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Eclipse Phase: Sunward: The Inner System
Publisher: Posthuman Studios LLC
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/14/2018 12:03:51

With the recent adaptation of Altered Carbon on Netflix, I thought it was time to take a look back at one of the most well-established transhuman-cyberpunk roleplaying games, Eclipse Phase. Sunward is a supplement that focuses on what I would consider the most common settings for Eclipse Phase: the Solar System from Mars (terraformed and under the control of a shady consortium) in to the surface of the Sun itself (colonized by people who have put their minds into highly alien and well protected bodies capable of withstanding the environment there).

Most of the book is taken up by a systemless description of this setting, though the organization of the book is top tier, and inclines it back towards the core action of the game. The typical Eclipse Phase game is based around a secretive troubleshooting/human defense organization called the Firewall, about midway between a secret vigilante group and a hacktivist syndicate. In Sunward, each chapter head acts as a mini-table of contents for that chapter and is pitched as "things a Firewall agent might want to consider when operating in this environment". Sometimes it's about typical threats or environmental dangers, sometimes it's about "unofficial" rumors, sometimes it's about the "secret history" of the world which Firewall navigates and discovers.

The remainder of the book includes new bodies for characters to use in different environments, some new threats and equipment stats, and, as is usual for Eclipse Phase, several sample characters who operate in the setting being described.

The typical criticism of Eclipse Phase was "wow, but the system doesn't do much, and what am I supposed to do with this?!" It's clear the creators of the game took this criticism to heart when working on supplements, because Sunward is very carefully aimed directly at the bullseye of what Firewall and the actions of the PCs are expected to be. They're expected to be scientific and espionage operatives infiltrating or exploring hositile environments to puzzle out the truthg of the chaos that a ultra-high-tech war left on humanity, and interacting with the human and near-human entities that form the blurred line of the transhuman sf experience. (The system is still kind of a wet noodle, so if I said we should improve this supplement it would be in that area. Also, I think for the bodies which the PCs might inhabit when (say) travelling to the Sun or Mercury, it would make more sense to have them on single-page pullouts, or cards, so as to easily distribute and keep them separate from the "minds" of the player characters on the core character sheet.)

Sunward is a great example of what a supplement should be. It enhances the understanding of the corebook, is easy to tell how it should be used, and has form factors and is structured in a way as to make it easily accessible. It gets my highest marks because of these traits.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Eclipse Phase: Sunward: The Inner System
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Monster Menagerie: Kith of the Harpy Queen
Publisher: Rogue Genius Games
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/14/2018 11:11:33

A solid outing, the Kith of the Harpy Queen is primarily a presentation of several "themed" harpies - the "giant" harpy, the small, flock-focused harpy, the demonic harpy, etc. as a monster supplement. It also includes several harpy-themed magical items and spells.

It's always difficult to assess a supplement like this. The Glory Harpy's CR seems off base (it has not just one but three spell-like effects which are among the most overpowered effects for their level, and can take one of the harpy feats listed to multiply their usefulness), but that's true of the monsters in the base game too. I can't call it great because it doesn't rise above the bad judgment calls of Pathfinder/D&D3 with respect to monster evaluation (or spell evaluation for that matter), but perhaps I can't rightfully critique it on that ground either.

I should say I very much appreciate the pagination of the monsters. Ever since the days of the three-ring-binder Monster Manual for AD&D, I've been very attentive to how I can assemble monsters and other information for the campaign. Just print the page you want and you're good to go. (The same advantage isn't there for the spells and magic items.)

I do love harpies, so perhaps I'm giving this one an extra star just because they're such great monsters, but there's still a lot to do on the subject - a discussion of the mythological harpies and their roles, roles for different types of harpies in different types of campaigns or adventures, at least some attention to the gender politics of the harpy legends and how they might be used for political expression in your game. These types of analyses would be my suggestion for ways to improve the supplement.

Overall, however, the Kith of the Harpy Queen is a solid, straightforward, simple monster supplement that carries with it some attention to other factors of the D&D3/Pathfinder era which are relevant to players: spell choice and character building. It's worth a look.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Monster Menagerie: Kith of the Harpy Queen
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Casting Call of Cthulhu
Publisher: Chaosium
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/06/2018 15:46:50

The Call of Cthulhu monograph series varies tremendously in quality, and Casting Call of Cthulhu is one of the best. It contains dozens of NPCs for use in modern-day Call of Cthulhu games as people who might be informants or provide specialized assistance to the investigators.

A key element of why the Casting Call of Cthulhu is so effective is its organization. The NPCs are listed by the "field" they are in - art, crime, law enforcement, media - meaning that when the players suddenly, out of nowhere, want to go to the press (for example), you have several to choose from. The characters presented are diverse, and each are given fully humanizing qualities - you never know what characters the players will seize on as appealing, so having a solid background, goal, and personality helps bring them quickly to life.

Call of Cthulhu isn't a game that lives or dies by its recurring NPCs - this is a tremendous first step towards filling out a setting that can otherwise feel empty and isolating as the horror genre tends to be.

