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Deadlands Noir: The Case of the Jumbo Shrimp
Publisher: Pinnacle Entertainment
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/25/2013 11:16:09
Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/12/25/tabletop-review-deadlan-
ds-noir-the-case-of-the-jumbo-shrimp-savage-worlds/

Wow. I honestly though 2013 was going to be the year of Deadlands Noir when it was first released at the tail end of 2012. The core rulebook was simply amazing, and then it was immediately followed up by a high quality adventure in The Old Absinthe House Blues. After that though, the campaign setting rather dried up. We had three “dime novels (short stories) released for Deadlands Noir and the less than impressive Deadlands Noir Companion…but that’s been it. In fact, only a single eighteen page story was released for the setting in the second half of 2013, until now. The Case of the Jumbo Shrimp might not sound like something you’d see for a 1920′s noir/horror mashup tabletop RPG, but it covers all the bases: Mob bosses, cannibal cults, crooked unions, murders, a frame up for a crime characters didn’t commit, backstabbings, double crosses, triple crosses (maybe even a quadruple cross!) and so much more. Sure, the name of the adventure is a bit wacky, but it helps to lower the guard of your players and suck them into an ever escalating scenario where multiple sides want their heads and the only way out may be to decide who is the lesser of several evils.

The adventure begins with players being hired by one Travis Evans, a young man running for the leadership role in the local teamsters union. The current incumbent is Simon Beauregard, who Evans believes has mob ties. Evans feels if these are exposed, he can secure the nomination. At the same time Evans’ assistant , Chelsea Golden has a father who has died (and believed murdered) and the players will have to look into this as well. Both paths lead the investigators down an ever growing path of depravity and weirdness that they may never recover from.

Much of the adventure is mundane, such as doing Legwork for information, checking ledgers for embezzlement and racketeering, interrogating/questioning NPCs and the like. It’s a dry adventure compared to what most people think of when they hear Deadlands. It’s much like a Call of Cthulhu adventure without the Mythos aspect. I really enjoyed that this was more or less a straightforward detective piece, but those who want a little more blatant supernatural experience or some monster bashing may be a bit disappointed. That said, it’s not as if the supernatural is completely absent from The Case of the Jumbo Shrimp; merely that it is exceptionally subtle. In the back story there are references to spells of prolonged life and of course, some occult circles believe that cannibalism gives one extraordinary abilities. As the players investigate the crimes before them, they’ll also discover the use of a spell to snuff out a critical NPC’s life. So again, there is supernatural occurrences in this adventure (It wouldn’t be Deadlands otherwise) but it takes a trained eye, ear and nose to spot them. There is one big blatant potential supernatural threat, a Swarm Man, at the tail end of Chapter 2, but it doesn’t really seem to fit the adventure, so my advice would be to excise it unless your players are really aching for combat and/or monsters at this point. It does kind of change the dynamic of the adventure for a single experience though, so I think you’ll find the mood, theme and flow of the adventure is better off without it.

Of course all this talk about subtle supernatural elements goes out the window with act four of this adventure. There, PCs will be travelling to a creepy bayou island full of bloats, voodoo zombies (as opposed to the Romero style zombies) and trying to end the reign of an ancient cult. This is the most action packed and violent part of the adventure, and if PCs are going to die, it will probably be here. Thankfully though, even if a TPK (Total Party Kill) occurs, the PCs can still win. It’s a nice touch and considering how the characters are going to be thrown through the wringer here, I was pleased to see how death is far from meaningless in this piece.

The Case of the Jumbo Shrimp takes place over four chapters, each of which could be considered their own adventure. As such, that makes this more of a mini campaign than a single adventure. It will take you multiple play sessions to get through all of this (more than likely with one or more PCs meeting a grisly demise if they aren’t careful). This helps to offset the $9.99 price tag, which would be a bit high for a single adventure in digital format. As such I think the sheer amount of content The Case of the Jumbo Shrimp ensures players and the GM will get their money’s worth out of picking this up. The adventure works especially well as an introduction to the Deadlands Noir setting due to how the emphasis is on investigation and discovery over combat or supernatural horror. Of course, there are only two published adventures for the setting outside of the core rulebook and the Companion, so it’s not like you have much of a choice if you prefer to run published adventures. Who knows? Maybe Pinnacle will throw more Deadlands Noir content our way in 2014.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Deadlands Noir: The Case of the Jumbo Shrimp
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Gygax magazine issue #3
Publisher: TSR, Inc.
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/22/2013 08:28:23
Originally Posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/12/06/tabletop-review-gygax-m-
agazine-issue-3/

Well, this was a nice surprise to get in the mail. With the previous two issues of Gygax Magazine, I didn’t get my issue until well after a month after non-subscribers had received theirs and only then after asking TSR’s customer service about the whereabouts of my copy each time. Now, I get the magazine before it’s even announced on TSR’s website, Facebook or G+ accounts. That’s pretty awesome. I had to check and see if I missed an announcement, but no, the digital copy isn’t out yet and from only a few comments on the Facebook page for Gygax Magazine, this really was a stealth release! I’m happy to see early subscribers getting their issues well…early, as that’s a nice touch of customer service and even happier that issue three is out three and a half months after issue two. That’s pretty close to the quarterly schedule they are aiming for. Compare that to the six-seven month gap between issues one and two and you can definitely see that each issue of Gygax Magazine is getting better in terms of turnaround and customer service. Of course the contents of each issue might vary in quality depending on what type of articles you are looking for, but that’s the point of these reviews, right?

Issue #3 does have only sixteen articles compared to Issue #2′s 19 but that’s because we’ve got a huge dungeon for first edition AD&D taking up a lot of pages. This dungeon is party of the giant Mega Dungeon that was previously only playable up at TSR’s Hobby Shop. This inclusion is actually a tease for The Hobby Shop Dungeon which will be released by TSR at the tail end of 2014. So yes, you have to wait a full year for the release, but hopefully this will tide you over until then. Plus this way you don’t have to experience a Lake Geneva winter. Brrr.

1. Editorial. Jayson Elliot gives us a quick rundown on what’s in this issue, why they use (BOO! Boo, I say!) sentence case for article titles instead of Title Case and how annoying it is for a magazine to have a URL in it only to have readers go to the link weeks, months or years later and find it no longer leads to anything but a 404 error. There’s also a tiny bit of errata (Hey, it was only the second issue) and overall the Editorial does what it needs to. 1 for 1.

2. How Do You Stop a Space Amoeba? Well, that’s definitely a title that grabs your attention. This article is for a game called Federation Commander, which is apparently an officially licensed Star Trek game. I’m not really a Star Trek fan (or anything Sci-Fi really), so it was fun to learn about a game I didn’t even know existed. This is exactly what I wanted to see from Gygax Magazine – a nice blend of articles for games I know and love, and some that may introduce me to something new and nifty that will suck away some of my disposable income. Anyway, you get a full solo scenario for the game in this article (although you do have to download the First Missions rules either directly from the Federation Commander‘s Website, or from http://gyg.ax/firstmissions….which I don’t provide a hyperlink to as it gives me a 404 error. Oh the irony when paired with Jayson’s editorial, eh?

The article is well done, although the author’s narrative style felt a little too rambly/rushed and not explanatory enough for my liking. You know when someone is SUPER EXCITED about a topic and they start speaking a little too fast and a little too loudly because of their passion for it and you find yourself a bit lost? That’s what this article reads like. I can tell the editor of the article felt a little similar since it’s the first and only time I’ve seen an editor explanatory note to the readers in one of these magazines so far. Even though I had to read the article twice, I understood how to play the game. Did the article or the First Missions download make me want to purchase Federation Commander? No, but I think if you ARE a Star Trek fan, the one-two punch combination might make entice you to pick up the full game. Two small issues I had with the article though. I HATE when a magazine splits an article up. The article is on pages 5,6 and 64. Why not just go pages five through seven? As well, the article gives two different “continued on” page numbers. The top of page six says it is continued on page 62 and the bottom says that the article is continued on page 64. Believe the bottom – page 62 is an ad for GaryCon. 2 for 2.

3. The Dwarven Rune Priest. Hey! An article for Dungeon Crawl Classics. Now this was right up my alley, as often times I feel like I am the only person reviewing this awesome line from Goodman Games (and third party companies like Brave Halfling or Land of Phantoms). This particular article is about a new character class called…the Dwarven Rune Priest. You probably didn’t see that one coming, eh? I really liked this article, but then I’m a big fan of DCC and will be happy to try out this class in a game down the road. I’m not sure how it will fit in as a player goes from Level 0 to Level 1, but I’m sure I can explain how a lowly Cheesemaker becomes one with the earth elements. Now if you’re looking for this article to explain DCC to newcomers, you’ll be disappointed. This is written specific for people who know the system, which make it a niche piece. However that’s true of any article in a magazine that covers all forms of gaming. About the only thing I, as a DCC player, could ask for is more rune options! I really hope to see more DCC articles in future issues. 3 for 3.

BTW, the ad across from the start of the Dwarven Rune Priest article? It’s for a Kickstarter that happened back in October. It’s now December. Whoops.

4. The Airlancer. Here we have another new character class for a system, but this time it’s for AD&D, First Edition. Unlike the Dwarven Rune Priest though, the Airlancer is more than a little unbalanced. I hate to be so blunt, but man, anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of AD&D can take one look at this and tell it’s got Mary Sue issues. First, it’s meant to be a warrior option. However, it keeps getting d10 hit dice until Level 12 when it starts to get +3 HP per level. Fighters and Paladin stop getting full hit dice at Level 9. Rangers stop at Level 10. Right there, you know something is up when this new class gets noticeably more Hit Points than the original. The Airlancer gets Illusionist spells, a Hippogriff at fourth level (then a griffon at level nine), special armor (along with penalties for not using said armour), an enhanced version of a Ranger’s favored foe status (or what we’d know as that ability from 2e on), the ability to instill fear (basically turn) in that favored foe and the ability to use and make poisons a la the Assassin. Oh, they can also spend a round to recover from any intoxication or non-magical mind altering substance. Ouch. All while using the Ranger’s XP table. Oh man, this is not well thought out. The class even requires one to stay true neutral although by every bit of descriptor in this piece makes it clear there are anything but the 1eAD&D definition of “True Neutral.” Man this was a stinker. If you want to do an air-based combat class, why not focus on actual things that revolve around that? Jettison out something like the poison and give them a bonus to altitude or low oxygen based situations. That’s more fitting to the concept. Maybe switch out Illusionist spells for animal based Druid and Cleric ones as that would still give them spells but also pare down how overpowered the class currently is. It would also relate back to their mount, being thematically correct. Yep, this is our first stinker in this month’s issue, and it’s a doozy. You might get more out of the article than I did though. 3 for 4.

5. Artifacts to Impart Ancient Lore. This is a fun little article that talks about five different magic items that can give your character some boosts to skills or non-weapon proficiencies. None of these artifacts impart anything major or game-breaking, which is nice, and no player is going to turn down any new abilities, even if it’s gaining Knowledge (Religion) or a +2 to Craft (Siege Weapons). Sure it might not be that Holy Avenger they were after, but ever little bit helps. Even better, the article gives ways to use these artifacts in Pathfinder, every version of D&D except Fourth and even generic applications so you can use them with something like Chaosium’s BRP. Nice job. 4 for 5.

6. Master Mariner. I had totally forgotten about Pirates of the Spanish Main until this article. I know fellow DHGF staffer Matt Yeager was really into that game for a while though. This four and a half page article builds off of and replaces much of the old Heroclix rules for this game. Of course ?Pirates of the Spanish Main and its subsequent sets have been out of print for a long time, so I’m not sure who will get much use out of these. That said, the rules are really well done and I loved the art in this article. I tried the rules out with Games Workshop’s Dreadfleet ships and they still worked pretty well. These rules probably aren’t something I’ll ever make use of again and this might be the most niche article out of all three Gygax Magazine issues, especially as you’ll need mini pirate boats and the original WizKid rules to make use of this article. I think I’d be afraid of the Venn diagram results showing the portion of gamers that have pirate ships minis, PotSM rules and this magazine. I’ll be kind though and give this a point although it was touch and go due to usability for a while. 5 for 6.

