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[ICONS] Sentinels of Stark City
Publisher: Fainting Goat Games
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/11/2014 21:05:51
This add-on for the Stark City setting from Fainting Goat Games presents nine superheroes who patrol Stark City. The characters are interesting and the art—mostly by Jacob Blackmon with contributions by Jon Gibbons and Dan Houser—is wonderful (though a little jarring when the three artists' works are composited, as on the cover). Sadly, the prose needs a thorough editing for grammar and consistency (for example, aspects are sometimes set in sentence case, some in title case). The table of contents is numbered 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14 instead of 1–9, without any explanation (the Kickstarter backers' version seems to have the same table of contents, so I don't know where the "missing" characters are). The Fainting Goat guys are capable of such fantastic stuff that it's sad to see these kinds of errors. The product's biggest weakness, however, is simply that it's a collection of superheroes for a superhero game—for which a collection of supervillains is much more useful. The heroes presented here could be used as pregenerated characters, or as notable NPCs, but for a long-term Stark City campaign, players are more likely to want to play heroes of their own creation. If you need a collection of superheroes for your Stark City campaign, though, this fits the bill.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
[ICONS] Sentinels of Stark City
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Gygax magazine issue #4
Publisher: TSR, Inc.
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/10/2014 18:36:22
In many ways, reading an issue of Gygax Magazine is like reading an old issue of the Dragon—which, I suppose, is pretty much what the editors are going for. The fantastic cover illustration of issue #4 evokes the series of chess-related covers that graced the older magazine back in its TSR heyday. Of course it does, since it's by the same artist, Den Beauvais! To me, the cover is really the highlight of issue #4.

The second highlight of this issue is undoubtedly the long and (overly?) detailed Top Secret adventure by Merle Rasmussen. The adventure offers a nice mix of a specific mission and a sandbox enviroment—almost literally, since you're going to the desert. Robotic camels and spy drones disguised as bats … what's not to love? If, that is, you still have a copy of the Top Secret rules lying around somewhere. I don't know what happened to my copy after I went to college and left my games behind with my younger brother.

I really enjoyed Michael Varhola's "Men and Monsters of Polynesia" (apparently for AD&D and retroclones) despite its andronormative title, and would have really loved to have this resource back when I started my current D&D campaign, which was mostly set in the South Seas until the PCs started plane-hopping. This issue's installment of "Leomund's Secure Shelter" did nothing for me, just adding complexity to AD&D archery that I don't feel a need for. Jon Peterson's "Adventuring Without the Magic" was a really fun romp down memory lane; I kept saying, "I played that! I remember when that came out!" I didn't care much for Dave Olson's "Necromancer's Cookbook" (maybe because my current game, D&D 4e, has plenty of varieties of undead) or the article on "Djinn" by Lawrence Whitaker and Pete Nash (though that might be different were I playing a game where djinn figure more prominently), and Bill McDonald's "Psionics Without the Points" didn't engage me either. On the other hand, Timothy Connolly's "Randomize Your Realm" will be a tool I'll bookmark, and to which I'll return next time I run a homebrew fantasy campaign.

As for the cartoons, Order of the Stick was okay this time, but Full Frontal Nerdity was really funny.

I think I noticed a couple of typos and such in issue #4, but they were apparently not serious enough to stick with me. I only have two complains about this issue. First, sometimes it's not obvious which system a particular article intends to address. You have to read two paragraphs into the article about djinn, for example, to learn that it's keyed to RuneQuest 6. Some kind of header tag at the top of the page identifying the relevant system would be most welcome. Second, 76 pages is long enough for the PDF to need bookmarks, which the publisher did not supply.

If you want new material for AD&D or its retroclones, or you just want a good dose of nostalgia, go ahead and get a copy of Gygax Magazine #4.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Gygax magazine issue #4
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Ambient Environments - Alien Autopsy
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/10/2014 17:47:29
This isn't necessarily one of Ambient Entertainment's more useful tracks, but it's definitely one of the most creative. Unfortunately, those two things almost inherently work against each other, as the more creative a track is, the narrower its application. But if you have occasion to stage an alien autopsy in your RPG, this track provides a really flavorful backdrop. The thing that makes this autopsy "alien" seems to be "squishiness" of the autopsy subject. If you can hear past that, or explain it in some other way, you might be able to make this track work as background for any high-stakes autopsy that the PCs have to witness. One thing that might detract a bit from the "autopsy" feel is the occasional beeping of machines that sound like medical monitors—normally used on living patients. For a twist, use this track when the PCs wake up in an alien medical bay, strapped to their beds, with alien doctors performing experiments on living humans all around them!