The missteps in the piece involve some typos (a problem throughout the monographs) and some archaic terms that don't reflect how best to describe a diverse set of peoples. (C'mon, "Oriental"? I get that Gary Gygax used it but Said published Orientalism in 1978. Can't we have caught up by now?)



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Casting Call of Cthulhu
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Monster of the Week
Publisher: Evil Hat Productions, LLC
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/21/2018 15:18:29

Sitting down to write a review of Monster of the Week while being a guy who can't abide essentially any episode of Supernatural you care to name, and who only really liked Buffy: The Vampire Slayer for the side characters is an exercise in trying to refocus on "but is this really FOR me?" Let's at least step back a little and try to see where this work fits in the history of the genre.

While episodic action-adventure shows have been common on television since the earliest days, the combination of horror, episodic enemies and recurring protagonists first came about in the cartoon Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! in 1969. Before that time, episodic horror was the realm of the anthology series (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, etc.) or the soap opera - always an innovator in television (Dark Shadows). The Scooby-Doo formula would be refined in more standard dramas like Kolchak, The Night Stalker, and was a consistent theme in cartoons like The Real Ghostbusters. The formula is this: The characters, intertwined in various ways, with strong relationships and connections to each other, face a supernatural evil. The evil grows in intensity, the characters face setbacks and attempt to save each other and the world, and ultimately the (seemingly) supernatural evil is defeated, and the characters return to the status quo. The classic show that combined the episodic and the serial in this field was Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which ran for seven seasons on TV and another five in comics, which attempted to make the relationship web of the characters more serial, while the episodic threats were loosely connected, the characters facing a "Big Bad", as they self-referentially called it, at the end of each season.

At its most successful, BTVS was able to transcend the formula, but it often did so in ways that displayed the weakness of the formula itself. When BTVS elevated its supporting cast, it showed the web of deep, interwoven relationships that had developed over the seasons, and the changes the characters had gone through - like a serial show, like a soap opera. When it played with its own presentation (a silent episode, a musical episode) it showed how much greater range its performers had than the formula really required of them. While incredibly influential and successful, BTVS actually had threaded a very tight needle. Followups (Angel, Supernatural) seemed unable to replicate this, with good reason.

The monster-of-the-week genre is one that, ironically, the RPG hobby had developed far more aggressively and in-depth than television had. Call of Cthulhu's module play often emphasized the idea of the location-based scenarios - investigators came to a place, summoned by a letter from their favorite cousin or hunting buddy, came across horrible supernatural events and the survivors emerged shaken but ready to go to the next, unrelated scenario. Indeed, the idea of serial characters moving through a series of episodes has always been the standard setup for horror RPGs! This means Monster of the Week, the game, has a very difficult remit. It has to convince you that it actually brings something different to the table than Literally All The Other Horror RPGs Out There, because this subgenre has been ours longer than it has been anyone else's. We got here first. Buffy's the latecomer.

So, taking that very careful question, what does Monster of the Week bring to the table, there's several elements that combine both to make it an extremely good game in certain circumstances and a very boring one in others.

First, it does a great job of connecting the characters to each other, and using those relationships as the basis for the world. You are giong to be playing episodes of a show that is in its third season. Stuff has happened before. Nobody is going to be "but vampires don't exist!", the most boring thing ever to appear in monster of the week properties. So from a player perspective, it does a good job of bringing you into the dynamic of these kinds of properties. Nobody is going to be lost on the sidelines of a Monster of the Week game.

Second, it does a good job of funnelizing play - meaning that there is always a mechanical way forward. You are never stuck going "well, these werewolves are immune to silver, so NOW what do we do?" There's a simple, basic set of moves (this is a quasi-Powered By The Apocalypse game) that will always provoke you (or send you tumbling) forward through the plot of the scenario. You ascertain the nature of the threat, encounter it once or twice, learn its weakness, and defeat it.

What this means is that for one-shots and for brief campaigns - say, five or six sessions - Monster of the Week is ideal. But these same advantages begin to wear thin as the formula begins to show through. From a GM perspective, there's so little mechanical variation in your options for designing monsters, and none at all for responding to player character actions, that after you do 3-4 episodes, you've literally done everything you're going to ever do in the game. At least the players have their relationships to leap back onto, and a set of moves they can get themselves tangled up in; your options are much more constrained. Compare this to the role of the GM in Apocalypse World, where complicating the situation by introducing a new threat is as simple as coming up with something and saying it happens. The reification of the monster's weakness into a game mechanical token which must be delivered when and only when the players strike one of the moves that generate it means that a lot of the creativity of the GM side is just not there. (Compare, say, to Call of Cthulhu, where every player has 70-odd skills and is clambering all over your monster asking you what happens when they do something involving Botany.)

