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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.

For more reviews, advice, releases, and free downloads, check out neuronphaser.com



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:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
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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Crimson Dragon Slayer 1.11
Publisher: Kort'thalis Publishing
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 06/14/2017 11:42:18

A neuronphaser.com review.

Content 4/5

Crimson Dragon Slayer version 1.11 is a step towards simplifying Crimson Dragon Slayer (thus the One Hour Game tagline) and re-presenting it such that newer players and gamemasters (Dragon Masters, in this game) can jump right in. Not only that, it’s a stepping stone — a FREE one, at that! — towards development of a 2nd edition of the full Crimson Dragon Slayer RPG. In a lot of ways, it shows how living documents work towards becoming a full-release version of a new RPG, which Venger has announced is coming in 2018.

The Mechanics

Crimson Dragon Slayer 1.11: One Hour Game runs on the VSd6 system, a system that exclusively uses six-sided dice. Basically, a player rolls a number of d6s based on their character’s capabilities and the situational modifiers that come into play, looks for the highest number on those dice, and uses that as their result.

  1. A critical failure.

  2. A failure.

  3. Mostly/partial failure.

  4. Mostly/partial success.

  5. Success

  6. Critical success.

When rolling multiple dice, rolling more than one 6 usually counts for some extra, added benefit, such as inflicting more damage.

Deciding how many dice to roll, as mentioned above, is a matter of taking into account several factors, but they are pretty clearly explained. It operates on a graduated scale like so:

  • Roll 0d6 when you’re doing some extremely difficult and/or are hopelessly unskilled at the task. Rolling “zero d6” means rolling two 6-sided dice and taking the LOWER number as the result, rather than the higher number like you normally do.
  • Roll 1d6 when there’s great difficulty or if you’re unskilled.
  • Roll 2d6 for most actions.
  • 3d6 and 4d6 are reserved for highly skilled people, incredibly easy tasks, or tasks in which you benefit from some kind of magical or divine assistance.

A special dice roll, called a saving throw, is a roll of 1d6 (2d6 for characters of the dwarf race) that determines if you avoid the effects of special attacks, or if you succumb to death once your Health is depleted.

The only time you don’t roll dice like the above is when you’re rolling initiative to determine combat order and inflicting damage.

To establish who acts when during an encounter, everyone rolls 1d6, and you go in ascending order: 1s go first, 2s go next, 3s go after that, and so on. Rinse and repeat each round. Notably, thieves (one of the classes we’ll talk about in a second) get to halve their initiative roll, which is effectively like rolling 1d3 for initiative.

In the case of damage, you roll a number of d6s based on how well you succeeded, and you add the dice together to get the amount of damage inflicted, which is then subtracted from your opponent’s Health. Notably, rolling a “6” on one of your damage dice means it “explodes”: you add that 6 into the damage total, then roll again and add whatever that new number is to the damage total. As long as you keep rolling 6s on a die, you keep rolling and adding. Armor has a rating, and that rating is simply subtracted from the damage total dealt to you.

Characters

Creating a character is dead simple: pick a race, pick a class, pick a disposition.

There are three races, and each gives you a base Health score (your hit points, under most old school game systems), a single special ability, and a general physical and personality description. Humans get to re-roll a single bad roll in a game session, elves are resistant (but not immune) to magic, and dwarves are adept at making saving throws. Beyond those basics, you’re pretty much assumed to just know what an elf or dwarf are, which if you don’t and you’re reading this game (or even this review) you know maybe you should just crack open like any other roleplaying game or fantasy book or comic book or war game or anything else ever and try reading.

Your class tells you what sorts of things you are proficient at doing (meaning, which things you get more than 1d6 when rolling the dice), notes some ideas on starting gear, and tells you how many extra Health you get as you go up in levels. Not too surprisingly, the classes are:

  • Warrior
  • Wizard
  • Thief
  • Cleric

Disposition is simply a descriptive word (or words) that give you an idea of what your character’s personality and demeanor is like. There’s a list of 12 words as starters, but you can pretty much do whatever you want here.

Gear

Weapons are mainly just icing on the cake: your damage is determined by how well you rolled to strike something, so it kinda doesn’t matter how or with what you do so. This extends to magic, too, so basically the idea is that every character is using the most appropriate measures they are skilled with.

As mentioned previously, armor simply has a rating (chainmail, for instance, has an armor rating of 4) and that’s how much damage is subtracted before applying it to your Health. So if a monster hits you for 6 points of damage, your chainmail soaks 4 of that damage, meaning you only subtract 2 points of damage from your Health.

Shields are interesting in that they give you 2 additional armor (i.e. subtract 2 from incoming damage), but they also reduce your ability to fight offensively, meaning you roll one less die to attack. Say you’re a skilled Warrior swinging your sword, so you’d normally roll 3d6 to attack some dumbass goblin stupid enough to charge into melee with you. Well, if you’ve got a shield, you’re rolling 2d6 instead.

Magic

Wizards and Clerics use magic in the same rules-mechanics way, but the effects are kinda different in that wizards attempt to change reality through force of will and clerics tend to call upon the grace of their gods to enact miracles. The game leaves this open to lots of interpretation, but there’s a couple unique things to note that makes this game stand out (sometimes slightly, sometimes majorly) from other OSR games:

Wizards can’t cast purely offensive magic without a device to do so (wand of lightning bolts, staff of fireballs, etc.). Otherwise, their reality-bending appears to be slightly less direct (climbing on walls like a spider, moving faster, teleporting, levitating things, reading minds), and they cannot heal things. Clerics can heal with their magic, and can do anything reasonably covered by a miracle (I imagine that means things like bless stuff, shield others, compel spirits, divine the future, etc.). Clerics can, once per day, “strike down demons, undead, or extra-dimensional abominations” which isn’t really described in any more depth than that, so you either succeed or fail based on your roll.

Most of those examples are my own, however, so I’m clearly reading into things with years of D&D spell lists coloring my interpretation. More guidance is necessary to truly make this document sing as a “new players and GMs can jump right in” primer.

So, how does magic work, mechanically? Well, first you decide how “big” an effect the magic has — how severely it warps reality or how impactful of a miracle it is — and that gives you a dice pool you roll to see how effective it is (just like any task). Plus, it gives you a cost in Health to enact it, so you gotta pay to play. It says that you can drain that Health from another person, but the cost is threefold and requires blood to be spilled, so you’re literally cutting open someone to provide a blood sacrifice. It doesn’t talk about willing vs. unwilling, so…keep a dagger handy if you’re a spellcaster!

Advancement

Characters gain a level — which is simply adding health based on the rate that their chosen class says — after every session of play. While simple and straightforward, this loses perhaps the greatest part of the original Crimson Dragon Slayer game, which was a chart going from level zero up to level 10 and required certain activities or achievements to be met in order to advance to a new level. Here’s hoping that makes a comeback in Crimson Dragon Slayer 2nd Edition!

(Check out my review of the original Crimson Dragon Slayer for more on that bad boy!)

Opponents and Stuff

The included adventure — “The Curse of Xakaar Abbey” — gives you an idea of the challenges characters might face on an adventure.

Monsters get a description that theoretically tells you how they attack, and provides their stats: Health points, Armor rating, and Attack dice pool. Some have special abilities that show you how to resolve different types of conflicts, like dominating characters to attack each other, or using an attack that on a critical success transforms a character into an allied monster. One thing that I feel is missing is that the attacks should list what the primary weapon/attack type is as well as the dice, because that can get lost in the descriptive text of the encounter location.

A locked door provides some interesting results for characters that attempt to pick the lock, showing how you can use the dice pool system to create a sort of “timer” that adds tension and suspense to a scene.

Traps, which generally just call for a saving throw or else you take some damage (or die on a critical failure). Some of the traps play with the number of dice you normally get for saving throws, so this shows how to modify the system a little to get different levels of challenges.

Magic items that provide armor rating, or have limited-use charges of magic that show you how wizards can gain access to offensive spells.

Worth mentioning: the abbey map is absolutely gorgeous, and is done on a grid with a 10-foot square scale, so you can easily use miniatures or tokens to represent marching order of the characters or relative positioning during combat.

It’s An SRD

Notably, the introductory text of Crimson Dragon Slayer 1.11: One Hour Game says it acts as an SRD, meaning that if you want to write adventures or supplements for Crimson Dragon Slayer, you can just contact Venger and say, “Hey, I wanna write a thing!” and presumably he’ll be like, “Okay, here’s some deets on how to do so and legally say that you’re thing is made for use with Crimson Dragon Slayer” and then you write the thing and publish the thing and profit from the thing.

Know wud I’m sayin’?

My lawyer says that you probably shouldn’t write the thing without Venger’s permission. I mean, his name is Venger As’Nas Satanis, so if you wanna open that can of worms, enjoy your doom.

Form 4/5

This booklet is 11 pages, cleanly laid out in 2-column format with some cool, evocative artwork. It comes in two versions: one has a cool backdrop coloring like old parchment and the other is plain Jane black-and-white for those of looking to print all 11 glorious pages.

There’s no cover, so this thing is primed to be printed in full, without any printer-ink-saving options like “Print only pages 2 thru 9” necessary, which is really nice: this thing is literally just a bundle of awesome ready to be printed out and used on the go. I’ll reiterate that the included adventure has some monsters, traps, and treasure for your reference, but even better it has a drop-dead gorgeous map of a ruined abbey in it, so that can be useful whether you play this game or not.

