No Response From Deepmar is a standalone Pathfinder adventure module written by Stephen S. Greer. The premise and initial setup is promising, but unfortunately the execution falls somewhat short.
The setup has the PCs being tasked to investigate the sudden silence from an island-based penal colony (with various options to the “why get involved?” question). When they get there, they find the colony abandoned with no trace of anything wrong (shades of Roanoke here). Investigation and exploration follows.
….well, at least should follow. Unfortunately, this is where the module starts to stumble a bit. Due to the backstory of what’s actually going on, there is precious little for the PCs to investigate. There is one (and only one) vague clue available, and it doesn’t involve much investigation to find. As to the exploration… well, while we’re given a general map of the island and descriptions of locations there, it all seems a bit too random. Many of the possible encounters don’t make much sense, and the locations seem designed just to herd the PCs toward the one place on the map which actually is detailed.
When the PCs finally get to that location, they get a mediocre dungeon crawl, with lots and lots of “this area is not detailed here and can be expanded by the GM” notes. The end battle sound like a lot of fun, but otherwise it’s a bit meh. I got the impression that the main problem here was related to page count: this thing would have needed more bulk in order to really be a solid adventure location. The basic idea of a mysteriously abandoned island colony works fine, but the requirement of fitting this in the Paizo module page count has stripped away too much potential content which this thing really would have needed.
I hesitate to call this a bad module, it’s just that the GM would need to do quite a bit of extra work in order to fill this in and have it feel less like a railroad and more like the free-form investigation and exploration adventure it probably wants to be.
While I love Bujold’s Vorkosigan books in general, they vary a lot in quality. None of them are downright poor in my opinion, but the difference between the so-so ones and the great stuff (“Memory”, “A Civil Campaign”, etc) is vast. The two previous books in the loose series (“Diplomatic Immunity”, “Cryoburn”) have been in the so-so category – totally readable and competent, and good entertainment, but missing that something. I’m quite delighted to report that the latest book in the series, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, is a return to the old form. It’s quite excellent, and it kept me up a few late nights when I really should have been sleeping.
It’s somewhat reminiscent of “A Civil Campaign”, in that it’s a mix of romantic comedy and deadly intrigue; however, the plot and locale is very different this time around, as is the cast. Miles is mostly off stage, the protagonist here is Miles’ cousin Captain Ivan Vorpatril. Ivan is very different from Miles. While not stupid, he’s not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer either, especially when compared to his genius cousin. He’s quite comfortable in his life as military liaison, playing at being a ladies man and definitely not looking for the… “interesting” events which tend to happen around Miles. To his chagrin, those events come looking for him, this time around.
Things kick off when Byerly Vorrutyer, in the role of an undercover agent for Imperial Security, comes knocking and asks for a “small favor”. Ignoring the warning bells, partly because involved in this favor is a very beautiful young woman, apparently on the run from someone and in trouble, Ivan reluctantly agrees to look into the matter – and immediately gets more than he bargained for. Needless to say, things are not quite what they seem. After a flash decision at a key moment, Ivan’s life becomes extremely… interesting. Perhaps permanently.
I very much enjoyed this romp. The plot twists and turns, and I get the feeling that Bujold got some kicks out of using Ivan this time around, instead of the hyper-competent Miles. Many of the staple characters in the series make their appearance, but many normally center-stage people are kept in the sidelines here. There’s romance, action, diplomatic shenanigans, covert excavation work, ancient genetic research, and tons and tons of mud. Warmly recommended, though not necessarily to newcomers to the series – they should start with the Miles Vorkosigan books.
In case someone is wondering how I read this before the book is even released: no, I didn’t pirate a copy. I bought an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) ebook copy from Baen, which is essentially a copy of the book before the final proofread stage. I only spotted a few typos, so I’m confident that what I read is almost exactly the final product.
It’s been a good long while since I last read a book on Java. I’ve been using the language in my professional work for well over a decade, and while I don’t consider myself an authority on the language I do consider myself quite competent in using it. However, there is a tendency for a certain type of statis to set it in these matters; once you learn something to “good enough” levels and find techniques that work for you, you tend to settle into using those techniques and being happy. There’s nothing wrong with this as such, but with a dynamic environment it does mean that you may be missing out on new stuff – and Java has gotten quite a few tweaks and additions since I originally learned it. Some of these I use all the time, some I use now and then but don’t deeply understand, and some I’ve only heard of but never used.