So that's that - and that was my experience with it. When I ran it once, it sang. When I ran 2-3 sessions of it, it was incredible. But at around session 6 I felt that, as a GM, I'd seen all it could do, and the prospect of more just seemed entirely too dreary. So in that respect, Monster of the Week fails to rise above the typical horror RPG, and, like most of the cultural content it is perching atop of, can't rise to the heights of Buffy-at-its-best. But surely it's better than Supernatural-at-its-worst. And the exceptional, fast-moving quality of the game makes it ideal for one-shot and convention play, so I can urge you to play in those social circumstances with an unqualified recommendation. Just keep an eye out for how the game's structure constrains you.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Monster of the Week
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Abandon All Hope: The Right to Live
Publisher: RPG Objects
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/19/2018 15:28:14

RPGObjects has a long history of exceptional products and The Right to Live is one of them. What makes The Right to Live work as a module is that it provides a template for how Abandon All Hope adventures should function - by experiencing it, both players and GMs get a strong idea of what an Abandon All Hope adventure should be.

In case you're not familiar with Abandon All Hope, it tells the story of a massive prison ship that passed through an "evil" section of space and became infested with demonic presences and Satanic evil. Its inspirations include Event Horizon, and, of course DOOM. The player characters were incarcerated on the vessel and now must survive as ships systems break down, are seized by various evil factions, or are corrupted by the devil. It catches what makes survival horror compelling - this is an environment in which even the air you breathe can't be taken for granted. The Right to Live shows the precariousness of existence on board the prison vessel, as well as showing the oncsequences of various types of approaches to the evil that has come aboard.

The player characters are thrust into a conflict between two prison gangs, a conflict that has been exacerbated by their reactions to the demonic presence. Each feels they have the best way of protecting themselves against it, and that the other is interfering in those efforts. And even by the end of the adventure it isn't clear which of them (if any) are right or wrong (if those words can be said to apply here) about the situation they're in. Nevertheless they're committed to the conflict and the player characters must navigate it.

If there's an area where The Right to Live could be improved, I would say that expanding on the consequences both of player character action and NPC action would help. The situation the PCs come to has arisen as the consequence of certain NPC decisions; what happens after the PCs come in and take action? You could certainly spool out the consequences of even relatively minor decisions out of control as both the opposing gang(s) and the demonic presence respond to even small changes to the situations at times. Finally, although The Right to Live emphasizes the precariousness of the situation from a social perspective, it could use a little more in the way of system breakdowns and shortages.

Abandon All Hope is a classic horror game because it understands the nature of a horrific situation. The Right To Live is a strong entry in the series.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Abandon All Hope: The Right to Live
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Peacekeepers: Savage Worlds edition
Publisher: GRAmel
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 03/04/2018 13:45:03

A friend suggested I post some reviews of some underappreciated and under-rated material for GM's Day this year, so here's the Savage Worlds edition of Peacekeepers. Although it has some flaws (see below) it also has an interesting take on the "villains save the world" scenario that we have seen in other comic book RPGs for some time, including the Savage Worlds Necessary Evil campaign. As in those other campaigns, an existential threat arises from space, and former villains and heroes must put aside their differences to save the Earth.

However, Peacekeepers brings some unique elements to the table: the "lead" villain who put a crimp in the alien's attack plans is, unknowingly, a robot created by a mad scientist, who serves as her "science advisor". Her past isn't actually mysterious - it's just missing. Since one of the elements of a story of this kind is learning about the backgrounds and being paranoid about the true intentions of your comrades-in-arms, this information is extremely well-suited to this kind of scenario. Plus, I'm a sucker for any T.O. Morrow references I can work into my game.

The alien invasion is for a very good reason - a mysterious ane extremely powerful artifact which the aliens revere as a religious item. The aliens themselves are revered by a cult of collaborators here on Earth, a different type of quisling that we don't normally see. All in all, it's a unique setup. There's some attention to a supporting cast (the American President, the characters' "voice in the headset lady") which is extremely practical and ties in well to the concepts of the setting.

The flaws in Peacekeepers fall where it fails to embrace its identity. There's a superheroic adventure generator section which doesn't advance the core questions of the setting at all - it's just a regular superhero scenario maker. Fine for what it is, but not interesting in the context of Peacekeepers. Similarly, the scenarios offered don't really connect to the core conflict of the world at all. They're just regular superhero scenarios. I guess that's fine, but it raises questions about why we're doing these things when an existential threat still looms. The villains and heroes similarly don't really fit in. Finally, although the game raises ideas about what might happen in other parts of the world than the typical "Big American City" of superhero comics, there's very little detail given to them, which often lends itself to stereotypes. Better to use that space to detail how to research and come up with interesting and compelling scenarios on my own in those areas, if you can't fit all the details in.

Overall, Peacekeepers is worth checking out for the information about its core conflict, including many unique ideas you can use in your own superheroes-in-trouble campaign!



Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Peacekeepers: Savage Worlds edition
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Rogues, Rivals & Renegades Collection Two
Publisher: Vigilance Press
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 03/03/2018 13:43:38

A friend suggested I post some reviews of some under-appreciated, under-rated and otherwise overlooked material for GM's Day this year, so let's look at Rogues, Rivals & Renegades Collection Two.

