The Midnight Mirror is a standalone adventure module, written by newcomer Sam Zeitlin (winner of Paizo’s 2011 “RPG Superstar” contest). It’s mostly a quite interesting affair, with emphasis on investigation instead of endless combat encounters. The action is set in a remote county, where the dominant religion centers around pain (the priests have lots of piercings, for example), and while that’s a fun detail it doesn’t really have much relevance here except as a possible red herring. The local baron has been acting strangely for quite a while, and there is a new and virulent disease running amok. The PCs are sent over on request from the family of the Baron’s new(ish) wife. who worry about their daughter and her reports about the instability of the Baron.
On getting to the site, the PCs are presented with a variety of strangeness, and have free rein to investigate things. It’s a sandboxy affair, with certain plot layers being revealed only when (or if) the PCs uncover certain things. That’s nice design, but what’s less good is that as written, many of these clues require Knowledge checks… and no provision is given for the PCs failing at those. That’s bad, especially since some of the checks are quite challenging. I’d suggest the GM in most places just give the PCs their clues depending on what they do and who they talk to, and only use Knowledge checks for some specific extra detail. Otherwise, as written, things are in danger of grinding to a halt.
Another small weirdness is that a non-human race is used, but no stats or actual info on that race is given here. Apparently it’s from some outside source, but without access to that the GM has very little to go on. As such, the other race is used nicely to highlight racial tension and old prejudices, on of the many themes here.
There’s quite a bit going on here, especially taking the limited page count into account, so the GM is advised to read the whole thing a few times to make sure he/she knows what’s really going on. That said, other than the small niggles noted above, I found this to be a pretty nice investigation-heavy scenario.
White Wolf’s record with pre-generated adventures and campaigns is… spotty, if we’re being generous. While there are gems in there, many of them are overly-railroaded things where the PCs just get to watch various NPCs do their thing. Since I was still a bit lukewarm towards the new Mage, I wasn’t expecting much from the only campaign published for it. Well, chalk up one more in the “new Mage book ends up being much better than expected” department.
I’ll go one further: Reign of the Exarchs actually made me want to run the new Mage. No mean feat. It really is that good.
It’s a (very) loosely connected set of five scenarios, each concerning an ancient artifact, of reputed Exarch origin (having belonged to a mythical “Dethroned Queen”, who once may have been one of the Exarchs). Of course, that sort of setup is somewhat cliched, but it’s not really a “find five mystical McGuffins!” plot – it’s more clever than that. Now, as adversaries, the Exarchs are deliberately vague in the new Mage game line (a fact I find detracts from the game a bit, leaving it with a poorly defined main “bad guy” set). This book follows that premise, and I must admit here it works nicely; while the PCs encounter numerous followers of the Exarchs (or at least, people who believe they are serving the Exarchs), there is never any direct proof that the Exarchs even exist. It adds a very nice layer of paranoia to these scenarios, which is of course the intention for the whole game line.
Each of the scenarios is written by a different author and has a very different theme and plot structure. I find this to be a good thing, but readers hoping for a unified tone for the whole campaign may see it as a minus. All are competently written, and while I ran into some uncaught grammar mistakes, it wasn’t anything above the White Wolf norm of bugs. It’s quite a readable book.
The five scenarios can be run in any order (except for the last one). There is a default order (the one in the book), but it’s only a suggestion. None of the scenarios absolutely depend on the others, so some can be skipped if the PCs refuse to do things that the writers intend. This is nice design.
The first scenario is a setup for the PCs. A stranger, on the run from bad guys (or so he claims) invokes the Right of Hospitality on the PCs. It’s assumed that the PCs don’t buck tradition, and give shelter. Political shenanigans follow. Some assumptions about how the PCs work and live is made here, along with some assumptions about the local political setup, but those are easy enough to work around if they don’t match the assumptions. The scenario assumes some competence (i.e. experience) from the PCs, so it’s probably a good idea to either beef up default new characters a bit (if creating PCs just for use in this campaign) or to run some other scenarios before thumping this on the PCs. It’s a fun scenario overall, and lets politically and socially savvy PCs do their thing. Of course, the PCs can short-circuit the whole thing by refusing to follow the Right of Hospitality – in which case the GM can dump other sorts of fallout on them.
The second scenario involves a friendly NPC (ideally foreshadowed before this), who starts behaving in a strange way. Lots of investigation is involved, and it may lead the PCs into very strange places. The nice thing here is that what the PCs do will have a huge effect in what happens to the NPC, and followup results (some of which are potentially very very nasty). Also, the scenario gets points for introducing a group of Seers who aren’t (strictly) bad guys. Should be good for lots of potential moral conflicts, along with some creepy scenes.
