Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Expedition to Undermountain

Title: Expedition to Undermountain

ISBN: 9780789641575
Price: $34.95
Publisher/Year: Wizards of the Coast 2007
System: Dungeons & Dragons 3.5
Out-of-print: Yes
Available on DriveThruRPG: Yes

Overall rating (1-10): 7

The cover is the same material and finish as Expedition to the Demonweb Pits, but is a good deal more red than the greyish brown of that book. Still, the book feels like it's not going to be sliding around on the table when you use it, and that's really the important part.

The general format is unchanged, though there's one major difference in the table of contents. Instead of laying everything out twice, which there apparently wasn't room for, the single-encounter expansions are relegated to being referenced from the appropriate encounter entry. They do still manage to put each of them on its own page, though, and none of them starts the first of two pages on an odd page, which is still damn handy.

They haven't actually cut out any of the Forgotten Realms flavor text, except for the name of the city, Waterdeep. Waterdeep is referenced and described somewhat in a 1/3 page sidebar, but they excised pretty much every world-specific thing they can, presumably to get more people to buy it. Regardless, it's not as though Undermountain is exactly dripping with Forgotten Realms flavor in the first place. It's pretty much now the classic "There's an insane wizard, and he's got a gigantic dungeon under a huge mountain, let's go raid it!" adventure of D&D.

There's a quick, two page or so rundown of services available in the city, from who, though no major NPC write-ups are given, just names, and sometimes not even full names. Khelben Arunsun, for example, isn't mentioned at all, though Blackstaff Tower is, as THE place to go for effective, but extremely expensive arcane aid.

The opening premise of the adventure is pretty simple. One day during midday or so, gigantic screaming Halaster faces appear in the city, screaming in despair, along with visions of ruin and destruction and a distinct feeling that the shit is about to hit the fan. That night, a whole bunch of adventurers, of all levels, are hit with visions summoning them to Undermountain to fix something that's gone very, VERY wrong.

Chapter one opens with some important advice and tips for the DM, including a third of a page or so on creating the illusion of more detail than you have, something that more DMs could stand to read, and how to railroad PCs temporarily until you flesh out certain areas, which ideally shouldn't be done at all. Also given page time is random encounters, which Undermountain doesn't exactly use extensively anymore, but ARE present, because it makes sense. Undermountain has always been largely random, and while this one's less so than the rest, if you remove the randomness entirely, it's really not Undermountain anymore.

A couple pages are devoted to factions in Undermountain and Skullport, though there aren't many, and they're mostly in Skullport. There's nothing really remarkable, here, and for those familiar with Undermountain, it'll all be pretty old news.

The overall map of Undermountain makes it look less impressive than it is. It almost resembles a map for a Metroid area, though there are fewer vertical areas than there really should be, and no major slopes.

If there's one major complaint I have about this book, it's that the maps, being confined to the 8.5x11 splat size, cannot possibly do justice to the size of Undermountain. The first level map was, in the original box set, a full poster, eight times the size of the one we get here, and it shows. The map is very twisty, very turny, and it is, as far as I can tell, totally intact, including the homage to adventure module B1, In Search of the Unknown. Yes, faithful readers, the entire first level of the keep, in most of its screwed up geometric glory, is present on the first real dungeon level of Undermountain. To check for yourself, you can open the module itself, and go to page 19 of Expedition to Undermountain, look halfway up the right side of the page, and look for the cross-shaped room and the < corridor right below it.

Even the Lost Levels from the Undermountain II box set are reproduced here, including the Wyllowwood, in all its underground forest with fake sky glory.

Honestly, the maps are so absurdly small in places that WotC should consider selling D&D branded magnifying glasses to go with this thing, or at least giving a disc of printable large scale maps.

The random encounters section is actually depressingly small, leaving it to the DM to add more variety if he wants it, though I approve of random wandering Crawling Claw Swarms. Splinterwaifs are pretty pathetic, honestly, but if the DM overuses their "special" hook, the game's going to get "special" real quick.

Unfortunately, the adventure conclusion is a whole lot of a letdown. I'm not going to spoil it, but it's definitely not really a conclusion in any sense except that it marks the end of the module.

The "new" mechanics section is really, REALLY short, as almost everything used in the mod is prefab. There's a new legacy item valid only for dwarves, and for dwarven wizards, it's absolutely amazing. Too bad the Least Legacy is absurdly difficult for a PC to complete. Two Augment Crystals (from MIC) are included, but they're not new. For some ungodly reason, they saw fit to grant an eighth of a page or so to a named greatsword that has nothing unusual about it other than having a name related to its function, another entry for an alternate-form headband of intellect +2, and a new variety of potions that aren't liquid, use Craft Wondrous Item, and are limited to a really tiny spell list, most of which sucks. On the up side, apparently WotC has determined that the Brew Potion feat is worth less than 5000 GP, since there's an item that grants a better form of it for 5 grand. Not only do you get brew potion, if you already have it, you can brew in half the time, you can convert scrolls directly to potions for the upgrade cost, and you can buy a half-cost potion of cure light wounds once per day from it, for no XP cost. Sounds good to me, potions are terrible.

Five spells are detailed in the back, only two of which are new, and have been a LONG time in coming. Specifically, Halaster's Scrying Cage and Halaster's Teleport Cage are both printed, on page 219. For a not so very expensive cost, you too can teleport-proof AND scry-proof your entire stronghold. This is something villains have needed for a long time, so you can expect these spells to show up in the hands of a conscientious DM near you.

New monsters, there are only two. The second is a Myconid, which nobody actually likes. The other, though, is a swarm of Eyeball Beholderkin, which are just the cutest li'l abberations ever. The thought of hundreds of the cute little buggers working in perfect hive-mind concert makes me giddy like a schoolgirl. It's pretty obvious why these things are rated at CR 4. They can easily slaughter a party of level 1 or 2 characters, but as soon as you're level 5, you're practically immune to everything but their crappy damage, and one good ireball really ruins their day.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Firefly Role-Playing Game Core Book

Title: Firefly Role-Playing Game Core Book

ISBN: 9781936685325
Price: $49.99
Publisher/Year: Margaret Weis Productions 2014
System: Cortex
Out-of-print: No
Available on DriveThruRPG: Yes

Overall rating (1-10): 7

Debuting in physical form around GenCon 2014, the Firefly Role-Playing Game whisks the players off to the ‘Verse of the Joss Whedon “western in space” television program of the same name. If you haven’t watched Firefly, let me just say that you are seriously missing out and should stop immediately stop reading this review and go download it on Netflix/buy it on Blu-Ray/whatever. This review will assume that you have done so. Checking in at north of 360 pages, the full-color hardcover has a suggested retail price of $50. The book is also available as a PDF, and this review is based on the PDF (it was a review copy, for those who consider that an important thing to know).

Note: This is a review of a book, not a system. This is a review of a core book, which means I’ll be talking about basic mechanics, and I’ll say if something seems obviously problematic or cool, but this review should not be mistaken as a source of subtle analysis of  things like character creation or combat option balance.