The lack of a table of contents and a character sheet is a little bit of an annoyance, but let’s be clear here: 11 pages. Characters are made up of literally 3 choices. It’s not like you need to flip through a lot to find anything (and the layout is completely logical), and it’s not like you need more than 3 or 4 lines on a 3×5 index card to write down the pertinent details of your character, so I can’t really complain about these minor details all that much.

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Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Crimson Dragon Slayer 1.11
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Crimson Dragon Slayer
Publisher: Kort'thalis Publishing
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 06/07/2017 13:41:06

A neuronphaser.com review.

Rating: Content 4/5 and Form 3/5.

The mechanics of the game are built not around the d20 but instead around pools of 6-sided dice that you compare the highest die rolled to a rather simple table of results, where 6 is a critical success, 5 is a success, 4 a partial success, 3 a partial failure, 2 a failure, and 1 a critical failure. These results, however, aren’t entirely open-ended or “narrative” but have concrete mechanical implications. For instance, getting a 4 (partial success) means half-damage on an attack, while a 3 would be minimum damage (1 point of damage).

There are plenty of permutations, too, so this isn’t some barebones system by any means. Every 6 that comes up in your dice pool counts towards giving you bonus effects on your action, called Dominance. There are six potential effects (yay symmetry!) and if you’ve got multiple 6s, you can choose that many effects or double-up on any of the effects; basically whatever combination you want. The Dominance effects are things like triggering stunts or special abilities, imposing penalties on the victim’s next action, gaining bonus dice on your next action, increasing your damage rolls, and other things along those lines.

The number of dice rolled are determined by a graduated chart that seems simple enough to commit to memory, and each step along the path also gets a “name” of sorts so that various mechanics can refer to them easily: if you have “advantage” you are rolling 3d6, so a special ability (say from your character’s race) simply says that you have “advantage when trying to show-off or make a good impression.”

Other rules are generally very simple, and while couched in “old school” ideas they tend toward “new school” simplicity. Armor Class is actually straight-up damage reduction (+2 AC means you subtract 2 from damage that you take), healing is handled in short and long rests that recover hit points and refresh Hit Dice, and there are Death Saving Throws that occur once you’ve hit negative numbers in your current hit points.

We’ll talk more about specific rules below — character creation, magic, monsters — but it’s worth noting that this game delivers it’s rules in a minimum of words, in a fun and enthusiastic conversational tone, and is generally great about explaining everything without resorting to lots of examples. This is great for anyone passingly familiar with OSR games or any d20/OGL/SRD-based Dungeons & Dragons clone (or D&D itself, of course), but for anyone new, this book is going to rely a little bit too much on knowledge of gaming terminology. The system and everything is very simple, but if you’re not a gamer, you may get a little lost in terms like “exploding dice” and “damage reduction” that — while they are explained in the rules — sometimes seem impenetrable to newbies.

The races: Human, Elf, Infernal Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, Robot, Reptilian, Pixie Fairy Princess, Crystalline, Hybrid (half-breed combination of any of the other races)

The classes: Warrior, Wizard, Thief (with 2 specializations you can choose between at 3rd level), and Ranger (also with 2 specializations).

Warrior has the best hit die (d10) and outside of being proficient with every weapon, also can mow through multiple enemies as long as they keep hitting.

Wizards get the worst hit die (d6), proficiency in only the dagger and staff, and the ability to cast spells and practice alchemy. Starting at 5th level, though, they can create signature spells or magic items (once per level).

The thief is proficient with a decent subset of weapons and a bunch of fairly open-ended but self-explanatory “skills” such as hiding and stealing and all the other stuff thieves usually get in OSR games. They can also backstab for double damage dice by foregoing an action for one round. At 3rd level, choose a sub-class: Spell Scoundrel (wizard of 2 levels lower than your current level) or Assassin (gain a limited-use death strike attack).

Rangers get proficiency with a bunch of weapons as well as wilderness-type skills, including foraging for healing herbs and tracking. At 3rd level, choose a sub-class: Shaman (can shapeshift into animal forms) or Defender (can shield allies with defensive actions).

Levels in Crimson Dragon Slayer not only provide a pool of bonus dice usable throughout a day, but also occasionally unlock class abilities (as noted above) or translate to ultra-cool bonuses like the 10th level Dragon Slayer ability to throw a dice pool of 7d6 (A.K.A. God Mode).

But levels aren’t reached by totaling monster Experience Point rewards or some math-heavy construct, but instead are the result of in-game achievements. Everybody starts at Level 0 (“Noob”) because they just have to show up to do so, as the Experience Table shows us. Reaching Level 1 (and thus obtaining that first bonus die per day) simply requires going an adventure, doing a little exploration, and killing a humanoid or creature without aid. This sort of thing is obviously a little open-ended and prone to plenty of interpretation as to the details, but it’s strict enough that you kinda can’t get it wrong.

Wizards cast spells by spending Willpower equal to the level of the spell (if it’s of a level equal to theirs), or three times the level of the spell if it’s of a higher level. Willpower refreshes with a long rest, and better yet for this sort of setting, wizards get the obligatory ability to suck Willpower out of people by cutting them and then touching them for a time. Yay, ritual sacrifice! I mean, that’s totally in tune with this sort of game’s conceits.

Critically failing on a spell roll spells some kind of disaster as a Demon Lord reaches out to the spellcaster and asks for some specific task to appease it, or else they lose their ability to cast spells. There’s a table of example tasks (6 of them, in case you feel like rolling a die!), and they involve your typical stuff like sacrificing people, uncovering the plans of do-gooders for your Demon Lord master, or copulating in order to create a magical (likely demon-tainted) child.

The list of spells is tight at about 3 spells for every level, including zero-level spells for the Noobs, but only a single 10th level spell. If you guessed that it was Wish, you’ve been paying attention to D&D for exactly the right amount of time. Some of the spell names evoke classic OSR stuff (Read Magic, Comprehend Languages) while others call back to video games and 1980’s tropes (Missile Command instead of magic missile, Taste the Rainbow instead of color spray). Most do what you’d think, and tend to look back to OD&D’s days of incredibly brief descriptions (also found in Swords & Wizardry), so there isn’t a lot of room for interpretation unless you get really nitpicky.

The included adventure is called “The Cavern of Carnage” and takes no time to jump into things: it’s a straight-up presentation of:

  1. There’s a town nearby; we name it, and that’s it!

  2. Here’s a random encounter table for the dungeon; it’s astonishingly punishing if you linger in any one spot for very long.

  3. A slick looking map and almost 20 fully-described encounter locations with monster stats, traps, and treasure.

This doesn’t appear to be a “starting” adventure or come with any notes on what levels it’s intended for or how to “balance” anything…some encounters are against two 1-Hit Die monsters and others are against a single 10 Hit Die monster or 1d4 flying, laser shooting aliens. Some traps require saving throws of various sorts, and others just cause you to lose a finger, no save mentioned. It’s really all over the place. But so are the ideas contained within, in a good way!

A beholder-like creature named Pacmaw in a maze filled with ability score-modifying fruit, pretzels, and cupcakes. A callout to Doctor Who. A trapped cube of Rubix. A trio of mad alchemists. A caveman orgy in service to their dark god. A treasure chest with a ring in it and a finger-eating grub. Mentions of Saving Throws (I don’t recall these coming up earlier!) and a Charisma duel (it directly notes that this is a thing you’ll have to make up on the spot).

Overall, it’s what you’d expect of a whacky and wild OSR techno-fantasy adventure steeped in 1980’s references, and buried in the brief room descriptions and NPC notes are threads of a larger tapestry that hint at the assumed campaign setting of Thule, but there’s little attempt to make any sense of the larger whole. And there’s nothing particularly geared toward making the adventure sing, or easing any prep for the Dragon Master running it (handouts, separated statblocks, summaries of the background or context of the otherwise random setting snippets).

The artwork is slick, totally fits with the content of the game, and even includes a moment or two that will remind you of the video game part of the setting’s backstory, which is nice, though I maybe wanted a little more of that. Still, it’s all relevant and of great quality, harkening back to the 1970’s and 1980’s pulp-style RPG art and the movies that obviously inspired the game’s tone, so that’s a big win.

Layout is clean, two columns, highly readable, and with several quote-like callouts and evocative little symbols baked into the pages to break up text and add to the fun prose.

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Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Crimson Dragon Slayer
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Fantasy Roleplaying: An Omnibus of Opponents
Publisher: Blackwing Productions
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 10/19/2016 13:03:32

A neuronphaser.com review.

Form (3/5)

An Omnibus of Opponents is available as both a PDF and as a print-on-demand format from DriveThruRPG; this review concerns the PDF.

Clocking in at 83 pages, the PDF is cleanly organized and formatted in a two-column style with artwork for several of the monsters and NPCs presented. It ends with the very useful indexes of:

  • All Opponents by Level
  • Alphabetical Index

The monster artwork is top-notch, but not everything is depicted, which is a pet peeve of mine, even though several monsters are fantasy RPG standards. Books like this just cry out for more artwork, and that’s hard on an indie publisher to afford. The border art mimics that of the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide, which is a bit drab for my tastes, but doesn’t detract from the work, either.

Overall, it’s a handsome book and the provided indexes make navigating it a breeze. The PDF doesn’t feature bookmarks and the indexes aren’t clickable, which is a minor annoyance, and there’s no Table of Contents…but there’s effectively just an introduction and two chapters, one of monsters (90% of the book) and one of NPC opponents, so…not really a huge deal.

Content (5/5)

An Omnibus of Opponents is a supplemental monster and NPC book for Fantasy Heroic Roleplaying, which appears in the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide. There are ~42 monsters in the Hacker’s Guide; this book adds about ~120 more, which gives us something close to what the old school Monster Manuals for D&D contained.

