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World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour
Publisher: Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd.
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 04/13/2016 23:41:57

"Hey, wouldn't it be cool if President Roosevelt sent a bunch of investigators to stop Hitler from summoning Cthulhu?" is a thing a gamer might think when they were fourteen. Then you learn a little about World War 2 and which side, if he had lived that long, Lovecraft would undoubtedly have sided with, and suddenly the bloom is off the rose. The concept of a mad Nazi sorcerer is frankly, stupid and a waste of everyone's time. They didn't need sorcery to be horrible. Sorcery is fictional and Nazi mass murders were real. What would they have done with sorcery that they didn't do with their own determination? Spread their evil further, win maybe? But that doesn't make them a different kind of evil; they don't become more horrific if you give them tentacle monster shock troops, they just become more successful at spreading the horror they launched. The more I learned about World War 2, the less I liked attempts to shoehorn the Cthulhu Mythos into it. Let's not even get to the Victorian anxieties that bubbled just beneath the surface of Mythos writings; suffice to say the Allied armies (racially diverse, eventually even racially integrated!) would not be the good guys in a Lovecraftian Mythos tale. Thus, for many years I put down the recurring idea of a WW2 Mythos game. I may have even been mean about it once or twice!


So when I saw World War Cthulhu: Darkest Hour, I was fairly decidedly disinterested, even though it was Cubicle 7 and I normally quite like Cubicle 7 games. Nevertheless I decided to give it a look and I'm very glad that I did. WWC has a very different attitude towards how to design a Call of Cthulhu scenario in World War 2 which transforms the war from a shorthand 5th grader's scribble of bad Nazis seeking forbidden knowledge to a setting that presents tremendous challenges to investigators seeking to achieve military and potentially occult goals at the same time.


In your typical Call of Cthulhu scenario, investigators receive a weird invitation or see a bizarre story in the newspaper that is in their professional field. They gather up because they know weird shit might be going down and start digging into it. Importantly, in Call of Cthulhu scenarios, you can lose. It is quite possible to miss clues, miss events on a timeline, misinterpret the clues and go to the wrong place, and you never solve the mystery, and then you see another horrible newspaper article and you FEEL AFRAID at the unknown horror that you almost spotted, and lose Sanity. This makes a typical Call of Cthulhu scenario a self-contained episode. However, in WWC, a different methodology is at work.


In WWC, you identify a location and determine what's going on with the war as an environment that the investigation takes place in. The sample campaign (more on this below) is a small town in Vichy France near a mysterious wood and a copper mine the Nazis really want to keep open. Then you create the occult threat and what might draw the investigators to the area. This approach guarantees you're not going to have your team of rowdy investigators winning the war singlehandedly, and also guarantees that they will have to thread some very difficult needles. In a (separately published) scenario, for example, there's a mysterious occult plague in a town controlled by Italian fascists. They believe (and spread the word) that they are being targeted by an Allied biological weapon of some kind. But it isn't; it's a MONSTER. You can definitely see how investigators who come into that situation will have to walk a tightrope between the danger of the Mythos and the danger imposed by the war. And when there's a plague monster around, maybe calling in an artillery strike is the worst thing to do. ("Are those spores or smoke?")


WWC asks not that you treat WW2 as a pulp setting, but instead asks that you treat it as real, with real stakes. And that, to me, is the innovation that makes it work where other WW2 Cthulhu scenarios have failed.


The sample campaign (which I'm going to be running soon!) is a great example. The characters are Special Operations Executive agents parachuting into the Vichy France countryside in April 1941 (seven months before the Americans even get into the action!) with the mission of putting together an intelligence network in the countryside, and finding out what happened to the investigator who disappeared before the Nazi invasion. He was looking into a cult, naturally, but the investigators can't just pop in to a Vichy village and start asking questions and avoiding attention because then they'll be pegged as spies immediately and killed by the Gestapo, and the cult will be about its evil business unimpeded.


And there are questions about how much to trust the Resistance that's helping you...or even if you trust them, how much to involve them? They have different goals and restrictions, and they may or may not know about or believe in the occult problems the investigators have to deal with. If a monster's going to eat a bunch of people, you have to balance whether you want a suave lady shooting a Sten while smoking a cigarette standing next to you, or whether it would be better if she didn't have her arm eaten and nerve broken so she would have both those things to fight the Hun.


All in all, World War Cthulhu is a tremendous effort, works really well, and the sample campaign gives a very solid example as to how to design a WWC scenario. This game completely rehabilitates the idea of the WW2 Mythos scenario and breathes new life into it with the relentless focus on the war as environment instead of the war as event.


If I had to suggest a way to improve this effort, I would mention there are several typographical errors (the names of characters in the sample campaign aren't always spelled the same way, etc.) and I would really hammer out several different campaign structures other than the SOE structure that's presented. All in all, however, this is an exceptionally solid work that accomplishes something many have attempted but rarely successfully. It's definitely worth your time.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour
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Plot Device Generator
Publisher: Lee's Lists
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/09/2016 15:43:51

Lee's Lists, purveyors of ONE HUNDRED PENNY RPG supplements, have a lot of them that are REPETITIVE or SILLY. This one is much more ON POINT (though perhaps the title is a bit MISLEADING.) With the two-page, random-table Plot Device Generator, you will generate a COOL-SOUNDING item or artifact; there aren't any silly entries here. The description of the product is very ACCURATE (okay, enough of that gag) - I definitely could see the unstoppable overlord of my fantasy world only able to be defeated by the Gems of the Heavens, which mark those of great destiny throughout the ages, the remnants of a civilization before this one. (That's an actual artifact I generated with this product.) If you're like me, the actual in-world physics/magic of how the PCs might defeat the bad guys is somewhat beside the point since all the mechanics of the games we play are normally about the struggle to do that. So sometimes I come up with a macguffin that sounds stupid or wasn't thought through. Thus, the Plot Device Generator helps me out.


And it's only 20 shiny nickels!



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Plot Device Generator
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Big Bang Vol. 3: US Army Future Combat Systems
Publisher: Alternate Realities Publications
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/09/2016 14:32:23

The Big Bang series has for many years given us a solid historical overview of weapons development, distilling its information from many public sources. The US Army Future Combat System supplement is one of my favorites of the line, since it attempts to sort out what the future of the US Army (circa 2003 when it was written) would look like from procurement, demonstrations, prototypes and other materials. It also demonstrates the two areas where I feel the Big Bang line could improve the most, so it's what I selected from the line to write an in-depth review of.


Your typical Big Bang entry is a detailed history of the need for the weapon, the process by which the weapon was developed, a comparison to past and contemporary weapons, and then some stats in various systems so that people can pick out the weapons they want and the system they want to put it in.


To the extent that this approach is justified, Big Bang does a good job with it. My criticisms of this approach are more based on my concern that the Big List Of Guns we see in many modern RPGs is rarely justified in the mechanics either by realism, tactical or strategic game decisionmaking, or narrative. (Is someone really going to tell me which of two extremely similar cartridges are going to deliver 2d4 damage and which are going to deliver 2d6 damage in a way that is going to make me interested in choosing between them?) Whatever beef I have with the Big List Of Guns concept as implemented in RPGs, Big Bang didn't invent it and at the very least it attempts to situate the guns in the needs of a particular fighting force (the US Army) in a particular time frame (what the US Army thought it would be doing in the next 5-10 years.)


This particular supplement focuses on the US Army Future Combat Systems developments. I actually like it better as it is - a snapshot of what we thought in 2003 that Future Combat Systems development would look like. In 2003 we barely launched the Iraq War, and didn't know what the immediate needs of the Army would be in that time frame. The entries reflect this, with descriptions of interim projects ordered to fit into interstitial periods between when older weapons were to broken-down to use and when newer weapons could make it through development. I sort of hope the supplement isn't updated as time goes on and what the Army's working on changes. I want to see this as a historical document.


