Mysrkyn Sankarit – Suurkuninkaan miekka is a Finnish roleplaying game by Mike Pohjola, aimed as first entry point into tabletop roleplaying for children. Funded by (Indiegogo) crowdfunding, it completed successfully as a project and I got my print copy at Ropecon 2013. The name translates as “Heroes of the Storm – Sword of the Great King”, and while the copy I have (and read) is the original Finnish one, there is now an English translation available.
The game is designed as a box set, intentionally emulating (and taking many design cues) from the original Dungeons and Dragons sets. The box contains two staple-bound booklets (one is the player guide, another is the GM guide), along with a map, some dice and some blank character sheets. All you need to get started, in other words. The whole thing is quite traditional, up to the setting; it’s very “plain vanilla” fantasy, with the players (by default) playing rebels hiding in a vast forest, fighting the forces of an evil emperor – shades of Robin Hood there. While the “plain vanilla” design and setting would be a turn-off in a more general, modern rpg, here it’s a good thing since this game is aimed at children. Giving them an easy mental hook into the game (“It’s kind of like Robin Hood!”) is a good thing.
The player guide details the game system, including character creation, and gives a short overview of the main setting. There’s also a “choose your own adventure” -style section. for people who are unsure of what the concept of “roleplaying games” is. Not sure how needed that is, in reality, but it’s possibly a good idea, this is the sort of thing someone who really is new to rpgs might get for their kids. The GM guide has some advice for running games, and contains a ready-to-run adventure “module”. The design here is excellent, since the adventure is very cleverly designed to teach the (assumed new) GM the skills needed. The first section is completely “read from the book”, the next section lets the GM design a small detail intentionally left out of the module, and in the end the GM designs a complete (though small) encounter area. I don’t recall seeing this sort of “intro to GMing” anywhere before. I liked it.
The game system itself is a very simple D&D variant, with some more modern tweaks. Here I have some small doubts as to the wisdom of the design choice; while basic D&D is assuredly nostalgic to the game writer, it’s a clunky and largely obsolete system. Different sorts of dice, armor class, etc… do we really need to introduce new players to that? Why not pick a more modern design? To the designers’ credit, they have tweaked the system a lot, this is not a “retroclone”. So, in the end, while I do wish they had chosen another base for their game system, what they have here is fairly simple and should work well enough in an intro game like this.
On the negative side, there are some small niggles. The box is quite large considering the fairly small volume of actual content, a slimmer box would have sufficed. On the other hand, assuming there are expansion books later, they can also fit in the same box, so it’s not necessarily a fault. Also, speaking of expansions, the included adventure is only the first chapter of a longer story. I’m not sure if the intent here is that the GM creates the rest, or are there plans to write a continuation at some later point. I also spotted a few typos, which is annoying considering there’s not all that much text here. Come on guys, invest in a spell-checker program!
In the “small weird bits” department: one of the character classes is “swineherd”. That’s weirdly specific, considering the other classes are things like “thief” and “warrior”. I could sort of understand it as a Chronicles of Prydain reference, but that’s not a well-known series of books here in Finland. In addition, said swineherd has an impressively high armor class (or was it dodge, I don’t remember). In any case, that’s some serious pig-ninja action. Speaking of character classes: bonus points for not having “elves” and “dwarves”, instead we have two more unique fantasy races as possible player characters. While one of them is “elf-like”, it’s not a direct copy and helps differentiate this game from many other fantasy games.
Overall, taking into account the intended target audience, this is a nice game. The general design is decent, the art is pretty, they have some nice innovations in how they approach the whole “how to teach young people tabletop rpg” thing. In the end: there aren’t that many Finnish roleplaying games in general, and Finnish roleplaying games aimed for children? Well, now there’s one.
If my own daughters were a bit older, I could easily imagine trying this out with them.
Well, I must admit Into the Nightmare Rift was a disappointment. It’s not the first time Paizo has done Cthulhu mythos (literally), many of the writers there are fans of Lovecraft (and Call of Cthulhu) and are quite open about it. Paizo includes side notes about where the material is coming from, and recommends trying out CoC… so no complaints there, that’s the correct way to do things. My complaints this time are with how the material is used.
This segment of the Shattered Star adventure path sends to PCs to Leng (of said Lovecraft fame). Now, this “evil un-Earthly plateau” has featured in many stories and games, so I was interested in seeing what Paizo does with it. Well, guess what they did with it here? Right, a dungeon crawl. Sure, it’s set on Leng, but the only way that actually manifests is the inclusion of a few Mythos creatures, otherwise is’t yet another indoor combat-fest. Talk about misuse of Lovecraft’s setting. There’s so much they could have done here, and maybe as part of another adventure path they might have. But here, in Paizo’s dungeon-crawl -themed path? Total waste.