The Firefly RPG is set up for the PCs to be a group similar to the main characters of the show, if not actually just playing as the main characters of the show. You have a ship, you have a crew, you’ll hopefully have a job, and you’ll be flying around the 5 star systems and 72 planets of the ‘Verse (I can tell you these numbers only because the RPG tells me these numbers, so the RPG does deliver some the basic political and geographical situation of the ‘Verse in a more coherent and detailed way than you get it in the show). Note that you do not have to play a crew that is hostile to the Alliance.

Firefly is published by Margaret Weis Productions, and uses their Cortex Plus system that is also used in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and Smallville (each of these games uses variants on the system – Firefly is Cortex Plus Action, Marvel is Cortex Plus Heroic, Smallville is Cortex Plus Drama, and there is a lot of variance between them). Note that the older Serenity RPG used what is now called the Cortex Classic system. Characters have various traits – mostly commonly Attributes (mental, physical, social), Skills, Distinctions, and Assets – and each of these traits has a die rating (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12). When taking an action, the player rolls dice (at least two for Attribute and Skill, possibly 10 or more if there are a whole mess of things going in the character’s favor) and then adds the two highest together. This roll (called raising the stakes) must exceed the total rolled by the GM for the NPC involved (the GM’s roll is called setting the stakes, is produced in a similar fashion, and is rolled first). If the PC is on the defensive, then the order will be reversed – the PC sets the stakes, and then the NPC must raise the stakes. Any die that comes up a 1 is a jinx – it can’t be added to your total (even if this leaves the character with zero or one die), and might saddle the PC with Complications. All ones is a botch, and I think we can all safely assume that’s a Bad Thing for the PC.

Each player starts each game session with one plot point, but there are several ways to get more. Pretty much all of the Distinctions (more on those later) can give out plot points. If a PC rolls a Jinx, the GM can give the PC a plot point to create a Complication (more on those in a moment). And the GM can hand them out if the player is awesome in some fashion. Plot points are quite versatile, and can be used to activate certain Distinction abilities, create an Asset that lasts until the end of the scene (or for the rest of the episode, for two plot points), add a third or subsequent die to the die roll (chosen after knowing the roll and possibly after knowing the target number, so a very potent function), or not getting Taken Out.

Assets are any random thing that the player can come up with that has some positive relation to the activity. Normal assets are created temporarily by spending plot points. Signature Assets are permanent, appearing on the character sheet and getting used whenever applicable (Signature Assets can also have abilities like Distinctions). Assets can be physical objects, preparation, attitudes, or relationships. So, for example, Malcolm Reynolds might have the Serenity as a high-level signature asset – any time he makes any roll that has to do with the Serenity, he gets to roll an additional d8. Or Zoe and Wash might have assets that give them extra dice to roll when they’re working together. Kaylee might have an easier time convincing someone she’s innocent of a crime because she’s so gosh durn cheerful and sweet. And so on. The only limitations on adding dice from Assets are how many plot points are on hand and how much the GM will let the player get away with.

Complications are something like anti-Assets – they’re something the character is saddled with that gives the opposition an extra die when it comes into play (and the PCs may get to add Complication dice to their pools when the NPCs have Complications). Whenever a PC rolls a Jinx, the GM can give the PC a plot point to inflict a Complication (the more jinxes, the nastier the Complication). A character may also have been saddled with Complications in order to stick around in a confrontation rather than being Taken Out. Complications can be worked off – there are recovery rolls, and PCs can spend plot points to reduce or remove Complications whenever an NPC rolls a 1.

Assets and Complications play a big, big role in shaping the action in the Cortex system.

The GM may determine that a roll is high stakes for one or both of the characters involved. If a roll is high stakes for a character, then losing the roll means that the character will be Taken Out for the rest of the scene. The most obvious example of a high stakes roll is combat, but there can also be social rolls that invoke this rule (e.g., the character is humiliated and cannot meaningfully socially spar any more that night). By default, this is still a single roll – so, unless one of the combatants wants to extend the fight, even combat is a one-roll affair. But characters with plot points available (and who are not hopelessly overmatched) will likely want to stay in the fight a little longer. A character can spend a plot point and taken a complication (typically a wound, for a combat action) to keep on rolling. This makes the next roll worse for the character, but at least she’s still got a shot! Well, for a little bit anyway – eventually one of the complications she’s been saddled with will be too much, and will Taken her Out anyway.

There are three levels of character creation available in Firefly. First, you can just play as the crew from the show (Jayne’s Hat is not a Signature Asset – I say start a change.org petition!). Second, you can choose one of two dozen archetypes with some additional customization. Third, you can build your character up from scratch.

If building a character from scratch, you can make all of your Attributes even, or set them primary/secondary/tertiary if you want the character to be have broad strengths and weaknesses. Each character starts with three Distinctions, which can represent roles, personality traits, backgrounds, or whatever (examples include Alliance Officer, Con Artist, First Mate, Doctor, Mechanic, Companion, Captain, Pilot, Chatterbox, Fashionable, Know It All, Brothers, Rich, Drunk … there are a whole mess of them). Each Distinction does several things. First, each identifies three highlighted skills. Each of these skills improves from the default d4 (if a particular skill is highlighted in multiple distinctions, the skill gets stepped up multiple times), and makes the skill cost have as much to advance later. Each Distinction will add an additional die to any appropriate roll – so if you have the “Fed” Distinction, which relates to hunting down criminals, then you’ll get to roll an extra die whenever you’re hunting down a criminal. Finally, each Distinction has three triggers. One of those three is the same between all of the Distinctions and you always start with it – reduce your Distinction die down to a d4 in order to gain a plot point. The others tend to require spending a plot point or taking some other temporary disadvantage to activate, but some particularly narrow effects have no cost. You get to choose a couple of these triggers (in total, not per Distinction) to start with as well.

After distinctions are chosen and give their skill increases, you get points to spend on more increases, but they cost double if they aren’t highlighted skills. Finally, you get a pool of points to spend on Signature Assets and Skill specialties. Specialties add another die whenever applicable. So if a character had a Physical d10 and Shoot d10 and a Rifles specialty and, say, a Vera d8 Signature Assets, then whenever he shoots at you with Vera he’s rolling a 2d10 and a d8 and a d6, which is why Jayne is really good at shooting you – and he’s probably using his Mercenary Distinction to throw in an extra d4 and gain a plot point.

A character’s “experience” is simply based on the number of episodes she’s completed. Episodes can be used in two ways. First, each of the episodes in a characters Episode Guide can be used once per session as a plot point if the player can come up with a callback to what happened during that episode.

Second, episodes can be spent to train up the character’s abilities. Episodes can be spent to increase all sorts of things, but they’ll mostly be used to turn temporary Assets into Signature Assets, add skill specialties, and maybe unlock new abilities for Signature Assets and Distinctions. Attributes can be modified and Skills can be increased, but these options are prohibitively expensive compared to messing around with Signature Assets and specialties.

