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Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Session Prep
Publisher: Engine Publishing
by Cedric C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/09/2012 03:27:35
I think I could sum up this review from the Foreward:

"Phil, on the other hand, has taken his expertise as a project manager and his genetic predisposition to nigh-obsessive preparedness and applied these qualities to an entirely systemic and effective treatise on the matter. He’s broken down the whole of the concept, applied a step-by-step presentation of all of the factors you need to consider, and presented it all in a clear, concise, easily grasped way.

The best part of this book is that Phil doesn’t just lay out a list of steps that every GM must follow to the letter. Honestly, that would be fairly useless as well as pretentious. A wiser man, Phil, in that he instead guides you in evaluating your needs as a GM, based on your style of play. From there, he helps you figure out the steps that make the most sense for you."

Phil Vecchione is a regular contributor to Gnome Stew, a site of articles for gamemasters. He's also one of the authors of Masks: 1000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game, and Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots to Inspire Game Masters. These products have previews available on the Engine Publishing Website.

Us gamemasters know that proper preparation is key to a good game session, but that's about it. Never Unprepared: Complete Guide to Prep breaks down prep into five phases: Brainstorming, Selection, Conceptualization, Documentation, and Review. Brainstorming is the spawning of ideas. Selection is the selection of ideas to use in an upcoming game. Conceptualization is the expansion of each idea, giving it log, a description, and a fit into the overall game. Documentation, aka. the part of the prep process most associate with prep, is writing down the concept that is meaningful to you, the gamemaster. Review, often the most overlooked phase, breaks down into proofreading, directing (reviewing and rehearsing), and playtesting (taking the perspective of the players before the game session).

But, on top of these steps, the book attempts to get you, the gamemaster, to accomplish these phases. What tools do you use for prep -- and even which phase of prep? How do you optimize your creative cycle and personal schedule? What are your strengths and weaknesses as a GM? The book also includes a concrete guide to templates (eg. NPCs and scenes). The Prep-Lite and Prep in a Real World chapters help you compensate when you cannot properly prepare for a game. These sections go beyond the "how to" guidelines of most gamemaster tip articles.

The book comes in both PDF and text format. The PDF is 134 pages long, with art interspersed throughout. Like too many other RPG materials, the art isn't really relevant to the text and could just as easily have been left out. The text is in the UTF-8 character set.

The book isn't for the lazy GM. If anything, it's a project management guide for gamemasters -- and it's still your project. The book has no shortcuts like an "instant NPC generator" or such. It also doesn't address prewritten adventures and their own problems. Nor does it give advice on gut improvisation during a game session. (It does give advice for last-minute preparation.)

I'm also just a little hesitant to recommend this to neophyte GMs. Sure, if you have ideas all brimming in your head, you will want this guide to help organize your thoughts and notes. However, the book may be a little intimidating with how much work you *can* do towards gamemastering. Don't think of it as what you *must* do.

One audience I think this book is absolutely for is the aspiring writer. I'm sure there are plenty of how to's for new writers, but you should be able to use the principles in this book for that novel you've always wanted to write. Many of the guidelines, especially time management, tools, and "thinking about it throughout the day" will be particularly useful for you to get your project off the ground. NaNoWriMo is coming up soon enough, and if all you do is prep, you'll do a better job than those who just pound the keyboard.

Overall, Never Unprepared: Complete Guide to Prep is for any dedicated gamemaster who designs his own adventure. Very well written, and very recommended.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Session Prep
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GM Mastery: NPC Essentials
Publisher: RoleplayingTips.com
by Cedric C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/09/2012 00:03:35
"What is my motivation?"

What may be a cliche in acting is a cornerstone in roleplaying an NPC. Generating the stats is the easy part -- How did he become the way he is? Why does he interact with the PCs? What gets him out of bed each morning???

The first book in RPGObject's GMMastery series is "NPC Essentials", by Johnn Four, of Dragon magazine and the Roleplaying Tips Weekly website (www.roleplayingtips.com). NPC Essentials is a 83-page PDF document, with about 50 pages of design text, 10 pages of mini-adventure, and 20 pages of charts and worksheets, for $8.95. Essentially, it's a planning manual for GMs to design their NPCs. Story writers may find it useful as will players creating backgrounds for the PCs. Except for stat blocks of the mini-adventure, the document may be used for **any** roleplaying system. Even new GMs (and lazy ones) can just focus one or two ideas at a time and improve their techniques.

Besides the introduction, the text itself is divided into four chapters:
* NPC Design
* NPC Role Playing
* Campaign Management
* NPC Archetypes
* Mini-Adventure
* Charts, Tables, And Sheets
NPC Design

This chapter recognizes that GMs only have so much time to plan and design characters. It begins by dividing up various NPC elements into the Four Planning Groups: Core NPC, Core Roleplaying, Detailed Roleplaying, and Combat. You'll use one or more of them depending on the NPC's Story Role. Each NPC Story Role (from Villains and Rivals to Remote NPCs and even Items!) has a description, list of Planning Groups to use in its design, Estimated Planning Time, and Design Methods. Through an **organized** series of instructions, questions, and examples, this chapter guides the GM in creating a character. Personally, I found the amount of preparation work quite dauting (take a deep cleansing breath), although a GM could step back and quite easily only prepare one or two NPCs.

