Knights of the Grail is a sourcebook detailing Bretonia (in the Warhammer fantasy world), a dark reflection of French medieval feudalism and Arthurian tales – with some dark humor thrown into the mix. I’ve gotten the impression that Bretonia has been described in multiple very different ways in the Warhammer game line (taking the wargame also into account), and that this book pushes things more in the Arthurian myth directions than the previous books did. In any case, it’s well-written and quite different from the Empire, so the potential for PC party shenanigans is huge here.
First off, I have to say that I’m not sure I could ever use this myself. Not because the book is bad (quite the opposite), but because the amount of Monty Python jokes flying around would be just too much to handle. Bretonia is a feudal system, rules by an aristocratic class which includes knights, especially the so-called “Grail Knights” – knights who have encountered the elusive goddess of the region, the Lady of the Lake. She is apparently real, and she changes knights she deigns to meet with significantly. On the other hand, the book quite clearly hints that the Lady is actually some sort of scam run by the Elves. The real truth isn’t ever laid out here, so the GM can make his/her own decisions about the nature of the Lady.
Below the knightly orders are the vast teeming hordes of peasantry. In theory, the peasants toil in the fields, giving most of their produce to their lords, and lords in return protect them from all harm and make sure their lives are reasonably decent. The first half of that almost always comes true, the second half… not so much. For every knight who actually cares for “his” peasants there are many others who view them as sub-human scum, good only for terrorizing and working to death.
Returning to the Lady… while women are strictly stay-at-homes here (women PCs need to disguise themselves as men, in most cases, a practice common in Bretonia), the Lady apparently takes come girls as children and trains them into Grail Damsels, combinations of priestess and low-level sorcerer. What exactly happens to the children after they are kidnapped is left as a mystery, much as the final identity of the Lady is.
There’s a lot of info in the book. Laws, a gazetteer of the region, customs, details on how knighthood works, etc. There’s easily enough here to run a game in the region, or at least get started with decent amounts of background pre-generated. The book ends with a short adventure, “Ill Tidings”, which is intended as an intro for foreign PCs arriving in Bretonia. It’s quite fun, and should work nicely as an intro.
Overall, a very good supplement. Lots of information about an interesting region, written in an engaging manner.
The Hungry Storm (by Jason Nelson) brings us to the halfway point in the Jade Regent adventure path. We were promised a road trip of sorts in this adventure path, and this installment delivers on that.
The PCs travel across the “Crown of the World”, a mountainous arctic region separating major continents. The adventure assumes that the PCs keep their caravan along with them, and plays heavily on the “caravan rules” subsystem introduced in the earlier modules. Players who enjoy some amount of strategy and logistics will probably like this element a lot, players who want everything to be directly resolved via their characters’ superpowers without any metagame in between will probably hate it. Fortunately, the caravan stuff can be stripped out if the PCs have decided to go it on their own or if the players are likely to hate it – though in that case, the players will have to come up with some semi-believable arctic survival schemes for their characters. Since we’re talking about vast distances across arctic plains here, “we just walk and carry our stuff” may not be realistic. That said, D&D has never exactly relied on “realism” to begin with… and anyway, I’m not quite sure how a caravan (with wheeled wagons) would realistically fare on such wastes.
Plotwise it’s mostly good. There’s an initial encounter with an arctic tribe, with lots of opportunities for social roleplaying. Depending on how that bit goes, the PCs may get either some help or some major obstacles on their way. It’s assumed here that the PCs involve themselves with what’s going on in the village, if they don’t then the first portion of the adventure will be skipped – but that does give the GM ammo to make their trip very difficult later. Of course, forcing the PCs to do certain things, even if you do it in a roundabout way, may feel like railroading, so a light GM touch is needed here.
After the semi-freeform beginning, the PCs are strongly guided towards a mysterious tower, which is a bit disappointing: it’s essentially a dungeon crawl, with tons and tons of combat. To my taste, this is a bit boring compared to the much more interesting beginning setup for it. Oh well, combat can always be reduced or eliminated completely if needs be.
The end has them surviving the arduous trek across the wastes, with (likely) some unscheduled reroutes along the way. Overall, I mostly liked this adventure, it delivers on the “road trip” concept and I liked the logistical needs of the caravan subsystem (though I’m sure some others will strongly disagree). My only minus is the overly combat-oriented section in the middle, I would have preferred something more subtle and puzzle-oriented there.
