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Birthright: Book of Priestcraft (2e)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
by Megan R. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/05/2014 12:46:33
Never mind the Birthright setting, if you want to play a Priest character as more than a healing machine who casts spells (never mind that they're divine in origin rather than arcane) and can fight a bit, this is worth a look. If you are playing Birthright, all the better... let your Priest take a full part in the intrigue and manoeuvering that is part and parcel of this unique game.

It starts with a thorough review of the different gods in the pantheon of Cerilia. Your chosen deity need never again be merely a name on your character sheet... you will know all about him or her, understand the organisation of that deity's church and know the festivals and rituals, and if you are playing a priest or a paladin you know what you need to do and what powers you get. So even if you are merely a devout individual rather than one of the 'professionally' religious, the bits about the deity and the church are worth reading!

It's really all quite fascinating. There's enough here to fuel many a religious debate between devotees of different deities, you can learn about different orders and strands of belief even within the faith of a single deity... this really makes the clerical scene come to life, providing a rich backdrop to everyday life. Even the most worldly folk will find the odd festival worth celebrating, or may seek a church in times of need... or just when they want to get wed or have dead to bury.

You may think this is overkill, but it can add real depth and flavour to your game. When you find the ranger sneaking out at dawn to say his prayers or a paladin getting really embarassed because the murder he's investigating has led him to have to quiz the Madam of a brothel... then you know that your game's alternate reality is coming to life in your players' minds. Giving them this level of detail about the deity they casually wrote on their character sheet is a part of it.

The next chapter is Strategies and Tactics, and it is particularly aimed at those players who decide that their Regent character is a priest by trade, although much of what is said can work equally well for the clerical cohorts of a Regent who is a layman. A Priest-Regent has great assets at his command, but is also quite a good target! Any senior clergyman will have cohorts and most wield some temporal power as well as spiritual power - owning lands and commanding allegiances, for example. Diplomacy, the role of faith in peace and in war, even the relationships between faith and state are discussed here. Even a layman Regent is likely to have some religious beliefs, and these can have a significant effect on the support he receives and on which faith is regarded as the 'state religion' in his domains.

And then there's ceremonial as a political tool. Most Regents want some kind of investiture or coronation ritual to mark their assumption of office, and such ceremonies are generally religious in nature. This has special significance if people believe in a sacred bond between a ruler and his domain... one which can be established by spell and ritual.

The final part of the book covers spell lists (and plenty new spells) for priests of the different Cerilian faiths, battle magic, spells for Regents and an array of magical items and relics.

Even a cursory study of history will show you how in the real world religion and politics and statecraft are entwined: with this book you are equipped to generate the same level of involvement and intrigue within the context of a Birthright game... or give you ideas for how to do so even if it's not Birthright that you are playing!

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Birthright: Book of Priestcraft (2e)
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Crypts & Creatures Psionics Handbook
Publisher: Pick Up & Go Games
by Megan R. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/04/2014 09:04:20
Continuing the stream-lined presentation of cutdown D20 rules, here's all you need to include psionics, the powers of the mind, to your game.

It starts off with five new races - presumably they are capable of psionics although this isn't stated, nor anything about the races we already have. Apparently your character becomes a psionic by choosing one of the specialist psionic classes which are the next thing to be detailed. These are the Psion (who concentrates on his mental powers), the Psychic Warrior (who combines mental and physical prowess) and the Wilder (who is, well, a bit wild and uncontrolled!).

Then there's a new skill: concentration. Only psionics are capable of it, and it is used for focussing your powers as well as for rising above mundane distractions to get on with something else. Then we move on to the psychic powers themselves. They use a power point system, and there are lists akin to spell lists of what is possible and how much they cost to employ.

Finally, there are some psionic monsters too, which can employ various powers against characters (who need not, of course, be psionically active themselves!). Indeed it can be quite entertaining not to allow psionics to PCs, but have some adversaries using these - to your players - strange and exotic abilities. (Or am I just a nasty GM?)

A large amount of 'crunch' concisely presented and straightforward to use.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Crypts & Creatures Psionics Handbook
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War Is Hell
Publisher: Aegis Studios
by Megan R. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/01/2014 11:10:54
The world of Contagion is not a pleasant one... and this supplement contains tools to help you make it even less so. All is not as that last sentence seems, however. Here are additional spells, rituals and other material that you might wish to add into your game - and some vicious combat moves that any sane individual would shy away from employing - how about yanking on the ears of those with the large pointy ones that adorn the heads of many of the more fantastical denizens, for example?

We start off with a collection of feats. An interesting one allows the use of a familiar by spellcasters, another lets you enthrall an NPC by flashing a bit of leg or in some other way flirting with them (the effect being a bit like a charm person spell), and yet another covers the inscription of ritual circles.