The content of the supplement is well-covered in other reviews: a list of guns, cartridges and other types of weapons, how they were intended to be developed, and how they function in several systems. I won't go too much farther into it than that. The supplement is extremely well laid out for printing (no background images; all images are already greyscaled, used sparingly, and tables are clean and clear). Bookmarks can get you straight to the weapon you want (though frankly for laymen remembering which weapon belongs to which name can be difficult.)


If there was one area that I would urge the creator of the Big Bang series in general to address, it would be in expanding the supplements beyond the "official" story of the weapons detailed. Often times the story of a weapon extends beyond what it was intended for, how good it was, and how much it cost. Soldiers have always manipulated and customized their weapons and their uses. Corruption and incompetence cause weapon development to go off the rails. Weapons develop reputations and those reputations may be the flashpoint for internal conflicts inside organizations and fighting forces. (Ask the Army about the A-10. Now ask the Air Force!) I would love to see Big Bang entries, especially those that are forward-looking talk about potential problems that the weapons described might run into, or potential advantages that were unplanned-for. In reality, the Future Combat Systems program was cancelled in 2009; a review of the program blamed the premature acceleration of a major internal milestone. That could be an interesting problem for those who are testing or stuck with weapons of various kinds - only getting part of a "system" that was meant to work together.


If the Big Bang series is aimed at games where we're playing soldiers (not, say, members of the House Armed Services Committee - wait, why has nobody written this game?!?!) then let's see some thinking about what might work or not work about a weapon in the field. Heck, in a supplement about weapons systems that aren't out yet, you can just extrapolate it yourself!


That's a lot of words explaining a critique that probably doesn't matter much in the grand scheme of things. All in all, the Big Bang supplements are well worth their inexpensive price, and are much more interesting than your typical "Big List Of Guns" supplements since they attempt to situate the weapons within a historical moment and organizational context, and are well-organized and easy to use. They cross many system lines and if you're looking for cool stuff for soldiering games (or for my upcoming game about being in the House Armed Services Committee; ORIGINAL IDEA DO NOT STEAL), you should definitely check them out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Big Bang Vol. 3: US Army Future Combat Systems
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Valence
Publisher: Valent Games
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/03/2016 12:23:17

I almost didn't write this review, since the earlier Featured Review covered Valence in such detail, but I wanted to pull a few things to the fore and discuss them. I do think the three-star rating the previous Featured Reviewer gave is on point; although there are lots of good things about Valence, there are certain contradictions and areas where it falls short.


One of the best things about Valence that the other Featured Reviewer didn't mention is its tone. A lot of RPGs take on a very serious, neutral tone in discussing their fictional elf worlds and magic swords. This is fine, but boring. Valence, by contrast, has a casual, humorous tone. When reading this corebook I feel like I'm sitting at a gaming table having a conversation about a really detailed setting that the GM is eager to tell me about. The energy of it buoys my own enthusiasm about the game. One of the species is able to shoot microwaves - this is illustrated by a picture of an alien throwing an actual microwave oven, and captioned that it's a bad joke. I laughed out loud when I saw this, since I have the sense of humor of a fairly immature 7th grader, but you can bet I didn't forget that those were the aliens that could shoot microwaves! The conversational tone and organization is a breath of fresh air. I really felt welcomed by this book.


I do think there are things about Valence that are not well-turned. It draws inspiration from Babylon 5 and although Mass Effect post-dates Valence, I definitely can see the common roots of the two games. A lot of time is spent in Valence developing many cultures, religions, corporations and ideologies. When these clash, I can definitely see how interesting sparks could fly both on an individual level and on a galactic level. However, the mechanics of the game are based around resolving the outcome of very concrete tasks - small-scale efforts. Although the system is simple and straightforward enough (roll a d20! add some stuff! did you beat a number?), neither the GM nor the player section emphasizes how to assemble these tasks into something that could make a difference in the galaxy. In Mass Effect and Babylon 5, the main characters are thrust into situations where their decision is the tipping point for major changes. I just don't see that in Valence; instead, the adventure hooks in the back (very helpfully arranged by faction) are more your typical action/adventure/mercenary scenarios that might be common to a Traveller game. (The font and layout choices are also obvious callbacks to Traveller.) In Traveller, characters are thrust into the harsh libertarian screw-you-got-mine future with a mountain of debt and no clear way to pay it off. They don't make universe-shaking decisions like Babylon 5 protagonists; they will simply never be in the position to do so.


If I had to make a suggestion for the next edition of Valence, I would urge that the GM's section and player's section both be fleshed out. In the GM's section, let's have some guidance or procedures for how to create a world-spanning or galaxy-spanning conflict, how to express what's at stake in play (instead of in narration), and how to thrust the player characters into the key turning points of those conflicts, and to play out the consequences. On the player side, give them ideas for how to make those big decisions, how to emphasize to each other in dialogue and action what is at stake, and to make it "okay" to deal with unexpected or even undesired consequences.


All in all, Valence is definitely a book worth checking out if you're interested in the "clash of civilizations" science fiction genre. The system and concepts are fine. You will definitely enjoy reading and thinking about it. I come away from it wishing that it went further, and that's got to be a good thing!



Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Valence
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Vast & Starlit
Publisher: Dig a Thousand Holes Publishing
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/02/2016 22:57:30

As always, I roll into a review ready to talk primarily about things only tangentially related to what I'm reviewing. If you don't feel like reading through all of it, here's the TL;DR version: this is a truly remarkable and above all else, complete, light science fiction RPG. It is worth both your time and your money. The suggested price of $2.99 is a steal - but go ahead and take it for free if you want to make that "steal" more literal.


Often times in roleplaying game rulebooks we hear that among the many unique virtues of the roleplaying game form is that players are both creator and audience. But if players are both performer and audience, who are we playing to, exactly? Each other? Ourselves? Does the GM have a special audience role as well as a special performance role? Let's say there's a line on our science fiction RPG character sheet that says "Alien Epidemiology" and a rating that says we're okay at being alien epidemiologists, and we write that at the beginning of the campaign and nobody else ever knows it's there, a common event that any experienced RPGer can relate to. You thought it would be cool but for whatever reason it didn't ever come up in play. I can see an argument that this skill perhaps informs the performance of the character - the player knows it's there even if no other player (or GM) knows (or remembers) it's there, or knows its significance. The opposite argument urges the foolishness of taking something that's imaginary in the first place (there really aren't any xenoepidemiologists out there reading this, right?) and, instead of making it realer by requiring real people (the other players) to make statements about, challenge, and respond to it, letting it remain pure internal imagination. If that mediocre and irrelevant skill never impacts everyone else's experience, how much value can it really have? Why waste your time with it?


The answer to this apparent dilemma, I am increasingly coming to believe, comes at a lower level than individual players' decisions - it depends on what the mechanics of the games are and the goal of the game. Since I'm a three ring idiot, it always takes someone demonstrating this in the mechanics of a game for me to figure this out. This brings us to Vast and Starlit, a 2013 game by Epidiah Ravachol, a game that has provoked a lot of thought in me about this very challenge.


In Vast and Starlit, the player characters are all escapees from a prison ship, crossing the galaxy in an attempt to find a home. You are told this in the first sentence of the game. Character creation is conducted not by individuals weighing resources against anticipated opportunities which might be provided by a GM, but instead by a conversation centering around the strengths and needs of each character; and you don't get to speak up about your own character until your turn comes. Furthermore, the only people who are able to evaluate whether your strength is sufficient to overcome a situation are the other players. In other words, if I say my guy is a top-notch biochemist due to his long work as a poisoner and chef (to use a character in a similar situation from a past campaign), that's awesome; but the extent of my biochemistry knowledge and skills in a specific situation are decided on by the other players. To put it another way, I'm playing my biochemistry skill to the other players. (There's no GM in the game.)


