Top Ten Albums of 2021

It’s (a month past) that time of year again, people. Lots of new music from some old favorites, plus a couple nice surprises this year. Let’s get right into it

10. Steve Hackett – Under a Mediterranean Sky

Known to many as the virtuoso guitarist in the early days of Genesis, Steve Hackett’s been steadily pumping out some excellent solo work over the last several years, when he’s not busy touring with some of Genesis’s finest prog material from the early-to-mid ’70s. Under a Mediterranean Sky is a bit different from what we’ve come to expect from Hackett, serving up a deeply atmospheric and melodically complex batch of classical pieces, punctuated by surreal strings and Hackett’s ever-dutiful classical guitar work that’s second to none. A wonderful and largely very relaxing collection of songs, Under a Mediterranean Sky doesn’t do much to push the envelope, but it serves as a nice bit of calming background music with some very interesting arrangements and evocative musical landscapes.

Best tracks: Sirocco, Joie de Vivre, Lorato

9. Cheap Trick – In Another World

Cheap Trick has managed to churn out fun records on a regular basis for almost fifty years, without much in the way of scandal, fanfare, or lineup changes. The core group remains unchanged, and their output is always listenable at worst and a surprising delight at best. In Another World falls into the latter camp, with up-tempo classic rock-style numbers like Quit Waking Me Up and Here’s Looking at You that evoke their earlier tunes like I Want You to Want Me and Surrender, paired up with both searing rockers such as The Party and a cover of Gimme Some Truth that’s almost good enough to make me want to listen to John Lennon (almost). Along with these tracks are some more solemn, contemplative tunes like So It Goes and I’ll See You Again that have the band members showing their experience after years in the industry. In Another World isn’t anything bombastic or wildly different for anyone who’s followed Cheap Trick, but it’s a great batch of tunes covering a variety of rock styles that shouldn’t disappoint anyone who gives it a shot.

Best tracks: This Summer Looks Good on You, Quit Waking Me Up, Passing Through

8. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss – Raise the Roof

Rock legend Robert Plant and bluegrass genius Alison Krauss were an unexpected and — quite frankly — extremely weird pairing when their first collaboration, Raising Sand, came out back in 2007. For whatever reason, though, the pairing of their disparate styles worked extremely well, and it works even better on Raise the Roof. An album of eclectic covers, Raise the Roof smartly pairs the two vocalists up for a number of tracks while also giving each a few tracks to shine in the foreground. Plant’s vocals have always been an acquired taste (as a Rush fan, who am I to judge?) but Krauss remains the finest female vocalist in the field right now, as she has been since the ’80s. Her voice has grown into itself incredibly well over the years, and she continues to be the best part of this musical pairing, shining on songs like the meandering The Price of Love and the morose Going Where the Lonely Go. Plant, for his part, demonstrates his aged range nicely in his time at the front in earworms like Go Your Way and Searching for my Love, which sounds like it could’ve come off of Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door album. Overall, Raise the Roof was a surprise to behold but a well-arranged and very enjoyable combination of two very different voices and styles. That said, the sooner Krauss quits messing around with this Led Zep guy and gets back together with the boys in Union Station, the better.

Best tracks: Searching for my Love, Can’t Let Go, High and Lonesome

7. Styx – Crash of the Crown

Speaking of old favorites coming back to the spotlight, Styx have managed another successful turn after 2017’s excellent The Mission with Crash of the Crown, an admittedly much more bombastic and enjoyable selection of tracks than either of Dennis DeYoung’s albums from the last two years. Where DeYoung clearly struggled with his own ego and need for self-referential anthems, Crash of the Crown boasts a surprising depth and range over its 15 tracks. While most of the tracks admittedly feel half-baked (only one manages to break the four-minute mark, and then only barely), and there is a lot of needless poking at current events in some of the more ham-fisted lyrics, it’s hard not to hear that classic ’70s pomp rock influence in tunes like The Fight of Our Lives, Our Wonderful Lives, and the title track. The core trio of Tommy Shaw, Lawrence Gowan, and founding member JY Young have their fingerprints all over this, with Gowan’s contributions feeling better-integrated than on previous albums– especially on tunes like A Monster and Hold Back the Darkness — and drummer Todd Sucherman remains an absolute beast. He may be the most underrated drummer playing right now. Overall, while Crash of the Crown’s ideas do seem a little bit too far-flung, they’re all great ideas that make for an incredibly fun album.