NPC Role Playing

This chapter opens with a philosophy of scenes with NPCs: Portray the scene as if "The PCs have entered the NPC's life, not vice-versa". The chapter then suggestions on how to make the NPC most effective in advancing the storyline. The rest is devoted towards techniques for GMs to use during roleplaying: Acting, Voice, Parley strategies, NPC-to-NPC discussion, Escape routes for NPCs, and Roleplaying during combat. Again, quite a bit of advice is given, and a GM can just focus on one or two techniques in his next session.

Campaign Management

While NPC Design focuses on the individual NPC, NPCs do not stand alone in a campaign, and a GM certainly has to keep track of more than one NPC! This chapter ties the NPC to the campaign and suggests how to keep track of a cast of non-player characters:

* Organizing NPCs: Good organization prevents missing information and mistakes in play. This section includes suggestions for physically storing NPC information (from binders to business cards), and what NPC information to update between sessions.

* Introducing NPCs: The most lasting impression on a party is the introduction. This section gives examples of how to best introduce an NPC, through foreshadowing techniques, what makes the NPC unique, and surprises to spring on the characters.

* When PC and NPC power levels differ: Tired of pitting your 20th level wizard against invisible magic-proof ninjas? Want to throw more than goblins and kobolds at low-level characters? This section provides roleplaying tactics for challenging PCs with lower-level NPCs, and vice-versa (including tips for GMs with players who assume they can fight everyone they encounter!).

* Tying NPCs to your campaign: This section explains how to reflect your world -- not to mention plot hooks and critical story information -- through NPCs. Is the NPC a trendsetter, or a trendfollower? (Did you, as a GM, even think of distinguishing your NPC this way?) I found the suggestions on how to avoid the "critical NPC the PCs must meet but fail to" trap to be particularly useful.

* Creating dynamic NPCs: NPCs and even regions die and change. This section, which uses an event chart in the back of the book, tells you how to change NPCs without it becoming too much work. The event chart might be fun for PCs to use, as well.

* Character cast creation in six steps: This section is a step-by-step guide in creating, prioritizing, and developing your NPCs. Nice to see that one step is devoted towards budgeting your time!

NPC Archetypes

NPC Design covered standard NPC story roles, NPC Archetypes cover the standard NPC professions (mostly city) in an adventure: Craftsmen, Upper Nobility, Soldier, Beggars, and so on. Besides plot hooks, each archetype is given a short background discussion to help flesh him out. For example, a craftsman might be an employee or an owner. Assigning him a role in the business results in a completely different personality, and thus a different roleplaying interaction with the party. Few artists and entertainers can make a living at their craft. What will the surprise of finding out the entertainer's full-time job affect the players? With this chapter alone, the GM can turn some routine stereotypes into opportunities for enjoyable roleplaying.

Mini-Adventure

The next chapter is a 10-page investigation / social-driven mini-adventure. For characters of 3rd-5th level, this adventure is meant to tie in what the GM has learned from the previous chapters. Personally, I wished this chapter discussed more of how the techniques of the book created the adventure, rather than the final adventure itself. (The adventure does contain a chart of what certain people in the village know about important NPCs; use this as an example in your own adventures). The adventure centers around some village council shenanegans, a definite change of pace from the generic helpless towns seen in most publications. It's one thing if the PCs save the helpless town from the bad guys. It may be an interesting other situation if the town is a little more political than helpless...!

Charts, Tables, And Sheets

This section contains 20 pages of charts and record sheets to help the GM efficiently plan his NPCs; brainstorm names, background, appearances, traits, quirks, and secrets; create events for NPCs (see Campaign Management); and record this information. (There are 100 Secrets, 100 Events, 200 Quirks, 300 Traits, and even more entries for Names!) PCs will definitely find these charts and worksheets useful in thinking up a background for their own characters. You'll probably want to print out the record sheets and fill some out as you read the book. Unfortunately, these sheets cannot be used electronically (ie. you can't type the information in for electronic storage).

PDF or hardcopy?

Personally, I wish this book were hardcopy, with web support of record sheet downloads. But it's still written as a book rather than, say, a series of reference sheets. After trying to read it onscreen, I gave up and printed out all 80 pages. The only pages that really benefit from the electronic format are the record sheets (since you can print any number of them crisply from your printer instead of copying them at Kinko's). Otherwise, the layout is done very well, with minimal, but effective use of color (art, maps, and chapter headings). The PDF document uses bookmarks and you can use copy and paste. The book does not have an index.

Other comments

To some extent, the document assumes you're designing your own overall adventure and you will do this work before play. It would have been nice to add suggestions how to analyze NPCs in published adventures so you're not caught flat-footed (to steal a term) when the players throw a roleplaying wrench which the adventure didn't prepare for. The advice doesn't directly address (lazy) GMs who prefer to develop their characters between sessions as they play the game ("the characters write themselves" sorta thing). What with most short adventures (such as those in Dungeon magazine) being of the "save the helpless villagers" variety, I personally would like to have seen suggestions on developing NPCs to tie together for similar but unrelated adventures (eg. the head honcho villain who's responsible for these different groups of bad guys threatening different helpless towns).

Roleplayingtips.com

If nine dollars for some of the most thorough NPC planning advice I've seen in twenty-some years is too much, at least subscribe to Johnn Four's Roleplayingtips.com **free** weekly newsletter. Started two years ago, this newsletter is over 145 issues strong, with contributions by Johnn and numerous readers. Perhaps the only drawback is that archived articles are only sorted by date or title, as opposed to subject.