Ships have some similarities with characters, but are ultimately more straightforward. Like characters, ships have three Attributes (Engines, Hull, and Systems). Ships also have three Distinctions, one of which will be its Class (e.g., a Firefly-class freighter or a Tohoku-class Alliance cruiser … because your GM is totally going to let you have one of those). Each ship has two more Distinctions, one based on its history (Brand Spankin’ New, Battle-Scarred, etc.) and one for customization (Cruisin’ the ‘Verse for better passenger-carrying, Automated Controls to hopefully be able to avoid using a Pilot, etc.). Like character Distinctions, the ship distinctions have their own abilities. Ships can also have Signature Assets, and each comes with two for free. Once play begins, Assets and Complications can be applied to ships just like they’re applied to characters, and most rolls involve ships will involve some dice from the crew as well.

So, the above is about 105 pages, which leaves quite a bit more. What else is in there? About another 40 is GM material – how to use the narrative system and general GM tips. There’s an adventures (What’s Yours Is Mine), and that’s almost another 40. The biggest single chapter, however, is an Episode Guide, which runs about 130 pages. And I have to say that I found it a rather odd bird.

Finding an episode guide in a licensed product like this is not new – I can recall a number of anime RPG core books that were more episode guide than RPG. But this is not an episode guide in a traditional sense. It goes through all of the episodes, but the purpose isn’t to serve as a reference on the episodes, but rather to use the retelling of each of the episodes to remind and inform the players about the setting, and to very slowly introduce game mechanics, using examples from the series, up to and including GM techniques. Also, scattered throughout the episode guide is where you’ll find all of the NPCs, ships, equipment, and gazetteer information that I’d normally expect to find broken out in their own sections of the book (there are also suggestions for how the GM could do things a bit differently than what happened in the episode). Chinese phrases are also scattered throughout this chapter, but for them there is an appendix later with a complete list.

Unfortunately, this combination of functions leaves the episode guide fairly ineffective at these two distinct functions. As a “learn to play” section, it’s too long – you just have to read through too much stuff that’s not really related to learning how to play. And as a reference it really does not work. They have put an index in the front of the book and then a list of citations later in the book in the GM chapters, but it’s still really inconvenient to try and look up crunchy bits in an RPG book when they’re scattered all over the place. I remember when the L5R RPG switched to having literally all of the mechanics in its supplements at the very back of the book (they used to be clumped at the end of each chapter). I was skeptical of this at first, but once I actually started using those books it turned out to be incredibly convenient. Firefly goes in the opposite direction, making it a hassle to reference NPCs, ships, and gear during session prep and gameplay.

The art in the book is a combination of screen shots from the show, new photographs (most commonly new NPCs, and drawn art for the chapter openings and the character classes. The shots I tended to like best were (1) the best character straight-on character images from the show (or, possibly, from promotional material for the show), then jazzed up with effects like star backgrounds and presented on a large scale; and (2) the sepia-toned shots that are mostly (I think) their own work. I have to say I was not a fan of some of the split-screen art boxes that were used, where they had a square or vertical rectangular space they put art in, and they fill it with two or three screen shots stacked up on top of one another. The images sort of blend together in a way that I did not find appealing.

Editing, layout, and graphic design were good – not a lot of typos, layout looked nice and I didn’t see any goofs, and things like the graphic displays of the five start systems (one with all five and five with one each) were well done. There are also schematics of Serenity and some of her component systems.

I do not know if it’s something inherent to the Cortex system, or something modified just for Firefly, but I think that the way the experience costs push character growth makes it feel like what you see on the show. Character capabilities don’t really change much – Wash doesn’t become an even better pilot and Kaylee doesn’t suddenly learn how to punch well. What you tend to see instead is learning more about characters’ pasts and personalities and relationships. In the game, these are Signature Assets, and they are relatively cheap to acquire.

The plot point flow seems extremely important – you might almost be hoping to roll a jinx here or there to tempt the GM to hand you out some more. At a minimum that will let you trade a few lousy rolls at one point in the adventure for a killer roll later in the adventure, which is usually a fairly strong effect.

One of the observations I frequently make about RPGs is that a lot of us will buy a lot more RPG books than we will ever use (or buy books where we really only end up using one particular mechanical bit). That means that it can be important whether an RPG is simply good reading material. For that purpose, I can’t recommend the Firefly core book – too much is taken up by that 130-page intro/episode guide chapter, and it does not make for good reading material.

Ultimately, I think that whether you’ll value this as a game will, unsurprisingly, come down how you feel about Firefly (or, more specifically, roleplaying in the Firefly universe). On the bright side, I think that if you are interested in that, this will work – licensed RPGs just fall flat on their faces from time to time, or try to implement systems that just don’t work well with the feel of the source material. Firefly avoids any such pitfalls. With that said, having successfully surpassed that threshold, how much players dig the Firefly RPG may depend on how they feel about the fairly elastic nature of the Asset system. Do you have nightmares of players getting to just make up any random old thing to try and get a bonus whenever they want one, without any real mechanical limitation? Then this system may not tickle your fancy. Do you think it’s really cool to be able to just name relationships and equipment on the fly, following your narrative without excessively detailed mechanical restrictions? Then you’ll probably really like this.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk

Title: Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk

ISBN: 9780786943586
Price: $34.95
Publisher/Year: Wizards of the Coast 2007
System: Dungeons & Dragons 3.5
Out-of-print: Yes
Available on DriveThruRPG: Yes

Overall rating (1-10): 7

Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk was one of the final products WotC published for 3.5E D&D before the 4E announcement. It is part of the “Expedition to…” series of hardback adventures that tried to recapture the magic of some of earlier editions’ greatest hits.

The adventure takes characters from 8th to 13th level. (One of my minor annoyances is that there are no explicit guidelines about how the characters should be advancing in power through the adventure, though – for such a long adventure, that information would be very useful.)

The hardback book is 224 pages long, with 2 pages of advertisements, a seven-page appendix of new creatures (including the aurumvorax and cataboligne demon) and magic items. Production values are typical of WotC during 3.5E nice heavy, glossy full-color pages, generous illustrations, and lots of maps.

The adventure is written in the “Delve” format typical of WotC’s later 3.5E (and 4E) adventures, in which combat encounters each get a full page or two page spread, complete with a map, detailed tactics, and careful explanation of terrain. Another advantage is that it incorporates full statblocks for all the creatures – an easy reference, and allowing the designers to use the whole 3.5E catalog without assuming that the GM actually owns everything!

This makes combats easy to run, but it has a couple of serious disadvantages. Most importantly, the story part of the room description is separate from the combat, which makes it difficult to read the adventure and interrupts the narrative flow of the game. Second, it makes it more difficult for a GM to let the adventure “flow” between encounter areas and rooms, since each combat is specifically designed to work within the confines of its map.

On balance, I find the delve format to be somewhat annoying, but I do see its usefulness in combat situations.