We Few continues the “Prince Roger” series of books. I had been expecting to say “concludes” here, but the ending, while it does wrap up most issues, is still a bit open – I would not be too surprised to see some more books come out sometime later. It shifts gears from the first three books, instead of jungle combat and dealings with barbarian tribes, here Prince Roger and his by now quite small band of merry men (and ladies) are offplanet, destination the Imperial capital. They’ve been framed as traitors, responsible for the death of the rest of the Imperial family, and Roger’s mother is apparently being help hostage by powers attempting a coup. Cue action.
It’s a fun romp. Roger and his allies seize upon a… novel method of infiltrating the capital, one which causes no small amount of entertaining scenes. Like the earlier books, it’s (very) lightweight entertainment but mostly works well. The action keep chugging along, and Roger gets some flaws which make him a bit more interesting than before. Most of the main characters are still somewhat two-dimensional and some of the plot twists are quite predictable… but still, it’s a fun read.
I’ve written before about the genesis of Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition, so I won’t reiterate much of that here. Long pre-order period, original one-volume luxury edition only available for people who pre-ordered (or attended the Grand Masquerade in person), etc etc. Now that I actually have the book and have read it, I’ll start with this: the book is absolutely gorgeous, it’s probably the fanciest and more impressive rpg book I own currently. It’s also huge.
The book is now also available via DriveThruRPG’s print-on-demand (“Now In Print”) scheme, though the cover there is a normal book cover and not the embossed faux-leather used here. The black & white edition is available as one volume , while the color version is split into two tomes because of print-technical reasons. If you want a one-volume full-color edition… too bad. You can’t have my copy, so eBay is your best bet. Be prepared to pay mucho cash. I do suggest you get the color version, even if it is two separate volumes, since there’s a lot of beautiful new full-color art here.
Enough about the physical presentation, what about the content? Well, I’m happy to report that it’s also fantastic. They’ve taken the whole Masquerade core, updated and totally revised it, and then added similarly updated and revised versions of Sabbat and most independent clans there. All Disciplines (including very weird and rare bloodline disciplines) are described up to 9 dots, and are heavily revised. I’ve never actually played or run tabletop Vampire so I did not catch all the changes, but a lot has been tweaked in this book (most due to fan input). In general, Discipline power level has been slightly reduced (at least at certain gonzo levels), and many old loopholes have been closed. Lots of things have been streamlined, for example Mortis is now a Necromancy path, and in general the layout of the various disciplines is more logical than much of the old rambling mess. Skills have been streamlined a bit, and in general things have been tweaked all over the place.
In short, this book contains a distillation of the major Vampire books over the last 20 years, with fixes to issues that have cropped up and general streamlining. To me, this is very much the “ultimate” version of Vampire: the Masquerade, and the version I would use if I were to run that game at some point. While I’m sure some people will gripe at the various nerfs to this and that uber-power, I see the general balancing of the power levels as purely a good thing.
The book leans heavily on the Revised edition of Vampire, but most of the metaplot events incorporated in that edition (or published after) have been relegated to the sidelines and sidebars here. Some others are mentioned as “rumors” and options, so that the GM can decide to either use them or now. They did keep some of the really stupid shit, though, there is still mention of the Week of Nightmares (though that, too, is thankfully left quite vague, so the GM can do the smart thing and ignore it). There is mention of the Tremere Antitribu maybe suffering a mass die-off… but it also is left somewhat vague. Overall, I think this is a good approach – there were some cool bits in the WoD metaplot, but also some astoundingly stupid bits. Mentioning them but leaving them open to interpretation is probably the wisest path to take, here.
I cannot really find much to gripe about this book. It’s a massive single-tome compendium of the whole expanded Vampire core, including Camarilla, Sabbat, the Independents and lots of bizarre bloodlines to boot. It contains revised and tweaked rules for everything, based on 20 years of “playtest” (i.e. fan input). Sure, the biggest value of this book is probably to collectors and people who remember the game with nostalgia – but honestly, purely as a game core book, this thing rocks. The layout is clear, the art is a combination of the old classic stuff and very pretty new pieces, and the game itself… well, it’s a classic.
