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.
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.
Beyond the Doomsday Door continues the dungeon crawl-tastic Shattered Star adventure path with… a dungeon crawl! To its credit, it’s not a bad dungeon crawl and the backstory is quite good, including some of the key NPCs. There are weird, hostile monsters by the dozen, and various places where the GM can expand the thing if required.
This time around, the McGuffin of the week is located at the multifaith monastery Windsong Abbey, on the Varisian coast. The monastery itself is a nice idea, an inclusive multifaith retreat where are religions are welcome. Of course, since it’s the destination of a bunch of PCs, it’s doomed – in this case, pre-doomed, since by the time the PCs get there the place is a ruin occupied by hostile forces. In order to get their grubby hands on the artifact, the PCs need to (ta dah!) fight through multiple levels of monastery now filled with bad guys. There are also “doomsday doors” involved, strange ancient artifacts which reputedly guard… something.
It’s an ok jaunt. The monastery itself is quite fun, and some of the NPCs can even provide non-combat encounters (gasp). Most of the content is combat, though, and not too horribly interesting in itself.
This adventure path is looking more and more like a “meh” affair as far as I’m concerned. There are nice scenes here and there, but the endless dungeon crawly combat is boring (to me, at least). There is no larger plot worth noting, the “collect N artifacts” thing is so tired that it doesn’t really deserve the name “main plot”. All of this is still better than the “Second Darkness” and “Serpent’s Skull” paths, but that’s not saying much.
Doom Comes To Dustpawn is a compact Pathfinder module which mixes in pulp science fiction, of all things. A strange “meteor” has crashed near a small town, and the locals are reporting strange effects. Groups heading off to check the thing out do not return, and something seems to be approaching the town. Something not friendly.
In other words, is a classic B-movie “alien invasion” scenario, set in D&D environs. There’s a back story which explains things and sets them in a suitable context for Golarion, though how much the PCs will ever find out about the real back story is a bit of an issue. Not that it matters all that much. Part of the adventure is site-based, but there’s also an event-based structure in place since the PCs will be on a (loose) timetable here before all hell breaks loose. There’s a lot to like here; the structure is fairly loose and lets the PCs proceed in a variety of ways, and the plot throws some surprise curves at them – this isn’t quite the standard “aliens invade” scenario. The only weakness, really, is the opening hook. It’s a bog-standard and boring “stranger X hires you to investigate Y” thing. The module might work better if the PCs were to be involved with events right from the start, though that may require some tweaks to the structure.
Overall, a strong entry from Mike Welham, the winner of the 2012 “RPG Superstar” contest (run by Paizo to hook in new talent). For such a compact adventure, it’s refreshingly free-form in structure.
Jim Butcher really shook up his own Dresden Files formula with Changes, a book well worthy of its title. The follow-up, Ghost Story, has Harry Dresden dead (well, sort of), investigating his own murder. I liked that book, but some fans didn’t, worried that the beloved series was turning into something too different or running out of steam. The worry proved baseless, since Cold Days kicks ass. One of the better Dresden books in a while, it’s also a nonstop steamroller of a story, one of those where “I’ll just read one more chapter” easily turns into “ooops, why is it 4am already?”.
I think it’s quite something when the 14th(!) book in a long-running series manages to keep you on the edge of your seat and not repeat old formulas too much. Sure, a large portion of the regular side cast is here, and sure, there’s a lot of “Harry wins against impossible odds”. And yes, the power level escalates once again… but it all works. And Harry gets to kick Santa’s ass. No joke.
As far as the plot goes… I don’t want to spoil too much, but some things of semi-spoilery nature must be mentioned since they form the basis of the story itself. If you absolutely don’t want any spoilers of anything past Ghost Story, stop here. Go read something else. I hear there are kittens on the Internets.
Still here? Ok. Harry is no longer “Chicago’s only professional wizard”. He is also no longer dead. Both of those are related, and have to do with his new job: the Winter Knight of Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness. A job he really didn’t (and doesn’t) want, but was forced to take in order to save his daughter’s life. Turns out the job, or “mantle”, is a bit more complicated than just an occupation, it has a life of its own and it changes you. Harry wakes up in the Nevernever, and between murder attempts by Mab (seen as a form of therapy) starts to recuperate. Once he is more or less back in form, and only slowly realizing how much power the Winter Mantle actually gives him, he is given his first mission by Mab. Go kill someone. And oh, it’s an immortal being. And oh, you’re on a tight deadline. Have fun.
All this before he finds out that an apocalypse-level event is being planned back on Earth, and “his” mysterious island has something to do with it. We finally learn what the island is, and it (naturally enough) turns out to be yet another supernatural can of worms. We also learn the reason for the whole Winter Court… and it’s more than a bit unexpected.
This book is for the long-term fans of the series. It’s very, very good, and it also contains a ton of new revelations about the setting and the “people” (using the word loosely) inhabiting it. It also introduces more than a few new twists and complications, some which have had foreshadowing for a long time. Harry’s bouts with the Fae have always been fascinating; Summer Knight (book 4) was arguably the first really good Dresden Files book, and Harry’s complicated relationship with the Summer and Winter courts has always been a delightful read.
Jim Butcher has stated that he plans about 20 books in the series, with maybe a few beyond that to tie up loose ends. I’m not sure how much power escalation this series can take before falling apart… but then again, I’ve wondered that for a long while now, and have been proven wrong time and again. So far, Butcher has managed to keep Harry vulnerable (on multiple fronts), and to tell a rocking story. That’s what matters.
This story ends with a major event which will have ramifications for a long while. Poor Harry. And poor… well, that would be saying.