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Unsung: Deluxe Download
Publisher: Ivanhoe Unbound
by Greg W. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/11/2005 00:00:00

Unsung is a game about ordinary people faced with extraordinary decisions. It's about the moment when life and death are on the line and you have to choose between the high road and the easy way. It's about cops and robbers, soldiers and cowboys. It's about morality under fire.

Most of the game is presented in terms of an example SWAT team campaign, and much of the art (a mix of line drawings and phtographs) supports this image, but there's a chapter of guidance on using the Unsung rules for anything from noir to cyberpunk to superheroes.

The core mechanics are simple, with few stats and a universal roll-under mechanic. By far the most important rules, however, are the ones concerning self-control and narration rights.

At any time, players can suggest details to be added to the scene in play. The GM may veto these, but is encouraged not to. A special kind of suggestion, called a gift, is one which forces another player character into a morally-challenging situation. Can the character do what's right, even under intense pressure and temptation? A failure will lead to a lapse, where the player loses control of the character and the easy way out is taken.

There are rules for sacrifice and savagery, for missions and medals and mortality. As said, the core mechanics are simple. A hefty chunk of most pages is taken up with sidebars offering advice, reminders, and optional rules. There's a detailed table of contents, a hefty glossary and an extensive index.

I've been talking so far about the 'standard' version of Unsung, a fifty-odd page illustrated and bookmarked pdf file. However, this is a remarkably comprehensive package. Not only does it come with both high- and low-resolution versions of this file, there's also a version without the artwork, a html document stripped of both the art and the sidebars, and a PDA version of this 'core' file. Plus, of course, a character sheet, although since Unsung characters have so few numbers it's more like a quick-reference rules sheet and a character sheet combined.

If you're interested in the kind of story Unsung is designed to tell, and are open to its somewhat unconventional approach to narration and control, then this is well worth investigating.<br><br> <b>LIKED</b>: A unique treatment of some surprisingly underused subject matter.<br><br><b>DISLIKED</b>: The writing occasionally wanders off on tangents, somewhat distracting from the focus of the book.<br><br><b>QUALITY</b>: Very Good<br><br><b>VALUE</b>: Satisfied<br>



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Unsung: Deluxe Download
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Character Options: Commoners
Publisher: Broken Ruler Games
by Greg W. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/17/2005 00:00:00

A quirky but useful sourcebook for d20 fantasy games, Character Options: Commoners takes the NPC classes - those low-powered, simplified classes that the GM uses to quickly stat up ordinary people - and presents the idea of using them as core classes for the player group.

Farmboys who take a stand against the evil empire, apprentice magicians who stumble upon great and terrible secrets, or simple peasants who are having a real bad day; these are commoners. This book gives you all the support you need to play as them, or to run a campaign about them.

There are also some suggestions on integrating commoner characters into regular campaigns. For example, you might start out characters as commoners and then move on to standard adventuring; you might be the sidekick to another player's hero; you might play a group of low-powered characters instead of the usual one. The advice given here is brief and to-the-point, generally offering up options and suggestions rather than rules.

It's a decent-sized piece of work, with a mix of mechanics and advice. The layout is designed for print, but simple and clear enough that reading online isn't a problem. Artwork is incidental but appropriate. The writing is good, managing to be concise and chatty at the same time.

The rule tweaks are unusual in places, and quite interesting. There's an alternate rolling method that produces ability scores a little above the norm, but a little below the usual 'heroic' system. The five existing NPC classes are tweaked, and three new ones are introduced. The apprentice, for example, is a spellcasting class designed to serve as a stepping-stone to becoming a fully-fledged wizard or sorcerer.

Commoner characters have a couple of neat edges. The simplest one is income - unlike adventurers, commoners are assumed to be in regular jobs with salaries. Most players will be more intrigued by reward feats; a selection of minor feats which are given out as freebies on completing adventures. For example, after a sufficiently impressive deed, you might receive the Renown feat, granting you a Charisma reroll due to the prestige attached to your name.