It’s not all bad, of course. The beginning has a few fun bits featuring some fire giants and an old buried ruin (which is actually an old research station), and I guess as a dungeon crawl the Leng bit isn’t that bad either. Still a waste.
While Paizo’s standalone Pathfinder adventure modules have generally been fun, they’ve always been hampered by their very limited page count. All too often, there just wasn’t any way to add needed detail into the meager 32 pages provided, leading to lots of good design ideas with problematic execution. Paizo has apparently realized that this is a problem, and changed the whole line to a reduced schedule but doubled page count. Now, with 64 pages, these things can contain at least as much material as an adventure path episode, which should be good.
The first of these bigger adventures is The Dragon’s Demand, a (mostly) town-based adventure for 1st level characters (which should take them to level 7 or thereabouts). It’s a decent offering, but unfortunately isn’t anything all that special. The main plot has an old ramshackle tower at the outskirts of town suddenly collapse, with strange non-human bodies found in the rubble. Also, the local wizard (who has always complained about said tower blocking his view) has gone missing. Oh, and there are rumors of an old draconic menace makings its return. There are fun plot elements here, but unfortunately the execution doesn’t quite follow through.
First off, the town is presented with excellent detail – as far as the buildings and their contents go. However, for some bizarre reason, only a few major NPC are named and details, leaving the GM with the work of providing names and backgrounds for everyone else. This can be an annoying chore. Then there is the matter of over-abundant combat encounters, something that plagues all too many Pathfinder modules (and, to be fair, most D&D modules in general). Maybe it was from a need to give enough exp to push the PCs to the design-mandated level 7 neat the end, but it any case it’s a bit overboard. Finally, even though the main bad guy has a good back story, it’s unlikely that the PCs will get to discover that, let alone interact with the bad guy before the final big battle. This could have been done better.
It’s not bad. But neither is it anything really good, with anything to raise it above mediocrity.
I’m not sure how many times I’ve read Watership Down. Lots. It’s been a long time since my last read-through though so I don’t remember all the details; something I’ll need to correct one of these days. It’s a lovely book.
Tales from Watership Down is a collection of short stories set in the same world. Some are rabbit legends, featuring the mythical rabbit hero El-ahrairah and his increasingly unlikely exploits, while some are set in the same time period as Watership Down itself, mostly after the events in that book. It’s a good read, though it doesn’t rise to the brilliance of the original tale. The El-ahrairah legends are fun, but I found the “real” stories somewhat more interesting, as they filled in some gaps and reintroduced characters from the book (some very much changed by events).
It’s not a must-read by any stretch, but anyone who enjoyed Watership Down will probably enjoy this too.
“The owls are not what they seem:”
Yes, that’s Twin Peaks, not Vampire, but it applies here too.
The Strix are one of the creepier elements in the new Vampire game line. While the game originally featured VII in the “sinister threat” category, that group (or whatever it is) was left so vague that it became a bit toothless. Enter the Strix, first described in the Requiem for Rome book. Probably responsible for the destruction of the Julii clan, these creatures are scary as hell, much because they are both a concrete threat and a big unknown. Maybe spirits, maybe not, and apparently linked to owls, they are smart, vicious, sadistic and they hate vampires. Why? Nobody knows. They can posses vampires and act as uber-predators – and in the game world, having something hunt them, the self-styled hunters of humans, is deeply unnerving to vampires. Additionally, it seems to be personal; vampires hunt humans for food, but the Strix hunt vampires because they hate their guts and want to cause misery and destruction.
I gather the Strix have been described somewhat more in other sourcebooks, but I haven’t read those yet. Most notably, the new Strix Chronicle sourcebook features a campaign framework based around them (haven’t read that yet, either). This book, The Strix Chronicle Anthology, is an anthology of stories based on the Strix – or, more exactly, on vampires encountering the Strix.
It’s a good collection. Most of the stories are remarkably good, and many are quite suitably creepy. Some of the standouts are Greg Stolze’s “Four Years, Old John”, which features some characters familiar from the Chicago books, and Joshua Alan Doetsch’s “Lullay, Lullay”, which only has the Strix in the sidelines, with the spotlight on the relationship between a (surrogate) father and his “little girl” (who only has bare shreds of humanity left). Oh, and Eddy Webb’s “Second Chance”, which features a vampire forced to solve a mystery… and lots of twists. Not all that many happy stories here, which suits the main theme. The Strix are not happy campers. The owls want blood.
As far as “gaming fiction” goes, this is a top-notch collection.
I’m thinking of buying a 13” Macbook Pro.