The third scenario is easily me favorite here, but unfortunately I cannot say much about it here without spoilers. Written by the esteemed Robin D. Laws, it’s a total con job on the players (not the PCs), allowing player preconceptions to lead them into ruin. It requires quite a bit of setup and is probably a bitch to run successfully – but damn, if it works the results should be awesome. The player expressions when they realize what’s really going on should be priceless. This is a really fantastic scenario, and very very imaginative.
Fourth is a “layers upon layers” scenario, where an investigation about weird scrawled symbols leads to the PCs getting attacked by something extremely nasty, and further investigation reveals more and more players in the game. Where does it end? Does it end? That’s one for the PCs to figure out. The nice thing here is that it’s quite possible that the PCs never get to the bottom of things, and that’s fine. This one works nicely even if the PCs fall for the first level(s) of misdirection. They just lose out on some extra complications.
The last scenario offers a potential way to actually ascend to the Supernal, to join the Exarchs. Maybe. First, the PCs have to claim the artifact, which probably involves a commando-style raid on a Seer stronghold. Next, the PCs need to decide what to do. Do they really want to activate an artifact that reputedly makes you into an Exarch? Do the Exarchs even exist? If not, what does the artifact really do? It’s a nice combo of stealth + action and paranoia to end the campaign.
Like I said, I really liked this book. While there are nits to pick (“why do the Exarchs, if they exist, allow these weapons against them to exist in the first place?”, for example), there’s nothing that I could not either ignore or explain away. The scenarios do a great job of throwing all sorts of unexpected stuff at the PCs, ideally keeping them in a somewhat paranoid state. Many of the scenarios do require some prepwork, though, and many contain elements which should ideally be introduced in earlier parts in order to keep the story flowing along. In other words, this isn’t something that a GM can just quickly read and then start running, it’s more like a detailed framework for a campaign that still needs a bit of customization and detail-work before showtime. Most GMs will probably want to inject their own scenarios between the ones here, and tweak some of these to better suit their style.
Tim Powers ranks among my favorite writers. He’s not to everyone’s taste, but there is something in his tales of supernatural Americana and general strangeness that works for me. Strange Itineraries is his first short story collection, and it proves he’s by no means just a novel writer. Most of the stories deal with Powers staples: ghosts, time travel and the fantastic overlaid on mundane Californian scenery. Since this is Powers we’re talking about, there’s a lot of weird here, and few of the stories are completely straightforward or easy to analyze. Almost all of them are very good, though.
You need to pay attention while reading. Tim Powers does time travel stories in ways that usually make your head spin, and they sometimes feature vicious loops and re-iterations as a theme. The same goes for his ghost stories: while they very much are ghost stories, the ghosts here are not your typical fare. Well, not always at any rate.
One standout story is “Pat Moore”, where the titular Pat Moore finds himself facing a sawed-off shotgun from an adjacent car… and having dodged that, finds that he has a “guardian angel” along for the ride. One with an agenda. It all has to do with chain letters, ghosts, and maybe his dead wife. Another great one is “50 Cents”, where a guy driving across the desert encounters hitchhikers who are far from normal. Also worth a mention is the early story “The Way Down the Hill”, one of the more straightforward tales here, about a group of secretive and parasitical immortals. While some of the stories are extremely strange and a bit hard to figure out, none of them are out-and-out bad.
If you like Tim Powers, you’ll probably like this. If you don’t, you probably won’t. If you haven’t read anything from him before… well, ideally first read Declare and Last Call and only then read this, but this book will do by itself to give you a taste.
Renegade Crowns is a somewhat different take on the “regional sourcebook” theme. Normally, in something like this we’d get a gazetteer of a region, and various articles about the natives, customs and what have you, along with some plot hook. However, this book is about the “Border Princes” region, intended by the designers to be a “sandbox” area for whatever tiny kingdoms and factions the GM wants to install there. How do you describe a sandbox?
