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Fear Itself
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 11/18/2015 04:09:34

An Endzeitgeist.com review

Fear Itself clocks in at 91 pages, 1 page front cover, 3 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC, leaving us with 86 pages of content, so let's take a look, shall we?

This book was moved forward on my review-queue due to me receiving a physical copy in exchange for an unbiased and critical review.

We begin this variant of the GUMSHOE system with a disclaimer that kind of makes me sad for its necessity: Fear Itself is, more so than ToC, Esoterrorists or Night's Black Agents a hardcore horror-game. PCs will die. Uncomfortable topics will be mentioned and explored. The fact that players and GMs buying a horror game have to be notified that horror can be horrific...well, I get why, but still am kind of shocked that we've become this cuddled and unaccustomed to hardship and failure. For those out there that are sensitive to such topics - you have been warned.

Fear Itself takes places in the same world as Esoterrorists, which means that the AWESOME creatures of the Outer Dark, the superb, disturbing aesthetics of the creatures and their themes, remains intact - but the focus is a different one: Where Esoterrorists centered on professionals bringing the fight to the adversaries, Fear Itself's inspiration is clearly the vast plethora of horror movies out there: From slasher movies to psychological dramas to current movies like "It Follows" - and it revels in this inspiration: You see, the premise centers on the PCs playing characters associated with archetypes of the genre - "The Jock," "The Nerd," "The Authority Figure," "The Sexy Girl" - you get the idea.

Now if you've been to any amount of horror movies, you will have noticed certain traits being used to guarantee a character's downfall: This is the best component of this book from a rules-perspective and something that all GUMSHOE games I run feature. I'm talking about Risk factors. Risk factors are traits that may be deemed character flaws - whether it's an unbridled libido, greed, a desire for vengeance or curiosity: Each character has a risk factor, but is, surprisingly, not required to heed it's dictates. There are hard and soft risk factors - and not heeding them incurs a stability loss. This system is VERY smart and works exceedingly well in game - it rewards players for not meta-gaming and still maintains control over the character's urges as opposed to the player trying to ensure that the PC survives. On a nitpicky side: Risk factors are presented at the very beginning, when the respective rules-repercussions of them can be found on page 48 - 4 pages after the begin of the stability rules, so why not directly point towards that rules-information?

PCs also are supposed to have a dark secret - basically, the worst thing the character did...which is kind of realistic. After all, the longer we live, the more likely it is that we fail our own moral compasses. As always, we get points depending on the number of players to invest in investigative abilities. The interesting thing here is that the abilities may be capped: The combat/investigative expert of the group pretty much determined how good other players can be - precisely half as good. If e.g. the police cadet has 8 in shooting, the rest of the PCs can only have a shooting value of 4. If the combat/investigative expert increases the shooting value, the other PCs may increase the value until they reach the half-way point. And yes, rounded down, though explicitly mentioning this wouldn't have hurt. Your second highest rating must be at least half your highest rating. There is another special type of restricted character of which there can only be one per group: The psychic. These characters have special skills like aura reading, being a medium or having strange messengers or premonitions - these abilities, unanimously, are narrative gold and I strongly advise the GM to properly make use of psychic's cool powers. Take Synchronicity: Happy circumstances, unlikely happenstances - this can be used to massive effect. However, psychic powers leave the psychic open to the influence of the outer dark - each time you use a psychic power per session, you increase the difficulty numbers of stability rolls by the number of times you have drawn on your psychic powers. The character also suffers from a flat-out +1 increase to stability difficulty numbers, though I believe that explicitly mentioning whether this stacks or not would have made the rules here more concise.

If you're coming to Fear Itself from another GUMSHOE-game, you'll note something: The severely limited selection of investigative abilities. With characters being flawed everyday guys and gals, it should come as no surprise that even on this basic level, they will have a harder time dealing with the horrible threats they face. This is also emphasized by perhaps the single most important ability in the arsenal of Fear Itself characters: Fleeing. Fleeing can be used to substitute for Athletics when escaping, but not when pursuing...and it is the balancing mechanism for the combat/investigative expert and psychic's additional tricks: All characters but those two get 2 rating points per point invested. Yes, much like in horror movies, the capable characters will have a harder time escaping the horrors.

Now, if the prior emphasis on stability was not ample clue: Yes, Fear Itself does sport "Sources of Stability"-rules and a personal goal you should determine - both not only tie your character to others and places in the world and the guidance for affinities and enmities between PCs helps establish hierarchies and social dynamics: We e.g. all know the following set-up: The jock is together with the sexy girl, but is in love with the good girl. The nerd is in love with the sexy girl, who, however, dislikes the nerd. The good girl, though, has a secret crush on the nerd... Yeah, this may sound simple and is entirely optional, but it does work and can be seen as a fluffy precursor and less complex version of Night's Black Agents betrayal mechanics. The other rules regarding abilities pretty much follow the system you're already familiar with - however, dealing damage in scuffling is pretty hard: Sans proper weaponry, the PCs will be pretty ill-equipped to deal with the horrors they face.

As always in GUMSHOE books, the special requirements on handling clues and structuring the story are well-explained for the GM, alongside simple rules for combat, death, injury - you know the deal by know. More interesting for the GM would be the creatures introduced in this book. For one, we once again get absolutely stunning b/w-artworks for them. Secondly, if you've read my review of Esoterrorists, you'll have an inkling of how friggin' awesome these beings can be. All right, the first creature herein already shows a significant difference in comparison to the adversaries faced in Esoterrorist-games: The Mystery Man. What does this guy do? Well, think Phantasm's Tall Man...or Q with a personality that would make Pinhead blush with indignation: This godlike adversary has practically infinite powers and one grand motivation: Ocean Game, i.e. driving mortals insane for his own sickening pleasure (and the thinning of the membrane)... The second creature featured herein, the Ovvashi, is no less disturbing, but better suited as a short-term adversary than the BBEG-mystery man: The Ovvashi would be a deadly, unpleasant demon that has a face of all mouth - no eyes, no nose, just a thing clad in rags...and the thing is recruiting beggars, making the unfortunate into its beholden minions and servitors. And it smokes your soul. Literally. It can SMOKE YOUR SOUL. That's so disturbing... This creature is awesome and, if this and Esoterrorists are any indicator of the monster quality, the adversary book must indeed be superb.

As in other GUMSHOE-books, we do get advice for players and GMs, but it is provided after the monsters - which is something I noticed here: Compared to the other GUMSHOE-games I've been playing, Fear Itself's organization feels less intuitive and, sometimes, a tad bit confusing. For example, shouldn't the stability rules and explanations of the mechanics be found sooner? A concept is fine, sure, but as presented, you begin with fluff, then choose mechanics, then the next chapter explains the rules of the system like damage, stability, etc. - over all, this makes the presentation feel more fragmented and less intuitive than in similar GUMSHOE titles. And yes, I understand that this is in line with other GUMSHOE-game rules presentations, but in this book, I had the distinct feeling that, if you're not familiar with the rules yes, you may end up being somewhat confused. The general GUMSHOE-rules chapter also blends rules for PCs and GMs - again, understandable; but the advice for clue structure etc. imho belongs to the GM chapter, not in the player-section. Then, the awesome monsters come and THEN, we get GM and player-advice? Structure-wise, this is extremely unfortunate, since players should NOT read the entries of the monsters and their interesting weaknesses. So yes, presentation-wise, this one does feel a bit more confused than its brethren.

However, there is one point wherein Fear Itself manages to reach the perfect level of drool-worthy awesomeness of Esoterrorists: The sample scenario. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I'm saying that the sample scenario is by far the best I've ever read in a given campaign setting. No, really. It is not the perfect sandbox-set-up of Esoterrorist's Station Duty, but the module is brilliant in many ways.

You do NOT want to spoil this scenario, so if you ever want to participate in it, PLEASE jump to the conclusion.

...

..

.

Only GMs left? Sure you want to SPOIL yourself? Really sure? All right.

So, the sample module provided herein begins with the PCs in a van, en route to a game-changer of an event. You see, CEO-wunderkind Cory Sluman, brilliant financial wizard and eccentric nerd, has established an array of interconnected setups to make his latest vision come true: He wants to establish LARP as a competitive sport and the PCs have an invitation to the inaugural event - for one reason or another, they need the money prize - they need to win. The set-up is as smart as you can possibly be: The PCs are all nerds, played by nerds: All those roleplaying jokes, Monty Python references...they make sense in game. This also immediately generates a connection between players and PCs as they banter, establish character-relations etc. - and then, suddenly, a van comes careening towards them, almost crashing into them. In the aftermath of the accident, the crew of the other van perishes and, as the PCs try to save them and the aftermath with the authorities is resolved, they may note a strange figure in the distance, cat-like fluorescing eyes staring.

But the game must go on - and the PCs arrive late, are almost disqualified...and meet a group that contains all the people you and your players love to hate in real world contexts. These rivals add a further human dimension to the happenstances that are about to unfold: For the LARP escalates horribly: As the PCs try to roleplay their characters (LOVE this meta-level!) in the context of Sluman's fantasy world, psyches start breaking apart and violence continuously escalates. Worse, all but the PCs seem to be oblivious to any results of the violence they participate in. Oh, and the PCs have foam swords. And LARP-pew-pew spells. Congratulations, this will be truly nasty... But whether the PCs blow the whistle or not, the event will end at some point...and if you're playing at a convention, this is where the adventure ends.

