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Convention Book: Syndicate
Publisher: Onyx Path Publishing
by Andrew M. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 08/02/2013 16:32:17
Convention Book: Syndicate raises the bar for Mage: the Ascension supplements even higher than the Convention Books that came before it.

Following the style of most of the other books in the cMage line, the story of the Syndicate in 2013 is told from a combination of subjective in-character and objective out-of-character perspectives, but everything is geared toward giving the Convention a chance to explain themselves, to try and convince you that even if you consider the Cash Baskets a net loss for the Technocratic Union and for the world, they are most certainly not just moustache-twirling corporate fat cats trying to get rich off of the Awakened's hard work.

The first chapter covers a lot of history. The saga of the founding of the Technocracy is retold from the perspective of the Syndicate, starting with the Brotherhood of the Rule in Rome, and working all the way through the ups and downs of the volatile market that is consensus reality, right up through the late 2000s recession and the promising new markets of 2013. There's even more of a very human, sympathetic, narrative voice in this story than in the academic analyses of the NWO or the clinical diagnosis of the Progenitors, because the Syndicate considers themselves to be the face of the Union, working on the ground level and understanding better than anyone else in the Technocracy the logistical and pragmatic needs of the day to day operation that is selling the masses the reality they want to buy.

The history covers the same basic facts that every telling of the Technocracy's history covers, but with details relevant to the Convention filled in, and also serving some important purposes that gives the book its soul. The Syndicate, and the High Guild before it, have been betrayed and screwed over in ways no other Tradition or Convention has ever been, and this part of the story is told more clearly than in any cMage book before, There's a clear and coherent progression from past to present which explains exactly why they act the way they do, and what they think about how it turned out. They're aware of how underappreciated they are, and not too happy about it, but that's the price they're willing to pay in order to be the ones who control the Union's mundane details while the other Conventions are off dreaming about their Utopias.

The other major win in the first part of the book is that the Syndicate's philosophy and paradigm gets a much more detailed explanation. Numerous pages and sidebars explain how *and* why the Syndicate is much bigger than money - so much the case that money is actually a minor element of their true purpose, and how they're hoping to phase out money someday and run the world on a pure and objective system of value.

The second chapter, like the other Convention Books, is a look at how things are done today. No completely new Methodologies here (there's no room in the budget or the Time Table for that sort of funding sink project), but the existing ones get a lot more clarity and some character that makes them relate-able and playable. The structure of the Syndicate is explained as well. The Dimensional Anomaly forced them to scrap the old model, but the new blood in the Syndicate is pretty confident that the old model was too dated to survive. To be successful, a corporation must adapt to the needs of the market, and so goes the Syndicate.

The third chapter is once again the chapter of new toys and characters. It's full of value and fun (and some very amusing and relevant references), but the killer app here is a new take on the Prime sphere that is unique to the Syndicate. It's called Primal Utility, and it re-casts Prime as the ineffable stuff of pure possibility and objective value - let the Traditions and the other Conventions keep thinking that it's some sort of mana or rocket fuel, in the meantime the Grand Financiers recognize that what they're really working with is the ultimate Liquid Asset. Primal Utility does away with solidified tass and primium tanks and focuses on the advantages gained by expressing Quintessence and Nodes in completely abstract, symbolic terms, which are much easier to represent on a budget request or transfer to an offshore account.

One other thing that struck me is that, like Convention Book: NWO, there are a lot of extra bits and pieces of value that are relevant to the Technocracy at large. Some of the shorter sections and sidebars provide answers to some of the head-scratching or game-stopping questions that the esoterica of cMage can generate, as well as some hints about what else is going on in other parts of the post-Revised Mage-verse.

Like the other Convention Books, this one seems ready to support this Convention as heroic or villainous, though as compared to Progenitors and NWO, there's less depiction of outright villainy. I have not yet found anything in this book that equates with things like Room 101 or the brutal and dehumanizing Processing rote, but to be fair the Syndicate's evil side has gotten plenty of screen time in the past, and this book does not look at the Syndicate through rose-colored mirror shades. Past mistakes and evil on the Financiers' part is admitted, but also justified as necessary risks and operating costs.

