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GODLIKE: Superhero Roleplaying in a World on Fire, 1936-1946
Publisher: Arc Dream Publishing
by Robert S. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 03/07/2013 22:56:01
Up for review this week is “Godlike,” a role-playing game designed by Pagan Publishing and released by Arc Dream Publishing.
The short version of that Godlike is a super heroes’ game set in the Second World War. It is not a four-color depiction of heroes, but a more plausible depiction of war and how superheroes would function in a war. By way of a movie comparison, it is not so much Captain America as it is Saving Private Ryan crossed with X-Men First Class.
Dennis Detwiller created Godlike and Greg Stolze is responsible for the game mechanics. Others involved include Allan Goodall, Shane Ivey and Jessica Hopkins.
One of Godlike’s few let down is the art – all of which is by Detwiller. It is predominantly photos from the Second World War… or edited photos from the Second World War. This does help to sell the tone and theme of the work, however it is also limiting and there are other ways to illustrate the game’s vibe. As such, the art is a disappointment.
To its credit, the book sports a solid table of contents and comprehensive index. It is also well organized, with chapters flowing logically, moving from general topics – such as a fairly standard “what is an RPG” and discussions of the many ways a character can die – to the specific, such as discussions of the powers available and even the kinds of standard rations available during the Second World War.
Within Godlike, super powers are called “miracles” and those who possess them are called talents.
Talents have the power to perform miracles, some great and some small, however they are soldiers first and thus are ultimately tools in a terrible war. Surviving and winning the war depend more on ability of a unit of talents to achieve their mission, rather than a single PC with the ability to kick the ass of every single German ever. This is a good and suits the game.
Less good is that the game is not amenable to a sandbox style of play.
Sandbox play requires several things, including openness, flexibility and of course 1,000 pounds of play quality sand. A game book does not have to provide the sand – that is usually available at your local hardware store - but it does have to provide openness and flexibility. Godlike has a lot going for it, a well executed work, solid mechanics, an intriguing premise and location. However, aside from that it is sadly inflexible.
Much of the book is devoted the an alternate time line for World War II, one which adheres as closely as possible to true events while still being a home to super powered people. So the Nazi’s army still breaks its teeth off on Stalingrad resistance by the winter of 1943, D-Day still happens on June 6th of 1944 and atomic bombs still destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945.
Only one small section about a third of the through chapter eight discusses changing things, and then only briefly and more or less serves to give permission to do this rather than providing any tools or ideas for such a thing. The section elsewhere in the book describing in detail the types of army rations employed in the war is longer than the section on changing the course of the war – though the army rations section is a bit of interesting trivia while a discussion of changing the war would have been useful in an actual game.
Godlike possesses one of the most comprehensive and useful game mechanics for creating and using super powers available on in the RPG market. It provides a framework for creating everything from standards such as great strength, flight and damage resistance to rarer stuff, such as physical transformation, the ability to play with inertia and teleportation. For example, with this mechanical system the particular inventive genius of characters like Lex Luthor, Dr. Doom and Reed Richards are actually a kind of super power. Lastly, in addition to a system for creating super powers, Godlike provides almost 50 example powers.
Various draws backs balance all the powers. Here are some examples; to fly a talent must get a running start of 30-feet, a talent may use a miracle to bind or grapple targets but only so long as they are looking at the targets, or a talent might transform themselves into a copy of a target, but only if they taste the blood of the target. The miracle devices, like those created by the games version of Lex Luthor, Dr. Doom and Reed Richards, only work when their creators are watching.
In any event, the flaws make sense and do much to sell the talents, the miracles and the concept of the game itself.
Further, talents can – under the right circumstances and with the right rolls – negate each others’ powers, reducing each other temporarily to a standard mortal. So a talent who creates arguably mediocre miracles can contend with a talent who creates so-called Godlike miracles.
Godlike employs a mechanic unofficially called the “one roll engine” – it does not appear to have an official name. It is a dice pool mechanic, using a fistful of 10 sided dice. A player rolls a number of dice matching the characters score in a stat. So, if the character has a five in strength then the player will roll five dice for something related to strength. Miracles work the same way and depending on what the player is attempting to do and the circumstances, the score stat score adds to a power score and maybe a skill score to determine the number of dice rolled. The maximum number of dice rolled is 10.
This on its own would be more or less a repeat of the Storytelling engine employed by White Wolf games. However, mechanic designer Stolze adds an interesting twist in the form of not just the “height” of a success but the “width” of a success. Specifically, the number of matching dice determines success in a roll. So rolling a nine is useless unless the roll also produces at least one other nine. Getting multiple matching dice is is the width of the success and of course higher matching dice is useful and having multiple matching dice – say you roll a pair of fours and a pair of sixes – also has an impact on the game.
The mechanic also includes features called wiggle dice and hard dice. Hard dice are always 10 and the player determines the value of a wiggle dice, presumably to match the result of the dice roll to create a matching pair or expand an existing matching set.
The damage system is also specific, with the possibility of characters having a mental breakdown due to combat stress or getting their legs shot out from under them and surviving… or not.
To wrap this up, Godlike mechanically is solid and the setting meticulously well researched. A term like “realistic” is misused when discussing RPGs while a better term is “plausible.” As presented here, the “Godlike” world is highly plausible and the mechanic supports the game well. Further, the book is well organized.
However, weak art and a lack of sandbox style of play holds it back, meaning in the end it gets a 15 on a d20 roll.
If you are interested in a game set in the Second World War, check out Godlike. If you are interested in a comprehensive system for super powers, then check out Godlike. If you want both, then play Godlike.
Godlike is available through Arc Dream Publishing.
* * *
Neither of my grandfathers served in the Second World War – they were too old – but I had an Great-Uncle who served in the European theater. He did not like to talk about it but he was one of the men at Normandy on D-Day. That invasion went on for hours and he was among a group that apparently made landfall after dark. As it was told to me, not all the injured soldiers had been retrieved by that point and he and the others went up the beach with and screams and moans of injured Americans calling to them from the darkness.
And they pressed on.
And won the war.
I miss my great Uncle Art.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
GODLIKE: Superhero Roleplaying in a World on Fire, 1936-1946
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Deadlands Reloaded: Player's Guide Explorer's Edition
Publisher: Pinnacle Entertainment
by Robert S. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 03/07/2013 22:49:09
This week we are reviewing Deadlands Reloaded .
The Deadlands RPG series is an alternate history setting from Pinnacle Entertainment which mixes horror and pulp fiction with the western. The setting and game line won eight Origin Awards over the years and sets a high benchmark for successfully marrying game mechanics and setting design. Deadlands Reloaded is the newest version of the work and currently employs a variation of the Savage Worlds game engine.
The editors and layout people, Simon Lucas, Aaron Acevedo and Travis Anderson – among others – organized the Reloaded book well; the work flows logically and includes a solid table of contents and a comprehensive index so that finding what you are looking for is relatively easy. Further, the PDF sports a thorough set of bookmark and it is replete with… hyperlinks.
Reloaded nicely balances text, illustrations and white space thorough the work, making the pages easy on the eyes. Many of the illustrations appear to have been scooped from earlier versions of Deadlands and the many Deadlands supplements, however they are well executed and serve their purpose, although few illustrations really standout none are bad. Contributing artists include Brom, Ron Spencer and Cheyenne Wright, among others.
The quality of the writing, by Shane Hensley and BD Flory, is debatable as the text possesses an extremely jocular tone which is consistently breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to game masters and players – or as they are called here, Marshall’s and members of the posse. This tone, speaking to the reader as though they were a part of the setting, occurs even when conveying out of character information. As with everything, your mileage may vary, but it can be off putting, undermining the works ability to reach an audience and it is too campy.
The format of this show notwithstanding, I do not actually like camp – it is an irritatingly poor attempt at humor that undercuts any attempt at a real emotion, be it fear, joy or anything in between. The campy quality to the setting of Deadlands is distracting… but that quality is also probably inevitable. Namely, the setting includes Confederate soldiers as big damn heroes, steam-powered robots and various agents of evil trying to ruin the world – so camp is probably inevitable. Nothing says I have to like it – and I do not. However, I also acknowledge this is a matter of personal taste and your mileage may vary.
In terms of the setting itself, imagine watching the Wild Wild West . No, do not imagine watching the Will Smith movie, but imagine watching the original television series . Now imagine watching the original television series after dropping some acid.
Yeah, the setting of Reloaded is kind of like that.
Putting it in a less snide manner, Deadlands is an alternate history setting. Halfway through the American Civil War , or 15 years before the official time of the setting, a group Native Americans successfully enacted a ritual that returned dangerous magic and malevolent spirits to the world. This in turn caused the dead to rise, made the casting of all manner of spells possible and permitted the creation of mad science fiction steam punk devices. It also meant the American Civil War would drag on for almost 20 years, that much of California shattered in an earthquake that reduced it to a set of islands and sea-filled canyons, while straight up monsters now stalk the landscape .
Many people and places from history still exist, such as Doc Holiday, Calamity Jane and Tombstone, Arizona . They are part of the mad mix of setting and well integrated.
Reloaded presents a well-executed setting, with adventuring across the campaign world and the chance for participants to play with everything from gunslingers to shamans to mad scientists and more. With Reloaded Pinnacle Entertainment does a good job of integrating the genres of Western, horror and steam punk if you like that and enjoy, or can at least tolerate camp… then this setting will probably match your aesthetic tastes.
Speaking of mad scientists, can someone please tell me what is the worst business and technology can bring us?
Reloaded is not a standalone game – it requires the use of the Savage Worlds game book to run.
It is rare to find a setting so well wedded to the mechanics. Usually game mechanics are aesthetically neutral, serving to adjudicate disputes but neither aiding nor hindering the mood of a game, at least by themselves. However, the variation on the Savage Worlds rules employed in Reloaded serve the setting well.
Savage Worlds employs a feature called exploding dice - when you rolled the highest number any particular dice allows you may roll that dice again and add the cumulative result. In Reloaded, this die roll result is getting an ace. Every five points achieved over the target is a “raise” indicating the character is particularly effective.
Savage World also employs features called Edges and Hindrances , which is the Savage World version of GURPS Advantages and Drawbacks or the Merits and Flaws is the White Wolf Storyteller system. In other words, they are a set of additions that allow players to tailor a character to something very specific, to suit themselves and the game. All the edges and hindrances here are perfectly suited to the setting.
In addition to gunslingers and other straight up fighters are shamans, holy men and the mad scientists who may create effects. They all draw their effects from the same basic list – they can each create a blast, for example. It is how they create the blast that sets them apart, be it magic, prayer or mechanized flobotnyms. The career path to create such effects is among the setting appropriate edges presented in Reloaded.
As with standard Savage Worlds, dice rolls determine initiative while playing cards dealt to the players indicate the play order.
Reloaded dismisses Savage World’s bennies system for Fate Chips, employing multi colored poker chips, the color indicting different things, some good and some bad. Players draw a set number of chips from a hat and do not know the color of their fate chips until it is potentially too late. However, as with real poker, savvy players do the best they can with their hand.
This game mechanic employs dice, player cards and poker chips and it all works great with the Weird Western setting.
It is worth noting, the Savage Worlds game engine grew out of the Great Rail Wars miniatures game, which grew out of the mechanics of the original Deadlands game. In Reloaded, the system came full circle so to speak.
In the end, I give Deadlands Reloaded a 20 on a d20 roll. The setting is fun, the book well organized and a great example of exactly what it says on the tin, adventure games in the weird west. The jocular tone and campy quality undercut the elements of horror and drama; however, few RPGs that do as good a job of marrying the mechanics with the aesthetics.
Check out this game is you like the Savage Worlds engine, western games and weird fiction.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Deadlands Reloaded: Player's Guide Explorer's Edition
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Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Basic Game
Publisher: Margaret Weis Productions
by Robert S. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/26/2012 03:38:57
This week in am reviewing Marvel Heroic Roleplaying from Margaret Weis Productions.