7. Nuffle’s Academy. This is a two page article on Blood Bowl league play. I’m kind of surprised Games Workshop didn’t get its feathers ruffled over this. Anyway, this is a pretty straightforward article. Fantasy Football is a popular game and there are Electronic Football leagues, so why not do a Blood Bowl one? I never really cared for the game (and the video game version was pretty terrible) but this article does a great job of introducing the game to newcomers and giving them some ideas for their first team. As a long time Lizardman army owner for Warhammer Fantasy, I was happy to see their Blood Bowl equivalents get a plug. Honestly though I’m so out of the loop on Blood Bowl, I didn’t even remember there was a Lizardman option for the game. Fine piece and the type of article I wish White Dwarf would do. 6 for 7.

8. Argyle & Crew’s Scavenger Hunt. Holy crap! I never thought I’d see an article about Argyle & Crew in a gaming magazine, much less Gygax Magazine, which tends to talk about older gamers and have an older audience. Argyle & Crew is a rules-lite game designed for younger gamers and it uses sock puppets. I’ve picked up a few of the free pieces Troll in the Corner has put up on DriveThruRPG.com and found it quite adorable. This article lets kids, parents and whoever jump right in and play without any of the core pieces already made for the game. This particular variant of the game revolves around a Scavenger Hunt and trivia content. As such, it’s not an exact 1:1 of the tabletop game, but it makes for a really cute one-shot when there is a big gathering of tots, say a birthday party or as an after-school activity. A&C lets kids gets really imaginative and creative, but it might not be for everyone. I mean, when I was at the recommended age for Argyle, I was playing TSR’s FASERIP Marvel RPG, but I still bet I would have had fun with this too. I’m not sure how much the audience of Gygax Magazine will get out of this piece, but it’s well written and it’s great to see this game get covered. 7 for 8.

9. How to Split Up the Party. Oh god, another one of those terrible “Dear Abby” style articles I railed against in the review of issue #2. Seriously, who thinks this is a good idea? All it does is perpetuate the myth that all tabletop gamers are socially awkward wimps that can’t handle normal everyday issues. In this case, it’s about dealing with someone in the group they don’t like as a person or a gamer. How sad do you have to be if you can’t nut up enough to tell someone what you think of them in an honest and forthright but respectful tone. Just because you don’t like someone doesn’t mean you have to say, “You suck. Die. I hate you.” However, it’s not that hard to say, “I think you are acting like a bit of a putz when you do XYZ. What’s up with that?” Or, “When you do XYZ, you kind of are bringing down the game.” Chances are they might not realize what they are doing is offensive. They might not even be conscious of it. If they are doing it purposely, then you have to realize they are intentionally being a dick and stand up to them. Look at that. A whole paragraph to do what a two page column does – and I did it for free. Seriously, these type of articles are embarrassing to the reader and they drag the overall quality of the magazine down. Yuck. 7 for 9.

10. They all Died at the International Space Station. Wow, talk about bringing back a dead system. I’ve never known anyone that played Metamorphosis Alpha. Hell, I belong to some pretty active online gaming communities (especially ones for old fuddy duddies like myself) and I never even see this game get brought up. That said, it’s pretty cool that the creator of the game, James M. Ward, penned a full length adventure for the system this mag. DriveThruRPG.com has a few MA items, including the core rulebook (1st and 4th Edition), but this magazine is really rocking the lesser known/played games this issue.

So I’ve mentioned I don’t really do Sci-Fi but this was a pretty neat adventure. I’m totally ignorant of the games’ rules, so I had to do a lot of inferring and educated guessing, but the plot sold me on the adventure, if not buying the game. In a nutshell the ISS goes a little HAL and tried to kill the PCs. How the ISS became alive (or if it even is…) is one of two problems the PCs have to solve. The other is trying to stay alive as the very thing keeping them alive is also trying to murder them. There’s no set solution to the adventure and the author doesn’t even try to write one in. it’s merely a set of problems and solutions which the GM will have to string together until the PCs figure something out or they all die horrible. 8 for 10.

11. The Hobby Shop Dungeon. This is a one page essay about the history of the Hobby Shop Dungeon which sees print next year. It’s short, entertaining and crammed with a lot of information. 9 for 11.

12. The Marmoreal Tomb of Garn Pat’uul. This adventure for first edition AD&D not only takes up eleven pages of the magazine, but it also include a very nice gatefold map showcasing just how vast (and deadly) this location is. The adventures is designed for characters between 1st and 3rd level, but there is no mention of how many should be playing at a time. The adventure is primarily a hack and slash dungeon crawl where you’ll roll-play rather than role-play, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Just don’t be looking for some grandiose plot or overarching mystery to solve. PCs are going into a tomb for adventure, riches and danger and that’s just what they will find. The adventure is very solid and although it might be too simplistic for those that like a little more intrigue or investigation (Say CoC or V:TM gamers), old school D&D fans will really enjoy this piece. Heck, including a Horla pretty much won me over. 10 for 12.

13. Order of the Knights Incorporeal. Although I know a few people who love 13th Age, the system hasn’t really done anything for me, similar to how Fourth Edition D&D hasn’t captured my interest. That said, this article about a new set of antagonists for the game was pretty interesting. Although obviously heavily influenced by ring-wraiths and death knights, these undead have a pretty cool backstory and there are even rules for allowing PCs to play as Ghost Knights. Neat. 11 for 13.

14. Savage Charms and Monstrous Fetishes. This is an article for Pathfinder and I really wish it wasn’t in the magazine. It’s not bad – just that we already have multiple Pathfinder publications and it’s space that could easily be out towards a different game that already doesn’t get much time in the sun. If I want to read a Pathfinder piece, I could pick up Pathways or literally dozens (maybe even hundreds) of other options. I get this is Kobold’s section and Pathfinder is primarily what they do but I’d rather see some systems covered with this space like Shadowrun, BRP, Cryptworld, and other systems that don’t have regular articles written about them elsewhere.

Anyway, this article talks about the fetishes used by primitive cultures and barbarians. It tells how to make them and also gives mechanics, feats and a list of nineteen sample fetishes. It’s interesting and I can definitely see some Druid, Barbarian, Kobold and goblin players using these, but I don’t see many people actually following through. Still, it’s well thought out and is an interest option to flesh out your Pathfinder PC. 12 for 14.

15. Full Frontal Nerdity. Eh. I just didn’t find this comic funny. I generally like it, it’s just this particular strip did nothing for me. Sorry. 12 for 15.

16. The Order of the Stick. A nice one shot by Rich really ripping on the reboot trend in comics, as well as the “No More Marriage” trend we’ve seen hit characters ranging from Superman to Spider-Man. It’s a few years late to be topical, but still funny. Plus V has a gender change. Cute. 13 for 16.

So this was a pretty good issue. 81.25% quality rate compared to issue 2 being at 74%. That’s a nice jump. Interestingly enough, while issue #3 has the least amount of content pertaining to the games I actively play, I do think it’s the best overall issue yet in terms of article quality. This is a great sign for the magazine as each issue gets better in all ways. We’re seeing better editing, faster turnaround on issues, better customer service, a wider range of articles from all aspects of gaming and more. I’m more than happy with what this magazine contained for the $8.95 cover price. Now that it’s obvious the magazine is sticking around for the foreseeable future, I’m hoping more systems from throughout tabletop gaming’s history get to show up here. Chill, Earthdawn, Spellfire, All Flesh Must be Eaten and many other games could stand to have an article in Gygax Magazine. I’ll definitely be renewing my subscription to Gygax Magazine but as always, reviews are a matter of opinion. Mileage will vary based on your interest in the games talked about in this issue. If the only thing you like to play is Savage Worlds, you’re a bit out of luck here.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Gygax magazine issue #3
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Cypher Collection 1
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/02/2013 00:00:00
Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/12/04/tabletop-review-cypher--
collection-i-numenera/

Sometimes a review practically writes itself, like when you cover a set of random tables, a name generator or a supplemental full of some specific type of equipment like guns or cyberware. Such is the case with this latest supplement from Monte Cook Games for its hit Numenera setting. Within this digital only release, you’ll find seven pages dedicated to fifty different ciphers of all shapes, size and powers. The other three pages that make up Cypher Collection I are a cover, interior page and of course, a random cipher list.

If you’re new to Numenera, know that ciphers are one-shot items that may do just about anything. They could turn someone into a kitten, heal a PC, or shoot monkey shaped confetti into the air. You won’t know until you find and experiment with them based on your GM’s description of the item. Numenera is a game of exploration and discovery first and foremost seeing that a billion years of technology litter the world the PCs reside. So if the GM gives you a cipher that looks like a hypodermic needle except it glows in the dark and occasionally vibrates when held up to a black light every Tuesday, it’s up to you who or what you want to inject with it. It’s worth noting Cypher Collection I reminds gamers that there are two general types of Cyphers. An Anoetic Cypher is a simple tool – something you press a button on, chew up and swallow or flip a switch on to activate. An Occultic Cypher is more complex but generally also has a more impressive effect. Note that impressive doesn’t necessarily mean helpful.

Oddly enough, for a game whose core rulebook embraced the idea of the weird and unusual, all of the ciphers in Cypher Collection 1 are pretty routine items. They are things you would find in any other RPG ranging from Dungeons & Dragons to Shadowrun. I was hoping this collection would really let Monte Cooke Games throw the mundane and obvious ideas out the window and give us a collection of some pretty strange items, like a cipher that causes any plant with 100 yards to excrete a viscous substance that if rubbed on your skin, allows you to perform repetitive actions such as climbing or sleeping without getting tired. Maybe a cipher that turns anything with a blade into Formica. Things that really promote the weirdness factor of the game and also make players wonder why some past civilization would invent something like a device that releases a sentient pile of earwax into the world. Something that replicates Tenser’s Floating Disc or that gives a character simulated X-Ray Vision isn’t all that unusual and when a character finds a pair of wearable wings, it’s obvious what the function will be.

That isn’t to say that Cypher Collection I is poorly written or not worth picking up. Far from it. It’s just the collection isn’t as imaginative or bizarre as I wanted it to be. This is similar to the people who were let down by The Devil’s Spine adventure collection by the fact it was pretty much standard dungeon crawl style adventures, which is what most people felt Numenera was going to try and avoid. What is in this collection are fifty straightforward and rather useful devices a less imaginative GM can let his players find to help them make it through adventures set in the Ninth World. It’s very reasonably priced at only $2.99 and it’s handy to have when you don’t have the time or desire to make up stats for a bomb like cipher or you feel that you can’t get your own idea for a cypher balanced.

My favorite ciphers in this collection include: the Helping Hand, which is basically a floating seven fingered hand that acts as a third appendage for a character, the Stealthy Serpent which gives you a two foot long metal snake as a sidekick and a set of metal discs that repel water. These are all pretty outside the box and will delight players as they try to figure out how to use them as well as debate upon their original reason for existing. As I’ve said the vast majority of these ciphers are for dungeon crawling, which means they are for offensive or defensive measures. This is fine and you’ll definitely be able to make use of them, be you player or GM. I am hoping that if there is a Cypher Collection II, Monte Cook Games really lets its imagination soar and give us some items that are no apparent usefulness or are so strange PCs can’t help put discuss them (in and out of character), thus making a regular item drop become something truly memorable. Again, what’s here is great if you’re looking for bombs, devices that give a character limited telepathy or that make holographic duplicates of the user. Everything is well designed, balanced and the overall piece is a great supplement to the core Numenera rulebook. If however, you’re looking for something canon that lets a PC communicate with cheese or allows a party to breathe lava, you won’t find it here.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Cypher Collection 1
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Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle (D&D Next)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/02/2013 00:00:00
Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/09/04/tabletop-review-ghosts--
of-dragonspear-castle-dungons-dragons-next/

Note: The review was originally written when this was a convention exclusive and a physical release only. I'm EXTREMELY happy to see a digital release made available to everyone as this was one of my sticking points back in September when I reviewed this. CONVENTION EXCLUSIVES BAD!


