressing farther, but also thanks to its consistently engaging story, and how it unfolds slowly with each and every death, revealing itself in a very Supergiant way.

Indeed, all the usual Supergiant trappings are here, as well. The vibrant, line-drawing style of the artwork that makes each character stand out as a unique being is reminiscent of Pyre’s bestial denizens of the Downside, the weapon-based isometric combat comes straight out of Transistor, the cynical narrator presiding over the whole affair feels like a direct callback to Bastion, and the heart-wrenching story that begins ambiguously and unfolds itself as the game wears on reminds one of … well, a Supergiant game. There’s the usual gorgeous landscapes, creative boss fights, and complex upgrade trees to allow you to cater to your own style of play, and of course special mention has to be made of Darren Korb, who not only provides his usual outstanding work on the soundtrack, at times laid back and at times raucous and thumping (with the occasional aid of frequent co-contributor Ashley Barrett’s gorgeous vocals) — he also voices the main character! Supergiant fans will of course also recognize Logan Cunningham as the titular character and a slew of other deities, with writer Greg Kasavin taking up a role or two, as well.

Hades casts us as Zagreus, son of the Greek god of the dead, who attempts — repeatedly — to escape his father’s realm and make it to the surface world. This task is a bit difficult, as you might expect, and as such he’s aided along the way by his extended family, namely a handful of other Greek deities who provide you with boons — mechanical upgrades — with each room you clear. These boons fluctuate in rarity, like in any good RPG, and provide a wide variety of benefits, from inflicting status effects, attacking more quickly, pushing your foes away, or calling on the raw power of the gods a few times per battle to wipe out your competition. One of the great elements of Hades that shines through here is how much all the individual deities and other characters stick out from each other. Their artwork and voice-overs are impeccable, and the abilities they bestow make are unique and fitting.

Aphrodite, for existence, can render your enemies weakened and “heartbroken,” making them deal less damage, while Ares can “doom” them and cause them to take a massive burst of damage after a short time. The divine hunter Artemis makes you crit a lot more, while Zeus lets you strike your foes with lightning when you do just about anything. Hermes is all about making you faster, and Dionysus hilariously allows you to inflict your enemies with a “hangover” condition to damage them over time. This individual expression for all the characters extends beyond the deities, too, thanks to a clever system whereby you can grant nearly every NPC in the game (from gods to demigods to even Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of the Underworld) a gift, after which they’ll give you one in return in the form of a trinket that grants you another minor benefit.

These characters that you’ll encounter run the gamut from the three furies, to Greek heroes like Achilles, Theseus, and Patroclus, to famous tortured souls like Orpheus, Eurydice, and Sisyphus, accompanied by an adorable giant rock with a face carved onto it called “Bouldy.” The designers clearly appreciated Greek myth, and their attention to detail shows.

The boons and trinkets you receive are merely a piece of Hades’s delightful combat puzzle. There are six weapons you have to choose from, each of which can be upgraded in different ways the more you use them, and each equally exciting and powerful in the right hands — with the exception of the longbow Coronacht, which just sort of sucks. While you may get particularly attached to smacking enemies about with an enormous shield, or pelting them from afar with a giant railgun, Hades smartly rewards you for swapping out your weapons from time to time, as the resources needed to upgrade them can only be found by killing a boss with each weapon for the first time.

All of this would be for naught if the combat wasn’t precise, quick, and energetic — which, of course, it is. The different enemies you’ll encounter are keyed to each area of hell you’re in. When you’re in Tartarus, you’re going to fight a lot of explosive-chucking pots, enormous orange ghosts, and disembodied crawling hands, but in Asphodel you’ll face skeletons and sentient boulders, in Elysium you’ll fight exalted souls that come back to life if you don’t vanquish their spirits quick enough, and by the time you get up to the Temple of Styx you’ll be facing off against gigantic venomous rats.The enemies are all visually and audibly distinct, so you can tell at a glance what your strategies will need to be, which is good because you’ll be making a lot of on-the-fly decisions. Hades is at its best when you can strategize and synergize with yourself to make your boons work perfectly for you. Poseidon’s abilities come with a lot of pushing and shoving, so in areas with walls you can slam your enemies into or traps to push them onto, you’re going to want to make sure you’re activating his gifts — but other times you’ll need the massive area-of-effect abilities afforded by special abilities or from certain boons, other times you might want to deflect enemy projectiles back at them courtesy of Athena’s shield-based upgrades, and still other times still you’ll need to dash out over a river a lava to take out a particularly bold foe.

