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Swords & Wizardry Compatibility Logo
Publisher: Seattle Hill Games
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 05/04/2018 12:25:27

Great logo that's easy to read at multiple sizes and comes on a transparent background (as a PNG file) so it can easily be worked into any cover or interior art placement. The other logos I've seen tend to be a bit too busy, so this one works better IMHO. I contacted the creator (Charlie Mason of Seattle Hill Games) and he was open to any and all using this logo, so it's a great community asset and I'm proud to have it on my upcoming S&W compatible adventures!



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Swords & Wizardry Compatibility Logo
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Monsters Without Borders
Publisher: Dungeon Masters Guild
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 03/30/2018 16:55:25

A neuronphaser.com review.

Content

Monsters Without Borders is a charity-supporting release by a slew of the biggest and brightest names among the Dungeon Masters Guild's amateur and semi-pro authors and artists. All proceeds go to MSF/Doctors Without Borders, an international organization of folks who brave the harshest of geographical and political climates to save lifes: these are real-life adventurers, folks, and this book takes that theme and runs with it! There are 20 deadly monsters ranging in Challenge from 1/2 to 21, and there are three fantastic player options that immediately fit the theme of the charity organization this supports: a Paladin Oath (Oath of the Hospitaler) and 2 backgrounds (the Almsgiver and the Healer).

The monsters presented are:

  • arcane ooze - 6
  • beholder eye of the deep - 8
  • bone giant - 6
  • bound colossus - 21
  • demon blight - 3
  • eelfolk - 1/2
  • firefly golem - 6
  • gulabus - 5
  • jungle walker - 8
  • kenning - 1
  • killer kobolds, kobold air cavalry - 2
  • mind flayer cenomorph - 3
  • ooze dragon - 20
  • storm hound - 2
  • tempest beast - 4
  • terracotta warriors, soldier - 2
  • the evil doll - 4
  • the hood - 6
  • tomb spider - 3
  • werespider - 5

A little over a quarter of these monsters are brand new to this product, never-before-seen! The rest are taken from a slew of existing products on the Guild, but all are given a fresh coat of paint both stylistically as well as in terms of the writing. Every monster here has its own art piece (something I firmly believe to be a requirement in monster books), they are written up in full-formatting style similar to the Monster Manual, and their stats are laid out beautifully. The editing is truly superb, and an issue of a missing table has already been fixed just days (hours?) after launch, showing that the team behind this book is committed to making it the best possible reference tool for these monsters. A cursory examination of three stat blocks using the Dungeon Master's Guide monster creation tools suggests these monsters were run through a full stat block edit, and come out balanced perfectly.

The Paladin Oath is the Oath of the Hospitaler, and comes with a good mix of appropriate healing and protection powers. They aren't just hit point regeneration bots, but also gain a list of spells and powers that make the paladin highly mobile in order to get across the battlefield fast, and protect their allies from conditions of all sorts. Their spell list includes some options that also come from another DMsGuild release, Elminster's Guide to Magic, which shows the dedication of the authors in this book to promoting their fellow Guild authors and creators. It should be noted that for every spell from Elminster's Guide there are options from the Player's Handbook, too, so if you don't have that guide, you're still fully capable of using this Paladin Oath without any fuss.

The two backgrounds are the charity-giving Almsgiver and the alchemically-fluent Healer. Both are obviously working in-theme with this release, and both are built exactly as core rulebook Backgrounds with Proficiencies, some options where necessary, a Feature, suggested characterisitcs to make the most of their abilities, and complete tables for Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws.

The book ends with a page promising the forthcoming Monsters of the Guild, an even bigger tome of monsters from the Guild's top authors, as well as Guild Adepts and pro D&D luminaries like James Introcaso, Shawn Merwin, and Wolfgang Baur!

Layout

The layout on this release is gorgeous, clearly a fully professional work. Page backgrounds are unobtrusive yet stylish, with a cool "stitching" design on the interior border, a muted background, and monster stat blocks that almost perfectly mirror those of the official Monster Manual. There are enough flourishes in the layout to give this book a separate-but-connected look compared to the core rulebooks. My only complaint -- also a complaint for the core rulebooks, mind you -- is that the page numbers are relatively small and are a muted gray color. For a reference tool, I find that slightly annoying. But let me also note that I'm pretty sure this book's page numbers are a larger font than the core rulebooks, so they've already got points over Wizards of the Coast on that ;-P

All-in-all, this book is gorgeous. Seeing that the content, editing, and sheer amount of artwork is also there in spades makes this whole thing come out as one of the most professional, beautiful releases on the Guild, and certainly worthy of your support. That every cent of this support also happens to go toward an amazing charity is icing on the cake!

Fantasy Grounds Support!

Fantasy Grounds conversion guru Rob Twohy built a fully supported version of Monsters Without Borders for that virtual tabletop engine! You pick up this book at any price and the MOD file is included, so everything you need is already in there. Talk about service!

For more reviews, advice, articles, and more, check out neuronphaser.com



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Monsters Without Borders
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Creator Reply:
Thanks Tim. This is such an in-depth review! Your efforts may have helped us almost reach our campaign target of $500 raised for MSF. Only a few dollars left! All the best
Tarokka Deck Unleashed
Publisher: Dungeon Masters Guild
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 03/23/2018 18:03:52

A neuronphaser.com review.

Tarokka Deck Unleashed is a fantastic idea: take the Tarokka Deck -- released in an official form via Gale Force 9, but you can also custom make your own using the templates provided in Curse of Strahd or the 2e supplement, Forbidden Lore -- and find different uses for the cards that include a game mechanic version. With that idea in mind, this guide is a listing of all of the Tarokka Cards, along with two overarching mechanics that they influence: Inspiration and Despair.

Inspiration is much as we know it D&D, and the Tarokka cards act as a simple visual tool: if you have Inspiration, you have a card. You can discard it to spend Inspiration; simple, and a great visual tool. But the fun part is that you can also spend each card to perform a different mechanical effect, and every card is different. For example, the Philanthropist card says, "When you or a creature you can see makes a skill check or an ability check, you can play this card as a reaction. You can treat a d20 roll of 9 or lower as a 10." There's also an Alignment on each card, and if it matches yours, you can draw a second one. Very neat!

Despair is an unrelated mechanic that operates on Morale points that every character has, and when you play Tarokka cards (as in the Inpsiration mechanic, or to perform the other, card-specific effect), you cause someone else to lose Morale, which eventually leads to drawing cards from the "High Deck" and in turn those cards have special effects on them. They almost universally have bizarre, macabre effects that are evocative of the gothic horror elements of Ravenloft: soothsaying, unwanted visions, depression, madness. Some of these will weaken character abilities, but overcoming them can empower a character for a limited time, which reinforces the idea that the heroes gain new insights and even powers as they steel their resolve against the supernatural horrors of the setting.

The art, layout, and mechanics are stellar, though I do suspect the Despair mechanic is a bit of an added lair that could be easily forgotten or fudged, somewhat like the Dungeon Master's Guide's optional rules for Sanity values or monster & hireling Morale. It's the kind of thing that the group doesn't just buy into, but also has to keep track of, in addition to all the other stuff on their character sheets, and that may not work for every group. Because of this, I would've liked to have seen a few more simple ideas for how to use Tarokka cards entirely replacing Inspiration, or as another facet of the existing Madness rules. Or even a few notes on how such cards could be used to influence the mechanics or information revealed by spells like augury, legend lore, and things of that nature. There's a lot of design space there, and those misses unfortunately cast a slight shadow over the fact that something like the Despair mechanic feels slightly "tacked on."

Don't take that last bit as a big negative, though, because what is in this book is great. More over, it inspires ideas about those other pieces of the game, so you'll have fuel to create such things if you need them. Therefore, the only reason I'm subtracting a star is because there's some editing issues here or there that a solid proofread should catch. A few of the mechanics are worded in ways inconsistent with the core rulebooks, or feature an obvious accidental word replacement.

Overall, this package is great, and left me wanting more, and I mean that in a good way.

For more reviews, advice, and more, check out neuronphaser.com



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Tarokka Deck Unleashed
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Christopher Grey's Factions
Publisher: Dungeon Masters Guild
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 03/07/2018 19:08:26

Christopher Grey's Factions supplement is a neat rules add-on that dovetails nicely with the Renown optional rules and the Recurring Expenses section (both from the Dungeon Master's Guide). It adds just a teensy bit of extra complexity in the form of:

  1. Faction Levels and the XP necessary to go up (or down!) in standing with a Faction.

  2. Influence, which nets you minor hirelings and henchmen from the Faction.

  3. Property, from which you can generate income, apply your Influence-gained henchmen for daily oversight of the place, and conceivably where you can perform Faction-related duties.

