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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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Okult
Publisher: Wilhelm's games
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 05/23/2014 17:59:56
Okult is a game that hammers hard at the boundaries between roleplaying games like Call of Cthulhu and story games like Penny for My Thoughts. While roleplaying is the main activity of the players in the game, because of the tight structure and aggressive scene sequencing there isn’t the full freedom normally associated with roleplaying games.

Okult will tell the story of return of several characters to their hometown, and facing a terrible truth from their past. If you’ve read any Stephen King novels to speak of, you will recognize the structure and key elements of the horror story. Just as the traumas and problems of our teenaged years still lurk beneath the surface of our adult personalities, in this type of horror story the literal monsters and dark secrets of our teenaged years still lurk in the home we identify with that time period in our lives.

Characters are created with a series of questions – some answered by the player that plays the character, some answered by other players, and some that are kept unanswered, so as to give the character direction in the game.

Once the characters are created, play proceeds with players taking turns setting scenes and playing out their characters proceeding to answer the unanswered questions in their lives and, of course, the question they all share, which is why they are returning to their hometown at this point in their lives. What’s interesting is that as questions are answered, new questions are asked – you should always have two questions “active” on your sheet at all times. Eventually in order to establish some of the answers to these questions there will be scenes with no main characters in them at all – in fact there will be a total of 5 such scenes, as each such scene advances the tone of the game from Normal to Scary to Terrifying on a 6-space track.

I think probably the biggest stumbling block in the game is the wide-open nature of the game. For example, with total freedom to select what a character’s main question is, it’s possible to create one that you think will be interesting but turns out not to be, or one that doesn’t drive the character forward as forcefully as others’ characters do, and you’ve inadvertently made a character that’s a drag on the game. Additionally, although the game says to ask questions to invite others to contribute, it seems like there are two poor outcomes to this that other collaborative games lack: first, you might be more intrigued by the question you’re asking than others, who simply give you an answer and don’t develop the question as sufficiently as you wish, or second, that they would leave a question you consider unimportant open, leaving it on your character sheet without much desire to resolve it.

I’m reviewer tilting this game up one star because of the use of questions as a character generation tool and a solid dedication to not just horror, but one extremely specific type of horror, one that many of us grownup gamers can relate to and that has been successful in many forms. A more solid approach to the procedures of the game and some thinking about how exactly to make sure the questions on my sheet are good at moving my character forward and interesting for everyone else would improve it dramatically.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Okult
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Hands of Fate Core Rules - Print Version
Publisher: Audio Samurai Games
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 05/23/2014 16:51:58
First, let me explain why you should throw away all those nerdy dice (except the d12, the best die) and only play RPGs with cards from now on. Card-based RPGs are better in every way, preferably playing-card-based – the probabilities can be adjusted by the system with more precision, there are more ways to shift player and GM control of a situation through hand size, refreshes, draws and plays, and in general cards are just one hundred percent better than dice in every situation forever.

Well, okay, maybe not in every situation. Designing for playing cards is harder than designing for dice (quick, what’s the probability I can deal you five cards and you won’t have a pair? Wrong.) So there’s a lot of half-baked card-based RPGs out there. And because a lot of gamers grew up rolling their nerd dice, they can’t get over a hand of cards like they can with the instant feedback of a die roll. A good friend reported to me he was grouchy over a recent playing-card based game we played because “I was looking at my hand, and thinking about the mechanics, and not thinking about the game”. Well, you could do the same with dice and a character sheet! But you learned not to, so you don’t. There’s definitely some cultural shifts that gamers have to make in order to have fun with entirely new and different types of resolution systems.

You may have passed over Hand of Fate because you saw the cover, you looked inside, saw the art was your typical low-priced fantasy art and the layout was your typical rpgnow fantasy RPG offering, but I gave it a second look because it uses playing cards and I love playing cards. I think you should give it a second look too. There are several reasons:

First, this is an exceptionally complete, concise game. It contains not only character creation, a magic section for a magic system that includes a spell list, a GM’s section giving a simple explanation of the GM’s job in the game, a monster section, a setting outline, a sample adventure and an appendix of tables, all within 170 pages. In this millennium, when there are 5-600 pages of “core” D&D or Pathfinder, it’s great to see an organized, cut-down fantasy RPG that nevertheless covers all the bases.

Second, it includes a narration-passing system to permit player contribution to scenes and situations, but puts the GM in the position of a coach or referee to help keep everyone on track with the right types of tone and content. It’s often difficult to handle narration-passing games that are using fantastic situations because the lack of boundaries means players can feel adrift, not sure whether they should use their power to contribute a new, bizarre thing or keep it down to earth. (There’s a reason the best Fiasco playset is the Nice Southern Town, for example.) Hand of Fate urges GMs to help players with their contributions with suggestive questions, providing ideas, and generally keeping things moving in the right direction while still being open to their ideas. It strikes a good balance that’s definitely needed for fantasy and which other fantastical narration-passing games sometimes lack.

Now let’s talk about the system. It’s of moderate complexity, starting with three core attributes, Power, Intelligence and Cunning, and breaking each of those out into 3 sub-attributes. By combining the various numbers of these attributes with skill ratings, you develop a relatively small number which is your Hand for a particular task. You draw your Hand, and if the cards you draw are the right type, you could get bonus cards to generate a higher total. Beat the target number and succeed at what you’re doing, gaining some of the aforementioned narrative power to describe how your character succeeds.

What’s most interesting about this system is the way that special Talents are handled. Say you have a Talent that lets you effectively smash someone with your shield (note that you can always say you’re smashing someone with your shield if you’re successful at fighting checks, this is a separate mechanic). You get to activate that Talent when you draw an Ace or Jack of Clubs – the greater rarity of the card pull means that the impact of your Talent can be dramatic – you force the opponent to discard their current best card, even if it means they don’t get bonus cards. As you improve in a talent, you can expand what cards can “activate” it. This creates a feel that makes using your special abilities exciting. You don’t feel like you’re just tapping a power, instead you’re taking advantage of an opening or exploiting an opportunity.

There are many magic systems offered, from the benedictions of calling upon gods, to sorcery based on four elements. Each has their own unique spin, which although it enhances the flavor of the magic, it does make it harder to evaluate whether it hits the same probability high points as the base system does. Indeed, the main way I can see to improve Hand of Fate is actually to simplify it – to boil down all those different magic systems into the main card pulling system. It would take a lot of work and maintaining some pretty strict rules about balancing the probabilities and potential outcomes, but I think it could be beneficial. As it stands, I don't see how one could reasonably expect a GM to grasp all the different magical subsystems. (In fact, the "monster manual" portion primarily focuses on just creating unique special effects for the monsters, a system to do that would be fine.)

