A quick “what’s up” note, this. Ropecon 2008 came and went, I had a lot of fun despite getting very little sleep. The traditional big VTES tournament was a success once again, I now have a tournament report available for that. The other highlight of the con, for me, was managing to attend Greg Stolze’s demo of his new game, A Dirty World. It was actually the first convention rpg game that I have ever attended, and boy was it worth it. Besides being a kick-ass game designer, Greg proved to be a very cool guy and extremely competent GM. I had a ton of fun playing a heroin-addicted femme fatale…
The rest of the week has been spent in recovery, of sorts. Janka and I are both on vacation now, so we’ve just taken it easy for a while. That said, it feels like it’s been an extremely busy week, I’ve continually been doing something and feel that I managed to only do a small portion of the stuff I had intended. So it goes.
We decided that we needed a short break from all this, so we booked a flight to Paris – leaves tomorrow morning, back on Saturday. It’s been… what, 30 years since I was last there, so I don’t remember much anything, and Janka’s never been there at all. So we’ll spend three days doing the tourist things (Louvre, Notre Dame, the Catacombs, etc) while trying to get by on our extremely limited French vocabulary. Should be fun. I’m trying (in vain) to remember the basic rudiments of French verbs…. and since I know that’s doomed to failure, I’m taking along a phrase book and trying to resist the urge to go for a Monty Python French accent.
Back by the weekend.
In A History of Ashes, Paizo’s second adventure path goes over the halfway point – and it’s quite fitting that the so far city-based game takes a hike for the wild lands, as our heroes are forced to flee Korvosa (or so at least the default plot says, who know what actual PCs will want to do).
This is a nice segment. It’s mostly set in the Cinderlands, an utterly inhospitable wastelands inhabited by the Shoanti (a people heavily patterned after Native Americans). The players will need to make friends with the Shoanti, or at least stop them from attacking long enough to plead their case. This will involve a series of quests which read like they should be a lot of fun, but the author does point out that different groups have different tolerances for “go do quest A, then do quest B” stuff; some of this may need tweaking for some groups. There’s a lot of varied social interaction with native tribes, and of course a lot of action and combat, some of it against a group of assassins the PCs will probably have encountered before.
So far, I’m liking this second adventure path more than the first, and the first was already pretty good. Paizo keeps producing interesting D&D stuff, with some surprisingly adult elements included amidst the hack & slash.
Ascension of the Magdalene is a strange creature. It’s a pregen adventure set in 1610 AD Prague, dual-statted for Unknown Armies and D&D (of all things). Yes, it’s a pretty bizarre mix, and ends up being a bit problematic for the adventure in general.
The base plot is interesting, and quite suitable for UA. A notorious and religiously (perhaps) blasphemous painting has vanished, and several factions know where it is and want it for themselves. The player characters are suitable dupes who can be talked into invading a mad emperor’s castle and stealing the thing. So far, so good, and we’re given a nice set of factions and motives so that the startup can be made into something quite a bit more intresting than a “you meet a man in a pub”.
…but then things go awry. The main problem is that UA and D&D are just very, very different games, and you just can’t write up something that works as-is for both. While the writer here has to be given points for even trying, the end result is a strange semi-mystic dungeon crawl which doesn’t quite jive with either game’s tone. There are interesting bits in the thing, and I’m sure that with some effort you could get either a nice historical UA game or a nice D&D dungeon crawl out of this – but it would need some work. For UA, you’d want to remove most of the “dungeon crawl” aspects, and for D&D you’d probably want to increase them.
I hesitate to call this a totally failed product, it doesn’t deserve that. On the other hand, neither does it really work all that well. I think this project was doomed from the start.