Mutants and Masterminds supplements must live in a strange little ecosystem. M&M is probably the premier "carefully build a superhero's capabilities" game, having surpassed Champions relatively handily given the (often literal) weight of the HERO system. However, lacking the pacing system of Marvel Heroic or the emotional impact mechanics of Smallville or Masks, M&M must rely on setting and character material to get the melodrama of superheroic adventure across, and this is often quite idiosyncratic to the particular setting. In this respect, the DC and Marvel universes, created as they have been over decades of corporate restructuring, interal conflicts, mergers, and lawsuits, form more of a stumbling block to exceptional storytelling rather than a toolbox. M&M supplements at their best try to create something unique enough to have the feeling of the classic superhero story, but can't be too unique - we have to be able to pull the villain out of the villain supplement and put them in our own world, and maybe that's a world where heroes are hated and feared, or maybe it's a world where they're all Vine stars. You can't quite know what each individual group is doing because M&M is a system that encourages people to come to it with individualized ideas that can't be handled in more specialized systems.

RR&Rv2 is, primarily, a character collection, but what sets it apart is that it tries to communicate the world around the characters in a way that's both sufficient to understand where the characters are coming from and how to change it to fit your own world. For example, a character named "Blackwing" was empowered by a group which would wipe out her debts in exchange for her evil service. Great - tells us what kind of character she is, it fits with her personality, and when the time comes to situate her in a personalized campaign world, there are several different options for who might have given her this power, from a crime syndicate to a secret government program or an evil superscience organization. The GM is given the tools needed to use the characters well.

This even extends to the mechanics. More than one character have statistics which are outside the "norm" for M&M characters, but these are noted and explained. A character is extremely weird? Yeah, he's a joke character to lighten the mood or for a game that aims for more of a light tone. A character is extremely difficult to damage? Remember to use her for her own goals, of having fun and excitement, instead of as a serious and direct threat. Importantly, the characters also illustrate good ways to use the mechanics of M&M to get across particular capabilities, which is useful both for GMs and players.

In addition to the characters, there are several organizations listed, both helpful and unhelpful. I especially appreciate the characters that have their own agendas, which might not be directly evil, but which they pursue regardless of the consequences, likely to bring them into conflict with superheroes and authorities in an interesting way.

R&RCV2 is one of the best Mutants & Masterminds supplements out there; it gives enough of a world to have character, and to base characters on, but also gives you the tools you need to adapt it to your own campaign world. If there is anything I'd suggest to improve it, I would say to make the character sheets more usable at the table. Right now, they're bold-colored and sometimes difficult to read when printed out. Further, feats and powers are simply listed when they could be printed with reference material to remind you what they do and where they are in the book.

Overall, it's one of the best M&M collections out there and highly recommended from me!



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Rogues, Rivals & Renegades Collection Two
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Terror
Publisher: Chaosium
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 03/03/2018 12:57:52

A friend suggested I post some reviews of some underrated or overlooked gems for this year's GM's Day Sale, so I thought I would put up Terror, currently on sale for under $4 for your consideration. Terror is a Call of Cthulhu adventure originally published in 1997, though the procedural changes in the most recent edition actually serve to assist in getting over some of the bumpier spots. Essentially a retelling of John Carpenter's The Thing set in Stalin-era Moscow, the best part of The Terror is that the monster fits the mood which the historical milieu attempts to recreate, and vice versa. Lovecraft's monsters reflect his fear of an atheistic, multiracial world, and he situates his stories in the crumbling remains of the Victorian milieu he (correctly) feared was dying out.

In Terror, the purges of the 1930s-era Soviet Union provide a backdrop for a monster who - like a cosmic NKVD officer - literally can be anyone or any living thing, and whose monstrous intent is the destruction of identity itself, to subsume the target in its own consciousness. This is a properly conservative fear to base a Lovecraftian horror scenario on.

However, Terror has a couple of big holes in it. First, the investigators are state prisoners who are brought out of prison in order to dig into the mysterious events at the behest of a secret policeman. This is fine, but there are no pregenerated characters and not one word about what types of "criminals" they are, nor about what types of "crimes" they might have committed - literally the first thing that happens is an interrogation about this, so while that's a great, atmospheric way to start, neither the GM nor the players will have any real grounding for what type of situation they could be in. The opening also doesn't really give a strong direction to the group - in standard Call of Cthulhu, you make a character who is "an investigator", someone who digs into occult matters for some personal, professional or psychological reason. Here, though, there's a strong incentive for characters to abandon the investigation and attempt to escape, and only some fairly severe railroading keeps this from happening. I think the character creation sections of the new corebooks might help with this problem, but unlike 1920s New England, there really isn't anything in either the corebooks or Terror to get across what it is like to dig into this situation in Stalin-era Moscow. The GM and players will be left to do their own research and build their own scaffolding around the scenario.