Best tracks: Crash of the Crown, Our Wonderful Lives, Reveries

6. Dream Theater – A View from the Top of the World

Dream Theater seems to have finally learned how to make music in a post-Portnoy world (took them long enough) and produced a collection of songs that rival some of their best output of the past 20 years. With Petrucci breaking out the 8-string guitar for the monstrous Awaken the Master, Mangini (who sounds better than ever (FINALLY)) absolutely annihilating on the drum set in the rollicking opener The Alien, and LaBrie still managing some great vocal feats as he nears 60, A View from the Top of the World feels like the quintessential Mangini-era Dream Theater album — their first two albums following founding drummer Mike Portnoy’s resignation from the band were meandering and mostly retreaded old ground, The Astonishing was a beautiful disaster, and Distance Over Time solved most of their songwriting problems while introducing new ones — and honestly came as a surprise to me for how much fun I had with all of its 7 enormous tracks. Invisible Monster immediately gets stuck in my head, Sleeping Giant has some really great keyboard flourishes and guitar riffs, the 20-minute title track is a bit disjointed but sweeping and epic in its scope, and Transcending Time is essentially a love letter to Rush, so of course that’s a win for me. It’s finally a good time to be a Dream Theater fan again.

Best tracks: Sleeping Giant, Transcending Time, Awaken the Master

5. Liquid Tension Experiment – LTE3

The first of three (four?) Mike Portnoy appearances on this list, LTE came back with a vengeance after more than 20 years off, and boy did they remind us of what we were missing. LTE3 is pretty much non-stop prog metal excellence from the opening notes of the frantic Hypersonic all the way through the end of the sweeping Key to the Imagination, and while the disc of improvised bonus tracks may lack some of the structure and tightness of the main tracks, it shows off some truly unparalleled musicianship and composition ability between Portnoy, Petrucci, Rudess, and Levin. Though the boys in LTE may be getting up there in the years (Tony Levin is 75!) they haven’t slowed down a bit, and throughout the album they demonstrate some of the most precise, blistering, and exciting work any of them ever has. The album takes us through a number of musical feels, as its predecessors did, but most will agree that LTE remains at its strongest when they just sit down and shred — and there’s plenty of that to love here.

Best tracks: Hypersonic, The Passage of Time, Rhapsody in Blue

4. Transatlantic – The Absolute Universe

As I wrote last year when it released, The Absolute Universe is another marvelous return from a Mike Portnoy supergroup, this time with ever-present compatriot Neal Morse helming the ship. The Absolute Universe’s two versions both show off some tremendous prog rock chops, with majestic melodies, ear-catching riffs, great vocal turns from all four band members, and plenty of fun repeating themes and references to older material. It’s hard to pick a favorite between the two albums, but regardless, a fan of prog rock will be hard-pressed not to find something to love here.

Best tracks: Heart Like a Whirlwind, Owl Howl, Rainbow Sky

3. Mammoth WVH – Mammoth WVH

The debut album from Wolfgang Van Halen’s new band — which on this recording is completely composed of him and him alone — reads like a love letter to ’90s rock. Traces of bands like the Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, and Queens of the Stone Age are all over this, but the undeniable Van Halen strain is present throughout, as well. While he never directly attempts to mimic his late father’s inimitable shredding, Van Halen develops a sound all his own that manages to pay tribute to all his musical heroes and inspirations while coming up with some insanely catchy hooks and choruses. While songs like Mr. Ed and the heart-rending closer Distance clearly pay tribute to Eddie Van Halen, there are some really clever and unique-sounding ideas here that, while somewhat unpolished, will clearly pave the way for a lot of future success. While Mammoth WVH’s debut album might be a bit samey and uninspired at times, there’s a ton of talent here, and a lot of really fun tunes.