Dreams of the First Age is the first box set that White Wolf has produced for a roleplaying game (at least as far as I remember). Apparently the production run was beset with all sorts of problems, and the WW guys commented that they’re slowly figuring out why not many companies make boxed sets…
In any case, the end result is very nice. It’s a setting supplement for Exalted, detailing the mythical First Age, when Solars were in charge and everything was great… or not so much. The box contains two books (one on the world, one on the inhabitants and character creation), a pretty full-color cloth map of Creation, a very nice cardboard “battlewheel” with counters, and a fun “Guidebook to Meru” for newly Exalted Solars. A very nice package to my mind, and well worth the money.
The contents are mostly great. The Meru guidebook is written as an “ingame” guidebook and contains lots of fun nuggets and general disdain of the “lower races”. The setting books are interesting – a lot of this stuff we already knew or guessed, but some was quite surprising. Tours into Malfeas to torment the inhabitants some more, floating sky fortresses explicitly named as insults to defeated Primordials… good stuff, and had me smiling more than once. The Solar charms in the character book have received some (deserved) criticism, but I’m not that much of a crunch guy so I can’t get too upset over a few badly written charms; I’d just ignore them, myself. In general the crunch is ok, I think, though as noted the Solar stuff needs a bit of tweaking. I personally found the most interesting bit to be the writeups on the NPCs – we’re given the “past lives” of the Exalted signature characters and lots of other interesting folks. Desus is just as much a wifebeating bastard as we’ve been given to understand, but he’s an interesting bastard. The Dragon-Blooded general Anjei Maruma is given a pretty chilling writeup, in that we know what her personality leads her to do in the future. Ma-Ha-Suchi is hilarious, in that in the First Age he’s an infamous womanizer and seducer, “The Wolf with the Red Roses”. Heh. How things change…
I really liked the thing, mainly because it gave interesting background for a lot of “current” Exalted stuff. If I were to actually run a First Age game, I’d probably go for a “police series” type of thing, with the players as Dragonblood “beat cops” trying to keep their heads above the water while fielding at times insane directives from their Solar superiors. Might be fun.
The Southern Republic Army List is a book for 1st edition Heavy Gear, detailing the composition of the Southern Republican army. Now, this may sound dry as hell, but once again Dream Pod 9 delivers. While this book does have a huge amount of nitpicking detail, it also manages to be extremely interesting and includes a ton of plot hooks and NPC personalities. It details the structure of the Southern army, but also goes on to give detail on general Southern attitudes, army recuitment, various regiments (with histories), some vehicles, etc. Also included are adventure seeds to get a game running fast, and to top it off you are given four tactical scenarios (for the old HG tactical game).
Far from being a dry list of military “crunch”, this book managed to convey a nice “feel” of how the Southern army moves and thinks, and what its role in society is. If you intend to run a game involving PCs in the Southern army, this book is a must-have – and it gives very useful background detail and plot seeds for pretty much any South-based game.
Heavy Gear is quite easily the most detailed scifi game world in existence at the moment, with multiple thousands of pages of game world information published. This would be quite impressive in itself, but what makes it even more impressive is that the writers usually manage to breathe life into the mountains of technical, political and societal detail. It feels like a living, real world (which was a design aim, as far as I understand). One with giant fighting power armor robot thingies, of course… but even those make sense, mostly.
Conquest of Bloodsworn Vale is one of the first published Pathfinder modules and the first of the (W)ilderness series. I’d rate is as “ok”… it’s a collection of mini-encounters with a “taming the wilderness around a logging town” theme. The town itself is featured in many Pathfinder modules, so you could well build a mini-campaign around events in this area of the Paizo campaign world.
The encounters are mostly interesting, though of course they follow the standard D&D “go and kill the monsters” theme. Some parts are a bit illogical, but no huge problems. The end Big Bad has enough flavor to be interesting, even though he is only featured in a small part of a fairly compact adventure module. I get the feel that how this one plays will depend a lot on the player group itself. The adventure is more of a sandbox than anything else, so plot coherence and advancement are largely things the GM will have to improvise on the fly. At least it’s not too railroady.