Still, Terror is worth mentioning, and worth looking at, for the close connection between the monster and the historical moment, an extremely Lovecraftian thing to attempt. In this, it beats out a number of other Call of Cthulhu "monster" scenarios that don't attempt to draw this type of tight connection.



Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Terror
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vs. Ghosts
Publisher: Fat Goblin Games
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 03/16/2017 17:28:33

"Hey JD, here's another game that uses playing cards for a randomizer instead of dice! You're gonna give it a high score, aren't you?"

"That's not true, come on!! There's plenty of...okay it is true. I give high scores to all playing card based games. BUT THAT'S NOT THE ONLY REASON WHY"

I've been a fan of the "vs" series ever since it was printed on quad-fold, 4" x 4" glossy paper with pulp cowboys on the front panel. It's fun, it's light, and it's simple. Traditionally it has relied on your group's knowledge of and love for the source material to make it really sing. vs. Ghosts looks to action-comedies like (but not limited to) Ghostbusters for it's fun, and it does a lot of things right in making it work. The system is based on the flip of a card - players can also supplement this with bonus cards they have in hands, though replenishing those cards is much rarer than card flips. For a rules-light system it's fairly good. In terms of what characters actually do and how the opposition is portrayed, it nails something that even the venerable Ghostbusters RPG from West End Games didn't always remember, which is that the comedy in horror-comedy normally comes not from the monsters, but from the absurd actions of the protagonists. The ghosts, demons, eldritch beings and cultists in the Ghostbusters films are not overtly comedic (okay, that one guy's accent is pretty funny), it's the reaction of the mundane world to them and the actions of our heroes that bring the comedy. Hence, the ghosts and spirits in vs. Ghosts are presented in a faux-Victorian manner, and the characters and NPCs are presented in broad, cartoony pictures and statistics. Yet the scenarios are largely serious! This demonstrates that vs. Ghosts understands its genre, and presents a bullseye for the players to target. The GM gives a "serious" horror scenario, and our heroes the exorcists (Repossessed), mad scientists (Ghostbusters) or whatever (Scary Movie) go loping in to blow up the bar mitzvah and try to get paid for it at the end.

The areas I would suggest for improvement would be to urge some caution in the use of comedic stereotypes, or suggest ways to subvert and reimagine the stereotypes. We aren't limited by a 22-90 minute presentation format, so we have the freedom to make comedic stereotypes more interesting than television or film. Also, although this is a game that claims to be open content, it literally says "all material" here is designated Product Identity. Oh, uh, okay. You know, you can just copyright your game book if you want? Oh well, nobody pays attention to that stuff but me anyhow.

All in all, you get what's on the cover with vs. Ghosts. I recommend it!



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
vs. Ghosts
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5 Questions
Publisher: Roving Band of Misfits Press
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/17/2016 22:52:13

Although many companies over the years have attempted the systemless RPG supplement, few have succeeded. RPG players tend to want supplemental material that expands on all elements of the game, including the mechanics. Yet another fantasy world gazetteer tends to be pretty boring because without a clear understanding of how the characters (created and detailed by and through mechanics) will make their way through the world, it doesn't feel like something that can come alive at the table. You're better off reading even a third-rate fantasy novel, most of the time. In the past, companies often did this in order to dodge the litigious anger of T$R (remember that acronym joke? Come on, you know you loved it when you were fourteen in that AOL chat room). In today's more open world of open licensing, gamers have become more open to the concept of RPG supplements not tied to particular game material, but few products have really nailed it down. However, "5 Questions" accomplishes this in exemplary style, going far beyond the basics and relentlessly focusing on usability at the table in every aspect of its presentation.

"5 Questions" is, as advertised, 500 character creation questions, divided into 5 100-question categories, like "NPC Relationships" and "Character Secrets". What impresses me about 5 Questions is that it could just be a simple list, and if the questions were good, it would be worth it. But the format goes beyond that. It presents them as ready-to-print questionnaires, with one questionnaire containing one random question from each of the 5 categories. But that's not all! There are also "specialized" questionnaires. Say you're playing a game like Smallville/Cortex+ Drama, where NPC relationships are one of the key factors in the game. You can pull a questionnaire with just "NPC Relationship" questions. There are detailed instructions at the front of the document explaining different ways to use the questions to prompt character action and depth. And of course at the end of the document the whole list of questions is reproduced for the GM's reference.

What elevates "5 Questions" above the rest is its relentless focus on usability at the table, and a focus on something that every game needs - vivid, forward-moving player characters. Maybe skip "5 Questions" if you're the type of person who doesn't name their characters or if you're playing a game where you can just say "I'm a fighting man" and be done with it. But if you are playing a game where your characters are going to be anything more than that, "5 Questions" will knock your socks off. It's well worth the price and I'm giving it my highest rating.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
5 Questions
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Design Notebook
Publisher: Silver Gryphon Games
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/13/2016 18:04:27

For years I've gotten my hexmaps through free downloads from websites that look like they were abandoned in 1998. Now both my aesthetic desires and design needs are handled with a buck fifty download. You may ask, "but JD, why should I pay for what I can get for free?" Well, there's a few good things going on here that are worth at least a hundred fifty pennies or so.