If not, though, then insanity has just started. You see, the strange occurrences do not end and the mysterious figure is still haunting them...and things become more sinister: The people that perished en route to the event? Well, investigation into their backgrounds reveals no easy connection: Different characters, social circles, no shared hobbies - only by researching those left behind in lavishly-detailed sections, the PCs can determine the unifying factors: For one, a change in personality and growing paranoia; and, more subtly, a theme of dogs...which leads towards the "Kozy Kennel", property of one Alex Ibragimbekov - while he tries to bullshit the PCs, he confesses soon: The practically unstoppable entity that goes by the moniker Hungerwood which has plaguing the PC's predecessors and now them, has been tormenting the poor man ever since he was a child.

The entity only changes targets when it can find a sufficiently dark spot on the souls of his victims to be (remember the dark secret?)... Oh, and he thinks he has found a way with the help of the deceased to stop Hungerwood or at least drive him away - for this insane purpose, he is torturing dogs to create the "Silent Howl," a ritual supported by a sound file of high-frequency howls that may at least temporarily stop Hungerwood - but are the PCs willing and desperate enough to capitalize on something so undoubtedly vile and disturbing? Probably, at this point - and so, the ritual commences in an unique, intriguing climax...that comes with a nasty aftertaste, as Alex is found dead...and Hungerwood's defeat proves to be short-lived or just another part of his macabre game...

The book concludes with a character sheet, a handy sheet called matrix of misery that lets the GM keep tabs on PCs and a detailed index.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to a beautiful 2-column b/w-standard and the book sports numerous, gorgeous b/w-artworks of the highest caliber. The book's print edition is a nice softcover with glossy covers and high-quality paper. The pdf-version is something I would recommend only to a lesser extent: The lack of bookmarks the electronic version sports constitutes a significant comfort detriment, particularly considering the more spread-out presentation of the rules.

Robin D. Laws' Fear Itself is, and let me state that loud and clear, an EXCELLENT game. At the same time, the GUMSHOE system as depicted herein also represents the most disjointed of the presentations when compared to the other books I've covered and minor rules-ambiguities can be found here and there. While this does not cripple the book, it does detract a bit from its user-friendliness for novices to the system - which is a pity. Why? Because the Fear Itself, as a system, lends itself, like the horror movies it emulates, works best for brief campaigns and one-shots: The lethality of this iteration of GUMSHOE and the scope of the system is geared towards this...or towards prologue/first chapter-style gameplay.

The perfect way to use this book, at least in my opinion, is to lead into a longer campaign: The hapless PCs witness the horrible things about to happen and there we go: After several encounters, they are recruited into the OV, properly trained and now use Esoterrorist-rules, supplemented by some from this book. (And yes, in this instance, I'd slowly unlock the more action-packed spy-rules from Night's Black Agents as the PCs become more and more professional threats to the creatures of the Outer Dark and the vampiric conspiracy...)

Beyond even this use, one can also look at Fear Itself as the ultra-gritty version of GUMSHOE: Want to play a truly low-powered Esoterrorists-game or a Dustier-than-dust-mode Night's Black Agents-game? Scavenge the fleeing rules and the power-level. Even beyond such a model, the psychic powers may be a great addition to your game and the sources of stability/risk factor-mechanics offer A LOT of inspiring material that works just as well in more pulpy contexts. So while the presentation of the rules may not be as refined, the actual rules themselves are inspired in all the right ways.

The 2 monsters, the implied and extremely compelling Esoterrorists-world and the SUPERB scenario included herein also constitute excellent reasons to get this book. Fear Itself is a thoroughly compelling, excellent book, though one that is slightly more flawed than its brethren. Still, I wouldn't ever want to miss this book and its contents among my library and can whole-heartedly recommend it. While incapable of being able to rate this the full 5 stars due to the slightly confused presentation and the electronic version's lack of bookmarks, I can still rate this 4.5 stars + seal of approval, rounded up...However, only for the print version. The electronic version's lack of bookmarks exacerbates the aforementioned issues and should be considered only 4 stars and loses the seal of approval.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Fear Itself
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Candles, Clay & Dancing Shoes
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 11/11/2015 02:55:52

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This installment of 13th Age Monthly clocks in at 8 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/SRD, leaving us with 6 pages of content, so let's take a look!

So, what this pdf provides is interesting - we get items that are obviously the result of the craftsmanship of minor sorcerors, here called alchemists and talismancers - basically, everyday items. However, beyond the basic concept provided, each item sports 13 rumors related to it, some of which may be true, some of which may be false...all depending on the GM. This customization option is something I truly cherish here...so what do the items do?

The first item would be Blacklight Candles - mundane candles of black wax...but only the wielder can perceive the light they shed. Sounds boring? Well, what if it's true that only drow make these things? Or what if the fire started from such candles also is invisible? The latter is a genius hook I'm going to craft a whole adventure around. Clay of Life helps stabilizing the dying and can even be used to help re-attach severed limbs...and it may be fermented dragon droppings...or it may a plot of none other than the Lich King! Obviously, it would be pretty awesome if the extremely expensive clay sold in Horizon works - it returns the dead to life...but it could also transform them into mindless golems...

Dancing Shoes are a great idea: they allow you to dance like a pro...ONCE. As soon as you stop, they'll burst into flames. Need a variant on the Cinderella-trope? Here's an interesting one for you! (Oh, and yes, if you're VERY unlucky, they may burn you - but hey, the show must go on...right?) What about arrows that are particularly lethal versus ethereal foes (and less lethal versus physical targets), allwoing the PCs to better fight the threat of dybbuks and similar adversaries? Featherlight Skirts are also awesome in just about any decadent environment - these skirts puff up like a parachute and feather fall the wearer. The sample stories suggest e.g. a cadre of bored noble women using these skirts for what amounts to illegal base-jumping - and the idea alone is glorious: Think about the narrative potential here for an uncommon murder mystery...or a conspiracy waiting in the wings.

Finally, Grave Dust has a chance to work as a pretty potent sleeping agent...which is okay...but what if it's true that gelatinous cubes and similar slimes hate the taste and may spew forth immediately anyone covered in the material? Or what if it's true that the effects of the material end immediately in the vicinity of royalty? What does that say about the tavern-brawl featuring the material you just witnessed?

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, i noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to 13th Age's neat two-column full-color standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks for your convenience. Artworks are full-color and nice.

ASH LAW delivers some cool low-magic/alchemical items here. Yet, on their own, the fall somewhat flat. It is due to the absolutely inspired amount of narrative potential provided for each of them that they truly come into their own - what, on paper, sounds like a selection of solid, if a bit unremarkable items, becomes pretty awesome pretty fast by virtue of the inspiring 13 hooks provided for each of them, transforming the items into something more than the sum of their mechanical benefits.

Granted, I could nitpick some of these potential options: "Does the invisible fire created by blacklight candles visible burn objects or does it create an illusion of things being in order?" and similar reasoning - but that would be a disservice to the inspired ideas herein...and it would take a bit away from the GM's options to customize the living hell out of these items to suit his or her need. I consider this to be an inspired installment in the series, one that oozes flair and panache, not only for 13th Age. The one reason (beyond aforementioned nitpickery) this does not reach the highest echelons of my rating system is that the items are story-items, one and all - they don't really do something mechanically interesting. My final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 for the purpose of this platform.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Candles, Clay & Dancing Shoes
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Temples of the Frog Folk
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 11/05/2015 02:20:21

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This installment in 13th Age's monthly series of supplemental pdfs clocks in at 10 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/SRD, leaving us with 8 pages of content, so let's take a look!

This pdf portrays basically an ecology on frog folk - but why did no one write about them? Well, there is this odd phenomenon - all who write about the frog folk seem to experience unpleasant accidents...and 13 reasons for the paranoia exhibited by and surrounding the frog folk are given: For example, what if ALL gods hate the frog folk, as they are a cosmic mishap? Or what if their skulls contain the fables toadstones?

Frog folk as creatures are pretty interesting - the abilities provide allow for a poisonous disengage, the option to duck out of sight in the right terrain, attacking foes currently not engaged with them in a leaping assault or an inability to be surprised. Even the frog folk mooks have poisoned spears, btw.

Other variants provided, like their monks, get flailing froggy fists of death and end in poisonous splatters. Spellcroakers can emit curse-based blasts and generate lethal effects that buff all their brethren or debuff adversaries. Nastier specials are provided for these guys, with frog knights also getting a sweet deal here. Massive mutant bullfrogs can also be found herein.

Those mystic toadstones I mentioned before? Well, several variants of them are depicted among the treasure-section, including the cursed and thankfully rare black toadstones. Frogskin Leggings that allow you to make astonishing leaps...or what about a bunch of magical muck you can shape into any form you want, throw into a swamp and see the swamp assume the shape you just made? Yeah, neat! Sample encounters also render this section interesting and easy to use.

Need some more inspiration to use with these encounter-guidelines? Well, what about 5 adventure hooks, each one tied to a different icon (archmage, crusader, three, priestess, prince of shadows, if you want to know) -and yes, one may put what amounts to the Armageddon-spell into the PCs hands...thankfully, only this potent at higher levels, but there you have your tailor-made reason for everyone wanting a PC dead...or enslaved...

The pdf also sports racial info for frog folk PCs: They get +2 Dex or Con and get a 1/battle tongue racial power to re-engage with foes. The feats add poison-damage to the tongue and allow for multiple uses (11+) per battle, respectively - nothing to complain about regarding balancing here.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to 13th Age's two-column full-color standard and the pdf sports several nice full-color artworks. the pdf has no bookmarks, but doesn't necessarily need them at this length.

Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan knows his craft - quite frankly, at this point, I'm pretty much excited to see his name on any given supplement...and this ecology-style supplement is no different. Not only do the frog folk feel unique and compelling, the neat magic items and cool ideas sported herein render the content awesome even beyond the confines of the 13th Age-rules-set. If you ever needed some ideas to make grippli, boggards, etc. more compelling, this'll be your book. The solid racial rules and cool nastier specials add just the icing on a thoroughly enjoyable, cool supplement. The writing, while slightly tongue-in-cheek here and there, is never obnoxious or pseudo-cool, which is another plus.

