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The Reign of Terror

Fri, Oct 30 2015 - 07:46
The Reign of Terror

The latest 4 Dollar Dungeon-module clocks in at 88 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with a massive 84 pages, so let's take a look!
But before we dive into the nit and grit of this module, I feel obliged to point out some peculiar facts of this book: For one, I provided basic advice for a minor crunch-component that is part of the supplemental information in this pdf. I was not involved in any other way with this book. Beyond that, this book follows the format established by 4 Dollar Dungeons - that means you'll get A LOT of supplemental material herein - spells, items etc. Basically, the idea is to provide a holistic experience and minimize your requirement for book-swapping. Additionally, the pdf does provide all artworks in an appendix, so you can easily print out the pieces and utilize them as hand-outs.
Beyond that, the module offers excessive and sound discussions on the nature of fear in roleplaying games, particularly in the fantasy-horror genre - the observations and justifications for the design-process presented here are more than sound - and the same can be said about the detailed advice provided for the more lethal encounters herein. Few modules provide this level of guidance, so yes, GMs will have a pretty easy time running this - also due to handy tables listing CRs, XP, treasures and encounter-difficulty as well as scaling advice. Of course, the by now traditional, detailed random encounters and traveling information are also provided and, as a bonus, monster-lore for teh GM to hand-out to players, can also be found.
All right, so let's see whether Richard Develyn can maintain his streak of absolutely legendary modules. From here on out, SPOILERS reign. Potential players should jump to the conclusion. No, really. Don't spoil a 4 Dollar Dungeon-module - you'd regret it.......All right...only GMs here? Great! 
So can Richard Develyn write classic horror? I'll let the module answer:"Somewhere deep below the ground lies a vampiric creature of fearsome proportions [...] it stretches its veins, each of them big enough to swallow a tarrasque, through densely packed iron and rock [...] and when these tendrils break through to the earth's crust, a new dynasty of vampires soon comes into being." - and so, an ancient, quasi-cthulhoid menace spawned a vampire dynasty in Maison D'Artère. While subtle, the vampires, supplemented by this vein of terrible power, became a bit too confident - and so, they drew the attention of the order of the lily. Unlike the previous, foolhardy heroes that sought to end the undead menace, the cavaliers did their homework - and targeted a nodule of the vast cthonic creature, plunging the magical lance "Fleur de Lis" into the nodule, pumping poison into the vast creature to destroy it - but such gigantic threats are not easily defeated. Cutting the nodule off from crucial components of the vampiric Great Old One/deity-analogue, the isolated nodule soon turned against the vampires it had spawned - after the blood was drained from the vampires and after the cavaliers had fallen, nothing remained to sate the unholy appetite of the vast creature below castle Rougemord and so, the ancient veins petrified.
The Fleur de Lis, an intelligent weapon with an inflated ego (and a significant paranoia) remained lost, embedded in the ancient, chthonic threat. Now, the order of the lily has tasked the PCs to retrieve the lost item - the first clue of which will force the PCs to explore the tomb of Lemaistre, the fleur's former wielder.
But first, the PCs will get a taste of the walled town of Englouti (full settlement statblock provided), where the module starts, which also will provide a new experience for people familiar with 4 Dollar Dungeons: Know how the cartography was pretty much the one thing not absolutely superb in the 4$D-modules? How it usually was copious, provided for all areas, but just functional? What would you say when I told you that this one sports absolutely stunning, original cartography, both in b/w and full color? Particularly the renditions of the towns and overland maps are absolutely awesome and not something I've seen in many pdfs, much less ones at this price range, with player-friendly high-res versions provided? Yes, particularly for the low price-point, this is more than impressive.
An interesting note regarding the structure of this module would also pertain to the PCs traveling to the village of Sans-secours, from which the fabled tomb can be reached: You see, it's spring (NOT autumn or winter!) and thus, it is perfectly valid for the PCs to spend some time in the local village while they prepare their expedition to the remote tomb - and 3 weeks of slowly escalating weirdness and foreshadowing are provided for the life there, adding a pretty detailed depiction of the local life and allowing the PCs to form connections, rather than plunging head-first into horror. Oh, and they will probably fall to a bait-and-switch there - you see, the tomb does not hold the lance...or any undead for that matter. All the nice holy water and spells they brought...are pretty useless. Heck, the place isn't even really dangerous apart from one particular creature, but that lairs beyond the tomb.
It's when the trail leads to Rougemord, that things get creepy - fast. The castle's vicinity seems to spawn rather disturbing visions and nightmares  and the approach of the castle is guarded by a creature that fits with the horror-theme in a slightly less obvious manner; that being said, this adversary can TPK foolish groups and provide a nasty hit-and-run adversary. The castle sports massive amounts of ravens, deadly animals, crawling claws - and something I could hug the module for: There's not a single undead to fear herein. heck, even dueling skeletons are animated objects. The exploration of the castle allows the PCs to partake in the horrors that once graced these halls and much of the place's incantations remain...as do some outsiders. From psychopomps to devils, there is a lot to uncover and indeed, some places can be considered micro-puzzles.
Describing the immense amount of detail that the castle is studded with would probably bloat this review to an extent I do not consider feasible in this case - instead, let's skip a bit ahead: Sooner or later, should the PCs not fall to the castle's dangers, they will find those odd caverns...and finally, the lance. Who is a) annoying and not too smart and b) urging them to pull it free. What nether the lance, nor the PCs know, though, is that with the removal of the lance, a strange heartbeat is heard - and no amount of coaxing can properly jam the lance back inside. From here on out, things become rather dark very fast - all lupine creatures within miles of the castle howl to a blood-red moon, as more and more hungry vampire-spawn are released from the slowly revitalizing walls...and it soon becomes apparent that the PCs are in over their heads...massively.
Fleeing the castle precipice under the auspice of hundreds of snarling, lupine creatures, they can witness a friend fall to the maw of a winter wolf - who also constitutes the boss...but not the end. With the sledge conveniently brought by their erstwhile, now dead ally, the PCs have a sledding chance to escape the doom that has re-awakened in Rougemord in a final adrenaline-laden chase sequence. If you've handled this well, the darkness has returned to Rougemord and a new reign of terror will begin...and your players will look at each other in true horror and whisper "What have we done?"
Now if the apocalyptic awakening of a vast clan of vampires and a chthonic elder vampire thing don't fit your plans, fret not - as the module suggests, there is a certain demiplane of dread all too willing to scour the whole region with its misty tendrils...
As mentioned before, the module has copious supplemental information, including the order of the lily, which actually features some intriguing visuals - and if your players are like mine, they may want to take up the order's vow and seek to right the terrible thing they have unwittingly wrought...
Conclusion:Editing and formatting are very good -I only noticed pretty minor issues here and there. Layout adheres to 4 Dollar Dungeons' printer-friendly two-column b/w-standard. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience AND in two versions - one for letterpack-format and one for the European A4-format for people like yours truly. The pdf comes extensively bookmarked with nested bookmarks. The cartography's quality (and particularly, the gorgeous isometric renditions of the places) are beyond what you'd expect to see in such a low-cost pdf. The pdf also comes with high-res jpgs for use with virtual tabletops and, as mentioned before, with plentiful materials for the GM.
Richard Develyn has written the most un-gothic gothic horror adventure I've ever read. That's a great thing. Good horror is NOT, contrary to what 99% of found-footage movies believe, being startled. Neither does it derive its impact from being grossed out. Sure, that can be horrific - but it's not horror. Horror may spring from the grotesque and alien, sure, but that's not what this is about, either. Horror has a psychological component that taps into our psyche with subtle imagery and symbolism - and such symbolism can be found herein - whether it's the idiot child, the twisted mother figure and the like - we may not perceive it consciously, but our unconscious notes these. Hence, this module is decidedly smart - it begins at a stage of innocence with set-ups, which, while foreboding, mirror a certain innocence that is inherent in the fantasy genre. It then begins to dismantle it - slowly, but surely, escalating the threat by making the backdrop, symbolically-charged and the imagery of the lance and the nodule resonate with a primal sense of horror to which one could ascribe perinatal dread hard-coded into our very being. The season of growth, early spring, and the imagery of wolves and ravens with their symbolic charges further supplements this reading - it's these creatures that are the threat in the end, less so than the intentionally pitiful dragon that is featured in the innocent phase of the module.
Surprisingly, in spite of the lack of undead (a stroke of genius design in a genre that all too often is defined by the erroneous assumption that bones, blood and undead are creepy in and of themselves), this module GETS what makes gothic horror work...and one-ups it. While this can be read as a kind of gothic horror narrative, it could conceivably just as easily be read as a tale of cosmic terror or Lovecraftian proportions - the psychological imagery evoked by the module can just as well be externalized to represent a hostile cosmos of adversaries, a glimpse at a world at best indifferent to the suffering of its inhabitants. Note that usually, such a reading would be terribly at odds with any remotely related to Gothic Horror: Cosmic terror is existential, pertaining to a reality that is removed from the individual, to a sense of completely alienation from everything. Gothic Horror, on the other hand, is a deeply humane kind of horror, one wherein the internal struggles of the psyche are made into externalized threats - it is deeply personal. The only reason both are often confused is a shared array of backdrops and styles, both of which, however, sport vastly diverging meanings and readings - they may occupy the same physical building, but they do not play in the same house.
Horror must grow - and this pdf takes its time with a decidedly slow-paced set-up, one that has its climax hit all the harder - so hard, in fact, that it can become the nexus of a whole campaign, should you choose to embark on this train of thought. It doesn't have to, mind you - but the potential is undoubtedly there. So what do we have here? We have a module that actually understands what gothic horror is about. Yes, at first glance it does read a bit like early Ravenloft modules - something almost decidedly intentional. However, unlike those "bones & blood are creepy"-modules, it shows a distinct understanding why some of the classic Ravenloft modules worked, while others devolved into sucky hack-fests. 
This knowledge is not something you could easily convey, either in modules, words or artworks - it bespeaks of a deeper understanding of the genre. To the point, where not even aforementioned pseudo-lovecraftian readings of the subject-matter undermine the impact of this book, allowing for one of the very few cases where one could conceivably generate an overlap between the two without losing the impact on either. And yes, should you choose to, you can make the finale less...impactful...but you'd rob yourself and your group of a truly horrific pay-off of epic proportions.
On a personal level, I read this module with some sense of dread, mainly because I've seen A LOT regarding gothic horror - I've dabbled for many years in all of its forms and representations, not only in the context of gaming. However, Richard Develyn once again displays his vast and diverse talent by portraying yet another genre in a way I have not seen done before - the design-decisions, imagery and brave ending to the narrative conspire to make this module one that will leave your players at the very least gulping, at the best rather shocked...stunned even. Not via a cheap, narrative trick, but by virtue of all those little symbols and pieces falling into place with an almost audible "thwump." This module could have been the plot to a classic tale by Poe, had he had a background of fantasy roleplaying games - what more can you ask for?
One more thing: If my above explanations made no sense to you, feel free to contact me and I'll elaborate. And if you don't care about any part of this, just run it - you'll understand what I meant once you've completed this module...
Richard maintains his streak - this is the 7th module IN A ROW, all wildly different in focus, story, structure and genre, that gets 5 stars + seal of approval AND status as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2015. In case you're wondering - yes, so far ALL of these seven featured in the final top ten for their respective years. These modules aren't simple adventures - they are stimulating, smart art that can be appreciated on a whim or analyzed in-depth. In either case, you won't find a module even close to this level of quality anywhere near this price-point...or beyond that, for that matter. Dear adventure-authors (and particularly, anyone who throws the term "gothic horror" around willy-nilly without knowing what it means), take heed - this is how it's done in a fantasy context without losing the impact the genre requires to thrive.
You can get this superb module here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!
Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs

The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition (GUMSHOE)

Wed, Oct 28 2015 - 05:14
The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition (GUMSHOE)

The Esoterrorists clocks in at 161 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 3 pages of ToC, leaving 155 pages of content, so let's take a look!
I received a print copy of this book for the purpose of providing a critical and unbiased review. This book was moved up in my review-queue due to this fact.
The Esoterrorists is the game that originally introduced the GUMSHOE-engine, which has since then been used in quite an intriguing array of systems that provide some overlap and options to combine them.
The system you're probably most likely to know the engine from would be "Trail of Cthulhu," Pelgrane Press' investigative Cthulhu-horror game - and thus, you can already deduce the focus of GUMSHOE. Focus? Well, it is my firm belief that no roleplaying game system's engine is perfect. Pathfinder, for example, excels in complex builds and combat simulation. If you take a look at the investigative aspects...well, not so much. I believe that both players and GMs benefit from a change of pace and system once in a while and so, in a way, GUMSHOE was the natural step to take for me, since it can be considered to be almost diametrically opposed to PFRPG in focus. GUMSHOE is a roleplaying game defined by a focus on the story and roleplaying investigations, as opposed to tactical encounters.
Esoterrorist's 2nd edition can be pretty much considered to be the most easy to learn of the GUMSHOE games - the book can be considered to be the basic-version of the rules, without the more complex additions of other variants. From a didactic point of view, this book does a great job explaining the system - to the point where I tried handing it to someone not familiar at all with GUMSHOE. The lady cooked up a character and understood the system almost immediately. So yes, the presentation here is de facto better regarding its user-friendliness than in comparable GUMSHOE-games.
The system is very much ability-driven (though the GUMSHOE term "ability" here does not refer to an ability-score, but rather a skill): Investigative abilities contain e.g. Cop Talk, Document Analysis, Flirting - you get the idea. Now here's the cincher though: You have one point in an investigative ability? You're one of the best in the field - auto-success. I know, w-t-f, right? But what about degrees of success? Well, the interesting thing is that each ability in GUMSHOE is treated as a resource - you can e.g. spend points of your investigative abilities to unearth ADDITIONAL information. The result of this structure is that the GM has a different task, as do authors - the structure must, by virtue of the game's design, provide multiple ways towards the end. Expending points from the investigative abilities can open new venues of investigation, provide short-cuts -the system pretty much enforces well-written investigations: You can't provide a railroad, you need to make the research modular. This is pretty much genius. (Yes, abilities spent regenerate.)The abilities not related to the field of investigation directly would be general abilities: These follow different rules and contain melee (via scuffling), health, stability, etc. - here, failure is a distinct possibility. You spend ability points and roll a 6-sided die to see whether you succeed. To keep a character from investing all in one score, the second highest score must at least be half the highest.
So that would be the basic system - it is simple, elegant and, as you may note, bereft of e.g. complications like the cherries provided in Night's Black Agents. While this makes the rules-frame of Esoterrorists less intriguing than that of comparable GUMSHOE-titles, it does provide a crucial advantage - adaptability: Basically, you can graft all specific GUMSHOE-rules you want into esoterrorists: From Night's Black Agent's thriller combat to Fear Itself's (review coming!) psychic rules or any combination thereof, esoterrorists ultimately represents the most effortlessly customizable of the GUMSHOE-games: Whether you're looking for pulpy action or face to the grindstone horror, the system can be customized for just about anything. Oh, and since it is set in our contemporary times, Trail of Cthulhu + Esoterrorists = Cthulhu Now...or Delta Green -as just some examples.
But this is not simply a rule-book - it is also a campaign setting. I do not own the Fact Book (which is a player-handbook, or so I believe), but all you actually need is in here. The basic premise is pretty simple: The investigators work for the OV, the Ordo Veritatis. This organization is an ancient secret-service-type of order that seeks to protect the unwitting mortals from the dread creatures that seek to invade our world from the Outer Dark. No, the OV is not going to inevitably betray the investigators. They're actually the good guys... Yeah, I know - crazy, right? I'm pretty much as stunned by this as you are! It is pretty interesting to note that the book actually contains specific information on how investigations are handled - for the players!
Procedural protocols, if you will, with different levels of staffer-experience for the analysis backdrop of the OV, add a significant level of awesomeness to the campaign setting as presented and provide further options for tight, fun roleplaying - you want your capable support-guys back at home to live, right? After all, if Jefferson hadn't known about this obscure bullet coated in virgin's blood and mandragora, you'd all be dead by now... Oh, and there's this other thing you should know: Veil-outs are crucial...for a reason.
You see, the basic premise of esoterrorists is that there's a struggle going: Basically belief and perception shape our world and what we have achieved with our enlightened society means that the laws of physics are strengthened. If belief in them fades, the veil gets thinner. Horror, breakdowns of how the world works etc. means that the membrane that shelter us from a world of horrors thins. Esoterrorists, the enemies of the OV, seek to let more entities into our world and spread terror and fear simply because the breakdown thins the membrane between our structured world and one of infinite possibilities, of innumerous nightmares - and from power to megalomania, there's a lot to be gained here. The intriguing component from an academic point of view here would be the fact that this echoes perfectly the idiosyncratic perceptions of reality we all are subject to, the psychology of our weltanschauung. 

Where in Cthulhu, the default assumption is that ignorance constitutes bliss, here, it is an ideology that keeps us alive. And yes, this means that you actually can blend both in intriguing ways. It also is absolutely tailor-made to evoke themes like that of the Silent hill-franchise, where doom and dread and a world most twisted lurks beneath the surface - when the veils thin and there's a breach, things start to become odd, horrific...dangerous. Thus, more so than anything else, deniability, the cloaking of what's truly going on, is justified as a thoroughly noble cause. This simple set-up lends a level of believability and concise motivation to the default campaign setting that is absent in most similar games. It also provides a superb justification for the procedural protocols of dealing with the creatures from the outer dark. The OV's ethics and code of conduct are impeccable and allow you to actually play the good guys - which is something relatively rarely supported by such games.
Another analogue, beyond the Silent Hill-one, would obviously be Hellraiser - and indeed, the creatures from the outer dark sport, at least in part, overlaps with these beings. However, what truly sets them apart would be that they get what horror is all about. The esoterorists sport, in some way, relatable motivations - while twisted and insane, there are some sample cells that resonate with the deepest, darkest parts of our psyche: From violent bikers beaten into submission by an entity of twisted bones and jagged thorns to collectible-card-game-players conjuring twisted images from the cards to those looking for deviant sexual experiences with beings from the outer dark, the cells (and sample adventure-hooks provided) are nasty and diverse. What about a club of serial killers who meet once a year to engage in a particular vile tradition? Or a nasty international financial conspiracy? From the personal to the geopolitical level, there are a lot of intriguing hooks here.
But they fall short of the creatures introduced in this book. The beings here are truly horrific in that they play with human fears, are both iconic and innovative and still sport a level of personal connection that is downright genius. Know how in Silent Hill, the monsters are visualizations of anxieties, guilt-complexes and traumas? Well, this one kind of goes one step further. There would be the Discarnate, for example - a shapeless, incorporeal entity, a ghost in the machine in the vilest sense of the word. Not only is the dread potential of these creatures vast, their means of creation (and stopping them) is downright disturbing: To create a discarnate, a cell of cults has to build a tomb r tunnel, then ritualistically slash their wrists and collapse the tunnel upon themselves - the entity then takes some components of the personalities and minds of the targets and begins its assault. How do you stop it? My dear readers, I'm not going to spoil that!
What about the Nester? Creeping towards sleeping victims (preferably obese or pregnant people), these creatures jab their hooks into the target, scoop out the abdomen and crawl inside, sealing the belly behind them. Yes, that's not only nasty, that's friggin' nightmare fuel! Or what about a creature that essentially is an outer dark variant of an STD, urging its victim to infect even more targets? Yes, these creatures are disturbing, and delightfully so. However, this fact is further emphasized by the glorious b/w-artworks provided for them - or what about The Host, outer dark entities that thrive on religious mania, subjugating believers and feasting on others? Words clearly fail me here, for however hard I try, I fail to properly evoke how exceedingly well-written these creatures are. But perhaps one example of artwork from within the book helps me make my point:

The prose is even creepier than that. And yes, there is a creature-book on these beings, but alas, I do not own that one.
But let's get back to the task of the GM here, shall we? Basically, the book's user-friendly nature extends to the task of the GM: Advice on clue-structures and the like help create structures that make the respective scenarios easy to run. Char-sheets are provided alongside an extremely handy investigator matrix that helps the GM keep up to date with agent resources and skills. There is also a handy ability-check-list ( so you don't accidentally construct your scenario to include an ability the PCs don't have), a handy scenario-worksheet, adversary-sheets and a sheet to track an esoterrorist cell and even extremely detailed station duty worksheets - 3 of them!! A massive 3-page index also makes using the book very easy on the GM.
I mentioned station duty, didn't I? Well, while the default assumption is one of supernatural agent-gameplay from case to case akin to Millennium or X-Files, the other default game-style is that of station duty: Essentially, there are some places where the membrane threatens to thin - agents of the OV are then sent to the area for long-term operations. In this case, we get a COMPLETE TOWN. No, I'm not exaggerating - there is a massive, completely detailed small town provided here: With copious amounts of NPCs to interact with and hundreds of possibilities: Almost each character has several optional story-threads you can or cannot follow, threads which may turn into pure horror. It's hard to properly depict the level of excruciating detail, from establishing cover identities to the disturbing concepts provided here. Let me just say that this section is the closest to a proper Twin Peaks/Silent Hill-simulator I've ever seen. In case you didn't know - these two franchises constitute some of my favorite pieces of media...ever. Add to that a significant array of delightfully twisted hand-outs from which clues can be extracted and we have a section that may justify getting the book all on its own - it's basically a whole sandbox-campaign, all ready for you and your players.
Speaking of sandbox...

The book also sports a short sample scenario with Prophet Operation Bungo, which, contrary to the tradition of sample scenarios in core/campaign-setting-books, actually is fun, delightful and more detailed than I would have expected.

