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.
The Midnight Mirror is a standalone adventure module, written by newcomer Sam Zeitlin (winner of Paizo’s 2011 “RPG Superstar” contest). It’s mostly a quite interesting affair, with emphasis on investigation instead of endless combat encounters. The action is set in a remote county, where the dominant religion centers around pain (the priests have lots of piercings, for example), and while that’s a fun detail it doesn’t really have much relevance here except as a possible red herring. The local baron has been acting strangely for quite a while, and there is a new and virulent disease running amok. The PCs are sent over on request from the family of the Baron’s new(ish) wife. who worry about their daughter and her reports about the instability of the Baron.
On getting to the site, the PCs are presented with a variety of strangeness, and have free rein to investigate things. It’s a sandboxy affair, with certain plot layers being revealed only when (or if) the PCs uncover certain things. That’s nice design, but what’s less good is that as written, many of these clues require Knowledge checks… and no provision is given for the PCs failing at those. That’s bad, especially since some of the checks are quite challenging. I’d suggest the GM in most places just give the PCs their clues depending on what they do and who they talk to, and only use Knowledge checks for some specific extra detail. Otherwise, as written, things are in danger of grinding to a halt.
Another small weirdness is that a non-human race is used, but no stats or actual info on that race is given here. Apparently it’s from some outside source, but without access to that the GM has very little to go on. As such, the other race is used nicely to highlight racial tension and old prejudices, on of the many themes here.
There’s quite a bit going on here, especially taking the limited page count into account, so the GM is advised to read the whole thing a few times to make sure he/she knows what’s really going on. That said, other than the small niggles noted above, I found this to be a pretty nice investigation-heavy scenario.
White Wolf’s record with pre-generated adventures and campaigns is… spotty, if we’re being generous. While there are gems in there, many of them are overly-railroaded things where the PCs just get to watch various NPCs do their thing. Since I was still a bit lukewarm towards the new Mage, I wasn’t expecting much from the only campaign published for it. Well, chalk up one more in the “new Mage book ends up being much better than expected” department.
I’ll go one further: Reign of the Exarchs actually made me want to run the new Mage. No mean feat. It really is that good.
It’s a (very) loosely connected set of five scenarios, each concerning an ancient artifact, of reputed Exarch origin (having belonged to a mythical “Dethroned Queen”, who once may have been one of the Exarchs). Of course, that sort of setup is somewhat cliched, but it’s not really a “find five mystical McGuffins!” plot – it’s more clever than that. Now, as adversaries, the Exarchs are deliberately vague in the new Mage game line (a fact I find detracts from the game a bit, leaving it with a poorly defined main “bad guy” set). This book follows that premise, and I must admit here it works nicely; while the PCs encounter numerous followers of the Exarchs (or at least, people who believe they are serving the Exarchs), there is never any direct proof that the Exarchs even exist. It adds a very nice layer of paranoia to these scenarios, which is of course the intention for the whole game line.
Each of the scenarios is written by a different author and has a very different theme and plot structure. I find this to be a good thing, but readers hoping for a unified tone for the whole campaign may see it as a minus. All are competently written, and while I ran into some uncaught grammar mistakes, it wasn’t anything above the White Wolf norm of bugs. It’s quite a readable book.
The five scenarios can be run in any order (except for the last one). There is a default order (the one in the book), but it’s only a suggestion. None of the scenarios absolutely depend on the others, so some can be skipped if the PCs refuse to do things that the writers intend. This is nice design.
The first scenario is a setup for the PCs. A stranger, on the run from bad guys (or so he claims) invokes the Right of Hospitality on the PCs. It’s assumed that the PCs don’t buck tradition, and give shelter. Political shenanigans follow. Some assumptions about how the PCs work and live is made here, along with some assumptions about the local political setup, but those are easy enough to work around if they don’t match the assumptions. The scenario assumes some competence (i.e. experience) from the PCs, so it’s probably a good idea to either beef up default new characters a bit (if creating PCs just for use in this campaign) or to run some other scenarios before thumping this on the PCs. It’s a fun scenario overall, and lets politically and socially savvy PCs do their thing. Of course, the PCs can short-circuit the whole thing by refusing to follow the Right of Hospitality – in which case the GM can dump other sorts of fallout on them.