Best tracks: Horribly Right, Don’t Back Down, Feel

2. The Neal Morse Band – Innocence and Danger

Blah blah blah, I love Neal Morse. Like I wrote about this one back in September, Innocence and Danger might not be the best output from the Neal Morse Band, but it’s certainly a wonderful confluence of their various (and sizeable) musical talents, and a tremendous bit of progressive rock.

Best tracks: Bird on a Wire, Bridge over Troubled Water, Beyond the Years

1. Greta Van Fleet – The Battle at Garden’s Gate

I know it’s popular to bash these guys as being derivative of Led Zeppelin and a pretty cliché pastiche of ’70s rock, but I’m gonna be honest — I don’t care. GVF is some of the most fun music out there right now, and while those bluesy-hard-rock inspirations were exceedingly clear on their first two outings, The Battle at Garden’s Gate sees GVF evolving into something a bit more art rock, a bit more metal, a bit more prog, and even better than before. Does Josh Kiszka sound a whole hell of a lot like Robert Plant? Absolutely. Does that make it bad? Far from it. I’m not here to defend the band, because I’m just making these lists for myself for the most part anyway, but I would honestly challenge any naysayers to give this album a spin and tell me it wasn’t a blast to listen to.

Best tracks: My Way Soon, Stardust Chords, The Weight of Dreams

A Pattern so Grand – The Wheel of Time Season 1

As a fan of Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series, I’ve been impatiently awaiting its television adaptation since it was announced. With the recent success (for the most part) of shows like Game of Thrones, I had moderately high hopes for a story that I thought was ripe for the screen. The Wheel of Time has some of the best character arcs and worldbuilding I’ve read, and I hoped that showrunner Rafe Lee Judkins would prove able to the task of navigating its myriad locales, heroes, villains, and histories, and turning out a cohesive and engaging narrative. Were his efforts successful? Yes and no.

Not the Beginning, but a Beginning

Note: Spoilers for all 8 episodes of the show as well as minor spoilers for the books follow.

While it’s not necessarily fair to compare the 8-episode first season against the depth and breathing room afforded to an 800-page novel, being a fan of the books certainly served to set and temper my expectations for what we’d see here, and by and large I have to say that I’m impressed with what the showrunners were able to accomplish considering the mammoth task and the less-than-ideal circumstances under which the Covid lockdowns forced them to operate. Fitting the length and breadth of a novel as rich and dense as The Eye of the World into a mere 8 episodes seems like a fool’s errand, and it’s easy to see the places where entire characters, storylines, and locations had to be glossed over or completely changed from the source material in service of the story at large.

Most of Jordan’s themes are recreated well (with one glaring misstep), and the overall plot of the series tends the cut close enough to the books to be familiar to readers, but distances itself enough to not be completely overwhelming to a newcomer. I know that as a reader I was always excited to see the appearance of certain characters or places I knew from the books, but I also know some who never read them who were equally engaged and enjoyed some aspects as much as I did.

Let me start by addressing the elephant in the room, though. Anyone who’s engaged with Jordan’s writing at all will tell you that one of the central conceits of his story is the dynamic between men and women — the struggles between the Aes Sedai and the Dragon Reborn, a man destined to be a powerful channeler (user of the world’s magic, the “One Power”) who must go mad, as all men who channel do; and the political trevails of the women who rule the world and their relationships with the men who challenge them, serve them, and protect them. Jordan’s portrayal of women can be ham-fisted, but this central dynamic is a keystone of the world he built. Why, then, do the showrunners of the television series feel the need to immediately strike its most fundamental element from the record?

In the first sixty seconds of the pilot, we are told that the Dragon Reborn can be a man or a woman, and that our hero — a notable diversion from The Eye is that Rosamund Pike’s Moiraine Damodred acts as our protagonist rather than Rand al’Thor — has narrowed it down to five possible options, all from the same small town in the Two Rivers (strangely never referred to as Emond’s Field). Not only does this undermine the primary conceit of the source material in the name of adding an unnecessary mystery anyone with half a brain could solve, it makes very little sense in the context of the world the show presents. Namely, if the Dragon Reborn is a woman, why on earth would it be an issue at all? Simply train her under careful watch at the White Tower and all is well, no? But I suppose I digress.