So… nothing exceptional, but reads like it should be fun with the right group of players.
First published by White Wolf’s Black Dog subsidiary, HoL is an (in)famous parody of lots of roleplaying games that happens to also be an rpg in itself. I’ve even heard that some deranged people have managed to play actual games of it… though this may be on the same validity level as reports of Bigfoot. There’s also an expansion game called BUTTery HOLsomeness, the name of which should give some indication of the level of humor here. Yes, we’re deep into Beavis & Butthead and South Park territory.
Fortunately I happen to love South Park and actually find parts of Beavis & Butthead funny, so I found this thing to be an extremely funny read. The humor does get a tad repetitive at times, and the fact that it’s hand-written & drawn instead of typeset makes it exhausting to actually read… but it’s still funny as hell, mostly.
So, what’s it about? Seems that in the far future, a bored teenager has conquered the known universe and rules over it as Emperor, under the polite fiction of a Confereration of Worlds (C.O.W.). There’s also a universal church (& fast-food franchise), ruled by a Megapope. There are some invading aliens called the S.N.E.E. (Sedud Neerg Elttil Esoht, or “Those Little Green Dudes” written backwards). Everyone is gloriously happy (officially), and the ones who aren’t are shipped to Human Occupied Landfill (HoL) which may or may not be Earth. Nobody cares.
Player characters are all people or creatures who have been sent to HoL. Their life sucks, and tends to be nasty, short and brutish.
Oh, and only men (or at least, “non-women”) are sent to HoL. It’s never made clear what happens to the women, but they don’t enter HoL – leaving the stage clear for one of the gangs of HoL, the Sodomy Bikers. Yes, the name says it all. There are also other gangs roaming about, but none of them are friendly. The game itself is mainly an exercise in “kill or be killed.” You have wonderful skills like “Operate Starship and Chew Gum at the Same Time”, “Making Sharp Things Go Through Soft Things That Scream and Bleed”, “That Psycho Bruce Lee Shit” and “Whining Until You Get What You Want”. Among others. The pregen characters include a pedophile priest, a gamer geek and Elvis. Yes, Elvis.
The BUTTery HOLsomeness book adds actual character generation to the game, with a random background generation that spoofs the one in Traveler (yes, of course you can die during it!). It also contains personal totem animals, like the “sloth” and the “bush baby”.
The whole thing is hard to describe, but damn funny – if you’ve read or played enough roleplaying games before. The humor will probably be pretty opaque otherwise.
A funny thing happened some months back. I was hunting for a copy of Knights of the Old Republic on eBay since I heard so much praise for the game, and found one on sale for a reasonable price. The same guy was also selling a copy The Witcher, so I went “might as well check it out” and got both games. I didn’t know much about the Witcher… a friend had praised it to me, but Yahtzee’s typically hilarious Zero Punctuation review gave some pause. Sure, he hates most games, but still…
Anyway, the games finally arrived and I checked them out. KotOR had very dated graphics (no surprise, it’s a bit old) and pretty cheesy dialogue. It seemed fun enough, but after playing a bit I decided to check out Witcher. Some time near midnight, I noticed I was still playing and KotOR was the loser here.
Despite being sceptical, I have to say I liked (and still like) the Witcher a lot. Some of the complaints about it are quite justified. The controls and inventory does take a bit of getting used to, it is huge and slow-paced, some of the dialogue is extremely corny, and it does seem that being a scar-faced & white-haired swordsman is an instant sexual turnon for the babes, which can get a bit silly at times. To me, none of those quibbles got in the way of enjoying the hell out of the game.
It has a nicely east-European feel to it (natural due to the developer being a Polish game house), and is much more related to Conan-era sword & sorcery -fantasy than D&D fluff. Taken in that context, the big-chested babes lining up to have sex with the hero actually are quite in-genre. To be honest, I found the open inclusion of sexuality in the game quite refreshing, most fantasy games totally ignore the whole thing and go the “family friendly” route. It’s nice to find a somewhat more “adult” game now and then – even though some parts of said game may come off as a bit juvenile.