All in all, a great offering, well worth 5 stars + seal of approval.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Temples of the Frog Folk
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Dragon Riding
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 11/04/2015 04:21:05

An Endzeitgeist.com review

The first installment of 13th Age Monthly clocks in at 8 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/SRD, leaving us with 6 pages of content, so let's take a look!

There are few images so iconic in fantasy, there are few things as contended as the act of dragonriding. As such, it should come as no surprise that this pdf opens with a kind of disclaimer: Whether this happens often or not, ultimately is up to the GM - and that's a good thing, at least in my book. Why? Because this is one of those reviews, where I sit down and swallow my personal preferences: Basically, I think dragonriding should be something that only happens rarely, if at all. If you've been following my reviews, you'll know that I pretty much consider dragons to be the apex-creature and as such, am thoroughly opposed to spamming them in any way, as it lessens their impact. I was also pretty unimpressed by most Dragonlance novels - so yeah. Not the biggest fan here, mainly because, to me, the fact that these superb creatures let puny mammals ride them never made too much sense to me.

The rules provided within this brief supplement do acknowledge the diversity of requirements of campaigns: Some high-fantasy campaigns may consider dragonriding to be something wide-spread and accepted, whereas in others, the occasion is rare and something used to highlight a particularly epic story-line. The rules herein do NOT cover the out-of-combat implications of dragon-riding, instead focusing on their impact in combat - this is a strength and a weakness, but I'll get back to that later.

We begin this installment thus with some ideas for dragon-riding adventures, neatly tied together with the lore of the Dragon Empire. These ideas are well-presented - not much to complain about here. So here are the design assumptions: Dragon-riding is envisioned as a champion tier activity. Dragons are assumed to be roughly on par with your level. Dragon combats are intended primarily to happen outside, not within the confines of a dungeon. Mounts have to be larger than their riders...and willing to carry the character into battle. THANKFULLY sans rules to determine that and force the dragon to accept a rider. The pdf also uses the simple and concise flight-rules from 13 True Ways, reprinted here for your convenience.

Depending on how much of a focus you want to put on dragonriding, a free feat may be in order - whereas campaigns with a lot of dragonriding may utilize the 2 new feats presented here as part of a character's planned progression. The champion tier feat nets you +3 to your skill check and lets you keep mastery automatically on a critical hit of your dragon. The epic-tier feat allows you to extend the benefits of teleports and similar spells to your draconic mount, but requires you to roll to maintain mastery.

There are enough dragon stats in 13th Age already, but they're intended for monsters, hence some basic assumptions: Dragons have separate hit points and are a separate entity for purposes of conditions etc. Regarding initiative, one takes the average between one's own and the dragon's initiative and mounting up in combat means the lower initiative is used. I'm not a big fan of the somewhat clunky "take average between initiatives"-solutions, but I get where the decision came from. Personal bonuses to (dis-) engage do not matter when the mount is doing the (dis-)engaging and, if a dragon is engaged with a creature, so is the rider. Dragons are always eligible for opportunity attacks.

The healing front requires some work on part o the GM - a recovery is supposed to heal about 25% of a dragon's hit points - this is a solid guideline, but frankly, I would have preferred that being done for the GM and codified in a more stringent way. Now the action-economy is interesting: Basically, you and the dragon maintain the three default actions: quick, move, standard. The dragon burns his quick action to bear with the rider, the rider burns his move action to stay in saddle. Now, I already mentioned this nebulous concept of "mastery" - which is the cornerstone of dragonriding.

Essentially, what he have here is a skill-check against a DC that begins with DC 20 and scales up to 30, depending on dragon power. The more powerful your dragon, the higher the level-discrepancy between you, the more difficult it gets. The skill-check is modified by an attribute (which depends on the type of dragon you ride), level and relevant backgrounds. MD attacks, staggers and 0 hp all prompt mastery checks and activate attacks and tricks require mastery as well - however, and here's the cool thing: Failing the check does not keep you from doing cool things - instead, it requires that the rider spends a standard action on a subsequent round to regain mastery - sans check. Alternatively, you can spend a quick action (only once per round) for a hard save to regain mastery - on a failure, they botched and the quick action is lost.

Of course, battles with dragons thus require more observations on part of the GM - e.g. the fact that one should carefully watch metallic dragons and eliminate the metallic awe ability from these mounts, something the pdf thankfully points out. Dragons serving as mounts do not get random dragon abilities and yes, the development of a bond and the like does provide a factor in the observations. All in all, these rules are highly cinematic and cool - but they also take a bit of the "cool" away - what do I mean by this? Since you always get to perform those awesome stunts and only thereafter have to contend with regaining mastery, you'll be seeing loopings, 360°-spins and the like...a lot. At least if your players are like mine. And as cool as these maneuvers are, these lose some of their awesomeness if they always work. So that would be a system-inherent issue that may or may not irk you.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I didn't notice any significant glitches. Layout adheres to a ncie, two-column full-color standard and the pdf comes with full, nested bookmarks. The pdf comes with nice full color artworks.

This pdf, in spite of its brevity, is awesome - the rules provided for dragonriding, while slightly slowing down the game, are extremely fast for what they do - Rob Heinsoo and ASH LAW deliver here. The rules are awesome and well worth the asking price. At the same time, this one does feel like it fell a bit short of its potential. What you get here is a book that does a great combat in the combat arena...and one that completely ignores the ramifications beyond the combat component. What about the level-up component? When to level up regarding dragons? What about wide discrepancies between dragon and rider? Sure, the mastery-DCs get higher...but more guidance here would have been nice. What about the ramifications of a campaign setting's infra-structure? I don't expect Companions of the Firmament-level of detail from such a small pdf, but at least some components, some advice, would have been awesome. It is my firm belief that a couple of pages dealing with suggestions of non-combat implications of draconic mounts would have been more than appreciated and rendered this pdf awesome.

It should also be noted that, if you're like me, the header "Riders with Skillz" will have you cringe - no idea why this pseudo-hip language was included here. This does not influence my final verdict, but it is something that may upset you.

In the end, dragonriding's mechanics are awesome and great, but the book does require a lot of GM-fiddling regarding the structure of battles and the non-combat implications of the dragons - hence, my final verdict will clock in at 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Dragon Riding
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The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 10/29/2015 04:50:31

An Endzeitgeist.com review

The Esoterrorists clocks in at 161 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 3 pages of ToC, leaving 155 pages of content, so let's take a look!

I received a print copy of this book for the purpose of providing a critical and unbiased review. This book was moved up in my review-queue due to this fact.

The Esoterrorists is the game that originally introduced the GUMSHOE-engine, which has since then been used in quite an intriguing array of systems that provide some overlap and options to combine them.

The system you're probably most likely to know the engine from would be "Trail of Cthulhu," Pelgrane Press' investigative Cthulhu-horror game - and thus, you can already deduce the focus of GUMSHOE. Focus? Well, it is my firm belief that no roleplaying game system's engine is perfect. Pathfinder, for example, excels in complex builds and combat simulation. If you take a look at the investigative aspects...well, not so much. I believe that both players and GMs benefit from a change of pace and system once in a while and so, in a way, GUMSHOE was the natural step to take for me, since it can be considered to be almost diametrically opposed to PFRPG in focus. GUMSHOE is a roleplaying game defined by a focus on the story and roleplaying investigations, as opposed to tactical encounters.

Esoterrorist's 2nd edition can be pretty much considered to be the most easy to learn of the GUMSHOE games - the book can be considered to be the basic-version of the rules, without the more complex additions of other variants. From a didactic point of view, this book does a great job explaining the system - to the point where I tried handing it to someone not familiar at all with GUMSHOE. The lady cooked up a character and understood the system almost immediately. So yes, the presentation here is de facto better regarding its user-friendliness than in comparable GUMSHOE-games.

The system is very much ability-driven (though the GUMSHOE term "ability" here does not refer to an ability-score, but rather a skill): Investigative abilities contain e.g. Cop Talk, Document Analysis, Flirting - you get the idea. Now here's the cincher though: You have one point in an investigative ability? You're one of the best in the field - auto-success.

I know, w-t-f, right? But what about degrees of success? Well, the interesting thing is that each ability in GUMSHOE is treated as a resource - you can e.g. spend points of your investigative abilities to unearth ADDITIONAL information. The result of this structure is that the GM has a different task, as do authors - the structure must, by virtue of the game's design, provide multiple ways towards the end. Expending points from the investigative abilities can open new venues of investigation, provide short-cuts -the system pretty much enforces well-written investigations: You can't provide a railroad, you need to make the research modular. This is pretty much genius. (Yes, abilities spent regenerate.)

The abilities not related to the field of investigation directly would be general abilities: These follow different rules and contain melee (via scuffling), health, stability, etc. - here, failure is a distinct possibility. You spend ability points and roll a 6-sided die to see whether you succeed. To keep a character from investing all in one score, the second highest score must at least be half the highest.

So that would be the basic system - it is simple, elegant and, as you may note, bereft of e.g. complications like the cherries provided in Night's Black Agents. While this makes the rules-frame of Esoterrorists less intriguing than that of comparable GUMSHOE-titles, it does provide a crucial advantage - adaptability: Basically, you can graft all specific GUMSHOE-rules you want into esoterrorists: From Night's Black Agent's thriller combat to Fear Itself's (review coming!) psychic rules or any combination thereof, esoterrorists ultimately represents the most effortlessly customizable of the GUMSHOE-games: Whether you're looking for pulpy action or face to the grindstone horror, the system can be customized for just about anything. Oh, and since it is set in our contemporary times, Trail of Cthulhu + Esoterrorists = Cthulhu Now...or Delta Green -as just some examples.