Then come the vicious combat moves, of which the less said the better, and some new rituals to research and perform. There are some new creatures as well, most of whom you don't want to meet down a dark alley on a moonless night.

A collection of various additions to the system that are worth a look, you may wish to add some or all of them to your game.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
War Is Hell
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Publisher Reply:
Megan, Thank you so much for the thoughtful review! Travis Legge Aegis Studios
Delver's Digest - Of Mycorrhizae, Addled Mere & Deigma
Publisher: Polycosm Publishing
by Megan R. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/01/2014 10:18:11
Are you looking for something truly weird yet oddly plausible to use as a location, background, environment for a game - be it fantasy (for this is fantastical) or perhaps in some distant science-fiction planet - then this is worth a look.

A whimsical analysis of what is a real-world association of fungus and flowering plant - mycorrhiza - leads to speculation about forest-spanning webs of interaction, and presents a strange land to explore, the Addled Mere, repleat with strange wildlife and formations.

Wilder speculations too. Some are almost incomprehensible, and could be used verbatim as the mutterings of a deranged sage - perhaps the characters can interpret what he's saying or they may too leave baffled and unknowing. Perhaps there's a place in your world for the magical analysis of patterns, or geometry that bends reality (and downright breaks the rules laid down by Euclid!). Or maybe this is better as speculation in the more extreme reaches of a magical university... but it all sounds good. And plausible.

Some fun to be had, this work describes itself as 'weird, abstracted gaming material themed with real world reflections and presented as if a publication for local dabblers in exotic cosmologies and seekers after adventure' and that about sums it up. Such things can be amusing to throw out... I recall baffling players by having an NPC chant the words to the Pink Floyd song Chapter 24... they never did figure out what he was on about! Have fun with this one too.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Delver's Digest - Of Mycorrhizae, Addled Mere & Deigma
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Advanced Races 11: Shadow Fey (Pathfinder RPG)
Publisher: Kobold Press
by Megan R. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/30/2014 10:25:11
There is method to the madness inherent in the shadow fey, amply reflected in this book which distils out the essence of what makes shadow fey tick - at least as well as mortal minds can comprehend.

We read a little of the race's history - something about which there is dispute and debate even in shadow fey circles never mind amongst outsiders - and find out how they'd work as player-characters, details equally useful to GMs who wish to use them as fully-developed antagonists.

There is copious background on shadow fey society - a complex and ever-shifting structure of feudal relationships that is elitist and hierarchical... and woe betide the shadow fey who forgets his place or acts out of turn! But of course, ALL shadow fey believe themselves to be superior to everybody else, even if there is a distinct pecking order within their own ranks.

Shadow fey always take great care in their appearance and attire, meticulous and dressing as finely as they can afford, be in court robes or attire appropriate to their profession. They value romance and passion, but prize correct etiquette, seeming to view everything as some kind of stately dance with very strict rules.

Should you wish to play a shadow fey, most classes are open to them. However, whilst they are fascinated by divine magic they tend not to be very good at it, thus there are few clerics; and few are willing to take on the sheer discipline necessary to become a monk. Bards and any class combining magic and combat are popular choices, as are rogues. Sorcerers are more common that wizards, but the shadow fey love pacts and quite often become witches too. Racial traits, new feats and various other options are provided for the budding character to choose from; and there are also spells, magical items and creatures appropriate to them here.

Foul and grim or intriguing and beautiful? You'll have to decide, but play one or meet them, you are likely to be changed by your association with the shadow fey, and this book provides plenty of resources to make it happen.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Advanced Races 11: Shadow Fey (Pathfinder RPG)
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Thulian Echoes
Publisher: Lamentations of the Flame Princess
by Megan R. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/29/2014 10:55:40
Wouldn't it be easy if you knew what was in a dungeon before you went there? Knew all about the tricks and traps that awaited you... (and I don't mean by sneaking a look at the GM's notes or reading the module he intends to use!).

That's what this adventure sets out to offer, sort of. Naturally it doesn't work out quite as easy as you might think.

The whole thing begins when the party finds a journal of long-lost adventures... and get to act it out with a bunch of pre-gen characters before they actually go there as their regular characters. Will knowing their way around this admitted death-trap of a party-munching dungeon help them any?

A bunch of pre-generated characters and NPCs are provided, then it's on with the adventure, take 1, somewhen in the distant past. Things done in the past influence the now, which is modelled by the use of keywords that are set (like flags in computer code) as a result of certain actions or inactions during the fictional visit, the one being played through to simulate reading the book. Well, nobody goes role-playing to read books, they want to, well, role-play.

For each location, there are two descriptions. The first is how it initially appears, the second is how it appears now, when the real party go there themselves.