First, the design notebook is intended for note-taking, not necessarily just the production of something with the paper. Each of the notebook pages has both a type of design, and a column of lines for taking notes or, crucially for gamers, writing a legend for whatever map or diagram you're creating.

Second, every page in the PDF is mirrored, so you can put it on the left or right side of a binder or other notebook without difficulty (and for lefties out there, you can use the one that fits your needs best.)

Third, every page has a box for a page number, though I've also used that spot for symbols helping me sort sheets in campaign notebooks. For example, in one of my exploration-based campaigns, a notebook is based on a location; NPCs have one symbol in the corner, monsters another, organizations another, and so on. It makes it easy to quickly identify what type of page I'm looking at.

Finally, there's map styles like the really smooshed down diamonds that are fun to draw maps with (it's great for isometric multilevel dungeons!) that you can't easily find like hexes.

If there was one suggestion I had for the Design Workbook, I would suggest adding a version ofthe hexmaps with heavier lines. In Traveller, for example, compared to other hexmap usages, a hex is best identified as a discrete area of space, filled in with a code to indicate what's there. The present hex map is great for things like fantasy mapping but there are other things hexes can be used for. I also would suggest a writing page with larger lines, for younger users, and perhaps a page of card-sized rectangles for the sketching (or importing, maybe?) of NPC portraits. But you know it's a good product when all my suggestions are how to add things to it instead of how to fix what's there. Definitely recommended.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Design Notebook
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Iconic Characters
Publisher: Raging Swan Press
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/28/2016 17:04:46

Let's talk about pregenerated characters for D&D3 et seq. (You can't make me stop using "et seq"!! I'm a rebel!)

When D&D3 landed in 2000, it was at the tail end of a somewhat stumbling and haphazard assemblage of AD&D rules. One of its great strengths was to gather in all of the various mechanics into a single volume in a way that hadn't even been attempted in years. Still, making a character in D&D3 was the most arduous part of playing it, unless you were a cleric player in 2006 trying to pick out your spells for the day from a list of three or four thousand, a 15th level fighter trying to figure out why you exist, or any living being trying to grapple any other being.

What's interesting about D&D3 character creation is that it puts the tools of character creation almost entirely in the hands of players, but eschews the worldbuilding that would have to wait until the DM's Guide. In other words, characters are created by people who not only have no means of establishing the situation that their characters exist in, and are given the sole responsibility to launch them into an adventurous situation that not even the publishers of the game know very much about. Only the DM knows these things.

If we have the luxury of a leisurely conversation about what the game will be, then this isn't a serious concern. But if we're going to play in an organized play situation (in which published materials that may not even exist yet control the adventures we'll be on) or at a convention (where our time is limited), we often turn to pregenerated characters.

People will post their characters online for free. So what does purchasing pregenerated characters do? It gives us an opportunity to play not just someone else, but someone who we didn't even fully create. This can be a fun challenge even for experienced characters. Raging Swan Publishing brings something solid to the table with Iconic Characters. Sticking to the more central Pathfinder classes in order to make it easier for characters to be brought into various campaigns, the main advantage of Iconic Characters is that the characters all have strong reasons to go on adventures: to find a sibling, to escape evil spirits, to get revenge. Even the most simplistic motivations make dungeon crawling more exciting and psychologically real-feeling roleplay.

As always, you can count on Raging Swan Publishing to have simple, workable layouts and well-turned mechanics. The only area of improvement I can suggest is to make the layout less a typical character stat layout and more usable at the table. The attribute bonuses are connected to so many things all over the sheet, the most used thing on the sheet (current hit points) will be repeatedly erased and rewritten until it wears through the sheet faster, etc. Maybe it's unfair to hold Raging Swan to these standards when the whole rest of the D&D3-playing world makes the same mistakes, but, as I say, I'm a rebel!

All in all, the iconic characters bring simple, interesting motivations to fantasy action-adventure scenarios, which is something that elevates it above the simple assemblage of statistics, but doesn't overstep its boundaries. Another top quality, simple release from Raging Swan.

(An earlier version of this review was posted when I had a brain fart about the name of the publisher. I apologize for the error.)



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Iconic Characters
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Brave New World
Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 05/07/2016 18:35:45

Because of its recent inclusion in a Bundle of Holding, it seems an apropos time to talk about Brave New World, perhaps the first RPG ever to be unfairly scuttled by the Internet.

BNW eschewed the "everything and the kitchen sink" approach of prior superhero RPGs, most of which were aping the bizarre, unplanned conglomerations called the Marvel and DC universes. Just thinking through how the Marvel and DC universes happened (mergers! soft reboots! hard reboots! office coups! lawsuits!) should have been a huge warning sign to RPGs that maybe this was not the needle we wanted to try to thread. But okay, we wanted to know whether Superman or the Hulk was the strongest, and hadn't noticed that the answer to that question depended on the dramatic needs of the comic book creators instead of a beep boop computer analysis of how many pascals are exerted by a Hulk punch. The result was Champions and its successors, which I regard with the kind of reverence reserved only for the accomplishments of mad geniuses.