Whereas the Hacker’s Guide stuck to the D&D fantasy milieu pretty closely, Omnibus gets a little more experimental with its roster in a few points, though it too includes some classics and some alternatives: chimera, an orc shaman, some dragons, the rakshasa, and a rogue necromancer all make appearances, and so too does the Chupacabra, several folklore monsters like the kitsune and Yuki-Onna, and a few silly or bizarre monsters like the drop bear (literally a bear that drops on people from trees and splats them) and Star Jelly (which are really just flumphs by another name).

Let’s go chapter-by-chapter.

Introduction

The introduction notes that there’s some bizarre entries and calls attention to them, but spends the bulk of its time covering Mobs and Large Scale Threats, and then talking a bit on Encounter Balance in Cortex Plus. The author’s experience with the game shines through, expertly covering both the mechanical aspects of gameplay by simplifying the process of turning existing monster statblocks into Mobs or Large Scale Threats, as well as giving some great advice on encounter building. Some may find it unfortunate that Cortex Plus is less “systematic” in its approach to encounters than games like D&D’s later editions, but with the advice Jeremy provides, it becomes clear how to work with the more narrative aspects of Cortex Plus.

Critters and Creeps

This chapter is the opening of the monster entries, and it’s obvious just how much Jeremy sticks to the script with regard to statblocks: the only change in formatting is moving Specialties closer to the top of the monster entry. Additionally, you’ll find that there are non-monster entries in the form of traps, such as the Bear Trap. No surprises in terms of formatting, and that’s great because we like consistency.

A good number of the monsters — whether old standbys or more bizarre creations — use traits and SFX that are pretty standard fare for what you’ve seen in Fantasy Heroic already, just in different combinations to more thematically represent the creature in question. But there are plenty of monsters that mix things up a little more than you might think, or find unique ways to stand out from their “classic” representations in other RPGs or in folklore. So, let’s go over some highlights and stand-out monsters, shall we?

Highlights and interesting call-outs include:

There’s a couple variations on dragons, so you can get them at a few different Levels (faerie dragons, hatchling, adult dragon). There’s also dragon-related monsters like Dragonkin (half-dragons or dragonborn, depending on your origin of choice) and Dracolisk.

A number of otherwise copyright-protected monsters or ones whose names are closely associated with other games (::cough:: D&D ::cough:) get into the book via artful renaming and reskinning: Aquatic Dominator (aboleth), Arachnaur (drider), Paradox Hound (evil blink dog), Shimmer Cat (displacer beast), Mycelian (myconids), Star Jelly (flumphs), among others.

Some monsters take the form of myth and folklore that isn’t as popularized in fantasy RPGs, such as the Gorgon (medusa), Lamia (a snake-woman rather than D&D’s lion-woman), Rakshasa, and a few others.

There are some really bizarre, sometimes silly monsters. Check out the Chronovore (a time paradox given form), Drop Bears (adorable koalas that eat people’s faces off after falling on them), Gold Gorgers (metal-eating badgers), Hidebehind (a creature so busy hiding it suffers penalties for doing so on Reactions), and the Mace Mollusk (D&D’s flail snail).

Some cool “alternative” folklore monsters include: Dullahan (the headless horseman), Kitsune, Penanggalan, Punkinhead, Rokurokubi, Jackalope.

The Cthulhu Mythos gets some call-outs: Deep Ones, Shoggoth, and Yuggothian Crustacean.

There are some fun mechanics, like the Will o’Wisp’s Lure (splitting the party also creates an additional environmental Complication), several Social-based abilities (monsters that rely on intimidation or riddles, like the Sphinx), the Sky Whale’s Radar Sense (re-rolling a Reaction and adding Senses dice), and the Reaper’s Touch of Death (inflicting Trauma after Taking Out an opponent).

All in all, the selection shows a strong mix of serious and fun, silly and terrifying, and a masterful knowledge of the rules for giving monsters a unique feel and strong mechanics.

Monsters in Human Flesh

This chapter covers the NPCs, which in this case are fully fleshed out opponent statblocks in the same vein as monsters. It provides a little advice on fleshing out these characters, but nothing in the way of random tables or lists of potential quirks and traits.

There are 7 in total:

  • Assassin for Hire
  • Black Knight
  • Criminal Overlord
  • Rogue Necromancer
  • Street Tough
  • Vampire Hunter
  • Wandering Swordsman

This roster leaves you wanting more, especially in the “not just a black-and-white villain” realm. For more political campaigns there should be various guild masters and royal this or that, and a few more variations on spellcasters would be nice. But what’s there is great, so I can’t knock the product for my unrestrained feelings of greed!

Indexes

There are two indexes that close out the book.

All Opponents By Level. This index sorts the monsters by Level Die. That’s exactly like sorting D&D monsters by Challenge Rating, and is a fantastic resource for balancing encounters and looking for monsters that fit into thematic niches like “minion” or “low-level meany” all the way up to “Big Bad End Guy” or “elite henchmen of the villain.” Good stuff.

Alphabetical Index. Since there’s no Table of Contents, this A to Z index of monster listings will serve as your primary reference point for navigating the book on the fly. I couldn’t find any missing entries, so it looks like it’ll work perfectly!

Read more reviews like this and get RPG tips, tricks, and supplements for a variety of games at neuronphaser.com.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Fantasy Roleplaying: An Omnibus of Opponents
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Fantasy Roleplaying: A Registry of Rules
Publisher: Blackwing Productions
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 10/06/2016 17:15:48

A neuronphaser.com review.

Form (4/5)

I've got the PDF version, but there's also a softcover Print-On-Demand version for purchase through DriveThruRPG as well.

The PDF is incredibly clean in layout: there were only maybe two very minor editing mistakes (a missing or swapped word, which is amazing considering there was no editor brought on!), and the artwork is used to great effect. Full-page images break up various chapters, and many great illustrations accompany various character options like races and classes, as well as other appropriate rules sections. The artwork varies in style, but the tone tends to get it right: this is a work about a fairly "generic" ruleset of Fantasy Heroic action (duh!), so it's cool that some artwork leans towards pulp-style characters, while other pieces are comic booky and still others show a world of fantastic-yet-seemingly-ancient technology plopped into the middle of a sword & sorcery gaggle of characters. I quite like the variety.

I knocked a star off because the general use of large margins and the similarity in border styles to the Cortex Plus Hacker's Guide work against the book a little bit. Not a lot. It's just that there's an awful lot of white space throughout the book, too much in my opinion, and the reliance on the Hacker's Guide style of drab blue gradients on the very edge of each page doesn't really mesh with the artwork I described above. It gives the jarring impression of a great fantasy book with a weird modern or even sci-fi-feeling border. Not sure if that was a "look and feel" thing enforced by the Cortex Plus Official License (remember, this book came out before the Cortex Plus Community Agreement that now exists on DriveThruRPG), but it's not optimal.

Content (5/5)

Fantasy Roleplaying: A Registry of Rules includes four chapters of material.

The Introduction is actually a pretty thought-provoking little preface to this book. It notes what this book is: a pile of expansions and additional options, as well as some variant rules for the existing Fantasy Heroic Roleplaying rules that appear in the Cortex Plus Hacker's Guide (PDF and POD versions available at that link if you don't know what it is!). Which is obvious. But then it tackles two metagame concepts that inform the rest of the book: "The Power of Saying 'Yes'" and defining the core conceits of "'Heroic' Roleplaying" each gets their own little section.

The first section talks about the author's introduction to RPGs coming at a time -- and/or in specific groups -- where saying "No!" was common. This experience echoes throughout the RPG field in many ways, and while rarely codified, it's much talked about in game theory forums. I'll simply add that Puckett does a great job of describing why and how Cortex Plus as a whole embraces the "Say Yes" style of gaming, where players have authorial power over the story elements of gameplay (in the form of Plot Points) and how turning "No!" into "Yes, but..." or "Yes, and..." speaks much better to the play style of Cortex Plus as a whole.

The second section explains that the core conceit of Fantasy Heroic Roleplaying is the "Heroic" part, and that the levels of fantasy -- low fantasy sword & sandals stuff all the way up to grand, epic Final Fantasy-style flying ships and cities and summoning gods -- are malleable. A default level of fantasy (D&D-ish, high-ish fantasy) is certainly established in the rules for Fantasy Heroic, but this book does offer hints and tips on playing with that portion of the game's conceits, which is great discussion for folks that maybe don't have a wide breadth of RPG play experiences and maybe don't know how to dial certain things up or down. Either way, it promotes open discussion between players and GM at all points of the decision-making process, from initial prep and throughout play.

Chapter 1: Character Options provides new Background Power Sets (which are strictly all new playable races), new Class Power Sets (covering additional D&D classes not seen in the Hacker's Guide as well as many new ones informed by console video gaming and other fantasy RPGs), and 10 generic packages of Milestones.

The Background and Class Power Sets are great additions, all of them balanced to the existing ones based on a design rubric that Puckett pulled directly from the Hacker's Guide and spells out in the next chapter. Admittedly, there are a couple areas where the rules of this get "broken" ever so slightly, but these spots are never in a manner that seems like it would unbalance play, and more importantly, they are pretty clear when they crop up. Especially persnickety GMs and Players will easily find this stuff and tweak it to their wants and needs. Each Power Set comes with the the core features (a few Powers generally rated D6-D8), an SFX or two, and a Limit or two. Every single one also gets an Advancements section with suggested Traits (usually Powers) to add as characters gain new abilities, and several more SFX (and a Limit or two when it makes sense).