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to an extremely slick, stylish and atmospheric 2-column-b/w-standard and the pdf provides several downright legendary b/w-artworks. The pdf comes with an EPUB and a MOBI-version and a printer-friendly one...but quite frankly, I'd strongly advise you to get the print. The paper is thick and glossy, high-quality and if you're anything like me, this will be used A LOT.
I'm a cthulhu-fanboy and thus, it should come as no surprise that I got Trail of Cthulhu back in the day. My friend Paco got my Night's Black Agents, which is a glorious game. I never got Esoterrorists and wouldn't have bought it - the title and concept didn't particularly appeal to me, so why bother?
My gut-feeling and instinct was never this wrong in my whole reviewer's-career. This is the best horror-book I've read in years, regardless of setting. Let me elaborate: After more than 15 years of obsession with vampires and the cthulhu-mythos, both themes have become kind of predictable to me. I *love* both, but at one point, games focusing exclusively on either ultimately become the doom of horror - predictable. We fear what we do not understand. As soon as we get our oomphteenth Mi-Go or Yithian, their horror is lost, they become predictable foes. Similarly, vampires can, in the long run, lose their fascination. This is, ultimately, what made me turn my back on the GUMSHOE-system for a while and the primary reason I did not start reviewing books of the system sooner - I was burned out on the subject matter and so were my players.
Esoterrorists changed that.
You could argue that I've never played a vanilla esoterrorists-game. You'd be right. What I did when this book hit my shelves, was something different: I dusted off Night's Black Agents and added the whole concept of the membrane to the game, introduced entities from the other dark and recruited the agents into the OV, which, of course, was among the organizations the vampires sought to infiltrate. I added creatures of the outer dark and the station duty town to my trail of cthulhu games. And suddenly, they were new - disturbing, fresh and diverse. Beyond resonating with iconic themes and a fresh perspective, this book is not only innovative - it GETS HORROR. No, really. This understands horror to a point that bespeaks not only the vast talent of Robin D. Laws and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan as writers, it also constitutes an eureka-effect I haven't had in ages - this humble, little book has inspired me to an extent I have not experienced since I first stumbled over Ravenloft and Planescape back in the day. It is incredibly frustrating to me that I cannot properly put the genius of this book into words, cannot convey the level of impact this book's ideas have had on my games.
Don't get me wrong - Night's Black Agents is quite frankly the better game regarding pure mechanics - it's more complex, more diverse and the thriller combat and chase rules are exceedingly smart. But, at least to me, Esoterrorists is a book that's infinitely more compelling because its prose, the concepts provided, are just so incredibly compelling, because they feature the experience of jamais-vu and because the horror presented here actually really strikes home: This is not blood and guts, this is psychologically disturbing in the way that only great horror is - where the true ramifications are slowly build up. This is the antithesis of the jump-scare-movie - this is smart horror that sticks with you.
This is not only a game - Esoterrorists is basically, a gigantic, awesome template that can be applied to just about any horror game you can conceive. It works in a plethora of contexts because its theme resonate with our very basic, human psychology.
It is my firm conviction that this book belongs in the library of any self-respecting GM looking for inspiration regarding horror-settings and how to create compelling set-ups. If you're playing ANY GUMSHOE-game, this book can be considered a vast amplifier: The concepts within this book are so incredibly compelling and fun, they managed to re-ignite my spark for cthulhu-related material by virtue of the means by which you can use the content herein to enhance the world of the mythos.
I haven't been this excited by a book, any book, in a long, long time - even only as an idea-scavenging-ground, this book is superb by any definition of the word. And know what? While my Top ten-list of the year usually is restricted to Pathfinder-supplements, I will grant this one status as a candidate - its contents and ideas are simply too compelling and can be a vast inspiration in ANY context you can conceive. I firmly believe that simply reading this book makes you a better horror-GM, even if you ignore the rules and setting. You won't be surprised, then, that I'll add my EZG Essentials-tag to a book that scores 5 stars + seal of approval, a book that blew my mind.
If horror interests you even in the slightest, if you even tangentially like smart, psychological horror, if you even remotely enjoy Twin Peaks, Silent Hill, The Evil Within, X-Files, Millennium and if you really want some fresh wind in your respective horror of preference, then this book should go right to the top of your to-buy list. It's that good.
You can get this superb book here on OBS!
A Free preview can be found here!
Want a free supplemental recruitment book for OV-agents? You can get that here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs

Night's Black Agents (GUMSHOE)

Fri, Oct 23 2015 - 03:54
Night's Black Agents (GUMSHOE)

Night's Black Agents, as a hardcover, is a massive 232 page-book, with 2 pages of editorial, 3 pages of ToC, which leaves us with 227 pages of content - so let's take a look!
Wait for a second - before we do: Yes, this means I'm branching out into GUMSHOE, at least occasionally. Why? Well, I actually got Night's Black Agents as a present from a friend of mine (thanks, Paco!) and had been playing with it for quite some time. Before I get into the nit and grit, let's start with a brief discussion of GUMSHOE, the engine of this RPG.
The system you're probably most likely to know the engine from would be "Trail of Cthulhu," Pelgrane Press' investigative horror game - and thus, you can already deduce the focus of GUMSHOE. Focus? Well, it is my firm belief that no roleplaying game system's engine is perfect. Pathfinder, for example, excels in complex builds and combat simulation. If you take a look at the investigative aspects...well, not so much. I believe that both players and GMs benefit from a change of pace and system once in a while and so, in a way, GUMSHOE was the natural step to take for me, since it can be considered to be almost diametrically opposed to PFRPG in focus. GUMSHOE is a roleplaying game all about the brains, less about the brawns. 
The system is very much ability-driven (though the GUMSHOE term "ability" here does not refer to an ability-score, but rather a skill): Investigative abilities contain e.g. Cop Talk, Data Recovery, Law - you get the idea. Now here's the clincher though: You have one point in an investigative ability? You're one of the best in the field - auto-success. I know, w-t-f, right? But what about degrees of success? Well, the interesting thing is that each ability in GUMSHOE is treated as a resource - you can e.g. spend points of your investigative abilities to unearth ADDITIONAL information. The result of this structure is that the director (or GM) has a different task, as do authors - the structure must, by virtue of the game's design, provide multiple ways towards the end. expending points from the investigative abilities can open new venues of investigation, provide short-cuts  -the system pretty much enforces well-written investigations - you can't provide a railroad, you need to make the research modular. This is pretty much genius. (Yes, abilities spent regenerate.)
There also are general abilities, which follow different rules that allow for failure. You spend ability points and roll a 6-sided die to see whether you succeed. To keep a character from investing all in one score, the second highest score must at least be half the highest. Points to buy abilities from depend, btw., on group-size. General abilities contain Athletics, Disguise, Driving, Hand-to-Hand, Shooting...and, obviously Health and Stability. So yes, that's about it. No, seriously - investigative and general abilities. that's it. Simple, right? The more dice you spend, the higher is your chance of success. Cooperation between characters is still an option and groups may piggyback on the best character's action by spending less points.
So, this would be the basic set-up. Now, as you can glean from the set-up, combat is not nearly as complex or diverse as in PFRPG or 13th Age and indeed, the system lends itself to a higher lethality-level. There is also an evident problem for anyone familiar with similar set-ups: Essentially, the set-up boils down to resource-management, which means spreading abilities etc. makes sense. Inexperienced players may end up sans points in their key competences right in the middle of an investigation. This is intentional, mind you, and part of the challenge - each spent should be carefully considered. Agents do not exist in solitude - hence, in most game-styles, there are sources of stability that help you from going off the deep end - from causes to persons, these are your anchor in the world, what keeps the character sane - their sources of stability.
So that's the vanilla set-up of GUMSHOE. Night's Black Agents, to me, has one of the best, if not the best version of the GUMSHOE-engine, though - at least for any game that is at least slightly pulpy. The book sports so-called thriller combat rules, which allow for the stunts we all know and love from the spy genre's fiction and it also offers "cherries." 8 points in a given ability unlock the cherry, which means you get something awesome: You're either less ridiculously easy to hit with guns, get a wild-card die-result you can substitute for another roll, automatically bypass most doors sans test...yes, this would be iconic and interesting specialization options, which coincidentally also help with the spread-problem.
Design-wise, it should also be noted that Night's Black Agents is one of the smartest, most professional games you can get for its focus: What do i mean by that? We *ALL* have different concepts of what spy thrillers should be like - gritty and psychological? Far-out and action-packed? Well, this book offers different game-modes, which handy glyphs denote. These game-modes represent different approaches to the genre and play in vastly different ways: "Burn" focuses on the psychological ramifications of spy-work and damage. While the default of Night's Black Agents is a Bourne Identity-like cinematic set-up, "Dust" allows for gritty, lethal, lo-fi rules that would also gel perfectly well with noir-aesthetics. "Mirror" would be the ultimate game of shifting alliances, betrayal and trust - intended only for mature groups, here betrayal among players and contacts, constantly shifting allegiances and the like generate a feeling of paranoia. Finally, "Stakes" is probably most in line with classic James Bond - it's the high-risk "In service of a higher cause" type of gameplay. All of these are supported, and, to a degree, they can be combined by a capable director. The result being that this is not a simple monolithic rules-set, but one that has a massive array of support for table-variation built into its very foundation.