But even the independent superhero RPGs, for the most part, didn't pursue an independent setting capable of standing on their own two feet. Instead, they leaned on existing comics and tried to pursue their aesthetics instead of their own. The exceptions started to hit at the end of the late 90s. In 1999 we got two big ones: Aberrant, White Wolf's deconstruction of superheroes, starring superpowered wrestlers, religious figures, and superspies, all with lovingly detailed haircuts and sunglasses, and Brave New World. I'll defend White Wolf stuff all day and all night but in this matchup, Brave New World wins walking away.

The premise of Brave New World, as implied by its literary-reference name, is that America (and much of the rest of the world) exists in an alternate 1999 as a totalitarian police state. A great deal of effort is put into grounding this in reality; how do people live in such circumstances? How do they accommodate themselves mentally to it? How do people come to support a police state in large or small ways? And how do they resist, in large or small ways? The need for the police state, naturally, is the emergence of superpowered beings, extremely powerful in the WW2 generation, and somewhat less so by 1999. Some of these beings are more or less leashed thugs working for the government; others are rebels trying to expose the truth and tear it down. Propaganda urges non-powered people to hate and fear powered people, and they do. The X-Men rarely gave us this kind of detail even when they remembered that humans hated mutants (which they often forgot).

There were two elements of the game that the Internet (at the time, primarily Usenet), responded to negatively. Bizarrely, they identified two of the best elements of the game as deal-breaking flaws.

First, in Brave New World, you can't just be any sort of superhero you want. Character - both player characters and non-player characters - powers fit into established categories. The super-strong person, the super-fast person, the psychic, and so on. This has numerous advantages: it makes character creation faster and easier, it makes tactical decisionmaking in fights faster and more reliable ("that guy's super strong, therefore I don't have to worry that he's going to take over my mind") and it encourages players to come up with new cool ways to use an established power versus ceding the field to someone who happened to toss a few points into the right ability, or feeling that because they didn't, they can't. The fact that the system smoothly utilizes power stunts within the options for using these limited powers multiplies this advantage - you can see how to make a power stunt and what they should be like.

The Internet absolutely freaked about this. After so many years of being told "you can do whateeeeever you waaaaant" without noticing that this produced a ton of shitty, boring character building before you got good at it, and impeded quickly getting into play, the idea that you couldn't be Dr. Strange with Weirdly Undefined Abilities was just beyond their comprehension. "Incomplete" was a word thrown around. Ugh.

The second thing that BNW did well that the Internet freaked about was not say anything about the "origins" of the superpowers that spread across the world. There was some implication they would be handled in later supplements. but of course by 1999 we had all forgotten what the word "supplement" meant and assumed that if something was bad in a supplement that it would be bad in all games around the world forever. In practice, BNW's decision to withhold this information worked because everyone assumed the evil government had it in a computer somewhere, or that they were undertaking evil experiments to GET it in a computer that had to be stopped. It became actionable primarily in response to villainous undertakings, which of course, is what superheroism actually is.

It seems like when we talk about our RPGs, we often measure them by what we already think a RPG should be, instead of what the RPG actually is. We take our prior experience as the center of RPG play and regard games that don't support that experience as deviations from the norm. Perhaps the better way to handle ourselves is to try to take each RPG from zero. Brave New World can't "do" the X-Men - christ, about 73 percent of the time, Marvel Comics can't. But that's not what Brave New World is. It's not a comic book, nor a simulator of a comic book world - it's a superhero RPG, and a damn good one.

All in all, Brave New World was a tremendous experience. The high stakes of being a superpowered rebel and trying to keep your identity secret created a heightened environment for throwing a car at a guy shooting lasers. It is one of my all time favorite superhero RPGs and I'm psyched that the Bundle of Holding might bring it to a new audience. I definitely encourage picking it up!



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Brave New World
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World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour
Publisher: Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd.
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 04/13/2016 23:41:57

"Hey, wouldn't it be cool if President Roosevelt sent a bunch of investigators to stop Hitler from summoning Cthulhu?" is a thing a gamer might think when they were fourteen. Then you learn a little about World War 2 and which side, if he had lived that long, Lovecraft would undoubtedly have sided with, and suddenly the bloom is off the rose. The concept of a mad Nazi sorcerer is frankly, stupid and a waste of everyone's time. They didn't need sorcery to be horrible. Sorcery is fictional and Nazi mass murders were real. What would they have done with sorcery that they didn't do with their own determination? Spread their evil further, win maybe? But that doesn't make them a different kind of evil; they don't become more horrific if you give them tentacle monster shock troops, they just become more successful at spreading the horror they launched. The more I learned about World War 2, the less I liked attempts to shoehorn the Cthulhu Mythos into it. Let's not even get to the Victorian anxieties that bubbled just beneath the surface of Mythos writings; suffice to say the Allied armies (racially diverse, eventually even racially integrated!) would not be the good guys in a Lovecraftian Mythos tale. Thus, for many years I put down the recurring idea of a WW2 Mythos game. I may have even been mean about it once or twice!