Effective Java is a book than attempts to encapsulate best practices in programming with Java, including the new 1.6 additions. As the book notes, a lot of books concentrate on the basics of languages and the mechanical details, but the “how best to use this in practice” part is typically either missing or an afterthought. This book is only about that, it assumes you already know Java and have some experience with it.
The book has a ho-hum name and cover illustration, and doesn’t really scream “read me now!”. However, it’s been getting consistent rave reviews ever since the first edition, and this new edition is an updated one which (also) covers new features in the language and how to best use them (generics, enums, all that stuff). I mostly bought it based on the reviews, and I’m glad I did.
The book is a long list of “how best to” articles on various Java subjects, grouped by general subject. While the book says it’s not really mean to be read cover to cover, that’s precisely what I did and I found it a good read – the language used is light enough, while staying focused on the subject, and the discussion is quite fascinating. I learned a lot of stuff from this book, and while there are lots of things here which I do not do in my work programming, I at least know that I should be doing them. There’s very little if anything here that I disagree with, though some of the details here do not really apply in my work; the author has been involved in creating parts of the Java main libraries, where there is need to protect against hostile code linked with your own. In my own work, the danger of hostile code in the same EAR package is not a realistic one, so some of the issues here can be sidestepped. That said, it’s good to be aware of what is dangerous in theory and what isn’t, even if that danger isn’t a valid one for you at the moment.
All in all, I fully endorse the five-star reviews this book has been getting. If you consider yourself a Java programmer, you really can’t go wrong in reading this book. Chances are you’ll learn quite a bit (I did), and this book doesn’t insult your intelligence and try to teach you obvious things.
Panopticon is a game resource book for Eclipse Phase covering three areas: the ubiquitous surveilllance society which most parts of Transhumanity live in, the care and feeding of space habitats, and the theory and practice of “uplift”: taking animal species and “upgrading” them to near-human levels. All are key elements in the game world, and all have serious repercussions in how the game world is set up.
The first section, which also gives the book the “Panopticon” title, deals with the omnipresent surveillance that exists on most habitats, and how society deals with it. It’s very smartly written, and extrapolates many current “social media” trends into the far future. In a society where privacy is rare and fleeting (and may even cause suspicion), how do people with things to hide (i.e. most player characters) cope? Obviously, by exploiting the system. All complicated systems have flaws, and knowing what the weak links are is crucial. Also, hiding in plain sight and general misdirection can go a long way. It’s fascinating stuff. It’s a matter of opinion how believable this view of the future is, but one much remember that Eclipse Phase takes place after a near-extinction event. Societies become very malleable after something like that.
The second part deals with habitats, starting from basic “tin cans” to vast structures housing millions. While this is more straightforward stuff than the first section, the info here is good and very much grounded on science (with some creative extrapolations here and there). Many of the ideas here were familiar to me from other science fiction books, but that’s not a negative point; Eclipse Phase is very conscious of basing itself on a firm foundation of classic and new science fiction tropes.
Lastly we have a section on uplifts, including the history, the inevitable social and ethical problems associated with them, and the current “state of the art”. There’s a big difference between sleeving into a non-human morph and actually being an uplifted animal, both in how you perceive yourself and in how society perceives you. As can be guessed, racial prejudice can be a huge factor (in both directions).
Once again, this is an excellent add-on book for Eclipse Phase. While uplifts are an optional element in the game (if you don’t have uplift PCs and don’t use them as NPCs, they do not matter much), most of the action tends to take place on habitats of different types and features high-tech surveillance. Since the game default has the PCs acting as covert operatives, details on all of this tends to matter. A lot. This book is very much a “must buy” for this game.
Night’s Dark Masters has the subtitle “A Guide to Vampires”… and that’s exactly what the book is. It contains the detailed history of vampires (and related creatures) in the Warhammer world, and has stats for all the various flavors of fiends. I like the approach Warhammer has taken to vampirism; they have a quite specific origin story, though one which is largely unknown to non-vampires and which is shrouded in the mists of time. Instead of one predictable type of vampires, they are separated into different clans (shades of Vampire: the Masquerade here) which are very different from each other. This means that the GM can use vampires as antagonists while keeping the players (and the PCs) guessing about what exactly it is that they are facing. Some are vulnerable to the “traditional” things (sunlight, garlic, crossing water, etc), many are not.
