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Review: Leverage RPG

I’ve compiled a bunch of G+ posts that I’ve made over the last week or so that form a review of the Leverage RPG. See what you think.

Leverage has its own nomenclature for things that, by now, have been largely codified by RPGs over the years. The character sheet is a Rap Sheet. Your PC is a Crewmember etc etc. Right now, it’s annoying, but I wonder if it will help me get more into the game as I get used to it?

Leverage: There are six Attributes: Agility, Alertness, Intelligence, Strength, Vitality, and Willpower. Read over the descriptions; you’ll see that every Attribute has a social aspect. That’s important, especially if you’re someone who feels safe ignoring one side or the other. On a Leverage Crew, everyone has to step up and con someone at one time or another. So it’s important to consider how your Attributes affect how you perform that sort of task.

Leverage: it shys away from stat+skill rolls, instead going for stat+role rolls. Imagine using that in D&D (as I find myself doing). You’ d roll Int+Wizard, or Dex+Rogue. That opens up some interesting narrative possibilities. Now, in Leverage, you’re rated against all five roles, not just your primary one, so cool things start to happen when you roll, say, Willpower+grifter. Essentially this is doing away with long skill lists and just bundling a bunch of competencies into your role. Nice.

Leverage: last time I mentioned the base engine of stat+role. Obviously there’s a little more to it than that. Leverage adds in some more variables. First though, here’s the core dice roll.
You roll multiple dice. Each trait has a dice to represent it, from D4 to D12. You pick one from your attribute, one from the salient role, and you may well be picking up others from the variables below. High roll is good. You take the two best and add together. the opposition then rolls against that number (if it’s opposed, and it often will be). If they beat you by 5, you’re stuffed. If they beat you by less than that, you can roll right back at them until there’s a winner. You can give in to lose on your own terms, or be taken out totally. This mechanic applies to the whole game, negotiation, hacking, combat, whatever.

Now then, how does Leverage monkey about with that?
There’s specialities, which narrow the focus on a role. You get an extra D6. Pretty standard to games, so you get the picture.
The next is distinctions. These have a lot in common with Aspects from FATE games (perhaps unsurprisingly give Fred Hicks and Rob Donoghue are on the writing team). The player brings these into play, and if it’s in a positive way, you get a D8 in your roll (that’s a solid dice). If you choose to take it in a negative way (that’s not by sulking at your GM) you only get a D4, but you do get a plot point (more on those later, but you can imagine).
The last is talents, which are a lot like feats, but are all situational in that hey all have to be activated by a trigger in the game. Each role has approx six examples to choose from and there’s some generic ones too. They have funky names like ‘Wanna buy a watch?’ or ‘Are you gonna log in or whistle Dixie?’. I prefer these to something like ‘improved initiative’ to be fair, but it can sound a little twee. There’s good solid rules for making your own, and I would.
Last, assets and complications. These are temporary modifiers that effect other traits. These assets can be created in play, by players, with the use of plot points. From this perspective you can see the influence of FATE rearing it’s head again. Things can be ‘on fire D6′ or you can have a ‘big stick D8′. Complications come up in a different way, when the player rolls a 1 on their dice. (when the GM rolls a 1 it’s an opportunity, which can trigger a talent)
So those are the levels in the mechanics. Here’s the thing, it doesn’t look complicated but I had to flick back and forth and reread sections a lot in order to write this post. It takes a few reads to sink in. Some of that is due to the naming conventions, and some of it is due to the formatting. There are examples spotted throughout, but I would have appreciated a big one that pulls it all together.
The system really reminds me of Savage Worlds at times, but with FATE spread all over it. I think I like it as it stands, but does it do anything special to drive heist stories? Remains to be seen.

Leverage: how to run it. The GM in this game is called the Fixer. A good sized chunk of the book is aimed at him, for perhaps obvious reasons. Up until this chapter, the game looked like a set of fairly generic, and quite lightweight rules for conflict resolution. Having read the guidance on character creation and job plotting, I can see how actually the rules support genre emulation. There’s always a danger that these sections simply become a genre essay, with nothing to add to the mechanics than advice. That’s not quite the case here, though it does come close on occasion. There’s actual hard mechanical support for your capers baked in here. Lots of examples, character write ups and best of all tables for rolling up your next game. These last make Leverage a genuine pick up game (assuming you have your crew done already, or can survive with a short job).
I’ve come away from this read with a much better sense of what Leverage can do, and how to enable it at the table. Funnily enough, I don’t even think I’d have to send long explaining it to the table (in fact, there’s a nice little list of ‘expectations’ earlier in the book).
There is a setting of sorts for those who want it. It’s our world, except with crooks and justice at its heart. It’s certainly not a must read, and I guess if you’ve watched any of the shows it’s totally optional. I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to take this system to a setting of my choice anyway, so I almost begrudge space given to the titular show, though I know that’s churlish.