There are also a couple of rules tweaks that are potentially useful in regular games - a damage save mechanic, for example - and a full adventure. Overall, it's a worthwhile package; a well-constructed and well-presented look at an unusual concept.<br><br> <b>LIKED</b>: A good all-round treatment of the topic, with some interesting ideas.<br><br><b>DISLIKED</b>: Some of the concepts here could be further tested and expanded upon.<br><br><b>QUALITY</b>: Very Good<br><br><b>VALUE</b>: Satisfied<br>



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Character Options: Commoners
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@ctiv8
Publisher: Postmortem Studios
by Greg W. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/23/2005 00:00:00

Now this is a tricky one.

Tricky not only because the game is such an unusual one, but also because it feels almost like two different products. The setting and system seem so divorced from each other that you could divide the book neatly in two and use them separately if you wished. Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing; it means that for the cost of the game, you're getting a neat bundle of background information and a generic rules set.

Anyway, the game is set in the modern, everyday world. The only difference is the existence of @ctiv8 itself; a semi-viral computer program that profiles and connects people in order to facilitate political activism. If you have it, it's because someone you know tapped you for membership. If you go along with it, it's because you want to make the world a better place through your own efforts.

What does this entail? Almost anything. One example from the book involves tracking down spammers to their legal sanctuaries and dealing with them in an appropriate fashion; another proposes the theft of a new strain of drought-resistant GM crops, and a subsequent delivery to famine-ridden villages in Niger.

As you can tell, the game is openly political, and not in the same way that Vampire and other power-struggle games are political. The writer describes it as a 'militant liberal' point of view; put simply, @ctiv8 is about people deciding what's right and what's wrong, and then doing something about it. The background information is very good in this respect, with news articles and short essays designed to make you think about the way things are. The art and layout are functional enough.

In addition, the game takes an unusual approach to some standard RPG elements. Characters do not advance between sessions, and often you won't even be playing the same character next week. Each mission will have a different selection of activists, chosen for their skills and backgrounds, and it's entirely possible that some of them won't make it out alive.

So the fluff gets a recommendation from me; it's doing something different, and doing it pretty well. It all falls down a little on the crunch side, though. As mentioned, the rules are a generic system slightly adapted for this game, and they could do with some work. The core mechanics are unclear in places, and while there are plenty of examples, the examples sometimes contradict the rules text. In one place, there's an example with no rules text to back it up. The system itself seems solid enough, with some oddities if you look at it too closely.

Like I said at the start, though, it would be simple to plug in another system if you preferred. And if you do like the Xpress system, you can easily use it to run other games. At this price, you win either way.

The game gets three stars from me, but be aware that this is an average: four for the setting, two for the system.<br><br> <b>LIKED</b>: The background.<br><br><b>DISLIKED</b>: The mechanics.<br><br><b>QUALITY</b>: Acceptable<br><br><b>VALUE</b>: Very Satisfied<br>



Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
@ctiv8
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Creator Reply:
As usual, if people find things (such as the rules example with no rules for it) that the editing process has missed, it would be great if they could actually tell me what it is so I could fix the problem! :) Xpress is still developing and will power '45, coming out soonish. At some point the rules will be delivered seperately. Calling it a 'generic system' isn't quite fair, it is designed to be a 'plug and play' system with rules swap in and outable to customise to create your preferred rules set.
Regicide
Publisher: HinterWelt
by Greg W. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/11/2005 00:00:00

Regicide is a fast-playing game of royalty and world power. While you might expect a .pdf card game to come with its own cards, this one uses a standard deck of playing cards. It's an unusual idea, but a clever one, rather like the Cheapass Games philosophy of not selling you anything you don't already have. You'll also need some counters or tokens; again, something you almost certainly have around the house.

What you get with the Regicide download is the board and the rules. Actually, you get four versions of the board to pick from, which is pretty convenient: a large coloured one with quick reference rules around the edge, a small coloured one without the rules, and a black-and-white version of each. The board itself is a fairly abstract network of nodes and lines, superimposed onto a map of the world. Each node represents a continent or major land mass, with each worth a varying number of points.