For some, that might be an easy decision, but for me it’s something I’ve needed to ponder on for quite a while. First off, I’m definitely not an Apple fanboy; while I admire their hardware, and hear that their software is at least decent, I have little love for the company. Steve Jobs was an asshole who gets way more credit than he deserves (and Woz much less), and the company’s long-time efforts in restricting what customers can do with their machines pisses me off. Now, to some, their “computer as home appliance” line works, and that’s fine. But let’s just say that I’m not quite in their target market segment.
A “proper” laptop has been on my radar for years now. I’ve happily used Windows netbooks, and have been surprised at how useful they are despite their limitations. Currently our netbook is de facto Janka’s default home machine, and I’m using Janka’s old “leftover” Dell on which I’ve installed Gentoo Linux. It works decently enough, but it’s huge and heavy, no way I want to take it along with me anywhere or even move it around the house. With the kids in our life, I’ve discovered that a laptop is excellent because it allows me to do computer stuff and still be in the living room keeping my eye on the kids. Nowadays, I use my real desktop machine only for games and photo editing, tasks which require a large screen and lots of horsepower. A laptop on which I could also do real work (i.e. light photo editing, programming and such) would be useful, but so far I haven’t gotten one. Part of the reason is pure finances: I don’t want to buy a luxury item like that on credit, and up to now finances have been a bit stretched. Things are somewhat better now.
So, now I can actually get a proper laptop with some decent tech. If I dislike Apple as a company, why am I seriously considering giving them my money? In the end, it comes down to operating system.
Now, with simple tasks like web browsing, reading email and such, OS really doesn’t matter. I’m quite happy with Windows (8) on my desktop, even though Windows is a piece of crap as an OS, since all I need it to do there is help me launch Adobe Lightroom or some game. It does that just fine. Same goes for netbooks, Windows works fine for normal lightweight stuff. But when I start to do “real” work, OS suddenly becomes very important.
I’m an old-school Unix guy, and my preferred environment is still the Unix shell command line. Sure, I use GUIs, but the main workspace is still a terminal window or five. At that point, “under the hood” so to speak, OS starts to matter. A lot. So my choice of laptop is much dictated by which OS I want. The reasonable options are Windows, Linux or OS X.
First off I can write off Windows. As noted, I consider it to be a piece of crap as an OS. Sure, the latest incarnations are very stable, and have decent GUIs.. but it’s still lipstick on a pig. The Windows command line is a joke, and the OS internals are an ugly jungle of old needed-for-compatibility junk. Ugh. No thanks.
So it comes down to Linux or OSX. There things are more difficult. I use Linux at home and at work, and am very comfortable with it. OS X I have only very, very cursory experience with (I set up my mom’s new Macbook Pro some time back), so Linux would be a natural choice… but I think not, in this case. First off, Linux tends to be fiddly, especially on laptops, and while I have no trouble with tweaking stuff on desktops, on a laptop I have less patience for it and want things to Just Work. Also, I’m not happy with the current state of Linux desktops: KDE is an archaic bloated monster, Gnome 3 (which I currently prefer) is being taken in weird and not-very-good directions by Ubuntu, and the other options are still a bit rough, especially for laptop use. As noted, on a laptop I want everything to work flawlessly (especially power-related stuff) and to have the OS make full use of all hardware. While that is possible with Linux, it’s a bit of a crapshoot and I’m not feeling like it right now. Been there, seen that.
To be honest, one big motive is also curiosity. I know as much Windows as I want to know, and know Linux (and many other older Unix variants) quite well. OS X, the third major player in the current OS landscape, is currently mostly unknown to me. I know that it’s originally based on (BSD) Unix, and that lots of people are happy using it for development. Oh, I’m sure it has quirks, some of them possibly nasty, but I think it might be something I can work with. And in any case, I think it would be an useful platform to learn.
So, OS X it is, after quite a bit of pondering. Of course, that narrows down hardware choices drastically, and things come down to a choice between the Air and the Pro. At first I was thinking about the Air, but later switched to Pro, since portability isn’t the primary concern (the thing needs to be portable, but I’m not going to be lugging it around on a daily basis). It also helped that I saw my mom’s Pro, and could verify that yes, the “retina” screen is very nice.
In the end, the 13” form factor seems to make the most sense to me, but the meager base SSD space has been giving me pause; I’d want 256G and a machine with that used to cost around 1750e. Ugh. Now, with yesterday’s Apple announcement, all the Pro prices dropped and the machines got more power along with new-generation hardware, so a 2.4GHz/8G/256G Pro now “only” costs about 1550e. Still a lot of cash, but 200e less than before. So that’s it, as far as I’m concerned, right now I’m still waiting for some real reviews to make sure there aren’t any glitches with the new hardware and OS version, but after that I guess I’m going shopping. Wheee. :)
So that’s how I decided on an Apple laptop, despite not having huge amounts of love for the company. If I actually get the machine, I may post some “Unix guy trying to learn OS X” stuff later. We’ll see.