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Ambient Environments - Alien Autopsy
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Ambient Environments - Abandoned Underground Research Facility
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/10/2014 17:39:34
Lots of white noise, dripping water, and what may be footfalls greet you as this track opens. I'm guessing that the white noise is intentional, and maybe represents the rumbling of a nearby generator, or maybe the HVAC system is still running down here. Once in a while you hear a quasi-musical tone, which I take as the sound of stressed metal or something like that. You might even imagine that there's something alive down here. I can definitely imagine using this soundscape to score a scene in an abandoned underground research facility, as the name suggests—as long as the facility has been damaged or otherwise seriously degraded, to allow for the dripping water and such. The track would also be useful as background ambience for steam tunnels—holler if you see Dallas Egbert down there. (What? Too soon?)

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Ambient Environments - Abandoned Underground Research Facility
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Storyteller's Thesaurus
Publisher: Troll Lord Games
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/09/2014 23:19:16
This book is not exactly a "thesaurus," although it resembles one since it presents lists of related words. In a typical thesaurus, you look up a word and get a list of its synonyms. For example, if I look up "musical" in the thesaurus installed on my computer, I get "tuneful, melodic, melodious, harmonious," and other things like that. Not so for the Storyteller's Thesaurus, which instead offers lists of words that belong together in a meaningful category. Look up "Musical" in the Storyteller's Thesaurus, and you'll find it under "Occupations" in the "Character Building" chapter. The list includes "bassist," "cellist," "flutist," "organist," and so forth, which obviously are not synonyms but are all examples of specific musical occupations.

Understanding the difference between the Storyteller's Thesaurus and an ordinary thesaurus is critical for using the book responsibly. The authors explain in the introduction that the book is intended to help writers avoid clichés, overcome writer's block, and defeat other such impediments to writing. The Storyteller's Thesaurus helps to spark your imagination when you're coming up empty. Reading the introductory chapter and taking its advice—especially its advice on research—is absolutely crucial, lest you end up thinking that a hippocampus is the same thing as a hypothalamus. Make sure you have, at the very least, a good dictionary handy as a companion volume.

The book is huge. It has 141 pages of content plus a alphabetical index that runs for 401 pages. No, really—the index is 401 pages long. But it’s an amazingly useful resource for those times when you can't remember whether "Cape Cod" is an architectural style or a component of Aquaman's uniform.

Production values could have stood greater attention. The occasional formatting inconsistencies usually don't affect the book's usefulness, but they can be a little confusing. For example, in the list of phobias, the first six phobia names are set in a serif tytpeface, and the rest in a sans serif face. Also, that two-column list spans three pages—with the first column running all the way down to the third page, then wrapping back to the first page to start the second column, which is a bizarre way to format columnar text over multiple pages.

The PDF is thoroughly and helpfully bookmarked, but the capitalization is inconsistent in the bookmarks, which is both ugly to the eye and confusing as one tries to sort out whether that's just a mistake or whether there's semantic value to the (lack of) capitalization. Some of the bookmarks point to the header text, while other bookmarks are duplicated various places in the outline—that is, the same text but leading to different pages. The bookmarks almost seem to have been auto-generated by software rather than by a human being.

There are some errors or oddities in the book, too. For example, the city of Ur is listed under "Sites Lost or Unproven to Exist," which would surprise Sir Leonard Woolley, who famously excavated the city. In the same list, "Ghenna" appears to be a misspelling for "Gehenna" (which is also a known place, the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, although it has been mythicized in popular imagination). The "Books of the Bible" list fails to distinguish between Jewish Bibles and Christian Bibles, and between Protestant Bibles and Roman Catholic Bibles. All of this underscores the importance of following the introduction's advice about research.

Appendix A's list of commonly confused words is well-intentioned and very welcome, but too short, and its selectivity might leave one scratching one's head. For example, the list includes "your/you're," "their/there/they're," and "to/too/two," but not "its/it's." Appendix B's list of proverbs is fun to browse, but again is formatted in two parallel columns that don’t wrap until the fifth page.