The game starts with players taking turns to place kings and queens on the board, claiming ownership of the territories in the process. Once all the locations are taken, the rest of the deck is dealt out and the game proper begins. Your turn consists of playing a single card. For example, by playing a spade you can attempt an assassination. If successful, this will allow you to remove the target monarch from the board, and with him or her go the controlling player's ownership tokens. Other suits allow different actions, and higher numbers are harder to defend against. Interestingly, each suit also counters a different action, so (for example) you might want to save some spades to defend against opponents playing clubs. The function of each suit is pretty intuitive; I scribbled out a cheat sheet but barely needed to refer to it. The game continues until all cards have been played. You then count up points, which can be gained from some actions as well as by controlling territories, to find a winner.

The rules as written are solid enough, although they could be cleaned up in places. I was particularly impressed by the extensive example of play, which gives a clear idea of how the game plays and should answer any rules questions you might have.

So how does the game itself play? Well, it's not deep, but it's certainly fast and fun. We went from learning the rules to finishing our first game in about fifteen minutes. Luck isn't as much of a fact as you'd think, either; during the course of that first game, I drew all four jacks (which are the best defensive card in the game) and still came last due to a couple of bad decisions.

Overall, then, a cheap and cheerful game of world domination, well-suited to casual play in between bouts of Risk or Diplomacy.

<br><br><b>LIKED</b>: Easy to learn, quick to play and just plain fun.<br><br><b>DISLIKED</b>: The editing and presentation could be improved.<br><br><b>QUALITY</b>: Very Good<br><br><b>VALUE</b>: Satisfied<br><BR>[THIS REVIEW WAS EDITED]<BR>



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Regicide
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Barbarians Versus
Publisher: Mystic Ages Publishing
by Greg W. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/09/2005 00:00:00

The North is a cold, hard land of tundra and tribesmen. The South is warmer and richer, its people softer and more civilised. When raiding season comes, the barbarian hordes sweep down across the Grey Peaks to seek out wealth and glory. But this year everything is different. The cities to the south are under attack from giant lizardmen, who ride metal beasts through the skies, spit fire from magic sticks and herd men like cattle.

But you're not going to let that stop you. You're a barbarian. Fame and fortune await the brave, the luck, and the strong. So grab your trusty axe, let loose your battle cry and make the rivers run green with alien blood.

This is the setting of Barbarians Versus, or more accurately the default setting. One of the ideas behind the game is that you can throw the barbarians (the players) up against any foe or threat you can dream up. The rules only provide material for Barbarians Versus The Vile Reptilian Invaders From Outer Space, but they're simple enough that you can easily put other backgrounds together. Barbarians Versus Nazi Zombies From Hell? Barbarians Versus Giant Killer Death Robots From The Year Five Thousand? Barbarians Versus Cthulhu? As long as there are things to fight and shiny stuff to take, it's fair game.

The mechanics behind the game are solid and well-presented. Everything uses a pool of ten-sided dice. Characters have attributes rated in dice, and equipment and other modifiers will add or subtract dice as appropriate. When you attempt a task, you roll a handful of dice and compare the total to a target number or an opposing roll. In combat, the damage is the difference between the attack roll and the defence roll. Most barbarians will also have special abilities; for example, a highly-difficult attack which will score an instant kill if it connects, or an aptitude with alien technology.

And other than a name, a clan and a few character quirks, that's pretty much it. Attributes, equipment, abilities; barbarians are quick to generate and easy to use. Just as well, really, because when your party consists entirely of blood-crazed berserkers who'll think nothing of charging a laser turret, they're going to suffer a few casualties. It's the work of a few minutes to put together a new one and rejoin the fray, and the process is helped by the text-only player handouts reprinting the character generation section and the core rules.

As should be obvious, Barbarians Versus is designed for light, loud, fun games. You could use it for serious long-term play, but it's best suited to an occasional session of good-natured violence. I can see it going down a storm at a convention, or as a break from a regular campaign. I plan to run it at a gaming society event in the next couple of weeks, and I don't often find a game I'm so keen to pick up and play right away.