There's a large map which manages to give a 3D rendition of the dungeon layout on a single sheet. There's a lot of weird stuff there and part of the deadliness stems from the fact that things are so odd - there just is no logical way to deal with them all. At least, not the first time around. Whether the party will do any better the second time, when they come as themselves... well, I suppose it's possible. If you want something truly weird in your world, this might just be what you are looking for!

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Thulian Echoes
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Wasteland Treasures 1
Publisher: Outland Arts
by Megan R. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/26/2014 08:58:07
A major part of any post-apocalyptic game is seeing what you can scavenge in your travels, and then working out how to utilise what you've found or at least trade it for something else that you want. This means that the GM has to be ever alert to leaving stuff around for you to find... and here's a collection of random tables to help the GM do just that!

The author describes compiling them by reading catalogues and visiting websites for military/survivalist suppliers, looking around campsites and even in his own garage - and indeed as you look around you right now, there's probably quite a lot of stuff that might interest a scavenger. Even if my desk is mostly piled with RPG books and computer equipment, the odd item within eyeshot might be of use (at least until I tidy the multi-tool away!).

Anyway, to get you started there are three tables here. Roll randomly, or read through them and select the things you want the party to have. The first one is quite general 'loot found in ruins' - and there's a motly collection of items that might be found in any ruined urban site. Each is given a variable value - if you do try to sell it you will probably have to dicker - and often some suggested uses. Oh, and no doubt in reference to my desk, it includes a fantasy RPG complete with dice AND a multi-tool!

The second table is slightly more focussed, as it presents items found in old warzones. As anyone who's visited a real battleground or military training area will know, there's a lot there that it is wisest not to meddle with... but copious details and options are provided to cope with those who do meddle, like your average player-character. Several options provide scope for a whole encounter or even side-adventure.

The final table covers items found on wasteland savages. Many of the things they carry are downright odd, and there's quite a lot of potential for fun with these items... and some are quite unpleasant!

A useful collection, giving a good balance between things that are useful, some quite bizarre stuff... and a fair few that are both!

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Wasteland Treasures 1
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Urban Dressing: Borderland Town
Publisher: Raging Swan Press
by Megan R. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/24/2014 12:05:28
Borderland towns have great potential for adventure in themselves, as well as being a useful jumping-off point for adventure in lands beyond... somewhere to gather rumours and supplies if nothing else.

So, how to make it more interesting than a stop at the supermarket? Try this book for a start.

In the style common to many Raging Swan Press books, this work consists of several tables covering different aspects that might apply to, in this case, a borderland town. Reading through them is recommended, you will find ideas spawning as you do so; but if you are in a hurry rolling dice and using whatever you come up with generally works well too.

The first table is Sights and Sounds, and is good for setting the scene and making the place come alive in your player's minds as you describe it. There's a full hundred sights and sounds... and the odd smell... any of which could lead to a whole side-adventure of their own if you (and the party) choose to follow it up.

Next up is a fine list of Businesses. For many parties, coming into town is for the purpose of conducting business: now it can be a lot more than selling loot and purchasing supplies, new weapons and armour and so on. This is followed by a collection of Folk of Interest. They might be who the party has come to see, they might have a job for them... or they might merely be sitting at the next table in the inn and strike up a casual conversation.

Finally, if you want to make things really interesting for the party, grab a d20 and roll on Hooks, Complications and Opportunities. This is a mixed bag of events that will involve them, like it or not, in the ongoing life of the town. Poisoned wells, invasions of rats or enemies, offers of money and strange events... about the only thing missing is an earthquake!

The party will never forget their next visit to town!

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Urban Dressing: Borderland Town
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The Pirate GM's Right Fist
Publisher: Black Shark Enterprises
by Megan R. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/21/2014 11:15:36
Most of us at some time want to run an adventure at sea, piratical or otherwise... even if it just involves the party taking passage on a ship when they need to get someplace else that's more easily (or only) accessible by sea. Here's a collection of tables and ideas to make that voyage come to life.

It starts off with some innocuous 'events which might occur at sea' - so grab a set of percentage dice or choose whichever event suits your needs. The effects will vary depending on whether the party are passengers or crew, legitimate mariners or flying the Jolly Rodger... but all provide for some excitement, especially if the characters get involved in whatever is going on.

Next up is 'let's explore the island' - again, it doesn't matter why the ship has paused there, this table gives a range of different islands, a quick snapshot of plausible places at which to drop anchor. If the characters have access to a map of the area they are sailing through, you may have to be selective in your choice, but if they are in uncharted waters, go wild. Many could provide whole adventures if you wish, or it could be a brief call to break up a voyage, get supplies or repair storm damage. If you want to spice up the shore leave the next table - 'events which might occur upon land' - provide a range of events from rumours about treasure to invasions, earthquakes and even an active volcano!