But this is not simply a rule-book - it is also a campaign setting. I do not own the Fact Book (which is a player-handbook, or so I believe), but all you actually need is in here. The basic premise is pretty simple: The investigators work for the OV, the Ordo Veritatis. This organization is an ancient secret-service-type of order that seeks to protect the unwitting mortals from the dread creatures that seek to invade our world from the Outer Dark. No, the OV is not going to inevitably betray the investigators. They're actually the good guys... Yeah, I know - crazy, right? I'm pretty much as stunned by this as you are! It is pretty interesting to note that the book actually contains specific information on how investigations are handled - for the players!

Procedural protocols, if you will, with different levels of staffer-experience for the analysis backdrop of the OV, add a significant level of awesomeness to the campaign setting as presented and provide further options for tight, fun roleplaying - you want your capable support-guys back at home to live, right? After all, if Jefferson hadn't known about this obscure bullet coated in virgin's blood and mandragora, you'd all be dead by now... Oh, and there's this other thing you should know: Veil-outs are crucial...for a reason.

You see, the basic premise of esoterrorists is that there's a struggle going: Basically belief and perception shape our world and what we have achieved with our enlightened society means that the laws of physics are strengthened. If belief in them fades, the veil gets thinner. Horror, breakdowns of how the world works etc. means that the membrane that shelter us from a world of horrors thins. Esoterrorists, the enemies of the OV, seek to let more entities into our world and spread terror and fear simply because the breakdown thins the membrane between our structured world and one of infinite possibilities, of innumerous nightmares - and from power to megalomania, there's a lot to be gained here. The intriguing component from an academic point of view here would be the fact that this echoes perfectly the idiosyncratic perceptions of reality we all are subject to, the psychology of our weltanschauung. Where in Cthulhu, the default assumption is that ignorance constitutes bliss, here, it is an ideology that keeps us alive. And yes, this means that you actually can blend both in intriguing ways. It also is absolutely tailor-made to evoke themes like that of the Silent hill-franchise, where doom and dread and a world most twisted lurks beneath the surface - when the veils thin and there's a breach, things start to become odd, horrific...dangerous. Thus, more so than anything else, deniability, the cloaking of what's truly going on, is justified as a thoroughly noble cause. This simple set-up lends a level of believability and concise motivation to the default campaign setting that is absent in most similar games. It also provides a superb justification for the procedural protocols of dealing with the creatures from the outer dark. The OV's ethics and code of conduct are impeccable and allow you to actually play the good guys - which is something relatively rarely supported by such games.

Another analogue, beyond the Silent Hill-one, would obviously be Hellraiser - and indeed, the creatures from the outer dark sport, at least in part, overlaps with these beings. However, what truly sets them apart would be that they get what horror is all about. The esoterorists sport, in some way, relatable motivations - while twisted and insane, there are some sample cells that resonate with the deepest, darkest parts of our psyche: From violent bikers beaten into submission by an entity of twisted bones and jagged thorns to collectible-card-game-players conjuring twisted images from the cards to those looking for deviant sexual experiences with beings from the outer dark, the cells (and sample adventure-hooks provided) are nasty and diverse. What about a club of serial killers who meet once a year to engage in a particular vile tradition? Or a nasty international financial conspiracy? From the personal to the geopolitical level, there are a lot of intriguing hooks here.

But they fall short of the creatures introduced in this book. The beings here are truly horrific in that they play with human fears, are both iconic and innovative and still sport a level of personal connection that is downright genius. Know how in Silent Hill, the monsters are visualizations of anxieties, guilt-complexes and traumas? Well, this one kind of goes one step further. There would be the Discarnate, for example - a shapeless, incorporeal entity, a ghost in the machine in the vilest sense of the word. Not only is the dread potential of these creatures vast, their means of creation (and stopping them) is downright disturbing: To create a discarnate, a cell of cults has to build a tomb r tunnel, then ritualistically slash their wrists and collapse the tunnel upon themselves - the entity then takes some components of the personalities and minds of the targets and begins its assault. How do you stop it? My dear readers, I'm not going to spoil that!

What about the Nester? Creeping towards sleeping victims (preferably obese or pregnant people), these creatures jab their hooks into the target, scoop out the abdomen and crawl inside, sealing the belly behind them. Yes, that's not only nasty, that's friggin' nightmare fuel! Or what about a creature that essentially is an outer dark variant of an STD, urging its victim to infect even more targets? Yes, these creatures are disturbing, and delightfully so. However, this fact is further emphasized by the glorious b/w-artworks provided for them - or what about The Host, outer dark entities that thrive on religious mania, subjugating believers and feasting on others? Words clearly fail me here, for however hard I try, I fail to properly evoke how exceedingly well-written these creatures are. But perhaps one example of artwork from within the book helps me make my point:

(Here, my original review showcases the art - please check out my site for a taste of its quality...)

The prose is even creepier than that. And yes, there is a creature-book on these beings, but alas, I do not own that one.

But let's get back to the task of the GM here, shall we? Basically, the book's user-friendly nature extends to the task of the GM: Advice on clue-structures and the like help create structures that make the respective scenarios easy to run. Char-sheets are provided alongside an extremely handy investigator matrix that helps the GM keep up to date with agent resources and skills. There is also a handy ability-check-list ( so you don't accidentally construct your scenario to include an ability the PCs don't have), a handy scenario-worksheet, adversary-sheets and a sheet to track an esoterrorist cell and even extremely detailed station duty worksheets - 3 of them!! A massive 3-page index also makes using the book very easy on the GM.

I mentioned station duty, didn't I? Well, while the default assumption is one of supernatural agent-gameplay from case to case akin to Millennium or X-Files, the other default game-style is that of station duty: Essentially, there are some places where the membrane threatens to thin - agents of the OV are then sent to the area for long-term operations. In this case, we get a COMPLETE TOWN. No, I'm not exaggerating - there is a massive, completely detailed small town provided here: With copious amounts of NPCs to interact with and hundreds of possibilities: Almost each character has several optional story-threads you can or cannot follow, threads which may turn into pure horror. It's hard to properly depict the level of excruciating detail, from establishing cover identities to the disturbing concepts provided here. Let me just say that this section is the closest to a proper Twin Peaks/Silent Hill-simulator I've ever seen. In case you didn't know - these two franchises constitute some of my favorite pieces of media...ever. Add to that a significant array of delightfully twisted hand-outs from which clues can be extracted and we have a section that may justify getting the book all on its own - it's basically a whole sandbox-campaign, all ready for you and your players.

Speaking of Sandbox... (Here, my original review showcases the art - please check out my site for a taste of its quality...)

The book also sports a short sample scenario with Prophet Operation Bungo, which, contrary to the tradition of sample scenarios in core/campaign-setting-books, actually is fun, delightful and more detailed than I would have expected.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to an extremely slick, stylish and atmospheric 2-column-b/w-standard and the pdf provides several downright legendary b/w-artworks. The pdf comes with an EPUB and a MOBI-version and a printer-friendly one...but quite frankly, I'd strongly advise you to get the print. The paper is thick and glossy, high-quality and if you're anything like me, this will be used A LOT.

I'm a cthulhu-fanboy and thus, it should come as no surprise that I got Trail of Cthulhu back in the day. My friend Paco got my Night's Black Agents, which is a glorious game. I never got Esoterrorists and wouldn't have bought it - the title and concept didn't particularly appeal to me, so why bother?

My gut-feeling and instinct was never this wrong in my whole reviewer's-career.

This is the best horror-book I've read in years, regardless of setting.

Let me elaborate: After more than 15 years of obsession with vampires and the cthulhu-mythos, both themes have become kind of predictable to me. I love both, but at one point, games focusing exclusively on either ultimately become the doom of horror - predictable. We fear what we do not understand. As soon as we get our oomphteenth Mi-Go or Yithian, their horror is lost, they become predictable foes. Similarly, vampires can, in the long run, lose their fascination. This is, ultimately, what made me turn my back on the GUMSHOE-system for a while and the primary reason I did not start reviewing books of the system sooner - I was burned out on the subject matter and so were my players.

Esoterrorists changed that.

You could argue that I've never played a vanilla esoterrorists-game. You'd be right. What I did when this book hit my shelves, was something different: I dusted off Night's Black Agents and added the whole concept of the membrane to the game, introduced entities from the other dark and recruited the agents into the OV, which, of course, was among the organizations the vampires sought to infiltrate. I added creatures of the outer dark and the station duty town to my trail of cthulhu games. And suddenly, they were new - disturbing, fresh and diverse. Beyond resonating with iconic themes and a fresh perspective, this book is not only innovative - it GETS HORROR. No, really. This understands horror to a point that bespeaks not only the vast talent of Robin D. Laws and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan as writers, it also constitutes an eureka-effect I haven't had in ages - this humble, little book has inspired me to an extent I have not experienced since I first stumbled over Ravenloft and Planescape back in the day. It is incredibly frustrating to me that I cannot properly put the genius of this book into words, cannot convey the level of impact this book's ideas have had on my games.

Don't get me wrong - Night's Black Agents is quite frankly the better game regarding pure mechanics - it's more complex, more diverse and the thriller combat and chase rules are exceedingly smart. But, at least to me, Esoterrorists is a book that's infinitely more compelling because its prose, the concepts provided, are just so incredibly compelling, because they feature the experience of jamais-vu and because the horror presented here actually really strikes home: This is not blood and guts, this is psychologically disturbing in the way that only great horror is - where the true ramifications are slowly build up. This is the antithesis of the jump-scare-movie - this is smart horror that sticks with you.