The adventure opens on the road to Greyhawk, when the PCs encounter a group of orc raiders as they attack a caravan. There they rescue an innkeeper and receive their first hook to Castle Greyhawk: recovering the innkeeper’s magic sword, stolen by orcs who had earlier escaped.

This is not exactly a complicated setup, but it sets the hook and gives the PCs a base of operations in Greyhawk – the Green Dragon Inn, well-detailed in the first chapter. That chapter also gives an overview of the city itself, as well as details on a number of important locations for adventurers. While clearly not at nearly the level of detail as previous products (like the excellent The City of Greyhawk), this is a nice, compact treatment that makes the city useful for an adventure. Moreover, sprinkled throughout are a number of “side quests” that provide extra motivation for exploring Castle Greyhawk – from recovering mushrooms to getting to the root of a major mystery (the desecration of the High Cleric Riggby’s body). These side quests add some “sandbox” elements to what is otherwise a pretty linear adventure.

The escaped raiders’ trail leads to Castle Greyhawk, an immense and mysterious complex built by one of Greyhawk’s great wizards, Zagyg the Mad Archmage – who has since then risen to demigod status. It is one of the most important dungeons in Greyhawk and in real-life D&D history, as it was the setting of Gary Gygax’s original campaign.

The Castle has appeared in print twice by TSR/WotC before (see this geeklist; most importantly in the oft-derided but in my opinion hilarious WG7: Castle Greyhawk, and in the very odd adventure WGR1: Greyhawk Ruins, which included the briefest of descriptions of rooms in the enormous complex, and nearly no plot), but neither bears any relation to Gygax’s original. He was in the process of publishing his version when he passed away; unfortunately, it thus looks to remain unfinished. The authors, all known as huge Greyhawk fans, here set out to pay homage to Gygax’s original vision and to restore the Castle as a serious and important dungeon.

The Castle consists of some above-ground ruins and three towers. The meat of this adventure is a series of dungeon crawls through the complex underneath each tower. The PCs are assumed to have self-imposed missions within each one (but suggested by the side quests), so the adventure does not attempt to describe the entire complex. Instead, it provides details on the relevant levels and some tools (a few encounters and some tables) on expanding if the players wander off-course. It does provide a fair amount of detail on the history of the Castle, so this can easily become a location of continuing importance in a campaign.

The adventure begins as a simple pursuit of the innkeeper’s magic sword, the trail of which takes them to the Tower of War at Castle Greyhawk. But the PCs quickly realize that the raiders were only a part of a larger force in the service of Iuz gathered within the Tower (who arrived through the Underdark). The PCs confront the army’s general, but after the fight they learn that the true leader, a vain wizard named Vayne, hides in a different – currently inaccessible – dungeon, below the Tower of Magic. Fortunately, they at least recover the magic sword, lending some sense of progress.

One of the nice things about the adventure is the number of side quests sprinkled throughout, which continue to pop up even inside the dungeon. I particularly like the rivalry between the evil gods that plays out; these really help to keep things interesting.

The PCs’ next task is to find a way into the Tower of Magic. Fortunately, the Greyhawk Thieves’ Guild has a plan, and with their help the PCs can break into the Guild of Wizardry to steal the key. This section is a little contrived, but a couple of tough but interesting encounters (a beholder!) and a meeting with Mordenkainen – who tasks them with the mission of rescuing his former adventuring companion Robilar, who had inadvertently traded places with an evil twin (it’s actually not quite as silly as that sounds) – makes up for it. This gives the PCs another plot thread to chase, and the Thieves’ Guild’s price for helping adds yet another.

This section also contains a few side quests within the city, which provide a nice change of pace from the more-or-less straight dungeon crawl of the rest of the campaign.

Finally able to return and enter the Tower of Magic, the PCs confront more of Iuz’s troops, soon learning of an impending invasion of Greyhawk. They bounce back and forth between the Towers of Magic and War, confronting the gathering army and Vayne. Along the way there are some memorable encounters with a mind flayer rogue and an imprisoned half fiend (though PCs must be fairly na├»ve to fall for her). This is a pretty straight dungeon crawl with some entertaining scenery.

It ends with a bang, though: Iuz teleports into the dungeon upon Vayne’s death and nearly kills the PCs. Fortunately for them, one of Vayne’s projects – a simulacrum of the legendary Iggwilv (Iuz’s mother) – has plots of her own, and she uses a legendary artifact called the godtrap to confine Iuz before he can kill the PCs. (The presence of such a powerful item actually makes sense, since it is what Zagig the archmage used become Zagyg the demigod long before). Now the plot twists again, and Iggwilv’s simulacrum becomes the BBEG.

This is the weakest part of the plot – why should the PCs bother to stop a mid-level wizard who has trapped one of Greyhawk’s greatest evil creatures? It wasn’t clear to me after reading it, nor after playing it, except that it is clearly the Right Thing To Do because she is up to No Good. So we went along with it, especially because the side quests continue pushing you forward. But it’s not as compelling an ending as stopping Iuz’ invasion!

In any case, this takes the PCs into the third and final of the Castle’s dungeons, below the Tower of Zagig. This section clearly puts the PCs in Zagig’s territory, with lots of weird wizardly rooms and traps, plus quite a few well-done encounters (I particularly like the juggernaut.) The PCs will eventually work their way into Zagig’s Ziggurat, which contains numerous clues to the mad archmage’s mind and, more directly important to this adventure, the sundered pieces of the godtrap key that the PCs need in order to stop the simulacrum.

This is a fun part of the adventure for a couple of reasons. First, the pieces are actually hidden on demiplanes accessible from the dungeon. This was a key part of Gygax’s campaign, and the demiplanes are a great change of pace and great for nostalgia value – two refer to the early adventures WG6: Isle of the Ape, EX1: Dungeonland/EX2: The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror. Second, their guardians are evil twins of Zagig’s adventuring crew – whose real names (Heward, Murlynd, etc.) will be familiar to long-time D&D players.

With these pieces in hand, the PCs can finally confront the simulacrum in the godtrap itself. Unfortunately, the climax is far from the best encounter in the book. While challenging, the key terrain in the room is very hard for the PCs to use unless they are extremely well-prepared, so it ends up being not very dynamic. But most importantly, only one PC per round can enter the chamber, no matter what! While this helps extend the combat for dramatic purposes, it means that most of the group will be sitting around twiddling their thumbs for a good chunk of the encounter! This seems like very poor design to me, in an otherwise well-done book.

All in all, I think this is one of the better WotC adventures of the 3.5E era. It provides a reasonably fleshed out setting – the city of Greyhawk – with enough small plot hooks to keep PCs happy (these side quests are really great). It has a lot of very interesting encounters. The plot is convoluted but revealed in bite-sized chunks, so the way forward is always clear. There are some nice changes of pace outside the dungeon (in the City and in hidden demiplanes). And there’s an awful lot of new Greyhawk lore for fans of the setting.

Nevertheless, it’s not perfect: the final section needs better motivation, the delve format gets on my nerves, those without an existing connection to Greyhawk may find the many links to Greyhawk canon grating, and the final encounter’s design is very disappointing.

