The Ruby Phoenix Tournament is a bit of a weird bird. It’s a standalone Pathfinder adventure module, but it’s set in a very nonstandard location (Tian Xia, Pathfinder’s faux-China) and has the players as contestants in a martial arts tournament. One cannot help but get the idea that it’s partly a marketing tool for the new Ultimate Combat sourcebook, since that is referenced in multiple places – but to be fair, the module does not depend on that book, just uses it for extra flavor if desired.
Anyway, the main feature here is a once-every-10-years martial arts tournament, where anyone can compete for a chance at fame and glory (not to mention access to a legendary hoard of magical artifacts). To add to the mix, this time around some of the contestants have other goals in mind, and are out to play for keeps. Naturally enough, the PCs are assumed to intervene, ideally before the shit completely hits the fan.
It’s not bad at all. The martial arts fights/contests are varied, and the side plot of “what else is going on” adds spice to the mix. Sure, some of the “clues” are quite… unsubtle, but that can be excused due to page count issues and need to keep multiple plot threads running. The GM can obfuscate some of the stupidly obvious clues, if needed. Of course, due to the nature of the story here it’s mostly useful as a one-shot game, it’s not very likely that your campaign will feature characters who are in the right place at the right time, with enough martial arts ability and fame, to take part in this. On the other hand, it is D&D-style fantasy, so realism can take a hike.
Stay Alert is a new Paranoia novel, from the also new Ultraviolet Books. Written by Allen Varney, designer of the new Paranoia game edition (originally titled “Paranoia XP”, until Microsoft started making threatening noises), it’s a fairly “classic” Paranoia story, reading mostly like a complex Troubleshooter mission.
The main viewpoint is Fletcher-R, recently (as in: hours ago) promoted to Red clearance from the Infrared masses due to a happy accident. He quickly realizes that Red clearance gives him extremely nice perks (compared to lowly Infrared), but also that Troubleshooters may actually not be the bright and shining examples of righteousness he has been taught (and drugged) to believe. He manages to escape multiple quick deaths largely due to a new experimental drug called “Leery”, which – among other side effects – gives him hyper-alertness. Tasked with retrieving a lost helpbot (with distinct Microsoft Clippy overtones), he is also given somewhat conflicting objectives by his secret society, and a leadership position on his Troubleshooter team… which he quickly realizes puts him in the (laser) sights of the rest of the team.
As noted, it reads largely like a classic, complicated Troubleshooter mission, with massive confusion about what is actually going on and who is plotting what. To a large degree, this is good, as it mirrors the helpless confusion Paranoia players ideally feel. On the other hand, the writing is a bit unclear at times, and the reader becomes somewhat confused too, which is more in the “bug, not a feature” category. The same can be said about many of the more complicated Paranoia game scenarios, too, of course: they can be so convoluted that the GM is left somewhat bewildered even after multiple read-throughs.
It’s a fun read, with lots of black humor, and manages to mirror the feel of the game world very nicely. On the other hand, there isn’t all that much new here for experienced Paranoia GMs or players, which can be seen as a minor minus point. The title of the book reflects the drug the main character ingests, so since this is book one of a trilogy (“The Troubleshooter Rules”), I suspect the titles of the next two books (“Trust No One”, “Keep Your Laser Handy” I’d assume) will also reflect the themes in those books.
If you like Paranoia and/or are interested in learning how the game world works, this is a very nice and entertaining read. People reading it without any background information will probably end up somewhat confused (though possibly also entertained).
Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is a highly praised series of children’s books, and The Bad Beginning is the first book (of 13). Now, I usually don’t read children’s books, but this one has been getting enough praise to interest me – and more to the point, the Monsters and Other Childish Things supplement The Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor quotes this series as the primary influence. So… off we go to the book store.
Having read it… yeah, I can see why people (and, most importantly, kids) seem to love it. It’s very quirky and more than a bit strange. There are traces of Roald Dahl here, and even a light-hearted touch of Dickens. There are puns and jokes that are mostly meant for more mature audiences, and others meant for the target audience. It’s a bit grim at times, and doesn’t at all follow the “portray children as heroes, and give everything a happy ending” stock model. Oh, the children here are brave and resourceful, but they don’t really overcome their troubles to emerge triumphant, it’s more a matter of surviving one more obstacle.