This is not only a game - Esoterrorists is basically, a gigantic, awesome template that can be applied to just about any horror game you can conceive. It works in a plethora of contexts because its theme resonate with our very basic, human psychology.

It is my firm conviction that this book belongs in the library of any self-respecting GM looking for inspiration regarding horror-settings and how to create compelling set-ups. If you're playing ANY GUMSHOE-game, this book can be considered a vast amplifier: The concepts within this book are so incredibly compelling and fun, they managed to re-ignite my spark for cthulhu-related material by virtue of the means by which you can use the content herein to enhance the world of the mythos.

I haven't been this excited by a book, any book, in a long, long time - even only as an idea-scavenging-ground, this book is superb by any definition of the word. And know what? While my Top ten-list of the year usually is restricted to Pathfinder-supplements, I will grant this one status as a candidate - its contents and ideas are simply too compelling and can be a vast inspiration in ANY context you can conceive. I firmly believe that simply reading this book makes you a better horror-GM, even if you ignore the rules and setting. You won't be surprised, then, that I'll add my EZG Essentials-tag to a book that scores 5 stars + seal of approval, a book that blew my mind.

If horror interests you even in the slightest, if you even tangentially like smart, psychological horror, if you even remotely enjoy Twin Peaks, Silent Hill, The Evil Within, X-Files, Millennium and if you really want some fresh wind in your respective horror of preference, then this book should go right to the top of your to-buy list. It's that good.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition
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Trail of Cthulhu: Not So Quiet
by Oliver K. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 10/27/2015 08:14:01

I had the chance to run "Not So Quiet" on a convention, only noticing it flaws while running it. I can't imagine running it anywhere but a con simply because it's hard to follow up on and so isn't suited much for being woven into a longer narrative.

Players did not really buy very much into the horror which may be a bit subtle to begin with. Their explorations did not necessarily follow the suggested outlines or find much of the connections and clues suggested in the adventure. As a clear plus for the adventure is that it did not matter sooo much if you found everything out because getting the players into the ending is not too hard, making it even more suitable for convention play.

On the plus side, the opening scene is very strong and can be staged to great effect. The same is true for the finale which engages players to enter into shared hallucinations and provides some good roleplaying and playacting opportunities.

The layout, as often with "Trail of Cthulhu" releases, is a wall of text divided in columns with little to ease the eye. Illustrations are few and of the very few in there one is even repeated. Maybe one picture in five pages. No visuals for the pregens or major NPCs. The adventure still benefits from the basic framework and structure most "Trail of Cthulhu" modules have which aids GMs.

There are many excellent adventure modules for "Trail of Cthulhu". "Not So Quiet" is below par in comparison to several others but may be of interest for groups which might want to explore the time period of the Great War instead of the usual 1920s fare from "Call of Cthulhu" or 1930s time frame of "Trail of Cthulhu".



Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Trail of Cthulhu: Not So Quiet
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Night's Black Agents
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 10/26/2015 04:12:30

An Endzeitgeist.com review

Night's Black Agents, as a hardcover, is a massive 232 page-book, with 2 pages of editorial, 3 pages of ToC, which leaves us with 227 pages of content - so let's take a look!

Wait for a second - before we do: Yes, this means I'm branching out into GUMSHOE, at least occasionally. Why? Well, I actually got Night's Black Agents as a present from a friend of mine (thanks, Paco!) and had been playing with it for quite some time. Before I get into the nit and grit, let's start with a brief discussion of GUMSHOE, the engine of this RPG.

The system you're probably most likely to know the engine from would be "Trail of Cthulhu," Pelgrane Press' investigative horror game - and thus, you can already deduce the focus of GUMSHOE. Focus? Well, it is my firm belief that no roleplaying game system's engine is perfect. Pathfinder, for example, excels in complex builds and combat simulation. If you take a look at the investigative aspects...well, not so much. I believe that both players and GMs benefit from a change of pace and system once in a while and so, in a way, GUMSHOE was the natural step to take for me, since it can be considered to be almost diametrically opposed to PFRPG in focus. GUMSHOE is a roleplaying game all about the brains, less about the brawns.

The system is very much ability-driven (though the GUMSHOE term "ability" here does not refer to an ability-score, but rather a skill): Investigative abilities contain e.g. Cop Talk, Data Recovery, Law - you get the idea. Now here's the clincher though: You have one point in an investigative ability? You're one of the best in the field - auto-success. I know, w-t-f, right? But what about degrees of success? Well, the interesting thing is that each ability in GUMSHOE is treated as a resource - you can e.g. spend points of your investigative abilities to unearth ADDITIONAL information. The result of this structure is that the director (or GM) has a different task, as do authors - the structure must, by virtue of the game's design, provide multiple ways towards the end. expending points from the investigative abilities can open new venues of investigation, provide short-cuts -the system pretty much enforces well-written investigations - you can't provide a railroad, you need to make the research modular. This is pretty much genius. (Yes, abilities spent regenerate.)

There also are general abilities, which follow different rules that allow for failure. You spend ability points and roll a 6-sided die to see whether you succeed. To keep a character from investing all in one score, the second highest score must at least be half the highest. Points to buy abilities from depend, btw., on group-size. General abilities contain Athletics, Disguise, Driving, Hand-to-Hand, Shooting...and, obviously Health and Stability. So yes, that's about it. No, seriously - investigative and general abilities. that's it. Simple, right? The more dice you spend, the higher is your chance of success. Cooperation between characters is still an option and groups may piggyback on the best character's action by spending less points.

So, this would be the basic set-up. Now, as you can glean from the set-up, combat is not nearly as complex or diverse as in PFRPG or 13th Age and indeed, the system lends itself to a higher lethality-level. There is also an evident problem for anyone familiar with similar set-ups: Essentially, the set-up boils down to resource-management, which means spreading abilities etc. makes sense. Inexperienced players may end up sans points in their key competences right in the middle of an investigation. This is intentional, mind you, and part of the challenge - each spent should be carefully considered. Agents do not exist in solitude - hence, in most game-styles, there are sources of stability that help you from going off the deep end - from causes to persons, these are your anchor in the world, what keeps the character sane - their sources of stability.

So that's the vanilla set-up of GUMSHOE. Night's Black Agents, to me, has one of the best, if not the best version of the GUMSHOE-engine, though - at least for any game that is at least slightly pulpy. The book sports so-called thriller combat rules, which allow for the stunts we all know and love from the spy genre's fiction and it also offers "cherries." 8 points in a given ability unlock the cherry, which means you get something awesome: You're either less ridiculously easy to hit with guns, get a wild-card die-result you can substitute for another roll, automatically bypass most doors sans test...yes, this would be iconic and interesting specialization options, which coincidentally also help with the spread-problem.

Design-wise, it should also be noted that Night's Black Agents is one of the smartest, most professional games you can get for its focus: What do i mean by that? We ALL have different concepts of what spy thrillers should be like - gritty and psychological? Far-out and action-packed? Well, this book offers different game-modes, which handy glyphs denote. These game-modes represent different approaches to the genre and play in vastly different ways: "Burn" focuses on the psychological ramifications of spy-work and damage. While the default of Night's Black Agents is a Bourne Identity-like cinematic set-up, "Dust" allows for gritty, lethal, lo-fi rules that would also gel perfectly well with noir-aesthetics. "Mirror" would be the ultimate game of shifting alliances, betrayal and trust - intended only for mature groups, here betrayal among players and contacts, constantly shifting allegiances and the like generate a feeling of paranoia. Finally, "Stakes" is probably most in line with classic James Bond - it's the high-risk "In service of a higher cause" type of gameplay. All of these are supported, and, to a degree, they can be combined by a capable director. The result being that this is not a simple monolithic rules-set, but one that has a massive array of support for table-variation built into its very foundation.

EVERY other game-system I know (and quite a few designers) should take a careful look at this design-principle - here, we have support for A LOT of table variations and playstyles. And yes, this extends throughout the whole game's presentation, from chases to the primary antagonists.

Which brings me to the next point: When I got this book from Paco, I wasn't that thrilled - As I've been rambling on about time and again, I have VERY specific notions of what vampires should be. Well, the primary antagonists of Night's Black Agents, the conspiracy of vampires the agents face, is nothing less than brilliant in the way that it extends this modularity to the very concept of vampires: Instead of providing a monolithic hostile force that was bound to limit and disappoint some groups, we get a vast toolkit for your own vampire customization, with abilities marked with handy glyphs: Whether due to a mutation of the Marburg V-virus, as descendants of Dracula's lineage, supernatural creatures or even aliens, a plethora of vampiric themes is supported...yes, including the classic "servants of hell"-trope. And, once again, options are provided without making the material presented prescriptive in any shape, way or form. Sample characters can be found here to highlight the potential of the adversaries and infection/becoming a vampire also has a different set of conditions. Perhaps you're one of the weirdo GMs like yours truly and want something far-out? Well, from Camazotz to the Lamia, quite an array of kind-of vampiric adversaries are provided for your convenience.

Combat, btw., is significantly more rewarding here than you'd think - the new cherries and various options, from expert martial arts to feinting mean that this book's combat-section can be considered the most refined among GUMSHOE games. Special tag-team benefits allow btw. fr the combination of abilities for rather intriguing effects. The book also sports several hazards and how to deal with them in the context of the rules -from falling to acid to toxins, there is enough out there to kill your agents..or drive them mad. A significant collection of stability-loss samples and concise rules for mental illness, PTSD and the like, are provided - and yes, in mirror games, multiple personality disorder may turn you into your own adversary.

