‘Into The Sternwood’ is the best Pirates of Leviathan episode so far. Maybe we didn’t have minis for the combat, but the players more than made up for it with evocative descriptions and surprising character choices.
The whole middle of ‘Into The Sternwood’ is a combat sequence. Somehow, though it’s a huge sprawling chaotic combat, it feels as compelling story-wise as the roleplay heavy episodes.
That’s impressive. The regular Dimension 20 players have been a working group for a while now, so they’re able to keep combat exciting for viewers either with a set or when livestreaming (as they did for Fantasy High: Sophomore Year). The Buccaneer Buddies of Pirates of Leviathan don’t have that depth of shared history, but they were still able to avoid stagnating into a boring puddle of mechanics.
If you’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons yourselves, combat is hard from a roleplaying standpoint. Add in the disconnect of the virtual table and it’s even tougher. You’re trying not to die while also remembering all your character’s stats and abilities, plus where all the enemies are, PLUS what your group is doing. It takes practice to stay in character and not get bogged down by mechanics. “Oh, is it my turn? Uhh who’s around me? Can I still move if I attack? Hang on and let me calculate my damage, I forgot about sneak attack.”
Don’t feel badly if that’s where you’re at in your gaming journey! We all started there, no shame. But you have to admit that if every turn was pure mechanics, it wouldn’t be very much fun to watch. That’s why I appreciated how much the players worked to stay in character and add some finesse to every attack.
I’m not going to recap the whole fight, but I do want to call out a highlight from each character:
- Marcid managing to fake his way close enough to attack the enemy mage, and absolutely trashing her. I think it’s even better that he was knocked to death saving throws directly afterwards. The party hasn’t had a rest since brawling amongst themselves (which I imagine is how many crews get started, really).
- Bob using the sheer absurdity of her presence (in a sparkling cocktail gown, wings out and glowing) to confuse matters while she restrained nearly all the opponents in reach. Brilliant. Krystina Arielle gave us another little song when she cast, and you could just imagine these “soldiers” standing around spellbound until- “Wait, crud, that’s an attack and we’re all restrained.”
- Cheese being absolutely terrified, like a kid would be, and finding ways to participate that didn’t involve murder. It’s especially interesting because Carlos Luna is walking a really delicate balance between staying true to his character and nerfing the party’s wizard. He helps, but isn’t yet willing to hurt other people.
- Myrtle showing us why people are afraid of her. Like, we REALLY understand why the Crescent Moon people didn’t just go in and take that stone from her now. They’d all have died where they stood if they had tried to rob her temple.
- Sunny taking a major risk and coming up with mixed results. I mean, the ritual is for sure interrupted – but now they have no stone, and the bell is fused to her hand. As a long-time player and dungeon master I screamed when she did this. It could easily have been the final step in whatever spell the Crescent Moon crew was casting. As a viewer, I was majorly entertained by the chaos that ensued.
- Jack Brakkow – uhhh. Wow. Matthew Mercer went somewhere really dark in a way that nevertheless felt fun and funny. Not an easy task. The unhinged violence is such a contrast to his bashful behavior at the Gold Gardens later. I’m glad he came back as a player for Dimension 20. Seeing Dungeon Masters cut loose a little at someone else’s table is a treat (remember Brennan Lee Mulligan’s guest spot on NADDPOD a while back? Priceless.).
There were some technical surprises this episode. First up is the dice roll graphic that pops up for group rolls.
This is genius. Displaying everyone’s rolls side by side adds a level of clarity I didn’t realize was missing before. I wonder why it wasn’t the standard all along?
The second new addition is an order of march graphic. It first comes up when the characters head into the Sternwood. As players state their positions, their character art phases into the graphic. Not only is this cool, it provides another opportunity for viewers to get a look at the characters rather than the players.
We also get one for the main villains – not the horde of minions the crew hack through at the end, but the Big Bads. Take a look at Langley Sheffield-Harrington (head of the Crescent Moon), Clive McDoon (Jack’s not-actually-dead former crewmate), and Alamaria (the Keeper of Storms who Marcid almost killed in one turn).
Even though Pirates of Leviathan was all filmed prior to being aired, the upgraded graphics have just made their appearance in ‘Into The Sternwood’. The Dimension 20 art crew isn’t waiting for the end of a season to roll out new techniques, it seems. I’m into it.
I could spend a whole article fawning over the Gold Gardens and Garthy O’Brien. They’re definitely a fan favorite, and Brennan seems to love playing them. But, really, this is a review and not a love letter to Garthy O’Brien (who would receive it with grace and potentially a wild weekend, depending on their mood). I’ll just say that having a known NPC interact with these players opens to door to deeper insight into the new crew.
I can’t wait to see how everyone enjoys their time at the Gold Gardens next episode.
Khai is a writer, anthropologist, and games enthusiast. She is co-editor (alongside Alex DeCampi) of and contributor to “True War Stories”, a comic anthology being published by Z2 Comics. When she’s not writing or creating games, Khai likes to run more tabletop RPGs than one person should reasonably juggle.
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