Leverage: The Flashbacks.
This is where Leverage becomes a game about something rather than a game about anything. The heist genre uses the flashback device a lot. It allows the audience to be amazed as what looked seemingly impossible, turns out to have been a plant or something involving sleight of hand all along. In game terms, its about using a Plot Point to bring something new into the scene THAT WAS ARRANGED EARLIER IN THE STORY. Anyone can spend a PP to find a handy cellphone, but a flashback can show how it was dropped into a marks pocket earlier that day so the crew can call him up unannounced. This is called the Establishment flashback.
Then there’s the Wrap Up Flashback. This one brings about the denouement, with style. Think about the final scenes in the Usual Suspects, or Oceans 11. In game, it’s a series of individual flashback actions that go round the table describing how each Crewmember had a part to play in the big set up. Successes feed into the final roll from the crews leader (mastermind).
The genius of these is in the way it doesn’t force players to be clever in the moment. You can go ahead and get into crazy situations all you like with no worrying about your safety, or even about dead ending the story. Later, all will be made clear, when the table flashes back to something that happened off camera earlier in the tale.
This all needs creativity, and good improv skills. Its not for very player that’s for sure. When it works, it will be spectacular, and guarantees a great session climax. In some ways it’s a shame that the whole session comes down to a single roll, but there’s no doubting the drama inherent in that.

Leverage: this is an example of a basic supporting character;

Jim Hardy Farmer d8, Tough As Old Tree Roots d8, Suspicious d4 Jim Hardy signed a contract with an energy company to allow “minimal” natural gas exploration on his farm. The next autumn, his harvest consisted of a grand total of nine ears of corn and one cow that burps fire.

It made me smile, and serves as a nice example of how simple, but evocative Leverage NPCs are.

Leverage: Plot Points. You’ve seen the like before I’m sure. These are a narrative currency that players spend to bend the results of the dice, and that GMs (Fixers) use to grease the wheels of the story.
You spend them in three ways: to include more dice (thus keeping more than the usual two you add up), to activate a talent, or to generate an asset (declare something into being)
You get them in two ways; when the fixer wants to spend a plot point on his own guys he has to hand one across to the player, and when he wants to activate a complication.
What I’ve noticed in any game that has such a currency, there’s always an issue with the flow of that currency across the table. There’s hoarders, and spendthrifts. Most fall between the two, simply wondering how often to spend or save. I’m hoping to see plenty of advice on this later in the book, but it’s a shame the players don’t get a heads up this early in the book.

  • Leverage: what it doesn’t have.
    Any concessions to non gamers. 
    Hit points
    Equipment
    Skills
    Magic
    Supernatural
    Powers
    Initiative
    Variation in layout
    Fixed target numbers
    Need to keep the party together

 

If you’ve found my comments on Leverage interesting so far, then for a couple of quid you could do worse than grab this http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product_info.php?pro​ducts_id=79384

 

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Gamma World, first playtest

Finally got a chance to play Gamma World last night. I really like it! We were a man down on our normal group so took the chance to try something a little different. We did characters and got through a couple of encounters in just over two hours. Here’s the cool list:

  • It was fast. Chargen is awesome. The sheets are a great guide to doing the character, but I ‘missed’ the builder support from standard D&D. Writing the powers was quicker than I thought, but I’d still like colourful cards for them. WotC did powers packs for D&D a while back, I reckon yu could do a whole GW set in one box. I’d buy it.
  • The background is slick. It didn’t need prior reading or character background essays. It took 1 minute to explain the basics, and then we were off. The guys ‘got it’ intuitively.
  • The double origin produces awesomnity. We had a prescient saurian, a wheeled exploder, and a plaguebearing hawkoid. Nice.
  • I like ancient junk. It always raised a chuckle, and immerses you far more than mere equipment would.
  • Alpha powers rule. It keeps the characters fresh and makes each encounter unique.
  • Tokens. I’m annoyed that not all of them have a ‘bloodied’ side, but I do like the art and the completeness factor.
  • Omega Tech. As with the Alpha powers, they make every encounter different without the GM having to prep anything.
  • The monsters. The Yexil absolutely blew through the party.
  • Deadliness. Maybe it’s because we’re at first level, but I like things being bloodied in one hit and dead in two. Seeeing as chargen is so easy, I think the TPK danger is part of the fun.
  • The booklets. Nice format. Got to get used to post-it notes, or do my own screen.
  • Skills. 10 is perfectly functional. Not worrying about challenges takes me back too.
  • Ten levels. It seems that you level up at twice the speed of D&D and there’s a third of the progression. Add in the PC turnover, and the decks, you get to seee a lot of the game in a short period of play. Having taken 3 years to get to level 27 in D&D, that’s refreshing.

All in all, it was a really nice change of pace, and I think we’ll return to Gamma Terra when our D&D campaign tops out in a couple of months.

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Why do Paizo always get such an easy ride?

…and WotC do not, at least when it comes to their adventures. Readers of this blog will know that I’m a 4e fan, and that even extends to the published adventures. They’re far from perfect, in fact at times they’re downright awful, but overall they provide a good gaming experience. Hours of fun, as advertisers would say. I realise that’s a minority view. Spend a little time on forums or blogs to see some real vitriol towards WotC’s offerings. At best you might see grudging praise for the occasional one off adventure. The most lambasted products are the adventures in the H/P/E series of adventures, often called the Orcus modules. I don’t share those views. My gaming group has been happily playing those mods for the last couple of years, and we’ll continue to do so right to the end of the epic tier. We enjoy ourselves.