The approach taken here is: don’t describe it, instead create a toolkit for creating that sandbox. So instead of descriptions, most of the book consists of a system for semi-randomly generating the geography for a region, and then for populating that region with factions and their rulers (along with motivations etc for the rulers). Lots of tables are involved, but that’s not a negative; it seems like a nice and quite straightforward system for generating custom-made “border princedoms” for your game. The book also contains a detailed example, with the final product (along with map) as an appendix. So yes, you can buy this book and just use the pre-generated area as-is, it’s pretty decent and contains some fun plot hooks. However, the “meat” here is the mini-kingdom generation system. It’s “semi” random since the book explicitly tells you to use random rolls as inspiration, not as a strict tool; you’re supposed to ignore/reroll stuff that doesn’t make sense. Sane people will do that anyway, of course, but it’s nice to see that explicitly spelled out. The example also contains bits where nonsensical results are rolled, and then substituted with something that works better.
I really liked this book, it’s a clever toolkit and conforms to the original “keep this area of the game world officially undefined” idea, while at the same time allowing you to populate it without too much hassle. Sure, you could just come up with random stuff without this book, but I think most GMs would find this a nice tool, if nothing else it’s a nice source of additional ideas.
While it’s geared for the Warhammer world, this should be useable with some tweaking for lots of other fantasy rpgs, too. For example, Exalted has the “Thousand Kingdoms” area which is identical in design concept to “Border Princes” (explicitly undefined GM sandbox). Using this book to populate a part of it would probably work pretty well, swapping Warhammer details (like Ork tribes) for suitable Exalted replacements).
The results of yet another successful Kickstarter, the long-delayed Extraterrestrials Sourcebook for Conspiracy X 2.0 has now finally seen the light, with more books for the game line incoming. As the title implies, it’s a sourcebook about aliens for use in the game.
The book contains descriptions of three alien species (though if we’re pedantic, two of the species have tight (pre)historic ties with Earth so it’s debatable if they really qualify as “alien”). The first of these are the Atlanteans, who aren’t really from Atlantis in this game, that’s just the name of one of their Earth cities and also a bastardization of their own name for themselves. Semi-immortal humanoids, they are secretly the original progenitors of humanity and now lurk in the fringes, mainly concerned with high-stakes deadly games versus each other. This section is a mixed bag, there’s a lot of interesting stuff here mixed with some details which I found somewhat dubious. The time spans involved seem overly huge for anything as cohesive as this as a culture, for example.
Next up we get the Greys, who represent your typical “UFO visitor” (including references and reasons for cow mutilation!). Here they are given the twist of being originally aquatic, which is a bit strange but at least gets points for originality. They are highly psionic, and have come to Earth to figure out why the planet is a source of psionic “static” which plays hell with Greys and indirectly caused a major disaster for the race. Again, lots of interesting stuff mixed with some dubious material; again, scale becomes a “huh?” factor, this time scale involving distance instead of time. So there’s some psionic interference coming from Earth, and it’s powerful enough to disrupt a race hundreds of light-years away? Sure, we’re talking about a supernatural effect, but it was still a bit of a “huh” moment for me.
Last there’s the Saurians, an aggressive reptilian race. I originally expected these to be the least interesting, but was proved totally wrong: this is the most interesting segment in the book, the race is much more multi-faceted than I expected, and the reason they went away (and are now coming back), is very cool. It involves physics, which the two earlier race history descriptions tend to skip as irrelevant.
I found the book a bit slow to read through, partly because the writing was only so-so. I can’t really place my finger on the problem; there are few actual spelling or grammar errors, it’s more a question of the text being a bit dry. I would have expected more readability from a book about alien races, to be honest.
In sum, it’s a decent book with three quite detailed and very different alien races. I had some minor problems with some of the details, but there’s nothing here than a GM can’t easily tweak to suit tastes. Naturally enough, Unisystem game stats are included for the example NPC aliens and their gear, so this book should be easy to incorporate into pretty much any (modern-day) Unisystem game.
Epiphany of the Long Sun forms the second half of the Book of the Long Sun series, combining the books Caldé of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun. It continues right after the events in the first part, where Silk was being (reluctantly) hailed as a new potential Caldé (leader) and also potential opposition to the “temporarily” ruling political body. Events continue to ramp up, and the city spirals down into civil war. Silk himself sees the whole political angle as mostly a distraction, since his own private mission is guiding the whole population of the artificial world (Whorl) to a new home, as guided by the mysterious Outsider god. Of course, the fact that there seems to be a war going on between the “gods” (who actually are artificial AI entities, apparently copies of an original ruling family).
Like the first part, there’s a lot to like here. The main characters are multifaceted and quite interesting, and the world itself is a nice baroque mixture of antique ruins, old weird technology, and civilizations long-removed from old Earth ones. As always, Wolfe is a great writer and the language he uses is complex and colorful.