The origin story is interesting, and the clans themselves are also interestingly varied, covering all the bases from the classic “Dracula” type down to a much more bestial Nosferatu-wannabe. As such, vampires make great major antagonists – they are powerful (but have major weaknesses), they are very intelligent, they generally love to manipulate events from the shadows. Great “evil mastermind” material. The book also discusses having vampires as PCs and provides some guidelines for doing it, starting with “it’s not a very good idea”. Unless you are running an all-vampire game, integrating a vampire with a more normal group will be difficult.
If you intend to use vampires in your Warhammer game (as a GM), you’ll want to read this book. It’s well-written and contains a ton of information and story ideas about the subject.
Raiders of the Fever Sea by Greg A. Vaughan continues the Skull & Shackles adventure path, and I’m happy to report that it follows the high quality of the first installment. Where the first part promised later free-form adventure for the PCs, this one delivers (though in somewhat restricted form, as written).
The last part left the PCs with their own ship, so the next question is, of course, “now what?”. Well, if the PCs were smart or lucky in the previous part, they befriended one of the important NPCs and can get useful hints from them. If not, well… that’s the price for ignoring social interaction opportunities. The adventure assumes that one of the first things the PCs will want to do is disguise their ship, so that their ex-captain doesn’t track them down. Of course, the PCs may do nothing of the sort.
This is of course the problem with sandboxes, at least one with a “main plot”: the PCs may do something totally weird. If they do, the GM has to just roll with it, and this module provides a lot of events and encounters to throw at the players, culminating with a “dungeon crawl” type assault on a hostile stronghold. Once again, the GM should provide means for the PCs to act and fight underwater, otherwise things won’t turn out all that well.
Overall, I found this to be a great continuation to the story, providing an event-based sandbox environment for the PCs to rampage in. The only criticism is that (due to page count reasons) many of the events and encounters only provide one way of dealing with them, which most likely will not be the way the PCs choose. Nothing that cannot be improvised around, but still it would have been nice to see some “what if?” type stuff taken into account. Also, it’s assumed that the PCs will “conquer” a certain island fortress; here, happily, multiple approaches to doing that are dealt with, including one that involves a marriage of convenience. Points for that. However, what if the PCs don’t feel like tackling the fortress at all, especially since they really have no driving need to do so, other than “it would make them more famous!”? Since much of the continuation plot depends on that fortress, that can be a real problem and force serious on-the-fly modifications from the GM. That said, stuff like this comes with the territory if you want to combine free-form sandboxes with a plot, which in general is a design I do like.
So far, this looks to be one of the better adventure paths to come out of Paizo’s design factory.
The vast majority of Cthulhu stories are about the threat of the Old Ones awakening “when the stars are right” (after which, presumably, humanity is utterly doomed). Cthulhu’s Reign is about what happens if the stars do become right. It’s a collection of Lovecraftian end-of-the-world and post-apocalypse scenarios, some about the event itself, some (most) about the apocalyptic aftermath. It’s not exactly happy reading, and the quality varies wildly. Some of the stories go in very interesting directions, while some are mediocre or bad (many of these do have interesting premises, it’s usually the execution that wavers).
The initial story is one of these not-so-good ones, with two-dimensional characters, a weird premise, and some strange details. It has its moments, but generally starts off the collection on an off note. The pace picks up after this, though, and some of the later stories are quite good and inventive. While most are very grim and contain more graphic violence than your normal Cthulhu story, the collection does contain one comedy piece (which is pretty good), and a few of the stories end with a vaguely hopeful note. Only a few, though. This is a collection of stories about humanity’s doom, after all.
I’d say this is worth a read if you have an interest in the Cthulhu mythos. This book covers a theme not often seen in other mythos tales, and while the quality is all over the map there are some great and memorable tales here. As a general horror collection, this only rates a so-so review as a whole.
Lure of the Liche Lord is loosely connected to the earlier Renegade Crowns book, which presented a toolkit for populating the Border Princes region. Here, we get an example campaign setting (in the Border Princes), focused on the ambitions of a certain long-dead (but restless) ancient ruler. A number of other (living) NPCs and kingdoms are also detailed, along with their political motivations, relations with each other, and such. It’s a complete region overview, which can be used to run a general freeform Warhammer campaign if desired. One thing I especially enjoyed here is the main “antagonist” NPC, who both is and isn’t an “undead horror”. Yes, he is undead and yes, he is a threat and arguably a horror; however, he is not portrayed as your typical “arrrrr, I hate all living things!” creature. He has fairly detailed backstory, and his motivations are a lot more complex than what is typical for this type of “undead villain” in most adventures. So, points for that.