Points in the Pattern

This change isn’t the only one that seemingly makes no sense — the forced romantic relationship between Moiraine and Amyrlin Seat Siuan Sanche takes the wind out of the sails of an intriguing storyline from the first few books, and calls into question later relationships those two characters will have, as well. (Yes, yes, yes, I know that in the prequel book it was implied they fooled around in their youth, but carrying this relationship forward into this stage of their respective careers as Aes Sedai is madnes, and I can’t help but be cynical about why that choice was made.) The casting choices and decisions made with particular characters are all over the place, as well. Sophie Okenodo and Kae Alexander make limited appearances as Siuan Sanche and Min Farshaw, respectively, and while both have solid gravitas one can’t help but notice they are both substantially older than they ought to be given where their stories are ostensibly going.

Meanwhile, there are a number of phenomenally-cast characters who are unfortunately given far too little to do. Alexandre Willaume has a superb turn as fan-favorite Thom Merrilin, Game of Thrones’ Michael McElhatton brings depth and pathos to Tam al’Thor, Johann Myers is a tantalizing Padan Fain, and Alvaro Morte is equal parts ferocious and pitiable as the False Dragon Logain Ablar — but all of them are relegated to glorified side characters, appearing for no more than an episode or two where they should’ve likely been present much more, and would’ve been had the season been given more time to breathe.

Pacing remains a constant issue, and results in some strange decisions like completely removing Caemlyn, thus shuffling around our introductions to important characters like Min and Elayne, along with Loial, played by a scene-stealing Hammed Animashaun, who brings the perfect amount of meandering contemplation to the role. Additionally, important arcs are given no time to develop, forcing us to race through pivotal plot points such as Mat’s theft of the dagger in Shadar Logoth (and its subsequent effects on him), the capture and gentling of Logain Ablar, the events at the Eye of the World, the travel through the Ways, and … well, essentially all of Perrin’s character arc, but more on that later. Meanwhile, we spend a ridiculous amount of time in Tar Valon, a decision I fear will have ripple effects as pertains to Rand and Mat’s future storylines.

All that aside, the first season smartly shifts the focus from the three (now five) ta’veren to Moiraine and her warder al’Lan Mandragoran, played superbly by Daniel Henney. Henney and Pike are the glue holding this season together, and their relationship and roles in the world are expounded on wonderfully. Spending so much time with the Aes Sedai sometimes ends up being a mistake, but their performances along with Kate Fleetwood as Liandrin elevate the material and make us care about the politics and scheming happening behind the scenes, much of which wasn’t ever explained until much later in the books. Again, however, I must question why we spend full episodes in Tar Valon and so much screentime seeing what’s going on with the Aes Sedai instead of our five ostensible heroes.

Josha Stradowski is a bit wooden as Rand al’Thor, but he serves his purpose and begins to come into his own later in the season. The flashback at the start of episode 7 to his birth is one of the best scenes in the season, and his discovery of being the Dragon Reborn is a strange choice but works in the context of the story being told here, somewhat better than the way it was handled in The Eye‘s climax. However, an important scene with him and his father is barely shown at all, robbing it of its import to all but the eagle-eyed. Madeleine Madden as Egwene al’Vere is a delight, but unfortunately lacks any sort of chemistry with Stradowski, meaning all of the unnecessarily-shoehorned romance and love triangle arcs fall completely flat and end up feeling like episodes of Riverdale. The choice to elevate Rand and Egwene’s relationship is an understandable mistake, but a mistake nonetheless, and one that muddies the waters of what’s to come.

On the other hand, Zoe Robins as Nynaeve al’Meara is absolutely fantastic in the role, embodying the character’s anger and strength perfectly, and her on-screen chemistry with Henney’s Lan is perhaps the best part of the season. That relationship never made much sense until much later on the page, but here it is fully-realized and, apart from a few minor quibbles, is given enough time to grow that it feels earned. Henney is to be lauded here for bringing life to a character that could sometimes be rather stale, and his (and the showrunners’) interpretation of Lan Mandragoran is my favorite part of the show so far.

Unfortunately, not all of our ta’veren fare as well.