Directors also may benefit from the easy means f tracking "heat", i.e. the level by which your agents are hunted. Tools of the trade, both subtle and of the flamethrower-variant and tricks of the trade, from covert networks to safe houses - there is a lot going on here - and even with the relatively broad strokes I'm painting with here, I have no true means of covering the whole book sans bloating the review. So, I'll instead comment on some aspects.

The advice to players-section is gold. Yes, you can win. Yes, something horrible is gonna happen - this is a horror game. Get an exit strategy...this short section should be something featured in any investigative roleplaying game - it also helps players succeed and not be stumped. (Contrary to popular myth, GUMSHOE does lead to dead-ends once in a while - not via investigative abilities failing, but due to the human factor...and that is a good thing, as it makes the final triumph sweeter!)

Directors of the game can officially start grinning, since at this point, it is time for me to tell you about another great aspect of this book: Beyond the excessive modularity of the rules presented, the book acknowledges something: Investigations are HARD. No, seriously. Any GM of any game who has ever tried to write one will have come to this conclusion - much less speaking of a whole friggin' campaign! The solution, obviously, is to give the director the tools for the trade - and partially, the system's insistence of modularity, hard-coded into the very rules, already does that pretty well. But the narrative structuring of the frame-work still is an issue - so we get the downright genius Conspyramid. You have various levels, where you generate a flow-chart diagram of your own vampiric conspiracy...but beyond this, it's the advice that really matters. If, e.g., you follow Stoker's classic means of identifying vampires (or that from folklore), this will have repercussions on how your game works: Do they show on smart-phones and cameras? is a bite enough to doom you? Can vampirism be cured? If so, how? Only before or also after the transformation? The level of detail is staggering. Want more? What about a concise list of Europe's backstage intelligence agencies and military OPs as well as detailed information on criminal syndicates and the like? Quick and dirty city building, alongside concise and detailed examples provide glorious backdrops and advice on how to handle the grand game of spy-craft. On a meta-concern beyond individual design, advice on pacing and structuring of operations, pyramidal structures of antagonist motivations - the structuring advice provided here in not only great and valid within the frame-work of Night's Black Agents and reaches almost the level of a full-blown GM-advice book.

So, what about EVEN MORE modifications? Perhaps you don't like the vampire angle - no problem: The book has rules for straight, non-supernatural spygames. Or perhaps, you want gameplay with agents that also have supernatural abilities like remote viewing? Supported. The latter especially is interesting, since it offers plenty of support in conjunction with other GUMSHOE-products...nothing keeps you from re-designing that cthulhu-material, after all...

A brief and solid entry-scenario can also be found in this book, though that would be the one component where Night's Black Agents does not fare as well as other GUMSHOE-products - the scenario is solid, sure - but, as you'll see next week, there are better ones out there. A further reading list concludes the main text of the book.

The addenda contain exceedingly handy director-tracking sheets, worksheets for vampires and cities, operation sheets, an easy director-cheat-sheet of crucial rules, thriller chase summary cheat-sheet and rules, the same for thriller combat options, conspyramid-sheets to print/copy and use, ability summaries (also for refreshs), an agent record sheet, indices and a handy main index for navigation.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are apex-level awesome - no significant glitches in a book of this size. Wow. Layout adheres to an easy-to-read 3-column standard - which I usually really don't like - in most of the cases, 3-columns render the page's visuals cluttered. not so here. In fact, due to the excessive modularity of the system provided, it actually works to the book's benefit as a structuring element here. The artwork ranges from somewhat comic-y (and less awesome than I've come to expect from Pelgrane Press) to the glorious style of the cover. Btw.: Quite a few non-gamer friends have commented on the cover artwork being absolutely stunning. I concur. The book's dead tree hardcover is a thing of beauty and if you intend to play this game, I certainly advise you getting it.

Now originally, I did not have the electronic version of Night's Black Agents - by now I do. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks and symbols among the bookmarks for your convenience, making navigation very simple. The book also comes with an EPUB-version, a MOBI-version, Agent's Dossier, the first module from the Zalozhniy Quartet (review forthcoming) and the BETA 2-version of the Night's Black Agents Android App. There also are free resources to be downloaded online - scroll to the bottom of the review (at least on my homepage) for the link.

Kenneth Hite's Night's Black Agents is one damn impressive tome - the setting provided is concise and managed, in spite of my VERY STRONG opinion on vampires, to avoid annoying me. This book is all about options - it is a toolkit par excellence that does not force any playstyle on a given group, instead opening up a vast plethora of diverse choices and options for anyone to pursue. The rules are explained in a concise, easy to grasp manner and are so simple I managed to convey them to people who had never played RPGs before in less than 10 minutes. Granted, that's a strength of GUMSHOE as an engine.

However, beyond utilizing the strengths of the engine itself, this book resolves several crucial points of criticism with the engine underlying the setting - the diverse rules not only allow for different playstyles with different foci, it also mitigates some of the less inspired components of the engine by adding (optional) complexity that renders gameplay more diverse and ultimately, rewarding.

The single, biggest crucial strength of this book is that its modularity extends beyond the reach of its implied setting - in spite of the great presentation and concise rules, the concept of spies vs. vampires, to me, seemed rather monolithic; the issue of Cthulhu-games, if you will: You (kind of) know what to expect. Well, the beauty here lies in the options: You can easily combine this book with other GUMSHOE settings and systems. Want to go Cthulhu NOW with ToC? Get this. Want more combat edges and action in Esoterrorists? (Yup, review coming up!) Get this now.

The engine-tweaks introduced herein render this book an imho non-optional, massive toolkit for GUMSHOE that enriches ANY game based on the engine, not only the intended playstyle-verisimilitude. Which also deserves credit galore - the level of detail and support for the director should be taken as the level to which all games should aspire to.

Apart from the vast diversity of options (none of which are neglected or considered superior), the sheer attention to detail regarding the finer points of conspiracy-creation and the like retain their validity even beyond the confines of this game. Oh, and then there's massive array of supplemental material, the fact that you literally can derive so much awesomeness from this book. If you play GUMSHOE, any GUMSHOE game, and always felt like the engine had more to offer, then you should consider this a must-buy book. If the theme even remotely interests you, well, then this should be considered a unique and rewarding game to play. Night's Black Agents is, by any measure I apply, a superb game. My review may not reflect this 100%, but I tried VERY hard to pick this book apart - but quite frankly, there is nothing worth complaining about. Sure, its combat will never attain 13th Age's or PFRPG's level of complexity. But neither will those systems ever come close to the investigative caliber of this book.

If you're looking for a change of pace, for vampires in your GUMSHOE game, for a glorious investigative game, for a rules-expansion of the highest caliber, for any of the above virtues- then there's no way past this book.

My final verdict will be 5 stars + my seal of approval, accompanied by being tagged as an EZG Essential-book for GUMSHOE. Once I've reviewed enough books of the system, I will provide the corresponding Essentials-list.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Night's Black Agents
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MAJESTIC Overwatch
by Jay D. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 10/24/2015 13:03:20

I enjoy this product very much, but you will need other books to get a playable game from it: Moon Dust Men and Galileo Uplift.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
MAJESTIC Overwatch
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The Dracula Dossier: Dracula Unredacted preview
by Nathaniel J. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 10/08/2015 18:58:26

Dracula Unredacted is the best gaming handout ever made. Hyperbole be damned, it's true!



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Dracula Dossier: Dracula Unredacted preview
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The Dracula Dossier: Dracula Unredacted preview
by ian s. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 09/28/2015 10:46:27

from the preview it looks to be a very interesting take on Stoker's novel. Not sure I'll buy it but for someone unfamiliar with the novel it would be a fun way to enjoy the story.



Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
The Dracula Dossier: Director's Handbook preview
by ian s. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 09/28/2015 10:43:44

As a preview it has really done its job and I am impatiently waiting to get my hands on the finished product



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
The Dracula Dossier: Director's Handbook preview
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Trail of Cthulhu: The Book of the Smoke
by Flames R. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 09/23/2015 04:12:18

The Book of the Smoke is an oddity. The intentional use would be as an in-game prop for any setting where an occult London would be researched; however, it is best suited for Trail of Cthulhu, particularly the Bookhounds of London (a great read, by the way).

The text itself is a look at London’s occult scene. It is separated by places and persons. The majority of the book deals with places for investigators to, well, investigate. This is the genius of the book.

With a style similar to one found in a folklore journal, the author lays out rumored locales of high strangeness. These places, seeds really, are left wide open for clever keepers to nurture into something else.

The best part: After an investigation check, the Keeper can hand a tattered page or two from the book as a clue for the players to take in. They can make what they will of the academic, somewhat biased text. Since it’s a text clue, the Keeper can save his poker face for bigger moments in the game.

And it keeps in flavor with the game.

Some figures are well-known (Aleister Crowley, for example); others are not. The author does well making the read sound authentic. It’s “written” by a contemporary of the occult movers and shakers and it reads like it.

Overall, The Book of the Smoke feels like an extremely focused product, which is a disservice to it. There is a great deal that can be mined from this book, but it’s not as readily available (or advertised) as that. If you’re a fan of supernatural horror, take the time to check out this read. It’s system neutral, but tied to the late 1800s and 1900s (some times vary, but the majority fall there).



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[4 of 5 Stars!]
Trail of Cthulhu: The Book of the Smoke
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Shadows of Eldolan
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 09/04/2015 04:06:25

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This adventure clocks in at 72 pages - since I only have the softcover, I can make no qualified statements on the pdf's electronic features.

This book was moved up my reviewing queue due to me receiving the softcover of the book for the purposes of a fair, critical review.