Overall, the systems seem pretty solid for a highly social campaign, but come with a few flaws: Faction Levels use the Challenge of NPCs and conceivably the rules for Social Interaction (also in the DMG) -- though that last bit isn't spelled out -- in order to award XP for interactions with Faction members. Of course, this means tracking an XP number for each Faction in the campaign, and making sure that total is up to date, which notably is a little harder than tracking XP because you also can LOSE points based on your standing with rival Factions. Similarly, the Property portion seems to be derived in part from the Recurring Expenses section in the DMG, but the pricing doesn't quite match up: an Abbey costs 125 gp per day in this book, but only 20 gp per day in the DMG.

The Faction Renown section in this book follows the DMG's Renown optional rules almost to the letter, however.

It's worth noting that the added complexity of these rules do yield some really great results, and thus even if you think, "Hey, I want it to match the core rules EXACTLY!" you could be missing out on some really neat stuff in the interaction tier of the game. The Faction Levels directly correlate to the initial attitudes and potential business dealings with Faction members, and the sites you can set up with the Property rules generate more than just income or servants: you might get discounted goods, generate greater Influence within or for the Faction, create siege engines or naval ships, and so on. Importantly, not every single NPC in the campaign world is going to be a Faction-member, so it's not like these complex rules need to be layered onto every single interaction encounter.

Therefore, this guide gets 3 stars. If you want a lot more detail in the interaction tier of the game, this short document provides a lot more than its page count might suggest. However, if you're just looking to flesh out the Factions or Renown rules that already exist, or add new ones to your game, this book is going to have to be weighed carefully against the DMG's optional rules to see which route you'd rather take.



Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Christopher Grey's Factions
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Steel and Fury (DCC)
Publisher: Purple Duck Games
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 01/24/2018 15:43:56

Steel and Fury is a perfect add-on to the DCC RPG, specifically for martial characters like the Warrior and Dwarf. Besides the obvious -- adding dozens of new maneuvers to the Mighty Deeds of Action -- this book scores enormous points for including the original Deeds from the DCC RPG, as well as copious lists of weapons that are optimized for specific deeds. By collecting all the Deeds from the rulebook plus the new ones in one resource, it's super easy for players to operate from one of the DCC RPG quickstarts or otherwise not have to flip through two books to reference the rules. The aforementioned lists make this resource doubly useful because it allows for some additional differentiation in regards to weapon choices vs. Deeds characters might gravitate towards. Martial characters don't get as many choices and tactics as spellcasters do in some ways, and this added variety and forethought on the author's part makes this book a solid five stars!



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Steel and Fury (DCC)
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Belly of the Beast RPG
Publisher: Sigil Stone Publishing
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 01/24/2018 15:40:16

A neuronphaser.com review.

Belly of the Beast is a roleplaying game with a terrifyingly unique premise: the players are scavengers living in the guts of a giant, world-eating monster. The entire game is laser-focused on hardy, grim survivors collecting whatever tools, technology, and food they can to stay alive in an environment that is absolutely opposed to their continued existence, and it does a brilliant job of crafting thematic rules to achieve this.

Rating: Content 5/5 and Form 5/5.

Form (5/5)

A standard element of Sigil Stone’s games is the use of brief Summary text-boxes at the end of each section, covering either the rules or setting material presented in that section. This provides extremely useful reinforcement of the material just covered, and can easily be provided to players as a capsule explanation of the game’s setting, rules, or both.

Otherwise, this book is a great example of simple, clean layout that is optimized for PDF, ePUB, and similar reading. I don't have the physical book, so I can only comment on the electronic version(s) of the game.

Content (5/5)

Setting

Hundreds of years ago a massive rock fell from the sky, crushing kingdoms and continents beneath its force. Eventually, life in the realms returned to a state of normalcy, and the many clans continued their incessant struggle for power.

Three generations past, the skyrock – said to possess foul energies and discordant vibrations – erupted in a disgusting ball of effluence and viscera, revealing the creature that dwelt within it – the Swallower of Worlds, the Insatiable God, the Devourer, or simply: the Beast.

Incalculably large, the Beast unfurled its great girth upon the land, consuming thousands of leagues of soil, stone, and forest. One by one, the mighty strongholds and great armies of the age fell against its inexorable consumption.

And yet when legions, empires, and cities are swallowed whole – not all is lost. A rare few survive the Devouring, and test their mettle living in the belly of the Beast.

You are one of these exemplars of grit and greed: a scavenger. Hundreds of great civilizations have been consumed, but their wares, artifacts, and materials are ripe for the taking deep within the recesses of your new home’s guts.

You really can’t get much crazier than that. There’s not a whole lot of pre-built NPCs, locations, or setting material detailed in the core rulebook, but rather there is ample information on the logistics of a world inside a monster’s digestive tract, and even a whole chapter of rules that bring the environment to life.

Thus, an interesting premise is offered, with all of the tools a GM and enterprising players need to run the kind of campaign they want in this unique environment. It’s up to the players and GM to define the type of campaign they want to run in this environment, and you won’t be lacking for details when it comes to questions like, “How would ABC work in this kind of environment?” You have a lot of leeway to build your own setting or steal from existing campaign settings across many game lines, and simply mash them together.

Kinda like what the Beast already does: mashes things (people! towns! continents!) down its gullet and continues on.

Characters

Belly of the Beast focuses on stories that revolve around a ragtag group of scavengers doing everything they can to not only survive, but to thrive living in this stinking cesspit of a monster’s gut.

The characters are tough, cruel, greedy bastards that care mainly about themselves, and the very few people who they might feel a hint of loyalty toward. Driven by instinct and need, only the cunning and the grim can make it as scavengers.

Personal tales of struggle, triumph, betrayal, greed, and the constant and incessant need for supplies in the face of danger fit well with Belly of the Beast.

Characters are made up of several traits:

  • Choose two Instincts that define your character. Instincts include Curiosity, Fear, Greed, Loyalty, and Violence.
  • Each Instinct provides a Maneuver.
  • Define a Specialty that tells what your character is really, really good at.
  • Rank your Skills, of which there are eight. These include things like Awareness, Wits, Stealth, Might, and Resolve.
  • Select or define a Talent, which is kind of like a lesser version of a Specialty, which tells you something that you’re really good at (as opposed to really, really good).

There’s a central set of traits that tend to have a lot of mechanical implications, and in this case these would be the Instincts. They define how your character interacts with the world in a thematic way, define how you go about regaining Instinct Dice which can be used to supplement your dice pools, and provide you Maneuvers that are like special abilities you can activate during combat, social interactions, exploration, and scavenging.

Game Mechanics

Belly of the Beast’s gameplay has a relatively consistent and mechanically enforced cycle: encounter a problem or run out of stuff, look for the stuff that’ll solve the problem, get the stuff, and bring the stuff back in order to fix the issue.

Like all of Sigil Stone Publishing’s Ethos Engine games (such as Vow of Honor and Hunt the Wicked), players do all the rolling, and use six-sided dice they build into a pool. A single Base Die is supplemented with Advantage Dice (from gear and circumstantial benefits) and Instinct Dice, the latter of which is a resource that is awarded and spent throughout the course of a scene.

Once you’ve built your pool of dice, you roll and check each die against your pertinent Skill to see if you get a success or failure. Each success counts towards a Difficulty, and if you equal or exceed that Difficulty, you succeed at the task. Some simple things get one roll, while extended tasks might allow you to keep rolling until you either hit that Difficulty, or until you’ve reached a certain point and fail or simply run out of time.

Enemies, complex tasks, and everything else tend to work in a similar manner: they represent the Difficulty (and whether or not you’re rolling an extended series of rolls or not). The GM never rolls, concentrating instead on the narrative of the scene and the actions, and using the traits of the enemies or environment to determine the damage a player character takes or the general threat they face when they fail at a task.

A neat little trick in Belly of the Beast regarding Instincts is the ability for players to choose to Succumb to or Transcend one of their Instincts to automatically succeed at a task or end a scene in their favor. The thing is, this carries a huge change to that character’s being, and will have a telling affect on them going forward.

If a character Succumbs to their Instinct, they irrevocably give into that Instinct and act in almost animalistic manner, driven by it for a time, and feeling Ashamed afterward (a mechanical game state similar to being Injured or faced with a consequence). If a character Transcends their Instinct, they can no longer gain Instinct Dice or use the Maneuver associated with that Instinct, and have to “Advance” (level-up) in order to select a new Instinct.

Considering the setting, Horror and Sickness both get their own little subsystems, but essentially just act as complex tasks or enemies. Similarly, there is more complex systems than previous Ethos Engine games for dealing with equipment, specifically encumbrance, breakage and wastage. After all, you’re adventuring in the stomach acids of a giant beast, and a key piece of a character’s motivation is to haul loot, food, water, and supplies back to base.

Last but not least, there are several points about the beast’s physical status, which can be affected by the players, but that will in turn have drastic repercussions on the environment they adventure within. The beast has traits such as Hunger and Pain that the players can take advantage of or feel the consequences of. The environmental Hazards are given their own rules, and can grow more dangerous depending on the status of the beast.

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Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Belly of the Beast RPG
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Critters, Creatures, & Denizens
Publisher: Cognition Pressworks
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 12/15/2017 13:39:50

A neuronphaser.com review.