So when I saw World War Cthulhu: Darkest Hour, I was fairly decidedly disinterested, even though it was Cubicle 7 and I normally quite like Cubicle 7 games. Nevertheless I decided to give it a look and I'm very glad that I did. WWC has a very different attitude towards how to design a Call of Cthulhu scenario in World War 2 which transforms the war from a shorthand 5th grader's scribble of bad Nazis seeking forbidden knowledge to a setting that presents tremendous challenges to investigators seeking to achieve military and potentially occult goals at the same time.

In your typical Call of Cthulhu scenario, investigators receive a weird invitation or see a bizarre story in the newspaper that is in their professional field. They gather up because they know weird shit might be going down and start digging into it. Importantly, in Call of Cthulhu scenarios, you can lose. It is quite possible to miss clues, miss events on a timeline, misinterpret the clues and go to the wrong place, and you never solve the mystery, and then you see another horrible newspaper article and you FEEL AFRAID at the unknown horror that you almost spotted, and lose Sanity. This makes a typical Call of Cthulhu scenario a self-contained episode. However, in WWC, a different methodology is at work.

In WWC, you identify a location and determine what's going on with the war as an environment that the investigation takes place in. The sample campaign (more on this below) is a small town in Vichy France near a mysterious wood and a copper mine the Nazis really want to keep open. Then you create the occult threat and what might draw the investigators to the area. This approach guarantees you're not going to have your team of rowdy investigators winning the war singlehandedly, and also guarantees that they will have to thread some very difficult needles. In a (separately published) scenario, for example, there's a mysterious occult plague in a town controlled by Italian fascists. They believe (and spread the word) that they are being targeted by an Allied biological weapon of some kind. But it isn't; it's a MONSTER. You can definitely see how investigators who come into that situation will have to walk a tightrope between the danger of the Mythos and the danger imposed by the war. And when there's a plague monster around, maybe calling in an artillery strike is the worst thing to do. ("Are those spores or smoke?")

WWC asks not that you treat WW2 as a pulp setting, but instead asks that you treat it as real, with real stakes. And that, to me, is the innovation that makes it work where other WW2 Cthulhu scenarios have failed.

The sample campaign (which I'm going to be running soon!) is a great example. The characters are Special Operations Executive agents parachuting into the Vichy France countryside in April 1941 (seven months before the Americans even get into the action!) with the mission of putting together an intelligence network in the countryside, and finding out what happened to the investigator who disappeared before the Nazi invasion. He was looking into a cult, naturally, but the investigators can't just pop in to a Vichy village and start asking questions and avoiding attention because then they'll be pegged as spies immediately and killed by the Gestapo, and the cult will be about its evil business unimpeded.

And there are questions about how much to trust the Resistance that's helping you...or even if you trust them, how much to involve them? They have different goals and restrictions, and they may or may not know about or believe in the occult problems the investigators have to deal with. If a monster's going to eat a bunch of people, you have to balance whether you want a suave lady shooting a Sten while smoking a cigarette standing next to you, or whether it would be better if she didn't have her arm eaten and nerve broken so she would have both those things to fight the Hun.

All in all, World War Cthulhu is a tremendous effort, works really well, and the sample campaign gives a very solid example as to how to design a WWC scenario. This game completely rehabilitates the idea of the WW2 Mythos scenario and breathes new life into it with the relentless focus on the war as environment instead of the war as event.

If I had to suggest a way to improve this effort, I would mention there are several typographical errors (the names of characters in the sample campaign aren't always spelled the same way, etc.) and I would really hammer out several different campaign structures other than the SOE structure that's presented. All in all, however, this is an exceptionally solid work that accomplishes something many have attempted but rarely successfully. It's definitely worth your time.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour
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Plot Device Generator
Publisher: Lee's Lists
by Jason C. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/09/2016 15:43:51

Lee's Lists, purveyors of ONE HUNDRED PENNY RPG supplements, have a lot of them that are REPETITIVE or SILLY. This one is much more ON POINT (though perhaps the title is a bit MISLEADING.) With the two-page, random-table Plot Device Generator, you will generate a COOL-SOUNDING item or artifact; there aren't any silly entries here. The description of the product is very ACCURATE (okay, enough of that gag) - I definitely could see the unstoppable overlord of my fantasy world only able to be defeated by the Gems of the Heavens, which mark those of great destiny throughout the ages, the remnants of a civilization before this one. (That's an actual artifact I generated with this product.) If you're like me, the actual in-world physics/magic of how the PCs might defeat the bad guys is somewhat beside the point since all the mechanics of the games we play are normally about the struggle to do that. So sometimes I come up with a macguffin that sounds stupid or wasn't thought through. Thus, the Plot Device Generator helps me out.

And it's only 20 shiny nickels!



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Plot Device Generator
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