First things first – the game as a PDF, or at least a set of PDFs. The Marvel Heroic Roleplaying available from DriveThru RPG includes six items; the 234 page basic

• Marvel Heroic Basic Book,
• a cheat sheet for Watchers,
• a cheat sheet for players,
• a guide to character creation,
• a catalog of Marvel Heroes,
• and an example of play.

The basic Marvel Heroic book comes with a nice table of contents, an index and book marks. None of the other documents, aside from the 48-page catalog of heroes, are really long enough to include bookmarks. The catalog is problematic as it is a perfect repetition of a catalog that already exists in the main book, and it should have bookmarks to make it easier to navigate. It also does not include any of Marvel’s notable villains.

All the works are full color, well designed and include ample art from Marvel comics. The pages are a bit busy in terms of layout, but not badly so – though it can take a few seconds for the busier pages to fully load and present all their contents.

Moving on we get to the mechanics – as with other games from Margaret Weis Productions, such as Smallville, Firefly and Leverage, Marvel Heroic employs a variation of the Cortex System. Marvel Heroic does a good job in setting up a structural dynamic similar to the comic books it seeks to emulate. That is any comics, not just Marvel, something I will get back to soon. It is deeply story driven rather than a numbers game. This is a virtue and a handicap for the game.

Unfortunately, Marvel Heroic is not a good choice for people new to role-playing games. Narrative fiction does work under a system of rules, such as tension between opposed forces, rising action, character arc, climaxes and so forth. However, these rules are not as transparent or intuitive as the basic arithmetic that determines the mechanics of many, if not most, role-playing game systems.

The basic book is dense with terminology that can be difficult for new gamers or gamers used to a more mechanically straightforward affair. This includes terms like Affiliation, Stress and the Doom Pool.
The book introduces a double handful of potentially new terms and while there is a lexicon, it is in the back of the book rather than the front. As such, the plethora of new terms is a hurdle for first time gamers.

In the game, character are built out of various traits, including specialties, distinctions, powers and the like. Examples of these include elements such as being a trained human, an altered human, being best in a team, being best as part of a pair or being best when operating along, enhanced strength, enhanced durability and resistance to cold or heat. Further, characters include details such as personality traits, reputations, backstory, a catchphrase or title and some notable feature. Each of these, at least the important ones, receives a dice rating, be it a d4, d6, d8, d10 and d12. The d4 is special case, as it is nominally a liability but grants an advantage later.
To put it another way, think of any particular Marvel Heroic in terms of descriptive terminology, adjectives and adverbs rather than numbers to fill out things like strength, dexterity, constitution and so forth.

Players must keep handy a dice pool matching their characters and when it is required, they roll the appropriate dice. Appropriate dice are determined by a situation in story terms, not mechanically – Captain America’s trait as a natural leader comes into play in group situations with a team behind him, but would not be much of an issue in a singular combat with a robo-Nazi. There are ultimately too many variations and possibilities to get into in a single review, suffice to say to it is a system that is so dynamic it can be frustratingly flexible. Players employ the highest two dice and the next two highest dice for attempts to accomplish tasks or do something important. The doom pool is the name of the dice pool the game master employs for villains and difficult situation; it is the dice pool that opposes the player actions. The same basic rule about rolling the dice of the dice pool governs all situations where dice are rolled from fighting a killer Sentinel Robot to getting into a snark contest with Spider-Man.

That the game is so potentially flexible is not inherently a problem – depending on the group. Which is the crux of the issue – the rules come from a determination to reflect stories as they appear in comics and in this Marvel Heroic is successful. However, its dynamic quality makes it more vulnerable to disputes at a game table.

The rules of initiative in Pathfinder and 4E D&D are relatively rigid and a determined by an impartial roll of the dice while by comparison order of action in Marvel Heroic depends on fictional constraints. The game master chooses who goes first, based upon who is team leader or the fastest… and then the player of that character chooses who goes next. This might make narrative sense but it also depends upon the group getting on well.

Further, the rules specifically urge game masters to be quote “shamelessly transparent” unquote. This will be a real philosophical change of pace for many game masters.

These are issues that are not accidentally or incidentally a part of the structure of the game, but are basic design elements of the game. They are not flaws, but assets – simply assets that will not suit everyone or for work well for everyone, such as new gamers or contentious group. Among the few real flaws the book possesses is that it does not present any actual villains.

The game is admirably adaptable. A flaw of the Smallville game was excessive amounts of space in that book given over to a canceled TV show. Marvel Heroic fortunately discusses Marvel comic by presenting the major heroes and discussing the comics in large strokes – it does not devote pages to lengthy discussions of what happens in the comic. That space is reserved for the actual game. In any event, it should be with-in reach of a competent game master to use the system with characters from comics such as Dark Horse, IDW, Image, NBM and… what is the other one. Oh, right, and DC Comics.