Despite my largely positive opinions, I’m not blind to their faults. They are too often dry, mechanical, very linear, and almost entirely based on combat encounters. In an ideal world, I’d want more. So I’ve always kept my ear to the ground, looking for new adventures that might give me that more rounded adventure experience.

Conventional wisdom says Paizo are the people to go to. Paizo fans are just as vocal as anyone, and to be fair their adventures are almost universally lauded as exemplars in the field of the modern module. They attract praise even from gamers who don’t play 3e, or even D&D at all for that matter. The stand out features are most often the ‘production qualities’ and the non-linear nature of the stories presented. I won’t disagree with those points particularly but I will say this: Paizo’s adventure paths are good scenarios, but that’s all they are, they’re not great. I believe this because I’ve just finished reading the entirety of the Legacy of Fire adventure path. I’ve also played the openers from Serpents Skull and Curse of the Crimson Throne. I tried to be objective, and apply my reviewer’s eye to them. I couldn’t help but compare and contrast with 4e as I went, consciously looking for conversion possibilities.

So the Paizo APs are pretty average. That’s a provocative statement, mainly because the mods garner such near unanimous praise across the board. Compare with the reaction to WotC being accused of mediocrity, there’s rarely an organised or vociferous defence of their adventures. Let me try t back up my claims. I see a few consistent issues with the adventure paths I’ve read and played.

  • They are choked with text. Vast reams of words, endless verbiage that, crucially, add little to the game. Some of this is because of the rules mentality, which provokes lots of explanation for materials and architecture and (the biggest offender) magic effects. Whole paragraphs are sacrificed to explaining lighting conditions. Whole pages go to statblocks, for creatures that are extremely unlikely to be entering combat. There seems to be a prevalent idea that everything has to be statted out, just in case the players want to break it. It means that for every flash of inspirational text, or illuminating exposition, there’s a seam of dry as dust text to be overcome.
  • They’re written to be read rather then played. I really don’t think many groups have played all the way through these paths, although I think a lot of DMs have planned to do so. They strike me as ideal for subscriptions, because you get the sense of an unfolding story each month as it flops through the letterbox. I think the DMs really look forward to the next instalment, but I don’t see gaming groups being able to digest the adventures at that pace. I imagine most campaigns fizzle by the end of the second part.
  • They’re too complicated. The plot synopsis takes two pages of double columned text, and they need to be read twice, while taking notes. Every location, or monster, or NPC is so defined, both by fluff and crunch, that it’s hard to hold them all in place in your imagination. There’s backstory piled on backstory, and exotic creatures with bizarre motivations. Again, it makes for a decent read, but players being players will only add complications to existing plots, so I prefer simplicity in the adventure. None of this is helped by the layout.
  • The art is only ok. There’s some good pieces where the story in the text has been directly illustrated. Otherwise, it’s on a par with WotC, but no better. The layout is meant for reading rather than utility at the table. Again, I have huge issues with WotCs use of the delve format, but this is not much better. The stats run across multiple pages, and there’s a lack of a decent overview to guide you.
  • They’re just as linear as any other adventure on the market, they just do a better job of hiding it. Yes, there’s lots of room devoted to what happens if the players go off piste, but it comes with heavy handed guidance on getting the plot moving forward in the direction the designer planned no matter what. Essentially, the adventures are padded out with lots of extra material, much of which will not see any use as the spine of the story proceeds directly from one instalment to the next. Diversions do not make for freedom.
  • They’re slaved to the 3e rules, specifically to the presence and availability of high level magic. When wizards and clerics are not being catered for in the plots, they are being handicapped by Paizo fiat. Some spells just won’t work in certain circumstances, while some adventures come to a standstill without the use of spells. All the time the poor old fighters just sit on the sidelines. Almost every encounter is against a solitary opponent, or groups of exactly the same creature. 4e monster roles have spoiled me, and I can’t be doing with this type of opposition anymore.
  • They’re slaved to Paizo’s world and cosmology. As I read through Legacy of Fire, I had to have my laptop open so I could look up the gods and nations of Golarion as I went. There’s really no nod to being a generic fantasy campaign, which is ok to an extent, but leaves little room for the DM to insert into their own world. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve read many adventures that don’t offer any guidance on customisation, except these. It’s tempted me to look deeper into Paizo’s world, but that would be research for no real gain (ie, nothing that would come out at the table).
  • Half the books are not adventure at all. There’s a grab bag of fiction, new monsters, essays on locations or religions or whatever. It all makes each ‘issue’ more like a magazine than an adventure. Some of this stuff is absolutely fine, good even, but serves to embed the product further into the Paizo vision.

Now, it’s important to say here, that I don’t have huge issues with any of these things. They’re fine for what they are, but that doesn’t make these perfect adventures, that every other publisher should look up to. What I really object to is the notion that WotC adventures are so much worse than this. At least the damn things are written to be played.

