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.
“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.
What a difference 20 years makes. While the original Ashes To Ashes scenario wasn’t too horrible, it did partly suffer from the railroading that plagued most White Wolf modules and had the PCs being manipulated by forced they had no control over. Dust To Dust is a (very loose) sequel, written for the 20th Anniversary edition of Vampire, and using White Wolf/Onyx Path’s “SAS” format. It’s both a very good module in its own right, and it also showcases how far White Wolf (well, Onyx Path nowadays) have come over the years as far as scenario design goes.
The story is set in Gary, Indiana, which completes the circle in a way; Gary was the original home of the Neonate PCs in Ashes To Ashes even though the city itself did not feature there (it was briefly detailed in the original first edition Vampire and its intro adventure, which transitions into Ashes). It’s set more or less in the modern day, which doesn’t stop it from being a sequel, even a direct one, to Ashes – 20 years is nothing to vampires. That said, the assumption here is that the PCs will not be the same ones you may have used in the earlier adventures.
The theme here is urban decay and obsolescence, and its mirrored effects on vampires. While never being an important Kindred city, in older times Gary was semi-popular because it game some Kindred, especially the Anarchs, a safe-ish haven from Prince Lodin’s rule. In particular, it gave them a place where they could sire new vampires without fear of deadly retaliation. Now, with Lodin long dead, that reason has vanished and with it the lure of Gary itself. The city is slowly dying in the mortal world and also in the world of the Kindred; most have moved on, and only the die-hards are left, bickering over scraps left over. Prince Modius still “rules”, but there is precious little left for him to rule. Juggler still opposes him, but there also it’s more out of old antagonistic habit than anything else, his own schemes of turning Gary into an Anarch stronghold having failed over and over again.
Into this graveyard of past ambitions stumble the PCs, along with a few other NPCs with agendas. Before long, life and unlife in Gary will become a lot more interesting, if only for a passing instant.
This is one of the better pre-generated adventures for Vampire that I’ve read to date. Granted, that’s not a high bar, but still: this is good stuff. The PCs have full freedom of choosing alliances, there are multiple scheming parties with (partially) conflicting agendas, there’s an interesting but reasonably low-power main antagonist, and the main end scene has the potential for devolving into awesome chaos. The NPCs are interesting, especially since some of them are still intent on seizing their former glory, and the GM has the option of running this after Ashes To Ashes for a really nice “before and after” look at Chicago and Gary.
My only real complaint is the cover art: a badly pixelated image of the town seal (I presume), which really doesn’t do this one justice, especially since a lot of the interior (full-color) art is very good. There’s also one visiting NPC who is a bit superfluous to the main plot, and may just be a jarring distraction. On the other hand, he’s very easy to trim from the story, if required.
Ashes To Ashes is one of the first books in the original Vampire: the Masquerade game line, predating even the old venerable Chicago By Night tome (even though it takes place in Chicago). It’s an adventure module, continuing the starter adventure in the 1st edition Vampire core book. I haven’t read that one, but apparently it sets up the PCs as Neonates in Gary, Indiana, under the rule of Prince Modius. The PCs happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and are sent off to Chicago to present themselves to Prince Lodin… at which point we transition to this story.
Turns out that Prince Lodin has vanished (it takes the PCs a while to get this information, because they will get a run-around from various personages in the city), and the PCs are prime candidates for being set up as patsies for the disappearance. So, naturally enough, they get an offer of finding the Prince… or else.
While there are some railroaded bits, it’s surprisingly free-form for an early White Wolf adventure. The PCs have quite a bit of leeway in how they’ll approach things and who they’ll ally with, and in addition they get more than a few red herrings thrown at them – not everything and everyone here is what or who they seem. There’s a bit of combat, but the emphasis is on social stuff and investigation. The general theme here is “someone else is pulling the strings”, and the adventure mostly manages to pull that off without too much railroad (something many other adventures in the game line fail miserably at). Sure, having the PCs tangle in the vanishing/death of a Prince is a bit of a cliché here, but on the other hand this is the first time they did it so I can’t blame this book.
My main complaint would be that the back story runs the danger of staying quite opaque to the PCs/players, unless the GM injects some awkward exposition at some point. There are lots of plot points that the PCs will probably never figure out, as written. To the module’s credit, it does have the (somewhat unusual) mechanism of providing a secondary story, where the PCs can play the part of the antagonist(s), set in an earlier time – this is intended as a way of explaining the why and the what of things. As such it’s a fun idea, but I’m not sure how many GMs/groups will feel like actually doing that.
Overall, not bad at all. Better that had reason to expect, given WW’s abysmal record with things like this. If run successfully, it sets the PCs up as residents of Chicago, with some new allies (and, probably, enemies) and a small amount of local fame. There is one caveat here: the adventure doesn’t railroad the PCs rescuing the Prince, it’s quite possible they’ll fail. This will immediately segue into the later version of Chicago as presented in the 2nd edition of Chicago By Night, because canonically Lodin is supposed to die later (in Under a Blood Red Moon).
There’s a bit of overlap between this book and Chicago By Night, because the Chicago setting book was published after this, but it’s not too bad.