As each person's turn comes, they set a scene, select who is there and what is happening (old hat to a Primetime Adventures veteran like myself). Some crewmembers will be "focused" on; others will not. You can either play your own character or an NPC in the scene. When something that's Dangerous or Difficult is attempted, that's decided on by the other players. The consequences of attempting it are explained by the other players and the player of the character making the attempt decides what to do about it. If you're playing a non-focused character, then you end up having to take a result without knowing what it is in advance. If you're playing a focused character, you get to hear all the different options before choosing the one that's best.


This is a very simple cycle, starting with the need that your ship has that you can't fulfill right now. As you move forward the cycle will keep the game going - a situation arises, characters interact, if they're not doing anything dangerous or difficult, they go about their business. If they are, then their incremental failure or endangerment drive new situations and new opportunities into the plot.


If there was anything to criticize in the "base rules" (really the complete rules of the game) it would be that it doesn't assist the players in determining how to create interesting injuries, dangers, or needs on an ongoing basis. If you've seen a bunch of space science fiction TV shows and movies, you probably won't have a problem with doing this, but it seems likely that in a group of four you might have different ideas of what seems like a reasonable consequence.


(Oh yeah, definitely try to have at least four to play this game - although it's fine with a smaller number, having different voices and points of view in the choices make for a much more exciting game with many more twists and turns.)


This game also comes with several supplements! The first, Bodies in the Dark, is one of the most provocative supplements I've seen in a while. It provides additional rules for interpersonal interactions. There's a brief look at command, but what leapt out at me was the rules for hostility and romance. Yes, they are tracked on the same track. For everyone who's played Mass Effect, this will definitely spark some ideas about interspecies romance and other transgressions. As always, your fellow players will let you know the consequences of "moves" (ahem) you make with respect to hostilities or romances. If you've ever watched a showdown in any kind of show or movie and thought "These enemies just need to screw each other and get it out of their system" then you will love this system.
There's also a map of the galaxy, which again is primarily for provoking situations for your crew to have to deal with. Similarly, there's rules for introducing or developing new technologies.


The whole packet is done in 16 pages (some of which are front and back covers.) This leads to my main problem with this game, the format. Although the NASA pictures are gorgeous, putting them in the background makes it so printing the book ranges from marginal to a waste of time. There also aren't layers letting you turn off the background (and if there were, the white letters would immediately disappear on several pages.) Even on a pretty decent home color printer you're likely to have plenty of bleed on some of the grey circles in the Technical Manual, be unable to check off those boxes unless you have a white-ink pen (but then how do you erase and move it?) you're unlikely to be able to make much sense out of the galaxy map, there's a giant star flare slightly off-center in the Bodies in the Dark track, and in general it's just a huge pile of blah. I can't emphasize enough that you should copy-paste the text outta this thing, build your own tracks for Bodies In The Dark and Technical stuff, and attach them to the ship drawing your group creates. (You can use the Galaxy Map on your tablet or smartphone, since you don't need to consult it in the same way and it's only one page.)


There is no reason whatsoever for this game to be a PDF. An app or, heck, a HTML or well-laid out RTF document, would be just fine. I can't give this game a perfect score because its form is just way, way off from what its function is.


To sum up, you're going to be in the spotlight when you play this game; and your fellow players are going to be lobbing challenges at you based on their view of the situation, not based on your view of your character's capabilities. You will only be as safe in this game as your fellow players will let you be. You won't be able to hide beneath a really big number on a character sheet. If that excites you, you shouldn't waste any more time on this review, put your money down and Get This Game. If you want more to your character to belong specifically to you, with a game system that will protect that against others' evaluation, then give it a pass. This is a game where you will be forced by your fellow players to make some tight, tough decisions and where they will tell you that things don't work out for you even when you try really hard. In other words, it will be really, really, exciting and tense to try something dangerous or difficult. Isn't that a feeling worth seeking out?



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Vast & Starlit
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Noir Knights Player’s Guide (Savage Worlds)
Publisher: Savage Mojo
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 03/23/2015 23:22:03

This top-notch product is one of the better player's guides for one of the better Savage Suzerain lines. Let's break it down.


For just about as long as there have been RPGs with GMs and players there has been a division between player and GM material. This division supposedly existed to keep players from thinking about the game outside the mindset of their characters; for me, this helped about as much as learning to play chess by really trying to get into the mindset of the rook. It makes a lot of sense when you're smoking weed.


Or maybe there were business reasons. There's a lot more players in the world than GMs and so it makes sense to try to sell things to them. So let's put "Player's Guide" on the front of the book we're trying to sell to everyone.


Eventually I got tired of this. How am I supposed to know how to play the game when what the creative director, the GM, is supposed to do in the game is hidden from me? And the same was true for me as the GM. Games began to be more open with their methodologies and my games benefited for it.


However, after the development of open and relaxed game licensing in the early days of the 21st century, player's guides made a resurgence, since they no longer had to get across a whole new methodology of play. Instead, they instructed players on how to use their familiar tools and mechanics in order to achieve a new or more specialized goal. You didn't need to know how to play D&D3 all over again, but learning how to play this cool new class in this cool new fantasy world was worth talking about.


Into this new tradition comes the Noir Knights Player's Guide. I should note straightaway that the Noir Knights is my favorite of the universes of the Suzerain Continuum, a cross-worlds setting in which science fiction heroes can contend with mysterious fantasy wizzards, I mean wizards. As with many such cross-worlds settings, it doesn't quite bring together the reasons people might want to play a fantasy game or a sf game, but that's a review for another time.


Suffice to say that the reason I like Noir Knights the best is because it quickly and effectively establishes a style and communicates it well to the players. The world of the Noir Knights is like the American Depression, though dark forces are at work and the player characters are the only ones that can stand in its way.


I was very excited to see the Bonus Army march of spring 1932 as the catalyst for the beginning of the game and an emphasis on WWI veterans as a core membership of the player characters' Mysterious Group. And with the other significant faction of the game being based on a strange-science immigrant's work in a small town in Florida, the stage is set for a unique type of game. The player characters in most X-Files-esque supernatural-investigation games are backed by (say) a faceless government organization, they are often Company Men or active military with the best at their disposal, necessary against the weirdness right outside their doorstep. Night's Black Agents is a typical example of this.


Noir Knights is different. In Noir Knights player characters are run down to nothing, gassed by their own government for asking for fair pay, or for a widow's share. They are outcasts from normal society and may ride the rails or be the creepy old guy in a shack outside town who runs a huge metal pole out of the top of his homestead every time there's a lightning storm. The government has taken them on not because they're so thrilled with them but because if they don't the communists might get them; and besides, the authorities really are helpless as to what's going on, and the "ruizologists" and the "railwalkers", the thrown-away scum on the bottom of America's boot are the only ones that seem to be able to figure out what's going on.


In this setup I can easily get not just a cool character concept, but I can situate that concept in the world firmly. I know what it's going to be if I was a fresh faced draftee in 1917 - I know what it's going to be if I'm a Negro barnstorming boxer in a railyard - I know what it's going to be if I'm a forward-looking woman aviator. It's going to be contempt from our superiors, who are helpless against the real threat. I absolutely can't wait.


In fact, if there was anything that can be improved in the Noir Knights Player's Guide is that I feel like this core story needs to be brought to the fore more explicitly. There should be something - perhaps in the introduction, or in the gazetteer section - explicitly laying out why it matters to me, the player, that it was Bonus Army veterans and not Army regulars that are in this organization, why it matters that it's rail-riding castoffs that recognize the magical patterns of America and not President Roosevelt's technocratic educated elite. I think this is the key to why Noir Knights appeals to me so much, and the more it was explained and put both-feet-forward in the text I think the better it would be.