Critters, Creatures & Denizens (CCD, which happens to be a nice acronym alongside Dungeon Crawl Classics' DCC) is like the AD&D Monster Manual getting released before the AD&D Player's Handbook: it's a monster book with slightly more "advanced" rules, but it works perfectly with the existing game. To allay fears, it doesn't "change" any rules or break the game, it simply adds a little extra granularity to monster stats in the form of providing Ability Scores for all monsters, and for developing finer details for movement (running, flying, hovering). The existing stuff -- i.e. non-advanced versions of the rules -- is all there, too, so you're only getting additional information, not losing out on anything.

With that note out of the way, CCD basically replaces and expands upon most of the monster info in the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG core rulebook. It also includes incredibly in-depth rules discussions of monsters, monster creation, and monster conversion, so the few holes in the replacements form the DCC core book (gargoyles, dragons, demons, some undead) are easy to convert to this expanded rule info if you so choose, and pulling monsters out of nearly any OSR game -- Swords & Wizardry, Castles & Crusades, and other games that have lots of really good monster books -- is a breeze. There are hundreds of monsters in here, and while a considerable number are animals, nearly every entry includes info on giant or smaller versions of animals, supernatural mutations, and other weird stuff, so that even an entry on Chickens isn't just about a chicken: there are riding chickens and war chickens! Chocobos, ride!!!

There's even a patron demon lord (Krelvax) and a mechanical faerie lord (The Gear Lord) that act as supernatural patrons or deities for a cleric, and the full rules info for such are included.

The monster entries themselves are formatted in a manner reminiscent most of the AD&D 2E Monster Manual, which is nice because it formats multiple monster entries on a single table whenever possible. For example, the Goblin entry includes 4 or 5 different goblin stats (grunt, chief, cook, etc.) and then includes a couple pages of description, combat, and ecology text that gives you great insight into how to run such creatures as more than just mini-bags of hit points trying to chew a Player Character's leg off.

I mentioned mutations. There's a whole section in the beginning about mutations, so you can pull together any existing creature (or develop a new one using the wonderful rules in this book), and then mutate it like crazy to get something horrifying and new. Or, you can mutate your player characters with minor and major mutations of great variety. Because they deserve it, that's why! And we're not talking about mutations like "becomes Spider-Man," oh no. We're talking about horrific, detrimental things that they may find benefit from, but by and large are going to send them on a death-spiral of horror, change, and being outcast from polite society (if such a thing exists in DCC!).

This book is solid through and through. Even if you don't use the expanded movement rules, don't worry about the granularity of some special abilities, and ignore mutations, you're still getting hundreds of monsters, giant versions of animals, and a few sweet patrons or familiars besides. Plus conversion rules that allow you to reappropriate any monster for the DCC game.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Critters, Creatures, & Denizens
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Castles & Crusades Arms and Armor
Publisher: Troll Lord Games
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 12/15/2017 13:18:42

A neuronphaser.com review.

Arms and Armor was updated during the Castles & Crusades "Three Sisters" (AKA core rulebooks) Kickstarter a couple years back (circa 2016), even though the cover pictured on this product page doesn't show it. What this means is that it is a COMPLETE reference for all mundane armors, helmets, shields, and weapons for the Castles & Crusades system, and with scads of pages of descriptive text noting physical features, measurements, and the history of each piece of gear, this is a useful reference for any OSR game, and probably most any D&D-derived system. There may be some historical inaccuracies -- I didn't note any, but that's not my field at all -- and you may see a lot of items with effectively the same stats, but any duplication in game stats is ignored when you have so much good detail on such a wide variety of items. In other words, the fluff is great, the stats are great, so anywhere you find duplication or superfluous distinctions can be ignored because the whole of the work is fantastic.

Opinion only, but I found a few stats wacky...but literally only a handful. And this opinion is almost strictly formed from having the same general damage notations for said weapons for YEARS. For example, the battle axe in Arms and Armor is rated at 1d6+1 damage and has a throwing range (albeit very short!), and the throwing axe is rated at 1d4 and has a slightly longer throwing range. These numbers are comparable to a shortsword and a dagger, respectively, and the low damage numbers on axes across the board suggests...I dunno. Maybe the writer has a problem with axes? Or maybe they were thinking of some weird critical hit rule that makes axes double their damage more often than swords...? I really don't know, but having played with battle axes dealing 1d8 damage for about 30-ish years just made this stand out, so I personally would take a look at things like that and consider them.

Now, as an off-hand mention, I'm planning to use this book in my Dungeon Crawl Classics games. In comparing the AC bonuses, the damage ratings, gear costs, and all that other stuff to the same in the DCC RPG rulebook, I found most things were a 1:1 match, and the few that weren't were rarely off by much. I quick skim of games like Swords & Wizardry suggests much the same. Point being: if you want to pick this book up and use it in your OSR game of choice, your conversion work is either non-existent or involves flipping a handful of numbers here or there, at most. That's hugely beneficial, and opens up hundreds of weapons, shields, armor, and helmets for any OSR game you care to play.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Castles & Crusades Arms and Armor
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DCC RPG Quick Start Rules
Publisher: Goodman Games
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 12/15/2017 12:42:42

A neuronphaser.com review.

Briefly, the DCC RPG Quick Start Rules are a player's manual allowing Player Characters to reach level 2 in any of the core classes (warrior, wizard, cleric, thief, elf, dwarf, halfling), plus enough gameplay info for a Judge (AKA Game Master) to run the game through the two included, one-session adventures. If you're just looking for a thumbs up or thumbs down, this is a solid thumbs up, with maybe a caveat or two.

For those looking for something lengthier: this is a great starting point, and absolutely sets out to do what it's intended for, which is to get a game of DCC up and running in no time, with a minimum of fuss. Save for advanced GMing techniques and higher levels, you get everything you need here, and the two included adventures are of a nature that a quick skim and you're on your way to running these things in no time. That's fantastic! The layout of all the info is tight and concise, as well as feeling complete -- I didn't notice anything missing from the gear and combat sections from the core rulebook of the full game, so there's no "missing" stuff that will trip you up or create a bump in the learning curve when you move onto the full rulebook and higher levels of play.

That's an overall win, but I have my personal gripes that I know are pretty specific to me, so take this with a grain of salt. The first is that I think the class write-ups could have gone to higher levels without that much added page count (spells would be the big one, though, and I'll talk more on that in a second). This could have been a complete "Player's Manual" that not only was a quick start but also provided players with a cheaper, smaller-than-a-massive-brick reference book, and the page count might have only increased by a handful of pages. But the spells...spells are a huge section in the core rulebook, and obviously it'd be tough to include that in a player reference without bloating the page count. This is where my other gripe comes in: spells are pretty complex in that they have lots of moving parts and thus lots of tables to reference. I think spells could've been the one "learning curve bump" where they dumbed them down for the quick start, or removed some of the options such that you'd still get a "complete" player's reference manual out of this, but left out some spells -- or some spell rules, such as the full reference tables for many spell functions -- such that those surprises would come from the Judge, through gameplay and interaction with the game world.

That second gripe is a very personal, admittedly nebulous one that shouldn't be seen as a knock against the game. It's more like a note for how a player manual could be set up for DCC. I didn't knock off any stars for either of these gripes given their nature.

See more reviews, resources, and releases for DMsGuild and DriveThruRPG at neuronphaser.com



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
DCC RPG Quick Start Rules
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Blood Dark Thirst
Publisher: Kort'thalis Publishing
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 12/08/2017 18:12:25

A neuronphaser.com review

Summary

Blood Dark Thirst in a nutshell is Vampire: The Masquerade as distilled through author Venger's propensity for an extra layer of darkness or weirdness (these are blood suckers who are possessed by demons!), and a major streamlining of system and theme. This isn't a game that sells itself on its lavishly developed setting or the complex machinations of vampiric clans or houses, but instead boils everything down to the personal traits that create such beautiful conflict in the modern vampire mythos. For those seeking a quick and dark way to tell vampire stories of personal horror, you can't go wrong. For those looking for more -- more details, more traits, more than just "how does my vampire overcome or succumb to his bloodlust -- this isn't for you. And that's just fine.

Content 4/5

Blood Dark Thirst (BDT for short in this review) is a full RPG in the usual style of Venger's other games: evocative, complete, and succinct all in one package. Somewhat like Crimson Dragon Slayer, BDT is an OSR-style clone of another game, but this time it's a game nominally set in the modern world: Vampire: The Masquerade. Only that BDT stays true to Venger's style, because it's not just vampires, it's demon-possessed vampires!

The game itself borrows the thematic ideas of Vampire: The Masquerade's earliest editions -- that of personal horror -- and spins them in the usual easy-to-start, fast-to-play style that makes all Kort'thalis Publishing games great, rules-lite pick-up games or introductions for new players and groups that like a gonzo style. Though we'll touch on some of the short cuts that make this game so fast, it's important to note that the themes tend towards slightly longer-term play than Crimson Dragon Slayer or Alpha Blue might suggest, and we find most of the mechanics in BDT work well for this, which is a nice surprise in such a sleek, rules-lite system. But that's all vague; let's get to the specifics!