In the end I give Marvel Heroic Roleplaying a 20 on a d20 with two important qualifiers, first this is not a game for people new to role-playing, even if they are also long time fans of comics, second, this is not a game for a contentious group, unless they also like games exploding in their face – it is best suited to a group which works well together and who are fans of comic books.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Basic Game
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Publisher Reply:
Thanks for the review! Just a clarification with the bonus PDF of characters: this is a printer-friendly version of the hero datafiles in the main book, which is why it's a repetition of those characters. It's bonus content for those who purchase the PDF and want to save ink.
Carcosa
Publisher: Lamentations of the Flame Princess
by Robert S. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/10/2012 10:12:43
Greetings from Hastur’s House of Hotcakes on Carcosa. They have good coffee and pecan pie here. The service is decent, considering the fact wait staff are slobbery monsters.
In this episode, we are reviewing Carcosa, the role-playing game supplement by Geoffrey McKinney.
McKinney first released Carcosa several years ago, employed a version of the original D&D rule set, and referred to the supplement at the time as Volume 5. This was a reference to the original booklets in the earliest versions of the Dungeons and Dragons game, including Volume 1: Men & Magic, Volume 2: Monsters & Treasure, Volume 3: Underworld & Wilderness Adventures and Volume 4: Electric Boogaloo.
Lamentations of the Flame Princess Publishing released the current version of the Carcosa RPG supplement and the PDF version of that is the one covered by this review.
First up, we examine the art and composition of the work. The PDF is full color, though McKinney mutes the colors and employs them sparingly throughout – except for the over-done campaign map in the back of the book. Text comes in a single column, featuring ample white space on all sides and White Wolf Publishing alum Rich Longmore provides the art, which ranges from decent to good. Longmore’s art is all line art, but sells the tone of the book well.
Text strikes a decent balance, conveying information without wasting space or time on superfluous descriptions and without being too jocular. It also appears to run at a 9th grade reading level.
The PDF possesses many bookmarks and hyperlinks, connecting one section with another in a good manner. It even has an index and while that is not hyperlinked, the overall solid execution of the rest of the work means that is not required.
So, Carcosa the RPG possesses good art, good writing in a technical sense and good PDF execution. Kudos to McKinney and the ulfire people at Lamentations of the Flame Princess.
Now we move on to the material. As a supplement, the work possesses two major elements – its take on mechanics and setting description of Carcosa.
In terms of game mechanics, there only race available is humans, though it is carefully color coordinated. More on them in a moment. The only classes are fighter and sorcerer…and the sorcerer class might also be called the fucking bastard class. They do not use magic in the traditional D&D sense of spells – often called the Vancian system, for author Jack Vance who developed it for his stories. Instead, the Carcosian sorcerer conducts human sacrifice rituals to coerce monsters to, temporarily at least, accomplish the impossible for the sorcerer. Every single ritual, except banishment ones, are difficult to perform and morally insane. Nice people would not be a sorcerer.
Additional rules cover psionic powers and advanced alien technology – more on the later in a moment. The end of the book provides well-executed tables for determining a random variation of a monster, robot or mutation a person might suffer.
All mechanics in this version are more or less compatible with the system employed by the Lamentation of the Flame Princess, or a variation of the simple version of the D&D rules from the early 1980s. There are some exceptions.
A variation of the rules is for combat, which is unfortunately were Carcosa takes a hard run at a nearby brick wall. Hit points are rerolled at the beginning of every single combat. Further, the hit die used to determine hit points changes with every single combat. Also, you keep track of hit point by keeping the dice in front of you on the table – which requires a lot of clear space and that no one bumps the table. This same principal is true for monsters and NPCs. So characters with a high level of hit points in one combat might have few in the next combat and a kobald might end up with more hit points than a great old one. While in theory this approach should make combat more perilous, but it feels like it would slow things down too much and make it all punitively complicated. However, this is a theoretical review – I’ve not played the game – so it might actually work. Yet it feels wrong.
As a setting, Carcosa of the supplement is a bleak and grim fantasy world, in orbit of a star in the Hyades Cluster, 153 light years from Earth, give or take a few light-days. It is a setting were pretty much everything is trying to kill you, a world where everyone hates everyone else, a place where human ascendance of any kind is a mistake and a place where the Jersey Shore will never be canceled.
My old game master used to have a summerhouse here. I know because I burned it down this morning. I don’t think he was home at the time.
Anyway, calling the world Carcosa is somewhat muddled, as name Carcosa in its original stories referred to a city, not an entire world.
Various authors, usually after their deaths, created inspiration for the thematic and aesthetic elements of Dungeons and Dragons. These include Jack Vance, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft. The creative personalities that inspired them in turn, back in the day, receive too little attention currently.
Carcosa - as a name of a fever-dream type of place - originated in a short story by 19th century journalist and fiction author Ambrose Bierce. Weird fiction pioneer Robert W. Chambers, who wrote the King in Yellow anthology, later employed the name Carcosa in his stories. Writers like Lovecraft would emulate many of the elements, motifs and styles of Bierce and Chambers. For example, the false document idea of the Necronomicon owes much to the false document idea of the play, the King in Yellow, from the anthology of the same name by Chambers.
The original stories by Bierce and Chamber are well worth reading as they are some of the earliest works that can be called weird fiction, and sometimes outshines the works of the now better-known Lovecraft.
McKinney, with his Carcosa RPG work, moves past Vance, Howard and even Lovecraft to include the works of Bierce and Chambers. He is successful in this effort, which earns him points. Also, reading the supplement can be depressing but as I am a pessimistic bastard this is also something which wins my approval.
Though the book is Spartan in details, it conveys the idea Carcosa the world is desolate place. What descriptions there are remind me of a Heironious Bosch painting. A vanished serpent people created the Carcosian humans as a cattle-like race, fit only for sacrifice. The serpent people are gone and the various type of humans deal with Cthulianic monsters as best they can.
None humans are unavailable and the 13 races of humans come in colors. Nine of those colors are primary colors, such as black, white, red, green and so forth – and the colors are truly primary colors, so a green man has skin the color of well watered lawn of Saint Augustine. Three additional colors are ulfire, jale and dolm. “The sense impressions caused in [an observer] by these two additional primary colors can only be vaguely hinted at by analogy. Just as blue is delicate and mysterious, yellow clear and unsubtle, and red sanguine and passionate, so he felt ulfire to be wild and painful, and jale dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous.” McKinney took these colors names and their descriptions from A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay. This helps ameliorate some of the more wonky aspects of these colors.
Anyway, in addition to the tentaticular horrors and impossible rainbow assortment of people, aliens – like they grays of the X-Files – also visit the world of Carcosa and use it as a kind of county dump… in space. As such, advanced alien technology litters the place.
The combination of primitive humans, monsters and advanced technology reminds me of all things, of Yor – Hunter from the Future, the classic Reb Brown movie where a dude paraglides to the rescue on the desiccated corpse of a pterodactyl. I do not think this is what McKinney had in mind, but I found myself thinking about that movie as I read the book.
That said, the movie Yor is goofy fun while the Carcosa the RPG carries all the joy of being slowly crushed by industrial machinery. It is also all an exercise in minimalism, parsing out only the barest facts about the setting. McKinney provides a hex map in the back of the book and each hex comes with a barebones description – aside from the information about the monsters, humans and magic that is it, so no elaborate histories or cosmologies to keep track of, except as devised at an individual gaming table.
As another reviewer has noted, Carcosa is ultraviolent. The stories of Howard and Vance were expressly violent and the stories of Lovecraft, Bierce and Chambers were violent by implication when they were not expressly violent. Under any kind of rational examination, none of the “cannon” D&D settings are good places – McKinney in Carcosa simply does not whitewash the issue to comfort the thin skinned. He also, to his credit, does not glorify it in any manner. Carcosa is not FATAL.
My principal problem with the Old School Renaissance phenomena in gaming circles is my own distrust of nostalgia and the way nostalgia lies. There is no age of glory in the past, when things worked they way they were supposed to work and everyone flew around on giant magic cupcakes. The actual earliest versions of D&D featured nearly impenetrable text, wonky mechanics and poor overall design… in addition to often possessing a grim tone. Further, the rules leant themselves to the game master getting away with rampant favoritism at the gaming table.
There are no new sins or virtues. Sometimes media producers talk about making something new, edgy and dark. The terminology might be relatively new, but the phenomena is not – writers and artists have always been producing dark and edgy material. Contemporary gaming and art owes more to the works of Bosch, Bierce and Chambers than it fans might be comfortable with acknowledging. As such, it is rooted in the so-called dark and edgy. Carcosa RPG succeeds in many ways by its elegant acknowledgement of the fact.
Any work must be judged of its own merits, on whether or not it reached its objectives and by the standards of its genre or field. I remain skeptical of the mechanics used by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, however here they are used well for the most part and I have no issue with the mood of the work.
In the end, I give Carcosa the RPG a 15 on a d20 roll. It is a good example of old school done right and as a game book is excellent in terms of PDF design, art and writing. The tone is perfectly bleak. The oddness of how dice are used in combat hold it back from a perfect score.
How useful is Carcosa over all? If you like Lamentation then it is pitch perfect and works quite well with Vornhiem as well. However, as many gaming groups in actual play turn into fart joke sessions, a game in Carcosa is unlikely to maintain the grim tone of the book. It could serve as a short campaign or a one-shot. Alternately, it might be a place the party visits periodically, even if they do not want to - a bad place to visit, a worse place to live, but sometimes they have to go there for some reason.
Personally, I might use it for a Gallifreyian campaign outside the citadel.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Carcosa
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Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space
Publisher: Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd.
by Robert S. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/27/2012 05:27:42
Greetings from the edge of the Medusa Cascade.
Gamers and games draw inspiration from many places, including novels, movies and TV shows. Sometimes that media is adapted into an actual role-playing game. For example, the TV program Smallville actually got an RPG adaptation at one point.
This is the first time I’ve done a review of an RPG adapted from other media…
Right, this week we are reviewing the RPG adaptation of popular British science fiction program, Doctor Who. Specially, Cubicle Seven’s Doctor Who Adventures in Time and Space.
Before diving into the game, it is worth diving into the show.
Doctor Who is a long running British program. It follows a human looking alien, called the Doctor, who travels across time and space in a mostly indestructible vehicle that it larger on the inside than the out – the vehicle is called a TARDIS. In most of his adventures, the Doctor takes along human companions, allies and friends from contemporary Earth.
Although supposedly able to change their appearance to match their environment, the Doctor’s TARDIS is stuck in the form an English Police Call box, or a blue phone booth just for calling the police in the event of an emergency, such as thieves, aliens, or thieving aliens.
A feature of the Doctor’s alien race is if they (he is a Galifreyan) have suffered catastrophic, or otherwise fatal, injuries, their bodies literally regenerated into a new actor and new production crew responsible for presenting the show.
It first aired in the early 1960s and ran, with a few interruptions, from then until the late 1980s, when it seemingly went off the air permanently, aside from a mediocre TV movie in the late 1990s. Fortunately, the BBC – or the British broadcasting Company – brought the program back in a revised format in 2005.
A proverbial line was drawn between the original run of the show, with its piles of backstory and canon, and the new show. At some point between the story depicted in the TV movie and the new series, there was a terrible war across space and time itself, between the Time Lords of Gallifrey and… the Dalak.
-there was a war, we lost-
A result of the war is the Doctor is the last of the Time Lords (aside from his archenemy who periodically appears and is also a Time Lord), and the Doctor’s TARDIS is the last one known to exist. Gallifrey is gone and the Dalak are no longer posed in a position to conquer and exterminate the universe itself.
Or at least the Dalak are mostly no longer posed in a position to conquer and exterminate the universe itself. The Dalak, slightly silly and utterly hateful, are one of the Doctors oldest foes. Newer enemies include the not-all-silly and mysterious Silence, with their eye-patch wearing servants.
Now, the somewhat manic and lonesome Doctor occupies his time on adventures with his friends, as they travel to exotic places, race up and down long hallways and inevitable battle forces of evil. As has been put in the show, he is a madman with a magic box.
Though nominally science fiction it falls into the science fantasy end of the scale – science, time and causality are all treated in a rather wibbly wobbly manner. The program may have started with the intent of it being an education program, it has grown into a show have a merry romp, and highly entertaining style rather than a careful presentation of historical and scientific fact.
For that matter, it is barely a time travel program. Bear with me here for a moment – time travel is as much a vehicle for adventures as the Doctor’s Type 40 TARDIS. It uses time travel to having romping adventures rock and lava monsters in Pompeii and it uses time travel to have romping adventures with cat-nuns in far future New New York. It does not worry about time travel paradoxes any more than it has too.
Doctor Who, as a program carries a distinct aesthetic and tone – if you are a fan of the show, you will presumably seek such things in an RPG adaptation of the same. Honestly, the game does an excellent job of adapting the unique tone and aesthetic of the show.
However, it is not for everyone. Those unfamiliar with the program should watch one of the better episodes from the new run. These include Dalek, The Empty Child, The Girl in the Fireplace, Doomsday and Human Nature. If these episodes are not your thing, then the game will not be your thing. For that matter, watch the opening or pre-credit sequence to the episode When a Good Man Goes to War. If that sequences does not leave you wanting more, then this is not the game for you because the show is not for you.
Adventures in Time and Space is a boxed set – something rare and handled well here. Included in the set are a player’s guide, a game master guide, handouts and character sheets. The handout for gadgets and story point can be cut up. The table of contents for the player’s guide and the game master guide are printed on the back of the books. All the material is full color and features images captured from the current version of the TV show. In terms of composition, it features two columns surrounded by lots of designs and patterns which are busy, but not distractingly so. One problem is that the original character sheets and handouts are bright and pretty, meaning unless you opt for full color copies, they will be muddy looking in the more economical black and white.
The writing is jocular, informal and energetic – again, not distractingly so, though at times is comes close to being a problem or irritating.
Moving on to the mechanics. This is a game where the mechanics and the story suit each other. There is a difference between action, combat and violence. Doctor Who, new and old, features a lot of action relativity little combat or violence. By comparison, Dungeons and Dragons is in close orbit of violence and combat. Rules systems reflect this, where D&D provides a grabs bag of rules with a focus on killing everything killable. The rule set provided by Cubical Seven in this boxed set is focused on fast-talking social situations, fiddling with gadgets, sneaking around and running up and down corridors. Combat is possible, but close to expressly discouraged. In the show itself, the big action sequences appear at the end of a season, rather than at the end of every episode.
There are six attributes, including Awareness, Coordination, Ingenuity, Presence, Resolve, and Strength. Their value ranges from 1 to 6. Traits helps define the attributes and thus the character. Traits come in good and bad and can be thought of as merits or flaws from White Wolf or edges and hindrances from Savage Worlds.
When a roll is called for, the mechanic is simple. The relevant attribute the relevant skill relevant trait 2D6 = result and the result is compared to the target difficulty. If the results matches or exceeds the difficulty, then the task succeeds. (Attribute Skill Trait 2D6 = Result v. Difficulty) This is true for all the roles in the game, the mechanic does not change. So while it requires a little math, it does not require a dice pool, a pair of d6 passed around the table will suffice.
Characters neither possess health levels nor hit points – damage comes off attributes, impacting the characters ability to make successful roles in the future. In D&D, by comparison, a character who lost 99% of their hit points is still fully functional. In Adventures in Space and time, a character that damaged probably could not so much as crawl.
Adventures in Time and Space also features storypoints, or chitties the players can collect and spend to allow themselves to fiddle with scenes, sequences and dice rolls to get a better outcome.
The quick start guide is well executed and handy for giving to all the players at the table, providing a solid starting place for the game.
Enough aliens, menaces and dangerous situations are provided in the set to cover most situations in a game.
An understandable weakness is the game is too devoted to the current version of the show. If you want to run in a different situation, such as before the Great Time War or with a different Time Lord than the Doctor, you will have to hack the contents.
Probably the worst problem for the boxed set is the price – the $60 is understandably a turn off.
However, as presented here, Adventures in Time and Space would serve as a good introduction to role playing games, letting new gamers get used to the ideas in the hobby before moving on to games which are more mechanically challenging. It will still be fun for long time gamers if they also enjoy Doctor Who.
In the end I give Doctor Who, Adventures in Time and Space a 20 on a d20 roll, though I feel that is me rounding things up a bit. Aside from the hardcopy being expensive, the flaws in sound churlish to list – the design of the character sheets will not reproduce well and it is too focused on the current version of the show. However, the strengths vastly out match the flaws, it features a quick system and does a good job of matching the aesthetic and tone of the show.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space
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Wicked Fantasy: Orks: Children of Pain
Publisher: John Wick Presents
by Robert S. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 05/04/2012 08:08:44
This week I am reviewing Children of Pain, by john wick, a short PDF on orcs using the Pathfinder rules set.
In an old game in which I participated once described goblins, orcs and smilar races as potato chips – crunch all you want, we’ll make more.
The flip side of that is I have never been comfortable with the depictions of most so-called evil demi-human races since reading “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” The descriptions in RPG works of the races and why they need to die too much like 19th century descriptions of Indian tribes and why they needed to die.
I, much like other reviewers and apparently Wick, feel orcs – among other monsters – are more interesting when they are more flexible, rather than simply violent potato chips in serve to some wretched evil bastard of a sorcerer who keeps failing in their plots to take over the world.
This book is Wick effort at doing just that – make orcs more flexible and interesting.
The overall book is 26 pages long, though not-counting the title pages, license and advertisements the actual text about the orcs is only 22 pages long. Children of Pain is admirably concise, short and to the point, with no wasted text or words – a definite plus. It leaves you wanting more in the right kind of way.
Though short, the PDF features a good set of bookmarks and internal hyperlinks. However, some curious errors, which probably occurred when the places were marked in the first draft of the document, appear in the document. These errors include the letters “C” and “D” which appear just as letters in the bookmark list, but not as something notable in document. These and a few other minor errors do not detract from Children of Pain, but they are present.
Text comes in a standard two-column format, with a pseudo-parchment background that is a touch too dark – not enough to be a problem, but it reduces the contract between the text and the page, potentially making it difficult to read.
There is very limited art in the book, namely only three works and that counts the image on the cover. The art is competent, though the orcs are depicted as too human – they mostly look like ugly humans. Given some of the choices Wick made in the text – including the fact orcs and humans are not biologically compatible and thus cannot produce half-orcs - the art should have depicted them as more distantly non-human.
Wick does an interesting trick with the orcs – they are the usual violent, torturous warriors they are usually depicted as in pop fantasy. They are also anthrophagic – it is cannibalism when you eat others of your species, and anthrophagic when you eat other species. However, Wick unusually trick is taking this to its logical conclusion – the orcs take their war making to their own gods, whom they defeat and consume.
This development means the orcs no longer are bound to their evil gods and freed from that fate, but this is not the same as saying the orcs have become, nice and popular. Further, this battle with the gods occurred about 20 years ago – relatively few non-orcs may even know the event occurred.
As presented here, orcs are rather like the Klingons of Star Trek – this is probably an accident. Wick writes the orcs as warriors, obsessed with prowess and pain to test themselves and prove their worth. They also destroyed their own gods. All these characteristics are true of the Klingons, at least as depicted in the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine and the orcs in this book. Wick was not ripping off Star Trek – it just appears his thinking about the orcs went in similar paths.
The book details the society of orcs at a reasonable level – they are tribal and live in the tundra. However, given that I wonder how often they would encounter dwarves and orcs who do not normally live close to the tundra. As depicted here, orcs worship pain as a sentient force and practice ritual scarring as a kind of writing, among other things. Wick also include some words in the orc language and these are well used in text, but it suffers from a lack of a lexicon to refer to for the words.
Children of pain present six orc tribes, each of which includes its own particular set of advantages. Specifically these follow the six abilities, strength, dexterity, constitution, wisdom, intelligence and even charisma – something not normally associated with the orc. The ability of the tribe depends on which god it devoured.
A variation of the orc racial traits is presented, as are a set of feats and other mechanical fiddly bits – many of which involve pain and scarring. This is ultimately a theoretical review – I have read the book, but not tested it in actual play. However, it all appears solid and well balanced. The only part I did not care for was the Feth'Ork, which lets orcs take normal animals and turn them into mutants bonded to the orcs. It just struck me as unnecessary and too hobbled.
I give Children of Pain, a 15 on a d20 roll. The book does not radically redefine orcs, but hones the concept into something interesting and useful. It certainly beats them being potato chip monsters and Wick deserves credit for succeeding in that goal. And if you want potato chip monsters, there are still undead of all type, outsiders and great big bugs.
Ironically, that does run into a potential problem with the book – is it mostly for players who want to run an orc. That is also a full orcs, as in the text as written, half-orcs do not exist. To get full use out of the work, you will need a campaign were orcs operate along side the other races.
Those are probably few and far between – running orcs and nothing but potato chip monsters is too traditional and too much a given part of the way most fantasy world operate. Before broaching the subject, a player should understand the vibe at their table and if it will be acceptable to the other players. It probably will not be, at least not with out causing too much disruption to the grou. Gamers are people and people will want their fantasy to be familiar, where they can enact a race war by proxy and play soccer with orc babies.
Which is unfortunate. But it is the way things are.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Wicked Fantasy: Orks: Children of Pain
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World of Darkness Rulebook
Publisher: White Wolf
by Robert S. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 02/21/2012 06:22:34
Most RPG companies operate on an economic model similar to that of Microsoft. In the same way Microsoft releases a new version of Windows every few years, most RPG companies release a new version of their game mechanics every few years and new versions of their campaign worlds at the same time. White Wolf Publishing ended its old system and folded up their old campaign world in 2003.