Still, if you are looking for a solid dungeon crawl for mid/high-level 3.5E or Pathfinder characters, I definitely recommend this one!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Evolution of my Pathfinder campaign


I recently binge-watched Game of Thrones from first episode to last of the 4th season in order to prepare for the recent premiere of season 5, and I have come to the decision that I really want to add some flavor to my campaign setting.

Though I'm intending on using the old Dungeons & Dragons setting maps for Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance and the like, I've never been one to read much of the history of the settings. Though I would gladly utilize signature characters such as Elminster, Raistlin Majere or Lord Soth, I never really used much of their back story or the surrounding stories that exemplified the novels of Ed Greenwood, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I always gave them my own personal spin, and everything worked out well.

While watching GoT, I thought of a few things I want to add to my setting:
  • Families with notable histories and various duties.
  • Firm religious orders with hierarchy setups and ideas on how to possibly progress a religious movement.
  • Working off the religious orders, I want to create 1 or 2 that are counter to the norm. (i.e. cults)
  • Not that I feel that it would actually come-up in the campaign I have designed, but military orders at various levels for each family and royalty. (i.e. Kingsguard, Night's Watch, The Unsullied.)
  • I had already planned on having some special swords for a specific part of my overall storyline, but I never really thought of naming them until watching GoT.
  • Secret societies like Skull & Bones.
As I'm writing this over the course of several days, the Star Wars: The Force Awakens 2nd trailer was just released, and I would also love to incorporate some of what I'm seeing from that as well:
  • Going back to the religious orders I mentioned above, that would include something similar to the Jedi and Sith. Could also be considered a military order as well.
  • Ruins from epic battles that will make my players take notice. (i.e. The ruins of a fallen Star Destroyer from the SW trailer, the Titan of Braavos.)
  • Military orders with notable differences in rank and file. (i.e. The different Stormtrooper uniforms/armors.)
This means a lot of work ahead of me before I am ready to get this game actually going. This is taking me a lot longer than I had originally anticipated.

My biggest roadblock is that I have never been good with coming-up with names... especially for a fantasy setting. I love the family names George R.R. Martin came-up with, and I'd like to try and create names that give a similar feel when you hear them. You can't deny that (at least from those who have either read the books or simply watch the TV series) you have some sort of feeling when you hear the name Lannister, Stark or Targaryen. I want to be able to instill similar feelings into my players when they come across NPC's from my noble families.

If you happen to have a good resource for fantasy names, please leave a comment.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Call of Cthulhu 6th Edition

Title: Call of Cthulhu 6th Edition

ISBN: 9781568821818
Price: $34.95
Publisher/Year: Chaosium 2005
System: Basic Roleplaying Game
Out-of-print: Yes
Available on DriveThruRPG: Yes

Overall rating (1-10): 7

As one can tell, Lovecraft told tales of humanity facing an uncaring cosmos. There are vast forces in the universe of H.P. Lovecraft. It would not do to call them evil, suffice to say that they are to humanity as we are to gnats.

In the Call of Cthulhu RPG our heroes take on the role of investigators dealing with these unknowable horrors. The game itself is something of a living fossil, for though it is in its 6th edition it has not changed very much since its inception - the latest version of the game is certainly thicker than the original 1st edition boxed set, but this is a result of new material being added. You could take a 1st edition Call of Cthulhu adventure and run it with 6th edition characters and rules without any need for conversion.

The Call of Cthulhu game tends to assume that the investigators will be set in one of three eras - the "classic" era (the 1920s and early 30s, during which Lovecraft was active), modern times, and the "gaslight" era of the 1890s. Major expansions have been released to support the middle ages (Cthulhu Dark Ages) and Imperial Rome (Cthulhu Invictus).

The 6th edition version I have is a thick paperback book. It is pretty durable, having survived being tossed into numerous bags an being passed around the table.

The book opens with a reproduction of Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulhu" short story, dealing with the operations of the Cthulhu cult and those who have faced it. This has been in all versions of the game since the 5.5. version of 1998. I think its inclusion is a good idea, it answers very well the common RPG question "what do I do".

The next section of the book deals with the main rules of Call of Cthulhu including items such as character generation, skills, combat.

In a nutshell, Call of Cthulhu uses a version of what is called the Basic Roleplaying System, frequently abbreviated as BRP. BRP first appeared as part of the first version of RuneQuest, originally published by Chaosium. It has since been published by Avalon Hill and Mongoose Publishing and a new version is forthcoming by The Design Mechanism. Variants of BRP found their way into games like Elfquest, Ringworld, Stormbringer, Pendragon, and lots of other games.

Most versions of BRP use a set of attributes which typically range from 3-18. In Call of Cthulhu they are Strength, Constitution, Size, Intelligence, Power, Dexterity, Appearance, and Education. Size and Intelligence are generated with 2d6+6, Education with 3d6+3, and all others with 3d6. There are several derived stats including:
  • Sanity - starts as Power x 5 but can go down as a character faces various horrors. It is something of a joke in the Call of Cthulhu community that even if you survive long-term your character will probably go insane.
  • Hit Points - an average of Size and Constitution. They never increase as you "level up". Most characters are a well-placed gunshot away from death at all times. This does intend to encourage caution.
Your character starts with a default value in a variety of skills. Skills are ranked from 0 to 99 and represents your chance to succeed at a task using those skills. There isn't much given in the way of contested actions and various difficulty levels, though the newest incarnation of the BRP rules (not required to play Call of Cthulhu) has some guidelines and most Cthulhu GMs (or "Keepers" as they are called) develop their own rules. The default values vary somewhat depending on the era of play being used.

After generating attributes one then selects an occupation. You get 10 x Intelligence to improve any skill and 20 x Education to improve a subset of skills dependent on your occupation. Clearly based on this not all characters are created equally. That said, min-maxing is a fairly pointless exercise in my experience of running Cthulhu games. More important than a well-skilled character is an intelligent player, or even better, group of players. The foes in Cthulhu are such that a character with 99% in handgun is still one bite doing 10d10 damage away from death. Unlike D&D there is no concept of "levels". Most of the game is built around your skills. You improve your skills primarily by using them. During an adventure you check off skills that you successfully used - with the Keeper's approval - they have to be important uses of the skill not. After the adventure ends you make a skill test for each skill but instead of wanting to succeed you want to fail. If you fail your skill goes up. In other words, as you improve in a skill it becomes harder to improve it.

There are rules for combat and skill use - they are pretty general. Cthulhu assumes a game that has a Keeper who is comfortable making rulings during play. I don't want to give the impression that its totally free-form, but it is far less detailed than games like D&D 3.x and 4e games. One weakness in the game, in my opinion, is some vagueness in rules such as dodging, parrying, etc.