I was entertained by the writing, and there's a lot of content packed into this book that will be useful for GMs and players. In my opinion this is worth every dollar, or euro, or Juice point, or whatever unit of value the Syndicate has you using at the time you read this review.

Be seeing you!

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Convention Book: Syndicate
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Convention Book: Progenitors
Publisher: Onyx Path Publishing
by Andrew M. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 04/29/2013 08:44:37
Following the disastrous events of the late 1990s, the Progenitors are given a new sense of identity and a new mission. Casting off their lab coats in favor of field gear, they shed their "mad scientist" image and embrace the medical science that they were once known for, beginning a long and difficult mission to heal the ills of the Technocracy and then the world.

The book gives the Progenitors a much needed make-over - they return to the identity of the Sorcerer's Crusade Coasians/Hippocratic Circle, being doctors first and biologists second. There's a lot of effort given to describe the Progenitor Convention's motives, which are far more sympathetic and human than they were previously. The book is definitely geared toward the Progenitors' own perspective, making it extremely useful to give to a player that is considering playing a character from this convention. It also illuminates some of the dark corners of Technocratic politics and explains in a little more detail exactly why a Technocratic civil war is brewing and who the major players are.

There are plenty of hints of the scary and oppressive Technocracy hidden between the lines, for GMs to use in the context of Technocratic villain characters, but the book is from the Technocracy's own perspective, so the examples of the Convention being evil are hinted at mostly in past misdeeds that the Convention is atoning for or the things that are not mentioned about the Convention's current activities. However, I have never seen a better explanation of exactly why the Progenitors are a part of the Technocracy and why a bunch of doctors support the Union's mission of wiping out unscientific belief systems.

I found the book extremely useful for using the Progenitors as either heroic protagonists, or sympathetic-but-still-evil antagonists, and the Convention's motivation has never been better explained than it is in these pages.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Convention Book: Progenitors
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Convention Book: N.W.O.
Publisher: Onyx Path Publishing
by Andrew M. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 12/04/2012 10:00:48
I'm glad to see that this book exists, because out of all of Ascension's elements, the Technocracy is most badly in need of updating, and the Conventions, aside from Iteration X, still needed a Player character-friendly treatment. Unlike the Progenitors, who can justify their existence with modern medicine, or the freedom-loving Void Engineers, the New World Order is harder for the average new player to feel sympathy for - older books present them as a combination of The Party of 1984 and The Village from The Prisoner. This makes for some fun bad guys, but it doesn't keep up with Mage Revised's presentation of the Technocratic Union as a Player Character faction.

In this mission, the book succeeds admirably, without ignoring the elements of the Technocracy that make them an antagonist for Tradition PCs. The book presents the best and worst of the New World Order. There is a rote for the brutal sort of identity reassignment processing that makes people fear getting into the black sedan with the guys in suits. However, the book is presented from the perspective of the NWO, so that sort of brutality is seen as a necessary evil of sometimes questionable utility - not something that every agent likes to use, but one that they find they might have to when there are no other good options. In my reading of the book, there was more than enough room for the Storyteller to interpret this in a forgiving way, assuming most operatives to be good people who are occasionally forced to do bad things, or to read the NWO as the thought police that they have appeared as in previous books.

The next function of the book is to be a setting update. While I felt that trying to fit plot-advancement information into such a focused book diluted the content a little, it still felt like a success overall. The plot elements that were introduced made sense and helped to establish a Technocratic narrative to keep PCs interested. The metaplot has been toned down, aside from the existence of the Avatar Storm and other big picture elements from late 2nd edition and Revised, but the activities of the Technocracy are put into perspective in relation to the real-world events of the last decade. The Economic Crisis of 2008 is blamed on the Syndicate, much like the Depression was blamed on them in the Guide to the Technocracy, and there is a focus on the rise of social media, something that the New World Order should be very interested in (and they are!).