The first World of Darkness only served as a backdrop and setting justification for the old lines of Vampire, Werewolf and so forth. However, in the new game the World of Darkness itself received its own line of books, starting with a single book titled the World of Darkness. This book describes the new setting and provides the game mechanics for all the following games, including Vampire the Requiem, Werewolf the Forsaken, Mage the Awakening and the White Wolf Publishing game that produces the most sweaty night terrors, Mimes the Silence.

Books in the basic World of Darkness line are nominally for a campaign featuring mortals, rather than the usual grab bag of monsters. However, most of the books in the World of Darkness line are useful with the other main lines of games. It is worth noting the main lines, vampire, werewolf and mage, to some degree each encourage players start with a normal mortal that something turned into a monster, or who later discovers their own latent power.

The World of Darkness as a setting is a hungry version of the modern world, one in which every stark horror movie, every predatory urban legend, every irrational conspiracy theory either is true or at least could be true. This is the only kind of modern world in which vampires, werewolves, mages… and mimes could exist.

Events moved along in the previous world of darkness as part of a metaplot, or a larger story dictated by parent company White Wolf Publishing and one that impacted all the game lines. While dynamic, the metapplot also proved to be confining, limiting game possibilities. The new World of Darkness books do not have a metaplot and what is made of the world is in the hands of the storyteller and the players.

The book is also home to the basic game engine, called the storyteller system. This grew out of the original game mechanics of the storyteller system used in the old games, thought the new version is simplified and unified across all the current game lines White Wolf Publishing produces.

A series of dots on a characters sheet represent the various abilities, skills, supernatural powers and so forth a character possesses. At the time of character creation, player distributes a finite amount of dots as they choose. Experience points allow you to purchase new dots. The number of dots represents the number of 10-sided dice the player may roll to try to accomplish something. This game only uses 10-sides dice and it usually has to use a lot of them. Getting an 8, 9 or 10 on a roll indicates a success at a task – and getting multiple successes is useful. Getting a 10 allows the player to reroll that dice and if they get another success, it adds to their total number of success – and they get to reroll the 10 if they get another. It is theoretically possible to keep rolling forever if you keep getting 10s.

A drawback is keeping track of lots of 10 sided dice can be a hassle, slowing the game down when you roll six or seven or more of them, count out success versus failures and then gather your dice. Further, pegging the minimal number required for a success at 8 is too high – a 7 is more reasonable.

The mechanic system is distinct, but ultimately no better or worse than the other systems available on the market, such as d20, 4th edition D&D, the system employed by the Call of Cthuhlu game and so forth.

Something that really sets the system and the setting apart from others is its approach to a character’s morality. From the book, “Morality reflects a character’s sense of compassion for his fellow human being and basic respect for the rule of law.” All characters created in this system have a morality score, running from 1 to 10. Each level comes with its own list of sins, sins if committed character feels bad about, if they have that score or higher. The default starting point of 7 reads; “petty theft.” If your character has a 7 morality score, then she should feel guilty about shop lifting. If a character violates their morality, if they do something they should feel bad about, then the player rolls to see if the character actually feels bad or stops giving a damn. If they stop giving a damn, their morality score decays. As the character’s morality decays, they become at best unpleasant to be around and more likely become a danger to themselves and others.

Anyway, included in this mechanical package is a characters willpower score – or their ability to really apply themselves and kick ass and take names. This score bounces around a great deal, as the players spend willpower points to do many things, included negating mental and emotional attacks. The character also has two traits related to willpower, these traits are the characters personal vice and virtue. The lists of both vices and virtue are strictly biblical in nature and selected at the time of character creation. Indulging in the characters vice will grant a willpower point, but can erode the characters morality score or otherwise land them in hot water. Pursuing a virtue is difficult and time consuming but also grants a willpower point.

The nature of the World of Darkness means the character’s morality score is more or less under constant assault. Vampires have to do harm to others to survive – period. Werewolves have hysterically bad tempers. Mages prosper by being ruthless bastards. None of this is conducive to a moral life. Even normal mortals, assuming they are player character, will face a steady stream harrowing decisions to make and consequences with which they must deal. This morality system more dynamic, and perilous, than the simple alignment system of D&D and is a corner stone for the entire new storyteller game system. It is arguably what makes them system distinct because by 2011 White Wolf Publishing is not the only RPG company to offer players the chance to run vampires, werewolves, mages… or even mimes.

This moral system is also a significant part of why the game can legitimately claim to be a mature title. Everything else is just titties and blood.

I hope my mother never learns I just said that.

Another thing that sets the games from White Wolf Publishing apart from others is their sense of style – the books look different from other game books and always have looked different. While not pretentious – or at least not very pretentious – the style can get in the way of the substance. Text that opens the book and chapters can be difficult to read while the font at the heads of chapters and section is too busy in design. The White Wolf Publishing tradition of using 100 words where 40 or 50 would do makes the pages dense and grey. This is not a damning sin, but it is a hurdle for a reader.

Art in the book ranges from decent to good, though there is less of it than there could be if the text were less wordy. The book sports a blue color tone and an attractive and mysterious cover image. As a mature title, the interior art does convey sexuality, violence and sometimes violent sexuality.

In terms of organization, the first portion of the book lays out character creation with admirable clarity, the middle of the book breaks down and describes its use of skills, abilities and powers while the last section of the book provides guidance on running a game. The end of the book also contains a section on antagonists that is adequate and could be better. Ghosts – as presented here – are a disappointment. However, it was probably too much to expect something like a new version of Wraith.

The World of Darkness gets a 15 on a d20 roll – issues of style and presentation, minor issues of game mechanics and a relatively mediocre antagonist selection keep it from getting a perfect score. It is still worth exploring, though the elements that make it so distinct mean that like the Vampire the Requiem book, buyer beware.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
World of Darkness Rulebook
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Vampire: The Requiem
Publisher: White Wolf
by Robert S. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 02/21/2012 06:18:37
Vampire the Requiem is the current version of the Vampire role-playing game, released by White Wolf Publishing. It is hard cover, 300 pages long and provides rules for playing monsters, specifically for running vampires as characters in a role-playing game and retails for about $40.

Starting in 1991 White Wolf changed gaming with the publication of Vampire the Masquerade. Previously Dungeons and Dragons, in its narrow Sword and Sorcerer groove, dominated the RPG market – in that game the player characters may be violent mercenaries, but they usually kill vampires. The Call of Cthulhu deemphasized violence, emphasized social interaction and going bugfuck crazy. Science fiction games ran the gamut between D&D and CoC, only with a science fiction set dressing, costumes and props. Masquerade changed things by letting the players run outright monsters. D&D and CoC were, to some degree, about becoming heroes by battling monsters to preserve society. Masquerade rattled the market because the monsters the PCs battled were themselves and the entire vampire society in which the PCs operate at best had the moral and ethical integrity of an inoperable malignant tumor.

Questions are dangerous things. D&D usually, depending on your interpretations, asks no questions. CoC asks about what disturbs you to the point of madness. Masquerade asked a number of questions, such as how far down the proverbial ladder would you go? Why do you do what do you? At least in theory that is what Vampire, as a game, does at its best. However, even the best of games can turn into a fart comedy at an individual the table.

The old vampire game ran its course and during 2003 and 2004 White Wolf Publishing ended the original game and released a new one. The new game is Vampire the Requiem and it asks all the same questions as the original.

There are no classes in Vampire. Masquerade originally offered seven kinds of vampires too choose from and only a single political affiliation, though as that game line expanded it came to offer more than 13 types of vampires and several political affiliation. The new version offers five types of vampires – called clans in the game – and five political groups – called covenants - from which to choose.

It is a game about social conflict and drama comes from tension. The game runs on the interaction of the five clans and the five covenants, like spinning gears grinding against each other without meshing. There are few dungeons, few horrors in the game the party can simply plunder and kill - mostly the PC vampires have to learn to survive and be able to live with themselves.

The first few chapters of the Requiem book lays out character creation, presents the clans, covenants and covers similar issues. The five clans available present, more or less, five types of temperament and personal disposition, from observant introvert to self-aggrandizing extrovert and on. By comparison, the five covenants present, again more or less, five moral and political philosophies to pursue, from bloody-minded neo-pagans to high bound political conservatives and on. Character creation in this system is one of the most in depth available, in terms of psychology, philosophy and morally. Some of this comes in terms of the game’s version of alignment, namely vices, virtues and humanity. The list of vices and virtues are biblical and the humanity score is the character’s relative morality, which can erode depending on the character’s actions – I will discuss the morality of the game later, during the World of Darkness review.

The first portion of the book also presents the world, the titular World of Darkness, a place where Nightmare on Elm Street is probably a documentary. It is also largely an urban game – vampires are predators and like predictors they stay where the food is located.

This new run of books divides presentation of rules mechanics – the basic rules appear in the World of Darkness book, which I will cover in a separate review. Each of the core books for the main lines adheres to these basic rules and only presents new rules to cover the needed specifics of the creature. In Requiem, the rules for the various vampire powers appear in the middle of the book.

The final chapters provide discussion of how to run the game for game masters – here called storytellers. It also provides adversaries for the PCs. Vampires live a long time, are hard to kill and easily bored. They play sadistic social games to occupy their time and they have lots of time to occupy. However, it is not all-social bickering in the game as there are opportunities for actual combat and a theatrical use of a grab bag of special vampire powers. The PCs might be barracudas, but there are lots of sharks, eels, squids and worse in those same dark waters. This was true in during the Masquerade, though it is more pronounced in Requiem.

In terms of presentation, it is an attractive book. The corollary is that for 20 years, White Wolf has never failed to use 100-words where 40 or 50 words would actually suffice. This makes the pages of text appear dark, dense and thus potentially intimidating. There is less art in the books than there could be, if the writers exercised more restraint and the editors were more proactive. What art does appear in the book is good and personal favorites among the artists include Samuel Araya, Brom and long-time White Wolf go-to-artist Joshua Gabriel Timbrook.