In general, this is a really solid Player's Guide, one of the best of this new era of player's guides based more around individual expression than mechanical explanation. It's highly recommended.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Noir Knights Player’s Guide (Savage Worlds)
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Due Vigilance- Kaiju Kultists
Publisher: Vigilance Press
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/17/2015 18:48:31

Vigilance Press has a reputation for putting together really thoroughly thought out and well produced material. Kaiju Kultists does exactly everything right in its treatment of incorporating giant monsters into a superhero setting.


It starts with several pages explaining the history of giant monsters in literature, film and comics. I appreciate that it attempts to put giant monsters in the context of their creators in different cultures and places.


Next, it carefully lays out some of the ups and downs of putting giant monsters in superhero games, finishing up with systems to include wrecking cities in Mutants & Masterminds, giving neighborhoods health tracks which heroes will want to protect.


I have to admit I haven't been thrilled with giant monster/superhero crossovers in the past. I really want giant monsters to fight against dudes with missiles on trucks and guns on jeeps, not against Superman. So I was shocked with how happy I was with the Kaiju Kultists organization that takes up a considerable amount of the book.


The idea of the organization is that the badguys in the organization bring kaiju into the world through demonic rituals, tying their power to themselves. They wreck neighborhoods and cities in order to become more powerful - heroes who protect cities and people are cutting directly into their abilities. This does two things that giant monster implementations haven't done in the past: it makes fighting the giant monster a conflict between people, and it makes rebuilding and defending a city an effective way to weaken the giant monster. The former is a key way to heighten dramatic conflict and is especially needed in superhero settings. For example, in the X-Men setting, the Brood, otherwise an Alien ripoff, have a Queen that will taunt our heroes and yell at them when they defeat her. The Kaiju Kultists similarly are people who can interact with our heroes, make their positions about the extermination of human civilization known, get hauled off to super-jail, and so forth.


The element of defending and rebuilding the city to weaken the giant monsters and ultimately defeat the cult is something you often see in comics but rarely see in superhero RPGs - where the whole community comes together to support their heroes and stop the bad guys. And of course, having the community literally weaken the bad guys by living well and being decent to each other is a very superhero comic thing to do - to literalize the values being advanced in the comic book.


Finally, there's Hero Lab files and standees at the back of the book for all the bad guys and monsters, AND several small scenarios introdicing and developing the cultists.


As much as I always expect a good product from Vigilance Press, I'm blown away by Kaiju Kultists not just for its new mechanics, but by the attention to how giant monsters should and can be used in various ways in various games. I didn't expect to love the organization nearly as much as I did; the mechanics also back this up really well.


If you trapped me in a building Godzilla was about to knock over and demanded that I give you something that could be improved in this book, I would say that perhaps having more hooks for how to develop or redevelop parts of the city would help. The ever-lovin' blue eyed Thing often had a struggle with his loyalty to his old neighborhood - when the survival of the city against a giant monster is on the line that would heighten such dilemmas dramatically.


Get this right away. You don't know you need it but you do.


(Also, the cover art is great, don't tell anyone I looked at it, it will ruin my "art in gaming books is worthless" cred forever.)



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Due Vigilance- Kaiju Kultists
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World of Nevermore (True20)
Publisher: Expeditious Retreat Press
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/17/2015 18:18:50

Although World of Nevermore has a brilliant and crazy aesthetic which appeals to me pretty much on every level, it doesn't nail down certain aspects of how the setting should be used and so falls (perhaps barely) short of a perfect score.


So let's talk about adventures in dreams. This is a theme in fantasy (and horror) literature for many years, and there've been many RPGs that have attempted it. The core problem is of course that waking up back in a world that hasn't been affected by the dream is unsatisfying: why attempt to overcome obstacles that are simply imaginary? H.P. Lovecraft gave his Dreamlands physical reality; Adamant Entertainment had a Dreamwalker game in the d20 era which tried a similar approach. Shattered Dreams, a badly organized 1990s game had the brilliant idea that monsters from the dream world were invading people's bodies via their dreams and a failure in the dream world meant the player characters would have to face essentially demon possession scenarios in the real world - where they had no dream-altering abilities. (Someday I want to see a dream-adventure scenario where the real-world impact of a success is "you work out some emotional or intellectual problem or anxiety that's been hammering at you in the real world"!)


It's that issue that Nevermore doesn't hit square on the head. When, if things get too rough, a significant portion of the inhabitants can simply opt out of the world every eight hours, it becomes difficult to create actual conflict with consequences. The game seems to recognize this, emphasizing that GMs should make events in Nevermore prefigure or subtly affect things in the "real" game world if the whole game's not going to be set there. However, the brief mention of it doesn't give examples, methods, or principles to make this happen - and that's frankly the most important question that I have when picking up a dream walking supplement. What about this is real?


There are even some indications in World of Nevermore that this question was not too well thought out. It is suggested (for example) that characters should retain their levels gained while in Nevermore once they wake up, typically adept levels. This could result in people in your core game world going to sleep as level 3 folks and waking up as level 18 folks one in-character day later - since time in the "real" world (whatever it is) doesn't pass as it does in Nevermore.


The simple way to handle this is to say "Nevermore's the game world. You can't opt out. It behaves in dreamlike ways but for various reasons none of you will be 'waking up'". Certain character types are like this (such as those born in Nevermore or the fey who are its original natives), a GM can simply require that all characters be one of these types.


The most important changes to the True20 system are a boosted Conviction system which allows dreamlike discontinuities to aid the characters, and an Aspect system which gives boosts to characters based on dreamlike aspects that they take on in various situations - I dream I'm a dragonlike figure, so I take on dragonlike abilities. These seem to be well-founded and since everyone in the game world has them, the balance of them seems well thought out.


The majority of the book is taken up with the campaign world description. It involves many realms, each of which has its own personality, and typical dream-effects that can be found in its borders. Probably the best part is the list of potential adventure hooks for each area. Although I'm experienced in turning area descriptions into actionable adventures, it's great to see how the tone and atmosphere of each area is intended to mesh with the typical True20 action-adventure feel. I wish every location supplement was as straightforward with what its intentions are.


Finally, a sample adventure is at the end. Again, a welcome addition to the supplement, showing me how it's supposed to be done (including what typical badguys in Nevermore get up to.)


I do think that Nevermore has a lot going for it, and it's quite ambitious; not just another game with Oz in it, thereby guaranteeing a high score from JDCorley on the Internet. However, there are certain holes in what it tries to accomplish that keep it from getting my highest marks. While the 8-hour cycle of Nevermore is terrific for keeping things changing, dreamlike and mysterious, it requires some really diligent timekeeping on the part of the GM and players, much more rigorous than in your typical True20 game, and there aren't any tools to help us do that. As mentioned above, the way to tie Nevermore to something real and worth doing is not clear.


Nevertheless the work is imaginative and thrilling, I want to adventure here and the game gives me great tools with which to do that. The abilities of player characters and NPCs alike are vivid and compelling. Expeditious Retreat hardly ever misses the mark and it doesn't here. I highly recommend World of Nevermore as an addition to your dream-fantasy library! (You do have one, right?)



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
World of Nevermore (True20)
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Enter The Shadowside - Core Book
Publisher: FableForge
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/27/2014 00:09:00

Before I tell you about Enter the Shadowside, let's talk about the supernatural in RPGs. There are two huge mistakes people make when putting the supernatural into RPGs.


The first is that sometimes they don't clearly define what the supernatural does in their RPG. We generally have some idea of what the real, non-supernatural world is like, and how it works, so we need some type of system or mechanics or at the very least instructions about what to do when something supernatural happens in our game, whether wielded by the players, by monsters, or just as a condition in the world.


The second mistake some RPGs make is that they don't make the mechanisms of the supernatural, whether quasi-scientific or mystic an actionable fact, something that both impacts and can be impacted by player action. If nothing can ever be done about a ghost, that may be fine for a book or movie, because at the end the audience high fives each other and goes about its business, but in a RPG or other type of interactive fiction, you want the player's actions to have consequence in the world.