There are some very, very good things to be taken from Paizo APs, things WotC could learn. However, this has already been a long post so I’ll save my thoughts on exactly what they could learn for another post.

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Review: Beyond the Mottled Tower

The Scales of War hits the paragon tier in this adventure published in Dungeon 163 from February 2009. This instalment is written by Creighton Broadhurst, Bruce Cordell and David Noonan. Too many chefs? Or are three heads are better than one?

“All my careful work destroyed by that traitorous bastard Modra and those ‘Heroes of Overlook.’ Now, I must begin again, seeking new allies on different worlds to make good my losses. But first, some vengeance on the Vale, as well as a way to eradicate all hints of my involvement with the githyanki. After all, anonymity is the key to any successful betrayal. . .”

Disclaimer: Given that many people might be jumping onto this series of reviews at this point, I should be clear that there will inevitably be spoilers, it simply can’t be helped. However, I will try my best to keep them to a minimum and call out anything that might seriously impact your play along the way. There you go.

So, Sarshan’s back, and he’s got a new plan. He’s going for damage limitation this time out as the heroes have stymied his plans on a couple of occasions if they’ve played through the path so far. To try to get a fresh start, he’s severing all links with the githyanki, and destroying any evidence of their collaboration. He kicks this plan off by attempting to assassinate Megan Swiftblade, the leader of the Freeriders company who the party will have associated with before. You’d think he’d start with the party first seeing as it’s they that have bloodied his nose more often and more severely, but no, he’s starting with an NPC. This brings the adventure back to near Brindol, where it all started 10 levels ago.

The mission hook is simple enough, the party have to be willing to extract Megan from her hiding place and get her back to Overlook unscathed. As in some previous instalments, the party can cut to the chase or play out negotiations with the council of elders. Either way the adventure proper begins at the Green Dragon tavern as the party wait for their rendezvous. The tavern and it’s patrons are sketched out fairly lightly and the advice is to stay with the roleplay as long as the players seem happy to do so. These fantasy taverns never seem to be very busy do they? There’s not a huge amount of ‘meat’ at this point but it does work as a starting point.

The first big event is ready to go when the talking dies off, in the form of a devastating earthquake. Mechanically, this is supported by a skill challenge. As with a lot of skill challenges, this one doesn’t look wholly convincing. The format is odd, with timed events and a round by round summary that happens regardless of the heroes actions. The ‘victory’ in the challenge is to escape the crumbling tavern taking some cowering villagers with you. I’m not certain that this is obvious enough to the players, certainly in the early stages. I thought conventional wisdom was to stay inside during a ‘quake? Maybe I’m being too critical, because I can see that with enough flair and improvisation a good DM could squeeze plenty of drama out of this scene.

Outside, things escalate rapidly as the party have to face the blob. That’s right, the blob. Well, actually it’s more like that Tommy Lee Jones movie with the volcano in it. Essentially there’s a slow moving flow of Blood Chaos (I think it makes more visual sense if you call it chaos blood) and it ignites everything it touches. It’s heading for a trapped villager and the party must attempt a rescue. At the same time this ooze has spawned some monsters of its own, you know the sort, all tentacles and fire. Break out the silly putty if you want to use minis. Take care with the stat blocks though, the Scion of Chaos is Huge and has an aura 2 effect, that’s a whole lot of area. It also has no range listed on its staggering strike? The skulking terrors similarly have no range for their blast power. Also, they can fly, but the encounter has them hiding under the ooze. Make it up I guess.

The ooze isn’t going to stop of it’s own accord so the party will have to go to the source, an opening in a hill under that previously unmentioned tower just over there. This is very much your traditional wizard’s tower, including the inevitable experimental labs that contain gruesome monsters. These beasts have broken free in the quake. Megan and the sage’s apprentice have gotten to the roof, but the sage remains behind needing rescue. None of these NPCs are particularly grateful for the sight of the party and it’s debatable as to whether or not the PCs would help them out regardless. Assuming they do it’s onto the combat encounter deep within the sinking tower.

Poor old Serten, the sages apprentice. He’s got a typical apprentices life. He shares his bedroom with a couple of demons, some underdark dwellers and a mad far realm mage. The earthquake means they’ve busted out, but luckily for the adventure they’ve decided to lurk within their cells waiting for heroes on which to avenge themselves. Quite why the foulspawn seer (intelligence 22 remember) didn’t blast his captors on day one is left to the imagination. Frankly, there’s little point over-thinking these encounters. I reckon the authors came up with the monsters first, and the rationale second. As it is, it gives the adventurers a nice little tour through the Monster Manual. Also, the DM gets to use the Arcane Towers tiles to good effect, which is nice.

Under the tower are the inevitable hidden caverns. There’s some strong opposition down there too. Finally the party get to lock horns with some githyanki, which might bring them round to realising the identity of this adventures baddie. The accompanying shadar kai witch probably seals the deal. The environment is part of the encounter. Lots of fantasy elements, with teleportation, lava, and rockslides. I like the look of this encounter, and it seems to have a decent conclusion as the blood chaos valves are closed down.