The Backgrounds are:

  • Apeman. Clearly inspired by Planet of the Apes and about thirty thousand pulp stories. They are strong, slightly primitive, and can become absolutely menacing as they grow in power.
  • Beastkin. Humanoid versions of animals, like crocodile people or badgerfolk or something along those lines. This is a sort of generic version; several fully realized variations follow, showing how you can build all sorts of "furries" in a D&D manner, which happens to include several iconic D&D or fantasy races. These are: Lupine (wolf or dog people), Minotaur, and Ratling (basically Skaven or Wererats). So, really, this is 4 separate Backgrounds (yay value!).
  • Centaur. Human-torsoed horse people.
  • Dhampir. This is literally Blade, but without the daywalking ability.
  • Dragonkin. D&D's dragonborn.
  • Firbolg. Half-giants whose Advancements allow them to show some minor traits related to their giantish origin, such as Fire or Frost Giants, which is a neat twist.
  • Forgeborn. These are basically D&D's Warforged, but with a few extra options that make them slightly more android-like or construct-like, which is a cool way to have them veer off a bit more in a non-traditional direction.
  • Gorgon. These are like "minor" Medusa, who can't immediately turn anyone to stone, but instead just have poisonous snakes for hair and some cool natural weapons (which includes psychic attacks as well as potentially claws or some such). The cool thing is that the Mental Blast they have gets an Advancement option that clearly pushes it towards "turn people to stone" by inflicting Mental Stress, but doesn't outright say as much. This is a very interesting way to do it, and with the use of Persistent Complications (an optional rule in the Hacker's Guide), this could easily become an outright "turn people to stone via Complication" ability. Very neat.
  • Half-elf. Using a few Power choices in the Power Set and evocative Limits and Advancements, you can see the Half-elf really stand out as its own thing, rather than just being an Elf Lite or Human Lite.
  • Infernal. Clearly based on the Tiefling from D&D, but the Advancements section suggests much greater ties to innate magical and otherworldly powers.
  • Kobold. The classic 1st level antagonist, the kobold appears here with a great set of initial and Advancement SFX that really bring out their trapsmithing abilities.
  • Mantodean. Don't be fooled by the name, this is precisely how to model a Thri-Kreen from D&D's Dark Sun setting (among others) in Cortex Plus.
  • Metamorph. Probably inspired by Eberron's Shifter, this class is definitely more along the lines of a true doppelganger, which fits with Cortex Plus' "Let's do this, all or nothing!" approach. Obviously, dialing it back is easy, too, and all about how you frame the shapeshifting abilities.
  • Orc. No surprise that the most common badguys of Tolkien's world show up here.
  • Satyr. I'm not sure how or when such lusty beasts of sexual perversion made it into the "fun to be a playable race" column, but obviously they are the exemplars of it. Their passionate nature and extreme personalities actually translate really well for more social-focused characters through some great SFX and Limits.

The Classes are:

  • Assassin. A great class that combines the classic assassin tropes (poison, murder from the shadows) with some ninja tropes (ninja vanish!).
  • Brawler. A great way to model either the D&D grappler Monk or a street tough that relies on his fists over any weapons. Steven Seagal as a Class, basically.
  • Channeler. If you're familiar with Final Fantasy's Geomancer, this is your thing. It's like an elemental-infused Druid that controls either the elements around them or summons an actual elemental to do crazy battlefield-control effects.
  • Dancer. I never understood why this was a class that appeared in so many JRPG console games, but here it makes sense due to some great SFX that mix up the social and the physical aspects of what they can do. Part Face from the A-Team, part whirling dervish.
  • Knight. Although primarily envisioned as a mounted fighter, the SFX of this class don't explicitly depend on a horse or anything else, which turns the knight into an effective combat-focused class regardless of whether they are mounted or not. You can easily picture high fantasy games where the knight has incredible mobility due to their own innate magic, as well as a more low fantasy game where the knight is just such a skilled tactician that they don't need a mount to still know best how to fight unmounted opponents.
  • Magewright. This is a neat catch-all for an Artificer (originally from the Eberron Campaign Setting) style of class, which combines alchemy, low-level or temporary enchantments, or simply a guy that MacGyvers the hell outta stuff just lying around.
  • Paladin. Taking the Cleric's divine power and focusing it largely on combat-related abilities really does differentiate the Paladin a bit, and serves as a great example for creating other hybrid classes like a Spellsword or Blade Dancer type of thing that is always popular in D&D games.
  • Psychic. Perhaps a bit flashier than the archetypal psionic of D&D lore, these characters show a great way to create a powerful spellslinger whose magic relies on telekinesis and mental domination.
  • Sailor. This class meshes well with rules appearing in the next chapter covering boats, but don't be fooled: they are an excellent, action-oriented class that also can model a captain of a military unit, an airship pirate, or something along those lines. They may be a bit too focused on SFX that say "when on a boat," though, so keep that in mind when coming up with your campaign's themes and what character options to encourage.
  • Survivor. Kind of like a Ranger but with a tragic backstory that motivates them and powers their SFX. I imagine this is a pretty clear conceptual mirror for late-era D&Disms like the Avenger class.

The Milestones are general motivating forces, ideals, or even situations. Though these are largely written as Personal Milestones, they can easily be adapted as Quest Milestones, or simply used as additional ideas for formulating new Milestones of either kind. Each comes with a 1 XP, 3 XP, and 10 XP milestone award.

  • Ambition
  • Dangerous Liaisons
  • Enemies Accumulate
  • Honorable
  • Loner
  • Mentor
  • Pacifist
  • Protector
  • Trader
  • Violent Temper

Most of the rules in Chapter 2: Advanced Options are either optional tweaks to existing mechanics or laying bare the math behind the system to develop the art of creating new and properly balanced Backgrounds and Classes. The big add-on here is the section labeled Epic Heroism, which adds an Epic Die that the party as a whole can access to do truly crazy things.

Attributes, Specialties, and several Class Power Sets from the Hacker's Guide all receive optional and variant rules here. Attributes would be a new dice category, and there are two optional systems:

  • Triad Attributes: adding Physical, Mental, and Social attribute dice to each Player Character.
  • Traditional Attributes: adding Agility, Strength, Vitality, Awareness, Intellect, and Willpower to each Player Character.

The Specialties option is simply an alternative, longer list of Specialties that allows for a bit more differentiation between characters, and also increases the die range from D6 to D12, with an "unskilled" character rolling at D4 as the default. This also opens up the opportunity to increase Skills a bit more slowly with Advancement, which makes longer campaigns a bit more feasible, since the characters won't be maxing out their abilities nearly as quickly.

Jumping ahead a section, the final big tweak found here is the Revised Class Power Sets, which rewrites several of the Power Sets from the Hacker's Guide in order to more accurately balance them, internally. It's noted that some of these changes are minor, and that the balance isn't way off to begin with, so this is ample opportunity for GMs to consider the playstyle they want -- more gritty, more epic -- and cherry-pick to get what they want. The classes that see revisions are Barbarian, Bard, Druid, Ranger, and Thief.

Two sections feature brand new stuff: Creating Backgrounds and Classes is a section that opens up the internal checks and balances so you can create your own content, and Epic Heroism adds the aforementioned Epic Die.

Starting with the Backgrounds/Classes section, we get the "rubric" around which all Backgrounds and Classes are created, showing how many dice in Powers, how many starting SFX, guidelines on Limits and Advancement rules, and how to split up the dice if we want to create some variations among the abilities without mucking up the math. An example Class -- the Fog Knight -- is provided.

And now that Epic Die I keep mentioning. It's a short section that introduces the die, but it explains how this is fertile ground for really reinforcing the tone of the campaign and the upper limits of character abilities based on the tone set by the GM. Since it's a party die -- all characters have it at the same level -- it maintains balance, and the fact that it's an extra die sets it apart from monsters and NPCs with their Level Die. There's some discussion around SFX based on the Epic Die, and an example. Simple, innovative, and not entirely unlike the Time Die in the Hacker's Guide, but repurposed to make the Player Characters look and feel awesome.

Chapter 3: The Big Picture focuses on the typical aspects of high-level D&D play: naval travel and combat, mass combat between armies, and aspects of how kingdoms and nations might play into a campaign, whether ruled by Player Characters or simply detailed in such a way that politics and warfare play a much bigger determining factor in the state of any given location in the campaign world.

Ships and naval combat -- which can easily be repurposed for large land vehicles and airships, as discussed in the book -- are treated very much like they are in the Firefly RPG, where they have their own stats that get used in place of and in addition to the Player Character abilities relevant to a given action, maneuver, or attack. Several custom traits and SFX are presented, along with two sample ships and discussion of Player Character ownership of a boat.

Mass Combat breaks units into simplified NPC statblocks that are basically the same as Mobs, but with the addition of a Command die that helps them out...if they have a commander in the form of a PC or NPC that leads them. Outside of commanding units, the only other big change is that units cannot normally be targeted by attacks from an individual. There are of course exceptions along the lines of area of effect spells or inflicting large-scale Complications that demoralize units. Several unit statblocks round out this section.

Finally, we get to Kingdoms and Nations, which covers these regional powers as their own statblock -- with obligatory example! -- and introduces the Kingdom Phase that occurs between Quests, during downtime for the Player Characters. How the characters can influence this phase is of course mentioned, and overall this brings into a focus a lot of Specialties and Resource-building that wouldn't otherwise come up during individual Quests, so it's sort of like Transition Scenes in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, but even larger scale. And yes, there are Advancement rules for kingdoms!

Chapter 4: Treasure and Artifacts is all about introducing 33 new magic items -- ranging from staples like the Healer's Staff and the Shield Brooch to more wacky items like Divine Soldier's Chassis (basically power armor) to a Rocket Pocket -- and presents a great series of tables and some discussion to go along with new SFX for building random magic items.