This is followed by a selection of tables to provide quick answers to questions like 'who be they?' (not much use in a fantasy game, it's tailored for the Caribbean...) or 'where is it hidden?' Ship types, destinations, pirate nicknames and directions (of the compass, of course) and more enable you to come up with answers for all those pesky questions speedily.

There's all manner of useful information too which will make even the most landlubber of GMs sound like a salty sea dog and aid him in calculating how much treasure a ship can carry and even how long it will take to unload your spoils. There's even a reading list if you want to put some real knowledge behind the hastily-acquired vocabulary - again, this concentrates on real-world historical Caribbean pirates, but ought to translate readily to your fantasy campaign setting without too much difficulty.

If you run pirate games, or even those with a nautical twist, this is worth a look.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
The Pirate GM's Right Fist
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Character Webs
Publisher: Thunderegg Productions
by Megan R. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/21/2014 10:03:23
Role-playing works best when you know who your character is. Really know him, know him so well that he could be a friend you've had for years... and one way to get off to a flying start is to have a detailed backstory to compliment the necessary game mechanical information that goes on your character sheet. Some games provide a means to create or generate a 'lifepath' that gives you the bare bones of his history prior to game start, some more enlightened GMs require their players to come up with some background, but here's a generic system to provide you with a wealth of detail to add to the basics of character class/profession (and species if applicable) and other basic details that you know from setting him up ready to play.

Mechanically it's quite simple. Get 4d6 of different colours and a d10, roll this handfull once per page, and note the results. Naturally, you may use the rolls as guidance and inspiration rather than taking the results 'as is', but the sheer randomicity can be a spur to your creativity as you take the results and build them into your background.

The areas covered include family structure (are you an only child, etc.), social background, educational background, work history (which may be rolled multiple times for older characters), and personal relationships- if he's married, and how many of the other PCs he already knows (and the nature of their relationships). You'll need to work with the other players to work out the precise details of how they know each other. These tables are followed by a worked example of the system in operation.

Next is a discussion of the concept of a 'character web'. It's a neat way to work out relationships and group dynamics with anyone - PC or NPC alike - with whom your character comes into contact.

Finally there's a neat option for GM use - although the wise GM will be observing and plotting throughout the process, of course! Here it is suggested that the GM make a secret roll for each character in the party. This determines whether that character knows a secret, and the nature of that secret - many of which suggest hidden twists to the relationships that they have with each other. Sit back and watch the paranoia build as you hand out notes to everyone (even if the note contains no secrets whatsoever)!

This is an elegant way to build group dynamics from the outset - a great improvement on the traditional bunch of complete strangers meeting in an inn and deciding to go off risking life and limb in pursuit of loot...er, adventure. The system will work equally well in games of genres other than fantasy too. Well worth a try...

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Character Webs
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Publisher Reply:
Megan, thanks for the kind words! It\'s always great to read a review from a satisfied reader. Hope that you will check out our next release, Species and Societies, when it comes out.
Laying Waste: The Guide to Critical Combat
Publisher: Total Party Kill Games
by Megan R. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/19/2014 10:03:06
Do you want your critical hits not just to do damage to your foes but to do spectactular damage that will have people talking about your mighty blows for weeks, years even? Do you want every 'natural 20' roll to have a significant effect irrespective of what the confirm critical roll comes up as? Look no further...

Ageing gamers may recall the brilliantly cinematic critical hit tables from the Iron Crown Enterprises' game RoleMaster, and I'm sure I'm not the only person who reused them with other rulesets. Here, though, is a system written for use with the Pathfinder ruleset, mechanics honed to work directly with that system. Of course, fumbles are included as well, and the whole is an elegant way to make combat spectacular and exciting.

The core concepts are simple and easy to grasp. To start with, every 'natural 20' does maximum damage and counts as a 'critical hit' rather than merely a 'threat' - subsequent rolls are used to determine the severity of your attack, but the recipient of the blow gets a save against more debilitating effects such as losing limbs or life itself (although at the cost of taking extra hit points of damage).

Throughout, there are numerous examples to show you how everything works and plenty of optional extras that you can bolt on if you wish - or leave out without disrupting the core system. It's not long before you're into the effects tables. These may not have quite as cinematic descriptions as the old RoleMaster ones, but give a better idea of precisely what damage and other effects your luckless foe suffers... and there is enough detail for more bloodthirsty imaginations to run riot as you describe what's going on.

Damage can be bludgeoning, slashing or piercing (depending on the weapon) and the severity of the effects can be light, moderate or severe depending on how well your follow-up rolls went once you'd scored your critical hit, so there is plenty of variety as in each catagory you roll a percentage to get one of fifty options.