Player Characters

The players characters are folks possessed by blood-drinking demons, so they are vampires, but the hunger that drives them is clearly motivated by another force that lives within them. These characters will have a number of special abilities thanks to their demonic possession, but all of this centers around a careful balance of the blood that sustains them (they gotta feed often), the humanity that allows them to move among humans in order to hunt without being caught (it's inevitable that they'll lose this humanity over time), and their force of will, pushing them to continue on in this endless internal conflict (their willpower allows them to resist base urges, the domination of stronger vampires, or to create new vampires to help them survive).

Narrative & Mechanical Traits. Characters are built from several narrative traits: things they are good at, things they are bad at, and several personality flaws that suggest dark urges they may give into. Then the more mechanical traits are determined: Blood, Humanity, Willpower, and Health are generally equal for all vampires at the start, but can vary wildly as vampires grow older, and even throughout the night if the vampire gets involved in a lot of conflict.

Levels & Supernatural Abilities. Vampires get "levels" that are gauge of age, experience, and power. As they go up in level, they get more Health and also begin to unlock new supernatural abilities from their vampiric nature (or demonic possession, really). All vampires start with incredible strength, reflexes, and the ability to influence the minds of the weaker-willed, and as they level they pick up abilities such as seeing the memories of those they drink blood from, communicating with the dead, moving without a trace, telepathy, and more. All of these are thematic to some version of the vampire mythos, and some are more blatantly supernatural (or even demonic) than others.

Gameplay

BDT uses the VSd6 system. If you're character is especially good at something, they roll 3d6 (sometimes more, if you have special items or powers). If they are average, they roll 2d6. If they suck, they roll 1d6. When you roll dice, you simply look at the highest die rolled, and that's your result: a 1 is terrible, 2 and 3 are generally bad, 4 is okay, 5 and 6 tend to rock. When it comes to dealing damage, multiple 6s mean that you deal more of it. Simple.

As mentioned above, a character has narrative traits that tell you what they are good at and bad at, which determines whether you're rolling more or less d6s. Supernatural abilities sometimes allow you to gain new things you're good at, or increase the benefits of the results of a good roll. For example, you rarely roll more dice, but if you succeed at some supernatural strength attack, you might multiply the damage dealt by 3.

That said, the bulk of the mechanics revolve around the major trait drivers of the characters: Blood, Humanity, Willpower (and to a lesser extent, Health).

  • Waking up at dusk, activating supernatural powers, healing Health points, and turning a mortal into a vampire all cost Blood to use, and since you only have 6, they go fast.
  • Evil acts cost you a Humanity -- no more than one per night -- and low Humanity causes your appearance to become less and less human, veering towards downright demonic at the lowest levels. Especially good acts can be awarded with your Humanity increasing, but the system seems to suggest that these must be pretty serious, virtuous deeds.
  • Willpower can be spent to resist supernatural influence, resist going into a frenzy, turning a mortal into a vampire, or adding 3d6 to your dice pool. Like Blood, you only have 6 points, and you can regain 1 of them (once per scene) by roleplaying your flaws.

There's a section on vampire weaknesses that speak to legends and myth, telling you which ones are "real" and which ones aren't. Rules for the blood bond (gaining mental domination over those that drink your blood), hunting for, grappling and feeding from humans without being seen, and combat round out the book. Notably, seizing a victim and remaining sneaky have random tables based on the VSd6 success table, so they act as great springboards for mixing up the results of hunting. Of course, if you feed on a willing victim, you can ignore them, too!

The Black Envelope

An introductory scenario, "The Black Envelope" is included to provide a quick jumping off point that will force the players together over a shared threat. The scenario is incredibly lightly detailed, instead relying on tables to determine some possible encounters and/or final setting for what's likely to be the climactic encounter, as well as some information (rumors? truths?) about the subject of the players' consternation: the most powerful vampire in the city!

It's the kind of scenario that Kort'thalis is known for: evocative but very loosely detailed. It'll require an experienced GM and either lots of improv or a not-so-small amount of prep to breathe life into the scenario. But let me stress how good it is: SPOILER the head vampire of the city drops a note at each player's home during the day (so, probably not personally delivered) that basically says, "Get out of my city or you're dead." For those familiar with Vampire: The Masquerade, we're literally starting with the players under a Blood Hunt. END SPOILER

Form 5/5

Blood Dark Thirst is a 25-page PDF (including cover page, one page of credits, and a one page character sheet). The layout includes two columns and there is both a full-color version with a cool "bloody parchment" style background that doesn't interfere with legibility, and there's a background-less, printer-friendly version.

There is full-page artwork that breaks up several sections, which really means this is a much smaller document than 25 pages in terms of words, but the artwork throughout is supremely evocative: remember, these aren't just vampires, they are demon-possessed vampires! And that character sheet! It is gorgeous and laid out beautifully: it has everything you'll ever need for a character, plus evocative flourishes in the form of symbols for tracking traits like Humanity and Willpower, as well as background artwork that veers from sensual to horrific. This truly evokes what playing in a world of demonic vampires is all about!

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Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
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Companion System
Publisher: Dungeon Masters Guild
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 11/24/2017 17:26:27

A neuronphaser.com review.

The Companion System is a rules expansion that takes the idea of having hirelings and henchmen -- an "old school" style of gaming with lots of basically nameless NPCs acting as canon fodder, trap catchers, porters, or watchmen accompanying the Player Characters on their adventures -- and turns it into an interesting, easily manageable rules mechanic that simply boosts an individual PC's versatility. Effectively, you "equip" a companion and gain a couple minor abilities that represent that companion's abilities, in much the same way several magic items provide a couple benefits. They aren't game breaking, they are often very focused, and they don't increase bookkeeping by any measurable degree, unlike running several fully-statted NPCs might.

Companions have very few traits: they get Inspiration which powers their more useful abilities, they can take a small number of wounds (generally between 1 and 5), and they can be Loyal, which usually unlocks an additional minor ability. All companions also have a bare minimum of capabilities that represent their presence on the battlefied but don't require the movement tracking, minis, or other tactical considerations of having a character on the field. Think of all those 8-bit RPG video games where your single sprite on the world map actually represents your party of 4 characters: a Companion generally moves with you and occupies your space, but if you get knocked out or something they still have (limited) ability to carry your body around if they aren't also knocked out or restrained (or whatever).

The companion system takes into account some other maybe-not-as-obvious cases, too, like animal companions, familiars, and even small mobs (instead of having Herc the Guardian you might have 4 nameless, barely skilled guards). The versatility in the Companion System makes running any variation of these add-on characters super simple, and ensures that the players don't have to track dozens of extra minis/character sheets, and the DM doesn't have to rethink encounter math from the ground up to threaten huge mobs of retainers and guardians.

An immediate use for this system: the later chapters of Out of the Abyss, in which the players can conceivably recruit nearly two dozen NPC retainers and soldiers to go march against some demon lords. Instead of tracking anywhere between two and twelve fully fleshed out monster statblocks and considering how to balance random encounters against a party size of 10 to 30 characters (!), you can use the Companion System and change absolutely nothing about gameplay, while still giving the players the added flexibility of extra soldiers, healers, or special characters. Even the earlier parts of Out of the Abyss with the prisoners accompanying the party become a simple affair of adding a few companions to the mix, and leaving out all those extra statblocks and minis.

To top it all off: the behind-the-scenes design principles of the Companion System's abilities are fully laid out, and there are dozens of example companions, so it's a breeze to customize your own abilities, rearrange abilities between different existing Companions to give you unique combinations, or develop your own abilities from scratch that remain within the balance limits of the system. Within 10 minutes of reading this guide I whipped up 6 companions of my own creation that used a combo of some of the existing example abilities and a few entirely new ones!

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Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Companion System
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Stairway of V'dreen
Publisher: Kort'thalis Publishing
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 09/29/2017 12:20:38

A neuronphaser.com review.

Content 3/5

Like so many of Kort’thalis Publishing’s products, Stairway packs an optimal amount of adventure hooks and encounters in a minimum of space, cleverly leaving a fair amount of work up to random tables and minimizing background- and motivation-oriented text for NPCs and creatures so that the GM has just enough to run things but with plenty of room to riff on their own ideas. This also makes the adventure replayable to a great degree.

Unlike the previous outing we reviewed — Slaves of Tsathoggua — Stairway is not a dungeon crawl. Nor is it a hexcrawl, since the territory the party is going to explore is not mapped and is in fact beginning to dissipate at its outer edges into an obliterating void of nothingness. Instead, this adventure quickly drops the party into this ever-shrinking land, provides a couple set encounters, a couple of adventure sites, and a handful of factions the party can interact with. The GM is given all the pertinent details, but it’s up to them and the decisions of their players as to what order things will operate in, and where the party might wander off to.

