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Noir Knights Player’s Guide (Savage Worlds)
Publisher: Savage Mojo
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 03/23/2015 23:22:03
This top-notch product is one of the better player's guides for one of the better Savage Suzerain lines. Let's break it down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Noir Knights Player’s Guide (Savage Worlds)
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Due Vigilance- Kaiju Kultists
Publisher: Vigilance Press
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/17/2015 18:48:31
Vigilance Press has a reputation for putting together really thoroughly thought out and well produced material. Kaiju Kultists does exactly everything right in its treatment of incorporating giant monsters into a superhero setting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Due Vigilance- Kaiju Kultists
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World of Nevermore (True20)
Publisher: Expeditious Retreat Press
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/17/2015 18:18:50
Although World of Nevermore has a brilliant and crazy aesthetic which appeals to me pretty much on every level, it doesn't nail down certain aspects of how the setting should be used and so falls (perhaps barely) short of a perfect score.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
World of Nevermore (True20)
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Enter The Shadowside - Core Book
Publisher: FableForge
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/27/2014 00:09:00
Before I tell you about Enter the Shadowside, let's talk about the supernatural in RPGs. There are two huge mistakes people make when putting the supernatural into RPGs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Enter The Shadowside - Core Book
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Writer Tools Generator Pack
Publisher: Chaotic Shiny Productions
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/23/2014 16:51:46
"Hey Jason you only ever give five stars to the most superlative stuff out there "

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

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

"Yes, here's why:

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

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

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

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

"All your..."

"ALL MY MONEY"

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Writer Tools Generator Pack
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Colonial Gothic (True20 version)
Publisher: Gun Metal Games
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/17/2014 16:20:25
Call of Cthulhu was the first breakout hit of horror themed RPGs, surprising, since Lovecraft's work concerns itself often with horrors that are literally indescribable and RPGs rely on verbal description to get across their situations and emotions. What Call of Cthulhu, the RPG, brought to the table was a simple, clear system and a methodology of GMing and playing that put players in the mindset of investigators who would put themselves in the middle of horrific mysteries and not run away at the first ominous shadow. Most horror games since that time have mimicked this successful investigative formula, for good reason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Colonial Gothic (True20 version)
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Arrows Of Indra
Publisher: Bedrock Games
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/08/2014 02:56:05
Recently, a controversy about the consultants for Fifth Edition D&D reminded me of a guy who I hadn't thought about in a long time, "RPGPundit", the author of this work. I eventually worked out with searches and so on that someone associated with his publisher had come onto story hyphen games dot com, a forum I post on, and suggested that we buy RPGPundit's products because story gamers might like them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Arrows Of Indra
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SAS Support Kit (interactive version)
Publisher: White Wolf
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/12/2014 13:53:00
Let's talk about "support". What does it mean to say a game is "supported"? Normally when gamers say this, they mean that it has a long string of supplements, and more planned. There will be location books, character books, modules and campaign books. Maybe even an art book or a novel or two! Of course (since I am posting here) I have no problems with any of that (except the art book, look at me scowling, can you see how grouchy I am??), but I've always asked the question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
SAS Support Kit (interactive version)
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2300AD Core Rulebook Revised
Publisher: Mongoose
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/07/2014 15:40:19
I got this one in print from a local store and was psyched to see that I could also get it in PDF! Let's talk about 2300 AD and why the Traveller system is a perfect match for it. Mongoose has done a great job of bringing this gem forward and it's a terrific purchase.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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