Unfortunately, chapter headings, drop quotes, text at the beginning of the book and at the start of the chapters are stylized and elaborate - too much so, as it can be difficult to read.

All the World of Darkness game lines employ the same mechanic, based on rolling 10-sided dice. Rolls of 8, 9 and 10 are successes and that is too high. 7 is a better place to start as not everything should so difficult as getting an 8 on a 10-sided dice roll. This springs from the basic mechanical system, but it is worth mentioning here.

These issues aside, the game is solid, engaging and good. It is a thoroughly sandbox game, like the first incarnation of Vampire the Masquerade before the old game became a victim of its own successful growth. In Requiem, the in-game structure of the clans and covenants does little to determine the nature of the player characters – those decisions remain in the hands of the players. The world they in which they find themselves might have all the jaw-dropping grandeur of a coral reef at night right after some jackass just chummed the waters, but the characters and players are responsible for making the best of it.

The fact the game questions morality, social conventions and its focus is on perceived outsiders is probably part of its appeal to women, members of the LGBTQ community and other groups.

In any event, those persistent questions the game asks does much else to turn people off from the Vampire as a game. It can be rewarding experience, but simply put, it is not for everyone.

Vampire the Requiem gets a 20 on a d20 roll, though with a special warning of buyer beware.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Vampire: The Requiem
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Book of Erotic Fantasy
Publisher: White Wolf
by Robert S. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 02/15/2012 09:42:02
The Priapic Elegies, in stylish German, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe about sodomizing people who don’t like sex. They would be a suitable introduction to the subject at hand, a review of the Book of Elf Fannies.

(Ahem) I mean a review of the Book of Erotic Fantasy.

The Valar Project published Erotic Fantasy in November of 2003 and is 192 pages long, hardback in glossy format. Gwendolyn F. M. Kestrel and Duncan Scott served as writers and Anthony Valterra, formally brand manager at Wizards of the Coast, as the creative director for the project and the boss man at Valar.

Sex, Virginia… (Ahem) Yes, Virginia, there are rules to cover when your character engages in sex. At least there are 3.5 D&D rules for most any situation involving your characters being all naked, sweaty and sexual. As compared to all the other occasions that your character is all naked and sweaty. There really are all kinds of role playing experiences.

This book on fake sex possesses a somewhat silly tone, but then sex itself is somewhat silly, even if at its best it is fun and life affirming. Hell, so are pie fights. Come to it, pie fights and sex involves people working up a sweat, lots of noise and usually ends with the participants messy. Treating sex with too much seriousness sucks the fun out of it. No pun intended.

Okay, I meant the pun.

Anyway, on to the particulars.

Art and Composition

Erotic Fantasy is a visually striking book, with excellent composition, easy to read text and quality graphic design. Even aside from the erotica, most third party publisher can only dream of this level of overall quality in a printed product.

Art in Erotic Fantasy consists of photographs with Photoshop effects and features real people in stage makeup and costumes – or completely out of costumes. The images are better than usual fantasy art by way of computer-edited photographs, with some of the better images being the goblin goddess on page 146, the satyr on page 34 and the elf on page 39. Some of the weaker images include an unappealing pleasure golem on page 168 and the man on page 21, with the failure of the page 21 image being the model, a skinny pale dude chained by his nipples to a candle - he is too homely to qualify as bishonen.

As for the pornographic content, the images do show breasts, moderate full nudity but for all of that it is only somewhat more explicit than the usual art in many fantasy RPGs and comic books, which usually feature sexualized women and men. To put it another way, being in 1911 in Europe might isolate me from decent tequila, but is allows me to consult with Dr. Freud. He said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. However, a sword in art is usually a stand in for a penis, especially if a strapping chick is using it on an ugly motherfucker.”

That is a quote from the doctor by the way. So, there is phallic art and then there is phallic art, but that said the penis content in this book is only slightly above the usual level in a fantasy RPG accessory. Further, the depiction of nude and nearly nude women in this book is, at its worst, less dumb and offensive than it usually is in other, mainstream, RPG works. It would require stretching, or a low sexual boiling point, to call the art content in Erotic Fantasy pornographic stroke material, if not being an outright. Speaking of phallic, there are photos of magic dildos in the back of the book. Whips too, come to that.

An amusing Phil Folio comic ends the book.

Text and Mechanics

To clarify something right away, there are no rules for determining the size of a male character’s penis or a female character’s breasts. Erotic Fantasy might be somewhat silly, but it is not stupid. Equality important, it is not juvenile book and avoids childish terms. As Dumbledore observed to Harry, fear of a name increase the fear of a thing itself, so use correct term for something and the correct terms are penis and vagina, not wang or bearded clam… or cock and cunt for that matter. Nor does the book use the phrase “naughty bits” which is appropriate because I am not aware of any genitalia that are naughty. The owners are a different matter.

A standard “what-to except” section opens the book by describing what the rest of the book will cover. Following this is a section pitching the idea of including sexuality in a tabletop role-playing game. While not redundant, it is arguably unnecessary or at least it feels like it is preaching to the choir, as far as the people purchasing the book probably already agree with the idea.

Chapter one provides a discussion of the sexual mores of the standard D&D races and sexual behavior by alignment, among other subjects. The section on elf sexuality is good at least in part because it is a long ways from the Catholic elves of Tolkeen and the chapter’s discussion of pornography in a fantasy world is amusing. The first chapter also provides rules for marriage in the fantasy setting. Over all, the first chapter is better than you might expect, given its preference of fluff over crunch because the fluff is well thought-out and well executed.

The second chapter starts with rules, discipline and safety words. Okay, that is a lie. There are not any safety words ‘cause safety words are for sissies. Anyway, the second chapter does turn the focus from fluff to mechanical crunch with rules, skills and feats. A seventh ability score is introduced, Appearance, in arguably the books biggest misstep in terms of game mechanics. The book discusses why to include this seventh ability score, but it is poorly integrated and unnecessary. Charisma is good enough to get the job done. There are also rules for sustaining sex, which are fun and pertinent to the rules presented later in the book. There were more skills in 3.5 than there are in 4E and Erotic Fantasy discusses sexual uses of several skills and add Perform: Sexual Techniques to the roster. It also provides rules for sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy and conception in terms of actual game mechanics, fetishes and cross breeding between the fantasy races. A section of feats concludes the chapter, and as with most lists of feats it is a mixed bag, with some good, some useless and many mediocre.

Chapter three provides new bases classes and prestige classes. Most new classes are useless and increasingly repetitive as the life span of any particular edition goes on. However, the classes in this book are intriguing, largely due to thematic issues. The basis class Tantrist draws it power from how often the character engages in sex and Rake prestige class would be a lot of fun on a sex friendly gaming table. The Metaphysical Spellshaper, however, is an odd inclusion as it has no sexual connotation and is a weak prestige class as well.

Magic spells appear in chapter four, the strongest part of the book. This includes four new domains and spell lists for bards, clerics, imagists (one of the new bases classes introduced in this book), paladins, rangers, sorcerers and wizards. New spells include ale goggles, disrobe and orgasmic vibrations. That spell, orgasmic vibrations, becomes particularly devastating if it follows the cursed orgasm spell, which causes debilitating pain and actual physical damage the next time the target orgasms. Not all of the spells directly relate to sex, such as mirror walk, which allows a caster to travel from one large mirror to another by walking through them as through a portal.

Chapter five covers items, such as an assortment of rods, potions, lotions, belts, whips, leather and lace and other such paraphernalia the characters may want to get their hands on to take a situation to the next level. It also provides rules and costs for sexual services. The sixth chapter provides information on the gods and monsters of sex. Among other entries, this includes a memorable description the goblin goddess of fertility and cherubs, both celestial and the frightening fallen cherub. The demonbred and devilblooded races are be a great deal like the tieflings, though they were published before tieflings became a player race.

The seventh chapter provides three NPC organizations, which amount to an escort service, a private sex club and an equal opportunity brothel. Reading the brothel entry takes me back to all those naked pie fights I was a part of back at the University of Gilead... the things a man will do to get into a good sorority. In any event, this chapter also provides 100 adventure ideas. It feels unnecessary but some participants in the fun and games really need to be taken in hand to get the job done.

Wrapping up the book are a pair of appendixes, which detail the generally useless Appearance score and various creature’s by their Appearance score and then finally an excellent index.

Utility

With any accessory you purchase there is always a question of how much use it provides, be it a role-playing game accessory or a role-playing accessory.

How much use can you get from Erotic Fantasy, the RPG accessory? Can someone expect to use most of it, or will people mine it for ideas and various items? By comparison, how many gamers use everything in the Book of Psionics or even everything in a setting campaign guide? As compared to using what they need when they need it and generally just mining the work for ideas. In theory, the book is a rich vein of ideas, tools, rules and the like just waiting to be used in the right game. It would be a prerequisite if someone wanted to run a game in the world of Oglaf, for example.

Candidly, I have rarely used anything in Erotic Fantasy, though this is owing to a lack of opportunity rather than a philosophical problem. One occasion that does standout in my memory was when I, as a game master, used a fallen cherub as the henchman of a lich. However, recently when I was discussing playing the guitar with Nicholas, Wilhelm and Ferdinand, Wilhelm and Ferdinand kept giggling when I used the phrase “fingering the cords.” As such, no matter how intriguing the Rake prestige class is, and no matter how useful the spells cursed orgasm and orgasmic vibrations might be, none will be incorporated into my current game, for reasons other than having to adapt the rules from 3.5 to 4E.

Speaking of the rules, the rules in Erotic Fantasy are 3.5, making them reasonably close to the Pathfinder mechanical system. People using that mechanical system who are interested in the opportunities presented in this book will have an easier time adapting the material to that system than interested groups using other systems or editions of Dungeons and Dragons.

Something to Think About

Now I am going to take it down a notch.

In terms of books like this and others carrying a Mature Audiences Onlylabel, some may say… why won’t someone think about the children? I am – I am thinking about them staying the hell away from my books. Why should I lead a childish life because others do?

Valterra and friends published Erotic Fantasy in the early days of the d20 license phenomena. Valterra had already left Wizards of the Coast at the time and when Wizards learned about this impending publication from the Valar Project, they released a statement distancing themselves from the work and altered the existing license by adding a "quality standards" provision that required publishers comply with "community standards of decency." This subsequently prevented the book's publication under the D20STL. Valterra and Valar still released Erotic Fantasy under the 3.5 system, the changes meant they were unable to use an official d20 logo on the book, which probably would have helped sales.

This is worth mentioning because the year before the release of Erotic Fantasy Wizards had published the Book of Vile Darkness. That book included rules for using torture to gain power, drug addiction, evil feats and generally was a grab bag of grotesqueries. The art was suitable for the text and included an image of a dwarf torturing and murdering an angel.

So Wizards was stating that a book of angel murdering, drugs and depravity was acceptable, but a book of frolicking naked with woody elves was unacceptable.

To judge from the gamer backlash and response, a response from many who never saw the Erotic Fantasy, the RPG fans agreed. This was akin to people approving of and embracing the Hostel movies but stridently protesting the making and release of the Red Shoe Diaries, loudly arguing against their appearance in the marketplace at all. Taking from this, torture porn is good, mutually consensual orgasms are bad.

Doctor Freud wants to know what the fuck is wrong with you.

In any event, someone making strident demands about a game in which they are not a part of is so asinine it can serve as its own metaphor for the asinine, which unfortunately does not stop the haters.

The corollary to this generally positive review of Erotic Fantasy, the cold fact as compared to the warm theory, is a need to be terribly careful about introducing any such material into a game or group. Gamers are people and the majority of people are no damn good at all. Individual people may possess a sex positive philosophy, but life itself does not. Sexuality is another proverbial chink in a person’s armor, something others will inevitably use to exploit and inflict harm on others, regardless of the orientation or the degree of appetite expressed. Make a realistic assessment of what will happen to you if you try to introduce any of this material in a game, do not simply tell yourself the rosy lies you want to hear. People being people, even broaching the subject will likely open you to all kinds of ongoing vituperative attacks.