I’m not a fan of Convention Exclusives. In fact, I outright hate the very concept of them. Why have an item that could easily make a company a lot of money and make a lot of fan happy by giving it a general release, but then limited production for a few thousand people that feel like going to a convention. No, whether it’s a Heroclix miniature, a core rulebook variant, a Botcon Transformer exclusive or something else, there is something logically and ethically shady about convention exclusives to me. At least some companies like Catalyst Game Labs make their convention “exclusives” available digitally layer on (like the award-winning Elven Blood, so the exclusivity is only on format rather than the number of people who can get their hands on it. This thing is already going for $75-130 on the secondary market and that just makes me sick.

Here I am though reviewing Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle. Why? Because it’s the first physical release for Dungeons & Dragons Next aka Fifth Edition for the world’s oldest tabletop roleplaying game. I felt it was very important, both as a journalist for the tabletop industry and someone who has been on the ground floor of D&D Next since before it was announced to the general public to see how the first purchasable version of the game holds up. One of our staffers, Matt Faul, attended GenCon 2013 and grabbed me a copy (which I paid for in advance – this is not a review copy unlike 99.99% of what we do here) and I’ve spent the past few weeks reading, playing and most of all comparing this version of D&D Next to the many versions I have saved to my hard drive after a year and a half of helping with the rules revisions. I wanted to see some sort of end result, even it is actually a midway result.

I’m happy to say that while D&D Next still does need a lot of work (especially regarding class balance and design), Ghost of Dragonspear Castle is a worthwhile purchase as it contains everything you need to play a long running D&D Next campaign. It contains four adventures that will bring your PCs from Level 1 through Level 10. Best of all, these four adventures only make up half the book. The other half includes things like a quickstart set of rules so that even if you’ve never played ANY form of D&D before, you can still play Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle without any trouble. The quickstart rules are roughly twenty-two pages long and cover combat, initiative, stats, progression through the game and are simply wonderfully done. Sure any fan of the previous four editions of Dungeons & Dragons will find things to pick apart or outright dislike, but they will also find things that remind them of “their” version of the game. I was really happy with the QSR in Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle as they show that even with a long way to go before D&D Next in truly ready for a wide scale release, what’s here is useable, playable and fun.

The four adventures in the book are interconnected, with the first three having players trying to keep three elemental keys out of the hands of the Red Wizards of Thay. These adventures lead into the 2014 D&D Encounters season, so they do kind of end on cliffhangers in regards to why the Thayans want the keys and the eventual ultimate goal for them are. The fourth adventure is a final encounter between the players and a running antagonists that ISN’T a Red Wizard who has annoyed them through the previous adventures. Of course you just may get a climactic battle with the Red Wizard’s big gun (No, not Szass Tam. That’s too big). I really liked the first and third adventures (especially since the third has a very large Twin Peaks homage that the adventure revolves around), but the second and fourth just seemed a little underwhelming to me. The adventure balance seemed way off as well, as often, the enemies seemed far too powerful for the character level. A lich with multiple mummy bodyguards is not an appropriate encounter for characters between levels four and five, for example. The lack of a Challenge Rating seems to have stymied the writers of the adventures and the end result is that combat and the challenge of the encounters seems to be a bit too off, meaning the DM will have to scale things back with alarming frequency. Still, I liked the way all four adventures interconnected and the story they told when all was said and done. Again, Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is meant to be an example of a work in progress and so noticing things like class and encounter imbalance is bound to happen.

Another twenty-four pages are devoted just to a magic spell compendium for wizards and clerics. Every spell locked in for the game so far are provided here, which is nice. It’s a short list, but the book contains every spell a NPC, PC or monster would want to cast in your playthrough of this campaign. It’s interesting to see some of the spelling changes like Burning Hands and Chill touch are now considered cantrips (One of many reasons I consider the new Wizard to be the most powerful and unbalanced the class has ever been)or how much damage Fireball now does. Again, everything you need to run the campaign is here, although once your characters get past Level 10, you’ll be stuck.

The next chapter in the book is Equipment and it’s another dozen pages. Here you’ll find all the armor, weapons and equipment a PC will need to go dungeon crawling. It’s short and sweet but all the basics are here and a DM will only be lacking a list of magic items, weapons and the like. Unfortunately the book is missing a section for those, but you do find a dozen magic items in the next section, the DM Guide. This chapter is done akin to quick start rules, but for the DM instead of the PC. Here is where you will find a host of ability checks, information on traps, advice on doling out experience points and/or treasure. As mentioned earlier there ARE a dozen magic items listed, but there are only two weapons (a flame tongue sword and a javelin of lighting) followed by four potions, a wand, a staff, a bag of holding, gauntlets of ogre power, dust of dryness and a horn of blasting.

My favorite chapter is the sixth which is the Bestiary. Think of it as a mini Monster Manual/Monstrous Compendium. It’s crazy how many monsters they fit into this thing, and the layout is similar to the old 2nd Edition AD&D style, which made me happy. There are close to 100 different monsters for your PCs to face down here, ranging from the cannon fodder goblins, zombies and gnolls to powerful creatures like liches and death knights. This section really runs the gambit and with roughly fifty pages devoted to all these antagonists, the Bestiary is well worth the sticker price on the book alone.

Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle ends things with the six pregenerated characters to use. While the Bestiary was the high point of the book or me, these characters are easily the low point. I’m find with pregens, except that the pregeneration goes from Level 1 through Level 10 with everything laid out for your characters path. Even this wouldn’t be so bad if the character classes weren’t exactly the same in terms of growth and distribution. The Dwarf Warrior and Human Warrior get the same exact changes at each level, meaning the only thing separating the two from being carbon copies of each other are the racial bonuses and the character background options (think Secondary Skill from 2e AD&D). This is also true for the Human Wizard and Elf Wizard, although at least each one gets different spells in their spellbook to make the two slightly different from the other. I’d have liked to have seen something else differentiate the characters that have the same class. Perhaps The Elf Mage could have had something different than Brew Potions at Level 6 or Overchannel at Level 9. They’re just too wooden for my liking and character customization is one of the most important things about a game system for me, so anyone like me who hasn’t been taking part in D&D Next playtest and rules-writing will be instantly turned off by the character class system presented here thinking you have no real path or control over what your character gets at certain levels. That thankfully isn’t the case, but this is one area where the team behind Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle fell way short and could have done so much better. I also really don’t like the layout of the two page character sheet that comes with the book. It’s far too busy, with things jumbled up and the lines for writing/typing things out being far too much for 99.99% of people. Supposedly this thing won a contest for best designed character sheet but holy hell – if that’s true, I’d hate to see the losers. Seriously, it’s one of the worst I’ve ever seen, especially for D&D. Here’s one thing I really hope gets retooled before the official edition launch.

Finally, a word on the art. I liked that much of the art used in Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle was taken from previous editions of D&D and AD&D. There is some really good (and bad) classic artwork proliferating this book and it was fun to see what I recognized and what was new to me. The book also includes faux post-it-notes with sarcastic or comedic commentary about the book, which is a nice touch as much of the WotC versions of D&D have been lacking a sense of humour and/or took itself FAR too seriously.

So as you can see, Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is pretty well done. It’s not great, and as the first physical beta test of D&D Next I’m pretty happy with it and would happily recommend it to everyone at the MSRP on the cover. Unfortunately, Wizards made this a GenCon only and it’s already going for more than double the cover price, which disgusts me. Wizards could have made so much more money by making this publicly available while also making D&D fans everywhere happy by letting them have unfettered access to this release and keeping the secondary market gougers from making a mint off the people who really love and care about the game but couldn’t go to a four day convention for whatever reason. At least the contents of Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle will keep you and your gaming troupe busy for months as you play through the adventures, read through the weighty tome and get a real sense of where Wizards of the Coast is heading with D&D Next. What’s here is far from perfect with a terrible character sheet, cookie cutter pregens and some horribly unbalanced encounters for PCs in the adventures, but for the most part, what’s here should satisfy the curious and D&D faithful alike. I’m pretty excited for the end result myself, and my thought is that between this and Murder in Baldur’s Gate, you will be too.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle (D&D Next)
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Transylvanian Adventures
Publisher: Land Of Phantoms
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/26/2013 07:00:16
Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/11/26/tabletop-review-transyl-
vanian-adventures-dungeon-crawl-classics/

Back in July I reviewed an adventure entitled The Winter Home for the Dungeon Crawl Classics system. This adventure, set in a quasi-homage to 1950/60s Hammer Horror films, was for an upcoming campaign setting known as Transylvanian Adventures. I really enjoyed the adventure and it made me excited for the eventual release of the core product. Now that it’s been in my hands for a few weeks and I have thoroughly devoured it, I have to say you will more than get your money’s worth. After all, it’s 300+ pages for only thirteen dollars. That’s an insanely good deal. Is it perfect? No. There are a few minor strikes against it, as we’ll see throughout the review, but for the most part, this is a wonderful addition to any DCC fan’s collection and it’s arguably my favorite release for the system yet.

When you see the name Transylvanian Adventures, I’m sure your first thought is to think of it as Dungeon Crawl Classics‘s Ravenloft. Well that’s not quite the case. Ravenloft was merely a campaign setting. There were no new classes, races or major rules change. Sure, Ravenloft added three types of checks (fear, terror and powers) and slightly modified some spells, but Transylvanian Adventures does far more than that. In fact, it almost reinvents DCC from the ground up. You have only one race (humans, since it’s set in a quasi-real world). You have entirely new classes for use with this game, but none of the original DCC classes are compatible. You don’t have any spellcasters in this book save for some classes that can read scrolls (the equivalent of mages/clerics comes later in a different release). There are lots of rules changes, some major and some minor, and by the time you are done, what’s here has some resemblance to Dungeon Crawl Classics, but it’s still a very different beast. I’d say a better simile is Transylvanian Adventures is to Dungeon Crawl Classics what Street Fighter: The RPG is to World of Darkness or Know Your Role: The WWF d20 OGL RPG is to Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. This is neither a bad thing nor a good thing, just a clarification that a DM really has to pay attention to, and keep track of, the myriad changes that occur in a Transylvanian Adventures game. At times I wondered if Land of Phantoms would have been better off just creating their own rules set from scratch rather than trying to modify DCC, as now you have to have two large weighty tomes instead of just one to play a game.

Which brings me to the next disclaimer I have to give about Transylvanian Adventures. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, you’re going to need to buy two large rulebooks in order to play TA. Unfortunately, though, you will still eventually need one or two more books to get the entire rules set. The Hanging Judge’s Guide to Transylvania and The Transylvanian Grimoire will contain monster stats, spells, a new character class than can cast magic and a lot more. Unfortunately, those aren’t out yet, so you’re really kind of sitting on this book (and DCC if you bought it just to play TA) until those come out. This also means you’re going to need to buy another one or two books to actually have Transylvanian Adventures fleshed out enough to play and/or homebrew some adventures for it. That’s a lot of books, a LOT of reading and more importantly, a lot of cash being spent before you can optimize the game. Most RPGs only require a single core rulebook (New World of Darkness and Dungeons & Dragons are notable exceptions though) and so, for gamers on a limited budget, Transylvanian Adventures might not be for you. Personally, I’d have rather seen some more magic and a few monsters instead of thirty pages of superfluous tables, but at least it’s only thirteen dollars? To me, that’s still a great deal. Unless, of course, the next two books cost like $25-30 for a PDF version. Then I’ll start to get annoyed.

So let’s talk about the actual game now that we have the petty concerns out of the way. Transylvanian Adventures has a unique narrative. The author is speaking to us, instead of the usual “in-game” narratives you see with games like Shadows of Esteren or Shadowrun. It also lacks the more professional but lecture style tone you see in most core rule books. Instead, one would call the tone of Transylvanian Adventures conversational. The author cracks jokes, makes puns and can be outright flippant towards his audience. It’s far from the gloom and doom atmosphere you’d expect from such a game, but then, it’s an homage primarily to Hammer Horror, and many of those films were more than willing to take the piss at themselves. The end result is where the book feels like an actual person trying to describe the game’s rules and mechanics to you. This is both bad and good, depending on what you like to personally read. For the most part, I found it a pleasant change of pace.

