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Trailblazer
Publisher: Bad Axe Games
by Joel A. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 08/19/2009 23:32:41
Trailblazer: New Horizons in 3.5 Roleplaying, is a self-styled “system optimizer” for the 3.x system previously used by the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game. Authors Benjamin “Wulf Ratbane” Durbin and Chris “Glassjaw” Neveu dove deep into the System Requirements Document (SRD), analyzed its most common (and not so common) complaints from gamers, and generated what may be one of the best version of the 3.x system outside Wizards of the Coast (WotC), Malhavoc Press, and Paizo Publishing.

At first glance, Trailblazer (TB) seems similar to WotC’s Unearthed Arcana (now out of print) rules supplement, offering new classes, feats, and alternative systems. And it can work that way: TB is very modular, and GMs can pick and chose which features to include in their campaigns. However, TB can also replace much of the 3.x system in a similar manner to Malhavoc’s Arcana Unearthed/Arcana Evolved. That’s because the authors take pains to explain how the various sub-systems: the class balances, feats, spells, encounter generation, etc., are balanced against each other. Even D&D Third Edition author Monte Cook never gave this much detail in his books of Experimental Might.

Okay, ‘nuff intro. Here what’s in Trailblazer:

Introduction covers the authors’ goals and philosophies, the issues gamers have had with the 3.x system over the years, and how TB deals with them.

Next is The Spine. In brief, it is a statistical analysis of the “behind the scenes” math that makes up the 3.x system. These five pages break down monsters’ most important stats, character stats, the interaction of their attacks, defenses, saves, and magic items, and how they affect – and not affect -- each other. Math geeks will have a field day.

Emerging from the Spine’s data is the section on Class Rebalancing. Yes, Auntie Em, fighters are the worse class to play in the long run, and here’s the math to prove it. Same with rogues. Thus, both get the most radical changes several sections later under Character Classes: fighters get Expert Weapon Proficiency, which allows them to optimize their weapons by increasing damage (up to 3d8), allow said weapon to be thrown; or give reach to a two-handed weapon. You want that to duplicate that dagger-throwing hero from fiction who kills with a toss of her blades? Now you can.

And rogues? Fighter BAB under certain circumstances (called combat tactics) and sneak attack that’s effective against pretty much anything. Rogue players will now focus on getting that flanking attack instead of worrying if the creature’s immune to its best ability.

Other class changes include increased hit dice for sorcerers, wizards, and rogues; more spells for the bard (8th level!); barbarian’s greater DR; an easier method to turning undead for clerics; giving control of both the druid and ranger’s animal companions to the DM; a less mix/maxing Wild Shape ability; replacing the paladin’s spell list and getting rid of that mount; and a “temporary” familiar for the sorcerer and wizard. (Order of the Stick fans will be in stitches.)

An all-new Rest Mechanic basically changes the familiar “rest for eight hours” to recharge the party’s abilities to ten minutes. Yes, you read that right. Ten minutes. GM’s don’t worry: rules are provided to deal with those pain-in-the arse “scry, teleport, and surprise attack” spell tactics with this new mechanism.

Iterative Attacks replaces the cumbersome 0/-5/-10/-15 with a simpler system which, at the same time, mathematically does more damage to the target.

Action Points (AP) form the core to Trailblazer system, and the authors go into some depth discussing how they deal with many of 3.x’s troublesome issues (e.g. Save or Die spells, class balance, etc.) In brief, player characters get a certain number of APs per level which, when expended, allow them add to their attacks; reroll a failed d20 roll; or stabilize a dying PC. “Exploding dice” and AP “enhancements” are also covered in this section.

I heart playing spellcasters, and Trailblazer’s two Spellcasting pages are, by far, my favorite section. It resolves that annoying issue of nerfed spellcasters when they multiclass.

So how does it work? Every class has what is called the “Base Magic Bonus” (BMB), which varies depending on said class The BMB is used to determine the PC’s caster level, spell slots per day, and readied spells per day, all on one chart. Thus, to determine a multi-classed PC’s caster level, simply add up his BMB and look at the chart. A multi-classed cleric 4/wizard 4, for example, would have a BMB of 8: her Cure Moderate Wounds add +8 (not +4) to its effects and her fireballs inflict 8d6 of damage, not 4d6 as per under the 3.x system. Before powergamers start clamoring for this chart, note that she can only prepare and cast a total of four 0-level spells; four 1st-level spells; three 2nd-level spells; and two 3rd level spells (not including extra spells from high ability scores). This is significantly less than under the 3.x system, where a 4th level cleric has five 0-spells alone. The BMB also provide other limits.