The main focus and star of the show is, however, the tomb of the titular Liche Lord, which gets about two-thirds of the page count. In a nutshell, this is Warhammer’s version of the D&D “Tomb of Horrors”. Now, before you run away screaming, I have to say that this one makes a lot more sense, and the traps aren’t quite as ridiculous. There is a reason why this tomb is built like it is. It’s a huge affair and very nicely detailed, tomb raiding this one should be a lot of fun. But…
…the GM needs to be aware that this thing is deadly. Seriously deadly. Especially when you consider Warhammer’s ruleset, which is a lot more “gritty” than D&D and provides less provisions for the PCs to bounce back from “just a little case of death”. If I were to run this, I would tone down the number of traps a bit, I just don’t see any PC party surviving this. Depends on the party, of course… having an academic along with actual knowledge of old Khemri customs and beliefs will increase survival odds significantly. In any case, this is a death trap dungeon. It’s a pretty good one, and has a reason to exist, but it’s still full of death traps. A total party kill is easy, here.
I quite enjoyed this book. Even though most of the page count it dedicated to the tomb itself, the background on the region is quite enough to get a campaign going and the NPCs presented here are a nicely varied bunch; it seems like an interesting sandbox to dump some PCs into. The tomb itself is quite awesome, but needs some care and possible tweaking if actually used in the game.
The tomb itself could also be used for a one-shot game, with a pre-generated party suitable for raiding it, for some “Tomb Raider” fun in the spirit of the famous old “Tomb of Horrors” (where quite often the name of the game was seeing how far you get before you all die).
Lamentations of the Flame Princess is, first of all, a very strange name for a role-playing game. The author, James Edward Raggi IV, explains the origin of the name in this interview, in case someone really wants to know. Skipping the (admittedly cool) name, what is it? Well, it’s a “retroclone”, and a very interesting one.
A “retroclone” is a copy of old (first edition) Dungeons & Dragons, with modifications. This is quite legal due to the OGL, though there are various requirements – for example, you cannot use the name “Dungeons & Dragons” anywhere, so games end up using all sorts of stuff like “compatible with version X of the world’s most popular role-playing game” and such. But the legal side skips the important issue of “why?”. Why take an ancient game engine, with lots of weird design when compared to modern stuff, and use that as a basis for anything? I can see two reasons. One, there’s the nostalgia factor; lots of (older) people started off with 1st edition Dungeons and Dragons and still have fond memories of that. Second is compatibility; while the engine is old, it’s also quite simple and easy to tweak, and there’s a ton of material that is easy to convert for it.
So we’re left with “why one more retroclone, don’t we already have lots of them?”. I’m glad to answer that with “because this version goes in somewhat different directions compared to the original game”. LotFP terms itself “weird fantasy roleplaying”, and quotes authors like Howard and Lovecraft. The intent is to go in the old “sword & sorcery” direction, where magic is dangerous and erratic and not all tales have a happy ending. To this end, the box set (yes, it’s a boxed set) does some heavy modifications on basic D&D. First off, many of the classes and mechanics are tweaked. No more Thief, instead we have a Specialist which uses the game’s (also tweaked) skill system to emulate thieves and lots of other professions besides, for example. The spell lists are quite different from the base version (though some similarities remain). I have to admit it’s been ages since I last looked at the basic D&D ruleset so I’m sure I did not spot all the changes, but there’s a lot – in many ways, the game engine has been “modernized” to run better. While the game still has alignment, “good” and “evil” are gone, there is only “lawful”, “neutral” and “chaotic”. As someone who hates good/evil alignment distinctions, this is awesome. Oh, and magic users are all chaotic, to keep with the “sword and sorcery” tropes.
More importantly, there’s a huge emphasis on how to (and how not to) tell stories. There are no stock monsters here (a controversial choice, but one I do agree with), because the author felt that they diminish the scariness. If you can name it, it’s not a horror anymore, it’s just “one more kobold”. Same goes for magic items: the GM is strongly encouraged to keep them rare and unique. No +1 swords, for example. This is sure to be a shock to many old-school D&D players who lugged around +N swords like golf clubs, but I agree with the author on this one too.
Organization-wise, the kit is divided into three books: “Tuturial”, “Rules and Magic”, and “Referee”. The Tutorial is both awesome and a bit unnecessary. Awesome bacause it has one of the most complete examples of play I’ve ever seen, and a very comprehensive intro into the whole “what is roleplaying?” thing. I even includes a “Fighting Fantasy” -style solo adventure!. As for “unnecessary”… well, how many total newbies are going to pick this one up and try to figure it out by themselves? I’d guess not that many.