Transylvanian Adventures describes itself as “Gothic Ass-Kicking Horror.” Of course, it’s set in the late 1800s/early 1900s, so it’s more Victorian, as Gothic Horror actually starts in the mid-1700s, but feel free to play with the time period. You’re the one playing/running the game after all. Influences besides Hammer Horror include M.R. James (which I wholeheartedly approve of), Polidori, Le Fanu, Castlevania video games (primarily “mine!” Whoo!) and the Vampire Hunter D movies, but not the original books by Hideyuki Kikuchi… probably because the author doesn’t read Japanese and the English translations are awful. Still, I approve of all the motifs and inspirations for the game, aside from Babylon 5 and Buffy, but again, we see that these sources are very different from Ravenloft, which more or less plagiarized Shelly, Stoker and some other authors without trying to hide it.

There are many big differences between Transylvanian Adventures and Dungeon Crawl Classics, so we should cover them. First up, the 0 Level characters you start as. DCC advises four characters per player because of the high death rate. TA is a lot kinder to PCs, and so you only really need two 0 Level characters per player at the start. You can’t use any of the previous 0 level classes, like the Cheesemaker in TA, but there are SEVENTY new 0 Level classes to choose from. You can roll on a random table to see what you get or just pick one. Then, when you hit Level One, you can pick from one of eight base classes to advance in for the rest of the game. It’s worth noting that, while DCC only goes up to Level 10, TA goes to 11 (It’s a Spinal Tap reference, but I was hoping it would be a nod towards Working Designs). It’s also worth noting how important turning undead/unholy can be in this game. Some 0 Level classes let you turn, which is very nice. Of course, what if the Level 1-11 class you want doesn’t let you turn? Do you lose that ability? Well, it’s your choice. You can either lose the turn power or you can keep it in exchange for lower two ability scores (which are all the same as regular DCC by 1) and permanently raising your Ruin score (more on what that is below). Depending on your rolls, this might be worth it.

Core character classes are interesting, but I wouldn’t say balanced. Depending on your alignment, a class may get more or less abilities. For example, only a Chaotic Exotic (a non-white character, more or less) can cast Level 0 rituals. This doesn’t make sense to me, as any anthropologist would tell you most shaman/witch doctor like figures tend to be the lynchpin of societies that have them, and thus they’d be more inclined to Lawful. Of course, there’s nothing in return that Lawful or Neutral Exotics get, so why would you give up a huge power? No, there needs to be something to balance out that a Chaotic gets an ability but other alignments don’t. We see this in just about every class. The Neutral Valiant (everyman type of hero) gets +2 to his High Save, while Chaotic and Lawful Valiants only get +1. Why does a Neutral Valiant get a better save? The game doesn’t say, nor make any attempt to justify the imbalance. So on and so forth throughout the classes. Basically, the game seems to push you to a very specific alignment per class, and I really don’t like that. If you want alignment restrictions for a character class, you need to make them hard and fast, ala a Paladin or “No Lawful Scoundrels.” Character classes could have used a bit more work before release, and I definitely see this section getting picked apart and/or house ruled like crazy.

Perhaps the biggest change to DCC with this campaign setting is the Ruin score. Ruin is a somewhat flexable attribute that helps a character survive the usually extremely brutal world of DCC. 0 Level Characters start at a Ruin of 0 and when you hit first level, it drops down to 1. Lower is better like old school AD&D Armor Class. Each time a character drops to 0 Hit Points, a point of Ruin is added while a point of stamina is decreased. Now, instead of outright dying horribly ala DCC, you go through a slightly complicated procedure to stay alive. First you roll a number of d6 equal to your ruin score. So if your Ruin is 4 (0 Level Character + 1 for being down to 0 Hit Points), you must roll 4d6. The result you roll is the target you must roll on a Luck check. So in the previous example if you rolled a 7 with your 4d6, you would then need to succeed on a DC of 7 with your Luck roll. If you had rolled a 24 on your Ruin Check, you’d have to make a DC of 24 with your Luck check. So once again, lower is better. If you succeed, you live but are unconscious. If you fail, you die. It’s a little complicated and there are probably ways to streamline it, but I like the idea that you can survive a brush with death. As well, the DM can subtract points from your ruin ala a Numenera GM Incursion. If the DM wants to give a bad guy an advantage on an attack, he can subtract Ruin points from players and for each Ruin point he removes, the antagonist gets a +1 to his move of choice. So don’t feel Ruin is a slippery slope ala Sanity in Call of Cthulhu

Another big change involves healing. There is no magic healing in Transylvanian Adventures, which will make some of you balk at first. After all, DCC is extremely lethal to begin with, so no magic healing just ratchets up the threat of a horrible demise. Thankfully though, TA has lots of new ways to heal naturally. You can take non permanent hit dice damage instead of Hit Point damage for one thing. After each battle you get 1d4-1 Hit Points back. You can also trade in a point of stamina for 1d6 Hit Points + your character level. This can be done as an instant action which is very nice indeed. You also gain Hit Points by having a good night’s sleep and the Heal Others skill (Which everyone seems to take right away for obvious reasons). I really like the new ways to heal and it does balance things out in the long run. It is a bit of a mind shift to get used to the idea of magical healing not being available, but the new ways are pretty useful. I mean, if your players are really unlucky with their rolls, you can always throw an exceptionally easy encounter at them to get them a Hit Point boost (and a tiny bit of XP!)

Transylvanian Adventures comes with an adventure entitled “Starkweather Mountain.” Unlike most rule books that place their complimentary adventure in the back, this adventure is in the middle of the book, which is an odd placement to be sure. Having an adventure in the back makes it much easier to find when you want to use it. Instead you have to hunt for “Starkweather.” The adventure is a very atypical dungeon crawl, especially for DCC which tends to be more about rolling dice and combat rather than storytelling. Not so with “Starkweather” or the previous TA adventure I reviewed in July. Here players have to explore the horrible machinations of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and the results of one of his experiments. Here players will kill monsters, evade traps and discover that perhaps humanity is a far greater evil than the sin against nature they will also find within the laboratory walls. It’s a lot of fun and a nice 0 Level adventure to introduce the setting and system with.

After the adventure you have a little bit more content and roughly 100 PAGES OF TABLES Yee cats! Random rolling tables are fun, but no game needs THIS MANY TABLES. Still, they’re optional and clever, so you can definitely make use of them. I just wish the sheer number of tables had been confined to a supplement instead of some core rules like magic and monster stat blocks.

Overall, I really loved Transylvanian Adventures. Sure it’s far from perfect, but my issues with the game are minor and have to do with either the organization/layout of the book, character class balance or the spreading out of rules across three rulebooks instead of one. The rules provided here are solid, the setting is fantastic and you’re getting a veritable truckload of content for a fraction of what you would pay for most RPG books of this girth. It’s definitely my favorite release for DCC so far and with a little fine tuning, I can definitely see this becoming a hit for fans of the system or those looking for a good horror game that feels more like D&D instead of Chill or Call of Cthulhu. Again, thirteen dollars for all you get here is a phenomenal deal and I’m looking forward to the next two planned rulebooks for the system. I’m just glad all of these are digital releases instead of physical, especially if they’re going to be as big as this one.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Transylvanian Adventures
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RR3 Van Richten's Guide to Vampires (2e)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/25/2013 06:27:57
Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/11/25/tabletop-review-ravenlo-
ft-van-richtens-guide-to-vampires-advanced-dungeons-dragons--
second-edition/

Van Richten’s Guide to Vampires is not only my favorite supplement for Ravenloft, but it just might be my favorite for all of Second Edition AD&D. More importantly, it’s easily the single best release about vampires in the history of Dungeons & Dragons. Hell, It’s hard to think of a release for any other system that matches up to the sheer quality of this one, and that includes White Wolf’s Vampire games. It’s the magnum opus of the late, great Nigel D. Finley, and considering he was the mastermind behind such products as The Tome of Magic, Draconomicon, Shadowrun Second Edition, Tir Tairngire, and multiple releases for games I love like Vampire: The Masquerade, Chill and Earthdawn, that should tell you just how amazing this release is. It’s something all Second Edition AD&D fans should own, and honestly, if you use vampires in your tabletop game at all, for whatever reason, you should own this too. Now, if you need concrete, specific reasons as to why you should purchase this, read on. Otherwise, just go purchase it now.

There are fourteen chapters to Van Richten’s Guide to Vampires. Each one of them is more narrative and descriptive rather than filled with stat blocks and mechanics. This is for the best, as AD&D and Ravenloft in particular already had tons of mechanics for vampires, but the problem was most Dungeon Masters were just using them as generic monsters to fill dungeons with. The disgust from seeing DMs use vampires inappropriately or as cannon fodder is what caused Ravenloft to be born in the first place, and Findley definitely uses this book to ensure readers can get inside the heads of the most iconic of undead. How they think, what drives them, how they differ from mortals now that the subside on the life force of the living. So on and so forth. It really is a must read for anyone even remotely thinking of using a vampire, especially in a high fantasy setting.

Chapter One is “Introduction,” and it is a narrative by the character Rudolph Van Richten, explaining why he is writing this book (yes, the entire thing is in character rather than third person, and it works beautifully), along with background information on why he hunts monsters. Chapter Two is “The Background of Vampirism,” and it tells the possible origins of vampires, the general genetic makeup of this type of undead and a bit on different racial variations, like dwarven or elven vampires. Chapter Three is your first chapter that is devoted to stats and mechanics. “Vampiric Powers” starts on with in-game narrative about the most common powers vampires have in AD&D. The ability to Spider Climb or assume Gaseous Form at will, hypnotism, shapeshifting into animals and the like. It also introduced Salient Abilities, which are powers unique to a specific vampire. This idea helps a vampire from becoming generic and also lets you customize a creature to throw players off while also making your vampire a memorable antagonist. After this narrative, you are given a ton of charts and stat blocks to help you customize your vampire. You get to see how a vampire’s stats improve with age, and a list of eighteen salient abilities that range from being able to charm while in Gaseous From to draining four levels with each successful hit. Yikes to all.

Chapter Four is “Creating New Vampires,” and it’s mostly self-explanatory. It gives multiple ways a vampire can be created rather than just the old “killed by a vampire drinking your blood” motif. Chapter Five is “Vampire Weaknesses,” and this too is rudimentary. Findley gives us a list of common AD&D vampiric weaknesses, like running water, holy symbols and sunlight, but also expands this to possible other weaknesses for unique vamps, ranging from classic folklore issues (such as having to count poppy seeds) to mirrors keeping a vampire at bay as well, instead of just refusing to show their reflection. Chapter Six gives us “Destroying the Vampire,” and this is basically a continuation of the previous chapter.

Chapter Seven is entitled “Magic and Vampires,” and it covers multiple spell groups from AD&D, like Illusion/Phantasm, Enchantment/Charm, Necromancy and so on, listing how spells may have different than intended effects on vampires. It also talks a bit about vampires wielding magic items, but not much. Chapter Eight, “Life-Blood: Vampiric Feeding Habits,” talks about ways vampires feed, how much blood they need versus how much they WANT, and also why they must do it. It also talks about alternatives to blood (again, to make a vampire unique) and also what the victim feels when being drained. Chapter Nine, “The Sleep of the Dead,” talks about what passes for slumber amongst vampires. Why they must do it, whether or not they need to sleep in a coffin or have their tomb lined with native soil. Things like that. You also get mechanics for a sleep deprived vampire, which is neat. Chapter Ten, “Hibernation,” continues this discussion by going into details about long sleeps, or what V:TM called Torpor. This chapter helps to explain how vampires can survive many centuries as well as gives you a way in which they can be especially vulnerable at the same time.

Chapter Eleven is by far the most interesting chapter in the guide. It is called “Relationships Between Vampires,” and it talks about not just how a vampire embraces another, but also the relationship that forms between those two vampires afterwards. There is the common master-slave vampire dynamic, but this chapter also gives you a new way for a vampire to create an equal, such as a vampire mate (as well as how to engage in a vampire based divorce). Of course, not all vampire relationships are positive ones, so this chapter discusses how to run combat BETWEEN vampires and how age comes into effect. Perhaps most interesting is that the chapter does delve into homosexuality amongst the undead, but very briefly and as a side note. Still, that was pretty progressive for 1991 and especially for AD&D at the time.