All in all, this is a solid, well-put-together playing-card based game, which means that it tickles my fancy and gets a favorable review from me. There are simple bookmarks and it’s easy to navigate. I definitely recommend checking it out.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Hands of Fate Core Rules - Print Version
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Hulks and Horrors - Basic Black Edition
Publisher: Bedroom Wall Press
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 02/26/2014 22:40:29
I have never really connected with any of the "old school" RPGs that I've come across over the last few years. I thought I kinda got it in the days of Castles & Crusades but eventually I just couldn't see the point - others could and that was fine, but it was over my head. However, there have been a few games that have piqued my interest and gotten across their purposes and systems solidly enough for even a dummy like me to grasp it. Interestingly, they tend to be more science fictional than fantasy, perhaps reflecting that I didn't connect that much to fantasy novels when I was but a boy and a beardless youth, but would chew through a H. Beam Piper story without realizing that the world was still turning and a girl may have been trying to talk to me. Sorry, Jeannie.

I backed Hulks & Horrors in its first incarnation (it was unsuccessful there), so I was thrilled to see it come across rpgnow and even more excited to see that it nailed down everything it promised.

Hulks and Horrors combines dungeon crawling with space exploration, two things which might not seem to go together at first - the advantage of dungeon crawling being a constrained environment with clear choices, and the allure of space exploration being literally infinite possibility in all directions. Yet for me, one of the drawbacks of dungeon crawling was that I couldn't envision most dungeons in some modules I played in as being real places with real functions (since that time I've come to appreciate the surreal nonsense of certain dungeons in their own right), and one of the drawbacks of space exploration games I've played has sometimes been the lack of clear objectives. Combining the two is an amazing idea because the dungeon crawl aspect gives a solid objective to all player activities, and the space exploration element puts it in a context that I can connect to.

In Hulks & Horrors, the player characters are Surveyors - basically looters and scavengers on a lawless frontier. They bring important data back to galactic civilization, but the real riches are in robbing hulks (potentially ancient starships), star pirates (piles of jewels!) and maybe even the mysterious artifacts of the Ancients. It posits a universe where the characters have primarily mercenary motivations and a situation where they can exercise that to the fullest.

Characters are disposable in this game - they're generated quickly and disposed of just as quickly. The deadly situations they will get into are almost certainly going to kill player characters, but the decidedly "old school" method of rolling 3d6 for a character's stats - each assigned in order, of course - before glancing at the list of classes to see what they qualify for, picking one, and getting going, makes it so that you can just give a battlefield promotion to some faceless member of your crew and be back playing again immediately. (The adorable "Redshirt" class, which you have to choose when you don't qualify for any of the real classes, is a great idea but it doesn't seem too likely to me that it will ever get used.)

Character abilities are very broad - even a character's equipment and tools have very broad applications. This means that players are encouraged to be creative with the uses of their abilities and tools, a key factor since actual confrontation with enemies, traps ("boy, the security systems on this thousand year old ship sure are reliableerrrrrrggghh!") and so on are very serious matters.

The simple, fast-moving system will keep the game moving along. Interestingly, the DMs section is largely dominated by random tables to assist in the creation of scenarios in different types of location and facing different sorts of monsters. The monster list is evocative, and actually tells you more about the setting perhaps than anything else, something I really appreciate since conflict with monsters that tells me something about a setting is always more interesting than just hearing a GM say it to me.

If I could pick one way to improve Hulks & Horrors, I might try to integrate more system notes and "cheat sheet" material onto the character sheet.. Because the system's so simple, there's no reason to take up so much of the character sheet with just a list of 6 numbers for stats when you could, say, have a die rolling precis or a combat flowchart or something. (But maybe that's an old school thing? Who knows.) The other suggestion I might have is to provide a sample complex or hulk for exploration. Although a random star system, uh, system has an example, there isn't one for the actual meat of play, which is the very specific facility or location that the player characters are exploring/looting.

Maybe the best thing about Hulks & Horrors is the Dungeon Mastering section (and yes it is called a Dungeon Master, get over it.) It gives a clear idea of what Hulks & Horrors play is about and what the job of the DM is. Yeah, I've been a GM for a long time, but it really helps a game a lot for me to understand where the creator is coming from.

The most remarkable section in Hulks & Horrors, unquestionably, is the "optional rules" section. While the game has been diligent about telling you how to design your own spaceships, characters, star systems, facilities and monsters, it also goes into detail on rules extensions, options and different ways that you can change the rules to fit your own style or goals of play. On the one hand, this is possible because the core system is so simple - but I also think it reflects a constant, relentless focus on customization of your game experience to your table, and it's a major asset to the game.

I'm really excited about Hulks & Horrors - I have been since that crowdfunding effort long ago. I'm almost certainly going to run it at this year's RinCon. If you want a fast-moving, action-based science fiction exploration/fighting/looting RPG, this is absolutely the one you want.

Oh, and forget the haters saying they don't like this RPG because there's no art in it, it's their loss. Wait, wait, ummm.....I mean, uh, there's no pictures in this really solid, really well-crafted RPG and I almost gave it five stars just on the basis that there were no pictures. WAIT, this keeps coming out wrong. What I mean is if you want there to be art in your RPG book, there isn't any in this one. And you have bad taste. AGH, I can't stop myself. I should probably end the review before I make more people mad.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Hulks and Horrors - Basic Black Edition
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Abandoned
Publisher: Vajra Enterprises
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/22/2014 11:49:31
A glimpse behind the curtain into the mysterious world of a DrivethruRPG Feature Reviewer. We get a ton of material. We download the stuff that we think we may review. We read it carefully and if it warrants it due to our own personal idiosyncrasies, we review it. Otherwise we discard it. Some of us (me) discard practically everything, others review much more. I really only keep material if it does something interesting, or relates to a game I'm immediately playing or about to play, or a topic that I'm currently thinking about.

So when In Dark Alleys came across a while back, I glanced at it, because I'm doing a horror game right now and I'm thinking a lot about horror games and what makes a good one, and honestly I didn't really think that much about it. Abandoned appeared a little later, and for some reason I decided to check it out and oh my gosh. I am very glad that I did. This is a horror supplement that shows a real understanding of what horror is all about, so much so that I'm definitely going back to In Dark Alleys to see what I clearly missed the first time around!

Abandoned is a supplement centered around seven abandoned places: a mysterious small town evacuated by the government, a bypassed subway station, a cursed asylum, a haunted house, apartments, a cannery occupied by a monstrous liquid, and an evil tower that does not exist on Earth. What elevates it above most other horror supplements that I often see is that the monsters and awful places it presents are inextricably connected to real-world traumas, anxieties and fears.

Why is Carrie such a good novel and movie? Because of anxieties men and our society have about women and the porous borderline between helpless girl and effective woman which imposes those anxieties on us. The character of Carrie amplifies those anxieties, makes them concrete and real. Why is Alien such a good horror movie? It posits that the unknown is insanely, unrelentingly hostile, can hide anywhere - including inside us - and that the authorities are on the side of the bad guy. These are all anxieties and fears that we can still have about the unknown in our lives. We don't specifically fear an alien will kill us or that a girl's telekinetic powers will tear us to pieces even if we've been nice to her, but these horror scenarios work because they relate to fears that the real-world reader can connect with. Abandoned does the same thing.