Conclusion

A good number of GMs create their own adventures, which means a good number of them should own this book. Even if your games are still nothing but dungeons and hackfests, you can certainly add some color to the helpless town elder, not to mention the evil boss villian (before the players chop him up). GMs who start with published adventures will still find this book useful for fleshing out NPCs. This book will also assist PCs who desire character backgrounds (all too often at the behest of their GM).

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
GM Mastery: NPC Essentials
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Age of Cthulhu 6: A Dream of Japan
Publisher: Goodman Games
by Cedric C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/07/2012 02:25:55
Alright. This review will be one big spoiler, so you brave little investigators can leave the room now. It's time for us Keepers to have a chat.

Ready? Good. A Dream of Japan reminds me of an episode of the Twilight Zone. Masterfully written, tense and suspenseful, and, more often than not, ending with the main character screwed over in some sort of dreadful fate in the end. Or like the horror movie where it only seems that our heroes win out, only that we know that the terribleness is just beginning.

And that's the drawback of A Dream of Japan. The ending has our investigators none the wiser that they really didn't succeed and are now pawns for the terrible horrible terror. Sure, actual investigators aren't supposed to defeat the forces of the Mythos, but the players may want to have that ridiculous concept of "fairness" in an adventure.

A Dream of Japan doesn't do this. Or, rather, it ends with the seeds for the Keeper to take his *next* adventure and drop hints (as well as NPCs close to the investigators) that their adventure in Japan isn't exactly over. It's a rather fiendish idea whose success will depend on how well your players don't mind being hornswaggled by the forces of the Mythos.

Otherwise, it's a great adventure. Chaosium set high standards of writing with its Cthulhu adventures, and A Dream of Japan follows quite nicely. It is, of course, set in Japan, yet its scope never has us needing a broad sourcebook to support it. The level of detail (at least until the end) makes our jobs easier.

Definitely an adventure to make your next one a little more interesting.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Age of Cthulhu 6: A Dream of Japan
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Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Civil War Event Book (Premium Edition)
Publisher: Margaret Weis Productions
by Cedric C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/22/2012 12:55:43
Civil War is an Event for four to six players and may take up to six months to play. The Event consists of three acts, with several scenes each (Buildup and Key Scenes, which consist of Action and Transition Scenes). In addition to scenes, the event has optional rules for troupe play, optional rules improving scene distinctions and complications, and a sourcebook. The Premium edition includes the Operations Manual, which is the game system rulebook also available in the Basic Game book.

Operations Manual: As said, this is the same OM as the Basic book. However, a random character generator, has been included. The random character generator, and an example of play, are also available on the publisher's website. If you have an iPad, I highly recommend the Premium edition over the Essentials version, which does not come with the OM. The additional cost for the OM is only six dollars on DriveThruRPG.

The scenes themselves are each only a few pages long. Rather than specific details, the description is more of an overview, pointing out various important scene and datafile distinctions. That's certainly enough to play and enjoy a scene. Including the scene distinctions is a nudge up from the Basic Game's Breakout scenes, which only mentioned datafile distinctions. Watcher character datafiles (ie. villains and their agents) are included with a scene, as is advice in running these characters. Advice is also provided if players wish to pursue the scene further. The datafiles of characters in the scene and some of the scenes will be very useful in your own events, although no index is provided if you want to quickly find this information. If you haven't already purchased the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game, go ahead and purchase the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Civil War Event Book (Premium Edition). The Premium Edition's scenes are better written and the variety of scenes will be useful as models for your own adventures.

Troupe Play: The scope of Civil War is much larger than any individual hero. The optional Troupe Play rules allow players to play different heroes throughout the event. Basically, the troupe play rule is that all XP are granted to the player, not the individual heroes being played. Further discussion is made for advanced troupe play, such as players who want to play heroes on either side of the registration act.

Scene Distinctions and Complications: This optional rule makes Scene Distinctions have more impact on a scene. A player may now add a Scene Distinction *and* a character Distinction to his dice pool for free, so long as one is a d4 and the other a d8. The Watcher may turn a Scene Distinction into a complication by spending a die from the dice pool (eg. The Pro-Registration Protestors starts as a Scene Distinction. The Watcher spends a D10 from the Doom Pool to change this into a D10 complication).

Civil War Sourcebook: While oriented towards the Civil War, the sourcebook section has information that is likely to be used for any Marvel event. Each location or faction has a short write up, datafiles for notable characters and agents, and sometimes Unlockables and Milestones. Marvel factions are AIM, Hydra, Illuminati, and SHIELD. Key Marvel New York locations include the Daily Bugle, Avengers Mansion Ruins, Baxter Building, Ryker's Island, and landmarks of New York. Fiction Marvel locations are Atlantis and Wakanda.

Friends and Foes (watcher characters): This section has additional datafiles for addtional Marvel allies and villains. Notable ones in this and the scenes include Dr. Doom, Green Goblin, Venom, New Thunderbolts, Nick Fury, Black Widow, and AIM, Hydra, and SHIELD agents. Notes are included to upgrade them to player characters. In addition to the hero datafiles, Civil War has datafiles about forty villains and heroes. With the forty-some villains in the Basic Game's Breakout event, your heroes should be pretty busy!

Hero Datafiles (pregenerated characters): Arachne, Black Panther, Cable, Captain America, Clint Barton, Cloak, Dagger, Daredevil (Daniel Thomas), Deadpool, Doctor Strange, Falcon, Goliath, Hercules, Human Torch, Invisible Woman, Iron Man, Luke Cage, Mister Fantastic, Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, Nighthawk, Punisher, She-Hulk, Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, Sub-Mariner, Thing, Tigra, Wasp, Wolverine, Wonder Man, Yellowjacket.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Civil War Event Book (Premium Edition)
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Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG
Publisher: Goodman Games
by Cedric C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/20/2012 22:54:56
Introduction: Dungeon Crawl Classics has been making some buzz on the RolePlayingGeek forums. The "not just another return to old school" RPG comments and Goodman's reputation made me take a closer look at this highly thematic fantasy RPG.