Chapter Twelve is “The Mind of the Vampire,” and it discusses the psychology of being undead. Why does a vampire do what it does or think what it thinks? How does immortality change one? The chapter also talks about why vampires are generally listed as Chaotic Evil by AD&D alignment terms. It also discusses how a vampire can indeed hold its original alignment for a while, but why Van Richten believes they all eventually turn to Chaotic Evil. Mainly this is due to a long life and a growing detachment from mortals and the way they think. It also discusses the ego and arrogance of a vampire and also what to do with an insane one.

Chapter Thirteen is “The Façade,” and it talks about how vampires may pose as a human or mortal in a local area, and how they are eventually discovered by some foolish or nosy person. It also discusses WHY a vampire might want to have a public life. Finally, Chapter Fourteen is “Retained Skills,” and it talks about what abilities, spells, powers and the like a vampire can retain if they had class levels before being embraced. More importantly, it also tells how they can level up! Now that’s a scary thought, isn’t it? The chapter also ends with a warning to not make vampire PCs and why. This is also the note the book ends on, and it’s a very smart one indeed.

All in all, Van Richten’s Guide to Vampires is one of the best supplements for AD&D Second Edition ever written, and it’s certainly the crown jewel of all Ravenloft supplements. I know I’ve said this multiple times throughout this review, but if you’re thinking of running a vampire against your PCs, regardless of system, you should really have this book on hand to use. This is a must have for almost any gamer. It’s truly a joy to have this publicly available for purchase again.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
RR3 Van Richten's Guide to Vampires (2e)
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The Paradox Room
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/22/2013 06:47:47
Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/11/22/book-review-the-paradox-
-room-the-strange/

By the time this review goes live, there will be less than twenty-four hours until the Kickstarter for Monte Cook’s newest RPG, The Strange ends. At the time of writing, the Kickstarter campaign has raised over $300,000 with the help of 2,252 backers. Although The Strange won’t be breaking Numenera‘s numbers by any means, it does mean that Monte Cook has pulled in well over $800,000 between the two Kickstarters, and that’s insanely impressive.

Speaking of Numenera, The Strange will be using the same base system that its predecessor uses (The Cipher System is the name for the rules and mechanics), so it should be mostly compatible. In fact, The Strange could easily be one of the previous eight worlds that preceded the Ninth World. I’m a huge fan of Numenera and so I’m expecting to enjoy The Strange just as much. For a merely fifty dollars you can get electronic/digital versions of every product created in the Kickstarter, which is a pretty good deal. I’m not trying to sell you on the Kickstarter, just stating that I missed out of the Numenera one, and I regret it, so I’m trying to give those of you unaware of the Kickstarter a chance to join in before it ends.

Now, with that said, let’s talk about The Paradox Room. The Paradox Room is a fifty-five page collection of two short stories. Its existence was funded by the Kickstarter and it is currently being made free to everyone, not just backers. Click here, scroll down and grab your completely free, no strings attached copy. This is awesome to see and it will give you a chance to see if The Strange is right for you. Now, since this is just two short stories, you’re not going to get any mechanics, rules, character creation, stat blocks or any real explanation about the setting. Thus there are aspects of both stories that will make more sense once we’ve all read the core rulebook, learned the set definitions for specific game terminology and the like. That doesn’t mean the stories will be a confusing mess – just that you’ll have to fill in a few blanks here and there with assumptions. The stories are pretty clear and if anything, the questions about The Strange that it leaves you with has you wanting to learn more rather than with a feeling of, “What did I just read?”

I will say though that I’m glad I got this for free as $2.99 seems a bit steep for fifty or so pages of content, especially when you got three stories and 80+ pages for the same price with Tales of the Ninth World, the first Numenera short story collection. So make sure to grab the free version of The Paradox Room before it gets pulled down. Who knows? It may just give you the impetus to buy the game itself. I should also mention The Paradox Room comes in three forms – epub, mobi and pdf, so that you can read the two short stories in whatever fashion works best for you. Note that only the PDF version comes with cover art though.

The first story is “The Stranger” and it is by Monte Cook. The plot is pretty straightforward and it does a great job of illustrating what The Strange will be like. In “The Stranger” an iconic fantasy creature makes its way from its world/plane of existence/parallel universe/whatever into our version of reality. Of course such things as this creature don’t/can’t exist here and this shows just what can happen in a worst case situation of this scenario in The Strange. I really loved this story, but I always seem to really like Cook’s short fiction, so this wasn’t a surprise to me. I think I learned more about The Strange from this single tale than I did from reading the many Kickstarter updates about it.

The second story is called “Four Winds” and is by Bruce Cordell. I didn’t care for this one as much. It wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it didn’t grip me like “The Stranger” or any of the Numenera fiction I’ve read so far. Of course, I find I like Cordell as an aqdventure writer but not as a fiction author. Case in point, I found The Lady of Poison dull and I had to force myself through the Abolethic Trilogy. Yet, Die, Vecna, Die is a personal AD&D 2e favorite of mine and I also enjoyed some of his third and fourth edition adventures like and The Sunless Citadel. Regardless, I found “Four Winds” to be the weakest piece of fiction from Monte Cook games so far, but it’s still an enjoyable story that helps to introduce the concept of incursions and pocket dimensions of sorts to the readers. The story is about an unnamed androgynous (as in the gender is never specified) Lakota who discovers what appears to not only be an ancient artifact from his ancestors, but to another form of reality altogether. Oddly enough s/he is not the only person from Earth there. Most importantly we learn honkies can’t help themselves from stealing from Native Americans, regardless of what reality we are in.

All in all, for a free snippet to get you interested in The Strange, The Paradox Room more than does its job. You get a nice snapshot of the setting and both stores are entertaining in their own right. At $2.99 it’s a bit pricey for what you get, but better to pay $2.99 to discover you don’t like something than to pay $200-250 for the “get everything” pledge on Kickstarter and find out THAT way that The Strange isn’t for you, eh? If anything this collection has me even more excited about The Strange and while I don’t think The Paradox Room is as good as Tales From the Ninth World, I can easily recommend this as a nice way to while away an hour or so (depending on how fast you read). Go grab the free version now and who knows – maybe this time next year, you’ll be joining me in the comments sections of my review of the core rulebook.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
The Paradox Room
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RR1 Darklords (2e)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/15/2013 06:36:21
Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/11/15/tabletop-review-ravenlo-
ft-darklords-advanced-dungeons-dragons-2nd-edition/

As you can tell from the RR1 coding, Darklords was the first supplement release for TSR’s Ravenloft campaign setting. There had been an adventure or two published beforehand, like Ship of Horror, but Darklords was to be the first of many pieces to flesh out what ended up being the second most successful (and lucrative) campaign setting for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition (Only Forgotten Realms did better).

Darklords takes a look at sixteen different Darklords spread out over thirteen chapters. Some of these Darklords would go on to have full adventures devoted to them, one would be the star of a SSI video game and still others would appear in published fiction. Yet others would never be seen again. It’s interesting to see how these sixteen big bads turned out because back in 1991, the sky was the limit for each character. Let’s take a look at them.

1. Anhktepot. The book starts out with one of my top five Darklords. Anhktepot was a great character for so many reasons. First, he was the best mummy in D&D history. Second, he was an evil worshipper of the sun, which always threw off a lot cleric PCs. Third, he was one of only three Darklords to star in a video game (Stone Prophet), making him arguably the most famous original creation for Ravenloft for mainstream gamers (The other two to appear in video games were Strahd and Lord Soth ,of course). He would also go on to have a very important adventure (Touch of Death) which would help to change the very makeup of the Dark Domain itself. The background of the character is an impressive one and his domain is especially cruel. Anhktepot is a lot of fun to use in any Ravenloft campaign and out of the sixteen in this book, he’s one of the four that went on to make a huge impact on the campaign setting.

2. Tristessa is a drow banshee who rules a realm of the undead. She is completely mad and wishes only two things – to find her lost child and revenge against the drow. The Darklord of Keening, Tristessa was an interesting take on the banshee and potentially one of the few Darklords PCs can make allies with (as long as they hate Drow too). Tristessa never came to much. She had a short story in Tales of Ravenloft but she was a Darklord that didn’t see much use from players or writers. Pity.

3. Bluebeard. This is exactly what you think. The classic French folk tale character turned into a Darklord for Ravenloft. I always thought this was a silly idea and honestly it seems like so did everyone else. He got a short story in Tales of Ravenloft and then was never used by anyone again except for a brief mention in Sword & Sorcery’s Third Edition version of the setting. Arguably one of the worst Darklord ideas ever.

4. Ebonbane. From one of the worst to one of my favorites. Ebonbane is a living evil sword who is trapped in a castle with the geist of its arch-nemesis – a paladin named Kateri Shadowborn. Ebonbane stars in one of my favorite Dungeon! adventures of all time – “Bane of the Shadowborn.” Because the goal of the adventure is to destroy Ebonbane, that and Darklords are its only real appearance in Ravenloft. I’m always very opposed to adventures where the goal is to kill a Darklord because that utterly defeats the purpose of one and is spitting in the face of what Ravenloft SHOULD be, but Bane of the Shadowborn is so well done and Ebonbane existed only for that adventure, so it’s one of the rare exceptions that I make on the subject.

5-7. The Three Hags. I never cared for the hags or their domain of Tepest, but they get an extremely long and well fleshed out back story here. In spite of that, most writers and gamers felt the same way about the hags as I did. They never received any mention in second edition besides this and their initial writeup and 3e only paid them a tiny amount of lip service. The triad of Darklords for a single domain does make it extremely hard to take them down if you’re using Ravenloft as a boss fight type setting (ick), but they are amongst the most forgettable Darklords in the entire setting.

8. The Headless Horseman. I was annoyed by turning Bluebeard into a Darklord, but I did originally like the idea of the Horseman as one. After all, he’s a very iconic figure in American horror and he’s so vaguely defined by his original creator that he works a lot better than trying to shoehorn Bluebeard (whose story has a complete beginning and end) into the Dark Domain. Plus one is ghost of sorts and the other is merely a serial killer. ANYWAY, I never cared for how the Headless Horseman was used by Ravenloft He is forever riding a horse and cutting off heads, with his domain being a single road he constantly runs down. That’s all there is. There’s no depths, definition or defining of the Horseman. He’s just schlocky cheap fear. The Darklord would appear briefly in an adventure and he too got a short story in Tales of Ravenloft, but he was one of the few Darklords to not see even a line of print in the Third Edition version of the Dark Domain. Alas.

9. The House of Lament. This is an evil living house that has one of several potential explanations behind what it is and why it does what it does. I always loved this location. The house is less a Darklord than a fine setting for an adventure, but it is really quite memorable and a lot of fun to use – especially on low level characters or people new to RPGs. Unfortunately, nothing ever became of the house and this was its only appearance besides a brief mention in third edition. Talk about your lost potential.

10. Von Kharkov. This was always one of my favorite Darklords. He’s a Panther that was polymorphed onto a person and then turned into a vampire. So he’s a vampire panther. It’s very convoluted, but the back story is rich and a lot of fun. Von Kharkov would appear here and there in several texts through second and third edition, but never very in-depth and never with a spotlight on him except for this book. He got a short story in Tales of Ravenloft and that was really his fifteen minutes of fame. Pity, because every player I know has a soft spot for this Darklord but no one ever seemed to know what to do with him on the writing side of things.

11. Merilee. A generic child vampire. She’s not actually a Darklord of a domain, so I always disliked her inclusion in this book. She’s also not very interesting and was realized to be a bit of a mistake as soon as this was printed. You never hear about her again and she’s definitely the low point of the book.

12. Captain Alan Monette. Another character who shows up here and is never heard from again. Too bad too, as he’s quite interesting. Monette is a werebat pirate who transforms based on the tides rather than the phases of the moon. Trapped on an island with a spooky lighthouse, Monette makes a great one-off villain but not the best Darklord. Fun to craft an adventure around though!

13. The Phantom Lover. Another one shot who is never seen nor heard from again, The Phantom Lover is badly defined, way overpowered and a pretty stupid concept. He’s kind of a Marty Stu unkillable incubus. Bleck. Definitely up there with Merilee as a low point in the collection.