One plot element that I was surprised by, but eventually came to like, was the rise of the Extraordinary Citizen, which is the Technocracy equivalent of a Sorcerer. There have been no more or fewer awakenings each year in the last decade, but in the world of Mage, Social Media and the Internet have caused a dramatic increase in people who can go slightly further beyond the capability of normal mortals. This made sense to me, as the dramatically increased access to information and education, as well as the ability to create opportunities seemingly out of nowhere, would logically allow more people to discover secrets and cutting-edge techniques, which work, but don't blow open the minds of those who use them. It's also great in a game balance level, because it becomes easier to justify using Sorcerers as allies or antagonists. When played beyond 2 or 3 Arete, I have found Mages to completely defeat mortals without much difficulty. If the world is suddenly full of Sorcerers and it's suddenly not hard to become one, Sorcerers can more easily become a regularly appearing class of minor allies and antagonists. For example, maybe the Mayor of a city, not technically part of an Ascension War faction, can still be important to the story if he or one of his advisers has some good mind tricks.

Finally, the book presents a satisfyingly long list of new rotes, devices, and a variant on the Correspondence sphere called "Data", meant for use exclusively by NWO agents, Virtual Adepts, and other Mages who have an entirely Technological, information-based conception of Correspondence magics. It replaces the typical sympathetic magic table with one based on degrees of separation between a person and any identifying information related to them - for example, their personal email address or credit card number might be equivalent to a Verbena having someone's hair or blood, where a throwaway email address or source code someone wrote a decade ago might be worth the magical equivalent of a vague effigy or outdated photo. This makes the new sphere valuable on its own just for making VA and NWO procedures more believable - there's no reason an Operative or a hacker would need someone's blood to scry on them via security cams - but it also changes slightly the idea of what can and cannot be targeted using the Correspondence sphere. Now Internet data and ideas themselves can be targeted and enchanted, as evidenced by the suggested Data rotes, which do things like attach certain emotional resonance (Mind 2) to specific bits of information on the Internet, no matter what server or workstation or smartphone it happens to be downloaded to. It took me days to figure this out, but it blew my mind after I thought about it for a while - this Sphere explores the sympathetic links between related ideas instead of related objects. I was so impressed with this that I immediately included it in my own game, replacing Correspondence with Data on the character sheets of all of my Virtual Adept and New World Order NPCs.

The rotes and devices were fun to read, most of them either very original or stylish and interesting updates on classic Technocracy ideas. They will all find a home in my game, especially "Truth" Serum and the Nondescript Van, which may be my new favorite Wonders/Devices.

The book is presented in the standard Revised Tradition/Convention book format, down to the last detail. It's as though Ascension never went out of print. The art is appropriate, and some of it does a good job of appropriately following the unique Ascension style, and I have no complaints about the rest.