There is a lengthy section of rules for using Sanity. Exposure to various horrors, eldritch and mundane, can wear away an investigator's Sanity. For the most part exposure to such sanity-blasting horrors causes the character to make a Sanity-check. Failure causes the Sanity to go down by an amount, success means no loss, or, in the event, of worse horrors, a smaller amount. Making use of magic in Cthulhu usually incurs a cost in Sanity that cannot be avoided. The more you increase your Cthulhu Mythos skill the lower your maximum Sanity becomes.

Losing a certain amount of Sanity at once causes a character to go temporarily insane. Larger losses result in extended insanity. A Sanity of zero removes the character from play as he becomes a slave to the forces beings of the Cthulhu Mythos. Lower Sanity also makes later checks less likely to succeed as Sanity rolls are made based on your current score.

The Sanity rules, while not something out of a psychiatry textbook, avoid turning insanity into something laughable. I'm pleased that the rules for Sanity are treated maturely - as a person who has dealt with mental health issues in his family, it is not something I take as humorous.

Sanity can be regained, though it tends to be far easier to lose than regain.

The Game System section closes with a section on magic. It does not include sample spells (those come later) but rather it discusses how one learns magic. Magic is learned from studying tomes of the Cthulhu Mythos. These books are difficult to decipher, typically written by madmen, often  in dead languages. It can take months to complete the reading of such a tome.

Casting magic requires the expenditure of Magic Points. Magic Points start equal to a characters Power and regenerate over the course of a day. They also usually require the expenditure of Sanity points. Some truly powerful spells require the permanent expenditure of Power. There are ways to gain Power but this is a difficult undertaking and one that is not guaranteed to succeed, usually by testing one's Power against other beings.

The next section in the book is its lengthy Reference section. It includes items such as:
  • A discussion of the Cthulhu Mythos
  • A discussion of the Necronomicon, one of the key books of the Mythos
  • A biography of H.P. Lovecraft
  • A list of mental disorders
  • Guidance for Keepers
  • Creatures of the Mythos - something of a "monster manual" for Cthulhu
  • Deities of the Mythos - stats of Mythos deities. The stats aren't really needed - most could read "eats 1d4 investigators per round". However the description of the deities is useful as it gives guidelines for the followers of the deities.
Finally there are several scenarios. This is extremely useful - I've gotten a lot of mileage out of the sample scenarios included in the game. They tend to assume a game set in the 1920s, though they can be moved to other eras with some adjustment.

Though I've had Call of Cthulhu for years and played off and on I've gotten a lot of play over the past two years or so. While the game has a reputation for a horrific body count my games have tended to involve some very cautious investigators who have managed to survive, albeit scarred and somewhat mentally damaged. For the most part my games have involved dealing with human cults and minor servitors of the Mythos - no battles with Cthulhu.

As I mentioned in my Overview, the rules themselves are pretty light. The engineer in me who loves to tinker keeps on thinking I shouldn't enjoy the rules as written but every time I play a game of Cthulhu I find the rules serve their purpose perfectly - they fade away when not needed and work well when they are required. One key, and I think this is true of many games, is knowing when not to use the rules. If a character is searching for a secret note right where the note is, of course they find it.

Pelgrane Press has released their own Cthulhu game, Trail of Cthulhu, using their Gumshoe system, a rules engine very focused on investigative games. It is designed to solve the problem of making sure the game is not derailed by a single failed roll. It's something I'm curious to try out. I've had hints of that problem in my own Call of Cthulhu games but never to the extent that it blocked progress. However one should be aware that many older Call of Cthulhu scenarios, available via Chaosium or RPGNow, while mostly excellent, sometimes have points in the adventure that are totally dependent on a single clue or a single decision. With that caveat, it is a very nice feature of the game that there are a lot of premade scenarios available, both from Chaosium and several licencees.

My own experiences have primarily been in the classic era. I'd be very curious to try running a more fantasy-oriented Cthulhu game, set in a setting like Clark Ashton Smith's Averoigne cycle. 

All in all I've found Call of Cthulhu to be an enjoyable game. It's core book is a nicely complete game though there are a ton of supplements out there. If you're not playing Cthulhu it still has some value - if you're playing another BRP game and want to add some cosmic horrors, the beasties here slide in rather nicely. It also makes a nice inspiration work if you are running games in other systems, though I'd argue in such a case you might be better off just reading the works of Lovecraft and others of his circle.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Monte Cook's World of Darkness

Title: Monte Cook's World of Darkness

ISBN: 9781588464675
Price: $49.99
Publisher/Year: White Wolf 2007
System: Revised 3.5
Out-of-print: Yes
Available on DriveThruRPG: Yes

Overall rating (1-10): 6

There’s something about Monte Cook that, love him or hate him, is lodged in the collective subconscious of the gaming world: a many-headed hydra that, cut one head away and two more take its place.  This is a positive thing for a writer, especially one who has created so many settings books and rule sets over the last couple of decades.

What really does it for me is that, for some reason there is this one campaign that I have always wanted to run: it is a mixed game using a half-dozen books that I’ve got that are all d20, and involve a mix between d20 Future, d20 Apocalypse, Monte Cook’s Call of Cthulhu d20 and Monte Cook’s World of Darkness d20.  And some other stuff, like Pathfinder rules for fantasy heroes (swords would be a big part of this, and magical items) and monster compendiums and such.  I’m thinking a sort of Buffy the Vampire slayer/Angel series feel, mixed with some World of Darkness-isms, plus Conan and horrible things from beyond time and space, plus cyborgs and mutants and androids and aliens.  it makes sense in my head.

The structure of the game is based on the World of Darkness d20 book, but for some reason it’s just not that big a product in the gaming subconscious: really only I seem to know about it, and the forum on Monte’s website where questions can be posted about the game has tumble weed and dusty footprints from the last time I went in there.  Personally I think this perfectly good game needs a second chance, so here goes a review:

Monte Cook somehow convinced White Wolf to let him do a conversion of the World of Darkness to d20.  This means rules for Vampires, Werewolves, Demons and Mages from those games for use in d20.  Warning: the setting for the book is absolutely different from the classic Vampire games White Wolf put out, with vampires and werewolves as spirits of the dead who only just showed up (let’s say last year), so no ancient vampires in torpor or Camarilla or anything.  Regardless, the rules work whether you use that continuity or a classic version of vampires and werewolves, so if you don’t like the setting you can still use the rules.  This is a huge plus.

The book is divided between fiction chapters and rules chapters, and then two Settings to run games in (Chicago and a mystical Ground Zero combat zone).  I like how White Wolf does that in some cases, but the issue for me is that the fiction and setting material are so packed in there it makes the book really big.  We’re talking Pathfinder Core Book big, and most of it is fluff (ie: not rules material or monster stat blocks), and that’s a big deal.  If it were me, I’d put the fiction on a website and release the rules as a slim volume, or a thick volume with more material in it.  In fact, if anyone is listening, a second printing or version of such as rules volume would be welcome in that form.

Character creation is easy:  you have the same d20 ability scores.  Then you pick character focus, which gives you your class skills: Might (strong types), intellect (book worms), Spirit (social, sort of), and Stealth (dexterity), and get an ability score boost.  You can switch up your Focus every level, meaning you get a different list of skills to choose from and the ability bonus switches.  It’s sort of like changing your personality or style, and changing the skills you’re focused on.