To find the rest of the plot, the party has to have a chat with the two NPCs that they rescued, Falrinth the Sage and Megan. This is handled by skill challenge and I’m not really sure why. The consequences for success and failure are different, one leads to a rather cool encounter with a pair of green dragons. This means that success is somewhat penalised, both from a fun and xp perspective.  Also, these two NPCs are pretty hostile to any attempts to deal with them. We get the usual ‘don’t bother with intimidation’ issue that plague many early skill challenges. This is where the delve format breaks down a little. The NPCs personalities, which are essential for any conversational encounter, are only called out in the skill challenge part of the adventure. I think challenges like this might be better served in the main body of the adventure rather than as a tactical layout. Still, the point here is to overdo the rules element of what could be a simple enough roleplay segment.

The next scene is the Evertree, and it’s a nice location, a giant oak in the midst of a lake of blood chaos. Where this sits in the world isn’t explained. Maybe it doesn’t need to be. There is a optional encounter ere as explained before. It would be a shame to miss it as the location, plus the monsters smacks of an iconic D&D encounter (take care to update the monster stats though). If you miss out the encounter, then you just proceed directly to the next scene, where the last skill challenge is picked up.

This takes the form of an abstract dungeon crawl. It’s a neat idea actually. The DM is given the bare bones of some sample encounters, and some set dressing ideas. You can then freestyle up some combat if you feel like it, or use the skill challenge to speed through it to the denouement. Some of the skill challenge  rules are a little clumsy, as should be expected in this early 4e work, but a flexible and creative DM could make this a flavoursome little excursion.

Should you want to cut to the chase there’s a combat encounter bookending this part before the story moves on. The opponents are the by-now usual mix of bad guys straight out of the Star Wars cantina band. They’re little more than a speed bump in the tale, although the mini boss carries documents about his bony person with vague plot elements outlined therein. There’s another portal to decipher via skill challenge with failure earning the party an extended rest. That’s right. The party do get a glimpse of the villain here though as he runs away to cackle another day. There’s no dialogue, and no chance of capture, so don’t get all excited.

The encounter area has blood chaos in it. Like pretty much every other encounter so far. It’s effects are laid out for the reader here, despite having a call out of it’s own in the main text, and being included, in full, in every other encounter too. It does 2d6+3 fire and acid, plus slowed (save ends). Really, you’ll have remembered this by now.

The portal takes the party to the sea of fire in the elemental chaos, to an island just off the shore of the city of brass. That’s brilliant. An absolute classic stop on the D&D cosmic tour knocked off at 11th level. There’s no stepping into the city itself, but it’s an iconic backdrop to the rest of the adventure.

This encounter look s like a TPK on paper. The big nasty is a duergar with a potential 5 square push into a lake of magma that deals 10d10 and 15 ongoing. At this point the party will have vulnerability to fore too. Yikes. There a redspawn firebelcher and other fire breathing baddies aplenty. To get out of the frying pan the party need good jumping or flying skills and the ability to get past a couple of githyanki pirates, who will e busy immobilising all and sundry with telekinetic grasp. Honestly, this one looks like a beast. . If you’ve played it through, I’d be really interested in hearing how it went.

Once into the tower proper, the party are confronted by yet another menagerie:

The defenders of this chamber stand in wait—two humanoid fiends with leathery wings, another githyanki warrior, a centaur bearing a greatsword, and a demon ensconced in a rune-scribed shell.

And a dire partridge in a pear tree?

What stops this being another random combat is the environment. It’s a simple enough conceit, rising magma, but given that the objective makes the party descend before they can climb back up, it becomes a genuine thriller. The exit is a ‘portal, obviously, but I guess by now no-one will be expecting to have to exercise a meaningful choice. 

Onwards into the complete and utter unknown. This selection of opponents isn’t utterly random, as two of them could actually exist in this chamber. It’s one giant trap with creatures designed to maximise the challenge. We’re not quite in classic Tomb of Horrors territory but it’s not far off. Given that the final encounter is just around the corner, my prediction is a party of barely walking wounded by this point. The final battle is level 16. Hope you brought a spare character.

No really, bring a spare character. This fight is stacked in the defenders favour so much it’s frightening. There’s a force sphere which is a massive middle finger from any ruthless DM. Not that they need it, there’s enough fighting power on this rooftop that you won’t need it. Sarshan himself is no slouch, and his retainers have plenty of oomph too. Unfortunately the battle hasn’t got much in the way of flavour, it’s all wrapped up in the statblocks. Sarshan probably fights in silence, and there’s no links or foreshadowing to any other part of the path.

In fact, that’s the thing that lets down this instalment, It’s clever, it’s even a little bit crazy, but it’s pure and bare mechanical fun. There’s zero choice, one you’re on the encounter conveyer, you’re not getting off. The sights along the way are not too bad, and the addition of skill challenges breaks up the initial combats. Still, the challenges are as kludgey as you’d expect. I do think, to answer my very first question, that this instalment has too many cooks. It’s a selection of fun scenes that are taped together by the flimsiest of linked portals. I do say that like it’s a bad thing, but in play? Good for a laugh, and there’s not so much wrong with that.