To be clear and to clarify something I have discussed already, Wilhelm and Ferdinand are not haters and are good people, I would not game with them otherwise. My dour skepticism comes from awareness of life in general and people over all.

Anyway, the issue has not changed in the ensuing years. Since the publication of the Erotic Fantasy and Vile Darkness books, Wizard’s has since reprinted or adapted much of the content of Vile Darkness in subsequent source books without a Mature Audiences Only label.

The Valar Project dissolved and no one has reprinted or adapted the silly fun and sex positive material from Erotic Fantasy.

The book of Erotic Fantasy gets a 15 on a d20 roll.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Book of Erotic Fantasy
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Strange, Dead Love
Publisher: White Wolf
by Robert S. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 02/09/2012 07:58:34
Strange Dead Love is a book for Vampire the Requiem released by White Wolf in the winter of 2012. It is about running a paranormal romance campaign, namely a romantic relationship between a mortal and some supernatural creature, here a vampire. The romantic part includes sex, but it is not limited to sex. It is not porn but occasionally is erotica. Jess Hartley, Monica Valentinelli and Filamena Young wrote Strange Dead Love. It is also one of the first books from White Wolf since the company endured a shake up and staff reduction in 2011. Unfortunately… this is neither a good book, nor a bad book, merely a mediocre book.

Strange Dead Love is organized into four sections, including an introduction, chapter one discussing themes and props, chapter two details shards and chapter three provides storytelling notes.

The introduction is standard fare, though useful as it discusses what appears elsewhere in the book.

Chapter one covers the usual tropes in a Requiem game and a paranormal romance, including the blood bond – or creating additions to vampire blood – redemption, a lover’s triangle and the like.

The middle portion of the book provides nine shards – this is the longest part of the book. Shards is the White Wolf terms for the suggested plots of campaign arcs and while the idea of making these suggestions is good, using the term shard is unnecessary jargon. The shards here do not discuss any endings or middles – they are only set up. Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons books also present the plots of suggested campaign arcs in many of their books and here at least WotC out does White Wolf, because the 4E books avoid jargon and include middles and ending in their suggested plot arcs.

Another problem it is tendency to tell people what they could figure out for themselves. The shards here include things like potentially reincarnated lovers meeting, a vague take on Romeo and Juliet and jilted lovers dealing with the collapse of a relationship. These are all fine fodder for a campaign arc, but why do gamers really need a book to tell them these are options? People should be able to figure out these things for themselves.

Chapter three provides advice to storytellers on issues like campaign structure, creating NPCs tailor made for a paranormal romance and providing useful play examples. The material here is good, including the sections on tools for handling pacing and special games involving just a player and the storyteller.

A perennial problem for White Wolf books is a tendency to use 100 words when 25 would suffice. Strange Dead Love suffers from this issue throughout all three chapters. Amusingly chapter three starts with the sentence “Prolific advice has been offered to Storytellers for both the World of Darkness and Vampire: The Requiem.”

Like most White Wolf books, this one includes bits of flash fiction between sections of the book. The interstitial fiction here is good, reading somewhat like the early books in the Anita Blake series, before the books became stupid.

Art, with interior images by Ken Meyer. Jr. and a cover by long-time White Wolf photo-shopper Christopher Shy, in the book is decent, though not remarkable.

Strange Dead Love is a part of White Wolf’s persistent push into the digital world – it is generally available in PDF and only available in hardcopy through print on demand. The PDF version is highly bookmarked, with hyperlinks throughout – including the table of contents – and it is searchable. It does not have an index, but that is forgivable given its organizational strengths.

This books biggest problem is it actually fails to make a real case for including a paranormal romance game in a vampire game. Vampires, as depicted in the Vampire the Requiem game series, are soulless beasts that feed upon people and at best they have good table manners and know how to pretend to have emotions. They typically get people to “love” then with supernatural powers or by using their vampiric blood like heroin carefully doled out to an addict. Strange Deead Love is part of this in name only.

I wanted to like this book but that is not enough. A work must be judged on its own where that it possible, unless the work is a part of a larger whole, at which point it must be judged as a segment of the whole. Strange Dead Love is part of Vampire the Requiem series, which brings certain thematic expectations but the book fails to be a coherent part of the line. It cannot be both a Requiem book and something off doing its own thing. It would have been better as a World of Darkness book. However, that would not have solved the issue of the wordiness or telling the reader things they could figure out for themselves – reducing the page count by even a third would have narrowed the focus and improved the whole work.

Strange Dead Love gets a 10 on a d20 roll. It is a mixed bag, with as many problems as good elements. I can only recommend it to the die-hard fan.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Strange, Dead Love
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Tough Justice
Publisher: Postmortem Studios
by Robert S. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 02/09/2012 07:38:19
There are many role playing games, both mainstream and independent. However, some of the more interesting RPGs are the independent ones, the best of which find a niche to stake out as their own.

This week I am reviewing Tough Justice, by notorious Englishman Ian Warner, which is a game that found a niche and claimed the spot as its own. In this case, that particular niche is a historical courtroom drama, in the English legal system.

Warner has set this historical game during a time called the Blood Code, which ran from the late 17th century through the 18th and into the early 19th century. For more than a hundred years, a host of laws in England mandated the death penalty if the court handed down a conviction for the accused.

According to the Tough Justice RPG, the list of things which automatically brought the death penalty under the Bloody Code include standard period items such as sodomy, espionage and shoplifting but also grab bag of odd crimes as well, such as blackening your face at night, spending a month with gypsies and cutting down a young tree. Of these the cutting down the young tree feels the most capricious, as there is nothing in the text about what qualifies as a young tree or even the ownership of the tree being relevant – you can get hung by the neck until dead for clearing brush and saplings from your own property.

In any event, at the start of the period, 50 laws mandated the death penalty and before things turned around the list expanded to 220. England at this time managed to outdo Texas for legally ending people, which is saying something. It was a high time for rope merchants. Assuming they did not do something like cut down a small tree.

In any event, that is backdrop of the game but the core is letting the players fight it out, in a period English court of law, as the opposing legal sides battling over the fate of some schmuck caught with a hatchet while standing over a chopped up copse.

That was a pune, or a play on words.

Tough Justice is the only RPG I know of about playing out a legal clash. Imagine it as rather like Law and Order, where not enough people bathe and too many people wear silly wigs.

In mechanical terms, players first think of a concept for their characters and then to match that concept divide up their starting pool of 18 points among six stats, which include Authority, Jibe, Charm, Investigation, Violence and Composure. Jibe and charm function as charisma, more or less, while Composure functions as something like hit points. It is worth noting that in Tough Justice, under the rules as written, it is more or less impossible for characters to die. They are playing the lawyers and associates battling over a case, not the accused. So Composure works as hit points in a situation where losing their shit or having a great big hissy fit would be detrimental to their side of the case. Character creation also includes assigning merits and flaws to the character, which modify the stats under certain circumstances.

Characters created, the players divide into two groups, one for the prosecution and one for the defense. Under the rules as written, only one character on each side actually speaks during the court phase of the game, this character being the barrister. Other players run characters that are lawyers, who do the legal case work as compared to making a presentation, allies and associates on both sides to corral and coerce witnesses, collection information useful to the case and try to sabotage the work of the other side. I am not a legal scholar and certainly not one for English legal history, but everything I have read indicates Warner did a good job recreating in game terms the function of English courts of this period. As part of the accuracy, while the game permits female characters, they may be neither barristers nor lawyers.

The simple mechanic of the game is a rolled d6, with the relevant stat added, and the stat is modified depending on the merit and flaw and the circumstances. Sometimes these rolls are contested roll against the effort of another player. Important here is the degree of difference in a successfully opposed roll. These points are the so-called “win margin” and players must keep track of these win margin points as they play into the final verdict of the trial.

Most of the facts about the accused – gender, age, occupation – are randomly determined. Occupation is relevant because it can give case points to one side or the other; the occupation of pickpocket automatically gives case points to the prosecution, for example. The crime for which the accused is… uh… accused is also randomly determined.

Early parts of a game include the arrest phase and the pretrial phase, allowing for collection of the NPC accused by player characters working for the prosecution, duels between PCs on the opposing sides and case investigation and sabotaging the opposing side. All the results, from opposed investigations, duels and so forth, generate win margin points for use in the actual trial. To reiterate an earlier point, it is not possible for one player character to kill another, though they can injure each other and injuries are a liability during a trial.

There is a specific order of actions permissible during a trial, which again appears to match what was and was not possible during actual English Courts of the period. Anyway, much of the trial phase comes down to opposed challenges to accumulate the most win margin points.

At the end of the trial, if the prosecution has the most points, the court finds the accused guilty and issues a death penalty. If the defense has the most case points, the accused is acquitted. Note that, the actual guilt or innocence of the accused is more or less irrelevant in terms of the verdict. It is possible, though not mandatory, to play through the post trial phase, including execution and burial.

The game has its flaws. For one, it is almost totally without art, and what art there is consists of stock line art of people in period costumes made creepy by their lack of irises and pupils. It is like pictures of well-dressed zombies, who I think should be executed on general principal. Another flaw is the only real way for any player characters do die is during childbirth, meaning the only way to die is if you are running a woman. Men should be able to die as well, not only for the sake of gender balance but it would make the trials more interesting if one lawyer can flat out murder another before the trial, to help their case.

The text is laid out is an acceptable and functional manner, though, the relative lack of art makes the pages appear dense and gray in places. Other issues include the fact, Warner includes a 25-page long section defining jargon and slang terms from the period, which is much too long – it is supposed to be an RPG book, not a period dictionary. Also, there are too many pages of example play - they are good for demonstrating how the game works, but they also go on and on. Finally, early sections of the book giving Warner’s background and talking explaining RPGs are also unnecessary.

To its credit, the book includes a solid table of contents and a detailed index, which help makes up for a lack of bookmarks in the 260-page PDF.

Ultimately, I give Tough Justice a 15 on a d20 roll. While it has its flaws, as niche games go, this unique game fill its chosen niche well and over all the game and book is well executed. The mechanic for adjudicating an over-all trial is smooth, focused and a commendable game tool.

In the opening of the book, Warner describes Tough Justice as a beer and crisps game, or the English version of a beer and pretzels game – a kind of game played during a break from a regular campaign or something requiring little story investment done as a one-shot. It can be that.

I suggest make a Tough Justice game a part of a regular game. In most RPG games, the PCs are always burning things down, blowing shit up and killing people. Perhaps one or more of them are accused of something they may or may not have done. Once accused and arrested, the game temporarily shifts to what would otherwise simply be NPCs – lawyers, court officials, witness and so forth – while the former players characters become NPCs for the duration of the trial.

It would be a good reason for the players to be nice to NPCs. And to stop chopping down small trees.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Tough Justice
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Smallville Roleplaying Game
Publisher: Margaret Weis Productions
by Robert S. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/29/2011 06:06:57
This week I am reviewing Smallville, the role-playing game.

Released by Margaret Weis Productions, Smallville, the RPG, is based upon the popular TV show of the same name. This is the source of this RPGs material, its successes and unfortunately its failures as well. Smallville the RPG is also the latest adaptation of a TV series to a role playing game released by Margaret Weis Productions. Other such games from shows released by her company include Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, Supernatural and Jersey Shore.

Starting with the structural matters, Smallville, the RPG is available in hardcopy and PDF. This review focuses on the PDF version, though I am led to believe the physical copy rings in at close to 220 pages, possesses a hard cover, is printed on good quality paper and is all in full color.

Moving on from there, the book is attractive, bright, with easy to read text and many images captured from episodes of the titular series. The PDF does not feature an index, but an excellent table of contents and a superb internal organization makes up for this arguable deficit. In short, the book presents the game well.

All RPGs must handle a number of things, including conflict resolution in some manner and powers and resources. Smallville the RPG is no different and it is innovative in several areas, including making everything it can dependent upon relationships and turning game plot and world creation into a collaborative process.

