That’s how I felt as I poured over my most recent WotC purchase, Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale.
So, a little background. I’ve always liked the points of light design. I like the idea that safe places of the world are few and far between. Whatever security is to be established in the world, the players will have to work for it. Nothing can be taken for granted. It’s particularly fitting when you consider this world design is being laid over the top of an RPG that is a significant departure from its previous incarnations. Take nothing for granted. That’s the theme I’ve gotten from WotC over the past couple of years. Ironically enough, over time, the opposite occurred.
After I was introduced to 4E, I did what most dutiful gamers did, I went out and devoured the modules that were released, H1-E3. These modules were ostensibly billed as “what you could expect from 4E”. Something that was supposed to show what a great system 4E could be ended up only marginally achieving that goal. Thanks to those modules, their design and apparent combat focus, 4E quickly earned a reputation for being a “roll” playing game. Little in the core rules seemed to be pushing the RP side of the game. These modules didn’t help. The adventure format that focused on encounters (almost exclusively combat encounters) left many story-focused players and DMs cold. Over the course of 9 adventures, 30 levels of play, 4E was cementing its image as a tactical miniatures game. This only threw fuel on the fire of those predisposed to dislike a system that was as much of a departure as 4E was. As much as I was in disagreement with the anti-4E crowd, I have to admit, those adventures did little to prove them wrong. Were they terrible? Absolutely not, in fact, a couple were quite good. They just required some extra input from a story-driven DM to flesh them out (and scrub about 1/3 of the combat encounters). But the tools were most certainly there.
Because of the lay of the land, so to speak, I had actually come to take WotC products for granted. I came to learn that what appeared to be a “combat focus” was really an attempt to leave a blank slate for story telling. Leave enough space for a DM to stretch his wings. What appeared to be a ruleset designed for tactical combat was really a ruleset that was intentionally designed to stay out of the way of story. Unfortunately, it didn’t really work. It took WotC more than 2 years to get the hint. Gamers, at least some of them, really like the story of Dungeons & Dragons. Sure, we want to pay for mechanics. Sure, we want to get a well-balanced yet malleable ruleset. But we also want the drama, the action and the suspense that simply can’t be found in attack bonuses, healing surges, or bloodied values. A ruleset that was supposedly focused around epic set-piece battles forgot to include the epic stories to go along with it.
So, it’s nearly 3 years later. The writing has been on the wall and copious amounts of digital ink has been spilled talking about the weaknesses of 4E. With the introduction of The Essentials line of products, it looked like the talent at WotC was finally trying to do something about the complaints. Nevermind the fact that their efforts to stem the tide of dissatisfaction created an entirely new wave of it. One of the things they made a point to do with Essentials was push more story, to make it matter. They were telling us more about how characters interacted with the world and with those in it. Eventually, this lead to an amazing product, The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond. This was the first product that I felt was a wholistic improvement on what had come before it. It took all the lessons of early 4E product successes and failures, combined it with the new design outlook of Essentials and gave us a great product. When I first opened the main book, I was hooked. This was D&D. It was back. Not that 4E wasn’t, but rather that it always felt like there was a little something missing. All I could do as I read the books was think about how I was going to get my group into the Shadowfell, how I was going to use the story, the factions, the encounter ideas to make my game amazing. It was almost too much.
As it stands, I started gaming with a new group of people about 7 months ago. I’m running for the group and with the release of the DMs Kit and the Essentials books, we decided to start at level 1 with Reavers of Harkenwold. We had a lot of fun and moved on to Cairn of the Winter King. The group quickly took to the setting and started laying down roots, tying the Nentir Vale to their backstories. I decided to utilize the Fallcrest portion of the original DMG. I wanted to do a sandbox style game and just let the group go wherever their interests took them. But something about The Nentir Vale lingered from those days of early 4E where the setting was intentionally generic. It almost felt like the Nentir Vale was a green screen, needing something to be placed on top of it. This is even after having gone through the released modules. I even read the first Nentir Vale based fiction, The Mark of Nerath and still the setting felt hopelessly vague. I set about to change that. I started planning more elaborate relationships between the meager NPCs presented in the DMG. I started allowing my players to define important features about the area. It worked well enough. But then, I got my hands on the newest product from WotC, the latest Monster Vault. And now, everything has changed.
I’ve spent the last several hours pouring over the factions, NPCs, monsters and delicious story details presented within. Turns out there are three REALLY interesting Dragons who make their home in the vale. Each one has a great story full of potential hooks and entanglements. They have vassals, slaves and enemies. There are groups both more powerful and weaker than the ubiquitous Iron Circle. There are reasons to visit nearly every square inch of The Vale. There are heroes, villains and stories waiting to be told. This is what I want from a supplement. I want a book that dares me to put it down, that grabs my gaming psyche by the throat and shouts, “USE ME!”. That’s exactly what this product does. Whereas previous adventures and supplements were trying to demonstrate what 4E could be, this products is enticing me just to play, to say “who CARES what the ruleset can do?”. This is the first product I feel is really propelling itself based on the amazing foundation of narrative that lives and breathes in nearly every successful RPG. I pick up the book and instead of thinking about balance, or monster role, or encounter design, I just think, “Oh man, this guy would be a blast to have in my story”.
So, that’s the gist of the academic content, what about the actual box. Well, it’s not a box this time. Unlike the Gloomwrought box with its deck of cards and multiple books, this is a bit more traditional in its scope. It’s a single 128 page softcover book (like Gloomwrought) with a poster map (made up of 4 smaller map locations) and 8 sheets of tokens slip-covered and shrink-wrapped together. The book pleasantly makes use of the map locations in the writeups, offering applicable uses of each map and how they can be best utilized with the relevant enemies. The tokens, also like Gloomwrought, have the monster name on the bloodied side, something that seems helpful until you realize that it makes them harder to use as generic tokens. I guess you win some and you lose some right? Anyway, if I haven’t made it abundantly clear, this product, Monster Vault: Threats to The Nentir Vale will make the points of light setting eminently usable. The generic feel of the location is gone…..forever. Thank Goodness. It’s about time.