Next, there's a collection of Critical Feats. Most of these give a bonus either to your critical severity check or to your save against critical damage, but can be used to build up an idea of how you go about combat - dealing Exacting Strikes perhaps, or having Acrobatic Reflexes... you get the picture. Use them to effect as you describe combat, for what could be a dry treatise on damage dealing provides tremendous scope for making combat come to life as those involved describe their actions and results in epic cinematic style.

These are followed by some fully-developed archetypes. Note that these work best if you are using this rules modification, they won't be as effective or may not work at all in a game played with straight Pathfinder combat rules. There are archetypes for just about every kind of fighter you can imagine, even rogues get a look-in, while some of the monk ones in particular sound rather fun.

Finally come the Fumble rules. Only fair, if your critical hits can have spectacular effects, when things go wrong that can be spectacular as well. If you roll a natural 1 when attacking, there's a chance something terrible will happen... but generally you get a save to mitigate the effects. Most enable the player to come up with an amusing description of the mishap, only adding to the fun. There are separate tables for fumbles in melee, ranged combat and when you are using natural weapons.

And we're not done yet, as appendices deal with niceties like called shots, healing, armour and magic as they all impact on dealing out critical effects (or guarding against them). There are some new spells, just in case the wizards among you are feeling left out a bit, and finally there is a piece of fiction which demonstrates how effective good descriptions of the injuries sustained in combat can be, and a final iconic NPC.

Spice up your combat with crunchy rules that facilitate role-playing by providing ways to give cinematic descriptions of what is going on rather than merely delivering large numbers of points of damage.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Laying Waste: The Guide to Critical Combat
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Random Encounters: Wilderness II
Publisher: Raging Swan Press
by Megan R. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/18/2014 09:05:45
If you are planning a desert-based plotline this could be useful to mine for ideas or indeed lift one or more encounters complete for your adventures... or you may even find that reading them inspire further adventures.

Each of the eight encounters presented here, written by a different author (or in one case, a pair of authors), is quite detailed, which allows the GM to expand it readily if the party takes an interest in what they've encountered. Of course, the party might decide to ignore what you present them with... but that, of course, is no guarantee that it will ignore them!

It's difficult to give many details without giving the substance of each encounter away but consider the plight of a gargoyle madly in love with an animated statue or various plantlife that only flourishes when there's a flash flood in the desert and you'll get some idea of the sheer inventiveness within these pages.

Most of the encounters will involve combat, although there are opportunities to interact with what you've encountered in at least some of them. For each, there is plenty of detail to facilitate running the encounter including notes on tactics, game mechanical hints and advice on scaling the encounter if you really fancy one that has a wildly inappropriate CR for the party.

Definitely something to keep to hand if there are desert regions in your campaign world...

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Random Encounters: Wilderness II
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Crypts & Creatures Core Rule Book
Publisher: Pick Up & Go Games
by Megan R. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/17/2014 08:56:41
If you find the complexity of some RPGs overwhelming but still want solid crunchy rules to govern your alternate reality, this is worth a look. It's basically a cut-down and simplified version of the D20 ruleset pioneered by Dungeons & Dragons 3e.

The real appeal of this, however, is that it's designed to be easy to explain - as in, once you have absorbed the rules herein, you ought to be able to explain them clearly to someone else. They're not particularly easy to read, or at least, not any easier than any D20 ruleset is; and it certainly will help if you understand the core concepts of role-playing in general and the D20 ruleset in particular - yet once you have read through these rules you will find that the underlying simplicity becomes clear and it will be easy to sit and explain these rules to a group of novice players.

Everything you'll need to set up the characters comes in the first 11 pages. Characters have three ability scores, rather than the six veteran D20 players are used to, and skills are drastically reduced. The core character classes are all there, albeit in simplified form. There's still a goodly list of equipment, weapons and armour, though.

Next comes the GM section which is basically a speedy run-through in three pages flat of various perils the characters might face, putting numbers to their effects. Poisons, illness, traps, things like that. Oh, and how to work out treasures and other rewards.

Then magic gets a similar cut-down treatment. Most spells - and there's a wealth of them nevertheless! - are reduced to a couple of lines summarising their effect when cast, and that's it. So 'Read Magic' for example allows you to 'Read scrolls and spellbooks' - that's it. This is followed by a basic monster list.

Finally, there's some basic materials to let you create random adventures with a set of charts to roll on for location, protagonist, antagonist, objective of the adventure, fluff elements and a reward for completion. There's a basic outline map of a continent and tables for you to detail the names and natures of the countries you want to have there. Oh, and there's a good clear character sheet template.