For example, Tranquil Lake is the small town, evacuated by the government due to an alleged chemical spill. To a certain extent it's a Silent Hill stand-in, but unlike some other Silent Hill-a-likes, it recognizes that the best Silent Hill games express the psychological disconnection of the protagonists - they stumble into Silent Hill, unsure of why they're there, but the situations and creatures they face echo problems or traumas they have had outside the town. Similarly, a type of player character introduced in the game is someone who lived in Tranquil Lake and was evacuated as a child. Their strange memories and compulsions mirror to some extent those that suffered child abuse may have...and it compels them to look into Tranquil Lake's situation, giving them an intense personal stake in the matter. When we hear about child abuse we imagine ourselves as children, our helplessness, how formative those experiences are to ourselves. Even if we didn't suffer abuse ourselves, we feel anxiety about the possibility of it. We connect with characters who are compelled to find out the truth about their childhood, even if it's awful to discover.

Lots of horror games put "warnings" on the first few pages, but Abandoned absolutely needs it. These are games that call to mind childhood traumas, sexual traumas, fears about our bodies, fears about what we eat, fears of getting lost, fears of getting trapped in an enclosed space, fears of drowning...I love horror books, movies and games and I don't have a lot of actual stomach-turning moments, normally I feel glee when watching or playing through a character's horrible situations, but Abandoned had more than one time when I stopped reading, thinking "that's really scary". So I can pretty much promise you that this supplement is going to push your buttons in some way and if you don't want that, don't buy it.

The one abandoned location that doesn't have the same kind of well-directed psychological reality is the Grey Tower. This is more of a Lovecraftian Dreamlands situation, and has the problem that random exploration is punished with horrible results, so random exploration within the Tower (as opposed to trying to find out what happened in Tranquil Lake or at the cannery) is not likely to persist after a couple of attepmts, thus bypassing the rest of the material in the tower. It's the only location that's not really as well-turned psychologically as the rest.

There's also a simplified version of the In Dark Alleys system provided to make it a standalone game. Honestly, the advantage of playing a "Tranquilite" in experiencing Tranquil Lake is so significant I almost would make it mandatory. Stephen King's protagonists don't just stumble across situations - it's always related to something that happened to them in the past. More horror games should take advantage of connecting the past of the characters to the horror they're currently experiencing.

Finally, there's an introductory section detailing how to create your own horrific abandoned place, describing the mechanics of abandoned buildings and locations in the modern world, and how terrible situations may come about.

If you want a horror supplement that really understands the role that psychology plays in horror fiction, get Abandoned. At the current price (only $5), it's absolutely a steal. It surprised the hell out of me with its detail and wide variety of fears and anxieties. Now I've got to go back and check out In Dark Alleys to see if it's as good!

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Abandoned
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Thousand Suns: Rulebook
Publisher: Grognardia Games
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/20/2014 13:07:34
Although I wrote a review of some early 1KS material, the new rulebook is worth another look.

Science fiction roleplaying in the Traveller mold has been a long standing part of our hobby. However, few explicitly acknowledge or attempt to seek out mechanics that chase after the roots of this variety of science fiction. Thousand Suns, by contrast, both acknowledges and supports the classic science fiction literary underpinnings of "imperial sf".

The mechanics of the game are simple, and use the best die, the d12. If you don't like d12s, a) don't buy this game, and b) you have bad taste.

The most important part of this rulebook for me is the setting creation and GM section. These channel GM preparation into clearly, immediately actionable locations that the players will immediately want to interact with. The trade system is just random enough to give a risk of a loss, but manipulable enough to entice characters to try it. The system is also transparent enough that players can build a strategy around trade.

I do have some reservations about the systems simulating trade and planetary events because how reliable it is. What I mean is, in much of the source material sf, the characters end up on an adventure out of desperation because they lost their shirt in a business deal or in a war. The system doesn't make any allowances for this, and the principles by which GMs approach the game make it difficult to do something like this in a fair way.

If you're looking for vividly drawn, strange, sf settings, look elsewhere - the literary antecedents of this game offered a universe that was eminently recognizable to Earthlings in the 1950s. However, if you want a game about exploration, shady or somewhat blinkered PCs being put into tight situations, boostrapping themselves to free market success and shooting bad guys, this is a rollicking, fast-moving, fun adventure. I'm reviewer tiling up one star because it explicitly calls out exactly what kind of sf it is chasing after and because the speed and simplicity of a solid, workable system. Check it out and I can't wait for more to come!

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Thousand Suns: Rulebook
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Wicked Fantasy (Full Book)
Publisher: John Wick Presents
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/18/2014 17:51:03
Wicked Fantasy is a really bad Pathfinder RPG race book.

What it is instead is a really good fantasy RPG book.

And that's why you should absolutely buy it.

Let's break it down.

(Up front, I've met John and enjoyed playing RPGs with him a few times, interviewed him about Wicked Fantasy and other projects on Out of Character, and I backed this Kickstarter.)

The first Wicked Fantasy "race supplements" came out some time ago. I got copies of them in the DrivethruRPG Featured Reviewer queue, I read them, and didn't review them. The reason why was because I couldn't see how the race described could fit into a Pathfinder game. D&D3 and 3.5 were pretty generic, but not completely so - Pathfinder is much less generic and has a much more clear aesthetic for its "classic fantasy races". In the context of its classes and world (Golarion), it makes sense and is fine. So the best "new elves!" or "new orcs!" supplements for Pathfinder didn't stray too much from the Pathfinder aesthetic, whatever new ground it broke was right next door to Pathfinder, so I could put the "new orcs!" into the game world I bought from a different publisher last week, or in 1986, and it would be fine. To really be a functional product in this sense you need to not to be too different.

The orcs of Wicked Fantasy were so different that I couldn't envision putting them into most of the fantasy worlds I liked. Just try envisioning them in the Forgotten Realms, for example, one of my all-time loves. There are many good things about the Forgotten Realms, but thematic boldness sure as hell isn't one of them. Wicked Fantasy orcs would stand out like a sore thumb in such an environment. Similarly in quasi-modernistic Golarion, faux-noir Eberron, or gloom-and-doom Midnight. It didn't mean Wicked Fantasy orcs were bad, it just meant that to tell if they were good, I'd have to work up a whole fantasy world around them and I'm a broken down old man, not a young, vigorous gamer like the kids today, I don't have time for all that. So I reluctantly set them aside - as really exciting and interesting as they were, I just couldn't fairly review them.

A few months later I got word the Kickstarter was coming out. I lamented this indecision of mine regarding the quality of Wicked Fantasy material to my wife who said I was being stupid, "You just said you really liked it, so put some money in it, what's the issue?" She's always right about these things.

So I dropped enough cash on it to get the hardcopy, shut my eyes and waited. (This is the best way to handle Kickstarters by the way.)

When I finally got the full Wicked Fantasy book, everything changed. Now I could see the orcs in the context of a fully fleshed out world - these orcs make thematic sense next to these humans, these halflings, these gnomes. Indeed, the full Wicked Fantasy collection actually gives you a fully fledged fantasy world that, with the community creation rules already in the D&D and Pathfinder DMGs, is absolutely playable.

It's interesting seeing a fantasy world presented through the lens of its races. "Race" isn't the best word for all this stuff, but "species" doesn't work because that's scientific and these worlds aren't, and anyway you can totally get your elf girlfriend pregnant, so IDK. D&D calls it "race" so that's what we ended up calling it. In Wicked Fantasy, the traits of each of the races are intertwined with their origins, their legends, their history and most importantly to play, their cultures. This is a game about cultures, and characters who emerge from these cultures will be EXTREMELY fun to play with each other.