Some of my favorite settings and scenarios fail at least one of these tests. The Forgotten Realms has a ridiculously detailed and contradictory account of how magic works, but there's never a clear statement of what player characters - even epic level player characters! - can affect even the smallest part of it. Sometimes freeform play or group-customized material bumps up against differing player expectations - quick, can Dracula go outside during the day? (Yes.)


The original World of Darkness games avoided the second mistake in the grandest of fashions, putting supernatural, scary stuff right in the hands of the players from the first time they said "pick a Clan". But over time, the varying game lines developed the first mistake. Players drove each other crazy trying to make the games fit together. (This should never have been done, but nobody asked me, or I suspect, White Wolf.) So a lot of modern supernatural games since that time have worked hard to fix that first mistake, working out complicated ideas for what supernatural abilities really represent, where they come from, a coherent cosmology, and so forth. But few remembered the great strength of the World of Darkness approach was its playability, how it was (at least at first) tightly organized around player-character views and activities. It resulted in a lot of wasted words describing some dumb god or demon or ancient order of magicians that simply did not matter in play.


Enter the Shadowside, which recently went for a new Kickstarter, manages to avoid both of these mistakes, organizing its supernatural world cleanly but making sure that the player characters are situated effectively in the world as well. The world of Enter the Shadowside is one in which characters form pacts with mysterious spirits in order to gain occult power. In order to do this, they normally connect up with one of the organizations that exist in the world. There are nine, organized by whether they are anarchic or orderly (or neutral), and egoistic or altruistic (or neutral). Interestingly, whereas in many supernatural settings the organizations are all centuries old, some in Enter the Shadowside are definitively modern, including a shady Russian corporation and a 4chan-a-like message board.


The system is an interesting one - characters are created via a "turtle shell" of assigning points, in which many stats combine in various ways to create several derived stats. The system is a simple d20 roll with various bonuses or penalties attached, though it's explained in a somewhat strange way. (I couldn't really puzzle it out until I saw the chart comparing outcomes to target numbers and was surprisingly underwhelmed.)


The characters use the mysterious shadow dimension of imagination called the Shadowside for their own purposes; what I find interesting is that unlike many games, the characters are actually more effective and flexible there than the natives, since they bring with them the realities of our world. This also explains why some of the powerful entities there want to partner with characters; it benefits their agendas too.


One thing I very much like about Enter the Shadowside is the clear instructions to the GM, being quite up front about what the first few sessions should be like, what the next sessions should be like and so on. There's even a section of the book that introduces two of the nine organizations that don't appear until the "Endgame" - this is a mystic game that actually expects you, in your campaign, to get to the end of the world in a reasonable time. That's very cool.


Probably there's no need for the "please don't pirate this" page. Who pirates things anymore anyway? Nerds and losers, whatever. All the cool kids buy their stuff at drivethrurpg dot com, while wearing sunglasses probably.


If there's a weakness to Enter the Shadowside, it's that the GM section doesn't clearly indicate how I bring a group of characters together and how I oppose them both effectively and dramatically. Is it best to chase them? To attack them directly? Is this a game where they should be targeted or is it too big for that until they pull something off? What is the roal of individual character goals versus teams in this game? I would like to see a more thorough breakdown of how to get from character creation through the first few sessions, to get that all important inertia going.


And the glossary for what all the various factions call all the various skills and things in the setting is just too much to absorb (and won't actually produce more than one or two good jokes.)


I would highly recommend Enter the Shadowside if you're looking for a well-organized modern horror-magic game that is both well-detailed and clearly actionable. The system isn't anything special - hopefully the new Kickstarter edition will spruce that up a bit - but it seems at first glance to get the job done. And the Endgame concept is really awesome.


It's not that expensive and it's quite solid. Check it out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Enter The Shadowside - Core Book
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Writer Tools Generator Pack
Publisher: Chaotic Shiny Productions
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/23/2014 16:51:46

"Hey Jason you only ever give five stars to the most superlative stuff out there "


"No, that's not true at all, sometimes I give five stars to something that's just really good, but has some element that especially tickles my fancy or which has had an unusual amount of use in my gaming, that's what I mean by 'reviewers tilt'."


"So are you really going to give a five star rating to just a bunch of random generators?!"


"Yes, here's why:


Although they're not quite 'tools' so much as prompts, this set of random generators goes beyond the normal 'roll on this table' nonsense that often gets shlepped around on the site as a means of brainstorming. Instead of needing dice, you just click and immediately get five options for your next plotline, short story, poem (!!!), or location. There's a gag 'motivator' telling you to write more words today ('1033 more and you learn the secret in secret sauce!) and, quite provocatively, there's a 'visual' generator that instead of saying someone likes (say) puzzles, displays a simple icon of (say) a rook. Maybe this person likes chess, or castles, or perhaps the meaning is more metaphorical.


Chaotic Shiny does a very good job of putting generators together and this is no exception. I know it's improved my writing and gaming! People who are putting out 'lists of 100 names' might do well to make actual compiled generators to make using them at the table easier!"


"Well that's just great, you give this thing five stars, is there anything it could do better?"


"Yes, two things, first, it would be better if the lists used to generate the material were easily customizable. Perhaps they could call to a particular file outside the .exe file itself. It's nice that the whole thing clocks in at under 2 megs but I think I could find the hard drive space. Second, Chaotic Shiny had best get on Google Play so I can give them all my money when they start designing apps that do these things."


"All your..."


"ALL MY MONEY"



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Writer Tools Generator Pack
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Colonial Gothic (True20 version)
Publisher: Gun Metal Games
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/17/2014 16:20:25

Call of Cthulhu was the first breakout hit of horror themed RPGs, surprising, since Lovecraft's work concerns itself often with horrors that are literally indescribable and RPGs rely on verbal description to get across their situations and emotions. What Call of Cthulhu, the RPG, brought to the table was a simple, clear system and a methodology of GMing and playing that put players in the mindset of investigators who would put themselves in the middle of horrific mysteries and not run away at the first ominous shadow. Most horror games since that time have mimicked this successful investigative formula, for good reason.


However, few have taken another element of Call of Cthulhu's initial success: a historical setting. As a historical gaming buff, I have always felt that making Call of Cthulhu close enough to reality that we can recognize things like police officers and hats while far enough away as to still put us out of our comfort zone. I like historical gaming quite a bit and a well-realized historical setting appeals to me more than yet anothr fantasy game completely disconnected from reality.


The world offered by Colonial Gothic is one in which mysterious monsters and witchcraft exist in colonial America. The characters must navigate the dangerous politics of the revolution and avert the supernatural threats that could endanger everyone's survival.


In terms of being a True20 adaptation, Colonial Gothic does a solid job. It only introduces a handful of new mechanics, skills and feats, sumarizes them well in a few pages. True20 works well for this kind of game and there isn't a need to significantly alter it. The main shift is for magical powers, which become witchcraft and ritual.


Colonial Gothic doesn't delve deeply into colonial-native relations or the issue of slavery. However, I appreciate that it gives native and former slave characters as a player character option and takes their points of view seriously. In the time frame described, native tribes were seen as equals to colonial forces in strength and importance. Though racism colored all interactions, it was not seen as strange to seek out native allies and partners in conflicts or enterprises.


Based on the world of Colonial Gothic, natives know more about the supernatural than colonists since to a certain degree America actually is a magical land in this world. This decision helps separate Colonial Gothic from the "magic native" stereotype - it simply makes sense that in a world where a certain area has monsters, that people there would know more about monsters. Each of the major native tribes has a full writeup in the gazetteer section of the book.


All in all, I feel that the native characters, both player characters and NPCs, are given a very thorough and fair approach in the book and Colonial Gothic gets high marks from me for making this attempt.