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Living in a box

It’s 1983 all over again as the Red Box returns to game store shelves. Roland Rat, shoulder pads, Spandau Ballet, My Little Pony, The Great Egg Race, Return of the Jedi. And competing for space, Dungeons & Dragons.

Things have changed since then, but this blog isn’t about CD players, its about gaming, so I’ll focus on that.

First up, the new red box is sturdier, thicker and different in so many subtle ways from the classic 1983 edition. First the text on the box front. The original was;

 This game requires no gameboard because the action takes place in the players imagination with dungeon adventures that include monsters treasure and magic.

Ideal for 3 or more beginning to intermediate players, ages 10 and up.

Compare and contrast with the 21st century version;

The ultimate game of your imagination, complete with monsters, magic, and treasure.

For 1 or more beginning to intermediate players.

Top right of the new box states AGE 12+. I’m not particularly precious about the recommended starting age, but I do find it interesting that there’s been an upwards change of 2 years. I started at 11, so half way between the two (although not with a starter set to be fair). When I was at GW I was part of an awful lot of discussions about custoner age and when would be best to introduce them to hobby gaming. We eventually settled on 11+ as the pool of friends would include secondary school. We also felt that younger kids were potentially damaging the brand and making it look like a game for kids. I imagine WotC have had similar discussions.

The other differences are that the absence of a gameboard which was a key selling point 30 years ago, has now been cast aside. The back cover makes it pretty cear that this isn’t a game just for the imagination any more. You’ll have your own, probably unchangable opinion on that. 

Then there’s the difference in the amount of players needed. The new red box is for one person intitially. Your character is generated via a solo adventure. You won’t need the services of a DM for your first session, but by the time the second or third rolls around you will. Also, unlike full 4e, this game is set up for one DM and four players, not five. Makes sense with the four roles. They’ve included four character sheets just to make the point clear. By the way, the sheets are lovely. Simple, uncluttered, and with room for whatever floats your players boats. They’re available for download now.

There’s one thing I don’t like, the use of the old style logo. Why’s that being used exactly? As a sop to the old schoolers? If that’s the case I think they’ll need more than a font to change their minds. The new logo is used throughout the rest of the book, so I think it’s a shame WotC couldn’t be braver and stamp the box with the fresh brand.

Cracking open the cellophane cover and there’s a rush of nostalgia and excitement of the new all rolled together. It’s undeniably powerful. The box is stacked with cool stuff. There’s a bag of black dice. They’re nice enough. There’s a coupon for a free adventure download. A good touch, it gets the casual purchaser straight onto the website. Let’s hope they keep the front page newbie friendly.

Then there’s the two books. They have exactly the same cover image which is a shame, but the image itself is really strong. It’s by Ralph Horsley and it riffs off the classic Elmore image on the box front. The players book say Read Me First.

But I won’t. I still want to look at the bits and pieces. I’ll save the books for another time when I can sit down with a coffee and some decent time.

What else? Cards. Slim cardstock, 7 sheets of nine cards, all semi punched out. I like them. They’re prettier than the CB cards, yet functional too. The design incorporates colour and key text in a way that makes the powers look and feel simple to use in play. Suffice to say, I’d pay for decks of these that covered the 30 level spread of a class.

A flyer. I love flyers. No, really I do. This one is double sided, one for players, one for DMs. It directs you to the other Essentials products you might need. Much like the books, you find yourself thinking, “which will I be be, a player, or a DM?”  That decision point is huge, and will last years. I applaud WotC for this, as the hobby needs DMs, and I believe this box will make some.

Counters. Awesome. About half the thickness  of a dungeon tile, there’s one sheet. There’s 3 large, and a passel of mediums. There’s 12 PC counters, with a bloodied side on the reverse. The monsters don’t share this trait, instead, the reverse has a different monster on it. A compromise, but an understandable one. There’s also 5 action point counters, one for each player, one for the DM. Clever.

Finally, a big old poster map. One side is split into two ‘wilderness’ sites; a crossroads and a cave like lair. These have been seen before, but that’s fine. They’re just right for the starter set and will see repeated use. The other side is covered in one big dungeon compiled out of tiles. It looks room heavy on first glance, and very crowded. Don’t be fooled though. When you get to the DMs book you’ll appreciate the thinking behind this, and if you’re like me, you’ll be seriously impressed.

The last thing in the box is a retaining piece of card that props up the contents at a slight angle. If you pull this out you’ll get spare room in the box for any other bits and pieces you might want to add. That’s a good piece of foresight as it allows people to add to the game, yet keep it all in one box. I guess that in six months time the new player will have minis, notes and pencils etc. all cluttering up their box set.

Next time I’ll dive into the books in detail. For now, I have to say I’m impressed. This box has a mission, and it sets about the execution of that mission with panache. It’s a brave move, one that I hope pays off, both for D&D and for roleplaying games as a whole.

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Review: Marauders of the Dune Sea

This is a truly terrible adventure. Just when I thought WotC had turned a corner with their scenario offerings, along comes this: shallow, two dimensional, railroaded, flat and occasionally just plain wrong foray into their rebooted Dark Sun setting.