The Free Council is the thinnest of the five main “splat books” for the new Mage. Now, a small page count might be caused by the focus group being so simple to describe that it doesn’t take all that much space, or it might be caused by the focus being so vague that the writers didn’t really know what to do with it. Guess which one this is?
The problem with these sorts of “anarchist” groups is that, by definition, they don’t conform to just one modus operandi or stereotype, which makes describing them tricky – they tend to become grab-bags for everyone who didn’t fit into the other more well-defined groups, the “Other” category. Whether it’s this group of “young idealists”, the Anarchs / Carthians or Vampire, or some other such group, the main problem is “what is the unifying theme with these guys?”. Here, the easy answer would have been “techno-mages”, since most members are modern in their outlook and comfortable with technology. The book doesn’t quite go there, though there are lots of nods in that direction, with various ways of combining magic and technology.
The main problem here, to me, was that it just wasn’t all that inspiring a read. I’d expect a book like this to include lots of off-the-wall ideas and have lots of energy, but it’s much the opposite – the style is dry, and while there ware fun ideas here and there, it didn’t really inspire me to play these guys (even though that should have been an easy sell). Some of the Legacies were interesting, but all too much of the information given was just shallow hand-waving instead of concrete hooks to help me run (or play) Free Council members. Part of the problem is, of course, the somewhat vague nature of the group’s ideology (with the meta-problem of White Wolf trying to cram everything into just five Orders, instead of the original Mage’s much more organic structure). That said, I’m sure that a better book could be written around the subject. This one is resoundingly “meh”.
The book follows the typical structure of these things: we get a history of the group (some of which was credible, some of which was not), we get some idea of how their day-to-day life is structured and how their politics work, and we get a pile of crunch (rotes, equipment, Legacies, etc).
I must admit, The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions is a very cool (and obscure) title, and quite suitable for a game titled “Lamentations of the Flame Princess”. The latter being, of course, a D&D “retro-clone” with some nice design choices. As such, “Seclusium” is only loosely tied to LotFP, and could quite easily be ported to most fantasy rpg systems. Oh, and the cover art is quite gorgeous.
…all of which dodge the question: what the hell is it? It’s a toolkit for designing “seclusiums”, wizardly strongholds/retreats which may or may not still be inhabited by said wizard. Think of your classic “ancient abandoned wizard’s tower, full of traps” thingy. There’s emphasis here on both keeping a high level of “weird” going on, and in giving a reason for all that weird. In other words, less traps for the sake of traps, and more dangerous wizardly experiments which just happen to also function as traps (to the uneducated).
The book is divided into four sections. The first three detail three different “seclusiums”, with the most fully detailed one first. They are all different, but contain links to each other so they can all be used in the same game without problems. The general “feel” here is very Jack Vance, and that’s a deliberate design choice by D. Vincent Baker. Here, wizards have grandidose names and move is mysterious ways, not much caring what the “common folk” think and conducting their own bizarre sets of experiments (with some amount of in-fighting thrown in). All feature places where the wizard is no longer active, leaving the place ripe for PC exploration and/or plunder – though the extent of the wizard’s absence varies from example to example. Each of the three example contains a base frameworks, and then lots of customization options where you choose one choice from a list of options for that specific facet. The intention here is to have even the “pre-designed” areas require GM customization. I consider this a design flaw, even though the intent is somewhat reasonable.
The last portion is the full “meat” of the matter, a huge collection of lists for generating your own wizard’s retreat. All of the three previous parts contain copies of some of these.
I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, the basic idea is a fun one, and the (somewhat) pre-generated “seclusiums” do provide a nice “Vancian” environment to throw at the players. Many of the “traps” presented here are nice and inventive.
On the negative side… well, there are some things to gripe about. First off and most importantly, as noted, the “pre-generated” examples aren’t really that, they are more like “partially assembled”. This is a bad idea, in my mind, since your average GM would want to use these precisely in the cases where they don’t have the time to generate stuff on their own. In addition, this design choice has copies of the same table all over the book, for a huge number of tables. This inflates the page count and introduces tons of repetition. Probably half of this book is raw cut+paste. There’s also a lot of cut+paste in NPC descriptions and such, where it smells a bit of writer laziness. A minor irritation is also the fact that the maps included here are totally useless, since they are essentially blank map bases with some contour lines, with the guidelines that the GM should draw their own map here. No shit, Sherlock. I think I can do that on normal graph paper without this useless padding in my book.
In the end, it’s a toolkit with a nice premise and good bits and pieces, but marred by a flawed execution which results in massive repetition all over the place. A much preferable structure would have been to have the three examples be actually fully developed, with proper maps, and then include the “how to make your own” section as a tool to (semi) randomly generate your own. That would also have cut the page count down significantly.