First of all, this begins as a kind of gazetteer - the city of Eldolan, depicted with a nice b/w-map, comes fully detailed herein - and it is a n interesting backdrop: Situated near the Archmage's metropolis of Horizon, but far enough away to be a sovereign entity, we still have, obviously, a magocarcy on our hands - with 3 different wizard schools, there is quite a bit of inner- and inter-school rivalry suffusing the town's social structure. It should also come as no surprise that the members of the school obviously sport several privileges, with anyone nonmagical being relegated to the status of a second-class citizen-. On the plus-side, the overabundance of magic also means that there are quite a few unconventional amenities - from anti-vermin bombs to the lamplighter's guild that illuminates the districts at night with magical light. It is against this backdrop and the status quo of an overexerted city watch that also has its issues with the feuding wizards that this adventure is set.

So, our fresh heroes begin play in this settlement at the request of, obviously, their iconics, with several potential tie-ins as hooks being provided.

This being an adventure-review, the following obviously contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.

...

..

.

All right, still here? Great!

We begin this module pretty much in media res as the PCs are at a small market square, only to have a cart erupt in zombies to spread the Lich King's panic in the streets - a task somewhat undermined by the pumpkin-headed, pumpkin-throwing zombie provided. From here on out, it becomes obvious pretty fast that the authorities are terribly overexerted and require assistance and so the modular investigation begins - depending on the clues gathered after the assault, the PCs have a lot of leads to follow, which a GM can easily interconnect - essentially, the structure of the module is generated in a way that allows for the respective sub-chapters to lead into another and avoid dead-ends - so structurally, we have a sound set-up at our hands.

Coincidentally, each of the clues leads to another district of Eldolan. In the commons, further investigation and asking around sooner or later points towards a rather nasty gang of thugs, who can be beaten or persuaded into divulging the information regarding the target of the enigmatic Dreammaster, a dealer of drugs that has been undermining the pricing of the dreamleaf drug. His hide-out, as it turns out, is solidly fortified in a smartly constructed hide-out within an abandoned theater - beyond his smart-fighting flunkies and actually sound security protocols, the dreammaster provides for a great show-down on the dilapidated stage, making perfect use of 13th Age's great terrain-based attack-tricks - including a nice get-away route for the second half of the fight, phase two of the boss, if you will - alas, an undead will eliminate the dealer before he can divulge too much -only that he has been acquiring junkies...alive and dead, for some unknown buyer.

A particular peddler of the bodies of the dead would be potential competition and so, an organic lead - asking around the more dangerous taverns at the docks (hopefully avoiding too bad a tavern brawl) may actually yield non-violent results when interacting with the pragmatic criminal - the lead thereafter pointing the PCs towards a small, yet nevertheless deadly cult of minions of the Diabolist - hopefully managing to interrupt a human sacrifice - otherwise, the PCs will have to not only defeat the cultists, but also the deadly demon summoned.

In the temple district, a man can identify one of the initial zombies as a recently deceased friend - though, oddly, he should not be among the walking dead: After all, his body was supposed to be properly consecrated and buried. Confronting the local adherents of the priestess with these facts will require a lot of finesse and tact, but should the PCs succeed, their descent into the catacombs will sooner or later not only unearth a sabotage of the magical funeral rites - and find themselves besieged by undead in a harrowing fight in the middle of the tight subterranean confines, while also unearthing the presence of a hostile agent within the ranks of the Priestess' followers.

In the higher-class district of the saddle, a haunted and since then abandoned brewery has obviously also played its part in the operations of the Lich King's servant's conspiracy - here, we imho have some of the most exciting combats in the module - with very interesting terrain hazards and solid tactics, the challenge posed here is cool - even before the inclusion of a drunken ghost to lighten the mood.

Now finally, the PCs may have also found hints that led them to a nice shop of magic curios and encountered the eccentric owners here - but ultimately, sooner or later, their opposition will realize that they have a group of deadly foes in the PCs - and thus, the cabal called seekers will sooner or later try to assassinate them as they collect their evidence, piece by piece. Alas, much to the PC's chagrin, the evidence collected points towards the operations of the Lamplighter's Guild - and obviously, the PCs can't simply waltz into the prestigious place. Thus, some subtlety is required - and, within the compound, hopefully some discernment between loyal lamplighters trying to weed our foreigners and members of the cabal seeking to eliminate the meddling PCs...

Still, this final trek should prove enough information to convince one of the owners of the emporium to divulge the necessary information - and realize that the other owner is the head of the conspiracy. Thus, the PCs enter the final, short mini-dungeon to confront the mastermind in his own abode, duking it out not only with his incomplete flesh golem, but also with his superb defensive strategies - the PCs will have to be at the top of their game to prevent the escape of the mastermind - and may not even notice his escape until it's too late! A furious finale indeed!

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to an easy-to-read, aesthetically-pleasing two-column b/w-standard and the pdf sports several solid b/w.-artworks as well as a significant array of gorgeous b/w-cartography for just about every combat in the adventure. The paper of my print edition is a nice, high-quality glossy type.

Cal Moore delivers perhaps the one genre 13th Age is imho worst at here - an investigation. While the system's notion of failing forward is a required design-choice for a good investigation, the system is somewhat hamstrung by the sheer matter of the fact that it does not cover non-combat challenges that well. Now the task, in the absence of a codified skill-system, would be to properly depict the logical progression of the legwork - and surprisingly, the module did excel beyond my expectations in this arena and manages to offset the fatigue that sometimes settles in such an arena of too few dice rolls via clever use of relationship dice, which coincidentally also help prevent stagnation of the investigation.

On the plus-side, this module manages to not only mitigate the brunt of the system's less refined components, but also capitalizes on its strengths - there is not a single boring combat herein. Not a single one. With terrain-specific attacks, unique tactics and challenging boss-fights, the combat-component is simply fun and highlights well a massive strength of the system. This module is fun and more grounded than what I expected to get here. My players most certainly had an interesting time playing this module and enjoyed it - though it should be noted, that for a GM, the lecture is somewhat less captivating than one would expect, mainly due to the actual plot behind the whole conspiracy being none too exciting with the villain's motivation being opaque and pretty bland. Now my players didn't mind, but personally, I was pretty glad they did not pause to question the motives of their foes or their modus operandi, something I, as a GM, did not particularly care for.

This may sound negative, but it should be testament to this module's quality that its accumulated set-pieces and fast pace can transcend these notches to the point where they do not show. In the end, this module was a surprise for me, mainly because it is pretty hard to portray the genre within 13th Age's rules-framework, much less in a way that proved to be this fun, this well-structured. My final verdict will hence clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded down only due to the lack of meat behind the motivations of the primary antagonists - while it did not show in my playtest, I can see particularly inquisitive groups interested in complex motivations, especially those with a ToC or CoC (or other investigation-heavy RPG)-background potentially being frustrated with this component.

Endzeitgeist out.



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[4 of 5 Stars!]
Shadows of Eldolan
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The Book of Loot
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 08/20/2015 03:22:00

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This book clocks in at 72 pages. I received this book in print for the purpose of an unbiased, critical review and it thus was moved up in my reviewing queue. Even if you are not interested in 13th Age, please read this review. Finally: I do not own the pdf version of this book, so I can't comment on it.

All right, so if you've been reading my reviews for a while, you'll know what my introductory spiel will be here: If there is one thing I loathe about d20-based systems, it would be that they wrecked magic. What do I mean by this? The massive rules-interaction possibilities and mathematical crafting rules ultimately enabled players to create their own legends, yes, but at the same time, the system necessitated a codification of magic items, armor, etc. via the paradigms of gold, spells known and feats invested. Ultimately, this practice led to a plethora of humorous posts on how the ecology in any such a world would not work properly (or be driven wholly by murder hobos...) - google it and you'll surely find one or two such issues and I'm not even scratching the surface here.

While I am perhaps one of the more anal-retentive GMs out there regarding the feeling of the world I play in, one of the guys who design customs, rune-languages etc. to enhance internal consistency of a world, this component is surprisingly not the one that has irked me the most. What has galled me to no end is that magic just lost its luster and glory, it became not only easy to codify, it became predictable, with all unpredictability stemming ultimately from a huge array of sourcebooks that not only perpetuated power escalation among options like spells, but ultimately also among magic items based on said spells. With the Christmas-tree syndrome becoming more and more apparent (and loathed by at least a certain part of the target demographic), alternate means of power gain closer to our beloved fictional narratives were sought, found and implemented, with legacy weapons being refined into legendary weapons over the years and various system-modifications allowing for a playstyle that does not hinge on covering your PC in more magical bling than an early 90s rapper. (Note: While I am a goth/metal-head, I actually like hip hop...go figure, this was not a barb.)

Now 13th Age does several thing right with the magical items - from potential jealousy to quirks that are projected onto the character, the basic premise of 13th Age imho managed to offset this exceedingly grievous complaint many a person has with magic items: In 13th Age, magical items may once again feel like MAGIC, like something unpredictable. Now yes, the 13th Age system does assume the Iconics as movers and shakers and if you recall my review of the core book, I wasn't too thrilled by them. Now obviously, the items herein are grouped by iconic that created them (or that thematically fits them) - and honestly, the items provide more indirect characterization of the respective iconics than the base book's write-up. The Archmage's pomp, the Diabolist's reality-rending, the difference between the savage magic of the High Druid and the Emperor - the item classes actually feel differently o an extent I did not anticipate.

And yes, this book does have, obviously, some traditionally "useful" items - like a robe that teleports you out of danger when you reach 0 HP or an armor that deals fire damage to any supernatural being teleporting while in your proximity. It is not these items that have made me grin, almost continuously, from ear to ear while reading this book - it is the sheer, vast, huge imaginative potential of the items herein: Take for example the Dwarf King - a beard of entanglement is at the same time ridiculous and awesome - it has the whimsical quality I expect from magic. Or take the incredibly faithful hat that will show up EVERYWHERE you end up, including the 3 items you put in its compartments. I quote the book: "[...]stripped naked, hurled through a portal into the abyss and carried by a demonic roc to its nest in an uncharted, infernal mountain range -and you'll find your hat waiting there." And yes, you pet your hat as if it were a pet. This is awesome on so many levels!