That's really what it comes down to. Wicked Fantasy is still about being adventurers - still about going into dungeons or across wildernesses - still about battling monsters and bandits - but the motivations of the characters become more fleshed out by a choice that normally just adjusts a few ability scores (death to ability scores) and changes your appearance.

The ten races covered are humans, elves, gnomes, dwarves, orcs, ratmen, kobolds, gnolls and goblins.

Here are a couple of examples that should give you some idea of why I see these cultures as so fruitful for actual Pathfinder/D&D3 play:

Humans value philosophy and knowledge - they labored under many tyrannies until they liberated themselves, created city-states and a great elected Senate to rule, along with controlling the money supply and other modernizations. However, human lands now face corruption from without and from within. They need heroes to revitalize or challenge their values. Human clerics and inquisitors may champion philosophy and intellect instead of veneration of the gods.

Halflings (called "haffuns") fled a terrible underground menace two hundred years ago and almost instantly insinuated themselves into surface society as servants and dogsbodies. They value social (and sometimes even physical!) invisibility, secrecy and partnership. When they die their families perform a ritual to keep their ghosts in the home they served. However, many challenge this culture in different ways since they have reached the surface. Their families give them bonuses depending on what sorts of professions their families have (the first time the Profession skills have ever been worth anything in D&D3 history.)

Just these two should show you the wealth of roleplaying opportunities afforded adventurers in the world of Wicked Fantasy - the human who blindly serves a decraying Republic bickering with a halfling who sees too well the injustices of the system....or perhaps a human who prefers the cool intellect of philosophy to the warm emotions of hearth and service advocated by their halfling partner. Put these partners on a quest for glory and virtue and their interactions will be memorable and exciting.

An epub version is also available in this packet, which gets a big reviewer bump up from me.

If there was anything I could list about Wicked Fantasy that could improve it, I would say it would be a section for each of the races focusing on the core, expected elements of a D&D game. Why do people from these cultures become adventurers? Why would they team up with other adventurers? What would drive them to battle monsters and obtain magic and loot? D&D4 did this, to great effect, and I think it should be something everyone is thinking of when supplementing a D&D experience. Given what D&D games are about, what specifically do you bring to that core game experience?

In any event, all together these supplements are much, much greater than the sum of their parts. You absolutely should check out this exciting world through the eyes of its well-detailed inhabitants.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Wicked Fantasy (Full Book)
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The Unburied Collection
Publisher: Buried Without Ceremony
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/20/2013 20:01:44
When I started playing RPGs, I had my favorite brands, but if you asked me who the designers were, I would mispronounce "Gygax" as a (wrong) guess and that would be it. This led to some very strange situations. When I was playing D&D with my middle school friends we were always arguing about what "the game rules really said", because in our 7th grade nerdy way we won our arguments by appealing to what we thought D&D "meant". We had no conception of what it meant to have many dozens of people work on a brand over the years between when D&D came about and when we were arguing about it. It made no sense whatsoever to expect that D&D would be the same game, or that the rules would be the same, or that it would even have the same goals over that period of time as a product, as a brand, or even as a game.

These days I try to think about RPGs and RPG products as independent to an extent. I try, especially here, to gauge what its goals are and whether it achieves them in the moment (not necessarily even whether I like it very much or not!)

So when a designer like Joe McDaldno, who puts the "ute" in auteur (don't ask me what that means) decides to put together a bundle of ALL their games, from early missteps to current classics, it's a good opportunity to see how someone's preferences, approach and thinking on RPGs can change over time, in a way you wouldn't get from becoming a fan of a property like D&D or Shadowrun.

I've already left an extensive review of Monsterhearts on that product. Go there and check it out if you want. Suffice to say it's amazing and this contains both the Monsterhearts corebook, some additional playbooks (character sheets with special rules built into them) and a miniseries called the Blood of Misty Harbor, basically an already-prepped setup for Monsterhearts. I almost feel like the key elements that make a Monsterhearts scenario go must be generated at the table so I question its necessity, but it at least shows you how a Monsterhearts campaign is set up and launched.

So let's talk about the other games:

The Quiet Year - This is a card game about a quiet year in a postapocalyptic community. It involves the physical creation of a map at the table. Although there are certain personalities that develop over playing the game it isn't really an RPG. Instead, it creates a setting, puts it in motion, gives it some troubles and they resolve or they don't. The tactile elements of this game elevate it above many other setting-creation tools that I've seen, and the unique pacing of the card mechanic for the year's events make it both suspenseful and actually makes it feel like a living, breathing place. Warning: If you don't like the ending of No Country For Old Men, A) you are not going to like the ending of this game, and B) you do not have good taste.

Like The Quiet Year, Ribbon Drive centers around an artifact, though in Ribbon Drive it's a set of music (we called them "mix tapes", ya damn kids) that is used as a soundtrack to create a "road movie" style adventure starring characters inspired by one of the mixes. Although it's very freeform, it avoids a lot of problems of freeform games by putting interesting restrictions in. For example, anyone can speak up if it would make sense for their character to be in a scene, but the last person to speak up is the one that can introduce an obstacle. If nobody can use their traits to overcome an obstacle, the group takes a Detour and the mix changes to one prepared by someone else. The use of musical inspiration means that you might even change genres if the imagery or emotion of the music is strong enough. Another interesting restriction is that the characters can't talk about the future except for the two potential futures you select for each character at character creation. This avoids the problem many freeform games have of meandering along with no goal. You will always be thinking of the potential outcome of the game!

Two "hacks" (we used to call these "campaign supplements", ya damn kids) are included, one for Firefly-a-like country-science fiction (a clear omission in this case is an ironclad requirement that only country/western music be permitted in the mix tapes) and one for slasher movies. These are fine, but at least the slasher flick one is a bit unnecessary - you can do a horror-themed road movie just by choosing the right music and discussing it up front.

Heart of Ashes: This is a "coloring book" and RPG that uses some Apocalypse-World-like mechanics (moves, playbooks for the young characters) to tell a story of character who gains magic power and travels to another world. One thing it does do a little better than a lot of AW-style games is that it uses tags ("Keys" here) much more effectively. However, other than that I don't think that the situation is well-detailed or the mechanics as well-connected to the target fiction when compared to other, successful AW-style games (including Monsterhearts.) It's worth checking out, especially for the playbooks, but perhaps not the strongest entry in the catalog.

Abnormal: "A game about body horror". This one is actually new to me from the bundle. Body horror is a subgenre of horror that I have most experience with from the movies of David Cronenberg (though perhaps the most well-regarded recent film with body horror elements is Black Swan.) This game puts firm roles on the players: a Watcher, who experiences the horror, the Horror itself, which spreads its infection and influence, attempting to overwhelm the Witness, and Supports, who try to ground the Witness in reality (and who may end up being victims.) The most interesting thing about this game from my perspective is the pacing. The Horror has two "winning" endgames - one where it completely consumes the Witness and another where it is permanently entwined with the Witness. The Witness and Supports succeed if they reclaim the Witnesses' life from the horror. Interestingly, the Witness describes primarily their thoughts and the Horror describes primarily their sensory experiences, and although the Witness describes their actions in a general sense, the Horror describes how they may probe and sense into the horrific world. Each side takes turns, rolling to see how and what types of manifestations occur or are battled. I'm not actually a fan of body horror in general, but this one seems to be a solid adaptation that I might like a little better than the source material.