The plot? Three children become orphans due to a home fire, and get sent of to the tender care of a relative, one Count Olaf. Olaf, it turns out, is a villain who is hell-bent on securing access to the children’s fortune (held from them until the oldest, Violet, turns 18). Cue nefarious plans, cold porridge, and shady theater actors. Everything is set in a vague city and vague country, somewhat reminiscent of old-time America, but with some strange laws. The specifics do not matter in a tale like this.
There is an amusing authorial voice here, as “Lemony Snicket” (pen name of American writer Daniel Handler) narrates the “dreadful and sad” story of the Baudelaire orphans, verbally hand-wringing now and then about the next horrid turn of events, and warning the reader not to expect happy resolutions. I’m not quite sure what your typical kid would make of this book, but I suspect (s)he will love it and find it funny and exciting. Sure, there is a darkness here, but that also exists in most other good children’s literature.
The main strength here is that is has a voice and tone of its own. It’s not the boring, pastel-shaded safe tale we so often see shoveled for kids these days.
Astral Realms is a very interesting sourcebook for the new Mage game. It expands the “astral realms” lightly described in the main game into… much larger and more detailed entities, and it also expands the default options mages have for accessing those realms (largely making access easier). The realms themselves are somewhat confusing; some are private “headspaces” detailing the internal landscape of a single mind (though this stuff is not traditional telepathy in any sense, these are true realms). while others are much larger shared realms detailing things like mass shared consensus and “pop culture”. So it’s the movie Inception, old Australian “dreamtime” and Dr. Strange all rolled into one.
There’s a lot of story fodder here. Starting from scenarios like Inception where you engineer changes on a target’s mental landscape (which may or may not reflect on later actions or mindsets), to expeditions into lost realms which may at one time have existed in the “real” world but now only exist as shared dreams. While dying in these realms usually just means that you are dumped out and wake up, that’s not necessarily the case – it’s possible to get trapped, sometimes for good, and losing or risking your sanity is a very real danger.
If there is a fault here it’s that the concepts involved are somewhat complicated, and the reader can become confused at times at what is actually being discussed. Fortunately, the abstract stuff does not form a huge part of the book, with most emphasis given to more practical in-game applications and descriptions of example astral realms (some of these are extremely interesting and could be used as-is in most Mage games).
Good book, and a surprisingly nice read too; this game line isn’t exactly light reading at all times, but here the writers have (mostly) managed to take an abstract and somewhat difficult subject and write a very readable and interesting book about it. One of the better Mage sourcebooks I’ve read, though to be fair I haven’t read all that many yet.
Barony of the Damned, subtitled “An Adventure in Mousillon” is… well, an adventure module set in Mousillon. Duh. It’s also a sourcebook for Mousillon, the damned realm of Bretonnia – in the usual Warhammer style for books like this, the first half of the book is a general sourcebook for the area, and the second half is the adventure itself. It works nicely.
It’s never quite determined what exactly caused the damnation of Mousillon, but the fact cannot be ignored; it’s so clear that the rest of Bretonnia has built a ring of armed forts around the area, with a “you can go in, but can’t get out” general mindset. It’s sort of like Escape from New York, in faux-medieval France. The area is dismal, even for Warhammer, with ridiculously downtrodden peasants trying to survive the depredations of various nasties, including vampires, ghouls and other sorts of undead. Central is the city of Mousillon, a lawless place with several gang somewhat “running” the place and lots of people just trying to survive. Many are just trying to figure out a way to leave. There’s some nice political treason here, with a Black Night is trying to unite nobility behind his flag, perhaps intending to overthrow some of the nobility in other parts in Bretonnia. Cynical minds might say that it’s this political dissent and not the cursed undead which led to the blockade of the area, but who knows.