However, I do think the treatment of blacks (not just slaves) in various colonies is somewhat less detailed and specific than it could be. Free black laborers, entrepreneurs, soldiers and leaders existed in New England colonies even very early on, and it was their organization and support that would lead, only a few years after the Revolution depicted in Colonial Gothic, to the emancipation acts that would make the North nearly slave-free in a relatively short time, while in the Southern states an increasingly baroque and stringent infrastructure to control slave populations necessitated targeting free blacks as well. Given that a significant portion of the game is dedicated to creating a real-feeling political milieu that the characters must navigate, it seems an important omission.


There are a few strange historical mistakes in Colonial Gothic - in the area of mental health treatment, electroshock therapy was mentioned, though at the time induction of seizures theraputically was rare and usually accomplished through the injection of Camphor oil. It was also primarily used on those that were comatose, thinking that the seizure could jump-start their bodies. The first electroconvulsive therapy wasn't reported until 1938, almost 200 years after the time frame in the game. The rules for getting rid of psychological disorders in general are strange and ad hoc, which is unusual for a game with sanity mechanics like Colonial Gothic - characters make a roll when they go up a level to see if they can slough off a disorder. That's fine, but it means that high-level characters really aren't impaired nearly as much. Perhaps this is what's intended by the rules, but it does seem odd.


A welcome addition is the "Secrets" section, which gives a thorough analysis of what GMs should do in Colonial Gothic to get across the history effectively while not being straitjacketed by it, as well as some pitfalls to avoid in horror games specifically. In addition, it contains themes associated with villain types (undead, etc.) that can make a game very atmospheric.


Finally there's a sample adventure regarding an evil cult. Although the adventure is straightforward (as befits an introductory adventure), I'm happy to note that the "aftermath" section introduces some fun complications for player characters to face. Some of the cultists may surrender (they think their demonic master will eventually win anyway, so why face tortuous death in this world?), and become prisoners. Transporting them back to civilization along with the captives the cultists had taken is a challenge that often times we overlook in a world of ambulances and police cars.


The file includes bookmarks, and the art is woodcut period-style illustrations so it shouldn't be too hard to print part of all of.


Colonial Gothic is a solid True20 adaptation (and I love True20), a solid historical game (and I love historical games) and a solid horror game (and I love horror games.) Is someone pandering to me specifically?!?! This seems almost suspicious. Anyway, I give it high marks and a strong recommendation.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Colonial Gothic (True20 version)
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Arrows Of Indra
Publisher: Bedrock Games
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/08/2014 02:56:05

Recently, a controversy about the consultants for Fifth Edition D&D reminded me of a guy who I hadn't thought about in a long time, "RPGPundit", the author of this work. I eventually worked out with searches and so on that someone associated with his publisher had come onto story hyphen games dot com, a forum I post on, and suggested that we buy RPGPundit's products because story gamers might like them.


He didn't quite see why the author believing that people that post on story hyphen games dot com were "swine" intentionally trying to destroy RPGs might affect our thinking on whether to buy his game. After all, if the game was good, why should it matter that the author considers us saboteurs and infiltrators? Couldn't we, logically, gain our greatest revenge by playing his game and enjoying it? And anyhow, haven't we, in this grand postmodern world, fully acquiesced to the "death of the author" school of criticizing texts, which posits that the author's intentions are of only glancing relevance to a text's quality?


On reflection, I had to consider this attitude capitalistic in the most admirable sense of the word. As the atheist Bible salesman said, "If you rubes are buyin', I'm sellin'!" Well, shucks, when you put it that way, mister, I'm buyin'! (Technically I got a copy free for being a Featured Reviewer, but you all knew that. You all did know that, right?) So let's talk about Arrows of Indra.


Arrows of Indra says it's an Old School Fantasy game in an "Epic Indian Fantasy World". Now, I've read some pretty epic fantasy stories from India, the Mahabarata and so on, but I don't have a lot of expertise in the area, so my analysis will be strictly from the position of the setting's playability and the stories that can come from it. Someone else will have to weigh in as an India expert to say if the game reflects the world well, or appropriately, not me.


As I mentioned in another review (Hulks & Horrors), "Old School" tends to leave me cold as a too-broad statement that encompasses too many approaches to give me a solid idea of what it's about. In fact, that's one of the main weaknesses of Arrows of Indra, it occurs on the first full page of text - it says that it's not going to try to tell me how to play.


Normally I leave "what could be improved" to the end of my review (trusting that nobody of sound mind would ever read to the end and therefore leaving readers with an unalloyed positive impression) but since this flaw is literally right up front, I think I should mention it now. This game does not present a clear picture of the role of the GM and the role of the players in the game. It doesn't indicate an objective for either of those roles. I don't think the roles necessarily need to be "defined", since yes, I do know that in an "old school" game the players say what their characters do and the GM says what happens. But I do need to know by what principles I should GM or play this game. Vampire: the Masquerade, for example, urged GMs to create Themes and Tones to help organize their game, and take careful charge of the initial situation of the characters in order to launch them on their way. Champions comes with extensive advice and even mechanics to help me realize the world of superheroes and villains. I get that people don't want to write what a GM does for the thousandth time. But what players are told to do really does matter to how the game is played; if the game is meant to be flexible, then exactly how it is flexible and how to make a decision to "flex" is very relevant to player experience.


This is probably the biggest flaw in Arrows of Indra. If a second edition were to be released, I would highly recommend more detailed descriptions and tools for players (including GMs) to make decisions about how to play the game in an enjoyable fashion.


Anyway, the introduction also reassures us that we won't need to know that much and that what's presented is not in any way considered a reflection of real religious beliefs or a description of an actual caste system. (Someday I would like someone to straight up say "this RPG contains a reflection of my personal view of this religion/political system" and see how that goes, but today's not that day.) I am surprised to find there's no "bibliography" in the game to help me develop my game further. Especially in a game based on a real-world culture and myths, I definitely would like to know where the designer feels I should go for targeted inspiration.


The character creation system includes the normal array of attributes ("4d6 drop lowest?!?! How old school can this really be?!!? flips table"), before delving into the caste features and, interestingly, a family background generator. The cool thing about the family background generator is that it contains a simple overview of what the player character can expect to inherit and when. In tons of fantasy stories and fables, inheritances play a huge role, and it's often overlooked.


Although I was being jokey about the 4d6 thing, I actually think the caste and family background generators take this game away from the "old school" experience as I've normally seen it explained. It's hard to take on the principle of disposable low-level characters when I've taken the time to generate my siblings, parents, and their social situation. That seems to me to be a more story-based approach, like the background questions in White Wolf games or lifepath generators in Cyberpunk or FATE. All in all, so far this seems like a pretty solid story-based character generation system for a fantasy adventure game.


And thank the heavens there's two pages of names. If you aren't at least a little embarrassed by the proliferation of "$1 for a list of names!" products here (and yes, I've bought and used them), then maybe you haven't clicked around the site that much. If you've got a game and you've got a culture in that game that I can't get names from the local phone book, then maybe a couple of pages of names would help. Stories are only as good as the characters in them, and if the name of a character is way off, the story is way off.


Character class selection is next. There are some things about it I quite like, other decisions are more questionable. It is possible, for example, though unlikely, for a character to not qualify for any of the character classes. (This could be fixed by altering the rule about when a player may discard a character in the ability score section: instead of handling it by a sum of the ability score bonuses and making it optional, make it mandatory and tie it to the character creation requirements.) I know that in certain "old school" games, character balance is something to be avoided rather than pursued, but it does seem rather extreme that a player who rolled random ability scores will not only gain the bonuses associated with those scores, have access to better character classes, but might even get a bonus to their XP if they got lucky enough. This doesn't seem like a good way to test player skill, to make so much ride on the random rolls at the beginning of the game. Again, some guidance on how players (including GMs) should approach in-play decisions would be very helpful to understanding the characters classes' strengths and weaknesses in various situations in their story.


I would say the best thing about the character classes is that they really make me want to play them, especially when paired with the next section.