14. d’Polarno. The darklord of a small domain, Marquis Stezen d’Polarno gets a story in Tales of Ravenloft and a few brief mentions in Third Edition, but that’s about it. He’s not particularly memorable either. He’s a souless drab being that can regain his original personality and love of life by using an enchanted painting to drain souls from victims. Another character best suited for a one shot adventure rather than as a Darklord.

15. Tiyet. Tiyet is a strange mummy offshoot that is pretty memorable as well as challenging to any PCs who encounter here as she doesn’t appear undead at all. Rather she appears to be a beautiful classical Egyptian woman. Her domain is all but emptied of life and she is a rather lonely and sad inidivudal, compelled to eat the hearts of the living. This is her only real exposure in Ravenloft save one or two very brief mentions. Like several other characters, Tiyet makes an interesting being to revolve an adventure around, but she doesn’t really work as a Darklord. A very interesting and well done read though.

16. Zolnik. The last Darklord in the collection is a skinwalker or Loup de Noir werewolf. He has a very impressive backstory and is one of the more memorable Darklords in this collection. Unfortunately, TSR decided to job him out and kill him off in the adventure Dark of the Moon, which I reviewed back in October. Why TSR would go to the trouble of giving these Darklords such rich back stories and deep characterizations just to kill them off in a short little adventure is beyond me, but I really wasn’t in charge of the line seeing as I was in sixth grade or so when it was released. Still, Zolnik might be killed off rather easily in a throw away adventure, but we’re looking at the content for him in Darklords and it’s top notch indeed.

So there you go. A look at the sixteen Darklords of Darklords. I’m not happy with four of the sixteen, but that means there’s a 75% quality ratio here and that’s pretty darn good. As well, Darklords is a must own for anyone even casually interested in Ravenloft to see just how much depth and detail was put into even a C-level minor lord of the Dark Domain. This PDF rerelease is a bit pricey consider the physical copy was only a dollar more back in 1991, but D&D PDFs do tend to be a bit overpriced compared to their contemporaries. If you don’t already own a copy of Darklords, I would still strongly recommend the PDF version at this price as it’s very well done, but you might want to check Ebay for a physical copy first as you can undoubtedly get it cheaper.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
RR1 Darklords (2e)
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The Devil's Spine
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/06/2013 06:19:19
Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/11/06/tabletop-review-the-dev-
ils-spine-numenera/

The Devil’s Spine is the first adventure collection released for Numenera which was released earlier this year. I’ve been a huge fan of everything put out for the system. From the short story collection Tales of the Ninth World to the just in time for Halloween In Strange Aeons, the previous four releases for Numenera has really captured the imagination of many a dice hucking tabletop fan.

With The Devil’s Spine, we see a set of interlocking adventures that can form the basis of a mini campaign. However, if only one of two of the adventures captures your imagination, the adventures do work as standalone pieces for your gaming troupe and the book even gives you ways to modify them for just such an occasion. The important thing is that all four adventures give you that wonderful mix of fantasy, science fiction and outright weird that Numenera has quickly become known for. While the adventures might not be for everyone, especially as three of the four are mostly dungeon crawls, each does a fine job of showcase how familiar and yet alien the Earth has become a billion years into the future. I’ll admit that since Numenera feels designed more akin to Call of Cthulhu or World of Darkness where combat is secondary to exploration and information, The Devil’s Spine‘s was far too combat focused for my tastes, but the layout, follow through and glimpse into the Ninth World were all expertly done. My hope is that these adventures are not indicative that future releases will be equally hack and slashy, but only time will tell.

The first adventure in the collection, “Noble Pursuits” only works if you are playing the other three as it sets up the mini-campaign as a whole. Here the PCs will be in the home of a wealthy noble (reasons why may vary) when they discover a secret passage that leads to untold discovery, one of the most memorable creatures in the Ninth World yet as well as a ticking time bomb that gives this collection its title. After finishing “Noble Pursuits,” characters will have about three months to finish the other three adventures or die horribly. Some players may kvetch or whine about their characters being railroaded into this predicament, but honestly those players probably won’t be playing Numenera anyway due to its light rules set and focus on co-operative storytelling gameplay between the players and the GM. Besides, a threat to the PCs lives makes for good motivation and little wiggle room to get out of the campaign. I think we’ve all been in one of those situations where the GM puts a copious amount of work into a plot hook or adventure seed and at least one player throws the thing off rails. Here that won’t happen, but at least the manner in which the plot is foisted onto the characters feels organic rather than, “Too bad. It happens. GM Rules, PCs drool.”

From “Noble Pursuits” the PCs can then proceed to any of the three following adventures of their choice and complete them in whatever order they choose. In this sense, The Devil’s Spine is an actual sandbox campaign akin to video games like Fallout 3 or Grand Theft Auto V because the players have a choice of which sub-quest they choose to do next. Too often I see adventures where the writer leaves a lot of the work up to the GM and says, “Oh, but it’s a sandbox adventure” when really it’s just laziness and a totally incorrect understanding of what that term actually means. But I digress. I’m glad to see the sheer level of flexibility in these adventures and the fact the players truly do decide which of three tasks to do and in which order more than makes up for hamfisting the characters into this situation in the first place.

The three adventures have very different goals and locations. In “Viral Transmissions” you’ll be trying to foil the plans of a sentient virus. The adventure is very much like playing the video game Oblivion in that you’ll be travelling long distances, climbing up a tower and killing (most) everything in your path, reaching the top and then doing everything you just did in reverse. As I found Oblivion to be more than a little dull and repetitive, this was easily my least favorite of the four adventures in this collection. I did find the virus to be an interesting antagonist and many of its creations made for oft-kilter battles that forced characters to think rather than just use brute force to get by.

“The Mechanized Tomb” has characters acting as grave robbers in order to find an ancient relic known as The Impossible Blade. The tomb is full of many traps and puzzles and so this adventure tests the PCs brains and dexterity more than their brawn. Of course once you get to the end of the tomb, you get a twist and then have to deal with copious amounts of combat. This adventure has the least amount of combat, but it does hit in large gluts. I wished the combat/exploration bits had been parsed out more evenly but the huge change in focus and mood will definitely throw players off guard and remind them that the Ninth World is as chaotic as it is bizarre.

The final adventure in the collection is “Beyond the Maelstrom” and it has players to find a rare substance on the bottom of the ocean floor. Unfortunately there’s also a huge maelstrom off shore where the MacGuffin is, and so players will have to deal with that (and thus saving a local village). As well, this being the Ninth World, the Maelstrom isn’t just a naturally occurring storm. Interestingly enough, if you play this adventure as a solo, it’s risking a TPK. However, if you play it as part of a campaign, the Big Bad End Boss will be a lot easier to deal with (and not just because of the XP you’ve earned along the way). As well, as this adventure takes place under the sea, this is a great chance to really make the experience for your players stand out. After all, the real ocean is filled to the brim with genetic oddities and weird life forms as it is. Imagine what things will be like in a billion years! With the opportunity for players to experience aquatic combat, drive submersibles or even gain a genetic implant to let them breathe underwater, “Beyond the Maelstrom” is the one the stands out most from the usual, “Go through Dungeon A to get Item B while defeating Antagonist C along the way.” motif of this collection. I found it to be very entertaining and memorable, but as mentioned, you might not want to do this one as a one off, especially with Tier One characters.

The collection then ends with sixteen full colour half page images to present to players while they progress through these adventures. I loved this as it meant all the visual handouts were in one section in addition to being interspersed throughout the book. This makes for easy finding of the images when needed. Because so much of Numenera involves weird locations, creatures, buildings and events, sometimes a verbal description, even one from a very verbose GM, doesn’t do the concepts justice. That’s why it’s great to have all these visual aids available in this collection. Players can be shown just what they are encountering, but without being given a glimpse of the adventure text that should be for GM’s eyes only. I wish they had done this with the monsters in the collection too. It would have been great to have them lumped together in the back as a mini bestiary for ease of finding.

Overall, The Devil’s Spine is another fine addition to the Numenera series. I think it’s the weakest overall product for the line so far, but only because the collection backslides into old school Dungeons and Dragons hack and slash dungeon crawling, which has seem to be the exact opposite of what Numenera strives for in the core rulebook. The adventures are still well done, the boast some wonderful art and I can definitely recommend the collection to any fan of the cipher system so far. It’s just a heads up that these are very combat heavy and if that is not what you or your GM have in mind for Numenera, you might be better off homebrewing your adventures. For those that do pick it up, these four adventures will keep your gaming crew busy for many a session and also give you a nice look as how multifaceted and strange the Ninth World is.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
The Devil's Spine
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In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/31/2013 06:30:25
Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/10/31/tabletop-review-in-stra-
nge-aeons-lovecraftian-numenera/

What a great piece to talk about on Halloween, eh? In Strange Aeons merges my favorite game of 2013, Numenera, with my favorite game of all time, Call of Cthulhu. Of course, depending on how you have been running/playing Numenera, you might have already done this. After all, both games are essentially ones of discovery over combat. Both games have player characters continually finding strange relics from the past to help them get through adventures. In Numenera‘s case, these items are ciphers – technological relics from the previous eight worlds. In Call of Cthulhu, it’s spells from a bygone age or alien technology that lets your brain travel across time and space. In both games you will encounter strange creatures, many of which are hard to describe because they are so alien to our vocabulary and imagination. In Numenera these are simply life forms that exist a billion years into the future. In Call of Cthulhu, they are horrible monstrosities for whom mankind is not even worth paying attention to at best and a minor distraction or lunch at worst. Who is to say however, that some of these mundane but bizarre creatures that populate the Ninth World are not Mythos creatures that the current world takes for granted or that could have even evolved or changed over time? Perhaps even the return of humanity to Earth is simply an experiment by the Fungi from Yuggoth or the machinations of an Elder God? Numenera is what you make of it after all, and the more you look at, the easier it is to see how a game of cosmic horror and a game of futuristic discovery and wonder can easily overlap to give gamers a truly unique experience.

In Strange Aeons is ten pages of bringing Lovecraftian creatures, themes and moods to the Numenera setting (the cover page and a page of recommended reading makes twelve). The first four pages are devoted to discussing how adding Mythos elements changes the Numenera setting. In truth, it’s not that much of a change. The Ninth World is already populated with strange alien technology, creatures and locations. So it’s not as if you are truly adding new elements to the setting. Instead, it’s more about how the Keeper presents the Ninth World to the player. Present new items not just with a sense of wonder but with sense of foreboding. After all, that cipher might shoot out a rainbow of glitter, or it could be a portal to a dimension of sentient screams that have long sought a way into our world. Maybe that odd box houses a glowing orb that makes anything it touches turn into chicken parmesan…or maybe it’s a puzzle box built by Phillip Lemarchand. That building players are exploring in hopes to find a cure to a virus plaguing a village might indeed hold a cure or even have been a hospital for a previous civilization. It might also have been the temple for the Great Old One Glakki. YOU DON’T KNOW because the Ninth World is caked with a billion years of unimaginables and so exploration and discovery may have a price your characters (and their sanity) were not expecting to pay.

Storywise, the GM/Keeper has to set the stage for this variant of Numenera. Describe things with a slightly ominous narrative. How do you know you can trust those strangers in the hamlet a few miles off? Perhaps the angles of that building cause a headache if you look at it for too long thanks to the non-Euclidian geometry in its makeup. Now that doesn’t mean everything is evil or out to cause character death. You just want to keep the paranoia level higher than usual. After all, a building COULD have non-Euclidian geometry, but that alone doesn’t make it evil. Maybe a race of benevolent cyborg parrots built it to travel dimensions. They key again is YOU DON’T KNOW, making the usual Numenera themes of discovery and exploration more Press Your Luck than Mysterious Cities of Gold. Do the players get big bucks or do they land on a whammy? A whammy in Lovecratian Numenera more than likely has limbs jutting out at strange angles, eyestalks that shoot out acid covered teeth and more tongues than mouths. The game is now risk vs. reward. Well, it always WAS, but not the risk is far more apparent.

