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Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: Interface (Demon: the Descent)

Interface is a short (six stories) collection of short stories based around the new Demon: the Descent game. It was produced as a result of a Kickstarter stretch goal for that game, and like many other similar recent anthologies from Onyx Path, it’s quite good, if a bit uneven. The good stories more than make up for the mediocre ones.

Demon is a complicated game. It posits a world (universe?) invisibly ruled by a “God-Machine”, a vast inhuman power which, while not directly hostile to humanity, is not a benevolent god by any means. This god creates “angels” from time to time, powerful mechanical/supernatural beings which enact the will of their god. While their programming leaves them no room for individual thought, there are rare times when an angel doubts its mission – and “falls”. Those which aren’t recaptured and “reprocessed” immediately become “demons”, fallen angels on the run from the forces of a now hostile god. They retain a small sliver of their old capabilities, but they are also partly human. In the game, the players are demons, and the general theme is “cold war paranoia and spy stories”. It’s a great game, but a complex one – the above merely scratches the surface. Unlike most other White Wolf / Onyx Path games, the PCs here were never human in the first place, they are alien beings.

The stories here look at various facets of “demonic” life. Some focus on evading hunter-killer angels, some focus just on “getting along” quietly, while others still dream of going back to “Heaven”… ideally with their sense of self intact. Adding to the mix is the fact that demons can switch their identities (their “covers”) at will, and can build them form bits and pieces of other people’s lives (via various pacts and deals).

As an interesting tidbit, each story here also contains some game “crunch” as an add-on to the story, giving stats to some of the characters or describing some of what happened in game terms. It’s a nice addition, and since it’s only a page or two it doesn’t detract from anything.

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Minireview: Base Raiders

Base Raiders is a somewhat different “supers” game. In a way, it’s a sort of post-apoc superheroes game. Here, the world has seen the rise of superpowered individuals, and has gotten used to “superheroes” and “supervillains” duking it out. Then, with no warning, they all vanished at the same time. Nobody has seen them since. Now, later, a new generation of low-powered “supers” are appearing on the scene… and are discovering that the now-vanished old guard left behind vast caches of superweapons and whatnot, locked in their various headquarters and villainous lairs. What’s an enterprising “superhero” to do? Some breaking and entering, that’s what! It’s against the law, but who cares?

So, in a way, it’s a setup for superhero dungeon crawls, where the “dungeons” are now-vacated complexes left behind by other “supers”. So there’s ample justification for deadly traps, desperate minions defending their now-gone “master’s” property, and of course run-ins with the (ordinary) authorities. Even if the raid succeeds… what do you do with a cache of super-science tech that nobody, including you, understands anymore?

It’s a fun concept, and probably works nicely in play given a suitable gaming group. It’s powered by Fate (close to the version used in Kerberos Club), and isn’t too horribly crunchy. The book could have uses some more clarity and examples on how things work, in my opinion; while Fate veterans should have no problems, not everything was totally clear to me, ruleswise. Also, while we’re talking (slight) negatives, the art here isn’t all that good. Understandable, since good art is expensive, but it does detract a bit.

Despite small niggles, this reads like a solid game and it puts a slightly new spin on an old gaming trope – a couple of them. actually.

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Minireview: The Dying of the Light (Warhammer 1st ed)

The Dying of the Light is a campaign (of sorts, anyway) for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1st edition). It’s from Hogshead Publishing, written at around the same time as the classic Enemy Within. While it’s not bad, as such, neither is it lauded as a classic. The main reason, I’d guess, is the fact that it’s more a set of (very) loosely linked scenarios than a tightly plotted campaign. The are very nice adventures here, but we also get some not-so-good ones, and since each adventure is from a different writer the tone changes all the time. In a way, this is the same problem the much more recent Thousand Thrones suffers from.

The main plot, such as it is, has to do with stopping the rise of a daemonic entity, starting in Marienburg and continuing on to the dismal Wastelands surrounding it. The first half of the book is quite good, but as things progress things become more and more incoherent. There’s probably a great campaign that can be salvaged here, but the GM needs to do a lot of extra work in knitting everything together smoothly and avoiding some of the crazier bits.

The best use of this book is probably as a source of stand-alone scenarios to plug into other campaigns (or play as one-shots).

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Minireview: The Half-Dead City (Pathfinder "Mummy's Mask" 1/6)

Ok, start of a new adventure path from Paizo. This time it’s the Egyptian-themed (sorry, “Osirian-themed”) “Mummy’s Mask”, kicking off with The Half-Dead City. While there’s potential here, it ends up being a fairly “meh” affair, unfortunately.

The PCs play “tomb raiders” of a sort; the half-necropolis town of Wadi holds a lottery allowing explorers to venture out into the tomb complex (for reasons which didn’t really seem all that believable to me, but whatever). There are multiple parties on site, so the PCs have plenty of opportunities to interact with other raider/explorer groups. They get send to various tombs, and while the encounters there are ok, there’s little to really grab the attention. Also, I would have liked to see more general encounters and events in Wadi, not just a bunch of tombs and a “mission hub”.