One thing I've liked about many "old school" games I've seen is that they lack skills, or have a much-truncated skill system. As a guy who calculated half-point skills in GURPS and rubbed his forehead working out where to put an NPC's skill points in D&D3, just having characters DO things is just fine by me. However, when playing a character in a world that's very different from our own, it does help to have an idea for "what can I do in this situation". Arrows of Indra does what very few have done - it just makes the selection of skills random. You just roll on a chart and boom, that's what your character knows how to do. Interestingly, the magical effects that some of the characters can perform are also selected randomly. I love this approach, it fits right in with the quick-chargen ethos of the game. You buy your equipment and get going.


As I mentioned earlier, the "Game Master Procedures" section is more concerned with giving the mechanics of the game than in describing how you should apply those mechanics and how you should generate the situations those mechanics occupy. Task resolution adds a d20 to an ability score, with bonuses and penalties.


The same vagueness that I mentioned above infects the XP rules, though. Characters get experience for the value of the treasure they obtain and sell, not for what they hang onto or give away. (You can optionally give out some XP for "grand gesture" gifts.) This doesn't seem to fit the purpose of treasure in the fantastic India stories I've read. And it seems like it would provoke some decidedly un-Epic actions on the part of the characters. A GM may also grant XP for any reason they wish, but with no information on the specific principles of a GM in an Arrows of Indra game, I'm left with no information on what would be a good or bad reason to grant XP. This area of the rules, like the role of the players in general, needs to be fleshed out.


The surprise rules stand out as both clear and very effective. You are going to want to re-read these because they are going to be among the deadliest rules in the book. And they definitely are going to support some very wily moves by the players. (This is also in line with some of the Indian fantasy stories I've read too, the heroes there had no compunction about ambushing bad guys.)


Not knowing much about Indian myth and folklore, I hesitate to weigh in on the extensive Gazetteer section except to say that it seems like a fairly normal fantasy setting - villages and cities, wilderness and dangerous environs, and so on.


One half-step that I would like to see expanded into a full step is the description of gender roles in the world. It seems wishy-washy, saying that if a GM wants, they can permit a woman character to be free of their strict gender role and become an adventurer as in a normal party. I would prefer to see text that says bluntly that the social rules of the setting only apply to the characters insofar as the players desire - if a player wishes to be an exception to any in-fiction social rule, they should be supported in doing so by their fellow players.


There's an interesting description of a third gender role, a man who is raised and takes on the social role of a woman, and it said the opposite might be possible in your campaign as well. Again, I would like to see this area fleshed out and firmed up. Contrast for us a woman who does not conform to her social role (running away from home, learning how to shoot a bow, being real cool) and a woman who is accepted (or not) into another gender role. Still, it's a solid opening to these issues that a lot of other games don't even mention. Steps like this are vital for a game of this type, that is trying to bring us to a fantastic culture.


I love megadungeons and the Patala Underworld ties a megadungeon format to the setting's religion very tightly - the characters can literally descend to hell battling monsters and taking their treasure! That's pretty awesome. Although I appreciate the random room and monster generation tables - this is the only way to handle a megadungeon in this type of format - I do think that either they should have been greatly expanded (the chance that you'll come across the same type of magic spring more than once, for example, seems high) or, perhaps better, saved for a supplement. This would have undermined the author's goal of a one-book game from the introduction, but I think it could have better served the phantasmagorical and exciting material that I felt was over-compressed.


A monster guide and treasure and item list round out the game (the Gods and Religion section should properly be moved to the Gazetteer section). By this point it shouldn't be a surprise that the monsters are fun and you're gonna have fun interacting with them.


It has bookmarks and they're good. The character sheet, though attractive, is not very useful since more than 1/4 of it is taken up with ability scores and bonuses. It would make more sense to have more room for skill descriptions since some of those introduce new mechanics specific to your character.


All in all, Arrows of Indra creates an interesting fantasy culture and situates its adventurers in it much more firmly than the typical "old school" game. It contains all the elements of a great story game: a GM to set up a situation, players to play out their characters' actions in that situation, and the GM works out the consequences with the systems the game provides. It even puts in moral values and questions via the Holy/Unholy alignment system, reflecting favor or disfavor with the gods. It is flexible enough to handle political stories (so long as someone gets stabbed), wilderness stories, and even, with the literal descent to hell, mythic stories. As a story game, Arrows of Indra definitely delivers. (Since I already went over how it could be improved, I won't do that again like I normally do.)


As someone who the author believes to be working as hard as I can to destroy RPGs, it's impossible for me to decide if Arrows of Indra meets its goals. Am I the target audience? Surely not, surely this game was created specifically to repulse me and all swine like me. In that case, the game was a failure since I quite liked it. Perhaps its goal was to force me to play in a way that I would dislike, thereby driving me from the table. But it failed there too - if anything, it's not firm enough in its vision of what the players of the game should be doing. Hm.


Instead, let me take on that 'death of the author' postmodern capitalist attitude - let me flip through the atheist salesman's Bible.


If I separate the text from the author completely and just look at whether it appeals to me, a modern story-loving gamer, there's no way I can say it doesn't. It presents a compelling world, has cool ideas, sets them up for quick entry, and executes them efficiently. This is a world ripe for stories of adventure, loyalty and family in a culture I want to explore and experience.


Maybe you don't appreciate being called a swine and you don't want to buy a RPG by a guy who thinks you're attempting to destroy RPGs. That's understandable. Of course in a corporatist world we are all compromised and the only proper attitude towards anyone we buy things from is unreserved hostility and suspicion, as the pressure of money corrupts all human...wait, didn't I start this review praising capitalism? I think I better sign off before I make things worse. You can make up your own mind at this point, surely.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Arrows Of Indra
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SAS Support Kit (interactive version)
Publisher: White Wolf
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/12/2014 13:53:00

Let's talk about "support". What does it mean to say a game is "supported"? Normally when gamers say this, they mean that it has a long string of supplements, and more planned. There will be location books, character books, modules and campaign books. Maybe even an art book or a novel or two! Of course (since I am posting here) I have no problems with any of that (except the art book, look at me scowling, can you see how grouchy I am??), but I've always asked the question:


What would be more "supportive" of a game - a campaign book, or a collection of differently laid-out character sheets?


A campaign book is cool, you might play all of it, or some of it, or maybe you just pull a NPC or two out of it and enjoy it in pieces in your own home campaign. But a character sheet...a character sheet is literally the thing that all players will be looking at and using virtually at every moment of the game. If your layout on the character sheet is bad, or even just not to someone's taste, and you have an alternate layout that is better, or just fits the taste of a different audience, then I have a hard time saying that level of "support" is less than a 500 page campaign book. Paizo puts out a gorgeous-looking module with glossy pages and nifty looking art, but their character sheets and GM tools are still the same old d20-era stat blocks, ho hum.


Almost unheralded, though, in 2009, White Wolf, through Eddy Webb and Will Hindmarch, put out a collection of sheets that are stunning in their ability to actually assist play at the table, and shortly thereafter, this product, the interactive version, came out, thanks to White Wolf sheet superstar Mr. Gone.


The Storytelling Adventure System (SAS) was White Wolf's way of classifying and organizing it's adventure/module products, since, lacking a "for levels 3-5" label, it was sometimes hard to get across what the expectation of players in the game should be. It uses simplified stats for non-player characters and rates scenes according to the three types of attributes in the World of Darkness systems: Physical, Mental and Social.


For those like me who think that Conditions are one of the best things about the new nWoD mechanics in the recent updates to various games, the old SAS systems should give you some good ideas and show you where some of that thinking came from. On scene cards, for example, you put ideas for improvised weapons (with ratings), environmental conditions (with references to page numbers if you need specifics), bonuses and penalties that characters obtain from their interaction with the environment. As Feng Shui taught us (and FATE solidified the lesson), you are better able to inhabit your characters and imagine their environment when there's mechanical reason to do so.


