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 All feature places where the wizard is no longer active, leaving the place ripe for PC exploration and/or plunder – though the extent of the wizard’s absence varies from example to example.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.
I picked up Boneshaker as part of a recent Humble eBook Bundle, but it was on my shopping list before that – I had heard praise about it from various sources. Hey, an alternate history / steampunk tale, with zombies? What could go wrong?
Unfortunately, while the setting is a nicely original pastiche of various subgenres, as a whole the author bites off a bit more that she can chew here. The setting is fine; while there is missing detail here and there, this alternate-history version of Seattle, set around the time of a very different U.S. Civil War, is new and interesting – and a very refreshing step away from the London-ish settings steampunk is so often set in. The war itself is pure background; fought far away on the other edge of the continent, here it’s more an explanation for things being messed up than any real plot element. I also found the protagonist to be nicely different from the norm, being a middle aged mother of a young boy. Not quite an antihero, but far from being a shining hero either. Oh, and then there are the zombies. A past runaway massive tunneling device has managed to release a sort of poison gas from below Seattle, which kills and then reanimates people. Zombie gas, in other words. It’s never quite revealed where the gas comes from, so it’s a pure plot and setting device here.
So, all the individual pieces are interesting and most of them are at least somewhat original (the zombies, not so much). What (partially) breaks this story is the telling of it. A master storyteller could take these pieces and write a spellbinding tale around them, but unfortunately Cherie Priest isn’t that. Her writing, while mostly competent, simply doesn’t flow very well. There are jarring jumps in viewpoint, and it can be hard to figure out what is happening in many scenes. The main problem is the story itself: while her main characters have the potential to be interesting, they are not allowed to be very proactive, being instead herded from situation A to situation B while side characters spew exposition at them. The whole thing reads a bit like a very badly railroaded rpg adventure, with the characters being helplessly led from place to place in order to showcase things that the writer/GM feels are cool. Briar, the mother searching for her lost son, has the potential to be more than she is allowed to be, here…. though she is a nicely ambiguous character, especially given her slowly revealed past.
In the end, it’s a decent read, but only that. The setting is interesting and there are many cinematic scenes, but the story fall short of what it could have been due to somewhat clumsy storytelling. One also gets the feel that there are perhaps too many ingredients here. We have zombie gas, we have underground Seattle tunnels (based on the actual historical ones, which I’ve visited), we have steampunk inventions, we have airship pirates… the list goes on. With a more focused list of ingredients, this stew might have worked out better.
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.
Milwaukee by Night sounds almost like a comedy title, compared to the iconic old Chicago by Night… but it’s not, it’s a companion product of sorts to the Chicago book (which also references Gary, another city located on the shores of Lake Michigan). Here, Milwaukee is an isolated city; geographically not that far from Chicago, but surrounded by hostile country (to vampires) patrolled by werewolves. This makes is a great setting in combination with the old Chicago/Gary pair: close enough to make it plausible that the PCs move to/from the place, but difficult enough to access that the move is never trivial.
The book is divided into two main sections. The first one mirrors the Chicago book, though with a smaller page count. It describes the city in very general terms, and the local inhabitants and politics in much more detail. The basic setup is quite interesting; though there is again a grudge match between two ancient vampires going on in the background, unlike Chicago these aren’t godlike Methuselahs but “just” old vampires. In general, the power level is much toned down, and PCs have a lot more wriggle room – there is less of the “ancients control everything” vibe going on here. As written, the city is overcrowded (vampirically) due to the (ex)Prince’s lax laws, and is also now without a Prince – how that happens is detailed in the second half of the book. Overcrowded, surrounded by werewolves, no Prince and chaotic political situation… sounds great, in terms of story potential. And it is, to a large extent.
The second half of the book is an adventure module / minicampaign, titled “Psychomachia”. It starts with the PCs getting “recruited” to help out Prince Terence Merik as a special task force: the Prince’s wife is missing, possibly kidnapped, and the Prince desperately wants her back. Enter a bunch of expendable dupes, “willing” to help out. Well, perhaps genuinely willing, since the Prince does offer them some nice perks, especially nice if they are just neonates. In any case, the PCs go off to investigate and stuff happens. Lots of bad, confusing, violent stuff. And werewolves too.
I’m hesitant to say too much about the adventure, since it contains a few twists which are actually very cool, and there is still a non-zero chance that someone may want to run this. I’ll just say that the adventure is a mixed bag. It has some very nice scenes and ideas, which read like they could be a lot of fun. It also puts the PCs at least somewhat in the center of action. On the minus side, it’s at times quite railroaded (as White Wolf modules tend to be), and has lots of critical points where something is just expected to happen, with no ideas of what to do if it doesn’t. In other words, this one needs a careful GM touch and some extra work. It also features multiple fights which the PCs are expected to lose, this may not sit well with players. All that said, I do think this one may be worth running, the plot twists are (possibly) worth the effort and some of the scenes are very creative (in a good way).
Overall, I liked this. I think Milwaukee as presented here is actually a better starting point that the “classic” Chicago; there’s less elder-driven stasis and much more opportunity for Neonates, and the chaotic politics together with the werewolf threat makes for lots of plot potential. In addition, the included adventure is actually not bad at all. Well, for a White Wolf adventure anyway. It does need some work.