The biggest problem is that this whole thing has almost nothing to do with the main plot. It’s not bad, and neither is it especially good, mostly it’s just irrelevant.

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Minireview: Abaddon's Gate, by James S.A. Corey

Abaddon’s Gate is the third book in the “Expanse” series, and while it’s not quite as good as the previous two books, it’s still quite a ride. At the core, it consists of two parallel storylines, continuing from where the last book left off. In one, someone with a serious grudge against Holden starts a chain of events intended to smear his reputation and kill him (perhaps in that order). In the other, the “protomolecule” has now built a vast structure a few AU outside the orbit of Uranus, and it seems to be some kind of “gate” – though one operating on technology levels far outside humanity’s capabilities. So a large fleet consisting of various interested parties heads out to investigate, and along for the ride is the Rocinante and her crew as representatives of the OPA. It should not come as a huge surprise to the reader that things escalate in a serious fashion, and the stakes get raised yet again.

It’s good, very good. While it’s perhaps not quite as focused as the first two books, the difference is miniscule and the new characters are interesting. As before, the book wraps up nicely enough but leaves the story open for the next book.

If you’ve read the first two books you’ll want to read this. If not, go read Leviathan Wakes. Shoo.

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Minireview: Delta Green: Tales from Failed Anatomies, by Dennis Detwiller

Tales from Failed Anatomies is a collection of Delta Green stories from Dennis Detwiller, and it’s damn good. Not just good as rpg fiction, good as fiction period. Most of the stories are new for this volume, though the collection does contain some older, previously available stories (I’ve read at least “Drowning in Sand” and “The Thing in the Pit” before). The stories have the common theme of having something to do with Delta Green (or its Soviet counterpart, GRU-SV8) or the Cthulhu mythos, and are set at various points in history. The tales are arranged in time order, with the first ones set in the WWI and WW2 eras (the disastrous Innsmouth raid is one connecting point), and the last one is set in our future (and potential Apocalypse). Otherwise, all of the stories are stand-alone and most of them do not require any sort of Cthulhu Mythos and/or DG background information, they should work great as just general horror fiction.

Though there are a few stories here that don’t totally work, in general this is a high quality collection. The mood is nihilistic and grim, as befits the Delta Green theme, but the stories are very clever and quite different from each other and told from various different perspectives. While Delta Green fiction before this has set a high bar, this is possibly the best DG short story anthology to date. Recommended.

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Minireview: Help Fund My Robot Army!!!, edited by John Joseph Adams

Help Fund My Robot Army!!! & Other Improbable Crowdfunding Projects is an anthology with some meta-levels involved: it’s about (improbable) fictional crowdfunding projects, and naturally enough it was funded via a Kickstarter. The basic premise is that each story is set in the same format as a Kickstarter pitch, with the same section organization (many of the tales are told via fictional “comments” or “updates” to the project). While there’s a bit of repetition in the themes, and while not all of the stories work well, there are some real gems here and overall it’s a very entertaining read.

The title story is about a mad scientist who is trying to fund a robot army (in order to take over the world, duh), and is dismayed that he doesn’t get the overwhelming support he expects. It’s a humorous tale, like are many others here, but not every tale ventures into humor. Some are quite creepy, some weird, and some are just great tales. My own favorite is Carmen Maria Machado’s “Help Me Follow My Sister Into the Land of the Dead”, which is an intense, small tale with some twists. There’s also a tale where Nosferatu tries to raise money in order to kill of all the sparkly vampires, which I approve of.

Good summer reading. It probably helps if you have backed at least one Kickstarter project before reading this, or at the very least are familiar with the concept and the service.

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Minireview: City of Locusts (Pathfinder "Wrath of the Righteous" 6/6)

In City of Locusts, the “Wrath of the Righteous” storyline culminates in an assault on the demonic City of Locusts, the stronghold of demon lord Deskari. It’s decent, there are some interesting bits here, but at the same time it’s a bit of an anticlimax after all the “mythic” stuff the PCs have been doing leading up to this. The plot has the PCs concentrate on things they, frankly, should not have to deal with at this power level, and despite most of this adventure being a high-power combatfest, it’s still a bit lacking in the “grand finale” department. It’s not bad by any means, just not all that it could have been.

Still, this adventure path as a whole ended up being a lot better than I imagined it to be. That has less to do with the “mythic” power level angle than with the fact that it was, overall, very well written and had a lot of small details I liked. The “in medias res” start was great, and I also liked that there were several LGBT major NPCs in the mix, without much fuss being made about their sexual orientations. I also liked the fact that there was room for non-combat solutions for problems, here and there, even with demons.

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