Adventure Intro: Getting to V’dreen

The adventure opens with the party being forced to find cover — from what is up to them, and can be anything from a terrible storm to a rampaging kaiju — and in so doing they stumble onto a mad scientist that opens a portal to V’dreen and it’s pretty much assumed the party heads through. This part’s a railroad to get to the rest of the adventure, which I always personally take issue with, but it’s evocative and there’s a random table in case the party tries to screw with the portal that could result in folks getting killed or whisked off to other worlds, so if the players are intent on avoiding the adventure, they still might die. Very old school, and quite hilarious.

The World of V’dreen

Once everyone heads through the portal, they come upon a world that is slowly eroding: civilizations have fallen and disappeared, geography is fading, even the air is thinning and can lead to penalties for characters that exert themselves too hard. Although several sections follow with specific encounters, locales, and events, there’s a bevy of tables to help build the details and feel of the setting, including:

  • A table for the effects of strenuous activity in the thinning air environment.
  • Random half-heard whispers from the gods that abandoned this setting (hinting at the origin of the world and foreshadowing the finale of the adventure).
  • Typical professions of the V’dreen residents of the ghost town of Laarzdyn, many of which are truly bizarre.
  • Three tables that provide bizarre features for randomly encountered monsters.
  • A list of non-player characters that are stranded in this realm.

We then get a brief overview of what V’dreen is, but no map or artistic rendering, which is really the only major flaw in this product.

The lack of a map, general layout, or artistic representation of what V’dreen looks like is a miss. Few of the art pieces in the book evoke anything about the scenery, instead concentrating on the monsters and characters the party meets, and because of that there’s a real problem for those of us that are more visual when it comes to picturing the bizarre, extremely fun landscape elements of the setting. That said, the following encounters and locations provide for some pretty evocative fuel for a sandbox adventure.

Encounters: Fractious Factions and Scary Sites

The factions the party may face include:

  • Insectoid raiders and slavers that attempt to kill the mad scientist that pulled the party through the portal in the first place.
  • A group of Star Elves AKA Klyngon Elves (yeah, Klingons) seeking to use the mysterious Stairway of V’dreen.
  • The B’xeeru, sentient clouds that protect the stairway.
  • Zobleez, which are basically flesh-eating goblins.
  • A masked warlord seeking slaves.

Then there are several sites the party may explore:

  • The edge of the world, which is basically a drop off into nothingness (actually, it looks ominously like graph paper…).
  • A temple inhabited by a demon that promises the party a powerful sword in exchange for carrying out a quest that will restore V’dreen (surprise: this is a lie).
  • A garden of statues wherein hides three immortal former-servitors of the demon in the temple.
  • A monolith that grants magical powers.
  • A time-traveling wizard who lives in a cave.

And, of course, the stairway itself, which is guarded by a massive, nightmarish beast that combines all the worst features of a spider and a tyrannosaurus rex. The stairway leads to a stunning conclusion that has been well built-up by the various events, locations, and random tables throughout this adventure, which is great because that level of consistency often doesn’t show up in old school adventures: too often, random tables just feel random and don’t reinforce any particular theme. Not so here: everything comes together.

There’s a lot to like here — even if you don’t like the Klingon reference — because the groups are all framed with regard to how they view the stairway and the beast that guards it, and this makes it very clear how everyone interacts. There’s enough templates and stats for NPCs that you have a fair amount of enemies to work with, but I can’t help that the lack of a visual guide to the land also pervades the overall content: there’s just not enough presented for most of the factions (the Star Elves and B’xeeru have no stats or examples), and the adventure sites are pretty basic, likely not good for much more than an hour of play each at the absolute most, and that’s with a lot of riffing and throwing random encounters at the party (which incidentally there isn’t a table for). Ultimately, it feels like a great outline, but lacks enough detail to really sing once the players start really interacting with the people and places in V’dreen.

Conclusion: Ascending the Stairway

BIGGEST POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT

The stairway leads to a window that looks into the real world, revealing the “gods” to be a group of roleplayers who created and adventured in V’dreen but who’ve probably since moved on to other games or campaign worlds. Three buttons exist at this window and allow the PCs to swap V’dreen for another campaign setting (Venger’s Purple Islands, which are the subject of a couple modules he’s since authored) and unleash the demon from the temple, revitalize V’dreen, or completely obliterate V’dreen (and perhaps the real world).

END SPOILER ALERT

Conversion

It’s worth noting that this adventure — like anything for Crimson Dragon Slayer — is easily portable to your OSR system of choice. This does shore up some of Stairway‘s lack of depth because throwing in any encounter from any product for games like Castles & Crusades, Swords & Wizardry, or Labyrinth Lord (as well as anything OD&D and AD&D derived) is going to be a snap.

Form 5/5

A 19-page PDF, Stairway of V’dreen comes with both full color and printer-friendly versions that are cleanly laid out in two columns and are easy on the eyes.

The artwork is a great mix of gorgeous pieces of horrors beyond this world and a few that are more evocative of old school fantasy gaming, but they all fit seamlessly together and enhance the content. As previously mentioned, the only thing missing here is a map or stylized layout of the world of V’dreen, and this remains perhaps the only real flaw in the presentation of this product.

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Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Stairway of V'dreen
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Slaves of Tsathoggua
Publisher: Kort'thalis Publishing
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 09/25/2017 13:14:07

A neuronphaser.com review.

Content 4/5

Slaves begins with a quick table for players to determine their characters’ living status at the start of play, just in case this is their first session with these characters (a deadly proposition given that this adventure’s pretty tough!). The vast majority of the options are negative: you can’t read or write; even your dirt has dirt on it; you have 2d6 teeth remaining; you get disadvantage (1 less die) on saving throws. It’s amusing and really shows off Venger’s sense of humor, but it’s also punishing and doesn’t hit any of the truly off-the-wall notes you’ll see throughout the rest of this adventure’s random tables or the rest of the author’s body of work.

In a lot of ways, though, this table should give you a really good idea of whether this adventure will fit with your group’s play style. Basically, if you value long-term character growth and intricate backstory, you’re barking up the wrong tree. If you have more of a Paranoia RPG mindset and view your character as a hapless bastard about to bite off more than they can chew in a fantasy world of dragons and Elder Gods that prey on your sanity, then this is going to be one hell of a fun ride!

Adventure Intro

There’s a table of rumors the party might have heard, and then the intro, which is really just a couple of vignettes wherein the party witnesses the funeral of the priest of the village of Needham, and then the corruptive, destructive power of the caves. These scenes don’t leave a lot for players to really do other than bear witness and maybe gain a couple random bits of info that might save them later on if they are really paying attention — don’t give into the mind-controlling lady’s lies and don’t let acidic ooze touch you — but there’s not much in the way of making lots of dice rolls or stretching the mechanics of the game, which is a flaw if this truly is the first run through of the game with your characters.

That said, the stuff they witness is evocative, and can lead to some fun roleplay…or it might scare the wits outta them, and make them avoid the cave at all costs. It really pays to read your group and if they show reluctance to help save this poor village bereft of the only protection they once had (the dead priest), you may need to add some hooks like, “Hey, I think we lost some sweet artifacts in that cave a generation or two back!” (There’s a magic sword that works particularly well as motivation for the party to hunt it down; it’s in the hands of the Oracle, Kyr-ann.)

The Cave: Background & Tools

And then we get to the cave proper, which gets an introduction as to what’s really going on (a MacGuffin that’s basically a malfunctioning teleporter) and some hints about how and why the caves are stocked the way they are. There’s also some tables:

  • What does the creature want? (A table of motivations so you can change up the initial attitude of the monsters, or determine attitudes for new monsters you might want to add to the caves, given that the teleporter will restock the caves periodically.)
  • What kind of cave is it? (A table of physical descriptions for the caves leading off of the main chamber, often with neat environmental effects that will radically change up the tactics the party needs to employ, or that the monsters use to fight them.)
  • What’s inside? (A table of smaller features that might crop up in the individual caves or in the tunnels in-between the caves.)

There’s two minor problems in this section. The first is that it’s not entirely clear how these tables interact with the larger environment of the cave, despite all the cool tools and the neat MacGuffin that are presented. You’re not given any advice on how the teleporter or the force field surrounding it work or how they can be influenced by the party. The tables provide some great atmospherics, but most of the caves described in this section are pretty clear on what physically exists within them, so the results you may roll contradict the environmental descriptions or might make very little sense of the inhabitants to remain within them.

Additionally, there’s little in the way of logic as to why most of the monsters haven’t just up and left the place; we’re just told that this is the current roster of monsters and NPCs in the cave and the players walk into that situation.

The second minor problem is that some of the table results are just not to this reviewer’s liking. While I appreciate randomness and weirdness, there’s maybe a handful of the results that just fall flat (keep in mind that there are dozens of possible results, though). On the What’s inside? table, for example, you might roll “Milk chocolate center.” That’s all it gives you. I mean, it’s vaguely funny, but how do you actually run that? Especially if there’s a sexy succubus laying on a lounge seat in the center of the room, according to the room description?