Combat is expanded with the inclusion of Combat Reactions (CR). These are modifiers all PCs can use in combat even when it’s not their turn. They can, using CRs, aid other PCs in their attack (+2 to attack), defend them (+2 to AC), and even reduce damage via DR. Combat Exploits offer more attack options if the PC is willing to take penalty.

Complex and game-slowing maneuvers like bull rush, sunder, and – our favorite – grapple, are simplified using Combat Maneuver Bonus (CMB) and Combat Maneuver AC (CMAC). These work like regular attacks with a successful roll forcing the condition on the victim…er…target.

Other system changes in Trailblazer include simplified Skills (hello Perception, goodbye Concentration); Feats (specific weapons requirements are now replaced by type); Magic (Polymorph!); and the Encounter Budget system. The latter replaces 3.x’s CR/EL with a simple, yet elegant system of assigning XPs to each monster’s CR. The GM calculates the amount of total XP necessary to challenge the PCs (the encounter budget), then selects the monsters until that budget is filled.

In my opinion…. My review does not do justice to this product. From a metamagic system that doesn’t need to be readied to a creature template that will make sure the Big Bad encounter will be memorable even for min-maxers/powergamers, Trailblazer is chock full of new ideas, options, and systems on every page. And while I don’t agree with all of them (e.g., trapfinding for monks?), you can see how they make sense. Trailblazer has made me reexamine the viability of my 3.x Corebooks; I am now contemplating using them with TB instead of my shiny new Pathfinder RPG Corebook.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Trailblazer
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A Witch's Choice
Publisher: Rite Publishing
by Joel A. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 04/04/2009 19:49:19
A Witch's Choice is a 46 page pdf adventure, set in the Land of the Diamond Throne, the default setting for Monte Cook's Arcana Evolved ruleset. A Witch's Choice, or WC, is published by Rite Publishing, and is part of the company's massive 25 "Rituals of Choice" Adventure path.

WC's is the fourth Rite Publishing supplement I have reviewed and, visually, it's the most stunning one so far. Both the front and back covers are in full color and in keeping with the Arcana Evolved design. Inside, each page is framed by a single rune-covered border, and the sections are broken up by colorful titles and plentiful whitespace. Art is primarily the major characters, and the battle maps gorgeous enough to be posters. Layout is a simple two column format, and editing is adequate.

WARNING: Potential Spoiler Information Ahead

WC is designed for 1st level PCs. Though party makeup is not discussed, I recommend at least one verrik PC (preferably more). Same with akashics; there's a lot of information to gather in WC. Greenbonds and totem warriors will do well due to the environment. Oh, and a witch, of course, given the title of the module.

My biggest concern about A Witch's Choice is the content. The plot's simple: escort/guard the main NPC to her destination. There are 20 main encounters, with many subdivided into 2 or more sub-encounters, and there's a lot of information at each one. GMs who are concerned about providing enough information for those nosy akashic PC will breathe a sigh of relief, while more immersive gamers will have plenty of meat when role-playing due to the NPCs' histories, motivation, and backgrounds. With a few exceptions, the information is provided in bite-sized pieces: GMs won't be pulling their hair out trying to find the right page about a particular scene or creature.

This information, though, is definitely geared to the Land of the Diamond Throne and the adventure path in particular. And it's epic: the PCs actions have consequences, and the plentiful Designer's Notes cover not only the relevance of the encounter to WC, but to the adventure path as a whole as well. GMs planning to use WC in their non-Diamond Throne campaigns will have to strip/change a significant amount of material to be useful. I would have liked more guidance just on how to use the encounters as a whole: are the PCs supposed to go from to the other? And what happens if they don't go through a particular encounter?

Finally, I found some of the encounters to be questionable. In Plain of the Blind and and Name's End, there's a chance to permanently cripple the PCs, something players, in my experience, will not enjoy expecially at this level.

Why is there combat stats for an epic level creature in this module? Same with a CR10 NPC.

What happens if the encounter at Harbingers escalates to violence? Normally Rite Publishing modules provide tactics at combat encounters. (Thank you.) I found this omission curious especially with the Designer's Notes instruction at the encounter.

There are more, but these particular ones stood out. I recommend GMs to review each encounter careful, not only to make sure it's balanced to your players' abilities, but to apply their actions' consequences in future modules.