In terms of mechanics, Smallville uses a variation of the Cortex System developed by Margaret Weis Productions for all of its books. In its simplest form, the Cortex System employs the usual spread of RPG dice – the d4, d6, d8, d10 and d12 – and players usually roll at least two dice, one representing an ability and one representing a skill or something similar. The results are added and compared to a target difficulty to determine success or failure.

Smallville the RPG rattles this by replacing normal abilities with six values, including duty, glory, justice, love, power and truth. All characters possess these values and their die for the value says much about the character. For example, Clark Kent gets d10 (the second highest die for the game) for justice, with the descriptive phrase I must protect the innocent, while Lex Luthor gets d10 for power, with the descriptive phrase I need to be in control. By comparison, in the Jersey Shore RPG Snookie’s value is glory, with the descriptive phrase, Let All Know I Am Skanky Bitch, which lets her roll all the dice on the table.

In addition to these values, Smallvile the RPG heavily uses relationships – again, for example, Clark Kent is defined by his relationship to his parents and Lois Lane, while Lex Luthor is defined by his relationship to Clark Kent. This rule applies to all the characters and in short relationships replace skills. Clark gets a d6 for Luthor relationship, with the descriptive phrase Lex can never be trusted. This contrasts with Luthor, for whom Superman is an alien menace with d10.

Tasks are accomplished by rolling dice determined by the right combination of the value and relationship. So in dealing with Lex Luthor, Clark rolls d10 for his since of justice and d6 for his distrust of the man. When he deals with Clark, Luthor a rolls d10 for power and d10 for his antipathy for the Emo of Steel. Much of the game – as presented by this book – resolves around emotional, rather than physical, conflicts handled by these kinds of dice rolls.

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of Smallville the RPG is the collaborative nature of character, plot and world creation. A large sheet of paper is placed on the table and the players and GM write on the paper characters, places and even things. Examples from the early seasons of the Smallville series include Clark Kent, Lana Lang, Lex Luthor, the Barn on the Kent Farm, the Luthor Fertilizer Factory, Lana’s Kryptonite necklace and porn mags Clark kept under his bed. Anyway, between these points, the GM and the players draw lines that define relationships, such as like, dislike, deadly, mysterious and so forth.

Diagrams of personal relationship in the Smallville RPG are good but start to take on tones of what you may find scribbled in the notebook of a high school girl, who likes who, who hates who, who is dating who, and so forth. Even so, it is commendable for the way it makes everyone in the game involved and responsible for world creation.

Smallville the RPG also does an excellent job of presenting a frame work for games modeled on the narrative structure of a TV show, such as scenes, episodes and story arcs for a season.

Perhaps ironically the books devotion to Smallville the show – the very reason this game exists – is actually the books biggest drawback and failure.

Too much of the book is too closely tied to the Smallville TV program to be of use to anyone who is not interested in the show. Large sections of the book – not even counting the capture art from the show – are given to lengthy descriptions of episodes, seasons, characters and so forth. This seriously undermines the utility of the book, especially as time goes on.

To some degree, all role-playing games are rooted in facilitating a desire to run around in another world. Fans of Lovecraft created the Call of Cthulhu game, Star Wars has seen a number of RPG adaptations and the earliest forms of D&D were deeply rooted in the worlds of Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkeen and Michael Moorcock, among others. There are also a number of superhero RPGs.

As such, making an RPG adaptation of something popular is part of the hobby and has always has been. However, Smallville as an RPG was and is quickly dated – the game book came out during final season of the show, as the ratings had been declining and while an excellent adaptation, is it also thoroughly niche. To get full use out of this book, you really have to be a die-hard fan of the program as about half of the book is inseparable from the show. As time goes on, that becomes increasingly unlikely. As such, as time goes on the fun and relevancy of the book will continue to decline as genre fans move on to the new popular thing. Whatever the new popular thing might be.

Because of this, I give Smallville, the RPG a 10 on a d20 roll. The book is well designed and the innovative parts that can be separated from the show are quite good, but too much of the book is devoted to something already dated… and which is only becoming more dated as time goes on. If you still have a mad on for the show, then get this book, otherwise do not bother unless you can get it second hand.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Smallville Roleplaying Game
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Vornheim: The Complete City Kit
Publisher: Lamentations of the Flame Princess
by Robert S. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/12/2011 09:28:47
This week I am reviewing Vornheim the Complete City Kit by noted artist, gamer and porn star Zak Sabbath. Sabbath’s first claim to fame is his blog, titled “Playing D&D with Porn Stars.”

Sabbath games with people like Mandy Morbid, Satine Phoenix and even with Sasha Grey – which means he has one of the coolest gaming groups ever. To my knowledge, no actual pornography has happened during one of his group’s session. Pornography. From an ancient Greek term translating as “naughty scrolls and vases I have to hide from my parents.” Where was I? Right. Zak Sabbath’s made waves in the hobby and continues to make waves, via his blog. His approach to art, gaming and apparently having sex on camera is restlessly innovative.

In 2011 Sabbath worked with James Raggi, the man behind Lamentation’s of the Flame Princess, to develop his thoughts and the play mechanics Sabbath created for gaming in an urban setting. This led to the creation and publication of Vornheim the Complete City Kit. The work in available in hard copy and PDF – this review is of the PDF version.

Vornhiem is also the name of the principal city in Sabbath’s home game and the book nominally explores the setting. Nominally is a good term as Sabbath is not interested in providing a level of detail on the city for GPS coordinates for all the local cult sites and a map of the regular bus routes and their stops. He does not so much disparage the usually tropes into which fantasy city RPG supplements fall as simply dismiss them. These books are, as Sabbath rightly points out here and elsewhere, are too often too similar to each other even when supposedly about different cities and are too often too dense with inflexible information. If you have read about one fantasy city’s sewer system, you pretty much have read about the sewer system of all fantasy cities. For that matter, too many fantasy cities are not particularly fantastic.

The details he does provide about the city of Vornheim and its world are fascinating – his riff in the book about the skin of reptiles of all kinds is one of the best passages I have ever read in any RPG supplement. An always snow city, Vornheim consists largely of great, dark towers, which are often connected by bridges. There is a strange, timeless and dreamlike quality to the city – more than Waterdeep, Greyhawk or Sharn, Vornheim feels fantastic. You have to go to Sigil to find a city as surreal and interesting as Vornheim.

On his blog, Sabbath writes he lives in L.A. and so many of the people he hangs with are in the sex entertainment industry. One wonders where in L.A. he happens to live, as it seems unlikely porn stars and strippers populate the entire city. It would be interesting to know how living in that city influenced his gaming philosophy.

While Sabbath does provide details on the city of Vornheim, most of the book is about running a city game by making it up as you go. Sabbath employs the book to assert a GM does not need an exhaustive guide to a city to run one properly and having such a guide from the outset can be counterproductive.

Much of the book is devoted to interesting game mechanics including some great tables. For example, Vornheim the book provides a table for determine aristocrats on the fly – you can roll on the table multiple times, mixing and matching surnames and given names and disturbing quirks for the NPC in question. The items on the table for what maybe discovered when going through the pockets of the corpse range from the silly to plot hooks to the comically sad. The item on the table where the party discovers an engagement ring, and a earnest though semi-literate draft of marriage-proposal speech will elicit laughter from most players, especially if their PC are the ones who killed the man. None the less, it is a good table. Those are also the more standard mechanisms in the book – unusual ones includes special pages upon which dice are rolled and where on the page the dice stop is as import as the results of the dice for determining combat result, the size of a tower, the cost of goods and similar results. Some of my favorites are the table on vile tavern games, a diagram for working out NPC relationships and the table on fortunes for the party. And kudos to Sabbath for writing that the GM master and the players and may determine the fulfillment of a prophecy.

Vornheim employs some D&D game mechanics in some places, but only loosely – these are changeable to another edition or even a different game system with minimal effort. Most of the tables and mechanics suggested here is system neutral.

Sabbath’s actual job is an artist and he provides the art for this book, which is stylized and abstract. Normally I dislike this style of art, but Sabbath imbues the art with a vitality and sense of story stylized art usually lacks. Some of the best pieces are the medusa on page 14 and depictions of the Eminent Cathedral and the Palace Massive. To keep the price down the book is black and white, and while not a strike against Vornheim it is unfortunate because elsewhere Sabbath use of color is striking.

This book possesses flaws. First up – and this is a subjective matter – there are almost no appearances from elves, dwarves or other fantasy races. Except for a few scant mentions in some of the tables, the fantasy races make no appearance in the book. However, this is easily fixed and the nature of the work means it can easily become about a city of elves, goblins or something else.

A more severe problem is the interior arrangement of Vornheim, as a book, feels random. This is somewhat ameliorated by a good table of contents, but there is no discernable pattern to the sequence of sections in the book or how one sections leads to another. There are good ideas here – some brilliant ones – but difficulty in getting to those ideas hobbles the books utility.

Vornheim, as a book, is not a fictional tour guide to a place the players cannot ever actually visit. It is about running urban games in a quick and energetic manner, where the rules and text do not hold back the flow of the actual game. In that it is succeeds quite well.

I give Vornheim the Complete City Kit, a 15 on a d20 roll. It is quite good at what it does and is valuable for accomplishing its goals and what the book offers gamers. However, it is held back somewhat by a singular focus on humans and an organization that feels slapdash at times. Still, it is worth the purchase price and is available at the D&D with Porn Star site and at the Lamentations of the Flame Princess sites.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Vornheim: The Complete City Kit
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Mage: The Awakening
Publisher: White Wolf
by Robert S. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/08/2011 10:16:23
GRUMPY
Greeting from Boston in the new World of Darkness.

A wanderer through the occasional magical door, I move from world to world and when not running role-playing games for some and causing trouble for others, I make podcast columns and reviews of role-playing game material. My companions include legendary demi-lich Acererak and grandmother hag Baba Yaga and we waltz across time and space in Baba Yaga’s magic dancing hut. This is a typical life for a podcaster. By comparison, the guys behind Sharkbone actually are sharks. With freaking lasers on their heads.

This week I will be reviewing Mage: the Awakening.

ACERERAK
I bet the mages in this world a bunch of pikers.

GRUMPY
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Acererak, mentioned previously.

What do you mean, pikers?

ACERERAK
Real mages and wizards dress like rejects and refugees from… some kind of pride parade, with spiky collars and leather and white after labor day.

GRUMPY
Lots of mages in this world of darkness dress like rejects and refugees from all kinds of pride parades and seem to think formal wear includes spiky collars and leather and white after labor day.

ACERERAK
Oh, well, in that case, lay on McDuff.

GRUMPY
Thank you for your permission to run my own god damned podcast review.

Anyway, released in 2005 – has it been six years already – Mage the Awakening is the current version of White Wolf’s game of darkly fantastic contemporary magic.

It is a 400 page hardcover book, sporting a full color cover and with gold metallic ink type. The interior is two-color, featuring black and gold metallic inks. The interior black ink sometimes smears when touched if the book is new and the gold inked letting is hard to reading, depending on the angel of the light.

As with most White Wolf books, Mage opens with a fiction piece, an in character exercise which serves to introduce the subject matter of the book. The one in this book is par for the course, adequate and not exceptional.

Similar bits of fiction open each of the major section of the book and some of these are good.

Following the opening fiction is an introduction chapter, discussing the book. The next four chapters describe the game world, mages, character creation and how magic works. There are two appendixes, the first discussing enemies and the second providing a sample mage community in Boston – the very place where I am recording this podcast.

Long-time White Wolf go-to artists Michael W. Kaluta provides the lions-share of the art in the book. His art is good, though as the art mostly comes from him, the range of art in the book is narrow.

A good example of Kaluta’s art on page 184 – depicting the magical transformation of kernels of corn into yellow hornets. While it is a solid piece of art, it is debatable why a mage would want to do such a thing.

ACERERAK
Well, maybe if you are at a country western buffet and a fight breaks out and you want to use corn on the cob as a grenade-like weapon.

GRUMPY
That is ridiculous.

ACERERAK
It would be awesome if you could come up with some kind of corn related pun to shout out. Anyway, they kind of look like bees to me.