The Perrin Problem and Cauthon Conundrum

Where the show takes some of its worst steps is in its handling of Perrin Aybara and Mat Cauthon. For his part, Perrin is given an incredibly confusing arc that starts with him accidentally murdering a wife that didn’t exist in the book, and continues with him sort of wandering around aimlessly and sometimes maybe looking at a wolf. The choice to write in a dead wife is completely baffling and serves seemingly no purpose beyond trying to give Perrin something to emote about, and the removal of Elyas Machera means that Perrin has simply nothing to do the entire season. Marcus Rutherford looks the part, but unfortunately isn’t incredibly strong with his facial acting and isn’t given enough material to really grow into the character at all.

On the other side of things, Barney Harris as Mat Cauthon is an inspired casting pick … which is why it’s a damn shame he’s evidently not returning to the role in future seasons. Cauthon is given a much more tragic backstory than his somewhat shady past on the page, but Harris works ably to turn out a harrowed and wisecracking reluctant hero. His scenes with Thom and Rand are another highlight. Unfortunately, a strange decision was made to rid him of his dagger and take him to Tar Valon extremely early in the story, and with some extremely noticeable and very awkward rewrites in the last few episodes due to Harris’s departure, the character is left completely at the lurch. I fear the effects it will have on his role in the Hunt of the Horn.

Every Season Has its Turn

Predictably, the rest of the show is a mixed bag, as well. The visual effects are largely passable, with a few moments that look like feature films and many more that look like a PS2 game. Some of the shots of CGI-rendered cities look gorgeous, and others look laughably dreadful. Our villains are largely very good, with special mention to Abdul Salis as a disgusting Eamon Valda, and Fares Fares as a charming Ishamael in the season finale. The shooting locations are consistently beautiful and impressive, and one can’t help but think a large part of the budget was spent on that (with the rest going to Rosamund Pike).

Ultimately, the first season of The Wheel of Time is an impressive mess. There’s much to love, including some standout performances, some great and surprising ways of translating particular things from the book (like how channeling looks and — especially — the cold open to the season finale) that will be a treat for readers. The story is largely coherent and does an admirable job of maintaining most of the themes from the source material while telling a more reachable story to a new audience. That said, some of the more glaring omissions or changes from the book leave me completely baffled at what the showrunners intend to do in the future, and while I don’t mind if things don’t always hew closely to Jordan’s work, I would be much more hesitant to shift such important things as they have. While it’s certainly not the next Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, the first season does a good job of setting up characters and stories that viewers can care about, and does its best to work around some unfortunate circumstances and limitations. Hopefully we can expect more consistency in the future, and I will be happy to watch when it comes.

Music Making Contact — Morsefest 21

If you’ve read any of my posts about music on this blog, you’ll know how much I love the music of Neal Morse — a man whose many bands and projects round out any prog rock library worth its salt. His work with legendary groups like Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic gets him more than enough cred in classic prog circles, his albums with Flying Colors and his various cover groups handily demonstrate his pop rock sensibilities, and his solo albums and work with the Neal Morse Band have proven to be some of the absolute finest in religious-themed progressive rock/metal, a genre which I’ve lovingly dubbed “Lordcore”. I’d already seen Neal in concert three times before two weeks ago, and was thoroughly excited to fly out to Nashville to finally witness Morsefest firsthand. It certainly didn’t disappoint.

Since 2014, Neal and his cadre of associates with enormous musical talent have put on a two-night concert event near Morse’s home of Nashville, Tennessee. Each year, attendees can expect to enjoy some tremendous performances, usually including an album or two played in their entirety, a handful of prog epics, some deep cuts, and musical guest stars. Notable highlights in the past have included a reunion of Spock’s Beard to finally play “Snow” live, a full performance of a musical penned by Morse, an evening of covers, most of Morse’s back catalog being recreated with string ensembles, horns, and backup vocalists, and full concerts from all of the bands Morse is associated with (which usually means the steadfast presence of drum master Mike Portnoy). This year, the theme of the shows was named after the Neal Morse Band’s latest album, “Innocence and Danger”, promising a first night of lighter, jauntier tunes, and a second night of massive prog epics.