Each weapon has a unique special ability on top of its regular attack, and each deity has specific upgrades keyed to those specific weapons, not to mention the occasional Daedalus hammer which upgrades your weapons specifically in unpredictable ways. You’ve also got a ranged “cast” ability that you can upgrade as well, allowing even further strategy when you reach the point where you’ve got three of them at once, certain deities have buffed it to do certain things, and you can do more damage to enemies that are currently holding onto it. You can also pick up cash to buy further upgrades from Charon’s shop, use darkness to buy permanent upgrades to Zagreus, use chthonic keys to get access to even further upgrades, use gemstones to gain access to randomly-appearing chambers and mid-level challenges for further rewards, trade your various resources in at the black market in the house of Hades, make deals with Chaos itself to suffer short-term consequences for long-term gain … Yeah. There’s a lot going on, but it’s smartly revealed over the course of play, just as the story is, so as not to overwhelm you with mechanics at the outset. By the time you near the end, you probably won’t even realize just how many split-second decisions you’re making, how many boons you’ve linked together to get a truly powerful build, and how many resources you’re managing.

Hades at times feels like a classic dungeon crawler reminiscent of a stripped-down Diablo, and at times it can feel like a frantic twin-stick shooter where you can barely keep track of where you are. Overall it’s very clever with the way it dispenses abilities and upgrades to you, and most of the time you’ve got a choice to make as you finish each chamber to decide if you want to go grab a health upgrade, get some money, visit a store, or receive a boon from a god. The choices you make in each run will impact the way you’re playing drastically, and as you near the end of an escape attempt you’ll realize that you’ve built a completely unique set of boons and abilities that you might not ever see again. After starting a run with three boons from Poseidon in a row, I had created an entire strategy based around shoving enemies into walls, thanks to upgraded damage from doing so, more opportunities to push them, and bonus uses of other abilities that did so as well. Boons from certain deities synergize really well with each other, too, like having an ability from Aphrodite that causes your enemies to take more damage when they’re weakened alongside an ability from Dionysus that damages enemies repeatedly who are near you — or an ability from Zeus that makes you strike lightning when you dash and one from Athena that shoots out a target-seeking arrow every time you damage someone.

Discovering this synergy is a true delight reminiscent of finding game-breaking card combos in Slay the Spire, but it feels more earned in Hades because you’re choosing what gods to gain benefits from every room, and what benefits you want from them. Sometimes, you’ll have to choose between two in one chamber, resulting in you pissing off the other god you didn’t choose and having to fight waves of their minions before they relent and grant you access to an even stronger boon. Other times, still, they’ll come together as part of the same boon and give you a super-charged combined boon ability unique to those two gods. All the while you’re hacking away at hordes of enemies and racking up dozens of small upgrades that you slot into your usual style of play. No two runs ever look the same, nor do the ways you choose to dispatch the fearsome bosses, which get stronger each time you best them and seem to learn from your chosen strategies. If you hadn’t noticed, there’s a ton of depth in Hades’s combat that isn’t immediately apparent, and it all works to its advantage.

While roguelikes have managed to make your numerous deaths canonical to the game in the past, none have ever done it as well as Hades does. Due to the nature of “life” in the Underworld, not only will your numerous foes remember your past encounters with them — successful or otherwise — and chide you about them, your friends back home in the house of Hades will, as well. Additionally, Zagreus will begin to learn more and more about the world he inhabits, and his little conversations with the narrator, the booming voice of his father, and himself are all a treat as he guesses along with us what version of the next fight he might be going into and remark when he faces an enemy we haven’t seen before.

I have loved other games of this genre before — the phenomenal recent release Risk of Rain 2 comes to mind — none have ever managed to tell a fully-realized story within the confines of the roguelike’s bread and butter, namely dying over and over. This setting seems like a no-brainer for such a tale, and it really is a treat to learn more about Zagreus’s parentage, what began his conflict with his father, and the mysteries of all the other characters he comes across, the like aforementioned Greek heroes, minor deities who inhabit his father’s house, and a skeleton who serves as your punching bag to test new weapons on. Odds are, if you can talk to somebody, you can talk to them another 15 times to learn more and more about their stories.