You play Geralt, who is a “Witcher”: a bio-enhanced & sterile member of an ancient order of monster hunters. Some bad guys organize an attack on the order and steal some stuff, and it’s off you go to fix things. The whole thing is based on some fantasy books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, apparently. Haven’t read them.
The best thing about the game (other than the babes lining up to… ahem) is the shades-of-gray morality and freedom to do real moral choices (sometimes with no easy answers). There is no “good” or “evil” here. It’s also a damn good-looking game, which never hurts. The plotting is pretty ok; there are some “FedEx quests”, but also some more interesting scenarios.
By the way, the U.S. version (which I got) is slightly censored – the pin-up pictures of the girls you sleep with are not quite as explicit as in the European version… so get the Euro version (or Enhanced, see below).
One additional small negative that needs mention: the difficulty varies wildly. Some fights are dead easy, some are extremly hard and need a zillion reloads to complete… which is especially galling if the fight in question happens to automatically start after a cutscene, so you’re forced to watch the same cutscene (with dialogue choices to make) N times. Grah. Fortunately the really hard bits seem to be rare.
I played the thing quite a bit, but then heard that the developers are working on an Enhanced Edition. Apparently the reason the English version of the game has pretty corny dialogue is that a large part of the original (Polish) dialogue is left out, and what remains has been “dumbed down” a bit – this new version includes a redone version of the dialogue and voice acting, which should enhance things and make some of the dialogue less cringe-worthy. In addition, it should include some more content, some gameplay enhancements, even better graphics, etc. In short, I decided that the game is so good that I want to wait until the new version is available (in September) and then start over with the game.
So yeah, I’m buying another copy of the game, when it becomes available. That’s pretty rare, for me.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t (quite) a new Baldur’s Gate 2… but it does come close, at times. Much better than Neverwinter Nights 2 in any case. I was extremely impressed, despite some small flaws.
Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition is probably the most-hyped and also the most controversial new tabletop rpg product in recent times. Is it any good? Well… yeah. Kinda sorta.
I stopped playing/running D&D ages ago, when AD&D 1st edition was the current one. It was a fun first tabletop rpg game, but the limitations of the (frankly crappy) ruleset had started to grate at that point. I moved on to Rolemaster, and then on to other games. I mostly skipped the 3.x phase, and don’t really know much about that ruleset; or let’s say: I know enough about it to know I don’t much care for it.
Honestly, I doubt that I would have picked up this new version had not Amazon had an amazingly low (preorder) price for it; I got it for under half price as compared to local game stores, and that’s including shipping. At that price, I went “hell, why not” and ordered the thing. I have to feel a bit sorry for game store owners, there is no way they can compete with that kind of price competition.
Complaints about this version abound on the net. It’s gone very far in the WoW direction. It’s dumbed down. It has nothing except combat.
You know what? The complaints are mostly correct. It has taken a lot of cues from WoW. It is pretty dumbed-down (or “simplified”, if you prefer). And it is pretty much only about combat.
Thing is, I’m not seeing those as being totally negative things. Trying to appeal to the WoW crowd does make a lot of sense. Tabletop rpgs still offer a lot of things that you simply cannot get from WoW (or such), and lowering the barrier of entry makes all kinds of sense. The dumbing down is a mixed bag. One one hand, at times the text reads like it’s aimed at 8-yr olds, which is extremely annoying. One the other, the mechanics seem pretty smooth, and I have no love for 3.x’s complexity (which to me gives very little in return). The rules feel pretty slick, in fact, in spite of the steals from computer games (aura effects, group roles, easy healing, etc). The game wants to emphasize fun, it seems, and that’s good in my book.