The layouts include the dress for standard World of Darkness characters, World of Darkness: Innocents, Vampire: the Requiem, Werewolf: the Forsaken, Mage: the Awakening, Promethean: the Created, Changeling: the Lost, Hunter: the Vigil, Geist: the Sin-Eaters, Exalted (?) and Scion (?!?) Each game has a customizable half-page character sheet with blank skill and Merit lists, a four-to-a-page NPC sheet that uses the more generalized SAS NPC rules that have become the standard in most nWoD games, a half-page character relationship page, and four scene cards. There are a few others like a Charms page for Exalted, but those are the best.


Although the price is absolutely on target, and I'm over the moon for the ability to type in what I want on the PDF and print them looking good, there are many areas where the SAS Support Kit falls short.


Perhaps the most important is a failing that all White Wolf character sheets have had since the launch of nWoD (and somewhat even before). Just listing a single line and a rating is not, repeat, NOT a good way to get across Merits or supernatural powers. Merits basically are special, unique rules or options - and supernatural powers are often very precise and fiddly. Just putting (say) "Dominate 3" on a Vampire's character sheet actually means that Vampire has three separate powers, all with their own rules.


I've been putting Merits and Powers on index cards for my home groups for some time and it's been going well. But that's just the crude fumblings of a decrepit hermit - someone who actually knew something about user interactions and layout might have a better idea than me. Nevertheless it's SO much better than simply putting a single line on a card. Even the Charm cards for Exalted only put one Charm per line by default and that's just insane.


Another area for improvement is that the SAS ratings themselves don't truly provide much guidance. What I would like to see is some way for me to look at the character sheets of the group, note their priorities (say, 2 people were Physical-Mental-Social, one was Social-Physical-Mental and one was Social-Mental-Physical) and determine how, mechanically to set up interesting, challenging scenes that would be fair and address their interests in the game. This seems like it could be done with the SAS ratings as the first step (somehow) but right now those ratings are just arbitrary 1-5 numbers without even any particular context.


Nevertheless, you will find these forms extremely practical and helpful. You will likely use them more than that NPC that you really liked in that city book. You will use them a lot more and you will improve your game with them more. Your game will be "supported" by this product tremendously. And it's free.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
SAS Support Kit (interactive version)
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2300AD Core Rulebook Revised
Publisher: Mongoose
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/07/2014 15:40:19

I got this one in print from a local store and was psyched to see that I could also get it in PDF! Let's talk about 2300 AD and why the Traveller system is a perfect match for it. Mongoose has done a great job of bringing this gem forward and it's a terrific purchase.


Now, I played 2300 AD back in the late 1980s/early 90s. It was created to be a bridge between Twilight 2000 - a post-limited-nuclear-war military adventure game set in the far future of the year 2000 - and Traveller - a far-future libertarian science fiction game in the Golden Age of SF style. It posits a world where still-recognizable nation-states colonize and vie for control over stars near Earth. No one-world government in 2300 AD, intrigues and politics make these first few steps into the universe fraught with adventure and danger.


The upside to Traveller has always been its flexibility - with its simple system you can be mercenaries, or on a diplomatic mission, or criminals and slimeballs. But it's been fairly rare to see a fully fleshed out campaign model for Traveller. Perhaps this is because it has always attracted the do-it-yourself mindset, just as the characters in the typical Traveller campaign scrimp and scrounge whatever they can to make their way in the universe.


However, 2300 AD gives a much more specific game world, fleshing out its universe in more detail. Instead of a vast galaxy, the characters will be visiting and coping with problems on only a couple of dozen nearby stars. Events on one will propagate and cause consequences throughout the game world. No longer will the most boring Traveller adventure outcome, "we fly away from everything we just did" be a feasible way to avoid the decision-and-consequence chain that makes RPGs and stories good. The universe is not that big in 2300 AD.


That's not to say that 2300 AD lacks flexibility. There are many pages of campaign structures and ideas, from military units to spies to explorers.


There are two areas that 2300 AD could improve in, one that is general to colonial games and one that is specific to this game. Specifically, 2300 AD could improve its usefulness in PDF form by providing pages specifically for player consumption - the hex maps are a great start here, but why not do what original Traveller did and have information about planets and colonies in a form that can simply be printed out and given to the players to consult just as their characters did? Instead, information that could be accessible to characters is jumbled in with commentary and side notes for the GM. Which is fine as far as it goes, but it limits the usefulness of the text for a Traveler group used to the classic "one paragraph entry in the computer book" style of deeply in-character play.


More generally, there are lots of games that have a colonial setup that pretty solidly fail to acknowledge the moral ambiguity (or even outright evils) of colonization. Even in 2300 AD, where there are a few other alien species in the "near" stars that are the target of Earthly nations' ambitions, there just isn't any mention that in certain circumstances the players are likely to be playing the bad guys. The game does a great job of setting up a situation that evokes the age of colonization and the rivalries that spread and changed during that time frame, but doesn't acknowledge that the modern player (hopefully) has a bit more awareness of the questions and problems raised by colonization over time. Also, do characters in this setting feel that way? Is this a political question at all? 2300 AD more or less skips this whole issue. So do many other games with colonial setups, so I guess it's no worse than them. However, I'd like to see games do better in this regard.


Those are really my only two critiques of the book . The simple Traveller system has been well-examined elsewhere so just trust me when I say 1) it's solid and 2) it's extremely extensible - you can pull in careers, equipment or even new aliens and locations from Traveler supplements if you like and have no systemic problems doing so. 2300 AD presents a remarkably complete game, including things like cybernetics, genetic modification, psionic abilities and a very thorough gazetteer that should keep you going for a long time.


The original GDW 2300 AD did a good job of showing the path between the postwar Twilight 2000 and the freedom-focused Traveller and what it would be like to mesh these two ideas. As a result 2300 AD was a vivid and exciting setting for adventure. Mongoose has preserved that core recipe (though it says that it no longer is related to the Original Traveller Universe in the introduction, the underlying concepts remain the same) and strengthened it with its updated Traveller system. The layout is good and the PDF doesn't have nonsense like background images to keep you from printing what you need. (There's a few odd diagrams and art pieces that suddenly pop into color here and there, but it's not harmful to the layout.)


I loved 2300 AD back when it first came out and I love it now!



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
2300AD Core Rulebook Revised
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108 Terrible Character Portraits
Publisher: A Terrible Idea
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/07/2014 15:10:43

So let's talk about character portraits.


I've been using character portraits at the table for nearly 4 years and determined that they are among the most versatile and indispensable items to help players visualize and remember the most important parts of the game: the characters that make up the world.


I started with a Smallville game - a game where a web of characters is literally the first thing created in play. I used Creative Commons licensed portraits from flickr, photoshopped nice bold text onto them showing their names, and when I put them out on the table, people immediately recognized them. For annoying or dastardly characters, all I had to do was put them out and the players would immediately start groaning and responding. It was thrilling to see how just a visualization could help them get into the game.


Even more importantly, it helped them stay in-character. No longer were they saying "I go and talk to that one guy", they would call him by name, remember his face, refer to him in dialogue. This simple aid improved my groups' roleplay immeasurably.


This free product (free?! what?!) is 108 character portraits, in .jpg format, licensed under Creative Commons. Unlike the color photos I got from flickr, you won't need a photo printer to use these - they're bold line drawings and well-shaded with good contrast, so they will look good on your regular old normal printer. The portraits are divided into sections including "cyberpunk" and "scary" and "elf" and so on, to make it fairly easy to find the portrait you need.


As a free product in a category that has been one of my most proven methods of improving play, I absolutely give this product my highest rating. You have no excuse not to try using these! The only game that they won't improve is a game where characters do not play a central role - and that type of game is awful anyway. Put more characters in your game, people care about and respond to characters more than they do to animals or the weather or whatever it is you have in your game other than characters. And use this free product to start!



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
108 Terrible Character Portraits
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