You want a basic, quick game, this is for you. If, as an experienced gamer, you want to introduce novices to the hobby, it should work well provided you are a reasonable explainer (I'd feel quite confident, but I am a teacher...). Neat with touches of elegance.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Crypts & Creatures Core Rule Book
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Dark Sun Campaign Setting (4e)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
by Megan R. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/15/2014 11:25:54
The Introduction jumps right in, explaining what is unique about the Dark Sun setting. Athas is a dying world, where mere survival is a constant battle... and where any sensible person would concentrate on creating a stable sustainable environment, 'heroes' of course prefer to seek glory. The differences between Athas and more conventional fantasy settings is encapsulated in the Eight Characteristics of Athas - it's a desert planet, most people living there are pretty unpleasant selfish types, metal is scarce, arcane magic caused a lot of the current problems and still does damage if you try to use it, long-lived sorcerer-kings rule city-states as the main centres of power, deities seem to have lost interest in the place, the monsters are deadly, and even 'familiar' races are not quite what one would expect. Handy thumb-nail sketch, which makes me wonder if I actually want to visit... well, I do like deserts! There's a note about the original Dark Sun - published in 1991 by TSR using the AD&D 2e ruleset, and saying that while the timeline has been moved on a little from that portrayed in the original books, this version is a complete rewrite and so what you remember from them may not be the case in this D&D 4e setting.

On to Chapter 1: The World of Athas for the full low-down on what to expect. This setting is so different for other ones that you need to study it carefully to be able to play a native... unless your DM has some innovative idea for bringing characters from another setting in to this world, so that it as strange to your character as it is to you. However you got there - native or immigrant - you're going to be a hero, and so the first part of the chapter discusses what manner of heroes are to be found here and how to carve out your own legend. Quite a few ideas are given both here and further on in the book as to how to both embed your character in Athasian society and empower him for greatness. One notable feature of the place is that psionic abilities are an inherent part of the setting, an integral part of what makes Athas what it is, so if you are not comfortable with using psionics in your game, this may not be the setting for you. While a lack of deities and clerical classes is also an integral part of the setting, a few suggestions are given for those who want to be one of the few god-botherers in the entire world - but you will have to resign yourself to the fact that you may never meet another person who believes in gods at all, let alone your own deity!

Next comes a look at the possibilities for adventure on Athas: as you can imagine there are plenty! Whether tomb-raiding or engaging in courtly intrigue, building a trade empire or earn fame and fortune as a pit-fighter appeals, it's likely that a peculiarly Athasian spin can be put on it; this is certainly a setting ripe with opportunity. While a lot of Athasians are motivated by what's in it for them - and even heroes may have an eye on political advancement, their bank balance or on who is the local bard singing about this week - some rise above personal gain and act out of altruism, even if they prefer to try to do things right - ethical merchants, perhaps - rather than go around righting wrongs. The discussion then moves on to Athasian civilisation and the social order as it stands, and then to the history of the world - what little is known by most people anyway, those sorcerer-kings are not too keen on ordinary people learning to read let alone know how (and by whom) the world has been brought to its present state!

Chapter 2: The Races of Athas both runs through the new world-specific races and gives an Athasian spin to existing playable races. The two new races are the mul and the thri-keeen. Mul are incredibly tough humanoids, a result of mixing human and dwarf. Unsurprisingly, they make excellent fighters... although rather too many folk on Athas think that they make excellent slaves. Thri-kreen are insectoid in nature, experts at hunting and survival, often becoming rangers, druids or monks (perhaps the extra pair of limbs gives an advantage when practising the martial arts?). Character backgrounds - based on race, region or something else - are available to help customise each character, each gives an appropriate minor advantage. Then on to the existing races. Dragonborn, despite popular opinion, are not all slavers and sorcerers, although many practise at least one of these trades. Dwarves are still stoic and single-minded, but tend to earn their living as craftsmen, builders or farmers... and rarely manage much in the way of a beard! Eladrin are rare, haughty folk who are very good at psionics but they have abandoned arcane magic completely. Elves are nomadic traders - often rogues - and travelling entertainers. Goliaths or half-giants tend to be barbarians or fighters. Half-elves tend to be rejected by elves and distrusted by humans, making for a lonely life. Halflings are closely linked to nature, seeing themselves not as individuals but merely part of a whole... and are fierce and savage, regarding just about anybody or anything as a potential resource (or lunch). Humans are as ubiquitous as ever. Tieflings are nomadic raiders, or sell their swords to whomsover needs them. Other races may or may not be available at the DM's discretion, but it is possible to play the sole representative on Athas of just about anything with a plausible story of how you got to be there - planar travel is often a good start, or mutation (possibly assisted along by magical experimentation) or perhaps a member of a race that once lived here but died out, leaving a few in stasis... The chapter ends with some racial paragon paths to aim for.