Of course, the adventure has the PCs dumped into Mousillon, tasked with bringing back the head of a known arch-criminal, I mentioned Escape From New York earlier, and it applies a bit here too. While we don’t get Snake Plissken (unless the players create him), the main idea of “go into dangerous territory ruled by gangs and bring back X” still applies. Of course, here the PCs are free to be… creative with their problem solving, and will need to be in order to get out of this one alive. The adventure is a series of scenes/encounters, most of them quite amusing, with less weight on combat and more on cleverness and social maneuvering. It reads like a fun adventure, though it is quite dangerous and probably more suited for a one-shot than part of a campaign.
So… if you want to inflict some outrageous French accents on your players, you could do worse than try this pre-gen adventure. If contains undead, mud, peasants, nobles (some actually noble, most not) and pirates. Sort of.
Forest of Spirits starts the second half of Jade Regent, and also switches gears a bit from the first half, with the PCs finally arriving in Minkai. There is initial potential here, but unfortunately I have to say that this module has problems and consists mostly of wasted potential.
The beginning isn’t that bad. The PCs arrive in a strange little autocratic kingdom, and quickly become guests of the ruler. There is room for social maneuvering here, but the the whole segment is a bit disjointed. The ruler is in many regards a monster, executing people just for fun and ruling by pure whimsy. However, the who segment is more concerned with making him a somewhat humorous figure, which is a total waste here. Little-to-no mention is made of any local resentment against the ruler, one assumes they are fine with him executing people left and right on a whim.
After that part, we get a (kitsune) escort, who takes the PCs to the mysterious titular “Forest of Spirits” – a forest haunted with ancient spirits, which try to take over travelers and cause various sorts of mischief. And sure, some light use of this is made in the module… until it’s quickly dumped for what is essentially a dungeon crawl. Two factions have been going at each other for 60 years (if I recall), and the PCs are thrust in the middle of the conflict. Two problems: one, who continues a stalemate battle for a specific site for 60 years? Even though some of the inhabitants are supernatural, that’s still a stupidly long time to be stuck in a stalemate. Second, and more important: why disregard the whole interesting “forest full of ancient spirits” concept, and fill most of the module with a combat fest dungeon crawl (“temple crawl” more exactly)? It’s boring, adds little to the story except some needless underlining of how “evil” the oni are (yes, yes, we get it already). There’s too much combat and too little anything else.
So… if you’re the type who plays D&D for the combat encounters – and to be fair, lots of people seem to be in that category – you’ll probably like this. I thought it was largely a waste of otherwise interesting scenery, and would have much preferred something which actually used the “forest of spirits” environment in some real fashion. Meh.
White Gold Wielder is the conclusion to the Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and it wraps up the story in a mostly satisfying way. There is a bit of Deus Ex Machina in the end confrontation, but on the other hand it is mostly a logical continuation of the buildup so I cannot complain too much. Linden Avery and Thomas Covenant continue to be somewhat unlikable and very screwed-up characters, but both are also somewhat sympathetic since there are cracks in their armor. Covenant has opened up a bit, at least to Linden, though he remains terrified of losing control of his powers. Linden, on the other hand, is equally scared of her own potential, while being haunted by the memory of her screwed-up parents.
The story continues where the last book left off. The quest for the One Tree has failed, and everyone is in despair and not sure of where to go next. Most look towards Covenant for direction, but he is sure that all is lost and is no real help. In the end, the ship is badly damaged and the choice becomes one from necessity: some of the crew remain aboard and try to perform repairs, while a core group tries to make it back to the Land overland, over arctic wastes.
The arctic trek contains dangers of its own (no surprise there), and the monsters here are quite unusual and clever. Barely escaping them, the core group finally reaches safe lands.. and after a short breather, Covenant decides that the only choice is to go confront Lord Foul directly (though everyone else thinks that is suicide). So off he goes, with some companions tagging along… and a conclusion is reached, with some unexpected plot twists.
I’m still not sure if I actually like this series. It’s very inventive when it feels like it, and it’s an extremely unusual fantasy in other ways too, concentrating more on issues of self-doubt and damaged people, instead of overt dangers like many other books. There are scenes here that are very memorable (and strange). On the other hand, these books are slow. The pace is plodding, and a lot of page count is spent over the protagonists’ own agonizing over their real or perceived failings. Too much page count, at times. There is also the matter of vocabulary: the books go out of their way to use weird and unusual words. While that’s fine in moderation, there is nothing even remotely like “moderation” here; if given a “normal” word and an obscure synonym, Donaldson will go for the obscure every time. It eases off a bit later on, but is still a somewhat annoying stylistic quirk.