Let's focus yet another cool sidebar, though: Life Without Looting, which opens the chapter. This sidebar talks about all those fantasy settings that aren't big on D&D-style looting and treasure acquisition, and is yet another great grab-bag of material for GMs that want to tweak the playstyle of their campaign. Though the advice is simple -- remove looting rolls and spending XP to create permanent magic items -- the permutations are pretty big. Add in the fact that systems introduced earlier, like adding Attributes, can increase the number of dice PCs have to roll, it's very easy to keep the balance of a Fantasy Heroic game preserved even by tearing out what's normally a huge part of the D&D fantasy experience.

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Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Fantasy Roleplaying: A Registry of Rules
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Creator Reply:
Wow, neuronphaser! Thanks for the truly epic review! You got a lot of what I was going for with this book, and I\'m super glad to see that it\'s still holding up pretty well, considering it was my second ever(!) professional release under my own imprint, as well as my second ever attempt at doing layout and art direction. The decision to make both of these books look like the Hacker\'s Guide wasn\'t strictly speaking enforced, but there was a conversation in which I and the MWP folks agreed that it was best to keep the look consistent with the line while not stepping directly on their trade dress. If I were to redo this book, it would probably wind up with way thinner margins--and get about 15 new pages of material, since I can\'t stop writing for Heroic to save my life. Hopefully folks will get to see some of that in my next couple of releases under the Community Content license! ^_^
Firefly Echoes of War: Thrillin' Heroics
Publisher: Margaret Weis Productions
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 05/26/2016 13:16:17

A neuronphaser.com review.

Echoes of War – Thrillin’ Heroics is aimed at starters — and makes a couple missteps for it — but it couldn’t possibly have nailed the ‘Verse any better. It’s also surprisingly complete for an "introductory" product.

It has:

The first round of Firefly RPG PDFs, which includes the entire Serenity Crew as well as the adventures (“Episodes”) Wedding Planners, Shooting Fish, Friends in Low Places, and Freedom Flyer. A pretty complete overview of the rules plus 12 Crewmember Archetypes, so you could easily play your own character aside from the crew of Serenity and handle any situation that would come up in an RPG. The “look and feel” of the ‘Verse in all its glory: the scenarios veer across the spectrum from being playful hijinks to serious life-and-death gunfights, much like the show. The open-ended nature of the scenarios make it easy to tailor, and most offer more than enough open space to stop them from feeling like a railroad, but still retain a clear storyline. All scenarios offer (at least) an entire page of follow-up adventure ideas and loose plot threads to expand for future heists, cons, jobs, hose-jobs, and anything else the crew of a boat might face.

It’s missing:

Substantial GM advice outside of the scenarios. The scenarios are very good for this, but if you’re looking for a lot of “how to be a good GM” in the rules section of the book, you won’t find it there. (Hint: it’s in the Firefly RPG Core Rulebook, and it’s incredibly well done.) Substantial character customization options. (Hint: Also in the Firefly RPG Core Rulebook, so this is hardly a criticism at all.) More in-depth examples. While the scenarios provide examples of what the Crew (the Player Characters) might do and plenty of outcomes, there are times when a walk-through might have been useful (or clearer, in the cases where there is one). The big example is the boat race scene in Shooting Fish, where each leg of the race is open to an awful lot of options (grenades from other boats or the crowd, boarding parties, other crowd shenanigans, etc.). There’s a lot going on in that part of the scenario, and it just feels like a case where “more would be better.” Another editing pass. Some of the “Way of Things” and “Lowdown” sections of various scenarios are awfully similar, and could have used a better way to convey the information more succinctly. It’s nice to have everything you need, but it’s hard to parse at the gaming table when it’s split over a couple different sections, both of which can get a bit wordy.

The adventures feature...

An arranged marriage (that can’t possibly workout) and a wedding attacked by pirates. (Wedding Planners) A pedal-to-the-metal boat race with absolutely no rules against blowing up the other boats. (Shooting Fish) A dirty profiteer and a scummy wolf-in-Shepherd’s clothing getting rich off indentured servitude…and they just crossed Mal’s old war buddy, Monty. (Friends in Low Places) A mechanic with a dark history who just wants to be free…but faces a jilted lover, a bad-ass bounty hunter, and an Alliance Major on the road to freedom. (Freedom Flyer) And all of these have tons of room for your Crew to get as personally involved as they ever could…for better or worse.

Conclusion: A



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Firefly Echoes of War: Thrillin' Heroics
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Elemental Evil Player’s Companion (5e)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
by Customer Name Withheld [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 05/25/2016 12:09:37

A neuronphaser.com review.

Content (4/5)

The Elemental Evil Player’s Companion (A.K.A. EEPC) is a short book with only two chapters: one covering 4 new races for players to choose from for their characters, and the second covering 43 new spells that get spread among the Bard, Druid, Ranger, Sorcerer, Warlock and Wizard spell lists.

Races The following races appear in the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion: Aarakocra, Deep Gnome (A.K.A. Svirneblin), Genasi, and Goliath.

Aarakocra The aarakocra are an interesting race, as they have the ability to fly right off the bat, something most PCs don’t get until they pick up a 3rd level spell like fly (which would be at 5th level for a wizard) or luck upon multiple magic items that grant flying to the entire party, such as a carpet of flying (a very rare item), a few spell scrolls of fly (an uncommon item for 3rd level spells), or several potions of flying (also very rare). Because of this ability, they’ve already been declared illegal for Adventurer’s League play. What’s worse is that the descriptive text makes it hard to frame aarakocra as typical adventurers: they hate dungeons, are not motivated by treasure (though they like “shiny things” regardless of value), and they don’t understand the concept of ownership (which may not help with deciding on what’s party loot and what’s not).

Aside from those issues, the aarokocra are a pretty cool race, and it’s nice to see something so outside-the-box included early in 5th Edition’s life. These guys are slow walkers (25 feet), but fast flyers (50 feet)…if they don’t wear medium or heavy armor. Their talons form a natural attack that deals 1d4 slashing damage, which when combined with the armor restriction suggest they might be awesome Monks, Rogues, or highly mobile Rangers.

There’s a sidebar covering the geographic origins of the aarakocra in the Forgotten Realms setting, which is a great tool for helping players come up with their backstory. A quick search on the Forgotten Realms Wiki and you’ve got a dozen hooks to build an aarakocra character, which is a nice touch, especially for such an abnormal player race. Additionally, there’s a quick blurb on what Backgrounds from the Player’s Handbook are particularly well-suited to these birdmen.

Deep Gnome (Svirfneblin) Although the deep gnomes also appear in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, it’s clearly not a direct copy-paste job, though the end result is (mechanically) the same; reprinted here among the deep gnome traits are the standard gnome traits, as well. The Elemental Evil Player’s Companion version does feature more text, fleshing out some deep gnomish psychology and attitudes, but not much, and certainly not in a specifically Realmsian way. No sidebars address their favored backgrounds or any Faerun-specific origins for the svirfneblin.

The Svirfneblin Magic feat is the first feat printed outside of the PHB (not counting some Unearthed Arcana articles, maybe) and is race-specific, granting the ability to cast nondetection at will, plus each of blindness/deafness, blur, and disguise self once before regenerating the castings after a long rest.

Genasi Genasi are the only race that comes with a full listing of racial traits plus subraces, in this case mirroring the major elements: air, earth, fire, and water. Fire and water genasi get 1-2 more traits to play with than air and earth, but power levels don’t really seem affected by this, given what those traits are: fire genasi get fire resistance and darkvision, water genasi get the amphibious trait and a swim speed of 30 feet. Each race also gets an innate magical ability as well:

  • Air genasi can cast levitate once per long rest (a 2nd-level spell).
  • Earth genasi can pass without trace once per long rest (a 2nd-level spell).
  • Fire genasi gain produce flame (with no frequency listed), and then at 3rd level also gain burning hands as a 1st level caster, once per long rest.
  • Water genasi can shape water (no frequency listed), and then at 3rd level can cast create/destroy water as a 2nd level caster, once per long rest.

Genasi also get a sidebar explaining their place in the world of Dark Sun’s Athas, which essentially amounts to them being seen as beings whose birth and presence brings with it great omens and fortunes. Another sidebar on Backgrounds rounds out the genasi as it did the aarakocra, but there’s nothing suggesting Forgotten Realms-specific lore here.

Goliath The goliath first showed up (to my knowledge) back in the latter days of 3.5 Edition D&D (2004’s Races of Stone), in a time when it felt like every book had to have oodles of New Mechanical Stuff for Players™! I’m not against that sort of thing, but the sheer volume of all that new crunch caused me to miss what was so special about goliaths, and when they showed up early in 4th Edition’s life in Player’s Handbook 2, I was surprised to see such a “second-rate” race show up so quickly. Now we have them in 5th Edition, and quite honestly, I was wrong about them: goliaths are pretty cool.

Framed as hardy, strong mountain men with a connection to elemental earth, goliaths could end up being slightly reckless PCs, but that’s pretty much par for the course in my D&D campaigns, so I’d say these guys are a welcome addition to the roster. Their truly special stats include a once per rest — short or long — damage reduction roll, which is a nice way of beefing them up without necessarily breaking the game’s internal logic around temporary or maximum hit points or healing surge-style mechanics that you might see with the fighter (Second Wind, for instance).