EVERY other game-system I know (and quite a few designers) should take a careful look at this design-principle - here, we have support for A LOT of table variations and playstyles. And yes, this extends throughout the whole game's presentation, from chases to the primary antagonists.
Which brings me to the next point: When I got this book from Paco, I wasn't that thrilled - As I've been rambling on about time and again, I have VERY specific notions of what vampires should be. Well, the primary antagonists of Night's Black Agents, the conspiracy of vampires the agents face, is nothing less than brilliant in the way that it extends this modularity to the very concept of vampires: Instead of providing a monolithic hostile force that was bound to limit and disappoint some groups, we get a vast toolkit for your own vampire customization, with abilities marked with handy glyphs: Whether due to a mutation of the Marburg V-virus, as descendants of Dracula's lineage, supernatural creatures or even aliens, a plethora of vampiric themes is supported...yes, including the classic "servants of hell"-trope. And, once again, options are provided without making the material presented prescriptive in any shape, way or form. Sample characters can be found here to highlight the potential of the adversaries and infection/becoming a vampire also has a different set of conditions. Perhaps you're one of the weirdo GMs like yours truly and want something far-out? Well, from Camazotz to the Lamia, quite an array of kind-of vampiric adversaries are provided for your convenience.
Combat, btw., is significantly more rewarding here than you'd think - the new cherries and various options, from expert martial arts to feinting mean that this book's combat-section can be considered the most refined among GUMSHOE games. Special tag-team benefits allow btw. fr the combination of abilities for rather intriguing effects. The book also sports several hazards and how to deal with them in the context of the rules  -from falling to acid to toxins, there is enough out there to kill your agents..or drive them mad. A significant collection of stability-loss samples and concise rules for mental illness, PTSD and the like, are provided - and yes, in mirror games, multiple personality disorder may turn you into your own adversary.
Directors also may benefit from the easy means f tracking "heat", i.e. the level by which your agents are hunted. Tools of the trade, both subtle and of the flamethrower-variant and tricks of the trade, from covert networks to safe houses - there is a lot going on here - and even with the relatively broad strokes I'm painting with here, I have no true means of covering the whole book sans bloating the review. So, I'll instead comment on some aspects.
The advice to players-section is gold. Yes, you can win. Yes, something horrible is gonna happen - this is a horror game. Get an exit strategy...this short section should be something featured in any investigative roleplaying game - it also helps players succeed and not be stumped. (Contrary to popular myth, GUMSHOE does lead to dead-ends once in a while - not via investigative abilities failing, but due to the human factor...and that is a good thing, as it makes the final triumph sweeter!)
Directors of the game can officially start grinning, since at this point, it is time for me to tell you about another great aspect of this book: Beyond the excessive modularity of the rules presented, the book acknowledges something: Investigations are HARD. No, seriously. Any GM of any game who has ever tried to write one will have come to this conclusion - much less speaking of a whole friggin' campaign! The solution, obviously, is to give the director the tools for the trade - and partially, the system's insistence of modularity, hard-coded into the very rules, already does that pretty well. But the narrative structuring of the frame-work still is an issue - so we get the downright genius Conspyramid. You have various levels, where you generate a flow-chart diagram of your own vampiric conspiracy...but beyond this, it's the advice that really matters. If, e.g., you follow Stoker's classic means of identifying vampires (or that from folklore), this will have repercussions on how your game works: Do they show on smart-phones and cameras? is a bite enough to doom you? Can vampirism be cured? If so, how? Only before or also after the transformation? The level of detail is staggering. Want more? What about a concise list of Europe's backstage intelligence agencies and military OPs as well as detailed information on criminal syndicates and the like? Quick and dirty city building, alongside concise and detailed examples provide glorious backdrops and advice on how to handle the grand game of spy-craft. On a meta-concern beyond individual design, advice on pacing and structuring of operations, pyramidal structures of antagonist motivations - the structuring advice provided here in not only great and valid within the frame-work of Night's Black Agents and reaches almost the level of a full-blown GM-advice book.
So, what about EVEN MORE modifications? Perhaps you don't like the vampire angle - no problem: The book has rules for straight, non-supernatural spygames. Or perhaps, you want gameplay with agents that also have supernatural abilities like remote viewing? Supported. The latter especially is interesting, since it offers plenty of support in conjunction with other GUMSHOE-products...nothing keeps you from re-designing that cthulhu-material, after all...
A brief and solid entry-scenario can also be found in this book, though that would be the one component where Night's Black Agents does not fare as well as other GUMSHOE-products - the scenario is solid, sure - but, as you'll see next week, there are better ones out there. A further reading list concludes the main text of the book.
The addenda contain exceedingly handy director-tracking sheets, worksheets for vampires and cities, operation sheets, an easy director-cheat-sheet of crucial rules, thriller chase summary cheat-sheet and rules, the same for thriller combat options, conspyramid-sheets to print/copy and use,  ability summaries (also for refreshs), an agent record sheet, indices and a handy main index for navigation.
Editing and formatting are apex-level awesome - no significant glitches in a book of this size. Wow. Layout adheres to an easy-to-read 3-column standard - which I usually really don't like - in most of the cases, 3-columns render the page's visuals cluttered. not so here. In fact, due to the excessive modularity of the system provided, it actually works to the book's benefit as a structuring element here. The artwork ranges from somewhat comic-y (and less awesome than I've come to expect from Pelgrane Press) to the glorious style of the cover. Btw.: Quite a few non-gamer friends have commented on the cover artwork being absolutely stunning. I concur. The book's dead tree hardcover is a thing of beauty and if you intend to play this game, I certainly advise you getting it. Now originally, I did not have the electronic version of Night's Black Agents - by now I do. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks and symbols among the bookmarks for your convenience, making navigation very simple. The book also comes with an EPUB-version, a MOBI-version, Agent's Dossier, the first module from the Zalozhniy Quartet (review forthcoming) and the BETA 2-version of the Night's Black Agents Android App. There also are free resources to be downloaded online - scroll to the bottom of the review (at least on my homepage) for the link.
Kenneth Hite's Night's Black Agents is one damn impressive tome - the setting provided is concise and managed, in spite of my VERY STRONG opinion on vampires, to avoid annoying me. This book is all about options - it is a toolkit par excellence that does not force any playstyle on a given group, instead opening up a vast plethora of diverse choices and options for anyone to pursue. The rules are explained in a concise, easy to grasp manner and are so simple I managed to convey them to people who had never played RPGs before in less than 10 minutes. Granted, that's a strength of GUMSHOE as an engine.
However, beyond utilizing the strengths of the engine itself, this book resolves several crucial points of criticism with the engine underlying the setting - the diverse rules not only allow for different playstyles with different foci, it also mitigates some of the less inspired components of the engine by adding (optional) complexity that renders gameplay more diverse and ultimately, rewarding.
The single, biggest crucial strength of this book is that its modularity extends beyond the reach of its implied setting - in spite of the great presentation and concise rules, the concept of spies vs. vampires, to me, seemed rather monolithic; the issue of Cthulhu-games, if you will: You (kind of) know what to expect. Well, the beauty here lies in the options: You can easily combine this book with other GUMSHOE settings and systems. Want to go Cthulhu NOW with ToC? Get this. Want more combat edges and action in Esoterrorists? (Yup, review coming up!) Get this now. The engine-tweaks introduced herein render this book an imho non-optional, massive toolkit for GUMSHOE that enriches ANY game based on the engine, not only the intended playstyle-verisimilitude. Which also deserves credit galore - the level of detail and support for the director should be taken as the level to which all games should aspire to.
Apart from the vast diversity of options (none of which are neglected or considered superior), the sheer attention to detail regarding the finer points of conspiracy-creation and the like retain their validity even beyond the confines of this game. Oh, and then there's massive array of supplemental material, the fact that you literally can derive so much awesomeness from this book. If you play GUMSHOE, any GUMSHOE game, and always felt like the engine had more to offer, then you should consider this a must-buy book. If the theme even remotely interests you, well, then this should be considered a unique and rewarding game to play. Night's Black Agents is, by any measure I apply, a superb game. My review may not reflect this 100%, but I tried VERY hard to pick this book apart - but quite frankly, there is nothing worth complaining about. Sure, its combat will never attain 13th Age's or PFRPG's level of complexity. But neither will those systems ever come close to the investigative caliber of this book.
If you're looking for a change of pace, for vampires in your GUMSHOE game, for a glorious investigative game, for a rules-expansion of the highest caliber, for any of the above virtues- then there's no way past this book. 
My final verdict will be 5 stars + my seal of approval, accompanied by being tagged as an EZG Essential-book for GUMSHOE. Once I've reviewed enough books of the system, I will provide the corresponding Essentials-list.
You can get this absolutely glorious vampire-spy-thriller-game here on OBS!