While the main campaign is likely to take you a brisk 15 hours or so, there’s tons of extra content after the credits roll to keep you coming back, in the form of a huge amount of additional challenges, extra upgrades to keep unlocking, and more of the story to discover. While it might not have the branching story paths of other Supergiant games, Hades has some of the most relatable characters and sharp writing of any of them, and really feels like a culmination of all the experimentation the studio has done over the last decade. Supergiant has once again created something greater than the sum of its parts, and Hades manages to be an engrossing story wrapped in a delightfully intense action game.

Exit the Warrior

In 2010 or thereabouts, on a trip to Wal-Mart (I want to say it was to buy StarCraft II), my father reached into a bargain CD bin and pulled something out. “Have you ever heard this?” he asked. I hadn’t. “You’ll like it.” I did.

It was, of course, Moving Pictures, the seminal work from the progenitors of progressive metal, Rush. As a drummer, he suspected I’d appreciate their brilliantly talented rhythm section, as I obviously did, but there was something else in there, too.

As a deeply nerdy teenager attempting to find a place in the world, Rush resonated with me in a way nothing else had before. It wasn’t until later that I learned that that had, essentially, been what they’d been doing for over 30 years by that point. To the outcast, ostracized, and tragically unhip, Rush were the beacon. Rush “got it,” because Rush were it. They knew how hip it was to be square long before Huey Lewis did.

After devouring Moving Pictures front to back, I went on to pick up a best-of and added everything to my constantly-repeated playlist which to that point primarily consisted of “stuff my parents listen to” and the odd video game soundtrack. And a few years after that when Clockwork Angels came out, I immediately picked that up, too. I thought it was incredible. I still do.

While the virtuosity and impact of Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee is not to be understated, anyone will agree that the lifeblood of Rush was always Neil Peart. As the drummer he laid down consistently inventive and technically impressive beats, fills, and solos that easily placed him among the ranks of not only the legendary rock drummers like Keith Moon and John Bonham, but the jazz legends like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, as well. Instantly recognizable and impossible to emulate, Neil Peart was the quintessential prog drummer, even when Rush wasn’t making progressive music. But they always were, weren’t they?

The depth and weight of their music is not only due to the musical proficiency on display, but also to the lyrics set to it. Starting in 1975, Neil became the chief lyricist for the band, causing the band to take a huge leap from “Hey, baby, it’s a quarter to eight, I feel I’m in the mood” to “By-Tor, knight of darkness, centurion of evil” in less than a year. And while it’s true he wrote lyrics about wizards, spaceships, and talking trees, he was also writing about the human spirit, what it means to be free, and how the ordinary person can make a difference. While the legions of nerds that flocked to the band in the ’80s may have been brought in by songs about Sauron or black holes, they stayed because of the songs like Subdivisions or Mission that made them feel like they weren’t alone.

The R40 concert in Phoenix was the first concert I ever bought a ticket for with my own money, and the only time I ever got to see them. I didn’t understand at the time that it was the end of their story, but in hindsight it was pretty well telegraphed that this was it. The concert was a nearly religious experience, and shortly after it I bought every Rush CD I could get my hands on. This was just before I went off to college.

Rush became the soundtrack to my first year of college, and was the only thing that staved off the pervasive loneliness that arises when one leaves home for the first time. Songs like Far Cry, Prime Mover, and Grand Designs still remind me of walking around campus in the winter, feeling cold and moderately terrified of the unsavory characters that permeate Las Vegas late in the evening, but not wanting to return to my room that felt a bit like a prison. It’s certainly melodramatic to say so, but Rush’s music was really the only friend I had that first semester.

In the ensuing years I fully embraced my love for the band, forcibly introducing any friends I made to their music. I taped posters up all over my dorm room, blasted Rush records for the enjoyment of the people walking by in the hallway, and went to see Rush documentaries in the theater. I titled all of my essays after lyrics from Rush songs, bought and read all of Neil’s books, started a vaguely Rush-themed blog, and ran a Dungeons and Dragons campaign based on Clockwork Angels. I was, and remain, fully entrenched. I know that, to many of my friends and loved ones, I’m the person who pops into their mind when they see or hear anything related to Rush. I consider this a great honor.