The “Rules and Magic” book contains the meat of the thing: rules, spell lists (both magic user and cleric), that sort of thing. There’s also a lot of cool, inventive stuff like a randomized summoned creature generator (with some potentially very nasty results). Finally, there’s the “Referee” book, which contains a lot of advise on how to run the game and set the tone.
My copy is the “Grindhouse Edition”, which contains definitely NSFW art with gore and full nudity. I found this to be a nice touch, in keeping with the “Sword & Sorcery” game theme, but I’m sure there are many Americans and other prudes who will be shocked (shocked, I tell you!) and seeing pictures of nude people (and creatures). Those people should probably get the “Deluxe Set”, which is an earlier edition with tamer art (and some extra included adventure modules).
While the game is certainly not to everyone’s taste (ruleset based on old D&D, NSFW art and an emphasis on sword & sorcery and horror instead of stock D&D hack&slash), I must say I really liked it, much more than I was expecting.The ruleset is compact, there are lots of inventive tweaks, and there’s a ton of pre-generated material out there that could be run with this for a very different feel (just remember to remove most of the pre-generated magic items and huge piles of loot, and to replace the monsters with your own creations). I especially liked the emphasis on style and tone, and also on making magic and monsters unpredictable and dangerous. Far from being a direct clone of D&D, this game is something interesting on its own.
As an aside, the redheaded swords-woman on the box cover looks very much like a real-life swords-woman I know, which is an interesting coincidence. I very much doubt the picture is actually based on her.
The Wormwood Mutiny begins the new “Skull & Shackles” adventure path for Pathfinder. Written by veteran Richard Pett, it’s a somewhat unusual start to an adventure path and one I really liked: instead of having the PCs start off as the usual “heroes in training”, here they are wannabe pirates or suchlike random losers, who get press ganged onto a pirate ship and forced to work as part of the crew (doing low-level work). No fancy equipment, and only one step up from slavery. Now, not all play groups will be fine with this by default, so this requires agreement and player buy-in at the start. Doubly so, since the whole adventure path has the PCs becoming pirates… in other words, doing the looting & pillaging thing, punctuated by random murder. In other words, the PCs will not become heroes in the traditional sense; they may become infamous pirate lords. That’s not to say that the PCs need to be strictly evil, but Paladins and such need not apply.
Assuming player buy-in to the general concept, this thing rocks. The first half has the PCs getting familiar with shipboard life, including intrigue (maybe trying to get some of their original stuff back), social maneuvering (deciding who to befriend) and general keeping a lookout for trouble (most of their crewmates are at best indifferent to them, with some being actively hostile). This first part is also unusual because it gives real benefit to PCs with suitable non-combat skills. The man antagonists here are the captain and his cronies, but the PCs are not expected to fight them (attempts at such will result in pain), they are expected to get a huge grudge which they might get to pay back later if they play their cards right.
After the “intro” half, the action picks up a bit: after being assigned to a recently-seized ship, the PCs are sent over to a “deserted” island to gather up some much-needed fresh water. Things are not quite that simple, of course, and at the end of the thing the PCs may find their general situation much changed (and improved).
The book also contains rules for tracking piratical “Infamy” and other meters which tell the story of their exploits and have direct mechanical effects in later parts. Also abstracted is loot, since it’s not useful to have the PCs do a coin-by-coin count of all plunder. They seem like nice mechanics, though some of the details are a bit weird – the PCs and their ship gain all sorts of mystical powers as their Infamy increases. One assumes that these are the results of “off-camera” gain of magical gear and such, but that is not explicitly stated in the book so the GM needs to improvise here and there.
The first half of the adventure has very little combat (a plus in my book), while the second half has more of the usual combat encounters. Many of these involve aquatic and/or underwater locations, so the GM would be advised to provide the PCs with various means to deal with that.
This is an extremely fun-sounding adventure path; it looks like the whole thing is aiming for a sandbox style with a “Pirates of the Caribbean” feel. This is not historical piracy, this is very much “pulp pirates” and high adventure. Since that’s what most players will most likely prefer, I think this path would be a blast to play through assuming the quality stays at this level. Sandboxes are cool, as long as they are populated with interesting stuff to do. This one seems to be.
You do need player buy-in for this… but honestly, how many players would not be in for some “D&D Pirates of the Caribbean” action, especially when they get to be infamous pirates and decide their own fate? For once, no need to play do-good heroes.