Those free materials I mentioned in my review? Here's the link to them!

There's one more thing: You see, there currently (until Halloween!) a pre-order going - the core book, plus the director's handbook, plus the Dracula Unredacted? What's the latter? Well, perhaps the most ambitious hand-out in gaming history - the original Dracula novel, commented and suffused with lore that pertains to Night's Black Agents! Yes, this is the equivalent of a cthulhu mythos tome-handout. Damn cool and something I'm very excited to see!

The pre-order bundle can be ordered here at 10% off.

Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs

The Sword of Air

Wed, Sep 30 2015 - 07:18
The Sword of Air

The massive mega-adventure clocks in at 522 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 3 pages of obituary-slots (this is FGG we're talking about) and 1 page back cover, leaving us with 514 pages of content, so let's dive in...
...but wait, before we do, let me reiterate something: This is not simply a massive module, this is a linchpin, a relic finally realized. For as long as I've been reading Necromancer Games (and later, Frog God Games-modules), I've seen those tantalizing hints, time and again, supplemented by this nasty, trademark "Coming Soon." Anticipation continued to build up - for years. When FGG was created, published Slumbering Tsar, vastly improved Rappan Athuk and then proceeded to release great book after great book - even saving Razor Coast from oblivion - that's when I hoped. when the KS hit, I scrounged together all bucks I could, bought two weeks worth of ramen and pledged. And when the KS' was finished, I sat there - and started honestly dreading the arrival of this book.
Why? Because I have the most insane of expectations for this mega-adventure - years upon years of expectations and improved qualities of previous books - since the days of NG, the world has turned. It is my belief that the average of FGG's oeuvre, quality-wise, significantly exceeds that of NG - NG was the trailblazer, FGG has, at this point, imho surpassed its predecessor. So has Sword of Air changed with it? Is it up to date, or a relic of NG's days in design-aesthetic? All of this does not bode well - usually, when I have high expectations, I tend to end up disappointed. So far for my own mindset going into this.
Genre-wise, Sword of Air is a huge sandbox-adventure that deviates from the player-driven Slumbering Tsar in the key-aspect that it indeed has a metaplot beyond exploration - in fact, this mega-adventure, while providing enough sandboxing, does have a significantly more pronounced plot, is, dare I say, brainier, than most modules of this size. It should also be noted that the modules vast array of maps, all in gorgeous full-color, come with player-friendly versions and my dead-tree copy featured a high-quality, gorgeous hex-map of the areas covered herein.
Indeed, the Gulf of Akados-region as depicted herein, with hex upon hex of things, settlements, dungeons is ridiculously detailed and provides more storylines than I can hope to cover in a review - there is so much material here, you will NOT be wanting for simple material to put your PCs through. Indeed, much like the most detailed settings of old, you can just put this book down as a kind of massive world-guide, push your PCs in and there you go  -even with this type of gameplay, ignoring the plotline, this probably has enough gaming material to last you at least a year. So yes, you can wide-open sandbox this beast...but you don't have to.
All right, enough procrastination - this being an adventure-review, from here on out reign the SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.......If you're a player, jump ahead - or Tsathogga AND Orcus may well descend on you and consume your soul!......All right, only GMs left? Great! First of all: This mega-adventure has one of the most surprising primary antagonists you'll ever see - unless your players are exceedingly paranoid, to the point they even exceed the paranoia of mine, they will NOT see the revelation of the true mastermind coming  -and indeed, a lot hangs in the balance here. This book is an epic quest that spans multiple artifacts, with, obviously, the Sword of Air taking a central role. The PCs are drawn into this epic via the feud of two archwizards Kayden and Sorten, who face an issue of mutually-assured destruction - a theme that has an intriguing resonance in the subtext of the module that sets Sword of Air, intentionally or not, apart - and yes, I used the word "epic" in the truly intended context with all the ramifications of this word: Sword of Air puts A LOT at stake, and all in the player's hands - with a distinct chance that the PCs and players may unwittingly unleash doom upon all of the Lost Lands. The stakes, though it may seem otherwise, are apocalyptic indeed.
While the general notion is that the PCs are recruited by the...let's say, less than nice wizard Kayden to get him the Shagaspondium, a legendary item and the first trail towards the Sword of Air, this mega-adventure very much has more for you to do than you can ever want - strange ruins dot the landscape. Dragon-families with funny names engage in an ancient family feud. Vampire princesses lie entombed in small dungeons. A lycanthropic gnoll-lord rule over their people in a massive mountain-fortress - all of these come fully mapped and yes, certain forests contain dark secrets at their center - and the domains of the two arch-wizards, with their excessive details, also should eb considered intriguing. The production-values have to be mentioned here - this book has A LOT of artwork and cartography - many of which can be considered stunning. The full-color renditions, especially of mechanisms and areas (less so for characters) is absolutely awesome and helps immersion. Speaking of which - the level of detail, should you prefer simulationalist approach, includes handy lists of food-consumption and areas containing a lot of NPCs, you'll enjoy the schedules that depicts when character xyz is here and when not. It should also be noted that the NPC-builds are a tad more creative and versatile than in most FGG-books, with plenty of multiclassing and archetyping.
But, beyond all of this, you should also be aware that, by infiltration or alliance, sooner or later, the PCs will need to actually enter the Plane of Shadow - in this wasteland, titanic shadow giants loom and the exploration of the wasteland is one step beyond the challenge of the basic range and of what one would expect - within the depths of this desolation, umbral dragons loom, deadly woods are home to life-draining monsters and a mad apprentice has the key to the tomb of Aka Bakar - but curious PCs may just as well try to foil the deadly Night Queen. Or what about travelling the shadow sea?  Need something more epic - well, there is a chance that the artifacts of the deadly shadow giant deity Knew Koth is resurrected - his dread stats are provided...
Speaking of Aka Bakar's tomb- the dungeon is deadly, but you knew that much, right? Fact is, it's also, much like the basic plotline, a place where brains are just as required as brawns - the numerous, smart puzzles provided within this massive complex provide a great change of pace from the deadly adversaries, unique foes and lethal traps - and yes, there are some traps herein that will TPK foolish groups - much like Rappan Athuk and similarly challenging modules, this is NOT playing around - though, at least in my opinion, the whole complex adheres to an internal consistency beyond what e.g. RA delivers - the complex not only felt thoroughly unique and alive, it simply is awesome and feels organic, logical.
But what to do with the Sword of Air, should the PCs recover it? One thing is clear - this sword in the stone has brought untold suffering and needs to be taken care of - but how to destryo it? Well, this is where the massive book essentially splits its direction - unless you direct things otehrwise, of course. Researching the means of destruction, unlike with most artifacts, can yield two options - but that may not be apparent for the PCs. The most rewarding option may be to send them in the direction of method A) and then have them realize that something is amiss. If only, because missing out on even a bit of the Wasteland of Tsen would be a crime in my book. Do you recall my incessant gushing about Slumbering Tsar's Desolation back in the day? Well, at this point, the Wasteland of Tsen, horribly irradiated and providing tables upon tables of mutations, constitutes perhaps one of my favorite areas ever depicted in a fantasy roleplaying game - utterly unique and strange, with ample of deadly creatures, this desolate place with its delightfully tentacled squirrel-swarms and unique hazards and creatures hides more than the remnants of a fantastical fallout - essentially, from the temple hidden beneath the dead lake to the massive, ruined city, this gigantic, impressively-detailed exploration takes the former awesome components and one-ups them in imagery and iconic themes - and below do lie the lead mines of Tsen, where maddened clerics of Arden defend the Heart of their dead god - and with it, one of the options to destroy the doom-bringing Sword of Air once and for all.
The other option, of course, involves researching the existence of a legendary beast of Tarrasque-like proportions (and a CR of 27) that happens to be immortal. No, this is not the highest level CR the PCs can stumble into - one endgame-scenario can be summed as literally "The world is doomed." Now matter how you play this gigantic beast - no matter, how things turn out - getting through this in any way is a feat - a true achievement.
I am waging a gamble: This will surpass Rappan Athuk at one point in its legend. Why? Because its storyline is compelling and because it does engage the brains and all problem-solving skills of a group beyond what most modules dare to do - from opposite-battles to research and schemes within schemes to the ridiculously awesome locations, this book is stunning. And since I can't really properly convey that - this book contains almost 100 pages of maps. No, I am NOT kidding. Each and every little halfway feasible locale is mapped. This is beyond. And yes, as always, we get copious monsters and magic items and, and , and - but ultimately, everything pales before this module.
And yes, I will remain this opaque here - you should get this and read it yourself. I can't properly convey this book's impact.
Conclusion:Editing and formatting are top-notch - for a book of this size to have this level of cohesion is more than just remarkable - it's a feat in itself. Layout...oh boy - this book is gorgeous full color, glossy paper and sports absolutely stunning, video-game artbook-level beautiful illustrations...a lot of them. Contrasted with this level of realism and beauty are callbacks to old-school artworks, mainly represented in the character-artworks that depict those guys - personally, I didn't like the comic- style employed in some of them, but that is a matter of taste. I just wished they had adhered to the style depicted in the landscape-shots - why? Because both the book and the artwork conspire to evoke a unique atmosphere. More on that below. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks and my hardcover is gorgeously stitch-bound with the level of quality I've come to expect from FGG.
All right. When I first began this review, I used an approach similar to that of Quests of Doom - short run-downs of the story-lines, then moving on. This does not work here. There is simply too much potential contained within these pages. In fact, my previous review of this was bloated beyond recognition, at a point where no one would have read it. Why? A line from Antimatter comes to mind "If you look at me from your own century, I must seem like strange archeology."
This is, in my opinion, all that is great about old-school gaming. Much like games like Demon's Souls or Dark Souls, this plunges you into a world, where wonder, death and danger lurk at every corner - where strange things abound. Much like Slumbering Tsar, this evokes a sense of an ancient world that has moved on, a massive, storied place that has always existed - where each hill may hide new questions, new answers. Indeed, for the first time since Tsar, I felt reminded of why I truly adored this gritty style - the comparison that comes to mind, is the honorable Judge's Guild, the Wilderness of High Fantasy.
This is, what frankly only a book of this size could conceivably offer - a simulation. A massive simulation of a huge region that is organic, filled to the brim with awesome adventure, weirdness, Easter-eggs...all without delving into the ridiculous. Yes, you may find a purple demon-cow...but you may also unearth some strange ruins, find truly unique creatures or even test your mettle against a god long-thought dead.
Sword of Air is hard - but not because of it being unfair. Yes, you will need to run and yes, sometimes, the characters will die...but the true accomplishment of this book is that it sports a central narrative for the GM to use to get things on track. Essentially, this could be considered a synthesis of the massive strengths of Slumbering Tsar, coupled with a central plot-line that is more consistent than its brethren. What brethren am I talking about? Well, obviously the classic sagas that revolved around a certain axe that lords of the stout folk used to wield and, more fittingly, perhaps - the Rod of the 7 Parts. Sword of Air mops the floor with them and takes their lunch-money, while beating Rappan Athuk up with its free hand.
This gigantic masterpiece is more evocative than all of those, challenging and smart - it dares to demand smart and attentive players. It dabbles in the weird and uncommon. It has an utterly unique adversary, sports some of the most iconic locales available in this generation of modules and does all of that while maintaining its focus, its leitmotif and putting literally all choice within the hands of the experienced GM - where, ultimately, that belongs.
Don't get me wrong - I love APs and their tight stories, but this is something different - this is a way of forging your own story, with options galore to insert whatever modules you're itching to run. Unlike a regular AP, this is pretty much a world-immersion-experience in a sense one only rarely sees - because it is extremely hard to pull off. In the hands of even only a good writer, cohesion is lost and the settlement of amazons feels out of place, everything dissolves. Well, Bill Webb is anything but "only good" - this Magnum Opus is perhaps the ultimate proof of his vast imaginative potential.
Sword of Air is an absolute masterpiece and even among Bill Webb's extensive canon of superb modules, it stands out at one step beyond, further enhanced by the FGG crew going the extra mile regarding the sheer number of foes and the increased optimization of builds of foes. Add to that the vast amount of art and cartography and we have, quite frankly, a book for the ages.
There is something very wrong with the world if this does not become a truly legendary book, a milestone - Sword of Air is quite frankly a book that only happens every couple of years, one that is so good, so fun, so unique, I'm running out of superlatives - fast. If a new generation of gamers wants to know why those grognard's eyes glaze over when the classics are mentioned, when you never really got what is supposed to be great about something like Rappan Athuk - then this book is for you. Because more so than RA, it represents what is best about this type of gaming. It challenges the mind, it inspires, it is unbound and wild and free and epic beyond what a lesser tome could hope to achieve.
In case my gushing diatribes were not ample clue - the only book in the current generation of modules that comes close to this in scope and quality of atmosphere would be Slumbering Tsar - and, personally, I actually like Sword of Air a bit more, if only because it is a tad bit more focused and has the benefit of the narrative being there to guide the PCs back on trek if they get lost in the sandboxing. I firmly believe that this book is a must-own book that belongs into the library of any DM looking for a challenge, looking to understand what a truly free, and yet intelligent and focused sandbox can be.
Sword of Air is a masterpiece, gets 5 stars + seal of approval and is, obviously, a candidate for the number 1-slot of my Top Ten of 2015. This mega-adventure does everything right. Get it and never let go - this will be a classic in the generations to come; to me, it already is one.

You can get this legendary tome here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!

Do you prefer S&W's old-school rules? You can get this version here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!

I post this review in the last hours of FGG's latest massive super-book: The Northlands Saga. Take a look here, if you haven't already!

Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs

Quests of Doom - Adventures Worth Winning

Mon, Sep 28 2015 - 06:29
Quests of Doom - Adventures Worth Winning

This massive book clocks in at 312 pages, not including the covers. Of these pages, 1 is reserved for notes, 1 for the editorial, 1 for the ToC and two for the SRD, leaving us with o less than 307 pages of content, so let's take a look!
But before we dive into the matter at hand, let us first define what this book actually is - a kind of celebration of a series that was nicked in its bloom due to various reasons - I'm, of course, talking about "Demons & Devils" and "Vampires & Liches", the two module compilations released  back in the day by Necromancer Games for 3:X. In case you haven't been around back then to check them out, the premise was simple: Provide old-school modules that are HARD. Not regular FGG-level hard, but...well, nasty. Diabolical. Obviously, I was all for this and coincidentally, "Demons & Devils" was one of the first three books by NG I purchased back in the day at my local FLGS.
The others were "Tomb of Abysthor" and "Crucible of Freya", but I've reminisced long enough about them in my review of their re-release/expansion, Stoneheart Valley. The series never was as popular as the more prominent NG-offerings and thus, only those two installments were made - much to my chagrin. Why? Because they were eye-openers for me. While the other books I purchased were great and have become legends in my group, there are few modules my players talk about more than those contained in these humble pages - which is due to a variety of factors. For one, they are pretty logical, as far as old-school gaming is concerned. Beyond that, they are challenging and dare to ask for brains - whether it's puzzles or simply traps that cannot be easily disarmed by a roll of the bones, their philosophy was different and simply FUN. (Well, I may have made them even more deadly for my main campaign, yes, but that's another story...)
I was at the same time exhilarated and dreaded the arrival of this book - I knew that there were more modules planned that never saw the light of day, but would they live up to the legend of their predecessors? Would the new versions work?
Before I present the modules, let me share some observations with you: For one, fans of FGG's Lost Lands will cherish suggestions of where to place the modules in the context of the campaign world. Beyond that, the modules sport copious new artworks of rather neat quality, so there's that. At the same time, I think one can pretty easily discern the modules that hearken back to the Necromancer Games-era. I may, obviously, be mistaken and only goaded on by some minor relics that refer to NG instead of FGG, but I believe that a certain sense of growth can be seen by quite some authors herein.  The conversion-work, generally, is pretty good - when e.g. vehicles are included and ACG-rules are used here and there, one can see that not only the bare minimum was done. At the same time, I do believe that the conversion could have done a slightly better job in some instances, but let's talk about this when it does rear its head. The modules are grouped by 3s, with each segment having a certain creature-theme. It should also be noted that the modules do sport less hand-holding than many contemporary modules - experienced GMs are definitely going to have an easier time here, with so modules being more challenging (but also more rewarding) than others.
Well, let's not dilly-dally any longer and take a look!
This being a review of a massive adventure compilation, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.......All right, still here? Great! The first module herein would be J. Collura's "Noble Rot", intended for levels 5 -8. In this module, the PCs explore the dilapidated, decayed wine-making operation of the erstwhile prolific Gluant family, hoping to loot some of their exquisite wines. From a significant array of rumors, one can already piece together some intriguing notes about the family - and indeed, the exploration of their dread grounds proves to be a most exciting task - with the undead roaming and a sense of decay pervading the grounds, one can quickly glean that not all is well: Indeed, the family has fallen to the power-struggle of two dread demon lords associated with fungi and slime and thus, the exploration proves to be somewhat icky. Highlights of this module include definitely the author's obviously well-done research that makes the place feel organic and realistic, the new wine slime, wine-making-themed hazards (which benefit quite a bit from the GM doing a quick research for them - I found depicting them easier thereafter) and two particularly challenging encounters - the final battle and the penultimate one both are nasty and reward smart players for drawing the right conclusions in a way more often seen in CoC-pulp-modules than in fantasy - nice! It should also be noted that the titular Noble Rot, based on the real world fungus Boytris Cinerea, can be contracted as a symbiotic fungus that actually acts as a bonus and which allows the GM to help in case of abysmal PC luck. While I believe this is better suited at 5th level than 8th, this module is a strong opener that definitely deserves accolades for the consistent and tight atmosphere evoked.
"Of Ants and Men", for PCs level 4 - 8, is written by Bill Webb. Do I really need to say more? All right, the short version is that the master of Frog God Games delivers by the spades in one of the most simple, yet unique and challenging crawls I've read in quite some time. The premise is simple: Get Giant Ant eggs out of the hive. Easy, right? WRONG. For one, as the dead adventurers attest, there are more issues looming - and the hive is interesting. Instead of devising a convoluted mechanic to depict the hive, we instead get different alarm-statuses for the hive and an easy means of determining initiated aggression upon intruders - essentially, PCs can be sprayed with pheromones by engaging in combat - this results in "aggroing" the hive. Conversely, smart groups that infiltrate the place, steer clear of the warriors etc. may actually make their way to the intelligent queen of the hive - where they may conduct negotiations via pantomime with the mistress of the place. Following the notion of  a Gygaxian simulationist world, incursions into the hive by other creatures provide opportunities for the PCs to be sprayed with "friendly" pheromones, facilitating their infiltration. Oh, and AoE-effect can crumble the tunnels. Cave-ins are NOT fun, so your PCs better be smart. As a nice twist a GM may include or leave out, the hive has burrowed into an antediluvian complex, where extremely deadly traps await alongside a mundane blade made from magic-nulling material - obviously, escaping with this nasty, priceless weapon can be rather tough...and may lead to very intriguing further capers. I LOVED this module - it's unconventional, fun, rewards clever players and could be played as a war of attrition, an infiltration of just a hack-n-slay-type of module. Glorious!
Speaking of which - what's better than a module by Bill Webb? What about one where Matt Finch co-authors the thing? "Hidden Oasis - Temple of Thoth", intended for levels 7 - 9 is ridiculously awesome: When a mysterious stranger, a djinn in disguise, offers knowledge in exchange for a task and produces a strange papyrus scroll with symbols, we kick things into high gear - for the PCs leave their bodies for the plane of shadows, where the equivalent of a Star Gate can be activated with the runes handed to them, bringing them to a kind of odd demi-plane-ish Oasis. Here, an exploration of the ruins and surroundings does show that something has befallen the mysterious planar nexus that is the temple of Thoth. Clever research may also help here, for indeed, the sealed temple that can be accessed via another gate here has been infected with the Waxen plague, a dread affliction that either kills those subjected or turns them into gelatinous cubes - but thankfully, the high-priest is still around, holding the fort. Surely, the PCs can help him...oh wait. The spitefully djinn may have forgotten to mention that the high-priest is a huge, intelligent transparent slug with a humanoid brain in the torso. Yep, that's the good guy. Oh, and he can control the priests-turned-cubes, in case you're wondering. Exploring the temple can net the PCs access to some teleportals, but that's not the problem - the temple is about to be compromised by a dread force of Planeshoppers. What are these guys? Pretty deadly, locust-like conquerors that seek a waypoint into the PC's world! Worse, they are about to come full force and the synergy effects of their castes render them formidable foes. In fact, their builds are significantly more interesting than I've come to expect from FGG - they are deadly and use some very advanced tricks I really like. With lethal psychic shokwaves predating the invasion, the PCs do not have much time - but there is one ace in the hole: The Scorpion of Sekhmet. If the PCs have been smart, they'll have found some mysterious power-sources - which the can use to power a gigantic SCORPION-MECH, Power Rangers-style. I.e. multiple PCs have to pilot this bad boy, with actions eating at the power source, movement and turning adhering to concise and easily understood rules...oh, and tail-laser. This is absolutely awesome in so many ways - can you remember when you last fought alongside a giant transparent slug-priest and his gelatinous cube henchmen in a giant scorpion-mech against massive, deadly and evil insectoid invaders hell-bent on subjugating your world? Thought so! This is one of the best modules herein and absolutely glorious!
Demons and Devils are next, all penned by the legendary duo of Clark Peterson and Bill Webb. The "Sorceror's Citadel"(suggested level: 9) is pretty much a straight-forward dungeon-crawl into the abode of a wizard named Crane, known for his mastery of a sphere of annihilation and subsequently eliminated in battle against foes most vile - and infiltrating the place is challenging - the use of magic in particular, with clever illusions etc., renders this a classic challenge.
"Ra's Evil Grin," so named due to the puzzle required to enter the meat of the module, also provides a quest for an artifact, this time, for the Globe of Arden - but to reach it, the PCs will have to brave a dungeon that has one of the nastiest traps in FGG-history (Yes, on par with the legendary entry to Rappan Athuk) and yes, the maze and foes are intriguing. If you're looking for something different: I ran this as a solo-module back in my old campaign (only suggested if you're *really* sadistic and your players know that death awaits...) and made the whole dungeon times, making the mummy priest and immortal, regenerating badass that hunted the poor PC through the dungeon. And yes, my PC solo'd the demon at the end in an extremely close encounter, but still. That being said, most GROUPS probably will have a VERY hard time surviving this beauty - one of the classics and so sweet indeed... I just wished the web-enhancement of the journey to the island had been included and updated herein.
The third module herein would be my least favorite among the old modules from "Demons & Devils" - it is essentially a two-parter, with the first one centering on a paladin getting a holy avenger. Thereafter the dread deceit of the demons becomes apparent, as the blade corrupts the champion - the true blade still lies hidden and, in the end, one has to be chosen. I'm not a fan of alignment and even les s a fan of forced alignment changes, so while not bad or necessarily problematic, I always considered plots like this to be something of a cheap shot. Rules for lesser versions of the classic demons have btw. been included in the deal here.
Okay, the next triumvirate would be "Giants & Dragons", which kicks off with Michael Curtis' "The Dead from Above," intended for levels 10 - 13. And oh boy, does it kick off! SPLINTER!!! CRASH! FIRE!!! DEATH!!! Undead giants fall on the town and lurch to life, while a dragon skeleton swoops through the air and a gigantic building fashioned from titanic bones hangs in the sky. Defeating the initial onslaught, PCs can actually RIDE the skeletal dragon (!!!) up to the fortress and bring the fight to the nasty giants - who have fused one of their kind with the flying fortress, dooming the pilot to a body-horror-level nasty existence. Taking down the giant's flying fortress and crashing its soul-consuming engines is absolutely AWESOME. This is unrepentant in its glorious ideas, with truly deadly adversaries and a set-up that will leave any metal-head (or boy...or gamer, really...) squeeing. Come on. You ride a skeletal dragon to a fortress in the sky to do battle with necromancer-giants. This does everything right that "Curse of the Riven Sky" did wrong  -it embraces its over-the-top OMG-what-is-happening-premise, has glorious terrain and even means for social manipulation...oh, and, of course a reason why PCs 8probably) shouldn't keep the fortress. AWESOME!
Where the above module was pretty much straight action, James  M. Ward's Dead Dragon temple, for PCs level 6 - 8, instead opts for portraying the majestic - at the side of one of the most difficult to scale mountains I've ever seen represented in a module, lies a dragon-shaped temple, wherein the spirits of dead dragons roam as haunts, while hostile adventurers and lizardfolk cater to their whims - fulfilling the desires of the reptiles can lead to different rewards and sidetreks, should you so choose, and the temple does contain a unique, good white dragon as well as a means to defeating a truly deadly menace - for the PCs venture inside to become dragons to stop an ancient blue dragon from destroying more settlements. The final draconic dogfight is a joy, but only if your GM-prowess is at expert level: Handling a group of dragons in the air is difficult and I'd strongly suggest getting the legendary "Companions of theFirmament"-supplement for the rules on 3d-combats, turning, etc. - with them, this is a huge blast. Without them, you'll have to be pretty adept.