While I worry that the book tried to do too much in too little space, being a major setting update and an in-depth look at an important faction in a hundred-and-change pages, what is done is done so right that I feel that giving the book a review of less than 5 stars would be doing the book a disservice. I can't help but be excited for what comes next in the series of new Convention books. This one was unquestionably worth the asking price.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Convention Book: N.W.O.
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Play Dirty
Publisher: John Wick Presents
by Andrew M. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 08/21/2012 12:02:47
The advice is hit and miss - some of it is very helpful even to the most advanced GM, cutting straight to the essence of tabletop RPGs, while some of it is not particularly useful except in the most extreme cases where you might be better off just asking problem players not to return anyhow. However, where the book hits, it critically hits, and does so with a tone that can cure the most doormat-like of any GM. The book is also full of many entertaining stories from John Wick's own gaming table, which makes the book extremely easy reading and difficult to put down. I can't help but wish that I had the opportunity to have a character "Wick'ed", I think it would have been one of the best roleplaying experiences that one could have.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Play Dirty
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Dragon Age RPG, Set 2
Publisher: Green Ronin
by Andrew M. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 04/30/2011 18:43:37
Set 2 brings some badly needed components to the table for Dragon Age, including some very useful non-combat/utility spells for Mages, rules to advance to level 10, and information about the Grey Wardens including the rules for becoming one of their number. Everything in Set 2 is done well, and information provided is detailed without being exhausting. The only major issue are that half of the GM's guide is taken up by an adventure, which becomes dead pagecount for those who write their own content, and that some parts of the extremely intriguing world of Thedas still lack any description and beg a visit to an external wiki to get more information. However, the essentials are now here - I, personally, now feel comfortable committing to an extended campaign in Dragon Age's world.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Dragon Age RPG, Set 2
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Mecha vs. Kaiju Campaign Setting (True20)
Publisher: Big Finger Games
by Andrew M. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 11/22/2010 13:59:11
Whether or not you use the Mecha vs. Kaiju setting, the mechanics and suggestions for the use of both Mecha and Kaiju in True20 are pricelessly good, and the point system makes it deliciously easy for a GM to balance PCs as they gain levels, and balance opponents' Mecha and Kaiju against them. The Mecha system provides such a wealth of options, with valuable examples that drive a robust, open-ended design system, that I am extremely confident that there is enough Mecha material in here for me to run several interesting Mecha-based campaigns. Awesome for anyone who likes True20 or Mecha at all.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Mecha vs. Kaiju Campaign Setting (True20)
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Thousand Correct Actions
Publisher: White Wolf
by Andrew M. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 09/12/2010 02:34:24
Finally, Dragon-Bloods get some love!

In all seriousness, this is a great addition to any Exalted game, but especially those with Dragon-Blooded PCs. The Thousand Correct Actions refers to an in-setting manual of military practice, which is one of the most important texts in a Dragon-Blood's life, after the texts of the Immaculate Order, making the setting information and flavor text in this book vital to the portrayal of Dragon Blooded characters and the Realm they come from. Given how unsympathetically Dragon-Bloods are portrayed in most of the other Exalted books, a turn to put them in the spotlight as the heroes was due, and the book delivers, flavorfullly and mechanically.

The rules in the book have to do with providing entirely new charms (on average, one new charm for each skill, with some of the more military-themed skills getting multiple new charms) and clarifying, or outright fixing, problematic charms from the Manual of Exalted Power: The Dragon Blooded.

In all fairness, the fixes for existing charms are also part of the free errata issued for the game, but the new charms do a lot to fix balance issues with Dragon Blooded characters as well, and putting the errata into this book is extremely convenient and speeds up my own Exalted game (which stars an all-Dragon-Blooded cast) considerably.

I would go so far as to say The Thousand Correct Actions is essential for the full Dragon Blooded experience, and rekindled my own interest in Exalted right when it was beginning to wane.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Thousand Correct Actions
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BASH! Sci-Fi Edition
Publisher: Basic Action Games
by Andrew M. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 09/12/2010 02:20:44
BASH Sci-Fi Edition is indeed a complete toolkit for running any type of science fiction adventure a modern sci-fi fan can imagine, and it's also no slouch when it comes to running modern action or thriller games either. The system is deceptively complete, covering all of the major genres of science fiction. In addition, any or all of these genre packs, all of which are contained in the single pdf file for this game, can be combined seamlessly, allowing stories with combined genres or ones set in the far future where all of the strange technologies of fiction have come to pass.

Most modern games have a simple-to-understand action resolution system nowadays, but most generic, multigenre, or toolkit systems drop the ball when it comes to character creation, either leaving many options out in the name of simplicity, or falling prey to overcomplexity in the name of completeness. BASH does not fall prey to either of these issues. While characters are still built from points, the point values use much lower number all around, and the explanations for anything you might want to buy are quick and broad in scope without being vague. No calculators or reams of paper required to build a character - all of the point values for attributes, skills, advantages, and powers are in the single digits. A slight bit of game balance might be lost, but this broad-strokes style of bookkeeping is still precise enough to make sure there's a significant difference in cost between the powers to move small objects with your mind, turn invisible, or completely mind control someone.