Art: Probably what hits you first is the "old school" art. It's not the slick Magic the Gathering art that's been infecting coffee table RPG's, but art last seen in the old first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I'm namedropping, but Erol Otus, Jeff Dee, and Jeff Easley are contributing artists. And, yes, the art still has no relevance to the text the page is on, comsuming gobs of laser printer ink if you're even thinking of printing this out. I *REALLY* wish a printer-friendly PDF version of this book was released.

Core Mechanic: It's OGL.

Differences from other systems: Basic D&D's Cleric, Thief, Warrior, Wizard, Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling classes. Surviving 0th level. The Luck ability score. Spell checks -- which work differently for wizards versus clerics. Critical hit tables, fumble tables, and other tables of thematic fury. No prestige classes, attacks of opportunity, feats, or skill points.

Organization: The book is pretty intuitive to use. For example, character generation comes first (because all the old school gamers did that sort of thing), before the actual combat mechanics. It's also a PDF, so searching is easy. While it has a simple Table of Contents, it has no index. Chapters are Characters, Skills, Equipment, Combat, Magic, Quest snad Journeys, Judge's Rules, Magic Items, Monsters, and two Adventures.


Characters:

You start at to 0th level, with its high mortality rates. The book states upfront you'll generate -- and play -- several characters and see who survives. The core book comes with a 0th level adventure so DMs will have an idea of how to design one. And there IS a random character generator at Purplesorcer.com. Still, you can easily make first and higher levels if you want to do boring things like survive.

In addition to the standard platonic solids (and the heretical d10), the game calls for Zocchi dice: d3, d5, d7, d14, and so on. They'll set you back over $20 on Amazon.com. Rather than just using positive and negative modifiers, you will "step up" and "step down" dice. A d8 might be stepped up to a d10, or stepped down to a d7, for example. Unfortunately, for those of us who own iPods, there's no app for this (yet). But see Purplesorcer.com for a web die roller and KickStart app.

DCC pretty much uses the standard six ability scores and modifiers. Personality replaces both Charisma and Wisdom. Luck is a new ability score used for a variety of skill checks and other rolls. You can burn Luck for a one-time bonus on a roll (typically life-or-death) and gain it back through roleplaying to your alignment. Your character will roll on the Luck Score table to see what special ability they can modify with Luck (eg. The bull: Melee attack rolls).

Character generation consists of: 3d6 for each ability. 1d4 hit points, modified by Stamina, one randomly determined piece of equipment, one randomly determined occupation, and zero XP. On the character Occupation tables, you roll your character's occupation and if their character is a non-human (such as a halfling chicken butcher). You get to choose your alignment: Law, Chaos, or Neutral.

PDF Notes: Character generation is only twelve printed pages long, so you can print this section as a handout for players.


Classes: As said, the classes are Basic D&D's Cleric, Thief, Warrior, Wizard, Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling. Each class has its OGL level progression table, but also have special abilities that set them apart. Clerics and Wizards cast spells (that's a whole chapter in itself). Thieves have thief-related skills and can better use Luck than other classes. Warriors can make cinematic Mighty Deeds of Arms, such as blinding or disarming an opponent, and have improve critical hit tables. Dwarves and halflings are fighters while Elves are fighter/wizards. Besides racial abilities, dwarves have a shield bash attack, and halflings can fight two-handed and serve as a party good luck charm! The non-spellcasters are easier to play. Each class's section is only a few pages long so you can print out these sections as player handouts. (Spell casters, however, will need to know the Magic rules.)

Combat: Combat is pretty much OGL with chromey tables and without a grid. Roll for Initiative, roll for your Attack, roll for damage. A Natural 1 results in a roll on the Fumble table, and a Natural 20 means rolling on your classes' Critical Hit table (yes, there's more than one Critical Hit table!). Warriors and Dwarves have their Mighty Deeds. NPCs have Morale Checks. Characters can fight two-handed with penalties, and clerics can turn unholy opponents. DCC also has a complex Spell Duel subsystem that can accomodate multiple spellcasters -- and can result in nasty eldritch side-effects (demonic invasion, anyone?). With the grid gone, combat has been simplified back to AD&D.

Magic: Magic is dangerous. Spellcasters make a spell check, and each spell has its own results table. The higher the result, the better effect the spell has. Critical failures and successes add highly thematic penalties and consequences. A cleric's failure reduces his chances of casting spells until the next day (his deity's busy fighting a holy war) and a roll on the disapproval table (eg. a test of humility). Wizards have the far worse (and amusing) miscast and corruption failures. Miscast an Animal Summoning spell, and your familiar might disappear and come back very very angry. An example of a minor corruption would be ears mutating, major corruption corpulence, and greator corruption tentacles replacing limbs. Wizards' spells are further individualized with side effects ("Mercurial Magic"). Spellburn rules allow wizards to temporarily sacrifice ability points to add to his spell check or recover cast spells. Wizards have familiars, can consult spirits, and can even acquire supernatural patrons. These effects are handled by extensive but uncomplicated tables in the book. Unfortunately, the magic rules and spells are not well layed out for printing from a PDF. The magic section mixes rule players *must* know (eg. descriptions and ranges of spells) with information a gamemaster may wish to keep from the players (eg. the various tables of effects). Spells are about a page long, but some spells wrap to the next page, making printing of individual spells inconvenient. Clerical spells and wizard mechanics and spells differ enough that I would have preferred to see a different chapter on each.