Rookvale is a "grimdark Pokemon" strategic RPG about traveling through a fantastic realm which is being invaded by evolving demons. On the GM's turn, they move, introduce and evolve demons on a map of the kingdom - players then respond by determining where to go, which demons to try to defeat (and which, naturally, to capture). Rookvale got a lot of internet forum press (arguments) because of its six genders for characters. Folks, if you're already believing in a gothic fantasy realm where demons invade and you have to team up to battle them, it shouldn't be a giant stretch for you to imagine it's also a society with different gender roles. And gender matters in this game - you will see from the mechanics how different genders produce teamwork effects in battle, while still situating them in the well-sketched fantasy world. Probably the best thing abut Rookvale is the pacing. The pressure is on to nail the demons before they evolve too far to capture or defeat.

Good Parents and Three Days are very tightly constrained mini-games. Good Parents is for three people, who portray a couple with a child who have split up, and the "new stepparent". Leading, forceful questions make an untentable situation, and over several scenes the three characters must make decisions about how to deal with each other. I very much like the "use this as a covert LARP at a convention" rules, where you invent a hand signal to show that you want an interaction to be in character, and get to it.

Keep It Sunny is a jaw-droppingly on-target "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" adaptation that focuses on the kind of "loathing comedy" that show specializes in. I really don't like that show or that kind of comedy but you absolutely must see how the questions and character options make both the comedy and the game work.

Three Days is a game in which two players portray two characters - one who is smitten with the other, and the second who is more tentative about their feelings. The person playing the tentative player, no joke, knits as a way of expressing what their character is feeling at various times during the interactions. Yes, you literally knit something as a mechanic in this RPG. That is completely mental. (I don't have anyone I can play this game with, my wife CROSS STITCHES!! *flips table*) But it also is a subtle signal that the players can use to gauge and fire up their imagination - when the player of the tentative character reaches for a "negative" color of thread, the player of the smitten character doesn't need a cue, or to read a cue, in the words of the other player. They know the other character is feeling negatively!

Three Days makes you knit and Rookvale has six genders, but now I'm gonna talk about the REALLY weird games in this bundle. Ready?

Teen Witch and Brave Sparrow: In these single-player LARPs (you have no idea how long it took me to formulate that this is what they were), you are asked to take on and immerse yourself in the identity of a teenage (young woman) witch and a sparrow cursed to be in human form. You interact with things in your house or in your normal experience in the persona of these characters, which are themselves facets of you. You seek out locations to play and eventually try to bring other people into the game as well. These two games really push the envelope of what roleplaying can do. They demand that you immerse to a tremendous degree, and to do so, at least at first, alone, away from a table and friends.

Now I thought I was a cool, experienced roleplaying dude. Yeah, I'm a GM, so I've played a teenage girl with magic powers before, what about it? No big deal, right? Right. But the whole idea of doing it alone carried with it a massive load of very weird vulnerability. Shouldn't it be the other way around? Shouldn't I be more worried about what I do among my friends at the gaming table than what I might think alone in my mind? Oh no, definitely not, I discovered. Definitely not. If you enjoy immersion in your roleplaying at all, I urge you to read these games and think about what your reaction to them means about your normal roleplaying experience. Not to mention that both of them playfully have you practice doing things like recognizing beauty in your life and coping with negative emotions, so that's cool too.

After these two games it seems almost anticlimactic to mention there's a couple of Apocalypse World things in here: a playbook (the Grotesque) and a slimmed-down version (Simple World.) Meh, whatever, Apocalypse World is a fun game I guess but I ain't here to play THAT.

Finally I want to mention that the bundle contains games that the designer is now "less than excited about" and one that they designed and is now "actively embarrassed about". There are interesting to see how they relate to the goals and mechanics of the other games. Snakes & Ladders: Deluxe Advanced Edition just seems ill-conceived. Deserting Paradise I actually quite like - it brings the oppression of Perfect, Unrevised into a modern punk-supernatural world, and pairs it with a Grand Theft Auto-like escalation system for the authorities ("The Man") of that world.

The game the designer is actively embarrassed about is Gun Thief. In a "Concerns.txt" they now see it as actively misogynistic. This criticism seems valid - also, from a gameplay perspective, the three roles of the three players in the game do not have the same kind of directed friction as the set roles in Three Days or Good Parents, and without that friction there is no real benefit to the limitations of the roles. It's best classified as an interesting game that misses the mark in several ways.

The elements of McDaldno's design are easier to see in a collection like this: the use of crafts or creating artifacts as central elements of preparation or play, the use of strongly defined character roles and unique mechanics for each of those roles, subject matter that includes romantic and relationship, and experimental mechanics and setting material. These are things you can really only see in a bundle like this, rather than trying to track a brand or a property over time, we see what a singular designer thinks about various types of games and gaming.

You really owe it to yourself to give these innovative, exciting games a look. It's perhaps the best bundle on the site. Now let me drop my mike and go look for some sparrow feathers.

(An earlier version of this review was posted today, with some mis-pronoun-ciations and a couple of typos.)

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Unburied Collection
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Shadowrun: Street Legends
Publisher: Catalyst Game Labs
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/02/2013 00:00:00
I may be reviewer tilting this one a little high, but Street Legends does something very unusual that a lot of other NPC collections don't: they situate the NPCs within relationships with other characters. At its strongest, this creates characters that will evoke strong reactions in your players. But it doesn't quite hit the mark every time. Let's break it down.

Street Legends is a collection of 2-4 page descriptions of figures in the Shadowrun universe. Having checked out of Shadowrun early in second edition and only now coming back, I don't have a huge amount of knowledge of the Shadowrun universe or whether any of these people were important in the various novels, computer games, comic books or modules that have come about in the intervening 15-20 years. This makes me the ideal audience for an NPC book. The only fascination I can feel for these characters is strictly based on their utility at the table.

First, there's a nice variety of stat levels. There are characters who are just "at the start" of their shadowrunning career. Most are somewhat more experienced - some are frankly loaded down with magic and resources. None feel like they couldn't be a player character after some effort and time (except for the dragon.)

Second, there's a good variety of origins and statuses, ranging from non-persons who make an effort at erasing everything they do to globally famous celebrities, from privileged origins to run-down blanks. I feel like I get an idea of what sorts of people the player characters are likely to become after I read Street Legends.

Third, there's a good sense of the characters' various backgrounds. Even the characters I don't find compelling (see below) have enough details and information that I get some idea of the things they've done, and from their stats they seem like they could do those things potentially with some help, or perhaps with some exaggeration of the story.