Then you pick a Character Type: Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Demon, and Awakened (human with skills, sort of like the Hunter game).  Ability score boost here, and a list of special abilities to choose from.  They all seem to have some sort of pool of points to spend when activating powers (ie: blood/vitae, mana, essence, and anima).  There are also various sub-breeds, like Tempter demons or Scourge demons, the standard vampire groups (nosferatu, ventrue, etc.), different kinds of mages, etc.  These grant minor bonuses at different levels.

The choice of what “race” you pick can’t be changed, nor can you pick up a level in more than one “race”.  This doesn’t include character classes from other games, like d20 modern class levels, or levels in Pathfinder classes (save Wizard or other casters).  This isn’t mentioned in the game, just left up to the GM.  In fact, one hole in the product is that there isn’t a set of rules for non-supernaturals.  I don’t have even a stat block for soldiers who might shoot at PCs breaking into an army base.  Considering the setting books have these characters mentioned, it is an issue.  As well, using the Vampire and Werewolf classes for characters who are turned after getting infected, not in there.  There should be a difference between a soccar mom and an elite assassin, in terms of hit dice.

Basically this is left to the GM, and in my mind this is a good thing, value wise:  I don’t need yet another version of d20 Modern or, heck, the d20 CoC rules Monte Cook wrote.  This isn’t a gateway RPG product, it’s something people are likely to get after they a) have played D&D or b) have played World of Darkness and want to try the d20 system.  The probability is that SOMEONE they know has a book that can fill in these blanks, and if it’s them they may even have a number of these books.  (case in point: me!  and likely you, oh reader).

After that it’s the Skills section (basic modern), then Feats and Abilities.  The Feats are your usual d20 feats, but the Abilities are specific to this game’s “classes” (Types).  They’re special abilities the character gets for being what they are.  Think static abilities, some of which are powered by Mana/vitae/essence, etc., while others are not.  Your Demon can create a set of claws, walk through walls, or gain a special supernatural attack.   Your Mage gains bonuses to Save DCs against a type of creature, gets a familiar, or some regular spell-like ability.  Your Vampire uses these for all their vampire disciplines: Auspex, Obfuscate, Celerity, and other familiar names from the White Wolf games are the groups of abilities; they can run like the wind, hide in shadows, and other special abilities WoD vampires need.  Werewolves have various Rage-enhancing and shape-changing abilities.

Magic comes next, which is the Mage section.  The system here is pretty neat, especially considering Monte Cook as a designer of spells (Books of Eldritch Might, CoCd20, Arcana Evolved, etc.).  The point is Mages get Mana they use to build spells.  we’re talking here things like Range, Damage Dice, Duration, the real nuts and bolts.  You want a 100ft range spell?  you spend X Mana.  Tally up all the costs of the spell and you get how many Mana it takes to cast it.  This is a telling feature, as I think it’s Monte’s design notes for how he balances spells he designs: the formula, or near to it, for how he invents spells and determines what level they should be.

As someone who designs spells myself, this is a great lesson: you want a spell?  you make it up yourself!  It’s hard enough writing a whole book, or designing the general structure of a game, but then having to come up with a million spells?  And how to decide what level they should be?  Bam, a points system.  This really uncovers the design process for me, similar to how Green Ronin’s Mutants & Masterminds and other such games really show how the d20 system works.

The only issue I have here is that Mages can do literally anything.  ANYTHING!!!  As a GM who understands what it’s like to GM, if I were playing this I’d be respectful to not stressing the GM out.  It’s a responsibility to be sure.  Still, many would say there need to be some limitations: one forum discussion suggested making Mana recharge only during sleep/rest, instead of every few minutes.  I might add needing a focus item, but instead of a harmless holy symbol/staff it should be something more fun (such as, say… the Necronomicon, or other sentient items with their own agendas that must. be. controlled!).

The rest of the book is more general stuff: equipment, GM advice, and then two settings for the game (or parts of the greater setting).

The gist of it is that there’s a force out there, sort of cosmic evil, and it caused a magical nuke explosion in Minnesota, now ground zero.  There are now Supernaturals all over the place: dead people or animal spirits inhabiting people, demons, and some people now have magic.  Add to that that a good portion of them work for the “big bad” and are helping bring about the end of the world.  How?  The consensus seems to be that there are special people (the Awakened class) who for some reason have to all die.  The hunt is on.  In Chicago it’s all in the shadows.  In Minnesota the army has quarantined the area as best they can, meaning ground zero is a supernatural war zone.  Elsewhere there are strange occurrences (giant mushrooms, haunted houses, etc.) and the world is going to heck.  Fun to read and a lot of adventure hooks in there.  a.  lot.

I like the setting stuff, it’s entertaining, but I don’t know if I want to lug it around with me when I really just want the crunch info.  It’s a heavy book, like University Textbook heavy.  Again, I’m begging you: if you want to reprint this book (or, ho-hum, hire me to make a second edition!), make it slimmer and crunchier.  I would love to write stories in the setting, though, it just makes me want  to do that.  (or, like, blog that I do)

The rules for other creatures, especially NPC humans, are pretty light. Luckily they work basically the way d20 Modern and other games work, so you could just port stuff over. That adds a lot of value if you’re into this game: can we say Vampire Dark Ages d20?

I can’t say enough how much I like this game, especially if linked to other games.  The magic system could replace standard Wizards in D&D, and the Vampires and Werewolves would make great levels for PC vampires and werewolves instead of the generic templates that are either too powerful (Vampires) or too weak (werewolves).  There is conversion needed (ie: if you’re using Pathfinder as a base game, or d20 Future), but it’s a great resource.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition

Title: Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition

ISBN: N/A
Price: Varies
Publisher/Year: White Wolf 2011
System: World of Darkness (Classic)
Out-of-print: Print on demand
Available on DriveThruRPG: Yes

Overall rating (1-10): 8

When White Wolf ended the Classic World of Darkness line in 2004 with the Time of Judgment event (Gehenna, et. al.) and introduced the New World of Darkness, I was upset.  I felt betrayed because my favorite game system and setting was gone and not returning.  I nerd-raged when I saw how different the setting of the New World of Darkness was.  I hated how they had removed the wonderful and complex back story.  I didn’t buy the new books, and as much as I loved playing Vampire the Masquerade, I moved on to other systems.  I played a lot more Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars D20, and Legend of the Five Rings, but in the back of my mind, I was always thinking about the World of Darkness and especially Vampire the Masquerade.
           
When the 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire the Masquerade was announced, I had already gotten back into Vampire the Masquerade, running the Revised Edition for a group of gamers who had never played VtM.  I was so excited to hear that my favorite game was coming back, and when the Onyx Path announced their plans to begin publishing the Classic World of Darkness game lines (along with New World of Darkness, Exalted, and Trinity), I felt like a Djinni had granted a wish!  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to order a copy of the deluxe edition or to attend the Grand Masquerade in New Orleans, but I couldn’t have been happier.  I ordered a copy of V20 as soon as I could afford it from DriveThruRPG and the book I received was beautiful.