If you can deal with the plodding pace, the at times over-stylized word choice and the somewhat unlikable main characters. there is a good and unusual fantasy story to be found here.
The Mouse Guard boxed set is a fancy version of the base Mouse Guard roleplaying game, based on David Petersen’s Mouse Guard comics. The comics portray a fairly grim feudal fantasy society… of intelligent mice. They live in the “Mouse Territories”, surrounded by yet more wilderness and dangerous, large predators like snakes, badgers, owls and such. No humans exist here, the only other intelligent civilization are the weasels, a warlike race the mice recently had a major war against. It’s a somewhat unusual (but good!) comic, and the game models the comics extremely well; at least in the sense that it is tuned to tell stories like in the comics.
The game is designed by Luke Crane, of Burning Wheel fame, and the game mechanism is a version of that system. It’s not “Burning Wheel Lite”, like some people assume; while it is slightly streamlined in places, it is still complex and there are lots of new subsystems to model the storytelling tropes in the comics. As a result, this is not a roleplaying game for children, unlike you might (also) assume. It’s mechanically much too complex for that. That’s not to say that you couldn’t run this for kids, but you would need to hide lots of the crunch unless the children in question were exceptionally interested in that sort of complexity – most don’t have the attention spans for it. Of course, that depends vastly on age and personality.
It’s an awesome game, at least based on a read-through. I like Burning Wheel as a system, and this variant has tons of nice tweaks and throws out a lot of complexity which is not needed here (for example, there is no magic of any sort here). It’s extremely character-driver, though there is a framing device here: each game is presumed to be a “mission”, where the guard team (which the PCs are assumed to be) gets orders from the Mouse Guard leader, and then goes off to do their thing. Each PC gets to choose a main goal for that game, which may or may not align with the given mission goal (it’s always interesting if there is some personal goal conflict, even if it’s not intended that there’s vast amounts of intra-group conflict; this isn’t intended to model Paranoia, after all). All of this is termed the “GM’s Turn”, where the GM sets the pace and presents conflicts. After that is done (i.e. the mission is resolved (or failed) in some manner, we switch to the “Players’ Turn”, where each player gets one (by default) conflict or scene. This may be whatever; for example, a PC may decide to use his/her allocation to visit his mentor. Or he may decide to challenge someone else to a duel. While this sort of framing and limiting of allowed actions may be alien to some players, I’d be willing to give it a try. it’s there for a reason: force the players to decide what’s really important to them. Of course, smart GMs will also allow “color” scenes and other stuff, in addition.
In the framing department, the game also has the concept of “seasons” (again, to model the comics). Each mission takes place on a specific season (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter), and that choice has potentially huge consequences. The game recommends that beginners start with spring or summer missions: things are easier, in general, at least with regards to weather. Winter is the most difficult, by default nobody (sane) wanders the countryside during winter, instead they just hole up with stores of food and try to stay warm. In Winter, you’ll either be given an important emergency mission, or Winter may be used for an annual gathering of the Mouse Guard, where “tenderpaws” are perhaps promoted to full guard status, etc. The whole ruleset for season effects is really nice, and makes them really matter – unlike in all too many fantasy games, where winter just means that cross-country travel is a bit slower.
The box set is quite nice. It contains the rulebook (softcover edition), and a small supplement with extra rules tweaks and some more example missions. You also get a map of the Mouse Territories, cards for combat actions, equipment and suchlike (very nice!), character sheets, pre-printed GM tracking sheets, dice, plastic mouse tokens (to model the wood(?) ones seen in the comic and used by the Mouse Guard leader to track patrols) and a GM screen.
This is a really impressive game. You don’t need to have read the comics beforehand (but it does help, of course). Since the core rules are based on Burning Wheel it’s a very robust and tested ruleset, and the additions (season rules, mission framing, etc) sound interesting – of course, final say on how fun they are rests on actual playtest, stuff like that is hard to evaluate just based on reading.