Unfortunately, unlike the aarakocra and the genasi, there’s literally no setting lore on the goliaths: no indication of Backgrounds that work best for them, or where they might have settlements of any kind (even nomadic) within the boundaries of the Forgotten Realms. This unfortunately reinforces their “second-rate” race status, making them look like a random add-on in this product just because they have a (very loose) connection to the element of earth. That’s not exactly award-winning writing and editing right there. Still, they are a fun race, but it’d be even more interesting if they got tied to Uthgardt tribes or other wilderness folk that crop up in Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide.

Spells The 43 new spells covered in this book are (and their level):

Abi-Dalzim’s Horrid Wilting (8), Absorb Elements (1), Aganazzar’s Scorcher (2), Beast Bond (1), Bones of the Earth (6), Catapult (1), Create Bonfire (cantrip), Control Flames (cantrip), Control Winds (5), Dust Devil (2), Earthbind (2), Earth Tremor (1), Elemental Bane (4), Erupting Earth (3), Flame Arrows (3), Frost Bite (cantrip), Gust (cantrip), Ice Knife (1), Immolation (5), Investiture of Flame (6), Investiture of Ice (6), Investiture of Stone (6), Investiture of Wind (6), Malestrom (5), Magic Stone (cantrip), Maximilian’s Earthen Grasp (2), Melf’s Minute Meteors (3), Mold Earth (cantrip), Primordial Ward (6), Pyrotechnics (2), Shape Water (cantrip), Skywrite (2), Snilloc’s Snowball Swarm (2), Storm Sphere (4), Thunderclap (cantrip), Tidal Wave (3), Transmute Rock (5), Vitriolic Sphere (4), Wall of Sand (3), Wall of Water (3), Warding Wind (2), Watery Sphere (4), Whirlwind (7)

And now, for my random thoughts on them! I won’t cover every spell, just the ones that had weird balance issues, seemed especially awesome, or otherwise seemed to require some sort of commentary.

Abi-Dalzim’s Horrid Wilting: Creates an instantaneous 10d8 necrotic damage to a 30-foot cube. Roughly similar to incendiary cloud (which is a persistent area of 10d8 fire, which happens to be the most common damage resistance/immunity) but it is clearly weaker than sunburst (12d8 radiant plus blinded to a 60-foot area). As a sidenote, Abi-Dalzim doesn’t crop up anywhere I could find as a character, but there's a post by dongul at Canonfire! about his background and there are some 3.5 edition stats you can find with a quick web search.

Aganazzar’s Scorcher: Basically burning hands, but a die size better and it affects a line instead of a cone.

Beast Bond: Kinda combines speak with animals and animal friendship, but better. It does require animals to be friendly or charmed before you cast it, however.

Earth Tremor: 1d6 bludgeoning plus knock prone everyone within 10 feet (Dex save negates). This is a great battlefield control spell at level 1!

Elemental Bane: Negates resistance, but not immunity, which is an interesting conundrum for internal logic, but also begs for a thorough accounting of resistance vs. immunity for elemental damage types (acid, cold, fire, lightning, and thunder).

Flame Arrows: Compares well to lightning arrow (a 3rd level Ranger spell), and is a hair better than cordon of arrows.

Frostbite: When comparing with ray of frost, this spell shows us that “disadvantage on next attack” is much weightier than “speed is minus 10 feet.” Which is probably not surprising.

Immolation: Seems a bit weak for a level 5 spell as it deals less damage than fireball, only hits one target, and features a save ends on the continuous burning effect. Although, it does shed light out to 60 feet, so I guess that’s alright…?

Investiture spells (Flame, Ice, Stone Wind): These are all great, multipurpose spells providing damage immunities and resistances, special movement, and special attacks that makes it seem like your taking on a purely elemental form. Very cool.

Skywrite: This is the best version of the Warning Beacons of Gondor I’ve yet seen in spell form. A bit weak in the sense that it’s like a large-scale but one-off magic mouth or message spell, but still a great utility spell that could change how settlements communicate with one another, perhaps along the lines of magical semaphore. It’d be interesting to add this to some of the NPC spellcasters that represent village shamans and whatnot among regions like Ten Towns or in even tighter-knit communities.

Storm Sphere: This is an interesting take on a wizard/sorcerer version of call lightning, mixing constant bludgeoning, buffeting winds with a laser-like lightning bolt every round.

Thunderclap: Doesn’t seem like much, but thunderclap is actually a perfect alarm system for a party that is surprise attacked during a rest, as it damages anyone ganging up on the mage and blasts a call for help over 100 feet.

Watery Sphere: The manner in which a watery sphere moves with restrained creatures inside of it reminds me of the movie Bubble Boy (2001) with Jake Gyllenhaal.

Overall, that’s a pretty cool selection of spells, and the balance issues don’t swing way out of whack, so I’d say it’s a pretty successful bundle of new spells and/or updates to the 5th edition rules. There’s a goodly number that are combat oriented, which is to be expected, but the utility spells that show up are exciting and useful. While I’ve got some complaints with how spells are presented, I won’t repeat them here nor take off any points for that; if you don’t like 5th edition’s spells or the layout of spell stat blocks, this book isn’t going to change your mind, and it’s not really meant to.

What I will complain about is that the Spell Lists do their job…weirdly. The Player’s Handbook organizes the Spell Lists by class and then level within that. Makes sense, simple, and the only problem there is that there’s no page reference, though the spells are in alphabetical order, so I can shrug that off. The EEPC‘s Spell Lists do the same (again with no page reference), but randomly added the spell’s school as a parenthetical notation, like this: “Thunderclap (evocation).” Did we need this? Was there a big movement to add that in lieu of page references, or perhaps a more comprehensive table?

Dunno. Not a big deal, but it’s inexplicable to me.

Form (5/5)

I picked up the Softcover Color Book (Standard) version of the EEPC along with the PDF, and I’m quite pleased with it. It’s pretty pedestrian in terms of binding -- it won't lay flat without some stuff weight it down -- but the cover’s thick, the pages are thick, and the artwork and text didn’t bleed or darken in the process of printing it, so it gets my thumbs up.

The artwork and layout continues the tradition of Wizards of the Coast’s 5th Edition releases, which I’m very happy with. I’ll admit it’s maybe not for everyone — some people nitpick the images, some people don’t like that the text is left-aligned but not justified, leading to wavy right-hand margins — but none of that bothers me. It’s obvious that they put time and care into the packaging of these products, and for a free PDF and $8 book (I think it was like $12 total with shipping?), I feel like I’m getting both great content and a high-quality visual appeal for my buck. Can’t argue with that!

Critical Droll The critic in me really wants to complain about what this product could have been, or could have added. Frankly, I’d pay a good deal more money for an Elementalist arcane tradition for Wizards and a bit more in terms of Backgrounds or setting info to get players into the Elemental Evil storyline (see the Resources section, below). But the fact is that they pushed this thing out for free (in PDF form) with content that can be used across D&D’s campaign settings, it’s well-balanced, and doesn’t tie itself so strictly to the Elemental Evil story that it ends up being useless content for anyone avoiding published adventure modules. It’s strength is that it’s a much more universal release, and yet it’s focused solely on giving players solid options that aren’t broken or poorly designed, and all of it in a package that’s nice to look at.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Elemental Evil Player’s Companion (5e)
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ART002 Female Wood Elf Ranger Stock Art
Publisher: Dungeon Masters Guild
by Customer Name Withheld [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 04/07/2016 19:45:55

I just recently discovered Matt Richmond's artwork by way of the Vampire Stock Art featured on Dungeon Masters Guild, and I love what I'm seeing. the Wood Elf Ranger is great as it features a number of interesting action poses -- all of which you can see in the product description; WYSIWYG! -- that are perfect for adventuring environments. Since the images are high-quality PNGs with transparent backgrounds, you can easily get some great effects from having a dungeon or wilderness environment and placcing this artwork over it.

High-quality, great work, and incredible pricing. This is great stuff!



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
ART002 Female Wood Elf Ranger Stock Art
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ART915 Vampire Stock Art
Publisher: Dungeon Masters Guild
by Customer Name Withheld [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 04/07/2016 19:24:15

It's easy to make a simple product and over-pad the description or slap on some "add-on" material like an adventure or something random that doesn't make sense and complicates matters for no reason. NOT THE CASE HERE!

This art pack is exactly what you see in the product description. The images are PNGs with transparent background, and are huge: 2550 x 3300. It's in the photorealistic 3D digital image style you see in the description, which may not be for some folks, but it's incredibly well done, so if that style is going to work at all, these are the ones you want.

For the price, I couldn't come up with a single negative, which is very much unlike me. If the price was doubled or tripled, same story. I think that says an awful lot.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
ART915 Vampire Stock Art
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Hunt the Wicked RPG
Publisher: Sigil Stone Publishing
by Customer Name Withheld [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 02/29/2016 18:06:54

Hunt the Wicked is one of a growing string of successfully Kickstarted roleplaying games by Sigil Stone Publishing, and I’ve been singing their praises in past reviews for a while now. Well, it’s time to add another to the list, and it may well be the best one yet!

THE SETTING Hunt the Wicked features an expansive space opera setting, detailing planets, systems, orbital colonies, and more. There are three main species (humans, a race of amorphous lifeforms, and a race of beings whose sentience has essentially been uploaded into techno-organic bodies…or even across the neural net). While Earth features in the setting, it’s been a long time since humans ventured out into the universe and contacted both these other races, as well as supercomputer-like, godly sentience known as the Archon.