The writing is a big help here. It's laugh-out-loud funny in places without detracting from the clarity of the rules or the usefulness of the advice. The game is completely up-front about what it does and how to make it work. The only place where the humour gets in the way of the function is in the drinking rules, which I found amusing but not much use for play; however, they're in an appendix and easily adjusted to taste or removed. There are also a few minor typos. There's not much art, but what's there is pretty good, and while the book is optimised for print I had no trouble reading it onscreen. The package is impressively complete, as well; the main book contains treasure tables, five sample barbarians, optional rules for advanced character generation, plot seeds, a full adventure, a character sheet and a comprehensive index, plus those handouts I mentioned earlier.

Overall, this is a well-written and professionally-produced game, and one well worth the asking price.<br><br><b>LIKED</b>: The writing and the attitude.<br><br><b>DISLIKED</b>: More support for alternative settings would be helpful.<br><br><b>QUALITY</b>: Excellent<br><br><b>VALUE</b>: Very Satisfied<br>



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Barbarians Versus
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All Fall Down by Philip Reed
Publisher: Ronin Arts
by Greg W. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/01/2005 00:00:00

Reminiscent of Mafia/Werewolf, All Fall Down is a short book of rules and suggestions for playing children in a village struck down by an unspecified plague. Throughout the game the children accumulate counters representing sickness and depression, both of which can be deadly. Each day they can stay inside or go out to play. Playing with the other children will let you shake off depression but makes you more prone to sickness. Staying in alone protects you from the plague, but you'll quickly rack up depression. At the end of each day, each player rolls to see if his or her child survives the night. The last child alive is the winner.

So far, then, this is a simple game of resource management and risk assessment, with a rather bleak flavour. What I haven't mentioned yet, however, is the storytelling. At the end of each day, one player (chosen at random initially, then going around the group) gets to tell a story about the children playing that day. The players involved then vote on whether the story was good or bad. Telling a good story lets the storyteller get rid of tokens; telling a bad story leads to gaining them. Oddly, a tie penalises everyone, presumably for failing to make a decision.

The criteria for 'good' and 'bad' stories are left entirely up to the voting players, although there are certain lapses which lead to a story being automatically bad. For example, failing to mention a particular child is a no-no. If the designated storyteller doesn't go out to play with the others, he or she doesn't get to tell a story, so nobody is ever forced to do so, but the potential gains make it an attractive prospect.

It's a great idea; a roleplaying party game with an atmosphere both morbid and whimsical. I suspect it would go down well at a gaming get-together over Hallowe'en. However, there are issues. Some of the rules in the main text seem more like options. The default counter management system, involving moving counters from your left to your right and vice versa, is fiddly and requires careful reading of the rules text.

A suggested alternate system has a central pot from which players gain and lose counters. This is more intuitive, and presenting this as the default would clear up the writing a great deal. One other small suggestion I'd make is to have players roll for survival in a set order, say clockwise from the storyteller, so that the game always has a winner.

As you can tell, the game can be easily adjusted to personal taste. This is both a strength and a weakness. A strength because you can tweak it to fit your group; a weakness because the game reads in places like a collection of house rules. An edited 'core' version, stripped of this ambiguity, could probably go onto a single page and be accompanied by additional pages covering the options.

A guarded recommendation, then. If you like Werewolf and are looking for a game in a similar vein, and don't mind putting in a little work on the way, then you'll probably enjoy this. If you want length or clear organisation, you might want to steer clear. If you even think it sounds interesting, though, pick it up. For two bucks, play it once and you've got your money's worth.

<br><br><b>LIKED</b>: The concept and the mood.<br><br><b>DISLIKED</b>: The general feel of being not quite finished.<br><br><b>QUALITY</b>: Acceptable<br><br><b>VALUE</b>: Satisfied<br><BR>[THIS REVIEW WAS EDITED]<BR>



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
All Fall Down by Philip Reed
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Creator Reply:
Thank you for the review. As you've noted this is definitely in the same vein as Werewolf and could easily be played during any party that includes one or two Werewolf games.
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