The third module is penned by industry-legend Ed Greenwood and it does show: "Emeralds of Highfang", suggested for 15th - 17th level, is a difficult module, themed, obviously, around giants and dragons. While the hooks are somewhat lame, exploring the complex, where giants mine at the behest of a deadly dragon, who uncharacteristically is more of an underground merchant. On the plus-side, Ed Greenwood's attention to detail is superb and the respective areas do feel aliveand intriguing. At the same time, I do feel that this module does fall a bit flat of its premise, which supposedly is to provide enough for rogues to do and for smart groups to do via stealth - at the suggested levels, the PCs, at least mine, will curb-stomp the hell out of all opposition herein but the final dragon. On a nitpicky note - a rather cool trap unleashes 240 Stirges - which are utterly impotent against PCs of this level. Why not utilize the troop-subtype (or a variant swarm) and make this a challenging encounter, instead of an annoying one? Generally, a solid module, but short of the previous ones.
Lycanthropes and Elementals would be up next, starting with Steve Winter's "Bad Moon Rising" for PCs level 6 - 8. If the title was not ample clue - set in the Barony of Loup-Montagne, the superstitious locals, wolves in the woods and similar set-ups make one thing clear: We're in gothic horror country here  -this module could have been run in Ravenloft with only minor changes. The plotline, which includes sufficient red herrings, a bid for succession and a potentially doomed family, hits all the classic notes - for better and for worse. The module itself is pretty sandboxy and thus requires some GM chops, though admittedly, not too many. The twist itself, the culprit, was something my PCs saw coming in spite of the various red herrings - perhaps due to years of Ravenloft-experience. It's a solid version of a classic story-not more, not less. I got the most mileage out of this by combining it with Raging Swan Press' Wolfsbane Hollow, combining both plotlines into something less obvious, while retaining thematic integrity.
Skip William's "Death in Dyrgalas" is a pretty straightforward dungeon-exploration of a ruined pavilion, which does not specify its intended level - from the CRs, I'd suggest something along the lines of level 5 - 8, depending on your PC's power. The exploration itself pits the PCs versus wererats and weretigers and a highlight definitely is the interaction with a medusa. The module's appeal mostly stems from the interesting surroundings - other than that, this is solid, if somewhat unremarkable.
Michael Curtis' next module would be "The Darkening of Namjan Forest" for PCs level 6 - 8. Said forest is slowly, but surely becoming coterminous with the Plane of Shadows and to stop this, the PCs have to find and disable a dangerous artifact within the depths of this forest. The hexed map of the forest allows for an easy tracking of the progress of the darkening and the continuously draining effects of the darkening provided serves as an intriguing backdrop with rules-relevant repercussions. Via special quartz, the PCs may get themselves an edge versus the predominantly draining creatures herein - there are A LOT of shadows and similar creatures in this module, so depending on your PC's preparation and classes, the difficulty of this module may fluctuate somewhat. I really enjoyed the general premise and set-up of this one, the impending doom and the continuous representation of the ticking of the clock provided by the encroaching darkness. However, alas, there are some issues among the details herein - from sensory-deprivation tanks and similar magical apparatuses, there are quite some unique benefits to be gained here - and their rules-language is horribly opaque, rendering them VERY over-powered. I strongly urge a GM to take care before allowing the PCs to utilize these. In fact, I think they should be nerfed and/or replaced. This, though, constitutes the most negative thing about this module - the new creatures and the adversary are interesting and, in the hands of a GM willing to sand off the rough edges, this definitely is a very fun experience.
The next three modules have the theme of Men & Monstrosities, with James M. Ward's "Deep in the Vale" as a 1st level module being the first. The set-up is interesting in a way - the PCs are plain folks of the Vale, everyday people, and the module begins promising, with the Thor-ordained sporty trek around the vale that inevitably results in trouble. The module, obviously, tries to chronicle the step from everyday-Joe/Jane to hero and the tidbits on culture provided are intriguing. But this, as much as I'm loathe to say it, is one of the worst modules FGG has ever released. If I didn't know any better, I wouldn't expect Mr. Ward's pen at work here. Let me elaborate: The premise, is unique and hasn't been done much recently, but it suffers from this being an adventure - to properly invest the players in the setting a closer gazetteer, nomenclature, suggested roles and origins for casting talent - all of that should have been covered. They're not. Worse, everything here is a) clichéd and b) a non-threat in the great whole of things. 
You see, there are essentially two catchers - a DM-PC, the horribly-named elf Smaragdus and if things get too heated, there's a wizard who can fireball everything to smithereens. I.e., the PCs and all their struggles essentially boil down to those two pricks not getting the job done/being lazy - it's the old issue of the Forgotten Realms, where some areas just had too many high-level NPCs for the PCs to matter. "Elminster is not available, please class later." Worse, the wizard herein does not have Elminster's realms-spanning responsibilities, so he has no reason not to ge his grip together and totter with the PCs to the woods. The adversaries are also horribly trite - wolves, goblins, orcs, giant spiders. And yes, the orcs come with an ogre. Only the shadow is missing from the clichés of boring low-level foes. We have a kidnapped damsel that is so obvious, I only expected the Timmy-character to show up next. Beyond that, the module falls prey to hackneyed logic -  why does prodding the giant spider nets not endanger the folk outside? 
Shouldn't heroes NOT endanger commoners? Why do the responses of the goblins, which look like taken from a choose-your-adventure-novel, make no concise sense from the goblin's perspective? Why does the non-read-aloud text AND the read-aloud text TELL the players what exactly they're doing if they choose A)? This is railroady, inconsistent, mechanically-boring and the only positive thing I can say about it, is that the few cultural tidbits are halfway decent. This looks like a "First module you run, ever, as a DM"-type of module, but for that, it's too opaque and does not do a good enough job challenging all players and making them feel important - only the strongest PC, the Blacksmith, truly has any connection. Fun fact: Strength has, counter-intuitively, NOTHING to do with being a blacksmith in rules - Craft would be the skill, so strong PCs sans the skill make NO SENSE for that. This module is a sore spot in the whole anthology - it does not fit the premise, fails as gazetteer, module AND introduction for novice GMs. It's horrible and drags the whole book down a small notch and I can't fathom how it got included herein.
Thankfully, Casey W. Christofferson and Scott Greene's "Irtep's Dish," for characters level 6 - 8, is a return to full-blown, awesome form - and I mean AWESOME, as in, glorious- situated in a city (Bard's Gate in the Lost Lands), this begins with an investigation of an eccentric wizard gone missing - a wizard who was not only smart, he also had a gambling issue. In an interesting blend of fantasy and noir tropes, investigating his former lover, colleagues and debtors can unearth pretty soon that there are ample people looking for the man - and not all are honest regarding their intentions, with a horrible curse being subtly and cleverly used for the wizard's downfall. Via this investigation, which brings the PCs to the city's largest casino (fully mapped), the PCs can get the pieces together to investigate the out-of-bounds wizard's tower - if they can get past the guards and inside, past the deadly puzzle in the beginning, which is btw. logical and fun. This is only where the fun starts, though - the wizard has retreated via an artifact into a petri-dish like environment and the PCs need to shrink down to microscopic size, battling protozoan orbs, flesh-eating fungi, nematodes and finally release the wizard, convince him to return and get his affairs in order. This section is bizarre, fun and played in an awesome, great way - if I may: If the PCs enjoy their trip into the realms of the microscopic, consider picking up Everyman gaming's superb "Microsized Adventures" and keep the options for size-alterations.Oh, and yes, this module is pure awesomeness!
As if to apologize for the first module in this set, Matt Finch's "Perils of Ghostwood Pass", for PCs level 5 - 7, also hits this absolutely stellar tone in a completely different way: Potentially fitting into any cold pass-region, the Ghostwood Pass is a storied environment - here, legendary twins only recently defeated a powerful and nasty fey of the Winter Court, thus banishing the hyper-cold ghostwind to only a few instances per year. As the PCs begin this module, a timer is running - after that, the ghostwind strikes. The issue is that something is thoroughly amiss - the hastily erected Abbey of Saint Kathelyn may provide shelter, as may the local druid, though both do not deal well with another. The two factions also provide unique benefits for the PCs as they try to defeat the dreaded mountain queen - and unearth the truth behind the mysteries of the Ghostwind Pass. In case the above did not provide ample clue - wilderness survival, hexploration in the hostile pass, random encounters - all provided, alongside a cleverly entrenched mystery astute PCs can unearth. This module is SUPERB and would coincidentally fit really well in the context of Northlands with some minor reskinning. Oh, and the adversary build rank among the more challenging and well-crafted herein, which coincidentally provides a lead-in to the last triumvirate of modules.
This would be the updates of "Vampires and Liches," with Casey W. Christofferson and Bill Webb's "Sewers of the Underguild" for 11th level characters being the first - the premise of which is pretty simple: In a rather deadly sewer under ruins or a metropolis lies the hiding place of a guild of vampires. Exterminate them. This sounds simple, when it is anything but simple - the underguild were formidable foes, with numerous class levels, deadly traps and the like. Alas, here, the conversion somewhat botched - with vampires as a type being rather nerfed in PFRPG, and the increased options available for characters via classes and combinations has not been realized to them same extent as in the original version - essentially, the adversaries are a tad bit squishier, the module has lost some of its threat. Mind you, this still is a challenging module, sure, but it does not live up to its previous iteration's level of lethality. If you don't know the original, you probably won't wind, but this can also be seen in the next module, penned by the same duo.
"The Pyramid of Amra", for 12th level characters, pits the PCs against a monastery in the hands of lethal adversaries and finally, against a vampire-monk. The exploration of the areas herein is thoroughly compelling and lends itself well to the insertion of powerful adversaries and intriguing puzzles. And indeed, the final adversary *is* still deadly; however, I still found myself wishing the builds provided had been changed in a slightly more pronounced manner.
The final adventure, "Isle of Eliphaz", intended for characters of at least 14th level, is still LETHAL - while, when I ran the module, I made the whole place a selectively null magics/psionics zone, thus rendering it even worse, the base module already is brutal - exceedingly brutal. And, in fact, here e.g. the intellect devourer with class levels and the ancient, elemental evil's pathfinder iteration maintain the level of deadly challenge I enjoy from this series.
Conclusion:Editing and formatting are good, though not perfect - in some of the older modules, references here and there remain and some of the previously unreleased, older modules feel a tad bit less refined than others, with unique benefits particularly not always perfectly syncing up with rules-language. Layout adheres to a printer-friendly two-column b/w-standard with copious, original & glorious b/w-artworks. The maps generally are well-drawn, though I wished the book had a player-friendly appendix of unkeyed maps for particularly the hexcrawl-sections.
Scott Greene, J. Collura, Matt Finch, Clark Peterson, Bill Webb, Michael Curtis, Skip Williams, James M. Ward, Ed Greenwood,, Casey W. Cristofferson, Steven Winter - these names should ring a bell and indeed, Quests of Doom, as a whole, manages to achieve the goal to create challenging, unique modules. While a couple of the modules did fall a bit short of the stellar quality established by the rest and while some do require a bit of GM fiddling, in the end, this book does contain several modules that simply blow me away - the whole "Bugs & Blobs"-chapter is pure gold, and, with the exception of "Deep in the Vale", "Men & Monstrosities" provides two of the most awesome modules herein. "Lycanthropes & Elementals" falls short of the average quality of the book, ranking in as "only" a solid/good chapter. Still, that leaves a total of 6 modules herein, 9 if you include the conversions, that would receive my seal of approval without a single inch of hesitation.
Indeed, I maintain that the stellar modules herein outweigh the minor rough edges AND the modules that do not reach the apex of quality and imagination. "Of Ants & Men", "Hidden Oasis & Temple of Thoth", "The Dead From Above", "Irtep's Dish" and "Perils of Ghostwind Pass" alone are worth the asking price of this module - and these are the exceptional, NEW modules herein. The rest averages at a very good to good, with only "Deep in the Vale" being what I'd consider a bad module. To put that in perspective - that's 13 pages. You still get so many awesome modules herein, that I cannot, in good faith, rate this lower than 5 stars - especially since the exceptional modules listed above absolutely deserve this rating and nothing below.