The lazy approach would have been for White Wolf to cut+paste pieces from the old books, slap some fancy covers on, and call it an “Anniversary Edition” (I’m looking at you here, Chaosium). They didn’t do anything remotely like that, a huge amount of work went into writing and polishing this thing, and it shows. It’s clearly a labor of love for the writers, too.
The Warhammer 2nd edition core rulebook provided only a fairly barebones version of sorcery rules, like it did for religious “spells” and many other subjects. This is not a put-down on the main corebook, it’s just an acknowledgement of space constraints. Realms of Sorcery aims to fix that… and to a large degree, succeeds.
The book aims to provide Warhammer magic with flavor and character, not just some “burn mana and get a fireball” system. To this end, magic is separated into different “winds” (or colors), shades of an underlying magical force which different people are sensitive to, in different degrees. Theoretically, one could manipulate several magical “colors” at once, but Humans find that extremely difficult, so generally one “mage” focuses on one type of magic. Spells take great concentration to cast, and failures can be very bad due to the close relationship of magic and the forces of Chaos.
Where the book shines is the back story behind the Magical Colleges of the Empire, and the Colleges themselves. Each color/type of magic shapes the mage, and therefore also shapes the magical organizations, the Colleges. They are all quite different, with varying focuses, ways of taking in and teaching students, and political interests. Naturally enough, the book also provides a huge spell list, much expanded from the one in the core book. For anyone looking to play a sorcerer in Warhammer, this book provides them with most of what they need. It also provides GMS with lots of background information and color on the Colleges and magical society in general – including the illegal forms like witches, warlocks and other probable Chaos-worshipers.
I say “most of” above, since the book leaves out some things. There is little information on rituals, even though those feature in quite a few Warhammer scenarios. Also, there is no real information on low-level spells, what would be “cantrips” in other systems. One assumes stuff like that exists, and the flavor text hints in that direction, but the actual rules support for that isn’t to be found here.
Those faults are fairly minor in my view, seeing as the book as a lot of information and make magic use in Warhammer both interesting and potentially explosive. It’s very different from the flavorless and safe magic in D&D variants; here, using magic makes you shunned (if not actively hated) in society, and runs high risk of making you insane, inviting demonic possession, or just plain blowing you and your companions to bits. Safe, it really isn’t. And that’s good, I feel that “safe” magic is usually also boring magic.
March to the Stars is the third part of Weber & Ringo’s “Price Roger” series. It’s been a long while since I read the first few books, but since the book starts with a recap that wasn’t a big hinderance. Now, this is pure mind candy; maybe not in the “yum, delicious!” sense, but at least in the “easy entertainment” sense. Whether or not you enjoy it depends a lot on how you view “pure entertainment” books in general. This one is pure pulp action adventure.
The plot continues where the previous book left off. Stranded on the planet Marduk, the supposedly useless and spoiled Prince Roger (of a greater human Earth-based empire) together with what remains of “his” space marines battle their way over a hostile planet, trying to reach the space port… which is held by the enemy. Price Roger is now established to actually be not at all useless, so there is less character development on that front than in the previous books. Actually, Roger is shown to be a bit too awesome at times here, I think it worked better when he was a bit less of a general superhero. Anyway, there main portion of the book consists of an ocean voyage, ending up at the shores of a hostile nation. Things happen, and the marines end up helping one group of barbarians against another, nastier group. So far, so standard in this series. However, the end part throws some new spin into the mix. Turns out taking the space port is actually a bit anticlimactic — but getting transit off-planet is anything but. There is also a major plot twist that pretty much screams “more books coming up!”. I’ll avoid spoilers here.
Like I said, it’s ultra-lightweight semi-military adventure scifi. I’m somewhat reminded of the old adventure tales, where a heroic (white, and usually English) man goes off to some exotic location, and ends up helping the local Noble Savages by being so awesome and British, and ending up with all the locals admiring him and his culture. Here, humans are those “white English” and the native Mardukans are those “noble savages”. It could be annoying, but I get the feeling that it’s done at least somewhat intentionally here so mostly it’s just works as flavor and a nod to some retro “adventure romance novels”. The politically right-wing leanings of the authors are mostly kept in check… sure, the main bad guys are communist eco-fanatics, and most the individual bad guys seem to have foreign and vaguely Italian names (with lots of sinisted moustache twirling), but at least some of that has to be a deliberate campy touch. When all is said and done, it’s an entertaining read, especially as travel entertainment when you’re not feeling like anything which requires actual thought.