Let’s begin at the beginning. The cover art is a nice action piece by Ralph Horsley, one of my favourite artists. It depicts an iconic Dark Sun battle, which you simply will not encounter during the events of this adventure. Interior illustrations are by Ben Wootten, who was hardly overworked as there’s a grand total of one internal piece, and two images designed to be shown to the players. One of those depicts a pit. With purple light coming out of it. It’s not that the art is badly done, far from it, it’s just that the art direction is so banal. As I’ll show, there are some images that were begging to be done, and they were ignored in favour of these pedestrian ones. Shame.

Speaking of things that don’t appear, there’s the adventure title itself. I don’t really know why it was chosen. I’d say it was a placeholder that everyone forgot to replace as printing deadlines loomed.

The adventure proper is for 2nd level adventurers, and they will hop aboard a metaphorical train that will inexorably roll through 15 encounters, some of which are notable only out of morbid curiosity. I had the same thought come to me while I was reading this, over and again. I think this is 5 delves spot-welded together. I also think this was written prior to the work on the setting, or so close to that development work that this is essentially a cobbled together playtest set of encounters. I think WotC took the easy, lazy option and quickly edited Bruce Cordell’s notes into something functional and stuck it on the schedule.

Every encounter is like something from the earliest days of 4e. A batch of monsters, on some random dungeon tiles, just waiting to be hit, in total and utter silence. There’s barely an NPC in the whole thing. There are skill challenges, and that’s about as sophisticated as it gets. They show no creativity or flair in the slightest. Failure in these usually results in loss of surges (yawn) or in one case, you have to do it again until you pass it. Yep, that railroad is pretty tough to get off. Oh, just in case I forgot to say, the idea is you’ve got to find a dungeon that will have a piece of an artifact in it.

I mentioned being plain wrong. Well, I’m no Dark Sun expert but I thought one of the conceits of the setting was illiteracy? Well, this adventure relies for hooks on written journals and scrolls. Then there’s the scarcity of water. Later on you’ll be making athletic checks to jump across a 15 foot deep stream. Finally there’s the classic/hackneyed enemy party challenge to overcome. Except the text refers to a Thri-kreen hunter that has been so stealthy that he’s managed to avoid actually having a stat block. Maybe he had to be cut at the last moment to accommodate the level 8 half-giant (remember this is for level 2 parties ok?) The whole product is littered with these face palm moments. Still, slap yourself hard enough and it will keep you awake.

The final encounter is awful, because it never actually happens. Instead, a big bad rolls up and you have to run away from it. If you don’t you have a succession of escalating fights until you get the message. This would have merited some art at least. But no.

The thing that really goads me about this adventure is, it’s supposed to be the springboard for entire Dark Sun campaigns. It WotC get their wish there will be legions of new and old fans of this classic setting, all frantically reading the guide, devouring the creature catalog, and looking to this adventure as a template for how to get their campaigns underway. This is likelt the only official adventure you’ll ver see for 4e DS. That’s like snatching candy from babies, utterly intolerable. With Eberron, you got a 3 level adventure to kick you off, and it took care to hit some Eberron specific tropes early on. This adventure is desert themed, and as dry as that implies.

I want my money back.

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Demonomicon: reviewed

 July 2010 has been a bumper month for 4e releases. I’ve had to go hell for leather on my reading just to keep up. I’ve already covered the slimmer releases in Stonefang Pass and Vor Rukoth. Now it’s time to dive into the brace of hardbacks, Demonomicon and Tomb of Horrors. First, into the Abyss.

Confession time. My readers will know that I’m a returning D&Der after a long time out of sorts playing other games. Even though I’ve always kept half an eye on the fortunes of the Worlds Original Roleplaying Game, I haven’t really understood the details. Add to that the fact that I’ve traditionally always been a low level player and DM and what you get is someone that doesn’t really get the whole demon and devil thing. The cosmology I do get, that’s fine. I’m cool with the 4e version of the cosmos, I actually enjoy it and see how it’s eminently more gameable than previous attempts to rationalise the D&D worlds. But demon stuff somehow slides off my brain. Even now, I have to stop and think about Tharizdun (god right?) and Lloth (goddess yeah?) and how they live in the Abyss (home to all demons, got it) yet Grazz’t (devil turned demon?) has a home there too. Suffice to say, if it’s any type of x-loth, I’m starting from a position of ignorance.

I’ve been trying to keep up though. I’ve been on board with 4e since the beginning. Actually since before then as I devoured the Worlds & Monsters preview book a few years ago. There’s plenty on the set up there, in fact I maintain it’s a decent primer to this day. Since then there’s been an accumulation of canon that started with the first 3 core books naturally. Then there was the Manual of the Planes (my favourite 4e book) and a substantial expansion of knowledge through the Plane Below: Elemental Chaos. Dragon and Dungeon magazines have piled on the backstory even more. It’s like WotC have a major jones for all things demonic.