I owe nearly all of my present music taste to Rush; without them I’d not have found my current favorites like Dream Theater, Neal Morse, or Ayreon, or nearly any other progressive rock bands. Because, as few understand, while bands like King Crimson or The Moody Blues may have invented prog, it was Rush, and more specifically Neil Peart, who made it matter. The headiness, extravagance, and ethereal nature of progressive music was made relatable to the average nerd by Neil Peart, through Rush’s music. He knew the struggle of the geek, and wanted to make music that people who enjoyed things like 2001: A Space Odyssey or who knew what the word “Demogorgon” meant could connect with.

Neil Peart’s life wasn’t a simple one — the tremendous personal losses he suffered in the late ’90s nearly spelled the end of the band, but ultimately the music brought him back the same way it brought light to the millions of ravenous Rush fans who never let piles of bad reviews spoil their love for the weird. On their final tour he endured severe physical stress from the various ailments that come from being the greatest drummer alive for four decades, but he didn’t let it stop him. He was deeply private, rarely appearing in an interview or another situation that would require him to deal with having praise heaped on him. He didn’t even ride the tour bus with the band, preferring to explore the world from the seat of a motorcycle. Even when he fell deathly ill, he wouldn’t trouble his fans with knowing so. He was, is, and always will be a legend.

Thank you, to the Professor, to the Watchmaker, to the Necromancer, to Pratt, Peke, Bubba, and the Ghost Rider. To the working man, and the new world man.

Thank you, Neil Peart. Rest well.

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Top 10 Games of 2019

That’s right, three posts in less than a month. Don’t get used to it. Let’s get started with some honorable mentions, which this year are going to games I didn’t get around to for one reason or another. Or, rather, for one reason.

Honorable Mention — Outer Wilds

Not to be confused with The Outer Worlds. This game is honestly a perfect recipe for a game I’d love. It’s got outer space, it’s got puzzles, and it’s got a Time Loop, which I always love (see: Groundhog Day, Majora’s Mask, Groundhog Day). That said, I don’t really make a habit of buying digital content on console and only really dusted off the PS4 for one or two games this year (as seems to happen every year). I can’t wait for it to come out on PC. 

Honorable Mention — Metro Exodus

I didn’t play much of the previous games in this series, which led to this one also sort of flying under the radar for me, but after its impressive showing at E3 a few years back I was definitely excited for it. … Not excited enough, as it seems, as I didn’t deem it worthy enough of getting my PS4 controllers to work and spending a day updating the console, but its post-apocalyptic semi-open-world setting and creatively immersive game design definitely seem like something I’d enjoy. I can’t wait for it to come out on PC.

Honorable Mention — The Outer Worlds

Not to be confused with Outer Wilds. As someone who always wanted to get into Mass Effect but never had the time or energy to commit to such a sizable saga, The Outer Worlds would’ve most likely scratched the space RPG itch. I can’t wait for it to come out on PC. 

Now that those are out of the way, let’s get on with the proper list.

10. Untitled Goose Game

If it wasn’t clear by my completely un-subtle jabs before, I wasn’t especially pleased this year by how many titles were taken out of my grasp by Epic Games Store exclusivity (sidebar — I’m totally fine with expanding the market beyond Steam, but I’d rather have an alternative that isn’t as feature-barren, malware-prone, and shadily funded). This was one of the games on that list, but I opted to pick it up on my Switch (my reasoning behind being reticent to buy digital games on PS4 but having no such qualms about doing so on the Switch make sense to nobody, including myself). There isn’t much to Untitled Goose Game, but what’s there is delightful. It’s a charming little stealth/puzzle game where you’re a horrible goose doing horrible things, and its style carries it a long way. The art and environments are simplistic but rich with detail, the gameplay is easy to pick up and put down, the piano-driven soundtrack that responds to your actions is lovely, and the game itself is just a damn riot. There’s not much to be said about Untitled Goose Game, but its certainly worth playing around with.

9. Luigi’s Mansion 3

All the way back in 2001, with the launch of the GameCube came a decidedly odd entry to the Mario series, a screwball horror/exploration title starring everyone’s favorite second banana. Somehow, despite how stupidly good that game was, we’ve only had two sequels to it in the almost two decades to follow. While 2013’s Dark Moon was fine, it lost some of the charm of the series and turned a surprisingly spooky experience into a point-and-click puzzler that was a bit too long. Luigi’s Mansion 3 regains a bit of the lost luster, but doesn’t quite reach the heights of the first. The singular, interconnected mansion of the first game still isn’t back, but our gigantic hotel feels a bit more cohesive than the separate areas of Dark Moon. And while the ghostbusting action feels a lot better on the Switch than it did on the 3DS, it still hasn’t regained its chops as a horror game, leaning into the action/puzzle side of things. Luckily, it does those things very well and provides a really fun throwback with enough new mechanics (Gooigi being the obvious standout) and collectibles to keep classic fans interested. On top of that, it looks great and has some really interesting puzzles, to boot. I’m always happy to see some of the GameCube magic return, and this gives me hope for games like Metroid Prime 4 (and maybe a Sunshine remaster? Please?)