The second scenario involves a friendly NPC (ideally foreshadowed before this), who starts behaving in a strange way. Lots of investigation is involved, and it may lead the PCs into very strange places. The nice thing here is that what the PCs do will have a huge effect in what happens to the NPC, and followup results (some of which are potentially very very nasty). Also, the scenario gets points for introducing a group of Seers who aren’t (strictly) bad guys. Should be good for lots of potential moral conflicts, along with some creepy scenes.
The third scenario is easily me favorite here, but unfortunately I cannot say much about it here without spoilers. Written by the esteemed Robin D. Laws, it’s a total con job on the players (not the PCs), allowing player preconceptions to lead them into ruin. It requires quite a bit of setup and is probably a bitch to run successfully – but damn, if it works the results should be awesome. The player expressions when they realize what’s really going on should be priceless. This is a really fantastic scenario, and very very imaginative.
Fourth is a “layers upon layers” scenario, where an investigation about weird scrawled symbols leads to the PCs getting attacked by something extremely nasty, and further investigation reveals more and more players in the game. Where does it end? Does it end? That’s one for the PCs to figure out. The nice thing here is that it’s quite possible that the PCs never get to the bottom of things, and that’s fine. This one works nicely even if the PCs fall for the first level(s) of misdirection. They just lose out on some extra complications.
The last scenario offers a potential way to actually ascend to the Supernal, to join the Exarchs. Maybe. First, the PCs have to claim the artifact, which probably involves a commando-style raid on a Seer stronghold. Next, the PCs need to decide what to do. Do they really want to activate an artifact that reputedly makes you into an Exarch? Do the Exarchs even exist? If not, what does the artifact really do? It’s a nice combo of stealth + action and paranoia to end the campaign.
Like I said, I really liked this book. While there are nits to pick (“why do the Exarchs, if they exist, allow these weapons against them to exist in the first place?”, for example), there’s nothing that I could not either ignore or explain away. The scenarios do a great job of throwing all sorts of unexpected stuff at the PCs, ideally keeping them in a somewhat paranoid state. Many of the scenarios do require some prepwork, though, and many contain elements which should ideally be introduced in earlier parts in order to keep the story flowing along. In other words, this isn’t something that a GM can just quickly read and then start running, it’s more like a detailed framework for a campaign that still needs a bit of customization and detail-work before showtime. Most GMs will probably want to inject their own scenarios between the ones here, and tweak some of these to better suit their style.
Tim Powers ranks among my favorite writers. He’s not to everyone’s taste, but there is something in his tales of supernatural Americana and general strangeness that works for me. Strange Itineraries is his first short story collection, and it proves he’s by no means just a novel writer. Most of the stories deal with Powers staples: ghosts, time travel and the fantastic overlaid on mundane Californian scenery. Since this is Powers we’re talking about, there’s a lot of weird here, and few of the stories are completely straightforward or easy to analyze. Almost all of them are very good, though.
You need to pay attention while reading. Tim Powers does time travel stories in ways that usually make your head spin, and they sometimes feature vicious loops and re-iterations as a theme. The same goes for his ghost stories: while they very much are ghost stories, the ghosts here are not your typical fare. Well, not always at any rate.
One standout story is “Pat Moore”, where the titular Pat Moore finds himself facing a sawed-off shotgun from an adjacent car… and having dodged that, finds that he has a “guardian angel” along for the ride. One with an agenda. It all has to do with chain letters, ghosts, and maybe his dead wife. Another great one is “50 Cents”, where a guy driving across the desert encounters hitchhikers who are far from normal. Also worth a mention is the early story “The Way Down the Hill”, one of the more straightforward tales here, about a group of secretive and parasitical immortals. While some of the stories are extremely strange and a bit hard to figure out, none of them are out-and-out bad.
If you like Tim Powers, you’ll probably like this. If you don’t, you probably won’t. If you haven’t read anything from him before… well, ideally first read Declare and Last Call and only then read this, but this book will do by itself to give you a taste.