The hardest aspect of Lovecraftia to pull off in Numenera may be the sense of being alone and insignificant in the universe. After all, there have been eight previous worlds and a billion years of history on this version of Earth. Obviously there must be something important about this ball of mud and water that has kept it going with all these different societies and alien races that come to visit. Think about it though. What happened to those previous eight worlds? Perhaps it is mankind’s horrible destiny to propagate, flourish and then suddenly be struck down by crossing a line into experiences and realms they simply were not meant to traverse into. Perhaps each of the eight civilizations were struck down due to a cosmic alignment of the stars. Perhaps the rise and slumber of Great Cthulhu is as cyclical as the seasons or winds. What happens when a player realizes that for all these previous worlds have accomplished, they are now but dust in the wind with no one to remember their deeds or names? What happens when they realize no matter what they do, their race is fated to die as horribly and suffer eternally in the same fashion as all those that came before them? That’s some heavy stuff and great roleplaying potential. Will a character strive to make a difference or will they collapse before the obvious weight of time and space that now rests solely on their shoulders?

In terms of actual stats and mechanics, this short little supplement provides a decent amount of content in that regard. There’s a new optional Sanity mechanic where you’ll lose points from your Intellect pool but also potentially gain permanent bonuses to your Intellect Edge. It’s a neat little system that simulates the Cthulhu Mythos trait from Call of Cthulhu (CM goes up, Max Sanity goes down) without adding any new stats or something to scribble in on those character sheets of yours. There are a lot of options for dealing with Sanity and its slow erosion in Lovecraftian Numenera. You are also given two new descriptors for characters (Mad and Doomed), which has some unique bonuses and hindrances. Both of which have some special GM intrusion effects which can really suck as the GM is sure to spring these at the worst possible time for the sake of exciting narration but the bonuses do make up for it. Plus, wouldn’t it be fun to play a madman on occasion? You’re also given stats for Deep Ones, the Great Race of Leng (Yithians), Mi-Go and even a Shoggoth! Of course, some players may find rapey fish folk to be mundane considering some of the truly weird life forms on the Ninth World, but it is what it is. Finally, In Strange Aeons gives some examples of reskinning creatures from the Bestiary to be more ominous and Lovecraftian.

All in all, In Strange Aeons is another truly incredible release for Numenera. I really only have three or four minor issues with the piece. I’m surprised that this wasn’t a section in the core rulebook. Perhaps as an appendix? I also didn’t see the point in the sidebar talking about Lovecraft’s racist tendencies. Yes, it’s a shame such a brilliant man was an overwhelmed with hate and fear of things he didn’t understand in a manner more mundane that those in his characters, but what was really the point of bringing that up? It would be like writing a D&D supplement and then bringing up some negative character trait of Gygax and/or Arneson. Finally, but this is highly subjective – I guess I feel three dollars for ten pages of content is a bit much in this day and age of crazy PDF deals for tabletop content. Again, all of these are minor things and it doesn’t keep the piece from being something I can highly recommend to fans of Cthulhu gaming or Numenera.

Now if, like me, you’ve already been running Numenera with a Mythos bent, then you probably won’t get much out of this except the stat blocks for creatures or the new descriptors. Much of this will be common sense or aspects you’ve already implemented into your Ninth World campaign. In that case, you really don’t need to pick this up unless you want the aforementioned pages on mechanics or if you’re just being a digital completionist for the system. For everyone else though, you’ll want to pick this up for the new layer this piece can add to a Numenera game and for the ideas and mechanics it contains. In Strange Aeons is simply a wonderful addition to the Numenera system and proof that a short supplement can still be an awesome or even a game-changing one.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera
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Shadowrun: The Assassin's Primer
Publisher: Catalyst Game Labs
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/29/2013 08:04:35
Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/10/29/tabletop-review-shadowr-
un-the-assassins-primer/

Wetworks is a very tricky thing to pull off in a tabletop game, even one like Shadowrun. Players, and thus their characters, tend to look at themselves in a heroic light, so it’s generally very hard to get a group of characters to take on a Wetworks mission, especially if the target can be considered good or innocent. A mission to prevent an assassination, sure, that’s easy enough to get PCs to accept. You can generally even get them to take an assassination mission if you’re killing a really big bad guy, like an Aztlan uberpriest or horrible serial murderer. That’s similar to the “raid the dungeon to snuff out the evil necromancer in order to save the village” motif from fantasy RPGs. Killing a good NPC trying to whistleblow on an evil corporation though? At least one PC seems to balk every time, thus causing the adventure to be thrown out, and a lot of GM planning goes out the window. Even Shadowrun adventure writers have had to deal with this headache and throw in some caveats for those types of missions when they are actually published.

So enter The Assassin’s Primer. Although fifteen of the seventeen pages in this document are JackPoint style fiction, this is a great look at assassins. More importantly, you are given an example of how to make a “noble professional killer” in addition to a religious fundamentalist, a patriotic abattoir and a ruthless psycho who just happens to love murdering things. Not only are there interesting character designs here, but it will make playing and/or designing Wetworks adventures all the easier. There are four very interesting positive qualities and one negative one in the two pages of actual mechanics in this piece. The benefits and drawbacks are enticing and unique enough to make a gamer curious about playing an assassin, and they come with enough background information to give a GM plot threads aplenty while also helping the player to flesh out the back story of their new killing machine.

The majority of the piece is JackPoint style fiction, as I mentioned earlier. If you’re new to Shadowrun (Fifth Edition just came out after all), this means that the fiction is done from the point of view of a speaker, or rather a writer, on a super secret chat room/message board/web forum in the Matrix. As the piece goes on, you’ll see side comments and even conversations occur between JackPoint members. It’s the most common way the metaplot occurs in Shadowrun, and you’ll quickly grow to accept if not outright enjoy it.

Our speaker for this piece is new to Jackpoint, and unfortunately, it looks like his first post is also about to be his last. Quietus, as he calls himself, is about to be killed by his employer (an all too common occurrence in the Sixth World I’m afraid) for reasons we will never know. Before he goes, he decides to spend his remaining time creating a primer on assassins to help them be better understood in terms of what they do and why they do it. Oddly enough, Quietus states he is a lurker to ShadowSEA and is posting his piece there, but ShadowSEA hasn’t really been used for advancing the Metaplot since, well, 2050 I guess. I’m not sure if this was an error that got through editorial, if this is actually meant to be a piece for ShadowSEA and not Jackpoint (Which would be quite unusual) or something else. Still, longtime Shadowrun gamers will probably see that and wonder what exactly happened here.

The text is pretty straightforward. Quietus talks about who becomes an assassin and why, including his own personal transformation from starving Grecian refuge into a death dealer. Oddly enough, Quietus’ name and his story, coupled with what little information we are given about his teacher, had me wanting to crack constant Assamite jokes in this review, but it would be all too easy. Plus, if you’ve never played Vampire: The Masquerade, it would be lost on you. ANYWAY, Quietus breaks assassins down into three categories: the desperate, the psycho loonies and the idealists (generally those who believe they are killing for a greater cause). There’s also some great advice on weapons, armor, needed skills and other basics on how to be an assassin, and it’s all wonderful advice – for playing a character/NPC, NOT going out and doing it for real. There’s a lot of great content here for players and DMs alike here. Little bits and considerations most gamers overlook but shouldn’t.

There’s some great JackPoint interaction here too. There’s one huge hilarious bit from Clockwork the Hobgoblin, as it turns out he and Quietus have worked together before. We get to see what is hopefully foreshadowing the death of Haze. We get to see why it is so hard to believe /dev/grrl and Slamm-O! haven’t been shot dead yet on one of their runs. We get to see that Picador survived Storm Front more or less intact. So on and so forth. As just a piece of JackPoint fiction, The Assassin’s Primer does an incredible job of being both informative and entertaining. As piece on Wetworks operatives and how you can do them while still viewing yourself with a white hat on, I don’t think I could have asked for a better supplement. Okay, maybe a few more pages of mechanics or some tips on how to make a Wetworks adventure run smoother when a character refuses to take part. Those things would have made it even better, but you know what I mean.

Overall, I’m exceptionally happy with The Assassin’s Primer. It’s well written, imparts a lot of great information from an in-game point of view, a way to play a “lawful good” style assassin and some interesting new character creation bits. Oh and a new gun. The Assassin’s Primer might be a bit overpriced for those of you who only want rules, stats blocks and the like, but hopefully CGL will come up with something more towards your liking down the road. For those that like Sixth World metaplot in-game fiction, there’s a lot to love here.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Shadowrun: The Assassin's Primer
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Vault of the Dracolich (D&D Next)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/29/2013 06:24:07
Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/10/29/tabletop-review-dd-next-
-vault-of-the-dracolich-dungeons-dragons/

Vault of the Dracolich is a noteworthy adventure for many reasons. It’s the first ever Game Day adventure to be released for public sale. It’s the second publicly available D&D Next adventure, with the first being Murder at Baldur’s Gate. It’s an incredibly large adventure, as it’s designed for four gaming parties, each consisting of four to six 4th Level characters. That’s a total of sixteen to twenty-four players! That’s like a V:TM LARP size adventure. As you can imagine, it takes more DMs to run the adventure (one for each party) and one person to coordinate what is going on. Now, you can scale the adventure down to have one troupe play it or to turn it into a set of five short adventures, but the adventures loses a little when you do this, as it’s meant to be a big chaotic crazy mess that is sure to be a memorable adventure for you and your friends. Outside of a Game Day event or a convention, it’s hard to think about when you could get enough people to properly play this adventure. Doubly so for a place to house all those gamers!

Sounds great, right? Well, there’s a downside to this PDF, which is that it only contains a fraction of what you need to run the adventure. Sure it comes with the adventure and two PDF maps (one for the players and one for the GM), but it’s still missing a LOT of content. For example, you need to have been a part of the D&D Next playtest to make this adventure work. Unfortunately, the playtest is now done. Sure, there are some of us that are still part of the process past the public playtest, but if you missed out on the playtest, you won’t have the rules for the game, the bestiary that contains all the monsters you need to run this adventure, character creation bits and more. So if you want this adventure and don’t have D&D Next, you should hold off until it’s publicly available. Otherwise you have an adventure with a lot of missing content you simply can’t run. Other missing pieces include the pregenerated characters and all the pieces that were in the Game Day 2013 kit, like the cling sheets to keep track of where each of the four parties is at, along with the location of the dracolich. Now, I realize we couldn’t get physical copies of these things as this is a PDF only product, but it would have been exceptionally easy to tag on all the missing content as a separate PDF. I don’t know if it was just a massive oversight by Wizards of the Coast when they added this to DNDClassics.com or what, but it’s a shame that such an incomplete product is available for sale. Well, at least it’s only five bucks, and you can use the adventure with previous editions of D&D if your Dungeonmaster has the time and patience to do so. However, because of the missing content and logistical issues that come with running Vault of the Dracolich, it’s hard to recommend this piece to the average D&D fan out there.

The adventure itself has between one and four parties infiltrating the lair of Dretchroyaster, a mighty Dracolich and the focus of the Cult of the Dragon. Forgotten Realms fans will recognize the name, as this is a pretty well known faction on Toril. If you prefer other campaign settings or a generic world, you can change a few names here and there to suit your world. The lair of the Dracolich is large enough that it accompanies four sections, ranging from a Lizardmen commune to a temple of the dead god Bhaal. Each of the four locations offers a very different experience, so if you decide to run all four parts as a mini campaign or a single party, things won’t feel repetitive. Each party must enter their chosen location and find an idol that lies within. The idols are the key to entering the chamber where the Dracolich has housed an ancient artifact of immense power. The ultimate end goal is to get that artifact out of the Dracolich’s clutches, be it absconding with it or destroying it.

There are some added twists for the multi-group setting, where characters and even entire parties can trade places thanks to some faulty portals. This is a really cute idea, but without the massive player experience it just doesn’t work, so I suggest nixing it. There’s also a very odd option for allowing players to continually resurrect from the dead, albeit with some negative consequences like lowered initiative, lowered hit points or even coming back as a wight. I really don’t like this option, as without the fear of character death, what’s the point of an adventure like this? My suggestion is let the death stand. After all, why would the Cult of the Dragon and/or a Dracolich house their prized possessions in a place where thieves and adventurers keep coming back from the dead? Obviously the PCs won’t be the first to die here. Just a bad idea across the board.