I recommend taking a good look at the "full preview" before buying this volume. That will help you make a good decision about whether the book is for you. If you follow the advice in the introduction about how to use the book, you should find that the Storyteller's Thesaurus sparks many useful ideas. If you ignore that advice and use the book ham-fistedly, you'll end up embarrassing yourself.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Storyteller's Thesaurus
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RAVENFELL: Wind & Water Mills
Publisher: Fat Dragon Games
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/01/2014 16:19:12
The models in this collection are beautiful and well-conceived, all the way down to using the same blades for multiple windmill layouts and including optional interior maps for the rectangular mill. The design is so clever that several of the pieces in this set—the main bodies of each mill, primarily—fold down and store flat, or very nearly so. Only one note of caution needs to be attached to this review: these models are fairly complex, and require some degree of modeling (cutting, scoring, and folding) skill and a good bit of patience to assemble. Whether they’re worth the effort depends on how much use you’ll get out of them. If you’re running a game with recurring scenes in a village where such a mill would be useful, and you’ll get to use the mill again and again, it’s well worth it. If you’d just be using a model for a brief visit, the assembly effort might be more trouble than it’s worth. This is not a weakness in the product, just a caveat to make sure that your needs match what this excellent product has to offer.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
RAVENFELL: Wind & Water Mills
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ICONS Superpowered Roleplaying: The Assembled Edition
Publisher: Ad Infinitum Adventures
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/01/2014 11:23:22
Whether you’re a longtime ICONS fan or a new player/GM looking for a relatively rules-light yet richly textured superhero RPG, you’ll welcome ICONS Superpowered Roleplaying: The Assembled Edition.

If you’re not familiar with ICONS but are considering a purchase, this book will give you everything you need to get started … except for some six-sided dice, an adventure and friends to play it with. Chapter 1, “The Basics,” starts off by describing ICONS scale, a system of ranking abilities, powers, difficulties, and so on using a scale of 1 to 10 with corresponding adjectives (think of the classic Marvel Super Heroes RPG). Almost everything in ICONS is measured using this scale. Chapter 1 also defines the six ability scores used for ICONS characters, and explains Determination, a kind of in-game currency that players can spend to gain advantages and GMs can award to cause trouble. Fighting, of course, involves the additional consideration of damage and healing, which are addressed here in chapter 1. Chapter 1 ends with a wonderful example of play that illustrates all the basic concepts.

Chapter 2, “Hero Creation,” obviously covers character creation, but also team creation. The default method of character creation in ICONS is random generation using a series of tables, but a point-buy option is also presented. Character creation is illustrated using the origin of Saguaro, the iconic (heh) cactus-man on the front cover.

Chapters 3 and 4 describe the standard powers and specialties presented in the game. ICONS takes the approach of boiling powers down to their basic essences or most common expressions, then allowing customizations through limits and extras. Specialties are learned skills, and only have a three-step scale (specialist, expert, and master).

Chapter 5 goes into more detail about how characters’ actions are mechanically resolved in ICONS. This straightforward chapter ends with another great example of play.

The book’s longest chapter is chapter 6, on “Game Mastering.” This chapter is chock full of great advice, ideas, and inspiration for ICONS GMs. It’s useful not only for new GMs but for experienced game masters as well, since it provides helpful overviews of comic book tropes, quick villian creation, and so on.

A selection of NPCs, both allies and adversaries, rounds out the book. Some readers have noticed that the superheroes presented here do not have starting Determination values listed, but that’s because they’re intended as NPCs, not as pregenerated player characters.

For those of you who already play ICONS and wonder if you should get the new edition, I’d say “yes.” There are a few significant rules changes that should make gameplay even easier than it was before. To highlight the three most important changes:

1. In the Assembled Edition, GMs now roll dice. The formula for task resolution has changed from relevant ability/power + 1d6 - 1d6 vs. target difficulty or opposing ability/power to 1d6 + relevant ability/power vs. 1d6 + target difficulty or opposing ability/power. The resulting probabilities remain the same as in classic ICONS, but the revised mechanic makes it easier to resolve villains’ actions without mentally inverting the scale.

2. In classic ICONS, characters had aspects, divided into qualities (generally advantageous) and challenges (generally disadvantageous). In the Assembled Edition, the advantageous/disadvantageous distinction is dissolved, and new characters have three qualities that could potentially serve in a variety of circumstances to yield advantage or trouble. This particular change is, in my view, the best rules change in the Assembled Edition. Additionally, the whole system is explained much better in the Assembled Edition than in the classic ICONS rulebook. The Assembled Edition even gives GMs and players a “formula” to use to show how qualities are used: “Because of (quality), I/you get (advantage/trouble).” Through the use of models like “Because I am The World’s Greatest Detective, I get improved effort on the Intellect test to figure out what happened here” or “As a Believer in All Things Good, I am taken aback by this horror and lose my panel this page” and the examples of play at the ends of chapters 1 (“The Basics”) and 5 (“Taking Action”), the use of qualities becomes much clearer to readers of the Assembled Edition.

3. Classic ICONS included some powers that “counted as two powers.” Those powers have been eliminted, revised, or folded into other powers in the Assembled Edition, so that there is no such bookkeeping. All powers “count as one power” for purposes of reckoning starting Determination and point-buy character builds.