Chapter 3 is titled Character Themes, and its purpose is to introduce a new option for building characters. Your 'theme' is a calling or vocation, a concept that might be met by a variety of routes, different classes or skillsets, something that defines you. It goes beyond race and class, ehancing those basic definitions to explain what drives you as an individual, distinct from everyone else who happens to be of the same race and class. Ten themes are provided for Athasian characters, as well as notes on how the idea works and on the mechanical side, giving additional powers that each theme may use as well as theme-based paragon paths to aspire towards. Athasian minstrels, the first theme presented, are often bards... but they can be rogues or fighters, even warlords or battleminds. They entertain, true, but may also spy or kill, or teach skills other than the lute in their travels. Thus it continues with the other themes. Dune traders can be of virtually any class, whatever it takes to travel the world in a merchant caravan, trading with all comers on behalf of your master or for yourself. Elemental priests venerate the elements and draw on primal power, and this path is common amongst those who seek the ability to heal. You can probably guess what a gladiator does for a living, but any race or class, slave or free, may for some reason enter the arena and fight in front of a crowd. Noble adepts may be of any race or class although of noble birth, but they have chosen to spend their time in the study of psionics. Primal guardians take it upon themselves to defend what remains of nature against further depredation and defilement. Templars are the long arm of the law in the city-states, enforcing the will of the sorcerer-kings, many receiving training in the arcane arts. Members of the Veiled Alliance likewise study matters arcane, but are dedicated to the 'preserving' form rather than the 'defiling' types of magic that caused the present state of Athas. Wasteland nomads seek the freedom of desert life while the final theme, the wilder, hones psionic powers whose origins elude him. Interesting ideas for how to integrate a character cleanly into this particular setting, although I'd have relished some guidance on how to create themes of my own.

Next, Chapter 4: Character Options explores the whole concept of making characters truly Athasian, rather than just any old D&D 4e character that just happens to be adventuring here. It starts off by looking at what makes arcane magic so distinctive, the idea that using it can 'defile' or damage the world by sucking out lifeforce from the caster's surroundings, but that an alternate methodolgy called 'preserving' enables an arcane spellcaster to operate without doing damage, although it takes more effort. Despite defiling having obvious effects, like plants crumbling to ash around your feet, most people regard ALL arcane magic as evil, so arcane spellcasters need to be very careful about letting on what they do for a living, especially as it is actually illegal in most places! Next comes an optional rule for Wild Talents which are minor psionic abilities available to virtually all natives of Athas, the place is so infused with psionic powers that even those who don't actually train in psionic arts have the chance of being able to do the odd trick or two - if the DM allows, all starting native characters may select or roll for a single wild talent. This is followed by a few new builds for existing character classes that are particularly suitable, such as the wild battlemind who uses raw untrained psionic power. Shamans can be animists, while fighters rather unsurprisingly can specialise in arena combat and a warlock may make a pact direct with one of the sorcerer-kings. Each build of course comes with an array of new character powers.

We then take a look at some epic destinies that characters seeking the highest levels of play can aim towards. Many place characters in roles which could lead to a legendary transformation of Athas, healing it of the damage that has been done in the past. The usual collection of new feats also appears. Many of the combat-related ones deal with weapons only found on Athas or with the specialist skills associated with arena fighting. There is also a section on rituals, many of which do not work as expected - or at all - on Athas. The DM is advised to exert control of ritual choices, but some new ones developed here are available for ritual-using characters to select. As can be imagined, in the harsh environment of Athas, good equipment can be crucial to survival so the final part of this chapter looks at useful gear, riding animals and magic items. It also explores the effect of the lack of metal on the weapons and armour available - metal ones are generally ancient heirlooms and beyond the means of all but the most successful adventurers. In the main, however, the use of alternate materials is a matter of flavour rather than a requirement to change the rules relating to use, although optional rules to reflect the increased likelihood of non-metals breaking in use are provided. Still, even if you do find a full set of plate armour, wearing it in the desert sun is not advised! There are some unusual new weapons described and illustrated.