The Archon is essentially a godlike being that has more or less forced the three main species onto equal footing. This supercomputer is basically the size of a sun, and it uses its vast power and intelligence to destroy militaries that grow too powerful, or individuals that threaten the enforced order that the Archon has created. Ultimately, the Archon is a major background element of the setting, but what’s important is that it is a key reason why bounty hunters are a focus of the setting: if there weren’t bounty hunters to keep some semblance of order (even if it’s really motivated by personal gain in a lot of cases, rather than any sense of duty to justice and law), there certainly wouldn’t be any kind of cohesive military or law enforcement organization to do so. The Archon would make sure of that. Thus, poorly organized or even downright lone wolf bounty hunters are the order of the day.

While each settlement is given only a paragraph or two of information, consideration for story ideas and inhabitants is given in spades, and the general “feel” is clearly established for each settlement. All told, there are over two dozen settlements, and since some home in on a specific orbital station, while others tackle entire planets or small systems of a few inhabited worlds, that’s a lot of ground covered. While this may leave folks cold if they are looking for extensive amounts of background history, timelines, and nitpicky details about every single culture or city, it’s clear that Hunt the Wicked‘s text is solely concentrated on giving you immediately gameable information and the necessary inspiration to devise any number of conflicts for the players to face.

This provides an enterprising setting enthusiast with a strong foundation to work from, or provides simple direction and substantial inspiration for more collaborative world-building handled during the initial Game Concept stage, or during play. Each settlement is categorized by either the species or organization that founded it, which can help provide further character background fodder for players of any of the main three species featured in the game. Furthermore, the Archon is given its own chapter to help with understanding and using it as a plot device. It even has its own mechanic: Ire. It turns out that Bounty Hunters’ actions can increase (or decrease) the Archon’s Ire, and that’s very important to the denizens of the universe; we’ll talk more about that shortly.

THE SYSTEM The system used is the Ethos Engine, introduced in Vow of Honor Rolepalying Game. Basically, players roll a pool of 6-sided dice, built from a single free die, Advantage Dice that come from circumstances and gear, and Motivation Dice that come from a limited pool based on story factors that face a player’s Bounty Hunter. These Motivation Dice refresh every so often; we’ll get into that a bit more in a second, because that’s what truly sets Hunt the Wicked apart from Vow of Honor.

As in previous games from Sigil Stone, the GM doesn’t roll dice. Enemies and tasks are rated by difficulties or by their traits, but this are applied as opposition towards the players’ dice rolls, rather than actively rolled against them by the GM. While successes on the dice pool roll are determined by comparing each individual die to the Bounty Hunter’s Skill ratings, the difficulty level of the task or enemy determines how many successes are necessary to harm or defeat them.

As mentioned, Bounty Hunters have Motivations and ratings in eight general Skills, and their Species will also give them access to another special trait, as well as a bump to some skills. Beyond these, they have Talents that form a concept of what the character does well, such as Explosives Expert, and their gear, which includes weapons, survival gear, equipment for capturing their bounties, cybernetic technology, and so on. Lastly, each Bounty Hunter has a Technique, which is an especially potent ability that more or less defines a mechanical bonus representing the “how?” of their bounty-hunting style.

The Motivations are really the core of what makes Hunt the Wicked the game that it is: there are several, but an individual character chooses two, unlocking specific abilities (Motivation Maneuvers) from those that they choose. This gives each character an individual feel and unique abilities. The Motivations include: Community, Esteem, Justice, Liberty, and Power. Based on a Bounty Hunter’s chosen Motivations, they are awarded Motivation Dice when they face a Trigger (an event that causes one of their Motivations to come to the fore), when they resolve a Trigger (such as by capturing a bounty who triggered their Justice Motivation), and simply by pursuing and capturing other bounties along the way. The more you seek out, the more you’re going to be earning Motivation dice…but of course, the more times you may be facing danger, or Motivations that aren’t among your chosen ones.

Which neatly segues to some trouble Bounty Hunters face, namely becoming Haunted or Obsessed. For each, there is an action (called a Narrative Action) that a player can take to basically make something happen automatically, without regard to dice, but at an extreme consequence. One of those is Collateral Damage — the Bounty Hunter shoots down the target of the bounty, without regard to the innocent bystanders nearby — and that can lead to the Bounty Hunter becoming Haunted until absolved of their guilt. The other is Let Them Loose, where the Bounty Hunter lets their prey go for now, only to become Obsessed with getting them later on down the line. There are other means of becoming Haunted or Obsessed (some mechanical, some not), but these have palpable, narrative and mechanical consequences on a character, and show why Motivation is such an important aspect of game play.

While the rest of the game works pretty much exactly like Vow of Honor — which has elements of Fate in its Consequences and perhaps Apocalypse World — there’s discussion of chases, illness, fear, and favors. Chases are discussed at great length, with two alternative systems provided to vary the complexity of them. Favors are given a fair amount of word count as well, as owing favors and being owed favors makes up a huge part of the roleplaying aspect of hunting someone down, whether they are a low-life, a political leader, someone on the fringes, or perhaps a traitor to the local government.

The GMing side of things is clearly explained, and devotes plenty of space to building an actual manhunt, as this might be a little different than a typical “dungeon crawl” scenario, or even a roleplay heavy “political action” game. Understanding the crimes, how to move about a space opera system, and tracking someone down is all crucial, and well developed here. This even goes for how to portray dead ends, bad leads, and keeping the chase interesting over a long period of time.

Something I found to be especially strong among all of designer Ben Dutter’s work is the initial campaign creation stage that can be handled as its own conversation, or as a part of character generation. It starts with the creation of a Game Concept, a discussion between GM and players that will determine the general themes, mood, tone, and more specific information, giving everyone at the table plenty of say in where things will start, where they might go, and how to fit their characters into it. It sort of looks like this:

  • Game Concept: determine the overall theme and tone of the game.
  • Purpose: determine the primary purpose of the player characters, giving them a strong connective tissue for creating a cohesive party.
  • Place: determine the setting.
  • Color: determine aspects of the mood and tone and how they relate to the player characters.

Like Vow of Honor, this game is set to include a Quick Start Rules section at the end that provides a shorthand guide to all of the rules. It also includes a brief “Synopsis” text box at the end of each major section, which reinforces the themes and rules of the game in a narrative way, and can provide an excellent method of teaching the game to new players, or to give an overview of what the game is truly about. Considering the author’s commitment to having part of the gaming process to be “discuss what this campaign is about with your group,” these sections allow the GM and players to get into a game fast, have the same assumptions about the campaign’s tone, and allow for some collaboration to fill in the setting’s details that pertinent to the playing group.

An example hunt in the Quickstart, a fully fleshed out scenario titled “Terror on the Superlume,” some random tables — to flesh out the setting or a particular bounty — and lastly, a series of “Vignettes” round out the book. The vignettes are like prepackaged setting material that scream ADVENTURE HERE!, providing locations, NPCs, and mysteries that mesh well with the themes of the game and expand the universe.

ART & LAYOUT Hunt the Wicked is beautiful. It conforms to other Sigil Stone releases in that text is laid in one column (aside from the Quickstart), which means that it’s optimized for digital formats: it’s going to be a pleasant read on computer screens, tablets, e-readers, and hell, probably on your cellphone, too. It’s fully bookmarked and section headers and chapter breaks aren’t just easy to spot, they wonderfully designed.

The artwork is evocative and generally of stellar quality (pun intended). There are a few pieces that are very simplistic — generally those that simply highlight a new race or a single piece of equipment — but they are done well, providing a template that helps you understand the species/gear at a glance. The full page and locale-related artwork is just flat-out gorgeous, depicting a cohesive-yet-varied sci-fi space opera setting that truly feels like a universe of multitudinous peoples and places. All of them ripe for some bounty hunting action!

As is always the case when something is done right, we want a lot more of it, and this is no exception. There’s a few parts of the book where several pages go by without artwork, but when you hit the next piece, let me tell you, it’s great! That they layout is so clean helps avoid the feeling of “walls of text” without images in those sections, so there’s no trouble there.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Hunt the Wicked RPG
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Cornerstone RPG - Basic
Publisher: Sigil Stone Publishing
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 08/18/2015 15:29:07

The Cornerstone Universal Roleplaying Game is another creation from Ben Dutter and Sigil Stone Publishing, this one a genre-neutral means of creating narrative-driven games in any milieu with a light-yet-robust system where — like many of Ben’s RPGs — the GM doesn’t ever have to roll the dice, enabling them to concentrate on the flow of the story and the player-driven actions and mechanics.

Cornerstone has been released in a free Basic version, with just enough examples to get you started in a few different genres (sci-fi, superheroes, fantasy, etc.) and minimalist artwork that keeps the presentation of this version clean and immediately useful as a reference tool.

Form *****

Cornerstone features simple, clean layout like all of Sigil Stone’s work, but more akin to their first full-fledged RPG, Vow of Honor, there’s a fair amount of artwork depicting alien or fantasy humanoids, actions, and equipment. The artwork is somewhat sparse, but as this is a Basic version of the game, it is incredibly evocative of the breadth of possible game settings and characters you could play using Cornerstone.

The book is just over 40 pages. The text makes excellent use of bold for various game concepts, and examples are very clearly formatted separately from the rules text.

Content *****

Cornerstone is meant to cover any genre, to be a fairly simple pick-up-and-play game where you could choose a quick mash-up of genres, or simply call out that the milieu will be that of a favorite fantasy novel or sci-fi video game series, and immediately jump into the action. The rules reinforce this be having a clearly-defined “Game Concept” creation stage, and relatively simple character creation that highlights what makes each character special, as opposed to defining dozens of statistics, worrying about tech-levels, or requiring shopping lists of traits, equipment, and powers.