You can get this massive book here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!
Prefer Old-school? Here's the S&W-version on d20pfsrd.com's shop!
Finally, this is also available for 5th edition, in two parts:
Quests of Doom (5th edition) Part I links: D20pfsrd.com's shop.
Quests of Doom (5th edition) Part II links: D20pfsrd.com's shop.    

Finally, Frog God Games is currently running a kickstarter for the Northlands Saga, a massive level 1- 20 Viking AP - check it out here!
If you're a 5th edition fan, you may want to know about their crowdfunding of Quests of Doom 2 here on the FGG-site!

Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs

Microsized Adventures

Fri, Aug 14 2015 - 02:28
Microsized Adventures

This supplement clocks in at 30 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 27 pages of content, so let's dive in!
Microsized characters have been a staple in the movies of my childhood, when I learned that perspective is a crucial factor in determining what is creepy or dangerous and what isn't. And indeed, in earlier editions of the game, there have been quite a few modules that utilized this concept to some gain - one of which would be Ravenloft's "The Created" - a great module in the hands of a capable GM and utterly disturbing.
Now if you endeavor to run such a scenario in your own game, you'll quickly run into a brick wall, as you realize that the interconnected rules frameworks of 3.X and its follow-ups like Pathfinder do not lend themselves well to the very concept - of course, one could go the easy way out and hand-wave scaling, but in the end, that does not work well - as anyone who's tried it can attest. So, we necessarily begin with the very basics that need addressing.
5-foot steps are replaced with shifting steps - the range of these steps depends on the size of the creature attempting them and the size of the square used on the grid - essentially, the relation of the two - if that sounds complicated, well, it's not - one glance at the table and you're good to go. The second issue immediately crops up regarding attacks of opportunity and relative size: In an imho more feasible rule, creatures using this book can threaten any creature in its space as long as the creature is no more than four size categories larger or smaller than the threatening creature. Creatures with a reach of 0 feet can provide flanking within a creature's space and 2 or more such creatures can flank if they enter a creature's space. This generally means that tiny and smaller opponents become an increased threat against regularly-sized PCs.
A total and utter cluster-F*** in PFRPG, perhaps one of the worst rules-components of it, in my opinion would be weapon-size rules for over/under-sized weaponry - convoluted and utterly messy. In a supplement that deals with radical changes of sizes and huge discrepancies between them, this could break the neck of the supplement - so how does microsized adventures tackle this? Simple: By making damage increase and decrease based on the size of the opponent in relation to your own. I am aware that this changes radically the dynamics of combat against bigger foes, but that's a significant appeal, at least to me - why? Because I was always bothered by the scenes where adventurers poke giants to death- it just makes more sense to me. This is btw. handled with a simple array of additional hit points that is equal to the special size modifier times the number of creatures sizes smaller than the creature. This math is easy, quick and, supported by the tables, can be done on the fly if your multiplication skills aren't rusty.
On can definitely see Alexander Augunas' teaching experience at work in the way in which the pdf is organized in that it concisely presents the respective steps in an easy to grasp manner. We begin size category alteration and go, step by step, through skills from Fly to Intimidate and Stealth onwards to Strength etc. - all supported by tables that present the necessary information at the blink of an eye. Step 2 would thereafter be the recalculation of special size modifiers that thankfully not only mentions minimum damage, but also the interaction with spells, supernatural and spell-like abilities. The carrying capacity and its modification are also addressed, including an object's respective new weight, including when objects do not alter size - inappropriately sized gear and shields, weapons and shields - all covered via concise AC and weight-multipliers. Oh, and for convenience's sake and didactic reasons, we receive analogues for sample weights to better picture the result and ground it in reality.
Now this would not cover everything, obviously - want to simply make an ordinarily-sized creature a different size? Go for it, step by step - including CR-step-by-step adjustments and advice on handling massive CR-escalation due to size changes. How do swarms work? Well, you will be happy to know that rules for both regular-sized swarms versus diminished characters and diminished swarms are covered - oh and, if you require stats for regular pets, quick and dirty substitution suggestions will spare you the effort of looking them up.
Now as for the scale of the grid in which movement happens, that essentially remains the same - only the scale changes, which is pretty elegant - and the same can be said about the range-calculations for ranged weapons of varying sizes, spells and area effects. Now if you're like me, the first monster subtype you'll run through this would be the kaiju (obviously) due to its non-standard size-rules...and because kaiju are AWESOME. Suffice to say, this book covers even this fringe creature type.
Okay, so far, so good. Want to know where true awesomeness begins? With rules that have been in place in my home-game for ages, once again, seemingly plucked from my mind - with two new combat maneuvers: Crush and Scale. Crush is obviously used to flatten those tiny insects, whereas scale is a requirement in my games to deal damage to anything huge+? Why? Because, as mentioned before, I loathe the idea of PCs poking giants to death by ramming teeny-tiny weapons into their feet. And yes, the latter actually has a downright ingenious rules-interaction with the Climb-skill - once again, one I've been using in my games for this type of maneuver as well. If you're even halfway into good, thoughtful video-games: Yes, these are your basic tools to play Shadow of the Colossus-type boss fights.
If you've played that game, you're probably buying this right now. For the rest of you, my dear readers: Yes, the mobile suit golems and mechas recently pioneered by Rite Publishing and Rogue Genius Games (Kaiju Codex and Construct Companion, if you didn't know) make actually more sense - because puny medium creatures may end up being too small to damage a kaiju or elder dragon... Yes, finally a reason to crank out those siege engines, Berserk-like huge swords and similar fun tricks.
Now if you think this book is a dry read, you'd be sorely mistaken - interspersed throughout the book are the (mis-)adventures of Alexander Augunas' signature Kitsune Kyr'shin - oh, and GMs can actually look forward to a concise advice section that helps planning a microsized adventure properly - from the catalyst to questions of terrain and exploration up to sample hooks that run the gamut from traditional to far-out. I mentioned terrain - yes, even a table on wind effects and their severity and rules for minuscule siege weapons can be found within these pages - oh, and two sample artifacts for the GM or the player's perusal to easily move into the microsized worlds are provided.
Beyond that, the pdf does not leave players in the dark either - with new rage powers that let barbarians feel a bit like berserk ants (or crush foes) and an archetype that make break improvised weapons for additional potency, a gunslinger archetype that is a thrown weapons expert (since gunslingers can't well get the materials for their expensive weaponry in dust mote size...) to investigators that use their eidetic memory to foil monsters and finally, rogues that are scaling specialists or born scrappers, the crunch here is just as solid. But that's not all - with two new combat maneuvers, it should come as no surprise that this book also features a plethora of feats that deal with them - and these go beyond the simple standard-improved-greater-chain and extends to even teamwork feats. The second focus here would be on the necessity of properly using improvised weapons, so yeah - awesome as well.

Conclusion:Editing and formatting are very good - apart from minor glitches like a typo "if" that should read "of" and the like, I have found no glaring ones, and none that would compromise the reading experience unduly. Layout adheres to Everyman Gaming's beautiful 2-column full-color standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience as well as with several pieces of neat original full-color art by Jacob Blackmon.
It is my firm conviction that you have to play this book to truly by able to judge it. When I got this, I though "Looks all nice and shiny, but so did your idea of size-changing scenarios..."  -so I went and playtested this book's material. Size-changes affect a lot of variables and color me surprised when I noted how well this book manages to transport the respective mechanics. In fact, analysis made me appreciate that even more, because the math behind this system is surprisingly beautiful - I know, I know - but believe me when I say that I can definitely appreciate that.
So, the system works - but how well? That is a task I struggled with to properly convey - see, Alexander Augunas is not by accident a regular face among my Top Ten-lists. In the hands of a lesser designer, this system would be a mess of numbers, tiring to read and hard to comprehend. The excessive use of examples, the concise step-by-step guidelines and didactically sound presentation conspire to make a complex rules-operation feel simple. Best of all, if you're a GM not afraid of diving into the grit of numbers, you can easily modify all or even only parts of the system. Why? Because it is surprisingly modular. Crush and Scale can enrich any game; Particularly epic games with a focus on cinematic combat may want to further increase the hit point buffer against smaller weapons and attacks - or even move the spaces around where attacks become ineffective.
An internally closed system, whether mathematically or rhetoric, is an impressive and powerful beast to behold - if you require proof of that, just try to argue against some prevailing psychological theories without hard science to back you up. A system that is modular, that can be modified, scavenged and mutated to fit one's individual needs, though, that is the one that ultimately will receive the broadest traction, the system that has the highest potential for growth. Microsized adventure can act as a closed system and as a modular system - you *can* appreciate and run this as presented, yes - it'll work perfectly. But we're gamers and we have very strong opinions of how things should be, right? We all have pet-peeves and particular likes and dislikes. The genius of this system is its robust framework, which allows for *skilled* GMs to modify it according to their preferences.
A book as beginner-friendly as possible that has a maximum of user-friendly expert-customization options - that's hard to find. Harder and rarer even is the book that blends this with a sincere, total sense of jamais-vu - I have literally never seen a d20-based book that tackles this concept, much less one that actually does it with such a deceptive ease and panache. This book is, for size-change/discrepancy-style stories what Cerulean Seas was for underwater adventuring, what Companions ofthe Firmament is for flying - whether against impossibly large adversaries, shrunken battles versus house cats or anything in between and beyond, this book is an inspired gem that belongs into the library of any GM, a book that needs sequels and or a print-on-demand-version...or a 300+ page AP + hardcover...
If the above was not ample clue for you - this is the type of book I review for. If I can get even one person out there to give this a shot, I'm happy. It's that good. This book is an apex-level, innovative, awesome supplement and receives 5 stars + seal of approval, unsurprising status as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2015 and the EZG Essential-tag. Why the latter? Because in my games, the really big monsters should scare the living hell out of players and because, ultimately, I love the huge cosmos of options this unlocks. Perfect score and synergy with other publications to boot - I couldn't complain about this wonderful pdf for the life of me. Have I mentioned the low 5-buck-price-tag? This is a steal if there ever was one! Do yourself a favor and get this NOW!
You can get this glorious book here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!
Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs

Strange Magic

Thu, Aug 06 2015 - 01:45
Strange Magic

The following text will deviate a bit from my usual reviews. This is a massive 333 page book, 1 page front cover, 2 pages ToC, 1 page editorial/thank you, 1 page SRD, 1 page backer list, leaving this as a massive 327 page monster.
As you may realize upon looking at the cover, I am one of the contributing authors to this massive tome, so yes, in this case I may be considered biased by some of you out there.
It should be noted, though, that this massive book's magic systems have ALL been released (and reviewed!) a LONG time before I had even an inkling I'd be working on this book, much less that I'd be contributing. Coincidentally, I reviewed all the base systems in their original iterations and considered them stellar - if that had not been the case, I quite frankly would not have associated my name with this book and its magic systems.
The excellence was there even before the respective systems were expanded to the n-th degree, with fine-tuning of mechanics, greatly increased amounts of options etc. All 3 systems have in common that they are not simple - they are intended for advanced players that enjoy tinkering with complex classes with moving parts. At the same time, the classes herein very much reward anyone willing to get into their meat with completely unique options.
If you are interested in the respective subsystems in detail, please take a look at my reviews for Ultimate Ethermagic, Ultimate Composition and Ultimate Truenaming.
In case you don't want to read more than 30 pages of my rambling in the respective reviews, here's the tl;dr-gist:
Ethermagiccan be considered auto-refreshing, highly customizable mana-bar casting, warlock-style, with glorious fluff, cool versatility and some seriously beautiful mechanics.
Composition Magic is what the bard should have been from the get-go: Take intros, outros, melodies and refrains and weave them together into your very own symphonies of destruction.
Finally, Truename magic needs no conceptual introduction, but unlike its horribly broken brethren from previous editions, the system presented herein works - and I've seen its barebones, exposed numbers, so yes, a true beauty.
All of these three systems have in common that they provide not only flavorful, but downright inspired, unusual alternatives to vancian casting that play in a completely different way. I had been playing with each of the systems for quite a while prior to the KS for Strange Magic and they had become a staple in my games even prior to my involvement with this massive book - not at my insistence, mind you, but at that of my players, who adore this book.
I also still am convinced that even without the content I provided for this massive tome, this would still rank as one of the best crunch-books I have ever read. No hyperbole.
This is what the 3.X Tome of Magic wanted to be, but failed miserably at - while Pact Magic was saved by Alexander Augunas and Dario Nardi, this book instead provides 3 new systems, with each one providing other, unique options beyond the scope of what regular spellcasting does, all while providing an utterly awesome fluff.
So while I am respecting the wishes of some of my readers and followers and will not rate this per se, I still feel very much obliged to devote this article to the book - the addition of lovingly- handcrafted, illustrated NPCs made with these rules just further extends the awesomeness of this book, with unique fighting styles, combos and inspiring background-stories. They can be considered the delightful icing on top of the awesome-cake.
Keeping silent about this glorious tome would be a disservice of my task of keeping you up to date regarding the best 3pps have to offer - and even without my humble additions, Bradley Crouch and Jason Linker have delivered true awesomeness herein and deserve to be acknowledged for the achievement that is this book.
I absolutely adore Strange Magic and consider it a contender for my Top Ten of 2015 and abundantly worthy of my seal of approval, which btw. all its constituent parts have received. Since by now, this book is a must-have addition to my game, much like Pact Magic and Psionics, it also receives the EZG Essential tag since my players do not want to ever miss it again.
I sincerely hope you'll check it out, use it and review it - I'd love to hear how other people are using the book's systems.
Finally, let me thank you for reading this. I am aware that posting this can be considered foolhardy, but it remains my sincere hope you'll believe in my integrity  -were I anything less than 100% in love with this book, I wouldn't jeopardize my reputation by writing these lines. The matter of the fact is, though, that this *IS* so good, I consider it the antithesis of bland cookie-cutter design - perhaps even a book future editions will pull out to comment on how inspiring it was.
You can get this glorious tome here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!
Endzeitgeist out.
Categories: RPGs