Keep in mind, these issues are minor. Coming up with the answers or ignoring the whackier results are things that take barely a few seconds of brain-power for even a starting GM. But things like the MacGuffin’s weaknesses or mechanisms seem more like a miss than simply a problem with play style or genre conventions.

The Cave: The Adventure

And then we get the rest of the adventure: 17 fully described rooms (including the central chamber with the teleporter) and monsters or NPCs in just about every single one of them. Plus a fleshed-out random encounter that might occur if the teleporter activates after the party’s been in the caves for a while.

The caves and their inhabitants feature a fantastic mix of roleplaying interaction, cosmic mystery, deadly combat, and alien horror. Most of the monsters and NPCs have goals and an initial attitude noted (hostile, guarded, friendly, etc.), and full stats, with only a couple exceptions. The exceptions generally work in the GM’s favor so they can riff off the events of the adventure thus far: changing up initial attitudes, using the random tables provided earlier to come up with some fun and surprising twists even they couldn’t have foreseen, and basically spicing things up throughout the exploration of these caves.

A few examples of what you’ll see:

  • A friendly, albeit confused, alien traveler stranded in this world.
  • Hostile ancient reptilians and dangerous foliage seeking to escape the caves.
  • A robot that can be controlled by an enterprising wizard PC.
  • A mind-controlling succubus-like woman.
  • A horrific beast that is equal parts John Carpenter’s The Thing and an avatar of an Elder God.

The only miss I found was that there’s an NPC (“The Dazed Man”) who is basically a throwaway mention without stats or background, and that the adventure concludes with a portal opening to what’s likely to be effectively a Hell of insanity and death. There’s not really a conclusion to the adventure since there’s no way to interact with the teleporter, but in the spirit of the Paranoia RPG this is probably a perfect hosejob: the party goes through all this stuff only to die or get teleported to hell.

The mix of zany monsters, villains, and allies the party will interact is indeed the crux of the adventure, though. But the adventure doesn’t just end with the portal to hell, because there’s a random table called Not Dead…Yet! that allows the players to roll their characters’ ultimate fate — it’s not clear if it just relates to the romp through the caves or after going through the portal — and most of the results provide motivation for future adventures, or inflict the character with lingering trauma or personality disorders that will influence how they play in future adventure scenarios.

The Playtest

There are two versions of Crimson Dragon Slayer: a “first edition” and then the CDS 1.11 One Hour Game (both links are my reviews of each), which is simplified and plays faster at the cost of some of the unique setting-appropriate mechanics found in the first edition. This adventure is written for version 1.11, but I did use the introductory text from the first edition so that I didn’t have to come up with a backstory on my own (also, it’s frickin’ stellar, so there’s that).

Character Creation

We generated some silly names using the CDS first edition random tables and built some fairly zany characters:

  • Xavier the Eagle of Mayhem, an elven mage.
  • Thorin Gloompulsar, a dwarven fighter.
  • Jerry the Slime of Dread, a human cleric.

We followed the rules as-is (which are pretty general anyway) except for three things that didn’t really change the mechanics of the game, but that do add some context to the power level and goals of the PCs:

  • The PCs started at 3rd level for the extra Health. Many of the monsters have 50+ Health, and attack with 2d6 or even 3d6, which is a lot of potential damage.
  • We assumed the PCs successfully completed the adventure included with the Crimson Dragon Slayer 1.11 game (Curse of Xakaar Abbey), and thereby gave each player a magic item: the mage got a wand of lightning bolts, the dwarf got a magic sword that added +1 die to his attack rolls, and the cleric got an amulet of protection (providing 4 armor points, which act as damage reduction, simply subtracting 4 from any damage totals dealt to them).
  • We used the Experience Level Table from the first edition, since it is “goal-oriented” and thus gives the players motivations to perform specific tasks, regardless of any in-game motivations. Since they successfully gloated a whole bunch, they reached 4th level before even entering the cave (which gave them a bump to their Health), and leveled up once inside the caves.

Adventure Prep

With characters ready, I prepped the adventure. I’m a notorious over-preparer, so my first read-through of the adventure had me adding a fair amount of notes, but as I quickly realized, very little of it was because the text of the adventure was deficient in any way. Rather, I was simply organizing my own thoughts that were inspired by the great roleplay moments presented in the adventure; I really wanted to capitalize on these great interactions. Among my notes came the following recommendations for you to use or ignore at your leisure:

  • I noted the initial attitude (friendly, suspicious, hostile, etc.) of each creature whenever it was presented. When it wasn’t, I just noted that I should roll on the What does the creature want? table.
  • I crossed out a few of the random table results for features of the caves, because they were just too weird for me: neither inspiring nor funny, in my (probably narrow) definition of those things.
  • I pre-rolled on the environmental table to get some fun results, and spread these out to a few rooms. I only altered about 5 of the chambers this way, but by doing so ahead of time, it gave me plenty of ideas and a few clues I could give the players if they were careful about investigating tunnels before charging headlong into certain doom.

Running the Adventure

The initial adventure setup was a bit wonky in play. I felt like the text tried so hard to make the caves seem so scary that there just didn’t seem like any reason for people to adventure in there: the text constantly spells out this is sure-fire death. There’s a meeting with a person who commits suicide after blaming themselves (due to mind control from one of the creatures in the cave) and then a sequence at the tavern where a guy gets dared to go in the cave, does so, then comes out and dissolves in a puddle of grossness. In my opinion, the setup was lacking for a few reasons:

  • There’s not much to do. The players just witness a suicide, then witness a guy go in the cave and come out dead. There’s no player agency in these situations.
  • It’s too vague and bleak. There’s no sense that something might be accomplished other than “can we stop this nebulous stuff from happening?”

As it turned out, only a couple changes — one of them already suggested in the text — saved the day.

There’s one rumor the PCs might hear on the road to town: that saints can leave these caves unharmed. The players latched onto what does “saint” mean and with just a little clever discourse form the NPCs in the funeral procession that the party happens upon as they arrive in town, it became clear that “saint” was anyone that might champion the defense of the town and put a stop to the caves. The players read this as “we can get in and get out, assuming we survive” which took away some of the bleakness inherent in the setup of the adventure, and gave them a goal (champion the people of the town).

The other change was that I entirely removed the guy getting dared to go into the cave, and related that as a story that happened to an NPC a few years back, before the priest (who died and is the subject of the funeral procession) came to town. Here’s the cool part: the cleric player immediately tried to heal the guy who committed suicide, and succeeded, so they also had that guy’s rambling, half-remembered story of the caves. This helped them see that there was potentially treasure in the cave, as well as a way out (the guy is mind controlled by Kyr-ann, who has a nice lounge chair in her cave and a treasure chest with a magic sword in it).

Most of that stuff I did on the fly.

And then onto the caves! I used the tables (minus the noted results that didn’t strike my fancy) to describe each chamber, or whenever I felt like my descriptions were becoming repetitive or boring, and I got some cool results: one cave the players just peaked down got a result of a dead body that ended up looking just like one of the characters, so that was a very creepy, fun result! There wasn’t much text to explain the look of the Scoop that sits in the middle of the cave and is the whole reason for this cave system being the way it is, which is weird, but improvising off the picture on the map was fine. The individual encounters were all great: Kyr-ann failed to mind control any PCs and so she made use of the magic sword against them! That’s just one clever example of riffing off the text of the adventure, which is so inspiring and filled with fun twists despite how concise and short it often is.

On Closer Inspection: The Rules

At the end of character creation and throughout running the adventure, my players and I referred back to the Crimson Dragon Slayer 1.11 rules strictly for the damage table, saving throw table, and the rules on magic. The two table references are necessary in the sense that the whole game runs on them, and let me just say that they are something that you can commit to memory after a session of play (maybe less), so that’s a huge plus. They’re both simple, straightforward, and follow a logical progression. So, from a general view, the rules were strong, played fast, and were fun, immediately getting us into the adventure and doing crazy stuff without having to read more than a couple pages.

Judging how many dice players to get to roll in situations that are outside of combat or spellcasting is something that I feel like is better explained in the first edition of Crimson Dragon Slayer, but only slightly more so than version 1.11, and either is good enough for the players and GM to get on the same page after only a couple instances of sussing things out. This bodes poorly for highly mechanics-oriented groups, but that’s already flying in the face of this game’s purpose, given how simple the characters are: this isn’t really meant for system tinkerers and folks that like fussing about this skill point over here and that class ability over there and how it all meshes with the detailed equipment rules. These mechanics are fast, loose, and easy.

The section on magic was problematic for our group, unfortunately, because we kept fighting off our own preconceived notions of the arcane and divine magic split from the many editions of D&D and OSR games. We didn’t feel like we got the guidance we needed to answer some fundamental questions:

  • Mage-based magic expressly involves a form of energy drain through blood, but you get more energy from someone else’s blood: does that include sacrificing rats to cast spells? (We decided that if the mage didn’t sacrifice the health himself, then the sacrifice had to come from a willing ally or an unwilling enemy, with enemy being further defined as someone actively opposing the characters.)
  • Directly offensive magic is the province of magical wands or similar items: do they deal damage in the same way that an attack does, and how do you determine the difficulty (and thus the number of dice rolled) for spells that originate from a wand? (I gave the players the lightning wand from the adventure included with the base CDS 1.11 One Hour Game rules, which says it deals 3d6 damage, so I had that act as the “attack roll” and determined damage based on how successful that roll was.)