GRUMPY
What, really? They are totally hornets.

ACERERAK
I think it is a deadly bee weapon.

GRUMPY
Bees. My god.

Where was I?

Mage the Awakening as a White Wolf game in the World of Darkness, uses the Storyteller system. A series of dots on a characters sheet represent the various abilities, skills, supernatural powers and so forth a character possesses. At the time of character creation, player distributes a finite amount of dots as they choose. Experience points allow you to purchase new dots. The number of dots represents the number of 10-sided dice the player may roll to try to accomplish something. This game only uses 10-sides dice and it usually has to use a lot of them. Getting an 8, 9 or 10 on a roll indicates a success at a task – and getting multiple successes is useful. Getting a 10 allows the player to reroll that dice and if they get another success, it adds to their total number of success – and they get to reroll the 10 if they get another. It is theoretically possible to keep rolling forever if you keep getting 10s.

A drawback is keeping track of lots of 10 sided dice can be a hassle, slowing the game down when you roll six or seven or more of them, count out success versus failures and then gather your dice.

Mage possesses arguably the most inventive and flexible magic system’s in RPG's. It does not present a spells, per cea, but a dynamic system. A mage must combine different traits to produce magical effects. The list of the magic traits include Death, Fate, Forces, Life, Matter, Mind, Prime, Space, Spirit and Time. A mage’s power in one of these traits represents their power of things related to that trait. A mage who wishes to hypnotize someone will have to possess levels in Mind, for example. Combining the traits allows the mage to accomplish things – a Mage with the right command over forces and Space will be an exceptional shot, for example.

There are also two kinds of magic; the covert and the vulgar. Covert magic will not appear to be magic to normal people, though other mages will know better. Vulgar magic will appear to be impossible, or magical, to everyone. A good trick shot will likely be covert magic. Shooting lighting from your fingertips will be vulgar magic. Vulgar magic earns the mage something called paradox, which can inflict damage on the mage, or do something like turn their head into a pumpkin.

In this world, mages have many reasons to keep secret what they do.

The strength and draw of White Wolf’s game are the darkly tinted social and moral set up. This was true of the old Mage game and remains true in the new Mage game.

In both games, the nominal moral responsibility of mages is to pursue greater power through greater enlightenment and to assist the general population in gaining, or regaining lost glories and levels of awareness. In practice, mages inevitable fails in these goals for one reason or another, not the least because of the very human traits of vanity and pettiness.

The metaplot in the old game appeared, more or less by accident. Each of the old games presented an interesting dynamic and players and fans asked how that situation came about and where it was going next. The metaplot grew out of an effort to answer those questions – it arose as WW writers began describing how the situation came about and who the major NPCs were, creating a momentum moving the game world along. The new game-lines avoid this, meaning it is less deterministic. For example, in the old game if you played a tradition mage, it was determined your enemies were the Technocracy. The new game is looser in this – if you play a member of the Adamantine Arrow group of mages you probably do not like members of the Guardians of the Veil group of mages, but it does not mean the two groups are locked in a “to the death war” allowing for more flexibility in terms of game play.

However, the lack of a metaplot means the games also lack a built in dynamism. There is something inherently dramatic and enticing about the war between the Traditions and the Technocracy that is missing in the low key fued between the groups in the current version of the game. By way of comparison, there is something immediately understandable and interesting in the conflicts between the Autobots and the Decipticons, between G.I. Joe and Cobra…

ACERERAK
…Between clowns and mimes.

GRUMPY
What?

ACERERAK
Clowns and mimes have been deadly enemies for centuries. Didn’t you know that.

GRUMPY
Back to the review.

The old Mage game presented a conflict between the traditions and the technocracy.

In the old Mage game, if you were a tradition mage, then you were the type that could build a freeze ray or would go dancing among standing stones while your enemies where the Technocracy, those bastards who invented digital watches and credit ratings.

In the old Mage game, If you were a technocratic mage, they were the type to make technology accessible and useful and develop responsible accounting while your enemies where comic-book mad scientists and blood spilling neo-druids.

The new game sells five social or political groups of mages, each group more or less neutral evil. Picture them as five corporations with some conflicting interests but enough mutual interest they do not fall into active and open warfare. In addition to these five groups, there are five magic paths or callings for the PCs – so the book actually provides 25 possible types of mages.

However, the new mages are all, to some degree, like darker and meaner versions of the mages in the Harry Dresden books – the PCs are likely to be rather similar Dresden, though with sharper teeth and colder eyes. Much colder eyes.

The result of this is less distinct variation between one group of mages and another group of mages – at the very least, there is less distinction between the groups in the current version of the Mage game than there was in the old game.

This scenario does not make the new weak, though it is understandable how some might perceives the new game boring in comparison to the old. Ultimately, in the new game most the responsibility for keeping the game dynamic rests with the game master and the players rather than with the writers and the books.

Candidly, I miss dynamism of the old game, with the Verbena, those occasionally blood splattered druids, and the Sons of Ether, those often comic book style mad scientists.

However, the game has moved on and in fairness I give Mage: the Awakening a 15 on d20 roll.

ACERERAK
Say…. Where all the mages around here? This is their base, right?

GRUMPY
They are downtown, with the normal people, rioting wildly around the movie theater as a result of Michael Bay’s “Superfriends” flick.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Mage: The Awakening
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Savage Worlds: Explorer's Edition (3rd Printing)
Publisher: Pinnacle Entertainment
by Robert S. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/08/2011 10:12:38
Greeting from the Extra-Steamy Jungles of Mad Adventure.

A wanderer through the occasional magical door, I move from world to world and when not running role-playing games for some and causing trouble for others, I make podcast columns and reviews of role-playing game material. My companions include legendary demi-lich Acererak and grandmother hag Baba Yaga and we waltz across time and space in Baba Yaga’s magic dancing hut. This is a typical life for a podcaster. By comparison, one of the guy’s behind Canon Puncture is a Sith Lord and another guy at the same show is a Jedi Knight, but I’m not going to tell you which is which because that would spoil their surprise.

This week I am reviewing Savage Worlds, Explorer Edition.

This is a theoretical review…

ACERERAK
You mean it is only a review only in theory? Then what is it actually?

GRUMPY
Allow me to introduce Acererak, legendary demi-lich and pain in the ass. When I can get a word in edge wise, I mean to say my actual exposure to Savage Worlds is fairly limited – I’ve only played it a few times. So, this review is me discussing the game more in theory, based on my reading of the text, than in fact based on lots of experience.

ACERERAK
Oh, so you mean the review is you talking out of your ass? Well, it’s not like that has ever stopped you before.

(thump)

ACERERAK
Ow.

GRUMPY
One more out of you like that and I’m sticking you in the hatbox.

ACERERAK
I’ll be good.

GRUMPY
Or I’ll hit you again ‘cause that hallow sound I get when I thump you makes me smile.

ACERERAK
Bastard.

GRUMPY
What?

ACERERAK
Nothing.

GRUMPY
Hrmph.

Savage World, Explorer’s Edition is role playing game book which presents a generic RPG game engine and is published by the Pinnacle Entertainment Group.

Savage World’s is an excellent example of concision – it covers everything it needs in 160 pages, which makes it smaller than any single volume of the three books of D&D for the last three or four editions. Savage Worlds provides a two-page table of contents, letting you know where everything is and making up for a lack of an index.

The composition and layout of Savage Worlds is good. A map appears behind table of contents and it is distracting, but this design only appears at the table of contents and at few other places. Elsewhere the layout is suburb, sporting what appears to be Arial font or something similar, with an easy to read size presented in two clear columns. Ample white space and art means the pages appear bright and are easy on the eyes.

The book also sports a good selection of art, with at least a small piece appearing every few pages, presenting a range of styles and covering a range of subjects, from fantasy to science fiction to superheroes and so forth. About two dozen artists contributed to the book, including long time RPG artist Todd Lockwood and Cheyenne Wright, who does the coloring work for Phil Folio’s “Girl Genius” series.

The stated purpose of Savage Worlds, as a RPG system, is to provide a game that emphasizes speed of play and reduced preparation over realism or detail. In this, the game succeeds quite well.

The mechanic system grew out of the Great Rail Wars miniatures game, which itself uses a simplified version of game mechanics Shane Hensley developed for the Deadlands RPG. Savage Worlds received the Gamer's Choice Award in the Roleplaying Game category at Origins 2004. After a revision later that year, Pennacle released the main rulebook as a PDF format eBook in late 2004, with a print version following in early 2005. The same year, they began releasing rules expansions – such as for fantasy, superheroes, Cthulu horror and so forth – in the form of PDFs genre toolkit books.

This review is of the basic book and the basic engine and does not cover any of the expansions.

ACERERAK
The expansion for my little pony is great and a must have for any true brony.

GRUMPY
I’ll take your word for it.

Where was I?

Pinnacle Entertainment also licenses Savage World’s for the use of other publishers, similar to how Wizards of the Coast operates with 4E D&D. However, the Pinnacle Entertainment’s license is vastly easier to acquire and employ than the license employed by Wizards.

In terms of the book, chapter one covers character creation, chapter two provides rules for equipment, chapter three provides game rules, chapter four gives rules for magical abilities and other super powers while chapter six gives rules for special situations and chapter seven provides guidelines for running the game.

In terms of mechanics, character stats are dice, ranging from the d4 up to the d12. If you want your character to catch a baseball or dropped baby or something and the character’s agility is d8, then the player rolls a d8 and adds the appropriate modifiers to try to beat the target difficult. The basic difficulty is 4, though this can go up under certain circumstances, such as angry GM whim.

The game includes the exploding dice mechanic…

ACERERAK
Which is false advertising

GRUMPY
What?

ACERERAK
The dice don’t actually explode.

GRUMPY
Acererak, they never actually meant the dice exploded, they just meant when you rolled the highest number any particular dice allows, you could roll that dice again and add the cumulative result.

ACERERAK
I know that now. But I was so disappointed the first time I played through the game.

GRUMPY
Right. Anyway, the game also provides elements called Edges and Hindrances, which is the Savage World version of GURPS Advantages and Drawbacks or the Merits and Flaws is the White Wolf Storyteller system. In other words, they are a set of additions that allow players to tailor a character to something very specific, to suit themselves and the game.

Despite the brevity of Savage World’s Explorer’s Edition, it feels complete – which is interesting again, compare it to 4E D&D, which is bloated by comparison and still managed to feel as though it is lacking in flexibility in comparison, if for no other reason than D&D’s narrow focus on sword and sorcerers while Savage Worlds is more adaptable.

I say that even though I am a fan of 4E D&D.

Initiative is determined by cards – the players draw from a standard deck of cards and their initiative is determined by which card they draw.

Because the player characters are heroes – or at least assumed to be heroes – they get an addition d6 to roll whenever they make a roll and they can keep whichever result is higher, the result of the stated dice for that roll or the result of the additional d6.

Combat is quick, usually resolved in a quarter of the game time required to deal with a similar combat sequence in D&D. However, a corollary is that damage in combat is often lethal – death comes easily to characters in this game.

The system is so rules light and flexible, it is easy to hack, that is to say it is easy to adjust and change both with careful modulation and on the fly during a game.

As others have observed, a potential flaw to the Savage World’s game is its tone or flavor – namely, it encourages a quick and high energy style of play, heavily lending itself to pulp adventures, gun blazing, comic book action and so forth. It does not appear to lend itself easily to more somber tones of something like the Call of Cthulhu or a slower paced game of plotting, scheming and the like.

This is not necessarily a bad thing – a specific focus can be a good thing, as it gives a game direction and focus. For example, I have issues with Dogs in the Vineyard, but its specific focus and purposes is not one of them. However, this focus is worth noting and does reduce Savage World’s potential usefulness, dropping it from a perfect 20.

In the end, I give Savage Worlds Explored Edition, a 15 on a d20 roll. It is quite good at what it does, though it does have a narrow, and thus limiting, focus. However, as a “generic” game system promoting fast play and high-energy play, it is good, just do not expect much in the way of depth or philosophizing of any kind.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Savage Worlds: Explorer's Edition (3rd Printing)
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