Magic Items and Monsters: In the DCC world, magic items are rare and unique, monsters mysterious and heresay. Swords receive an extensive treatment of tables to personalize them. Rules for scrolls are provided. Potions have a table in under the Make Potion spell, but that's about it. Magical items are more like the One Ring than Home Depot. Although a monster bestiary is included (they get their own Critical Hit tables, too!), so are suggestions to make a stock creature unusual enough for players to be unsure what they're facing. Stat blocks are also included for human non-player characters. Treasure is relegated to an opinion piece against the conventional "monster guarding a pile of coins". If you (and particularly your players) don't like this aspect of the game, it shouldn't be too hard to change.

Adventures: The core book comes with two adventures, The level 0-1 Portal Under the Stars, and 5th level Infernal Crucicable of Sezrekan the Mad. These adventures were also released at the 2011 Free RPG Day, so do not purchase the Free RPG Day product. True to its lethal character generation, Portal is designed for fifteen to twenty 0th level characters, with each player definitely controlling more than one character. The author's playtests show games of up to 28 players and a 50% mortality rate, with only one TPK. Infernal is more conventionally suited for 4-8 5th level characters. Portal has nine encounters and Infernal three. I haven't played them, so don't have a sense how long the adventures take or how "meaty" they are.

Support: Despite the new release of the core books, DCC already has some adventures and other support available. Purple Sorceror Games has a free character generator and dice roller. Their first adventure, Perils of the Sunken City for 0-1 level, is available on DriveThruRPG and has free paper miniatures and battlemaps at the website. Goodman Games has released two DCC adventure: Dungeon Crawl Classics #67: Sailors on the Starless Sea, and Dungeon Crawl Classics #68: People of the Pit(previous DCC adventures are for other game systems). Other 3rd party companies (even Paizo) are advertised with the PDF but their websites don't show product released yet. DCC is OGL, so, except for 0th level 15+ character adventures, I don't think it would be difficult converting from D&D 3.x to DCC.

Conclusion: Dungeon Crawl Classics puts a fantastic spin on generic fantasy roleplaying. Those of us who remember "old school" games with their extensive critical hit tables and other wild ideas have them again. Spells are no longer lifeless stat blocks but are to be feared, even by those who wield it. With D&D Next returning back to its "old school" roots, Dungeon Crawl Classics is definitely worth a look at.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG
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Masks of Nyarlathotep
Publisher: Chaosium
by Cedric C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 04/15/2012 02:02:46
Originally published over twenty years ago, in 1984, Masks of Nyarlathotep is one of Chaosium's best known campaigns for good reason. Not only does it provide a wide geographic variety of adventures players and Keepers will enjoy, it's also a very well designed adventure, avoiding many pitfalls other Call of Cthulhu adventures fall into. Masks was written by Larry DiTillio, whose writing credits also include executive story editor for the science-fiction series Babylon 5.

The adventure begins with the gruesome murder of a friend in New York. Investigators explore overseas to England, Egypt, Kenya, Shanghai, and western Australia. Locations range from London museums, to Egyptian pyramids, Kenyan mountains, Australian deserts, and Chinese import warehouses. NPCs run the gamut from high society to mysterious wisemen. Not only will investigators encounter cults dedicated to different aspects of Nyarlathotep, but will meet a memorable variety of mythos creatures as well.

From a Keeper's standpoint, the adventure is exceptionally well-designed. All too often, I've run a Call of Cthulhu adventure only to hit an unexpected dead end, as the players failed to find a critical clue called for by the adventure. Some fumbling improvisation usually moves the plot forward, but the author in Masks provides multiple ways to obtain the clues the investigators need to proceed in their tasks. For those Keepers who enjoy adding their own touches to an adventure, the author suggests various adventure seeds to enhance game sessions. Meanwhile, Keepers who do not will not be required to do so. Each country has three to five separate adventures, including red herrings, which investigators should encounter more often than they seem to do. If there's any caution to note, Keepers should be prepared to play the part of a very wide range of NPCs. If you have a co-GM, or a player who's joining for just one session, enlist them to play a few NPCs!

In my opinion, I think the PDF format is superior to the dead-tree version. Both hardcopy and PDF have a handout section that can be photocopied or printed out. However, with a PDF, a Keeper can do much more. The Keeper can print out maps and 1920's prices for players to refer to. The adventures contain atmospheric evocative artwork the Keeper can print out to show the players what their investigators see. Players inevitably forget the orally presented (and often critical) information their investigators discover. The Keeper can print and give this information to the players. And, when PCs also inevetibly expire, NPCs encountered in the adventure can become PCs. The Keeper can print out their stats and backgrounds to provide them to the players. If a player misses several sessions, or a new player joins in a few months into play, the other players can simply give the handouts to the player to catch up (assuming they're organized better than your typical Arkham professor's research notes).

I'm very happy to see Chaosium release Masks of Nyarlathotep in PDF format. Its $20 pricetag is also 2/3 the price of the dead-tree version. Not a bad deal for one of Call of Cthulhu's mostly highly regarded adventures.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Masks of Nyarlathotep
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Cthulhu by Gaslight
Publisher: Chaosium
by Cedric C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 04/13/2012 13:38:48
Introduction: Andrew Lucard has written an excellent review of Cthulhu by Gaslight, 3rd edition, so I'll be taking a look at the PDF itself, which has been corrected since his review. The PDF was viewed on a PC with Acrobat X, and iPad 2 on Adobe Reader and other readers.