In my opinion....
A Witch's Choice is a solid start of the Rituals of Choice adventure path despite a few encounter bumps. It is decidingly epic from the get go; PCs will definitely know they're the heroes in this adventure. (The opening first couple of scenes alone read like something from a good fantasy novel.) Arcana Evolved GMs and players will be in for a treat as they explore the Land of the Diamond Throne, while GMs using different settings will find WC's to be less useful.


This review is based on review copy provided by Rite Publishing.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
A Witch's Choice
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Item Evolved: Oaths
Publisher: Rite Publishing
by Joel A. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 03/18/2009 00:59:11
Thanks, Steve. Please note my review is based on review copy provided by Rite Publishing.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Item Evolved: Oaths
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Item Evolved: Oaths
Publisher: Rite Publishing
by Joel A. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 03/18/2009 00:21:18
Items Evolved: Oaths

What is it?

Items Evolved: Oaths, is a 10 page pdf, with content covered from pages 3 through 9. Layout is a standard two column with each item section nicely organized in a standard format.

Graphics is minimal, limited to the gorgeous cover art, a rune-covered strip down one side of each page, and a couple of magic items on page 4 (7 of 10). Text, fonts, and whitespace go easy on the eyes; no squinting reading this supplement!

The requisite OGL license fills out page 10. There is no backcover.


What's in it?

Items Evolved: Oaths covers magic items. Each item has a short, but specific, background, and powers that deal with oaths, a prominent theme in the Land of the Diamond Throne.

There are ten magic items. Each are broken down by name; price (with item level); what body slot it occupies; caster level to create it; aura, or what it'll radiate under a detect magic spell; how to activate the item's powers; and weight.

Then there's a brief description of the item. Lore tells what skills/abilities are appropriate to find out the item's powers, followed by the discovered information. Tied to this information is Object Loresight. As the author explains at the beginning of the pdf, this list provides details on important NPCs and/or locations, AE races, and Rite Publishing's upcoming Rituals of Choice adventure path.

The Abilities section discuss the item's powers. Finally, Prequisites and Cost to create outline what it takes to create the item.


In my opinion....

The items are interesting and unique. The Olive Branch of the Dove-pledged, for example, adds a bonus to its wielder's non-damaging attacks. The branch was created in the Citadel of the Dead Gods, an actual location in the Land of the Diamond Thrones. This immediately provides both an adventure hook and tie to AE rarely seen in most fantasy rpgs today.

Unfortunately, the reverse is true as well, since it makes it more difficult to drop an Evolved Item in a non-AE campaign. GMs who wish to do so will either have to ignore the Object Loresight information or replace them with their own history. I think the Design Notes could have covered a bit more on how to use the items in either kind of campaign.

I would have loved to seen more illustrations of the magic items.

The layout is beautiful and, more importantly, easy to read both on-screen and printed. The pdf is color printer-friendly as long as one excludes the cover page.


So what's the verdict?

I have mixed feelings about this product. Arcana Evolved campaigns will love the items, so linked they are to the unique setting. Non-AE campaigns, though, may not benefit as much unless either the GM is willing to adapt them to their campaign or use Items Evolved: Oaths as a source of ideas. For the price, a buyer can't go wrong.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Publisher Reply:
Wanted to thank Joela for taking the time to do yet another insightful review of one of our products. Steve Russell Rite Publishing
The Living Airship
Publisher: Rite Publishing
by Joel A. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 03/12/2009 02:07:38
The Living Airship (LA) is an adventure set in Monte Cook's Arcana Evolved 3.x setting. Published by Rite Publishing, the module is designed for four to six PCs between 7th through 10th level. Though LA does not specify party composition, I recommend a melee-oriented party, with champions, mageblades, oathsworn, and -- especially -- warmains forming the bulk of the group. Oh, and someone to cast a fly spell (or spells!) would be really, really useful in certain parts of this dungeon crawl.

And it is a dungeon crawl. That's what "captain" (design & development) Soren Keis Thurstrup writes and that's what LA delivers. The module is a basic search and retrieve mission, with some effective opposition.

Before I continue on the content, let's discuss the product itself. The price garners two pdfs, one with the stunning front and back colored covers and a more printer-friendly version. Note that both come with colored maps and interior illustration, with several asides also in color.