Balance between mundanes and people with "powers" (each power is judged based on effect, and simply restricted to power sources that make sense) is kept by making near-impossible feats of mundane expertise into its own category of powers. In essence, being good at something is a skill or a high attribute, but being action-hero good at it is a power, just like mind control would be, and bought from the same pool of points that powers are.

Skills are judged by "have" or "have-not" and if a character has a skill, the character can roll their attribute to accomplish a relevant task. The have-nots can still make an attribute check, but, lacking the skill, will have a penalty on the attribute roll. This skill system is one of my only issues - while it makes the game very quick and easy to play, the lack of an ability to increase ratings in individual skills makes running a campaign slightly more difficult than a one-shot. However, it is possible to raise ratings in specialized areas of mastery within a skill, to alleviate this problem.

Finally, a lot of good examples are provided, even within the specialized genre packs, all within the book's 137 pages.

A lot of generic or toolkit game systems claim to cover all possibilities while remaining rules-light, but I am of the opinion that BASH is the only game system to manage being complete and being rules light, without these two goals interfering with each other. Overall, very little assembly required. I *will* use BASH the next time I run a Sci-Fi story for my group, and I expect that both the old hands and the newbs will be satisfied with the result.

For the asking price of the PDF, a solid value. I only wish it were sold in a pocket or digest-sized print edition I could slip in to my laptop bag or backpack, in case of pickup game.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
BASH! Sci-Fi Edition
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Publisher Reply:
Thanks for the review. I would like to point out though that you *Can* improve your ratings in various skills by spending XP (3XP to raise a skill or buy a new specialty, page 45). You can also choose at character creation to put multiple "slots" into a single skill choice, raising the multiplier. Thanks again for the review, and I'll think about that digest size suggestion...
Tome of Secrets
Publisher: Adamant Entertainment
by Andrew M. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 08/13/2009 10:13:33
The Tome of Secrets is a solid book with easy-to-understand rules for many situations not covered by basic OGL/SRD rules. The classes are simple, but effective, and none suffer from being overpowered or underpowered. None of them are particularly out of the ordinary, they are all mechanically sound representations of concepts not covered by existing core classes.
There is a military-style leadership class, the Warlord, who combines impressive fighting prowess (d10 HD, Fast BAB progressoose with special powers without being part of the Eldritch sion) with a lot of passive, aura-style buffs, that grant things like temporary HP, and attack/damage bonuses, allowing the Warlord to lead from the front and take part in the melee that he/she is helping to lead. The Priest is a less combat focused Cleric who has more domains, more domain spells, and more skill points, covering the sort of divine caster who spends more time contemplating the mysteries of his or her god rather than smashing face for that god. The extra spells make the Priest an incredibly powerful spellcaster, but the lack of combat abilities necessitate that the Priest have magical prowess on the level of the Wizard and Sorcerer, which is delivered handily.

Most of the other classes have functions close to non-OGL classes from other d20 supplements, but made to be more compatible with the Pathfinder RPG, and often having simpler (often sounder) mechanics than their non-OGL counterparts. I would allow (and encourage) any of the classes in the games I GM without a second thought.

The other character building rules are interesting, and seem more balanced than previous attempts. Drawbacks are more flavorful and less easy to min/max than Unearthed Arcana's flaw system, and backgrounds are interesting in that most of them make non class skills into class skills, or add a +1 bonus on skill checks for those who already have those class skills. These bonuses seem hard to overpower, and are a nice touch for someone who could play a character concept perfectly, if only their primary character class had this one skill as a class skill. I can already think of some noble-born fighters who would like to take the Diplomat or Courtier background so that they can have Diplomacy or Sense Motive as a class skill.

The GM rules section is similarly elegant. The stunt rules, in particular, are difficult to abuse, as they require high-DC skill checks, the approval of the GM, and encourage the players to set the bar high and try high-risk high-reward stunts that flavorfully combine several skills.