That takes me naturally to the main point of this review, which is that Street Legends at its best speaks clearly through the voice of a character in the Shadowrun universe. One of the conceits of several Shadowrun books is that the information in the book is "presented" on a private Matrix board where various personalities argue, converse and provide each other with intel and stories. The best Street Legends are entries that permit us to learn not only about the character they're talking about, but the character that's "writing" about them. The two rival cat burglars who have written each other's snotty/adoring entries are a perfect example - as is the entry on Puck, which can be summed up as "this guy screwed up and everyone in the world hates him (within the margin of error)". Not only am I attracted to the voice of a character rather than a dry editorial voice, since I already have a Shadowrun corebook, I now have at least one relationship for the character to begin with.

Relationships are the core of cyberpunk (actually they are the core of almost all literature) - a cyberpunk protagonist is crushed between the soulless mechanisms of the world and the human feeling that pushes them to the edge. So it was a real pleasure to find in Street Legends information about love affairs, political causes, rivalries and vendettas. I'd say that a solid 80 percent of the entries in this book have solid relationships that help me see the character through a lens of emotion and put them in an interesting position as a result.

Street Legends doesn't hit the bullseye exactly, though. Some of these characters, while interesting in their own right, don't create actionable gaming material. As an example, the two rival cat burglars create a great dynamic between the two of them, but other than observing it (and probably saying "get a room"), there's not much that player characters can do about it and not many ways that the relationship will affect their game. Instead, what if these two criminals who are obviously obsessed with/into each other have significant others - each of them trying to stop their girl/boyfriend's obsession and clear them off the board. Now we have something where someone can hire a PC to do something about a situation rather than just constantly one-upping each other.

This isn't really a unique fault of Street Legends - a lot of NPC books fall into this trap (and, as a friend pointed out on Twitter, virtually all of some classic game settings like Over the Edge). The purpose of an NPC book should be to give me someone that I can use via the corebook to create actionable situations for the player characters. In a game like Shadowrun that means not only that they have interesting action-adventure abilities (since Shadowrun is an action-adventure game), but that they have some problem, flaw, or drawback that requires them to cope with the player characters in some capacity, either as allies, enemies or obstacles. This is especially important for supposedly "mysterious" characters - I actually am much more interested in Puck than in the dang dragon in this book for exactly that reason! A guy that everyone in the world hates is someone who is going to be real interesting in the same room with the player characters because I don't know what the characters will do. A mysterious figure with an unknown agenda? A guy that maybe did something in some other conflict years ago? Well, how can I really care about that? And if I can't, how can the players?

Even when you take this into account, Street Legends actually does much better than a lot of other NPC books - I'd say a solid half of the characters in the book have an immediate need or problem the PCs could pop up on one side or the other of. And I was able to come up with simple ways to improve many of the other NPCs in this fashion because the background and capacities of the characters are presented well.

For example, the first entry in the book, "Agent", is a disinformation guy in a South/Central American war, who has a mysterious cyberarm that the various fictional "contributors" argue about. Since he's a disinformation/psyops guy I have to give him a problem that he can't solve with disinformation - or maybe that he can only make worse with disinformation. Simple - I say that even he doesn't know how he got the cyberarm or where it comes from or why it doesn't interfere with his adept abilities, and everywhere he looks someone is just telling him what he wants to hear. Boom, a perfect reason he needs a bunch of weird magical people with machine guns (PCs) to help him out. And there's plenty of reason them digging around on him might create a lot of problems for him, the PCs, and those surrounding them.

I should note that I have this book in print - every character is vividly realized in a full-length portrait. Even if you're like me and trapped with a group that categorically refuses to play at a table, it's big enough to hold up even in a wide living room and get a good idea of the colors and appearance of the portrait. (I still don't like any dang art in books that are part of a verbal hobby but WHATEVER it's real good okay.)

As I was writing all this up I realized the bottom line is that I think my four stars are right on target. Street Legends is more than solid because of its approach to characterizing NPCs through each other, through trying to connect them to the web of shady relationships and gossip that should make up the world of the PCs as well as the world Catalyst is presenting. In other words, in the future, everyone is just a sum of their Twitter mentions. Let's do this.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Shadowrun: Street Legends
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Shadowrun: 10 Mercs
Publisher: Catalyst Game Labs
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/16/2013 13:20:12
What makes a good Shadowrun supplement? After having reconnected with the game after many years away, I've looked at a lot and talked to a lot of players. Here's what I concluded: a Shadowrun supplement is best when it relates to and challenges the core reward cycle of the game. That core reward cycle is: engage in exciting/dangerous/shady activity -> get paid -> shop -> engage in more exciting/dangerous/shady activity, and it's very well supported. It's the rare Shadowrun campaign that actually takes on large-scale military operations as anything more than just a condition, like the weather, that has to be taken into account to handle the job. And that's the challenge that "10 Mercs" has - not writing interesting fantasy-cyberpunk military units for hire, because that's pretty easy (and fun). But instead the challenge is to keep it relevant to Shadowrun and what player characters would be doing.

"10 Mercs" is at its best when it is giving us something actionable, something that player characters in a typical Shadowrun game would interact with or care about. That means a corporate/criminal objective, or some kind of personal stake that someone has in the activities of the mercenary companies.

This means that (for example) the 58th Battle Brigade, which is a former military unit that's now scavengers and enforcers for a crime syndicate, is a great addition because I can immediately envision multiple problems they could cause for shadowrunners, or issues they could create that would require shadowrunners to resolve. Even the 77th Independent Rangers, which are pretty generic shootymans, are actionable because of the personal conflicts and loyalties that are showed off in the sidebars and in-character inserts that are the most fun part of any Shadowrun supplement. The 180th Independent Air Regiment entry focuses, I think correctly, on their rescue and exfiltration operations since those will be the circumstances in which most PCs will encounter them.

On the other hand, it means the Free Marine Corps, which is fairly generic, is not well-turned. All the business about their origin as a breakaway unit of a bigger military outfit isn't really acitonable insofar as there's no real chance a team of shadowrunners is going to be making significant changes to their operations. New Assets is also a misfire, since the whole point of buying a supplement like this is to generate situations for shadowrunners to go into, not to create other shadowrunners. Task Force Magus is not well detailed enough to show me how mages organize themselves differently (if they do), so it's not even a great example.

All in all, "10 Mercs" has around half the entries that are solid and directly on point, another 2-3 that are interesting for aficionados of the world, but not very actionable in play, and another 2-3 which are just boring. Even among the least interesting entries, though, are inserts describing new tactics, equipment and connections that are all absolutely rock-solid tied into that reward cycle. If I'm gonna kidnap a guy off a boat, it makes sense that I'd want a superscience "body bag" I can zip him into and toss him into the ocean for later retrieval. Now that's Shadowrun!

"10 Mercs" is solid and small touches like this make it a pleasure to read and very useful for your Shadowrun game.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Shadowrun: 10 Mercs
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Shadowrun: Fifth Edition Core Rulebook
Publisher: Catalyst Game Labs
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/11/2013 18:30:59
Shadowrun was the first game I ever turned my nose up at.

Oh, uh, okay, that's a bad way to start a four-star review. Let me go over in some detail why that's relevant and why it makes me rate Shadowrun 5e as I do.