Fans of the new album were sure not to be disappointed with the event, as nearly the entire thing was played over the course of both evenings. The first show opened with Do it All Again and Bird on a Wire, with the band’s energy and excitement to be back on stage plain to see. Neal and Mike spent ample time joking with each other and the audience, and it was obvious that they’ve been dying to get back in front of audiences again. While most of the show was dedicated to disc one of “Innocence and Danger,” there were a handful of surprises in store, the best of which were Revelation off of Spock’s Beard’s fifth album, and Distance to the Sun from “Day for Night,” two classic favorites of mine. The latter was played during an extended acoustic segment of the show, during which Morse introduced his new baby grandson to the audience (much to our delight), and which featured some other excellent acoustic tunes like Not Afraid Pt. 1 and Waterfall. Other highlights of the show were a rollicking rendition of The Way Home from Morse’s solo album “Lifeline,” and the band’s sparkling and majestic cover of Bridge Over Troubled Water, which Morse dedicated to his late mother.

The rest of the new album’s first disc was also diligently run through, including some fun Floyd excerpts at the end of The Way it Had to Be, but the real pinnacle of the evening was the encore, a thirty-minute stroll through the best tunes from “The Similitude of a Dream,” and “The Great Adventure”. Not only was it a stroke of genius to end with the latter’s phenomenal closing song, A Love that Never Dies, to hear songs from “Similitude,” one of the finest albums of the past decade, is — as my father accurately observed — like coming home. The theme of the night, and indeed the entire event, was joy and musical excitement, and the first night surely didn’t disappoint.

Day two of the festivities kicked off with a morning meeting of coffee and donuts for attendees to enjoy as Neal was joined by NMB bandmates Randy George and Bill Hubauer, his son Will, and percussionist Philip Martin to play an intimate jam session of tunes from Morse’s first two solo albums. The atmosphere was light and welcoming, and felt more like a campfire jam than a concert. Morse’s storytelling and impromptu tastes of other tunes — like Jerry Reed’s Amos Moses, Billy Joel’s Honesty, and Elton John’s Rocket Man — made the whole affair a delight, and it was a blast to hear some of the stories behind the recordings of those early albums and how and why he wrote some of those tracks.

The second show of day two was dedicated to some of Morse and Co.’s epic-length tracks, and was sure to be a treat for any hardcore fans, though perhaps slightly less so for folks who buy the live album and might be a little less familiar with Morse’s work (generally not a problem for someone attending this event, of course). The band opened with Not Afraid, Pt. 2 from the new album, which was a delight, and then jumped into The Separated Man from the “One” album. Both were energetic performances, but the next string of tracks were certainly the highlight of the evening for me, with a surprise performance of Spock’s Beard’s Flow followed by the absolutely massive World Without End from Morse’s solo album “Momentum”. One of the most enormous songs Morse ever wrote, this performance was everything a fan could ask for, including some wonderful little bits of prop comedy and guest appearances from family members on the “Losing your Soul” section.

Finally, the band closed with Beyond the Years, which — barring some minor technical and musical issues in the midsection — really came alive on stage in a way it never did for me on the record, with the backing of the string quartet and backup vocalists really adding some texture and energy. The encore was NMB’s first epic track, Alive Again, which I was ecstatic to hear, and they definitely delivered. Near the end of the tune the band pulled out the Nightmare Cinema trick and began trading instruments, which was an enormous delight — seeing Morse and Gillette absolutely kill on the drums, Portnoy picking up the bass, and seeing Hubauer and George both shred some guitar solos was incredible and really demonstrated how much raw musical talent there is in this band.

While night two was certainly not for the faint of heart (only Neal Morse can run a three-hour concert and only play six songs), both evenings and the morning performance on the second day were an absolute treat. Morsefest is clearly a family affair for the Morse clan, and the premises overflowed with the love of music and a prevailing sense of positivity and joy. My only regret is not having attended any earlier Morsefest performances in person, but rest assured I’ll be traveling to them from now on for as long as they’re put on.

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, and also borrows heavily from Morse’s solo track The Way Home, 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.

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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.