Since the Assembled Edition differs only in these two major and a few other minor ways from classic ICONS, it’s very easy to use older adventures and supplements with the Assembled Edition. For the Villainomicon, I would suggest just ignoring the rules material up front in favor of what’s in the Assembled Edition, but most of the villains should work fine with just slight adjustments to terminology and maybe reconfiguring their qualities. A good bit of material from ICONS Team-Up appears in revised form in the Assembled Edition, but that book still retains value in its chapters on exotic environments, sidekicks, and—if you want to use them—vehicles and bases. In general, Great Power also retains its value, especially in “translating” various power concepts into mechanical terms. You can also still use the random power tables in Great Power for the sake of variety, and then build the character according to the power terminology in the Assembled Edition.

Production values for this book are very high. The Assembled Edition uses the same page templates as Great Power, so the pages have plenty of light colors and white space, making them very readable and aesthetically pleasing. The book is also full of wonderful new artwork by ICONic artist Dan Houser.

In short, I enthusiastically recommend ICONS Superpowered Roleplaying: The Assembled Edition. My only “complaint” is that the PDF as initially released did not include bookmarks (but I hope this will be fixed soon).

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
ICONS Superpowered Roleplaying: The Assembled Edition
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Ambient Environments - The Shadow Over Innsmouth
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/06/2014 15:15:08
Whether your PCs are visiting Innsmouth or some other creepy port town, this soundscape will help you set the mood. Mostly what you hear are the lapping of waves, the ocean breeze, and the creaking of boards (piers, I suppose, and maybe moored ships). Seabirds and (ships'?) bells are also in evidence; now and again, a dog barks. Very effective.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Ambient Environments - The Shadow Over Innsmouth
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Ambient Environments - At the Mountains of Madness
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/06/2014 15:07:00
If you need the sounds of a windswept, barren, icy plain for your RPG, look no further. In fact, you could probably get away with using this track for a windswept, barren plain that isn't icy, since mostly what you hear is the wind.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Ambient Environments - At the Mountains of Madness
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Battlemap - Blacksmith
Publisher: Mystic Mountain Productions
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/06/2014 01:21:25
This is a really nice map that includes both a ground floor and a balcony. PDF layers are used to let you customize various aspects of the map. The product may be slightly pricey for what amounts to one 8x10 inch tile (the ground floor) and one small add-on (the balcony), but the map and the PDF composition are high-quality.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Battlemap - Blacksmith
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Publisher Reply:
The price was adjusted down on 6-11-14. Thanks for the review Chris.
Space Supers #2 [ICONS]
Publisher: Fainting Goat Games
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/06/2014 01:05:40
Malfaex is an interesting villain in the vein of Thanos or a herald of Galactus. His "look" reminds me of Marvel's Terrax. Dan Houser's art is, as always, a highlight of the product.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Space Supers #2 [ICONS]
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Fantasy Maps: Magical Research Facility Map Pack
Publisher: D20 Cartographer
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/06/2014 00:24:36
These maps make a small but beautiful magic school or wizard's mansion. Just be sure your printer doesn't require more than 1/4 inch of white space on each side of the page, since the tiles are a full 8x10 inches.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Fantasy Maps: Magical Research Facility Map Pack
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Ambient Environments - Shub-Niggurath
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/05/2014 18:24:36
There's honestly not much I can add to the catalog description, which does a really fine job of telling you what you'll get in this track. It's noisy and busy, and effective at conveying a sense of monstrous chaos.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Ambient Environments - Shub-Niggurath
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Ambient Environments - City Street 1920-1930
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/05/2014 17:19:41
This track does a great job of transporting the listener back to a busy city street in the 1920s. It's perfect for daytime "about town" scenes in a Call/Trail of Cthulhu game, and would really serve just as well for any kind of pulp setting up through, I'd say, the 1940s.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Ambient Environments - City Street 1920-1930
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The Great Game Soundtrack
Publisher: Fainting Goat Games
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/05/2014 12:50:42
If you like to listen to EDM while role-playing, you'll probably like this trio of tracks. If you prefer a more orchestral flavor of background music, you should probably look elsewhere. I'm personally in the latter camp, although I can appreciate the skill that went into composing these tracks. "Cosmic Voyage" is upbeat and almost happy in tone. "Creeping Entropy" is, well, creepy, with excellent use of percussion overlaid by techno tones that I don't personally care for but that fit the "cosmic supers" genre reasonably well. The name "Starsiege" made me expect that the third track would imply some kind of battle, but it really sounds more to me like backing for a 1970s police show montage. The three tracks hang together pretty well. I really expected more than three tracks for a "soundtrack," but the per-track price is more than reasonable. Although it doesn't really fit my background music preferences, this collection could be just the thing that some GMs are looking for.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
The Great Game Soundtrack
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