As for cleric magic, beyond a form of “turning” undead and fiends and a statement about healing magic, we don’t get anything in the way of ideas of how it all works.

  • Does it follow other magic in that it needs energy drain/blood sacrifice to work? (We said no, because if it doesn’t expressly say so, we’d stay away from making too many assumptions.)
  • What miraculous effects are possible (or likely) outside of turning monsters and healing wounds? (We decided that anything on the Swords & Wizardry Complete Rulebook cleric spell list was fair game as inspiration, though we didn’t really decide on how difficult any rolls might be until it came up in the spur of the moment.)
  • Is there a dice roll needed, like for mage spells that are based on how much the spell affects local reality? (We decided that yes there was, so we just used the mage’s spellcasting table.)
  • How much damage is healed? (Since we’d already decided to roll a number of dice just like for “arcane” magic based on the difficulty of the spell, healing a flesh wound would be an easy 3d6 roll while someone at death’s door would be a hard 1d6 roll, and then we’d refer to the damage table to determine how many Health points were actually healed on a successful roll.)

None of these were deal breakers by any stretch of the imagination, but they did require some sussing out from the text and some discussion to make sure everything sounded fair and reasonably within the intent of the rules, as far as we could understand them, before play started. We wanted to have fun, and I can’t stress enough that this adventure was a blast, but that extra hurdle also needs to be noted so that players and GMs don’t come into the game with different expectations.

Form 5/5

Slaves of Tsathoggua is available as a 16-page PDF and your purchase gets you both full-color and printer-friendly versions.

The layout is super-clean, two-column style. The map is pretty simple in concept and the execution brings some life to it by depicting the Scoop in the central cavern. There are a few pieces of artwork throughout the adventure depicting monsters found in the caves, and it’s mostly old-school style black and white artwork. All of the pieces are evocative and depict the creatures very well in all of their horrific detail.

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Rating:
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Slaves of Tsathoggua
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Paranoia Red Clearance Edition
Publisher: Mongoose
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 07/26/2017 12:07:34

A neuronphaser.com playtest impression!

TL;DR: This edition of PARANOIA ia the most immediately gameable, and best "balanced" version of the game, making it incredibly fun without being opaque or so beholden to GM fiat that it's completely ad hoc. Players will -- at the very start of character creation, even! -- get a sense of not only why but how they should betray each other, and the world and system reinforce the idea that doing so can't strictly be done just by shooting everyone on the field. You gotta plant evidence, record evidence, lie about what the evidence shows, destroy evidence against you, and otherwise run in circles to get to the next Security Clearance, and this game makes that fun!

If you need more than that, here are my thoughts after 3 sessions of play:

Character creation is amazing, and will net you a general hatred for your fellow player's characters. But you won't be so incompetent that you can't do most normal stuff, or find a member of your party that can.

The Treason Stars and XP Point Achievements are beautifully handled, and give the players incentive to not only work against each other, but also work with each other if they want to win the long game. It's a careful balance that the in-world stuff all perfectly showcases and reinforces.

Moxie is a thousand times better than Perversity Points, and much tighter as a game mechanic. In fact, the entire dice pool system + the Computer Dice, when combined with Moxie, makes for a pretty fantastic, super-sleak game system that can work for a lot of different situations.

The Action Cards took some careful thought on how to remove or use when gaming over the internet, but after coming up with several options, none seemed to break the game or anything. In fact, there were times when the game improved by not relying on Action Order of cards, and times when the cards clearly improved the game by adding additional narrative power to either the Players' or the GM's side of things. This proves how versatile the Action Cards are.

The other cards -- Mutant Powers, Secret Society, Mandatory Bonus Duty, and Equipment -- were mostly great. Having these pieces of info on hand in card-sized format was a fantastic reference aid. The only issues: (1) MBDs should contain a bulleted list of standard issue equipment for that role; (2) Equipment should have been duplicated as entries in one of the rulebooks, since there's some really basic Equipment Cards that everyone can get but since the rules only appear on a single card and only one player may be holding that card, it made it a pain to reference Equipment-specific rules at times when they popped up unexpectedly, or in multiples.

The included Missions have been a blast to play, though there's a few moments when they seem to expect the players to betray each other or play to the backstabbing angle of the game, but don't actually enforce it. This is problematic during the very first Mission, because it may accidentally give players more reasons to work together (against their leader, Roz) than to work against each other subtly, so that actually turns the adventure into a bad teaching tool for the game. The first Mission should have been a bigger hose job earlier on, whether consecutive clones more likely to succeed but also with more motivation to betray one another.

This is my favorite edition of Paranoia, mechanics-wise and world-building-wise, hands down. The books could use a some organizational help (I'm building my own index because some info is just all over the place), and the Missions could teach the game's skullduggery and backstabbing a bit better, but those are small prices to play for the incredibly fun gaming experience contained within this version of the game.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Paranoia Red Clearance Edition
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Archetypal Spell Compendium: Artificers & Arcanists
Publisher: Dungeon Masters Guild
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 06/28/2017 15:54:10

A neuronphaser.com review.

Archetypal Spell Compendium: Artificers & Arcanists by Jeremy Forbing provides a spellbook’s worth of new spells — 101 of them, as a matter of fact! — three Artificer specializations (notable because the official Artificer class just got added to the DMsGuild as a brand new class), a new divine domain for Clerics, a new Sorcerous Origin, and a new Wizard Tradition. On top of that, throughout the gaggle of spells are a bunch of sidebars that provide alternative spell lists for a psychic-style Sorceror (relevant because the official Mystic class was also just added to DMsGuild), new monsters, and a bunch of setting content that provides context and lore on the spells.

Content 5/5

The book starts out with a brief intro that calls attention to the fact that spell lists found within will make reference to not just the spells you’ll find in the Player’s Handbook and this document, but also the spells found in later books like Elemental Evil Player’s Companion and Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. Additionally, a handful of the spells appearing in this book are revised versions of those found in other Dungeon Masters Guild (AKA DMsGuild) products, so this book truly leverages all of the mechanics that’ve been released for 5th edition D&D so far. Nice touch! The spell lists include all of the spellcasting classes so far, which means you’re getting the addition of the Artificer — making this a great book to quickly expand on that relatively new class since it’s offered via the DMsGuild now.

Before we get to the spells, let’s talk about the sidebars peppered liberally throughout this book.

Among the first is a Psychic Spell List in a sidebar that reflavors the Sorceror into a psionic-style spellcaster, allowing you to ignore or compliment the Mystic class — also newly available on DMsGuild — at your leisure! So, even if you don’t care about the new classes, or don’t want to learn new class mechanics to get a psychic character, this guide offers you something that is a popular means of re-skinning something old to get something new and maintain all the careful balance of the existing classes and spells.

The Changing Deities sidebar provides some mechanics for Clerics changing domains or Paladins changing their oaths. It’s much more in line with mixing roleplaying and mechanical consequences than some of 5th edition’s rules tend to get, which is why it makes a great sidebar/variant rule, playing with the idea of seeking out mentors, performing dedication rituals, and creating decision points after accumulating a certain number of experience points.

The many Spell Lore sidebars that accompany specific spells go into some pretty deep, well-researched campaign setting information that talks about the origins and uses of some of the new spells. You’ll see plenty of Forgotten Realms stuff, but not all of it is strictly defined by the borders of Faerun as we see depicted in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, so you’ll find mentions of the Hordelands, Kara-Tur, and beyond. Moving completely outside of the Forgotten Realms, Kalashtar (Eberron) get a mention, and you’ll see plenty of them talk about Ravenloft’s domains including Barovia and Darkon. A couple of spots even touch on various layers of the Abyss or other places you’ll find in a extraplanar campaign. I can’t vouch for the validity of canon lore for every reference, but everything I could checked out. Clearly, the author is a student of the many D&D worlds, and that’s an awesome thing to see on display in this book whether you’re a grognard or someone just getting a taste of the many campaign settings.

Since there’s 101 new spells, I’m not going to cover all of them. Generally speaking, you’ll find some great themes, like:

Lots of psychic damage and mind-altering effects that rely on charm to build out the repertoire of spells that are basically the psionics of 5th edition. Lots of spells that are contingent upon a melee (or sometimes ranged) attack, bolstering the spell lists of Paladins and Rangers, especially. Lots of these work exceptionally well as things that multi-classed Monks and archetypes like Bladesingers want to keep an eye out for. Here are some specific highlights and thoughts among the individual spells.