The random magic item generator is a little reminiscent of the Diablo series of computer games, and has the potential to create some odd magic items, but the attempts to justify some of the sample items are inspired enough that I might try to do the same with the items I roll from this table.

My only complaint about the PDF itself is how large the file is. It is easy to read, search, and skip through, thanks to a well-designed index/ToC. There are some very good art pieces for a black and white product, though as a whole the art runs the gamut from jarringly cartoony to stunningly detailed and beautiful, with most pieces falling into an acceptable middle ground. The art rarely detracts from the experience of the book as a whole, and often adds to it.

My only mechanical complaints come from a lack of heavily descriptive rules text in those few cases where the elegance of the subsystem fails to explain some special cases or important rules details, I'm still not sure what sort of action a spellblade's magic weapon infusion is, and there are some nit-pick questions the otherwise excellent Artificer class left me with,

I'm not planning on using all of the new subsystems, but those GMs who wanted to could incorporate most or all of them without giving themselves or their players a major headache. The subsystems are all elegant, and most seem carefully balanced. For ten dollars, I felt that I got more than what I paid for. The content of this book will be enriching my Pathfinder games for a long time to come.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Tome of Secrets
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Damnation View
Publisher: Catalyst Game Labs
by Andrew M. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 08/13/2009 09:40:26
Damnation View, and Cthulhutech in general, avoids the pitfall of having the metaplot unfold across several adventures and sourcebooks that any given customer may or may not purchase, leaving anyone who doesn't buy every single game book out of the loop. Instead, Cthulhutech has Damnation View, which is a book dedicated to advancing the metaplot, that comes with the promise that all further plot development will be in further special books meant specifically for that purpose.

Damnation View is split into several chapters explaining the different sub-plots that unfold across the world during the year of 2086. The plots are short on "iconic characters" as they are meant to include players' characters in the action, and to that end, each chapter, after introducing the situation as it stands at the beginning of 2086, includes a large adventure that takes the PCs close to the center of the action, and in several cases, makes them the center of the metaplot, allowing them to directly affect the outcome of the various story threads.

Military and Tager groups get the biggest plotlines, but nobody is left entirely out, and many of them are vast extensions of rumors or plot threads introduced in the core book. Several of the scenarios have a high probability of ending in defeat or disaster for the PCs and their benefactors in the NEG - two of the major stories are simply foregone conclusions that are so large-scale that even the most heroic and high-powered of Engel pilots aren't going to change them, but there is also one story that allows the PCs to prevent a major defeat for humanity. This is addressed in the book - 2086 is introoduced at the beginning of the book as a nasty year for humans and nazzadi, and the final adventure ends with a grim revelation of epic proportions.

The adventures themselves are written in an open-ended, descriptive format that gives the GM a loose description of the important cast members (including their agendas), and the way events are likely to play out, but leaves the mechanical details to the GM, so that any given game can be customized to the needs of the PCs. I like this format, especially in a rules-lighter system system like Framewerk (as opposed to the time-consuming stat block generation of d20), as it does indeed take less time to set out to customize the adventure than it would to read through several pages of stats and scene-by-scene descriptions trying to find that one character or scene that won't make sense for my version of the game. Instead, given a general idea of what each character wants or does, and how the story should play out, I can easily create my own scenes, mechanics, and dramatic pace that matches the needs of my player group.

Finally, one of the stories introduces as its end a new allegiance for PCs, including three professions tied specifically to that faction. It's a fun idea that allows the PCs limited lisence to cut loose with special powers without being part of the Eldritch Society, or bad guys. I plan on proposing a game using these character types to my players sometime soon.

If you're looking for information on how the plot develops, it is in here, as is advice on how to put the PCs right in the thick of it. There's little in the way of crunch - just three new professions and a new monster. The plot does not end here, there are supposedly several more books like this planned. If they're all going to be like Damnation View, I will keep buying them. This book is well-written and gives the GM loads of information to work with without tying his or her hands completely.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Damnation View
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