So imagine my horror when within the opening pages of this book, I’m confronted with the Obyriths. According to Wikipedia these guys were introduced in 2006, during my wilderness years. So I don’t feel so bad now. Trouble is, I think the authors of this reboot half expect the audience to know who or what these bad boys are. After reading the Demon Lore chapter twice, I’m still not sure who is who and what hates what. Then there’s the Queen of Chaos, the Wind Dukes of Aquaa, Kostchtchie and Oublivae to name but a few hard-to-type creatures. Again, I’ve had to do a bit of research to find out the game history of them, for instance, Kostchtchie first appeared in the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth for AD&D in the early 80s. Whereas Oublivae is (I believe) new to D&D. Incidentally, she’s great stuff.

All this back story is interesting, that’s not in doubt. I do wonder how much of it is easter eggs for the old school and how much of it is actually destined to be said out loud at the table though? One of 4e’s main draws (for me) is the emphasis on playability. It can make for a dry read, and Demonicon is not that, but it does make the books more useful at the table.

Speaking of utility, there’s more in here than is first apparent. Every time you turn the page there’s a good chance you’ll run across details of skill challenges, or new demon themes, or summoning rules. Don’t fear, the crunch is here. Variable resistance gets a free upgrade if you’re interested.

I think my favourite section is the one labelled, appropriately, the Abyss. Here we get the inside story on some of the individual planes, from the Plain of a Thousand Portals, all the way down to Abysm and beyond. There’s a really evocative Roll of Abyssal Layers on p80 (opposite a fabulous image of Grazz’t and Iggwilv), that lists the names of the known layers, who’s in charge, and whether or not it gets a write up by WotC somewhere. This book does another 19 of them. Room for more then. Some of these layers are really wonderful creations that scream out for adventure. The City of Morglon-Daar is a good base for adventurers, and a great jumping off point to most other layers as it’s at the hub of the Blood Rift. Before I say more, I have to give credit to the superb cartography of Jared Blando. His maps are like ancient relics rather than modern tile based images. They exude malevolence, and invite you to pore over them for exotic names and places. Top draw.

Not every layer is a gem. Grazz’t is master of three layers and they’ve already had some time in another book so get skimmed over here. The Iron Wastes is almost deserted, for the abyss that is. I always think of hordes of tumbling demons rather than deserts and wastelands? But then there’s Abysm, two layers for the price of one, home to Demogorgon and Dagon, it’s like Lost on pcp.

The fact is, it’s never less than fascinating to read. It gets the DM juices running, and there’s mechanical back up to the ideas within so that you really can bring it to the players ready to serve. There’s a pair of fully statted out delves for you too. One in the Wasting Tower for 20th level, the other gets you into Abysm for 25th level parties. They are both of a decent standard, and serve as good starting points for you to generate your own content.

Speaking of which, the content of this book is mainly about the monsters. The last chapter, running to 60 pages, is the Demon Manual. 66 entries (sub creatures included) that run from a level 2 skirmisher (Abyssal Scavenger) to a level 33 solo (Pazuzu). Any collection of monsters is going to be hard to sum up. These run the gamut as you would expect. Some of them seem a bit ordinary (Blood demons, Fire demons) and some are brilliantly twisted (Zovvut, Wendigo, Incubus). I imagine most DMs will feverishly flick to the Demon Lords to see who’s got a seat at the top table of 4e bad guys.

There’s the aforementioned Kostchtchie. He’s a level 31 solo brute, and he’s carting around the Maul of Brutal Endings. He’s billed as the Prince of Wrath and he’s got all the hate that ever was inside of him. So much that he’s gunning for all the other demons simultaneously, and he’s actually got some chance of pulling it off truth be told. Like the other lords, there’s a longish lore section as well as a secrets entry as well as guidance for his cults and using him out of combat (yeah right).

Oublivae is a truly nasty piece of work. She’s a level 30 solo controller, and she is queen of the barrens. Her powers are flavourful and really evoke her modus operandi of isolation and hopelessness. Take her aura 10, Perish Alone, which if you start your turn there, not adjacent to an ally, you take 10 damage. 15 if she’s bloodied. Nice.

Pazuzu is the strongest in the book, on paper. Actually he’s most likely to be encountered in many games, as he’s in charge of the first layer and doesn’t mind getting involved in mortal business. I didn’t get too excited by him, but that’s mainly because he’s up against stiff competition for the epic end game. Same for Phraxas, although he’s introduced personally in one of this books delves. I was far more interested in Zuggtmoy, who’s currently merely a level 22 solo controller. The book had me at:

“Her cult’s most notable practice involves the burial of human sacrifices in the muddy soil of a bog. Left with a thin leather tube to grant it air, the sacrifice is fed a thick gruel of spore laden fungus that slowly transforms it into a fungus creature loyal to the Lady of Decay. A sacrifices muffled screams sometimes serve as a warning to those who draw too close to such a site.”

Nice.                                                                                             

To round up: this is a miscellany, given that it’s expanding on broad brush strokes from previous books. It mostly hits the mark, and when it’s good, it’s really good. Even so, this has to be put in the unessential pile as once you’ve skimmed it, you’re not likely to reference it again, and DDI will give you the numbers you need. That said, it’s a great read, and really gives you an insight into the cosmology of the new D&D. You pays your money, you takes your choice.

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