All kitted out, Chapter 5: Atlas of Athas provides a glipse of this arid, harsh yet fascinating place. It begins with a desert primer - there is a lot more to deserts than rolling sand dunes. A whole range of environments of varying degrees of hospitality are covered, all posing a challenge to survival for all but the best-prepared traveller. Next comes the City of Tyr. The place is in turmoil following the fall of its sorcerer-king, plenty of opportunity for adventure here! While there's a lot of detail given, DMs wanting to set campaigns in Tyr might wish to obtain City State of Tyr (TSR, 1993) to supplement it. This is followed by a section on another city, Balic. Despite being ruled by a sorcerer-king, this city practises democracy on a surprising scale... but within certain prescribed limits. Transgress at your peril! Next comes the city of Draj, ruled by a mad sorcerer-king who believes himself to be a deity and requires citizens to worship him. As he is given to demanding blood sacrifice, most people do not dispute his godhood openly. Moving on we reach the Estuary of the Forked Tongue, on the edges of the Sea of Silt. Other places follow thick and fast - more cities, semi-civilised lands and outright wild places - plenty of descriptive text to help you set the scene but a distressing paucity of maps.

Finally, Chapter 6: Running a Dark Sun Game is aimed primarily at the DM. Delightfully, much of the emphasis is on creating the correct atmosphere of the alternate reality of this particular setting - this is a setting in which the exquisitely balanced combat-oriented D&D 4e ruleset is blended and meshed with tools to facilitate role-playing to the full by evoking all the things that make Dark Sun a very special place to visit. To this end, the chapter looks at appropriate campaign themes, a detailed look at travel and survival issues, advice on arena and survival encounter design, and treasures and other rewards suited specifically to Athas. A major theme on Athas, and one particularly suited to the 'characters as heroes' ethos of D&D 4e, is that the world is ruled by evil - both the sorcerer-kings themselves and the all-pervading influence of slavery - and that epic legends can be built around those prepared to dedicate themselves towards eradicating such evils. Likewise, if you take a more ecological view, attempts to repair the damage done to the world by defilers can create memorable campaigns. One interesting idea for those groups who are not interested in the details of surviving in the desert - which can make a whole adventure in itself if you do enjoy that kind of challenge - is the concept of a purchasable 'survival day.' This is a mechanical shorthand to allow characters to acquire what they need for a given number of days without the need for bookkeeping their quantities of food, water, sunscreen and the like. Of course, if for some reason the characters run out of survival days they are going to have to work out how to stay alive...

While most of the encounter types from the ruleset apply, activities in the gladatorial arena feature large in Athas - particularly if any characters are gladiators by choice or perforce. Thus plenty of detail is provided to enable you to create and run memorable arena encounters, pitting characters against other fighters or wild beasts while bringing the whole atmosphere of the spectacle to life. There are also notes about fitting wilderness encounters to the specific environment and some typical Athasian skill challenges that can be used to good effect. Examples given include attempting to join the Veiled Alliance of preseving arcanists and trying to hide from ones enemies inside a city - while these are things better resolved by role-playing rather than skill checks alone, backing up interaction with mechanics makes for an exciting challenge. The chapter ends with an adventure, Sand Raiders, in which 1st-level characters are set the task of finding a missing wagon from a trading caravan that has arrived at its destination a wagon short. Three intense encounters are laid out to introduce characters to the way things work, although you may wish to add some desert travel and survival elements (plenty ideas in earlier parts of this chapter to help you set them up) to round the adventure out a bit.

Overall, this is an impressive introduction to the setting, managing to remain true to the original concepts of Dark Sun while meshing in the D&D 4e ruleset and empowering role-playing as well as combat in a distinctive alternate reality... but it does need more maps!

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Dark Sun Campaign Setting (4e)
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Judy of the Jungle: Murder Goes Native
Publisher: NUELOW Games
by Megan R. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/13/2014 10:55:17
If you enjoy classic pulp tales set in the jungle where a white face is a rarity and most of the wildlife is hostile (except a few remarkably tame beasts) you are in for a treat, with several full stories reproduced, the comic strips in crisp greyscale, the text ones in less-well-scanned images (not OCRd).

Tales of confusion between modern medicine and traditional ways, and even of a film-maker determined on setting wild animals against each other and never mind any human beings around... stuff that all would make excellent 1920s jungle adventures (does anyone run Justice Inc any more?) or provide additional colour to a plotline that takes the party into the jungle for another reason.

There's also some notes based around a new ruleset that's in preparation, called 'd6xd6 Core'. This is being written by Lester Smith and is due out around December 2014 (this review being written in July 2014), and looks a slick rules-light fun-heavy system. Various characters from the Judy of the Jungle tales have been statted up under this game mechanic.

More, there is a 'Jungle Adventure Element Generator' to help you set up events whenever the party decides to venture into a jungle, most of which is applicable whenever and wherever your game is set (although fantasy gamers might struggle to make sense of Nazis turning up!). This generator lets you select or roll randomly for the main antagonist and the beginning, middle and end threats around which you can build your story.

Finally, things take a watery twist with some stories in similar vein featuring South Sea Girl, including the title story, Murder Goes Native. Plenty to enjoy here in unabashed pulp style.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Judy of the Jungle: Murder Goes Native
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