It's 1989. The whole world is changing. The Berlin Wall is coming down. Acid rain is a problem. Ayatollah Khomeini places a bounty on the head of Salman Rushdie. (A Republican President enacts a gun control measure?!) It's been five years since William Gibson's Neuromancer, and young JD is just old enough to read and understand it. Cyberpunk encapsulated the post-nuclear fears and anxieties of the 1980s - okay, so maybe we weren't going to blow ourselves up, but we weren't going to reach the stars either. We were just going to screw each other over for money, like we always had.

So there were two major cyberpunk games that came around at that time: Cyberpunk (2012 and then 2020...remember when 2012 was "the future"?!?) and Shadowrun. I played them both. I preferred Cyberpunk. It was clear to me at that time that the core of cyberpunk was a noir aesthetic - the troubled antihero, a toxic relationship, a technological misifre, all combining for bad purposes. The glitter and glitz in a cyberpunk world was unquestionably a bad thing - corporations and their mercenaries were bad guys - they made the world worse. The most memorable weapon in any cyberpunk novel, after all, was a sawed off shotgun in a duffel bag. You have to be crude to be technical.

So neither Cyberpunk 2020 nor Shadowrun really had what I was looking for but Cyberpunk 2020 at least was closer. Adding in magic and swords and elves just made 14 year old me roll my eyes. I was better than all that dammit. ("Of course I play D&D, why do you ask?")

Nevertheless, I did play Shadowrun in editions 1-2, and even owned a copy of Shadowrun 1e at one point. My favorite character archetype, for reasons that should be clear from the above, was the low-cyberware, no-magic detective, who acted, talked like, and had the ethos of a hard-boiled 1950s private eye. Not a single group ever had a clue about what the hell I was doing in the game. Somewhere between editions 1 and 5, the no-magic Detective character archetype disappeared, and as much as I enjoyed my 1e character, I can't say it's a bad decision (see below for why that is.)

These days, cyberpunk's relevancy is different. The smartphone in everyone's pocket changed everything, but the corporatization and consumerization of increasingly global culture was just as inevitable as we thought and feared. And as an older, more relaxed dude, I am fine with elves and orks and whatever in cyberpunk if it makes for a good game. I don't need to be loyal to William Gibson anymore. He'll do all right without me, a concept my 14 year old self could not grasp in his fierce loyalty to what was Right, Dammit. So when a friend insisted she really loved Shadowrun (I mean REALLY LOVED Shadowrun) I figured I should give it another look and the core 5e book was the ideal time for me to jump back in and see what's what.

I was able to recognize quite a bit from my 1e days. Character creation is done by assigning priorities to different aspects of the character: magic, equipment, skills, and so on. You can be a human, ork, elf, troll, or dwarf. The system is a die pool system with successes counted, using handfuls (sometimes double handfuls!) of six sided dice. You roll them and count 5s and 6s (and sometimes, for bad outcomes, 1s.) The core system seems solid. Complexity is iterated in many ways, with different layers of equipment, implants and magic manipulating your die pool (and your opponent's) in various ways.

Some other reviewers have commented negatively on Shadowrun's complexity. I understand the theory: this is a pulp action game about orks in armor-plated three-piece suits with machine guns and swords fighting dudes, so why the hell do I need to roll to attack, the bad guy rolls for dodge, I roll for damage, then they roll to absorb the damage; there's plenty of other systems out there where I just roll once, or not at all, and we go on to the next thing? There's a good reason for this complexity, which I get to a bit later when I discuss the reward cycle of Shadowrun. It is definitely not a downside, but yeah, if you like simple RPGs, go somewhere else.

There are many specialized subsystems, from hacking vehicles and computers (and computerized weapons, even those carried by your enemies) to magical summoning and vehicle combat rules. No starting player should be expected to learn all of these - GMs should introduce them one at a time. If a character is a magic-based character, give them the basics of magic and have them defeat some bad guys using just those basics before you start introducing weird stuff.

The Matrix system seems much more intuitive and straightforward than I remember 1e being (thankfully). A significant amount of functionality in the Matrix is reduced to putting "marks" on things and manipulating them in various ways. You know, like the spyware you probably have sitting on your hard drive right now! It's clear to me that Shadowrun has benefited from some actual experience with what the Internet turned out to be.

The world of Shadowrun is sketched very simply but vividly. I have the advantage of having forgotten damn near everything in the years since 1989 (not just things related to Shadowrun, sigh). So I can get excited about a crazy map (also available on Catalyst's site for free download) and imagine what Aztechnology is like from the name and the three line description of it rather than worry about what was in a supplement somewhere in 2002. Yet I can go to those supplements if I want more information. I appreciate that the world is described in ways that focus on the experiences of the player characters. It's a world where things are just unrecognizable enough to give me permission to make it my own. "A war zone in San Diego?! What is that like? That sounds amazing! I wanna do a mission in wartime San Diego!"

I'm annoyed to find the "magic Native American" thing has survived. When I was 14 I was too dumb to see what a bad idea this was. It's fairly easy to alter in a home game if (like me) you are squicked/grouchy about appropriation/oversimplification of the huge diversity of native beliefs in various urban fantasy works (not just Shadowrun by any means.) Don't get me wrong, it's pretty great to have a North America dominated by resurgent tribal alliances who survived the breakdown of previous national governments. But do some work to look at and think about what that would be, even sixty years later (and in a world where native families may include elves and trolls.) I won't go into a ton more detail, just point you to Google - there's lots of native voices out there who are discussing this issue (again, with respect to all fantasy media, not just Shadowrun) and there's a lot to learn from listening to them that can only improve your Shadowrun experience.

That leads me into the other critique of Shadowrun I have, one ironically I developed more as a grownup rather than as a 14 year old. The typical Shadowrun experience is that the characters are hired by a shady personage to do some shady deed in a dangerous but deniable way. They are then paid and they get more cool equipment, magic or improve their lifestyle so that they can be hired to do something more shady, more dangerous and, naturally, more lucrative.

Before I go further, I should note that the Shadowrun system in the 5e corebook nails down this cycle really hard. The complexity of the system is tied to this reward cycle extremely tightly. It matters in this system whether you get your reflexes boosted, whether you improve your armor trenchcoat, or if you toughen your skin with biological modifications, even though the end result of all three is that you take less damage in combat. The reason the system differentiates these is so that you can have fun shopping for, building, stealing or looting various combinations of these advantages. Nobody ever got excited in FATE switching a +1 gun for another +1 gun. But in Shadowrun you can get a gun that maybe gets you to fire just a tiny bit faster, but not quite so accurately, or a gun that is better at very-short ranges, and so maybe that gun's better for the job you're going on in the Qwerty UI Corporate Headquarters, well known for being a maze of twisty passages all alike. 5e really grabs onto this level of complexity and differentiation and runs with it. Without this level of complexity, the reward cycle wouldn't be as effective.

But in the Shadowrun setting it's clear that people who do this kind of shady work for the corporations are part of the problem, part of the forces making this world terrible. It's hard to get me, at this point in my life, excited about playing a game where the game world would simply be better off if I didn't play, unless there's some mechanical point to doing so - although White Wolf vampires are awful monsters, the Humanity struggle keeps me from feeling like I would be doing the right thing by not playing. In Shadowrun, greed has made the world ugly for so many millions of people for so many decades, and greed is exactly what your character must possess in order for the reward cycle of job -> pay -> cooler gear -> better job to work. (When I was 14, I didn't care - I was dreaming about all the cool stuff I wanted and a game to scratch that imaginary itch was just right.)