Overall, Vault of the Dracolich is a truly unique and highly memorable experience if you can get enough players and DMs to let the adventure unfold the way it was intended. It takes a lot of coordination, but the end result is well worth it. Playing Vault of the Dracolich as a campaign loses a good deal of its luster, but it still manages to be a really fun experience for all involved. Again, I can’t emphasize enough that the PDF version on DNDClassics.com is missing content needed to run this adventure, so if you don’t have D&D Next rules, you’re a bit out of luck here unless you want to homebrew the piece for an older edition of Dungeons & Dragons. A thumbs way up for the adventure as designed, and a thumbs down for releasing the adventure for sale without including the missing content. So everything evens out.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Vault of the Dracolich (D&D Next)
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Hideous Creatures: Ghouls
Publisher: Pelgrane Press
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/28/2013 06:23:35
Originally Posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/10/28/tabletop-review-hideous-
-monsters-ghouls-trail-of-cthulhu/

Hideous Creatures: Ghouls is the fourth in Ken Hite’s line of Hideous Cratures short PDFs. The goal of each PDF is to try and mix up or change the way both players and Keepers think about Lovecraftian characters. Previous entries have included Deep Ones, Mi-Go and Hounds of Tindalos. The bad news is that I haven’t been that impressed with the previous releases, but the good news is that each entry has been noticeably better than the last. I am happy to report that, once again, Ghouls is the best entry in the Hideous Creatures line today, and it’s also a piece I am fairly positive about. Well, aside from the bad cover art that looks like it was rendered with CGI from the 1990s.

Ghouls runs twelve pages, but only nine of those pages are content. The first three pages are taken up by the cover, title page, and finally the introduction and table of contents. This means you’re only getting nine pages of content for $2.95, which is a bit pricey in this era of digital RPG offerings, but if you’re going to pick any of the Hideous Creatures series up, Ghouls is the one to get.

The piece starts off with a rundown on the Lovecraftian version of ghouls, which are notably different from those you’ll find in Dungeons & Dragons or Vampire: The Masquerade. While Mythos ghouls have canine qualities, the piece suggests throwing players off by giving them different animal qualities, such as rats and jackals. This is a good idea, and the only ones that are a bit off the wall are the suggestions like worms and flies. You’re also given a lot of information on why ghouls may do what they do. After all, like Deep Ones, they have some degree of humanity about them, but unlike their fishy friends, ghouls retain a degree of humanity once fully converting into their monstrous form. Hite suggests a whole bevy of reasons as to both an individual ghoul’s motivations, as well as the race as whole. Why they breed with humans, what their end game is and so on. Now, some of these postulations are contradictory, and that’s on purpose. You’re not supposed to use all of them. Just take one or two from the list and run with them. This piece is meant to be a sounding board for new and different ideas after all.

From there we get two pages of Trail of Cthulhu stats and mechanics, giving you new powers and abilities for a ghoul. I really liked the mechanics for a Ghoul-born changeling or half-ghoul, and how even an Investigator can become a ghoul and still play their character. Of course, at some point that Stability is going to hit zero… After the stats, we are given even more potential variations and story seeds for ghouls. There are thirty-one variations in all. As usual, the qualities range from really good ideas to terrible ones, but which ones are which will differ by the reader. After all, no one is going to like all thirty-one ideas and no one is going to hate them all. I personally disliked the variation that ghouls are undead, as that’s done everywhere else, and by having Mythos ghouls being living breathing creatures, this sets them apart from other creatures bearing the race name. However, someone might like their ghouls being undead and able to paralyze anything but elves, so this will work for them. Heck, this piece even has mechanics for giving Mythos ghouls a paralyzing grasp! I loved the Parisian take on ghouls, and the idea of ghoul priests wearing special robes and masks to set them apart. I also really liked the idea of a schism between ghoul sects – one that has a traditional old style way of doing things and a “new breed” that wants to speed up the return of the Great Old Ones.

Next we go into “Mythic Echoes,” which is where we see folkloric creatures that could possibly work as ghoul variants in your Trail of Cthulhu game. In the past we’ve seen some big stretches and poorly worded/researched items in this section, but with the ghouls, everything looked top notch to me. I especially loved seeing the Arabic Ghul get listed here, as it’s so overlooked by many gamers and game developers. After that, we go back into the mechanics side of things, where you are given a bevy of ways each skill in Trail of Cthulhu can net an Investigator information about a ghoul threat or menace. This, as always, is a favorite section of mine, as it really helps Keepers to think outside the box and players to realize that any skill is helpful if you look at it correctly.

The piece concludes with two story seeds and a half page bibliography. Usually the Hideous Creatures pieces have offered more story seeds, but they were generally of mixed quality. Here in Ghouls, we may only get the two, but both have a lot of potential as full-fledged adventures. One takes place in Chicago around Halloween, 1931, and the other can take place after one of five natural disasters. An enterprising Keeper can string all five together into a mini-campaign or really long adventure.

All in all, Ghouls is by far the best Hideous Creatures release yet, and the only negative thing I can say about it is that I think it should be priced a dollar less. I know, right? FEEL THE CRITICISM! This is definitely the only piece in the series I can strongly recommend, as the others have been mediocre, more or less. However, Ghouls is something well worth picking up, even if you don’t play Trail of Cthulhu. Any Mythos based RPG or even most horror games can freely adapt the material in this piece quite easily.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Hideous Creatures: Ghouls
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Man-Made Mythology: A Comic Book RPG
Publisher: Critical Strike Publishing
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/23/2013 06:29:54
Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/10/23/tabletop-review-man-mad-
e-mythology-a-comic-book-rpg/


Man-Made Mythology: A Comic Book RPG is the first offering from Critical Strike Publishing. Designed off the venerable 3.x engine, this game was made to allow the group to combine the flexibility of the OGL with the over-the-top action of the super-hero genre. Although this idea is not entirely new, it is something that this company approaches in a different manner than their colleagues.

The book begins off simply enough with the almost mandatory description of the hobby, a lexicon, and the methods for determining the characters starting Attributes. It is in Chapter Two that the company begins to illustrate their take on the comic-book world. Chapter Two begins with the racial descriptions and modifiers inherent to each of the four core races of Man-Made Mythology.

The first race presented is, of course, Humans. After that we come to Reptiods, an alien lizard species that came to Earth millennia ago. After that come the Synthetics, which are mankind’s success at creating artificial life and finally there is the matriarchal race of warrior-women – the Valkyries. There isn’t anything especially noteworthy about the starting racial choices, but they fill their roles well and give the Players several options to choose from without over-doing it.

Chapter Three begins with detailing the procedure to generate the characters Alter-Ego. Each Alter-Ego lists any sort of requirements that must be fulfilled as well as the Skills, Bonus Feats, and any Resource modifiers that come with that choice. The options here range from the bookish Academic, to Emergency Services characters, to Soldiers. The nice thing is that the choices also include things such as a Rural upbringing to flesh out the section.

In Chapter Four, the games Classes are presented. There are ten Classes available in the core-rules and these include enough options to make a variety of iconic characters. This chapter also begins with the Advancement guidelines and the rules for multi-classing. The individual Classes are presented in the familiar format found in most 3.x games, so one who is familiar with them will have no problem understanding them.

The same holds true for the next two chapters which go into detail about the games Skills and Feats. Although there are some new ideas presented here there is nothing truly unique to those familiar with the genre or overall 3.x games. There are some new feats presented, but these are mostly variations of existing ones that amplify the characters power usage and help further define their abilities.

It isn’t until Chapter Twelve after the mandatory rules on equipment, combat, magic usage and the like that the games super-powers, known as Mythic Abilities, are explained. There are fifty powers fleshed out in Man-Made Mythology and each comes with ten levels of modifiers to that power. The first mythic ability is Body Armor and while it provides basic protection it can also increase other attributes, mitigate critical hits, and provide damage reduction to the Character as they advance it. In my opinion there could have been many more powers given here and although the ones that do exist are detailed nicely. I just like my supers games to have a-lot of options when it comes to powers.

All in all I give Man-Made Mythology a thumbs in the middle. Is it anything entirely new and spectacular? No, but I feel it does a better job of emulating the genre than most of its predecessors using the 3.x engine. I am interested in seeing what other offerings the company provides as time passes, as I feel there is are a lot of options available for expansion. Man-Made Mythology could become a very well rounded game but only time will tell.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Man-Made Mythology: A Comic Book RPG
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Dungeon Crawl Classics #76.5: Well of the Worm
Publisher: Goodman Games
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/22/2013 07:35:24
Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/10/22/tabletop-review-dungeon-
-crawl-classics-76-5-well-of-the-worm/

I’ve never understood the .5 style numeration of some Dungeon Crawl Classics adventures. There are several things that can trigger it – con exclusives, conversion from another system and so on. I just think it’s silly. Maybe a different track with its own numbering, ala old school D&D adventures? Con exclusives could be CE1, CE2 and so on. The point-five bit always sounds like it’s part of an adventure or to be tacked on as a follow-up to an earlier release. In this case, the adventure does state that it was converted to the Dungeon Crawl Classics system, but unfortunately it doesn’t say WHAT it was converted from. As a reviewer, that would have been nice to know for comparison and contrasting. I had to actually look up the original source, and it turns out it was originally DCC #29, back when these were printed for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. It’s also worth noting the printed version of this adventure was originally only available to people who purchased two or more paper copies of adventures from Goodman Games. It’s nice to see that, for those who missed out on the original offer, they can still purchase a pdf version of the adventure. With all that out of the way, let’s get on with the review.

Well of the Worm is for four to six Level 1 characters, which is a rather small party for a DCC adventure. It’s a very short adventure which has characters going down a well to fight human headed worm monsters. I’ll admit that the enemies aren’t all that interesting a concept, but they can’t all be winners. Besides, just because *I* don’t think the well worms are interesting doesn’t mean that some other gamer WON’T. At least the adventure gives you three possible plot hooks to make your characters go down the well. One is especially weak (What are the chances all the characters are from the same village after all – how often does THAT happen?), but the other two are solid and diverse enough that they can spur your party into action.

Sure, it’s a bit odd that there is a massive cavern under a town’s dried up well, but it’s a fantasy game. Honestly, is that really the weirdest thing your players will have encountered in one of these? A good DM should really play up the tight quarters of the adventure. After all, this isn’t an expansive dungeon made by some evil big bad. It’s a naturally occurring cavern that just happens to have some hideous monsters living in it. I really like that the adventure calls attention to how cramped the location is and inflicts penalties on large weapons due to the lack of room to properly use them.

There isn’t a lot to see or do in Well of the Worm. It’s a fairly straightforward, linear dungeon crawl. Characters will hack and slash their way through zombies and well worms. For a Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure, the lethality of the quest is surprisingly low. I was surprised at how “easy” the adventure was for characters to survive compared to previous releases. That said, there are two very easy ways to die in this one. The first is taking a very large fall at the beginning of the adventure. The second is falling into a pit of the human headed worm monsters. Neither are very fun ways for your character to go. For the most part, though, this is a fairly standard and somewhat generic dungeon crawl. Even the two main antagonists are a bit predictable and pat. In fact the warm worm mother is almost ripped exactly from the video game ArcaniA‘s first boss, which is probably just a coincidence. There’s only so much you can do with worm monsters after all. There is one neat monster in the Zombie Ogre, especially its unique physical state. That’s definitely the most memorable and enjoyable thing about Well of the Worm. Unfortunately, it’s an optional encounter that may not happen depending on what players do.

There isn’t a lot of art to Well of the Worm, but what’s here is very well done indeed. There are two full page handouts that really help to make the adventure come alive, and as always, the DCC maps are the best in the industry today. The two covers (front and back) are full colour and are really well done, but I did have some people laugh at the absurdity of the monsters, which puts a damper on playing the adventure. After all, if the players can’t take them seriously, it takes a bit of extra work to salvage the experience.

All in all, let’s give Well of the Worm a thumb’s in the middle. It’s not a bad adventure by any means – just a rather generic and uninteresting one. It’s very well written, and I loved some of the details to the location and mechanics, but the adventure just didn’t really wow me. There are plenty of better (and cheaper) Dungeon Crawl Classics adventures out there. Again, this is not a bad adventure by any means, but I’d only recommend picking this up if you’re a completionist trying to get your hands on all of the adventures for the system.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Dungeon Crawl Classics #76.5: Well of the Worm
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