On the flipside, there are annoyances here which detract from the story. The biggest one is the fact that the tale completely skips some major parts and leaves way too many plot threads dangling. A small amount of that would be fine, not all plots need to be fully resolved. Here, however, there is very little resolution of several major factors. Most annoyingly, the whole sequence where Silk finally reaches Mainframe and possibly gets some clarity about the true nature of the gods and the Outsider is… missing. We get a part where Silk is going there, and then the story skips forward and suddenly we’re in an escape ship, heading towards a planet down below. Silk apparently found many of his answers., but do we get any? No. Maybe we’re supposed to figure everything out from small hints, maybe Wolfe didn’t see wrapping up stuff like that as important… don’t know. What I do know is that the story leaves the reader vaguely unsatisfied.
All this is connected to another flaw, a stylistic trick Wolfe uses. He has a habit of having his characters about to enter a dangerous situation… and then ending the chapter, and continuing from some future point, where what actually happened is only indirectly hinted at. Done now and then (as in the first half of the series), it works. Done all the time, as it is here, it gets very annoying, and adds to the general confusion of the tale. Perhaps all this has to do with Wolfe’s love of unreliable narrators, since this tale is also one with that (even though that fact is only revealed belatedly). Perhaps the jerky narrative is intended to transmit the writings of a follower of Silk’s, who is probably making him into more of a messiah figure than he actually was. We don’t know. Whatever the intent, it doesn’t completely work here, the end result is a very confusing tale.
In the end, the second half of the series doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the first part. It’s obviously worth reading for anyone who has read the first half, and the series as a whole is still recommended. It’s just that too many unresolved issues and some confusing tale-telling mannerisms detract from the whole.
Dinocalypse Now is the first part of a trilogy based on the Spirit of the Century roleplaying game and its iconic characters. It’s also based on a Kickstarter which way exceeded its goals. They asked for $5,000 and got over $42,000, so the original book expanded into a trilogy and some other books too (coming later).
It’s a fun classic pulp romp, on the weird end of the scale. Jetpacks! Zeppelins! Intelligent apes! Dinosaurs! Mysterious vanished cities! Invading cave men! Some more dinosaurs!
The action starts with one of the protagonists falling to his death while dinosaur assassins go for the President (or the United States), and doesn’t let up much from there. This is very lightweight stuff, ideal for summer reading, but the pacing is generally good and the characters, while (intentionally) pulp-stereotyped, and interesting enough to keep the story going. A couple of fun plot twists kept the plot from being too obvious, and in the end the book has laid the groundwork for the rest of the trilogy (including the introduction of an Evil Mastermind, gotta have one of those).
Well worth a read if slightly tongue-in-cheek classic pulp action is to your liking. Don’t expect much beyond that, though.
It’s a well-established fact that the Mage: the Awakening core book is a lousy introduction to the game. Besides being boring as hell to read, it does a poor job is explaining many things in a way that makes any lasting impression on the reader. Among there less than ideally detailed things were the Paths. The basic idea behind the paths was quite straightforward, but what the five Paths actually were and represented was much less so. The obscure faux-Greek names did not help, either.
Tome of the Watchtowers attempts to fix that. The structure here is very simple: the book has five chapters, one per each Path. We get general descriptions, historical notes, some example NPCs, a new Legacy for each, and such.
It’s starting to become a pattern that I read a Mage: the Awakening book not expecting much (good) from it, and end up very positively surprised. It happened here, once again. I was expecting a very dry discourse on the metaphysical Paths, but the actual writing was mostly high-quality and quite entertaining. Also, a lot of the ideas here are quite cool and often quite non-stereotypical (not always, though). Best of all, it actually gave me a nice mental image of what the Paths are, which I was mostly lacking up to now. I’m still a bit confused about the Martigos, but less than before.
That’s not to say it’s all good. Some of the details were a bit weird, and overall the flipside of the “gave a good mental image of the Paths” is “resorts to gross stereotypes”. We’re told that virtually all Obrimos are and stay religious. Say what? So no atheists Awaken as Obrimos, and nobody gives up their religion on Awakening (even though that events is supposedly a world- and illusion-shattering event)? Also, we’re supposed to believe all Thyrsus mages are busy reverting to a primitive and bestial state. That really does not sync with their supposedly common “shaman” role.
So… some good, some bad. I found the “good” to be much more prevalent here, mainly because this book gave me a handle on what the Paths are and how they can be used in a game. However, the reader needs to be wary of some at times irritating levels of stereotyping, especially in the Thyrsus chapter.