Renegade Crowns is a somewhat different take on the “regional sourcebook” theme. Normally, in something like this we’d get a gazetteer of a region, and various articles about the natives, customs and what have you, along with some plot hook. However, this book is about the “Border Princes” region, intended by the designers to be a “sandbox” area for whatever tiny kingdoms and factions the GM wants to install there. How do you describe a sandbox?
The approach taken here is: don’t describe it, instead create a toolkit for creating that sandbox. So instead of descriptions, most of the book consists of a system for semi-randomly generating the geography for a region, and then for populating that region with factions and their rulers (along with motivations etc for the rulers). Lots of tables are involved, but that’s not a negative; it seems like a nice and quite straightforward system for generating custom-made “border princedoms” for your game. The book also contains a detailed example, with the final product (along with map) as an appendix. So yes, you can buy this book and just use the pre-generated area as-is, it’s pretty decent and contains some fun plot hooks. However, the “meat” here is the mini-kingdom generation system. It’s “semi” random since the book explicitly tells you to use random rolls as inspiration, not as a strict tool; you’re supposed to ignore/reroll stuff that doesn’t make sense. Sane people will do that anyway, of course, but it’s nice to see that explicitly spelled out. The example also contains bits where nonsensical results are rolled, and then substituted with something that works better.
I really liked this book, it’s a clever toolkit and conforms to the original “keep this area of the game world officially undefined” idea, while at the same time allowing you to populate it without too much hassle. Sure, you could just come up with random stuff without this book, but I think most GMs would find this a nice tool, if nothing else it’s a nice source of additional ideas.
While it’s geared for the Warhammer world, this should be useable with some tweaking for lots of other fantasy rpgs, too. For example, Exalted has the “Thousand Kingdoms” area which is identical in design concept to “Border Princes” (explicitly undefined GM sandbox). Using this book to populate a part of it would probably work pretty well, swapping Warhammer details (like Ork tribes) for suitable Exalted replacements).
The results of yet another successful Kickstarter, the long-delayed Extraterrestrials Sourcebook for Conspiracy X 2.0 has now finally seen the light, with more books for the game line incoming. As the title implies, it’s a sourcebook about aliens for use in the game.
The book contains descriptions of three alien species (though if we’re pedantic, two of the species have tight (pre)historic ties with Earth so it’s debatable if they really qualify as “alien”). The first of these are the Atlanteans, who aren’t really from Atlantis in this game, that’s just the name of one of their Earth cities and also a bastardization of their own name for themselves. Semi-immortal humanoids, they are secretly the original progenitors of humanity and now lurk in the fringes, mainly concerned with high-stakes deadly games versus each other. This section is a mixed bag, there’s a lot of interesting stuff here mixed with some details which I found somewhat dubious. The time spans involved seem overly huge for anything as cohesive as this as a culture, for example.
Next up we get the Greys, who represent your typical “UFO visitor” (including references and reasons for cow mutilation!). Here they are given the twist of being originally aquatic, which is a bit strange but at least gets points for originality. They are highly psionic, and have come to Earth to figure out why the planet is a source of psionic “static” which plays hell with Greys and indirectly caused a major disaster for the race. Again, lots of interesting stuff mixed with some dubious material; again, scale becomes a “huh?” factor, this time scale involving distance instead of time. So there’s some psionic interference coming from Earth, and it’s powerful enough to disrupt a race hundreds of light-years away? Sure, we’re talking about a supernatural effect, but it was still a bit of a “huh” moment for me.
Last there’s the Saurians, an aggressive reptilian race. I originally expected these to be the least interesting, but was proved totally wrong: this is the most interesting segment in the book, the race is much more multi-faceted than I expected, and the reason they went away (and are now coming back), is very cool. It involves physics, which the two earlier race history descriptions tend to skip as irrelevant.
I found the book a bit slow to read through, partly because the writing was only so-so. I can’t really place my finger on the problem; there are few actual spelling or grammar errors, it’s more a question of the text being a bit dry. I would have expected more readability from a book about alien races, to be honest.
In sum, it’s a decent book with three quite detailed and very different alien races. I had some minor problems with some of the details, but there’s nothing here than a GM can’t easily tweak to suit tastes. Naturally enough, Unisystem game stats are included for the example NPC aliens and their gear, so this book should be easy to incorporate into pretty much any (modern-day) Unisystem game.