The PDF viewed is CHA23123book_rev.pdf, dated 4/5/12. On the PC with Adobe Acrobat X, I was able to view the document. I had problems viewing the document on an iPad 2, until I upgraded my Adobe Acrobat to the 4/10/12 version. iPad 2 apps that had problems viewing the document were previous versions of Acrobat, iBooks, PerfectReader, pdf-notes, PDFReaderLite, and Epson iPrint. The viewing problem is that the background on the boxed text is too dark to read the text.

Format: The PDF comes in a 196 page book, divided into Victorian Characters (player material), The Victorian World (player and Keeper historical source material), Strange Britain (player and Keeper occult and mythos source material, NPC stats, and adventure seeds), Gaslight Adventures: The Night of the Jackals (introductory adventure) and The Burnt Man, Appendix I: Suggested Sources, Maps and Handouts for the adventures, and Character Sheet. The PDF is in black and white, in a double-column format.

Price: The price of the PDF is $20 versus the MSRP of $28. That's only an $8 difference, and some online sellers may have the print version at lower than MSRP. If you *must* have a print version, you might as well buy it printed. However, the PDF version has some advantages over print, particularly for the player material.

Victorian Characters: The player material consists of the Victorian Character generation section and The Victorian World historical source material. A major advantage PDFs have over printed copies is that the Keeper can print several copies of player materials, so each player can have his own copy. The Victorian Characters section is about 20-some pages printed.

Victorian World: Based on historical England, the Victorian World source material can be used by both players and the Keeper. An advantage of the PDF format is that Keepers can easily share this information with the players. Avid players may read ahead of time this section before the game. Or a Keeper can print out the pages and cut out relevant information (eg. Underworld Slang or English law) as handouts to players during the game. This section is about 45 pages long.

Strange Britain: This section consist of Occult in the 1890s, A Gazetteer of Selected Strange Sites in Britain, The Cthulhu Mythos in Britain, Victorian Fictional Characters, A Compendium of Victorian Non-Player Characters, and Victorian Scenario Suggestions. Like the Victorian World, the Keeper can provide the occult information to players as printed handouts ahead of time or during the game, depending on their occult skill. The Gazetteer and Cthulhu Mythos are prevented something like one-paragraph adventure seeds. A crafty Keeper can definitely print this information as handouts for unfounded rumors and red herrings for gullible investigators. The remaining sections are Keeper material to add unique NPCs, stock NPC stats, and suggestions on running Victorian adventures.

Gaslight Adventures: Cthulhu by Gaslight includes two adventures, The Night of the Jackals, and The Burnt Man. The Night of the Jackals is an introductory adventure, still challenging for experienced players. Both come with handouts to print and provide the players. Both also include atmospheric art that can also be used as handouts to show players what their investigators see.

Suggested Sources for Victorian Roleplayers: This section lists further reading of and viewing Victorian fiction, Cthulhu Mythos fiction in Britain, and Victorian Roleplaying.

Maps and Handouts: Cthulhu by Gaslight provides maps and handouts for players for the game adventures, plus a map of London. A larger map is printed in black and white, with additional blue for railway and underground.

Character Sheet: The first page of the character sheet has the Call of Cthulhu stats, while the second page is for personal data and other background information. Unfortunately, I was not able to fill in the sheet in Acrobat.

Conclusion: The PDF format allows the Keeper great flexibility in providing Cthulhu by Gaslight to players. iPad 2 viewers should upgrade to Adobe Acrobat, version released on 4/10/12.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Cthulhu by Gaslight
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Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space (Eleventh Doctor Edition)
Publisher: Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd.
by Cedric C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 03/29/2012 03:06:52
PDF Review and Buyer's Guide

Note: The Eleventh Doctor Edition of the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space has the same core rules as the previously released Tenth Doctor Edition. For a review of these rules, see my review on RPG.net: http://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/14/14799.phtml


PDF Review

Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space (Eleventh Doctor Edition) is a beautiful, photo-heavy, and well-laid out RPG. The downloads consist of: A Read This First, The Player's Guide, The Gamemaster's Guide, The Adventures Book, Character Sheets, Gadget Cards, Story Points sheet, and Box Cover.

If you're going to download this PDF and view it on your iPad or PC laptop, you're all set. The Character Sheets and Gadget Cards are in color, but printing a few sheets won't tax your inkjet or laserprinter. You'll want to bring some counters to represent Story Points (the Dr. Who RPG version of RPG drama points), and it may be a little inconvenient passing around the iPad if you have those sort of players who want to read the Player's Guide but won't buy their own copy. (At the time of this review, only the Tenth Doctor has a separate Player's Guide PDF for purchase.)

Unfortunately, if you intend to print it all out... don't. The same eye-candy photos in the Player's Guide and Gamemaster's Guide will consume a good amount of ink. Assuming the Eleventh Doctor Edition is on the same glossy paper stock as the Tenth, you're much better off buying the printed version. The printed version's Player's Guide, Gamemaster's Guides, and Adventure Book are separate books, making gameplay a little easier.