V20 is a nearly exhaustive single volume that displays all of the greatness that was Vampire the Masquerade back in the 1990s when I started role playing, and it has also lead to a resurrection of White Wolf products through Onyx Path Publishing and CCP (makers of Eve Online).  However, V20 is not a perfect product.  Because it was conceived as a single book devoted to fans of the Classic World of Darkness and Vampire the Masquerade, several issues exist with the presentation of the material.
           
The first thing I noticed when opening the book was the artwork, a mixture of black & white and color.  The artwork chosen for V20 is a mixture of the old and the new, bringing together the nostalgia of old sessions sitting with friends I haven’t talked to in a decade and the desire to build new chronicles and share them with new friends and even strangers.  Pulling from the vast amounts of artwork from previous Vampire the Masquerade books, the authors have chosen some gorgeous images that capture the essence of the setting, but they have also carefully avoided artwork that was too ‘90s.  The new color artwork is breathtaking, especially the images of stereotypical members of each clan that grace the pages opposite the start of a new chapter.  The artwork is vivid and beautiful and perfectly reflects the tone and atmosphere of Vampire the Masquerade.

Every major clan is included in V20 along with their bloodlines and disciplines.  The amount of options presented can be overwhelming, and some of these clans and bloodlines should have been left out.  While I understand the authors’ need to include an exhaustive list of every possible clan or bloodline, along with their disciplines, I feel that perhaps they went too far.  Including clans from Dark Ages Vampire (such as the Cappadocians and Lamia) or minor bloodlines (such as the Ahrimanes) or even the especially strange Children of Osiris, was unnecessary except for the sake of completion.  I have no particular dislike of any of those clans or bloodlines but I believe the space spent on these could have been better used.  More on that later.
           
Aside from some minor changes and tweaks, the core mechanics are much the same as they were in Second Edition and Revised.  The most important change to the system is to the Abilities section.  Several new skills have been added, such as Technology (for using electronics that are not computers), Larcey (for picking non electronic locks) and Awareness (for identifying supernatural phenomena).  Dodge has been incorporated into Athletics.  Secondary skills have been completely removed, simplifying character creation, although some hobby abilities remain but only to round out character concepts.  The focus however is on the primary Abilities.  Also, the rules for multiple actions have been tweaked slightly and much improved by simplifying it.  I was never a fan of the way dice pools were split in Revised; in V20 you simply decide on the number of actions, then determine the smallest dice pool, and finally split the smallest dice pool amongst those actions.  Backgrounds have gotten a needed boost through a mechanic that allows players to pool their background points thus binding a coterie together and letting them invest into a shared resource pool.

Certain disciplines have been updated as well.  The biggest changes have been to Celerity and Potence.  However, the changes balance these powers effectively giving both of them a passive ability as well as an activated ability.  Now the player has the option to choose with Celerity whether to roll more dice on attack or spend blood for extra actions. (The amount of blood spent for Celerity can exceed the generational maximum.)  Potence has a similar change.  Other Disciplines have been rebalanced.  The first level of Presence, Awe, now requires the expenditure of a blood point to activate.  Disciplines for all the major clans are present up to their ninth level along with some options for levels six through nine for some disciplines.
Setites are becoming my favorite clan
          
The combat system retains the quirks of the older editions as well as the simplicity that I always loved.  Although it is possible to use grid maps and plot every movement during a battle, that level of detail is unnecessary.  The focus is on fast and loose combat that doesn’t require anything more than the players’ imaginations and a few dice rolls.  The initiative system did receive a minor change.  Now prior to each round of combat the players re-roll initiative.  This can slow down combat rounds slightly but it can be easily changed without affecting the system to rolling initiative once per combat.
           
Overall, V20 preserves the essence of the Classic World of Darkness while updating it for the future.  However, I do have one major gripe with this book.  While I understand that this book was targeted at existing fans of the system as an anniversary edition, the lack of an in depth history of Kindred is a big problem especially with the inclusion of bloodlines like the Ahrimanes and Children of Osiris (are they a bloodline or a sect?) or clans exclusive to the Dark Ages setting.  However, as a book to introduce new players to Vampire the Masquerade, this book fails to deliver needed back story to put these clans and especially the bloodlines into perspective.  I understand that V20 is supposed to be metaplot neutral, meaning that events such as Gehenna or the Gangrel leaving the Camarilla are left to individual storytellers, but the lack of explanation in V20 means that new players lack knowledge that could have been included in this tome by cutting extraneous clans like the Ahrimanes.  The history of the Classic World of Darkness setting has always been complex and often contradictory, but its exclusion from this book is one of two glaring errors on the part of the authors.  The other error is the omission of the Caitiff which was added in the V20 Companion that was released shortly thereafter.
           
The 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire the Masquerade marks the welcomed rebirth of the Classic World of Darkness and Vampire the Masquerade.  Vampire has long been missed by its fans, and I look forward to introducing more new players to this wonderful game.  I am looking forward to the next Kickstarter for The Onyx Path.  Werewolf’s 20th Anniversary Edition has just been made available at DriveThruRPG and Mage is next up along with plenty of other books representing the rebirth of the Classic World of Darkness.  If you are fan of the World of Darkness this book is a must buy.  However, if you are a new player, you’ll need to do some reading on the history and mythology of the World of Darkness or find a veteran to explain some of the minutiae of lore founded in these pages. In the future I hope that The Onyx Path, CCP and White Wolf publishing publish a book that gives more background information on this very deep setting.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

An Open Letter To Chuck Lorre, Bill Prady & The Writers Of The Big Bang Theory


Dear Chuck Lorre, Bill Prady & the writers of The Big Bang Theory;

First off, thank you for bringing this show to us in the Time of the Geek. As a member of the Geek Nation, I appreciate the idea that our culture is getting some well deserved, and not negative, attention. I am not only a member of the gamer community, but I am also a member of the comic book community as well.

With all the platitudes aside, I feel that the gaming aspect of Leonard, Sheldon, Howard and Raj's live isn't given enough attention. It is this discrepancy that I wish to speak to you about.


While I love the few episodes that have revolved around their affection for Dungeons & Dragons, I feel that this aspect of their lives could easily be expanded on. Since Stuart's comic book store is no longer an active, perhaps they find a new store that specializes in games instead of comic books and they build a relationship with the owner or one of the varied regular customers of the store.

Perhaps they could also expand their interest from just Dungeons & Dragons. There is a bevy of various role playing games I feel the group would easily gain interest in. Even several of the new miniature games for Star Trek and Star Wars, though these games would have a similar capacity to the fictional card game Mystic Warlords of Ka'a since they don't have the role play aspect like D&D.

I hope you find an interest in the idea I have proposed to you and I look forward to the possibility of seeing this idea come to life on TV.