About the combat… well, hmph. I’ve never really seen D&D as anything but a fantasy combat simulator, to me it’s never even tried to much support the roleplaying aspects. So the fact that 4e is pretty much a fantasy combat simulator and in some respects more tactical board game than roleplaying game doesn’t surprise me much or seem all that odd. On the other hand, I can well understand people who have gotten used to running more “serious” games with the 3.x ruleset being turned off by this new incarnation. In addition, this edition is even more geared towards using miniatures than any previous one.
To sum: to me, 4e looks pretty sleek, and it seems designed to do the lightweight dungeon romp thing pretty well. On the other hand, it seems very lightweight and at times I get the feeling it’s aimed at younger kids. I can understand the criticisms it’s receiving, but I can also understand the praises. What you think of this game depends a lot on what you’re expecting and what your background is.
The core rules here seem very fun and sleek, like I said, and I might even try to run a purely-for-fun dungeon romp with this at some point. I get the feeling that the game succeeds in doing what it sets out to do, provide a easily approachable tactical dungeon monster mash game, with some light roleplaying elements included on the side. It’s just that what it set out to do doesn’t match what some people would like. C’est la vie.
The books are the classic three. First off, a Player’s Guide which details the character options, the main rules, and most of what you really need in order to play. Second, the Dungeon Master’s Guide which contains detail on running the game and some additional rules, and finally the Monster Manual, with lots of stuff to kill. Production values are high, as expected, and the organization is mostly good. Small negative points for the lack of a good index, spells are organized by level and if you want to quickly find a given spell you have to resort to leaving through the book – which sucks. The Monster Manual is nice in that it gives lots of variations of each beastie, no longer do we have the uniform “all instances of a given monster are the same” thing. Points for that.
Trying to look at this game objectively: it seems to be a professionally designed game of dungeon looting, with heavy emphasis on tactical combat. The rules give the impression of being quite heavily tested, and play balance has won out over realism in all cases (not that D&D was ever realistic in any degree whatsoever). It seems like a fairly solid game, and perhaps later supplements may even widen the focus a bit, so one might actually call it a “roleplaying” game without putting tons of conditionals and disclaimers all over the place.
If you’re heavily invested in the 3.x ruleset and like it, you probably won’t like this new version too much.
So: purely as a game, I’ve give WotC pretty high marks for this. It’s still D&D, but it has been heavily tweaked to do at least one thing (dungeon crawls) very well and it contains some nice new innovations from computer games and some indie games. The price of that is some amount of “dumb-down” and the near-lack of meaningful non-combat options.
In the “black marks” department, we have the whole heavily bungled launch, the whole poison-pill GSL license drama (which shows the weasel lawyer side of WotC/Hasbro pretty clearly), the bungled and buggy “D&D Insider / Gleemax” web support thing, etc etc. But all of that is topic for another discussion.
Character Compendium 1 is an old supplement to 1st edition Heavy Gear – and it’s really, really good. It’s also the only “character compendium”, so the number “1” is a bit redundant.
In a nutshell, this is a list of NPC characters. Some are movers and shakers in the HG world, some are just normal everyday people. So far, so good… but what makes it so good? The same thing as with most HG books: amazing amount of interesting detail. All characters have a “chesspiece” symbol next to them, denoting their importance to world affairs and the metaplot should you choose to follow that. Each is given a long writeup and most are given full stats. Most NPCs here are gathered into groups, and include relationship maps inside the group. Characters are given a multitude of options on how to use them in a game (as “ally”, “enemy”, “resource”, etc). As noted, the amount and quality of detail is just amazing.
This book is quite integrated with the Heavy Gear game world, and while you could use this as a general NPC resource for a scifi game, you’ll get the most mileage if you use this as intended, as an NPC resource for Heavy Gear. Simply put, this is probably the best book of this kind I’ve ever read. Far from being dry and boring to read (as I feared), it turned out to be quite fascinating.
Books of this quality are the main reason I love Dream Pod 9 games.