Buyer's Guide

But wait -- what should you actually buy? As said, both the Tenth Doctor and Eleven Doctor editions have the same core rules. So you'll only need one copy of either edition for the game system itself. Meanwhile, the Adventures, Character Sheets, and Gadget Sheets are different. Cubicle 7 has made the Adventure books for each edition as separate downloads, at a rather nice five dollars each. Cubicle 7 is also providing a *free* Upgrade Pack from Tenth to Eleven Edition of new characters, new gadget cards, and new aliens. Unfortunately, as of this writing, I didn't see a "downgrade" pack, that would allow you to buy the Eleventh Edition game but play the Tenth Edition characters, etc. Hopefully, a "downgrade" pack will be made available. So for a mere five dollars, you can upgrade from the Tenth Doctor to the Eleventh. Not bad!

Overall score:
PDF on iPad: 5.0 out of 5.0.
PDF printed: Not recommended.
Upgrade PDFs: 5.0 out of 5.0 dollars.
Downgrade PDFs: Let's hope for a Tenth Doctor "downgrade" kit.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space (Eleventh Doctor Edition)
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Microscope
Publisher: Lame Mage Productions
by Cedric C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 03/25/2012 17:27:13
PDF Review:

What with every other roleplaying book being either a coffee table book or half eye candy, I'm rather pleased to find Microscope's PDF in black and white. I had no problems reading it on an iPad or on Acrobat on a PC. Given the rule's lack of charts and stat blocks, I'm not sure how much I really need to print.

Microscope is an 81-page black and white PDF with no art and single-column layout. The PDF comes with a one-page reference sheet. The single-column layout uses an eye-friendly sized font, with new subjects starting on their own page titled in large bold letters. This makes it easy to look up a rule or other piece of information.

As other reviews have suggested, the rules are conceptually different from conventional "skill roll" roleplaying games. The game has no charts or stat blocks, so you won't be looking up this sort of information in the game. You *may* need to look up a specific rule. So, for those who do wish to print out the rulebook, you may wish to print it out into two sections, about 50 pages of rules, and maybe 12 pages of play advice. The remaining pages are game designer notes. Personally, I'd make a few tweaks to the PDF for better printing, such as no title pages predominantly in black.

Overall: 4.5 / 5.0. Good job.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Microscope
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Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Basic Game
Publisher: Margaret Weis Productions
by Cedric C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 02/22/2012 23:32:52
Rather than re-inventing the die by writing another review, I'll supplement the already existing and well-written reviews of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying system with a discussion of the PDF itself. In reviewing this PDF, I used Acrobat, iPad Library, an inkjet printer, and a duplex black and white printer.

The download consists of a PDF version of the rulebook, pregenerated characters, and two summary player sheets. Additional material is available at the publisher's site, but, as of this writing, the Marvel downloads there were only preview pages of the rulebook.

PDF Rulebook: One of my complaints about publishers who sell hardcopy roleplaying books is that they don't include a PDF that's suitable for home printing. Typically, the publishers will only release a PDF that's an exact copy of the hardcopy. The ideal printable PDF minimizes the cost of ink and paper for printing and organizes the material suchthat the buyer can print specific pages for player handouts and such.

Some players will bring their iPad or laptop to their gaming group. Some will print out their PDF. I think doing both is the best solution. The game master can browse the PDF on the iPad to look up a rule, then separate the pages of the printout as necessary for player handouts and such.

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying does not supply a PDF for home printing. About one-fourth of the book is art, adding expense to a home printout. I would not recommend printing the book out onto an inkjet. However, the information is well organized. No page had information that started on one page an ended on another. This makes separating the pages during play easy and convenient (eg. when one player wants to read his power on one page, and another player on different one). I should mention that a minor graphics bug made a few introductory pages of the rulebook difficult to read through the iPad library, but the rulebook can be read in Acrobat, PC or iPad.

Myself, I printed the rulebook into three sections: Basic rules (Chapters 1-3, 60 pages), Powers (Chapter 4, 60 pages), and Gamemaster section (Chapter 5 and adventure, 80 pages). As part of the adventure, the rulebook comes with villain stats over thirty B-List villains.

Pregenerated characters: The download comes with several pregenerated characters, including the X-Men (Armor, Beast, Colossus, Cyclops, Emma Frost, Shadowcat, Storm, Wolverine), Avengers (Black Panther, Black Widow, Captain America, Iron Man, Ms. Marvel), Fantastic Four (Human Torch, Invisible Woman, Mister Fantastic, Thing), Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Sentry, Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, and a blank character sheet. Each page is double-sided.

Player and Gamemaster reference sheets: The download includes a one-page rules summary for players, and a two-page summary for gamemasters.

PDF Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars. The lack of a printer-friendly PDF version brings the rating down quite a bit, but the organization of the PDF rulebook still allows you to print, in a convenient manner, whichever sections you wish for play.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Basic Game
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Cthulhu Britannica: Shadows over Scotland
Publisher: Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd.
by Cedric C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/04/2011 15:09:34
When I had the chance to review Cthulhu Britannica: Shadows Over Scotland, I leapt at it. I actually have a Call of Cthulhu adventure to run in a few weeks and was impressed at the quality of the scenarios of the original Cthulhu Britannica.

Shadows Over Scotland is both a sourcebook for Scotland adventures, as well as a collection of six scenarios. Although the PDF is formatted like the book, I actually found the PDF format itself quite useful. Overall, on an ipad, while the size of an ipad is smaller than a book, the book was quite readable. On a laptop, I still found the two-column format inconvenient. I would scroll down the page to read the first column, scroll up to the second column when I was done with the first one, then scroll back down again to read the second.