Students of classic literature will surely enjoy the helm that can go full-blown Castle of Otranto as a defensible watchtower, while advocates of a certain barbarian and his timeless question of what is best in life most certainly will enjoy the throne-threading sandals. Now if you're like me, these examples alone (by far not the only ones, btw.!) will be enough to make you love this book, but if you don't have humor and do not enjoy this type of thing, then rest assured that there are enough "serious" items herein - what about e.g. a ring that declares you as one of the Elf Queen's consorts for your easy and daily fix of debauchery and court politics? Or what about the literal hand of winter that may or may not force you to draw the season back to where it belongs once it gets out of control? Or perhaps you prefer the more subtle side of things and with it a girdle that makes you the ultimate chameleon - but perhaps at the cost of finding out that interpersonal interaction and potential conflict ultimately are a crucial component that defines us.

Beyond these glorious, specific items, treasure trove generators, general item-creation advice and concise lists of items by chakra and a few potions and oils further complement this absolutely stunning book.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to a nice two-column b/w-standard and the book comes softbound and on glossy, thick high-quality paper that withstood my page-skipping while I was sweating terribly due to my Scandinavian ancestry.

This book, much like the superb Bestiary of 13th Age, is more inspired than I ever believed it to be possible - the Book of Loot was NOT a book I looked forward to reading and when I did, I was continuously and constantly blown away - so much so, that I have used A LOT of the items herein - in 13th Age, PFRPG, DCC - their playfulness and imaginative potential is downright genius and they bring back a sense of the unpredictable, of the MAGICAL.

Author Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan delivers an absolutely stunning assortment of items that breathe narrative potential, that inspire, that actually feel like they could spring straight from the pages of your favorite fantasy novels, with the vast majority of them being able to support a story all on their own - or even a campaign. Add to that the novice-friendly advice in the beginning and we have a book that is a little masterpiece - it constitutes one of the best magic item books I've read since 2nd edition and brings back defining characteristics of what magic items can be - more than a sum of endlessly recombined numbers, bonuses and parts, more than just a mathematical bonus-machinery. And yes, there are such items herein, but ultimately, even these have some sort of component that makes them transcend their system-dependency. I consider this book an excellent buy for all d20-based systems and as such, this book receives 5 stars + my seal of approval and status as a candidate of my Top Ten of 2015 - a capable GM who understands the mechanics of 13th Age and another system can easily convert them. GLORIOUS!

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Book of Loot
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13th Age Bestiary
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 08/14/2015 04:59:12

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This massive book clocks in at 240 pages. I have received the color hardcover version of this book for the purpose of providing an unbiased, critical review.

A task that has been harder than I thought at first. Why? Because it's a "first bestiary/monster manual"-type of book. I mean, come on, how many ways can you say: "This book contains orcs, ogres, etc." To me, as a reviewer, there is NOTHING more boring than the first bestiary, ESPECIALLY since the advent of 3.X.

Let me ramble for a second: When I began playing, bestiaries were actually that - they were fashioned after the medieval catalogues of fantastic creatures and thus provides stats, yes, but more importantly, they provided information on society, habitat, tactics. Flair. Things that set my mind ablaze with ideas. Then 3.X hit and as much as I like the mechanical complexity and wealth of options PFRPG et al. provide, as much do I loathe what this has done to monsters. Instead of receiving a fully-fleshed out creature with a place in the world, a modus operandi etc., we get some dry numbers, two lines of fluff and that's it.

In 3.X and its inheritors, monsters felt like machines, less like living, breathing creatures to me. Pathfinder has inherited this issue, though thankfully, a broad array of templates and unique signature abilities has somewhat mitigated the process of making monsters just HP-exchange units. Now granted, I can very much appreciate (and continue to do so!) well-crafted creature-mechanics, but I still catch myself wishing for a simpler time once in a while - or for a time when monsters still had story, still had a place.

What does this have to do with 13th Age? Well, in my original review of the core book, I called 13th Age somewhat schizoid in some design-decisions. In none is that more apparent than in the stance on monsters. Personally, I HATE the fixed damage-values monsters usually deal in 13th Age. However, the nastier specials, which provide upgrade-abilities for harder games or to showcase elite adversaries, are downright inspired. While the core book's monsters have fallen into the blander than bland routine for the most part, with no significant lore-upgrade to their roles, 13 True Ways provided pretty much a personal El Dorado for me - a vast array of utterly unique backgrounds for devilkind to choose from, each more inspiring than the last? Yes, please! Gimme more!

Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but I very much assume that you are not that interested in my rambling on and on about 13th Age's ogres versus that of other d20-based games or this book's version of a critter or absence/presence herein. What I do assume you to be interested in is quite frankly the consequence of monster-design for 13th Age being ridiculously easy and streamlined - namely, whether to buy this book or not. After all, it is a first bestiary - not too much uniqueness in here, right? I know I wouldn't have purchased this book based on its premise alone.

Well, you would be right on one hand - and, like me, dead wrong.

The first thing I feel obliged to mention is that each monster-entry herein not only comes with one simple statblock - instead, the respective beasts come with multiple ones, providing upgrades and often, utterly unique abilities beyond the what the base creature has to offer - if you're coming from a pathfinder bakcground, think of it as the difference between a regular critter and its mythic counterpart; if you're coming from an old-school gaming background, think of it as the difference between a skeleton and a skeletal champion. Yes, this pronounced.

Furthermore, the respective creatures actually get their place to shine - where PFRPG's bestiaries are not read for inspiration (that's something I draw from the creature-themed campaign supplements), this book does provide that in spades. With nomenclature where applicable, advice for building battles, in-character quotes, relationships with icons and yes, copious adventure hooks, this bestiary delivers in spades. Want an example? Well, take the chimera - these creatures actually come with a built-in template for each of the iconics, all providing different bonuses and flaws that serve tor ender the creature distinct for each iconic - oh, and yes, these are based on the PC's relationships with their iconics. What about symbiote magical items made from chuul? (Who needs Ankheg armor, anyways?)

Different approaches and philosophies within certain races and odd quirks that are downright inspired can be found in almost every entry - for example, did you know that couatl consider themselves to be the true heroes of the world? Were you aware that ettercaps make excellent info-brokers? What about the myriad creatures that make up the fungal kingdom, including a race potentially suitable to be played? Why should cubes have all the fun - unleash gelatinous dodecahedrons upon your PCs - and roll an appropriate die to see what the creature does instinctively! Whichever lore you prefer regarding ghoul bites, you're covered and inspiration for outbreak-scenarios can be found in the respective entry.

Of course, some creatures receive brand new takes - at the court of the lich king, for example, being a lich may just show that you're another sycophantic poser and manticore bards immediately conjured up scenes of Groteschi the Red, one of the more unique creatures from Catherynne M. Valente's Orphan's Tales. Now note that from the Crusader's Saved (which may be a fate worse than damnation) to the clockwork Zorigami that may constitute the heart of the world and the sentient countdown for the end of the age or even the world, there are quite a few unique creatures in here as well.

Why should you care, even if you're not playing 13th Age? Well, if the huge wealth of exceedingly glorious fluff, hooks and ideas is not enough to sway you, what about sheer design-ingenuity?

Wait.

What? Yes. 13th Age does not lend itself well to making interesting adversaries that have thousands of combos and options at their beck and call. However, in the case of this book, this limitation proved to be a blessing in disguise. From modifications of escalation or relationship dice to truly unique options, some of the abilities herein are, no hyperbole, GENIUS. Take the redcap. Tried and true delightfully evil fey - we all know and love the iron-shodded menaces. Well, herein, they have taboo-words - even if you think them, they get power from it and may teleport et al., gaining potentially a nasty array of additional actions. Now how is this represented? When a PLAYER says the taboo word, the ability kicks in. Yes. This is pretty much brilliant and can provide quite a mind-blowing experience when handled with care. This is just ONE example out of a bunch of them. This book's abilities OOZE creativity and will enrich ANY d20-based game I run for years to come.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant issues. Layout adheres to a nice 2-column full-color standard and the book sports a lot of unique artworks for the critters, which adheres to a uniform style and can be generally considered to be situated in the upper echelon of quality, though not yet at the top. My hardbound copy is sturdy, pretty to look and easy to use, with nice, glossy, thick paper.

Rob Heinsoo, Ryven Cedrylle, Kenneth Hite, Kevin Kulp, Ash Law, Cal Moore, Steve Townshend, Rob Watkins, Rob Wieland - congratulations. You have actually managed to craft the first "Bestiary I" since the days of second edition I liked to read, the first that inspired me. This book manages what neither monster manuals of 3rd or 4th edition or PFRPG's bestiary-line has succeeded in doing - actually inspire me to use creatures, to craft adventures around them, to use them to make the world feel more alive. While a rare few 3pp bestiaries over the years manage this sense of wonder, it usually stems from clever mechanics or uncommon concepts, only rarely from actual narrative potential. Ultimately, this book, in spite of its "1st bestiary"-handicap, did all of that and more and makes me giddy with anticipation and hopeful we'll see more far-out creatures in the level of detail as provided herein.

The 13th Age Bestiary is a superb, inspiring book, which may not be on an artistic or aesthetic level with the big ones, but is infinitely more inspiring - and for me, I'll take content over bling any day. My final verdict will clock in at a well-deserved 5 stars + seal of approval.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
13th Age Bestiary
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