Anathema: This is a “world-building” style spell, something that a typical player character won’t aspire to gaining, but which will come in handy in a high-level campaign of politically-active characters, the kind of game where running armies, establishing kingdoms and temples, and that sort of thing are important. Once again showing the author’s command of the core rulebooks, this spell — which basically proclaims an individual completely cut off from their patron deity and strips them of any divinely derived abilities (which is horrifying for clerics and paladins!) — contains some notes on how to make it work in a campaign where the DM allows variants and options regarding pantheon worship as opposed to a single patron deity. Mark of the Unfaithful is a spell later in the document that has much the same role as a “game world” ritual.

Arcane Springboard: This neat little spell turns a 5-foot area into a virtual trampoline from which they can launch themselves. Interestingly, characters can activate this effect using their reaction, rather than having it operate as part of their movement or as a bonus action. That’s great for characters with fun bonus action options — rogues being the obvious example — but it also seems to be limiting in that forced movement into that area won’t trigger its effect, which would be awesome (but also very hard to model).

Berserk: This spell will be like the ultimate nuke against spellcasting enemies, as it basically limits them to frothing at the mouth and charging into melee. It’s a Wisdom save, though, so most spellcasting monsters are going to be pretty likely to shake it off…but when they fail, it will be spectacular!

Blood Curse: This great little spell reminds me so much of how Kain sucked blood out of people in the Legacy of Kain video game. The spell is a little wonky in that the target and the caster both take some psychic damage, but then if the target is hit with an attack, you gain some temporary hit points (automatically more than what you could possibly take during that initial psychic damage). The amounts of hit points potentially lost and gained across the board are rather small, so I’m not sure the mechanic needs to be that involved for such low gains as compared to vampiric touch, though going from a cantrip to a 3rd level spell is a big bridge to gap, so I can see why the author made this decision.

Challenger’s Mark: This spell is exactly the sort of thing people who liked 4th edition D&D are looking for, as it’s pretty much a hallmark of many marking and area-control maneuvers of fighty classes in that edition. Many of the non-4E fans decried such things as video gamey, superhero-y, or board gamey, but here it is translated to cantrip form in a way that calls attention to the question of whether it’s magic or simply martial training. Dread Mercy, Dread Provocation, Echoing Blow, and a few other spells also look an awful lot like ports of 4th edition powers, and make for some great additions to the Paladin and Ranger spell lists, especially.

Ego Lash: This spell is a pretty straightforward attack spell dealing psychic damage, but is just one of many spells that takes ideas from past editions’ psionic splatbooks and turns it into a 5th edition spell. It’s precisely this sort of thing that expands the spell lists enough to create a Psychic Sorceror variant (mentioned previously in the section on sidebars). Psychic Shock, Predictive Focus, Telekinetic Slam, and dozens of others add to this list, and make full-fledged psionics in 5th edition a thing you can achieve with just this book and the core rulebooks.

Lesser Acupuncture: With a casting time of 1 minute, this spell’s effect (+1d4 to your next Constitution saving throw) seems awfully minor, relating only to resisting diseases, poisons, or other effects that linger for a while.

Mantle of the Slime Lord: This is one of those spells that confers a bunch of semi-related protective effects such as immunity to certain damage types and conditions, oozes not wanting to attack you, and so on. While thematic and seemingly balanced, it’s one of those spells that to my mind feels better as a magic item rather than a spell.

Servant Army is basically Mickey’s brooms getting all servant-y with it, but since the summoned army is only useful for menial tasks, this spell seems a bit underpowered for a 5th level spell, which is when many of the conjure [insert monster here] spells show up on various spell lists. Still, it’s a cool spell, and you create 3d4 invisible servants that can do a lot of tasks, so this is a great spell for the purposes of worldbuilding or when PCs are the movers and shakers of a realm, entertaining guests and trying to make a point of their magical abilities.

Shadow Missile: This 1st level spell is highly evocative, gaining benefits when cast from the shadows and suffering hindrances (the target is effectively in cover) in direct sunlight. Basically, the caster hurls a missile of shadow-stuff that deals damage, explodes, and showers the immediate vicinity of its point of impact in enervating, necrotic shrapnel. It’s a bit powerful for a 1st level spell as it can cause not only the damage (1d10 piercing, plus 1d8 necrotic to those affected by the shrapnel), but it also might cause a level of Exhaustion, which can become a nasty effect. Still, it’s not so powerful that it meets most 2nd level damage-dealing spells, so it’s hard to say it’s truly unbalanced, just a very good spell, and it’s on an awful lot of the spell lists in the book, so I’m a little iffy on that.

Speed of Thought: This sweet little spell provides the caster with 2 “speed points” that can be spent on their turn, allowing them to pick from a menu of options that all relate to movement. The options range from increased speed, adding climb speeds, increasing your jumping distance, resisting falling damage, or providing advantage on certain Dexterity-related checks. While I’m normally against spells with added bookkeeping, the options for this spell are tight, evocative, and operate on a limited enough basis that it makes it a cinch to handle. Most of all, it also adds to the feel of “psionics are different” without altering any mechanics or adding anything that isn’t already found in some form or another in the core rules (ki points, for example). The spells Wall Run and Weightless Pursuit oddly have some similar effects, and since all of these are cantrips or 1st level spells, it seems like there’s some rebalancing or redistribution of the spell’s effects that could go towards strengthening each of these spells thematically, or reducing these down to just two separate spells.

Strahd’s Baneful Attractor redirects a spell to another target that you’ve chosen. This spell is a lot of fun, basically a ranged version of throwing your minions in the way of enemy fire, but there’s something about the way it works that seems like it’d be really cool as a Reaction, rather than some enchantment that just sits on a target for some time. Notably, this spell includes a Spell Lore sidebar that talks about using it in Curse of Strahd.

Unleash Instincts has some wonky mechanics that cause its effects to end or the duration to be reduced in a number of circumstances (wearing heavy armor, before rolling initiative, etc.). Seems overly complex and like it might have been born out of some kind of balancing mechanics in 3rd edition psionics that goes against the principles of 5th edition.

And that’s about it for specific notes. If I seem like I’m critical more so than positive here, it’s only because these spells begged some questions. Overall, there’s not much I can say about the other gazillion spells simply because they are awesome: they seem balanced, they do fun things, and they follow the design principles in 5th edition mechanics as far as I understand them.

The archetypes found in here are broken down as follows:

  • Three for the Artificer class: the Arcane Sleuth, Eradicator, and the Prodigy.
  • The Defier Domain for Clerics.
  • Sorcerers get the Shugenja origin.
  • Wizards get the tradition of Guild Wizardry.

The Arcane Sleuth: The Investigator’s Kit feature gives a lot of benefits! While it doesn’t seem unbalanced against the existing Artificer archetype abilities, it might at first seem so simply by dint of how much there is (and especially because some of it involves spells).

The Deductive Interaction ability is a little unclear with regard to the DM’s option to give up a piece of historical lore or a personality trait; is this in addition to the two characteristics on the bulleted list or does this count as one of the characteristics?

Eradicator: This archetype focuses on some great support abilities and monster type-targeting powers.

Prodigy: The 17th level feature Foreseen Possibilities seems pretty complicated: you unravel all the actions you just took and re-do your round in its entirety. While the action economy in 5th edition D&D makes this a lot more bearable, by 17th level any attempts to maximize that action economy are fully in play, meaning there still may be triggered actions from other characters taking place within a character’s turn. This ability may create some funky interactions there, and certainly requires some added bookkeeping.

Defier Domain: Oh man, this the return (and outright mention) of the Athar from Planescape, my all time favorite D&D campaign setting, so I’m in love.

Shugenjas are very interesting in that they have a lot of moving parts for a Sorceror archetype, and seem to borrow a few neat little twists from the Druid and Monk archetypes to focus in on their elemental-based abilities. There’s a couple sidebars here that provide additional context to Shou characters in western Faerun, as well as talk a bit more about Kara-Tur in case you’re not familiar with that setting.

Guild Wizardry Tradition: This tradition makes a lot of sense as an alternative to the wizard’s usual “school” based traditions, which is ironic since it’s basically an archetype built around being in a literal school for wizards! The abilities are seemingly a mish-mash of alterations to spells or being able to cast spells you don’t normally have access to, in some ways like a Sorceror, but the social ties to a guild factor in, providing some neat context for these abilities.

Form 4/5

This book doesn’t have an index but the Table of Contents is thorough, listing the page numbers for all of the spell lists, the individual spells, all of the new archetypes, and even using indenting to mention each and every sidebar, from the Spell Lores to the variants and worldbuilding info found with the archetypes.

The artwork is all sourced from open content and the like which means you’ll probably see it around in other releases (guilty as charged on my releases!). But it’s used in evocative and relevant ways to the accompanying text. The overall layout is simple two column format with a page background that’s sort of a darker version of what you find in the official D&D products, so it looks nice on the screen but printing it out is going to consume some ink; make sure you print it at work or on your buddy’s printer without them knowing to save you some cash!

There are a couple minor grammatical errors, but not many, especially considering how much text is packed into this book.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Archetypal Spell Compendium: Artificers & Arcanists
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