8. Borderlands 3

Another entry in the ‘finally a third game’ category, Borderlands 3 brings us back to Pandora for the first time in 7 years, along with a bunch of other fun locales, with a fantastic new set of playable characters. Borderlands 3 should be commended for the amount of new things it tries, but unfortunately only about half of them work. While the new playable characters are great additions to the crew, too few of our old favorites are in attendance, and the ones that are are given little weight in the story. Essentially the entire story rests on the shoulders of two characters, neither of whom have ever been especially compelling, and rather than bring in some old greats like Dr. Zed, Salvador, or Gaige, they instead bring in some new characters who are thoroughly pointless or recycle the same jokes we’ve seen a hundred times before (but this time with more poop). Our villains are quite interesting, when they’re not just trying to be Handsome Jack 2.0, and some of the story twists are legitimately exciting. While the gameplay is largely improved by a handful of quality-of-life improvements (being able to replenish your ammo at the touch of a button is genius), the game’s performance on console is sadly lackluster, with the game operating more as a slideshow than a real game when playing splitscreen (again, can’t wait for the Steam release in April). While it’s certainly a much more different experience than we got in the Pre-Sequel, the writing and humor suffer a drastic dip in quality. Ultimately, it’s more Borderlands, which is always a good thing, and the shlooter mechanics this series invented are honed to a fine point.

7. Tetris 99

There really isn’t a whole lot to say here. It’s a Tetris battle royale which, against all odds, works incredibly well. It’s really the kind of game that has to be played to be believed. I mean, it’s Tetris. Haven’t you played Tetris? What else do I have to say?

6. Darksiders Genesis

The Darksiders series has always held a special place in my heart for how well it leans into its absolutely ridiculous setup. You play as the four horsemen of the apocalypse wandering a post-nuclear winter Earth armed with comically gigantic weapons and a horse made of fire. Genesis strays from the Zelda-meets-God-of-War mechanics of prior entries and instead presents us with a co-op top-down experience that’s somewhere between a twin-stick shooter and a dungeon crawler. It’s satisfying in its simplicity, and while it lacks the constant loot-grinding of most dungeon crawlers, it provides an ample supply of collectibles and upgrades while telling an engaging tale about Strife and War, brilliantly voiced by Chris Jai Alex and Critical Role’s Liam O’Brien, respectively. The change-up in game style seemed like an odd choice at the start, but after an hour or two I wondered why the series hadn’t done it yet. Genesis works equally well as a solo experience or a cooperative one, and rekindled my excitement about the bizarre lore of these silly games.

5. Apex Legends

Not one, but two battle royale games on this list? It’s the end times, folks. Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes! Volcanoes! Dogs and cats- …. you get it. Apex Legends, from Titanfall developer Respawn is a brilliant game, and the first battle royale shooter that I’ve actually connected with. Where predecessors like PUBG and Fortnite failed, be it with sloppy shooting mechanics, unnecessary gimmicks, or shoddy communication, Apex succeeds. The shooting feels tight and precise, the mobility skills a la Titanfall pilots add a crazy amount of dimension to the action, its respawn system makes for a simultaneously more tense and less punishing experience, and the ping system it introduced was so revolutionary that its competitors have already copied it. I’ve often praised the Titanfall series for being perhaps the perfect shooters, since they’re easy to pick up, give multiple paths to success, look and sound great, and — most importantly — feel amazingly fun to play. Apex translates all of this seamlessly to the battle royale genre. The only bad thing I can think to say here is that it might make Titanfall 3 take longer to get made. And also that I suck at it. But that was honestly a given.