The Game Concept is decided either by the GM or the group as a whole, and is clearly defined by the Genre (sci-fi, space opera, fantasy, post-apocalypse, four-color superhero), the party’s Purpose, the Place that the session will be set (big or small), and the Color, which helps the group stay focused on whether the game is serious, funny, gonzo, epic, or gritty. By establishing these four things in as few words as possible, they remain clear, and can easily be referenced during play to determine if an activity or situation that crops up truly fits into the tone of the game. These aren’t hard and fast rules, but it really helps narrow things down quickly.

Characters use the Game Concept information immediately to develop their characters. There are eight standard Skills, the sorts of activities you see in almost every genre and roleplaying game, but the interesting thing here is that the Game Concept causes the party two choose 2 additional Skills to add to this list. These additional Skills will reinforce what the game is about, and could be anything from magic, to firearm combat, to psychic powers, and beyond.

Characters have three core Traits — Ideals, Method, and History — that are usually 1-word or short phrases that define what they do and how they do it. Obviously, the players’ choices will be informed by — and help reinforce — the Game Concept. Similarly, each player chooses a single Ability, which is like 13th Age’s One Unique Thing: it’s the thing that they can do better than everybody else, or that they can do but nobody else can. There are clear mechanics on how to operate the Ability in play.

The mechanics of the game are quite simple. Player characters perform actions by rolling 1d6, comparing it to the appropriate Skill, and modifying it by circumstances and/or an appropriate Trait. Abilities are much more powerful, either ensuring success, or allowing someone to roll for something impossible to most other people.

There are two things of note going on here.

The first is that success or failure is always appended with an And or But statement, providing the system a lot more narrative weight than just binary pass/fail rolls. Even die rolls add an And statement and odd die rolls add a But statement. The three core Traits of the player character can be used as either a bonus to the die roll, to add an additional And or But statement, or to cancel out an existing And or But statement, giving the potential for even more narrative weight to every single die roll.

The second thing worth noting is that GMs never roll dice. Player characters are either the acting force, or are reacting to situations and non-player characters. GMs have plenty of advice in rating enemies (and allies) in terms of their power-level at various forms of conflict, but the player’s rolls primarily drive the effects of the game, which might include determination of damage or other consequences.

Further permutations of the system include situational modifiers and gear. Circumstance modifiers use an Advantage/Disadvantage system almost precisely ripped from Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. Gear only comes into play if it is a significant piece of equipment in the narrative, and is defined by similar Traits and perhaps an Ability, just like characters. Otherwise, they simply provide common sense usefulness to the characters: a gun allows them to use firearm-related Skills or Abilities, for example.

Homebrew

As a game primed for picking a genre mash-up, the universe of any book, TV show, movie, or video game, or simply snagging any adventure and adapting it, Cornerstone is an interesting way to reinforce narrative themes and keep the GM focused on the story and drama, while giving the players enough meat to chew on with regards to making their characters feel and act in unique ways. It’s meant to be the ultimate homebrew, universal system, and it does very well at that.

Creating a Game Concept is nothing new to fans of Fate and perhaps even GURPS, but the succinct manner by which this is done is something that can be applied to literally any game where the GM and players collaborate to build the world they will be adventuring in.

The unique nature of the core Traits and the Ability of each character are equally applicable to many other game systems, and can be stolen whole-cloth or adapted to various existing roleplaying games to give some added narrative heft to character roles and abilities. The idea of adding And and But statements can work in a lot of systems, too, but isn’t going to be for everyone: it’s kind of like a less visual way of performing some of the story work that comes out of dice systems like FFG’s Star Wars games.

What’s Next?

This game is clearly spelled out as the Basic version of the game, meaning that a more robust version is coming soon. Whether this will simply be the addition of more examples and artwork, or perhaps fully fleshed out genre settings with Ability and Skill lists, remains to be seen. As it stands, Cornerstone is a fast-playing system with lots of narrative tricks and enough mechanics to keep a game going for at least a dozen sessions before you tap out too many additional traits or skills, so it’ll be interesting to see where Sigil Stone Publishing takes this game in the future.

Conclusion

I’ve been pretty happy with Sigil Stone’s productions to date, and this one is not lacking. The universal nature of the game means that it isn’t dripping with evocative mechanics like Vow of Honor, but the Game Concept creation adds a twist that will reinforce the themes of whatever game of the week the GM and players want to run, so in a way, Cornerstone sets you up to come up with the evocative stuff on your own without much effort. That’s a lot more than I can say for more “mechanical” universal systems like GURPS or d20 Modern, and I’d argue it’s a little more succinct and clear than your out-of-the-box Fate Core game, even if Fate Core has more to chew on in other areas of play. That’s a tall order, and Cornerstone delivers.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Cornerstone RPG - Basic
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Unwritten: Adventures in the Ages of MYST and Beyond (PDF)
Publisher: InkWorks Productions
by Tim B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 07/21/2015 13:07:37

(Note: this is nearly the same review as I gave for the softcover, but omits specifics for a published and bound book, instead talking about the PDF layout.)

Unwritten: Adventures in the Ages of MYST and Beyond is a FATE-based RPG that focuses on solving mysteries, successfully completing puzzles that give you deeper insight into the setting's mythology, and forming powerful relationships to answer truly epic questions, like "how would you handle the ability to teleport to a new world?" and "with limitless resources from limitless worlds, what moral choices does humanity face?"

It is through sheer luck that I happened upon an RPGnet thread discussing mostly non-violent, puzzle-centric roleplaying games and this gem of a roleplaying game was mentioned. Remembering back to some time spent on the original MYST game, but having never finished it nor followed up on its sequels, I was intrigued enough by the idea of a fan-created tabletop RPG based on a franchise that was all about exploration, so I started doing some research. That very quickly sent me down the rabbit hole of Let's Play videos on YouTube and exploring every aspect of the MYST universe, but in a strange twist of FATE (see what I did there?), this game proved that you don't have to be a MYST fan to get a great roleplaying experience.

This is the true power of Unwritten: to present an RPG experience centered on mystery, moral choices, puzzles, and hopping to and from bizarre worlds. It doesn't matter that it is based on MYST, because it is a complete FATE roleplaying game, and it expertly co-opts various tweaks for the system to make mysteries and puzzles shine. A system from the Atomic Robo RPG is ported over as "Deductions" in Unwritten, giving players the chance to make checks and offer answers to mysteries or puzzles based on their rolls, and thereby use logic to come to a conclusion, "solving" the mystery even when the Gamemaster doesn't know the answer...if they succeed, of course! Players can establish facts in this way about the various worlds that can be visited, and thus have a ton of agency over the direction of the game...but because the rules appeal to logic and hints can be provided (or denied, based on the rolls) by the Gamemaster, there are no game-breaking effects.

These systems (Deduction is but one of them) are -- like much of FATE -- easily portable to other games and systems, and clearly would be a breeze to insert into any other FATE-based system, of course. Because the mechanics purposely gloss over detailed combat or gear in favor of relationships, exploration, and solving mysteries, the game is fairly light: there aren't any stress tracks, and none of the Skills are solely combat-focused. That said, the game remains meaty, if not necessarily in numbers and rules, but in advice on how to conduct mysteries, exploration, and puzzles in a manner that is fun and player-centric, never resorting to "pixel-bitching" or interminable rounds of dice-rolling in order to get the clue necessary to move on. In this way, it's reminiscent of the intent of systems like GUMSHOE: the players can always move forward, even after failure; things just get more complicated for them in the game world. Like the various "Powered by the Apocalypse" games (Apocalypse World, Dungeon World), success can come at times even on a failed roll, but a price must be paid.

For those who are MYST fans, there's plenty in this book for you. A detailed look at how to bring in all of the concepts of the MYST games can be found here, from Relto books to linking stones, listings of most (if not all) of the Ages from the games and the Myst Reader novels, and overviews and stats of many of the prominent characters, including many of the DRC members and Yeesha herself. The D'ni city (located under New Mexico) is thoroughly detailed, and there's even several pages covering possible campaigns in alternate timelines (during the height of D'ni civilization or after the Bahro War is over). My -1 star comes solely from the fact that this information is presented in such an encapsulated form, and that all of the more detailed Ages and examples are new to this book, and not taken from the MYST games. There's a publication schedule on the publisher's website that addresses a forthcoming book that will cover the Ages featured in the games, and further discussion of puzzles, but these aren't out yet, and I'm left wanting more.

The PDF version is great, because it comes with all of the following: 1) Fully bookmarked version of the game, in full color 2) Fully bookmarked 2-page view version of the game, in full color 3) Un-bookmarked Black & White print-friendly version (the artwork's still in there, so it's not completely free of some ink-draining pages) 4) Print-friendly Character Sheet

That's a great value, and when you consider that the book is laid out very well, it's a breeze picking the right version to have up on the device you are using at the time, whether it be a desktop (2-page view) or tablet (regular version, color) or lower-powered mobile device (B&W version). The included B&W print-friendly version has an added use: the first 30 pages are in-world written materials from various character's journals or transcriptions of speeches and so on, all great stuff to have a physical copy of to hand out to new players or use as clues and background information for their characters.

I highly recommend this game, whether or not you're a fan of MYST or FATE. It's not going to work for a combat-centric game or group, and will over little in the way of new FATE rules if you already own several FATE games, but if you're at all interested in mystery games or how to incorporate puzzles into roleplaying games without needing a "just give them the answer!" hand-wave, this game's got a lot of useful discussion, rules, and options. If you're simply interested in a game of world- or reality-hopping, Unwritten has that in spades, too, with several lists of Ages and a handful of more detailed examples (and full rules on creating plenty more). Pick it up!



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Unwritten: Adventures in the Ages of MYST and Beyond (PDF)
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