Text layout is in standard two column format. Sections were nicely divided by the use of different fonts and formatting. Plenty of surrounding whitespace keeps things easy on the eyes even in the full-color version. My biggest irritation was the inconsistent use of paragraph space. Sometimes paragraphs were separated by indentation, sometimes by space, and sometimes by both.

Editing was good, which means I saw no obvious spelling or grammar mistakes. The tone can be very familiar at times, with the author interjecting their opinions including even how they ran the game (e.g., Adventure Hooks). I found it more surprising than intrusive.

WARNING: Potential Spoiler Information

The adventure is broken into two major sections. The first involves dealing with the entrance guardians with the second fighting through the main bad guys to get to the ship. Neither is a cakewalk: the guardians of the first section, with both their natural abilities and modifications, are tough, with a couple harboring some real nasty surprises. (I must use them in my own games).

The second section, on the other hand, has some very deadly terrain. Remember my warning about a fly spell? I also recommend GMs thoroughly review this section, the numerous opponents, and gage the party's resources. There's really no time to rest between the two secions, and a badly wounded party could be sent tumbling into oblivion.

So what's my overall opinion? For GMs and players who like to hack-n-slash their way through a module (and who doesn't?), they'll find the Living Airship filled with plenty of interesting foes and a neat terrain to test their tactics.
Those who like to use diplomacy will find it less so, though stealthier parties get a kick in bypassing many of the encounters.

This review is based on review copy provided by Rite Publishing.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
The Living Airship
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Veiled Denizens
Publisher: Rite Publishing
by Joel A. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 03/10/2009 09:19:06
Monte Cook's Arcana Evolved is one of the more fascinating fantasy worlds based on the d20 system. Unlike the more generic Dungeons & Dragons 3.x system, the character classes, races, magics, creatures and even the magic items in AE are intricately tied into the world history and themes.

Monsters Evolved: Veiled Denizens continues Cook's tradition. Published by Rite Publishing, the 20 page pdf covers five unique creatures for one's AE campaign. (A print copy can be purchased at Lulu.) As you will see in the following, the supplement is also superbly presented for both traditional fantasy worlds and more exotic ones as well.

The monsters in Veiled Denizens are not your typical creatures for the PCs to slay and get its gold. Each creature -- the Kralvo, Labyvo Crvyn, Trikar-Mrak, Vlada-Mrak, and Xesnor -- exemplifies a particular theme by the author. The Labyvo Crvyn, for example, is the perils of lust gone wrong, while the Trikar-Mrak shows how to turn a PC's strengths against them.

Each entry starts off with the monster's stats and how it describes itself. Yes, you read that right. While there's an illustration of each creature, the description reveals its sef-image: its form, history, and purpose. Disquieting stuff, since none of the creatures believes itself to be evil. The Designer
's Note and the playtest casts suggestion sections then cover how to use the particular in one's campaign. Unfortunately, only a few entries had them with the red harlot's entry irritatingly being in twice in different entries.

Lore shows what information PCs can gleam by making akashi memory or the appropriate Knowledge checks.

PC, being who they are, and monsters, being what they are, will eventually come into conflict. The combat section covers what each Monsters Evolved creature will do in most melee situations.

Campaigns that use different options such as the wounds/vitality system or action points will love the Variant aside sections. Monsters Evolved is the first supplement I've ever seen provide such information and I give it kudos for realizing not everyone plays with same ruleset. A new feat and even a new material (folded steel) are found in the pdf as well.

Artwork and layout of Veiled Denizens are very good, with the front and back covers colored similar to the Arcana Evolved book. Most of the art ranges from passable (kralvoj, Xesnor) to very good (labyvo Crvyn). Only the vlada-mrak looked amateurish.

Entries are broken down into two columns and text is easily legible. Editing is decent with the exception of the red harlot's playtester casts suggestion entry being, again, in two different places. Oh, and the misspelled "compatable" and "usuable" on the back cover.

So what's my overall opinion? Veiled Denizen is a very professional work, both in the ideas presented and the presentation. DMs who like their monsters with personality and purpose will enjoy this product. I only wish more designer notes were included in each entry, and even more suggestions of using them in one's campaign.

This review is based on review copy provided by Rite Publishing.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Veiled Denizens
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Publisher Reply:
Just wanted to say thank you for an insightful review. Steve Russell, Rite Publishing.
OGL 3.5 System Compatible Logo
Publisher: LPJ Design
by Joel A. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 04/20/2008 23:05:04
Lookin' good. Any other publisher going to use it?

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
OGL 3.5 System Compatible Logo
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