So it's to a GM's advantage to really think about this reward cycle and what you want to do. If you've just got a bunch of rowdy players who are really in it for the tactical challenge, then you're good to go. If you're just doing a one-shot and you're only going to cycle through it one time, you're fine. But if you have people like me who will be looking for other motivations, it will be to your advantage to think about what other things shadowrunners could be fighting for or against, other situations that could force them into taking Just One Last Job, or ways to subvert or alter that cycle to the benefit of others.

(This is also why the Detective needed to be cut or at least turned into the magical Occult Detective - someone who rejects the whole premise of the game setting may be fun for 14 year olds like young JD basically trolling their best friend's Shadowrun game, but it's not the best idea to try to get characters on the same page.)

The only other nitpick I have is that as a PDF, there are several pages with sidebars with colored backgrounds and white text, which are hard to print out effectively. But in general the PDF is very high quality: well-bookmarked, the text is selectable for copying and pasting key passages, and although it's large (since the book is long), it seems well equipped for at-the-table use or between-sessions reference.

It may sound like I'm a bit down on Shadowrun, or that I'm giving it backhanded praise. That's not my intention. 1e was a landmark product in the hobby and 5e preserves and expands that legacy. Although 5e is complex, it's complex for a good reason tightly tied to the cycle of play. It's imaginative and action-packed. The setting material is evocative without being too constricting. It's clear that Catalyst continues to work at improving the system and making things like hacking and magic more interesting and comprehensible. And frankly $20 for a 477 page book of this thoroughness and density is a brilliant price.

I can't forget to mention the cool one-page "random run generator" at the end. This is the most fun page you'll ever have in any Shadowrun book. Roll on it a few times and you'll find you're smiling with how eager you are to try out the results.

Shadowrun is an exciting game with a lot going for it. You might hit a few bumps here and there, but hopefully you can navigate them as I think I have. I'm psyched about running my first Shadowrun game ever, and I'm going to use the 5e corebook!

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Shadowrun: Fifth Edition Core Rulebook
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A Nights of the Crusades Chapter - The Tower by the Sea
Publisher: Aetheric Dreams
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/29/2013 15:44:29
As Nights of the Crusades was recently honored with an ENnie nomination, I thought it would be a good time to check out one of their modules, The Tower By The Sea. There's a lot of good things going on in this adventure, but I'm going to start with something that may seem inconsequential - only a sentence or two - but is important, and rarely done:

In the first introductory paragraph, this product tells you how to use it. It says if you're using it in PDF, keep the bookmarks pane open so you can easily move from spot to spot. First of all, thank you for bookmarking, but more importantly, even if you do bookmark, the advice for your expectations of what I'll be doing with this product is very helpful. Even more in the future would be appreciated. How best should I use this supplement? Should I print out a page, should I leave it on the screen..should I show the players part or all of the supplement or keep it hidden? All these questions are generally unanswered in modules and supplements alike, so it's great to see a work actually say "do this, it will help."

Not to mention that there are other PDF features that make this work very useful at the table. Items, locations and NPCs are all hyperlinked thoroughly - forget who someone is? Click or tap on the NPC name and go right to a description of them!

Organizational material aside, this is a fantasy adventure in one of my most favorite veins. I've been excited by the fantastical 1001 Nights since I was a child, and rather than Tolkien or Howard, it's the Arabian adventures that always drove my forays into fantasy. I've constantly searched for more in gaming in this area, from D&D's Al-Qadim to the Caliphate Nights of True20.

A unique opening makes this adventure feel like a tale from the Nights - the player characters are badly hurt or fatigued from a monstrous sandstorm, and are nursed back to health by a kindly, mysterious old healer. I don't think I'm giving anything away when I say the healer may not be all she appears to be.

Although the adventure is detailed along a timeline of events which the player characters must navigate, there are two elements of the structure of the module that are unusual and contribute greatly to the excitement.

First, each of the NPCs, while it has the normal stats for each of them, has a dispositional table that shows what the NPC might reveal or do for player characters once they have gained sufficient favor with them. The mechanics of Nights of the Crusades are such that the players will want to get into social situations with NPCs and trade stories with them - just like the characters in the Arabian Nights do! This module really makes that concrete. Once you know that the NPCs are set up like this, you have a real incentive to try to play to each of them to find out what they've got hiding back behind the GM screen ready to assist you with.

Secondly, unlike many timeline adventures, there's also a location thoroughly detailed as well. If you preferred a more sandbox or open-ended approach to the material, you could simply invert it - start with the characters exploring the situation and layer in the events as needed instead of having them explore the location based on motivations introduced in the timeline.

If I had to pick areas of improvement, I would say that there's a few grammar issues I spotted here and there, and the GM's summary of what's happening should be more detailed in the introduction, so we actually have some idea of what's coming. As it is, one of the NPCs undergoes a significant change during the game, but the links all take you to the pre-change stats and information regarding the character. This makes it hard to track.

I'm really impressed by the Tower by the Sea. I feel it really captures the flavor of an Arabian Nights adventure - stories within stories, social interaction and gaining favor with allies as a core mechanic, and secrets and magic around every corner. After reading it I'm excited to see what happens next in the line!

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
A Nights of the Crusades Chapter - The Tower by the Sea
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Portentous Dreams
Publisher: Raging Swan Press
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/12/2013 13:04:13
This is a low-cost, short supplement that gives simple, specific advice on a particular staple of fantasy adventures - dreams - and does so in a straightforward, effective way. At only 6 pages of actual content (assuming we count the introduction), don't expect a massive tome or a major way of changing how you play the game or magic. However, if you want to provide a crafted dream that expresses something about the experience of the characters, this is a good supplement. It begins with an introduction detailing a creator's history with dreams in fantasy fiction, and goes quickly into an explanation of principles for how GMs should decide to implement dreams in their game. It's true - when you describe a dream a character has and the player later connects that dream to something happening in the character's waking life, the player is always thrilled, and sometimes creeped out!

Next are several tables of dream imagery that you can use for your game. This section could be improved by describing specifically how to alter the tables to connect with the cultural underpinning of your own setting. Black may be a sinister color in our culture, but perhaps in your fantasy world it is considered noble or even godly - its meaning in a character's dream should be colored (ahem) by the culture and experiences of the character. On the other hand, this can be taken too far, you don't want to have the player see their character as too alien or from a culture they don't have any instinct for or can't understand, even in their dreams.

There's a new feat that will give interested characters a game mechanical push into oracular dreams and several thoroughly described oracular dreams for common campaign occurrences. (This section appears to be missing a header, at least in the Screen version of the supplement.)

Portentous Dreams is a solid start on incorporating dreams into your fantasy adventure campaign. There are aspects that could be improved and certainly expanded, but for the (currently $2) price, it's worth checking out. It does include both print and screen versions, as well as bookmarks, but this isn't really necessary (or that helpful) given the minimalistic art and extremely short length of the product.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Portentous Dreams
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