The book starts off with a 30-page "An Introduction to 1920's Scotland". This section is divided into the non-fictional Scotland after the Great War, then a mixing of the Mythos into Scotland pre-history. The first section will be quite useful for Keepers to bring in an accurate atmosphere of 1920's Scotland (and Scotland immigrants) to a Call of Cthulhu game. The second section, which includes a timeline, may be useful if the Keeper needs to ad hoc mention any Mythos activities to Investigators diligently poking their noses about. Both sections are entertaining reading and are best read electronically rather than printed out.

The next sections, which I will call the sourcebook, detail in game stats the locations of Scotland: The Lowlands, The Highlands, and The Islands. Each section starts with some non-fictional information about the Geography, Culture and People, Flora and Fauna, and Climate. When applicable (eg. fauna), stats are provided.

It's when a section discusses The Mythos, things get choppy. The scope is "to supply enough material to allow Keepers to quickly build scenarios of their own or to incorporate these materials into ongoing adventures". In other words, while well-written and very imaginative, they're inomplete. Articles range from background-level scenarios, to only the climax of an adventure, to almost-scenarios. I reallly wished these bits and pieces were made into full-fledged scenarios. On the other hand Keepers who can develop scenarios from these vivid beginnings should find these pieces of writing rewarding.

The scenarios are top-notch. Some require a Keeper who's just as good as the writing. Keepers already know how important human NPCs are, and the NPCs in these scenarios are especially vivid. Many of the darker ones have personal motives and a Keeper will want to do them justice to make them more interesting to the players. For scenarios, I find the PDF format muchly superior to a book. A Keeper need only print out the scenario pages, can write on them for notes, and physically cut out the handout illustrations or important bits of text for the players.

Overall, highly recommended!

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Cthulhu Britannica: Shadows over Scotland
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Tomb of Horrors Map Set
Publisher: Red Pub Games
by Cedric C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/19/2011 17:24:16
I was a little disappointed at the simplicity / plainness of the maps, but I otherwise don't see any reason not to download this game aid if you're playing Tomb of Horrors. Keep up the good work!

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Tomb of Horrors Map Set
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Anima: Beyond Fantasy Game Master's Toolkit
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
by Cedric C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 04/20/2011 02:32:57
The description pretty much states what you get, so I'll fill in more details with a review of the adventure and the format of the PDF.

The adventure is a three-act multi-session adventure for 3-5 first level characters. Each act is unique. The first takes place on a zepplin, involving the characters daringly saving the passengers and crew from a hijacking. The next find the characters lost on a settled island, slowly sinking into fear and despair. The last brings the characters to a climactic conclusion, in which they must release a Lady of Nightmares to defeat not one, but two, Between Worlds Beings. Quite a bit for first level, eh? The adventure has a healthy dose of combat, investigating, and interactions with colorful NPCs unique to the Anima universe. While the plots of the acts aren't too far from your typical FRPG adventure, the NPCs are definitely of the romance and villainy of Final Fantasy and similar computer RPGs.

The PDF is in beautiful color, and is best for iPad and color laser printer output. I do wish that a printer-friendly version of the book was included. Some of the rich color art becomes too dark in greyscale. And, of course, much of the eye-candy that impresses in a publisher-printed book becomes a source of ink and toner consumption when printed by the purchaser. The PDF comes with a four-panel reference screen that I had trouble printing on four separate sheets. That being said, a major advantage of printing out the PDF as individual sheets is that the game master can let the players access the first half of the book (new rules and new options) while keeping the rest of the book (the twenty pregenerated first-level characters and the adventure) to himself.

So if you're an iPad owner who's considering this supplement, you're definitely better off buying the PDF than the book. Others will have to judge how much the aesthetics of a beautifully published book from the publisher matters against the half price of the PDF.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Anima: Beyond Fantasy Game Master's Toolkit
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Delta Green: The Last Equation
Publisher: Arc Dream Publishing
by Cedric C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 04/08/2011 12:30:53
Dennis Detwiller is the co-creator of Delta Green, so it should be no surprise that I'm recommending this scenario. I'm actually unfortunate not to have played the game, but, even if you're also not familiar with the system, you should at least read this if you enjoy horror roleplaying or modern horror. I was intimidated, at first, by the adventure. It starts open-ended, with several important, though modifiable NPCs. A bumbling group of players can easily run afoul of them, making this a short scenario. However, experienced Delta Green roleplayers should enjoy the challenge of working closely with the authorities while maintaining their cover. Dennis Detwiller's own site has several free downloads and I'm going to check them out right now!

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Delta Green: The Last Equation
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INN-Teriors 1: The Raven Claw Inn
Publisher: Scrying Eye Games
by Cedric C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 03/14/2011 21:03:16
When I purchased some maps and tile sets from the publishers of The World's Most Popular Roleplaying Game, I was sorta disappointed by the size of the inns. The quality and color was great, but some adventures just call for large, two-story inns with a basement. The Raven Claw Inn is a two-story inn, each story two pages across, and a half-page basement. The kitchen is in the basement, and upstairs has several shared bedrooms, including a dorm, though not a flophouse-style common area. Additional roofs have been included. You won't be able to make a 3-D model with just the roofs, but you can certainly use them as terrain for MageKnight or outdoor fantasy battles. Remember to download "Ravenlands 1 Freebie: Castle Raven Dungeon Level 1" if you haven't done so already. It's by the same creator and just as good.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
INN-Teriors 1: The Raven Claw Inn
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