4. Baba is You

Seems like every year we get a puzzle game that introduces an entirely unique concept and manages to create something unlike anything else while still being incredibly satisfying to play. In 2017 it was Opus Magnum, in 2018 it was Return of the Obra Dinn. This year, it was Baba is You. While not a whole lot to look at (cut it some slack, it was made by one guy), Baba is You is deceptive in just how deep its mechanics are and how devious its puzzles become. The central conceit of the game is that you can affect the rules by which you play. Maybe you take the sentences “Baba is you” and “Flag is win” and swap some words around so you control the flag and have to touch Baba to win. Or you maneuver things so that you control both Baba and all the rocks on the stage, and can walk through walls. Or you can float over lava, but now you have to touch a key to win the level, but the key also moves every time you do and you’re also controlling some gears. You get the idea. The complexity ramps up quickly, and the game gets really challenging in the later levels. Baba is You is full of charm and is as smart as it is adorable, and it makes for the best puzzling experience of the year.

3. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening

I had a difficult time deciding whether or not this game belonged on the list, considering it’s technically a remake of a nearly 30-year-old Game Boy game. That said, while Link’s Awakening for the Switch manages to be an incredibly faithful reproduction of the monochrome classic, it still feels, looks, and sounds like an entirely new experience. First and foremost, Link’s Awakening has a delightful art style that makes the world and its inhabitants look like they came out of a 1960’s Christmas special, and I mean that in the best way possible. The game is simply beautiful, and the music recreates the classic tunes (like the inimitable Frog’s Song of Soul) while breathing so much new life into them. The game itself ages surprisingly well, and little new needs to be added in order for this to remain a challenging little adventure game with tons of heart and depth. Sure, there are the invariable issues that all of the classic Zelda games have, such as struggling to find the specific bush you have to cut down in order to progress, but luckily some helpful tweaks have been made that make the overall experience a joy. Link’s Awakening is probably the strangest game in a series known for some truly weird things (remember the hand that comes out of the toilet in the Stock Pot Inn?), and this bold choice in art direction absolutely pays off, making Link’s Awakening a must-buy for anyone with a Switch and a love of adventure.

2. Slay the Spire

Holy cow, Slay the Spire is good. Imagine, if you will, a deck-builder like Dominion or Mage Knight transposed over top of a roguelike adventure game with unique character classes, varied encounters, and challenging boss battles. Now take whatever you were imagining and make it about ten times better, and you’ve got Slay the Spire. Truth be told, I forgot this game actually came out in 2019 (it came out in January and had been out in early access for two years prior, sue me), but I’m glad I realized it did in time to tabulate this list, as it definitely earns a high spot. Slay the Spire is just so … satisfying to play. Everything synergizes together so well, and compiling the perfect hand of cards to deal with a tough boss is one of the most gratifying experiences I had in any game this year. Honestly, it just works in a way a lot of roguelikes and most deck builders don’t. If you missed out on this one, do yourself a favor and pick it up. You won’t regret it.

1. Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Wow, I liked a Fire Emblem game, what a shock. Back in 2013, Awakening was my game of the year (certainly an unusual pick in a year that gave us The Last of Us, Grand Theft Auto V and … that game where you wander around a house and rifle through your sister’s laundry). I’ve pretty much loved the Fire Emblem series for as long as I’ve been aware of it, which, as with many Americans, means since Melee. I’m a sucker for good tactical strategy, and the storylines and character interactions in the Fire Emblem series add an extra level of enjoyment (despite how anime it all is). Three Houses pretty much condenses everything great about the last few Fire Emblem games into one package, essentially offering three-and-a-half games for the price of one. While the story is a mess at times and some characters are essentially useless, there’s just so damn much here that you can’t really complain. The original crunch of the tactical strategy is here, with some great additions like adjutants and gambits to add some extra options on the battlefield. The environments are more varied than ever, the extra toughness of the demonic beasts is a welcome challenge, and the monastery hub world is a vast improvement from the awkward overworld of Fire Emblem Fates. Not to mention that the story is engaging, the characters and support conversations are as fun as ever, and the game looks gorgeous. It’s certainly the best the series has ever looked, and while sometimes the combat errs on the side of too easy (which is always fixed by difficulty settings) and the story can veer off into anime nonsense, to my mind it’s the best Fire Emblem game since Path of Radiance, and the best game of 2019.

 

And … there we have it. As usual, it was tough to rank those last three, and any of them honestly could’ve taken the top spot depending on the day. What do you think? Hit me up on the Twitter or throw a comment on here. Disagree with my picks? I don’t … I don’t really care. It’s my list. I didn’t make you read it. See you next year.