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Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: Rites of Renown, edited by Bill Bridges

One of the stretch goals of the Werewolf: the Apocalypse 20th Anniversary Edition Kickstarter was a fiction anthology, and Rites of Renown (subtitled “When Will You Rage II”) is the result. Somewhat surprisingly, taking into account that it’s gaming fiction and originally “just” an add-on, it’s good. Very good, in fact. I should perhaps stop being surprised at the quality of these new World of Darkness anthologies, since recent other books from other related game lines have also been of high quality. Onyx Path is clearly attracting a better breed of writers than old White Wolf did (though some of the writers here are also old White Wolf writers, now with more writing skill).

The book contains 19 stories, focusing on the Garou. While many are action-filled tales of the fight against the Wyrm in all its forms, some are more subtle, dealing with alienation from humanity and from their own “kinfolk”, and with other subjects not easily solved with giant teeth and claws. Not all of the stories are total winners, but most are quite enjoyable and a few are memorably good.

Very much worth picking up if you like the W:tA game (or at least know something about it). Not sure how well this collection would work for someone with no previous background info; I suspect some confusion would result since not everything is explained here, it’s assumed the reader can fill in some of the gaps.

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Minireview: 13th Age

13th Age is an interesting beast. It’s a D&D/d20 variant, intended to fix many of 3rd edition’s faults and merge the D&D-ish fantasy with more modern rpg techniques. By and large it succeeds, though I find it hard to say anything definitive about it without some playtesting (which I haven’t done, to date). In a way it can be thought of as D&D 3.75, going off in a totally different direction than 4e did – though it must be noted that this game is not in any way an official version of D&D and has no ties with TSR. It just encapsulates the way the writers (Rob Heinsoo & Jonathan Tweet) want to run their D&D-style games.

Though there are still classes and levels, there’s a lot of new stuff here. The rules are quite lightweight in general, and contain many innovations intended to streamline and accelerate game play. An “Escalation Die” makes sure combats do not run on forever, the “One Unique Thing” rule and the Icon relationships (more on which later) give a bit more depth even to “generic” characters, Backgrounds integrate character capabilities with their past history, and there is a definite push towards the GM generating his/her own unique monsters instead of just picking from a “monster manual”.

The “Icons” are an interesting facet. While normal D&D is quite generic, 13th Age assumes play in its own, specific game world (the Dragon Empire). This can of course be modified, but the base game assumes a default game world. In this world, a number of (very) powerful entities/individuals exist and direct the flow of events and history, and all PCs may decide to either ally with or oppose a number of these Icons. This can have mechanical effects within the game, but is mostly a tool to help GM plan game session themes. The game comes with a default set of Icons, but these can of course be modified.

Based on a read-through, it’s a very interesting game, with lots of cool “indie-style” tweaks to the old d20-based “dungeon crawl” concept. I’m not quite sure I “got” all the details of what makes the rules system tick, I’d really need some gaming with the system to figure it out properly. At the time of this writing, if I were to run a D&D-style game it’d be a tough choice between this and D&D 5e.

The book itself is well-written, clearly organized and has very nice art, no complaints there (either).

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Minireview: The Second Year of Our Reign (Reign)

“The Second Year of Our Reign” (available as a free PDF here) collects the second batch of ransom-funded supplements for Greg Stolze’s “Reign”. Reign itself is a cool but unusual fantasy game, which takes cues from decidedly non-Western tropes (a lot of African influences there, among others) and has a world which is actually the entwined bodies of two (dead?) gods. This book is a grab-bag of small supplements about the world, the rules system (ORE), and various other bits and pieces.

Among the non-crunch bits, we get details on the Maemeck Matriarcy, the various Ussient tribes, and lots of tidbits about various other regions (including some notes about coinage, with pictures). In the rules section, we get rules for pursuit & evasion, for squad-level combat, new esoteric techniques (including notes on how to design your own), a new alternative combat system, rules for seafaring & for handling storms, new enchantments. The book ends with some new “one-roll” generators, and some suggested campaign seeds.

It’s good stuff, and a fun read. I love how Reign is so non-standard in its approach to fantasy, there’s a lot of “weird” here. Of course, that can make the game a bit hard to grasp at times, since it isn’t your bog-standard fantasy cliche.

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Minireview: The Midnight Isles (Pathfinder "Wrath of the Righteous" 4/6)

The Midnight Isles continues the “Wrath of the Righteous” adventure path, and does a fairly good job in keeping the story going. This time, the PCs are expected to raid a demonic subrealm to stop the new source of power used by the demons in their war of conquest. In a way, it’s a bit less “mythic” than the predecessors in this path, in that the PCs “just” go to sabotage a production facility, something that is somewhat on the sidelines of the main plot. On the other hand, it does take place in a sub-realm and features all sorts of mythic-level encounters, many of which need to be negotiated with (ideally, at least) instead of the normal brute force approach. This is good. The whole thing is fairly freeform; while it’s no sandbox it does leave the PCs quite a bit of leeway on how they want to approach things.

Nothing spectacular, but quite a solid showing here. This adventure path continues to be better than I expected.

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Minireview: Blue Remembered Earth, by Alastair Reynolds

Blue Remembered Earth is the first book in Reynolds’ new “Poseidon’s Children” series, and it’s quite interesting. Though technology does feature heavily in the story, it’s perhaps less focused on high-tech than many of his other books. Or, perhaps, the technology just merges into the background more, even though it has important implications. Here, a future Earth in the year 2160 is quite different from our own; an eco-catastrophe has come and gone, and left the geopolitical structure totally changed. China, India and Africa are the new global superpowers, and the book itself focuses on the Akinya family, a powerful African corporate force. After the death of their influential grandmother, siblings Geoffrey and Sunday Akinya start to uncover clues left by her that point to some form of hidden treasure. The main plot features a treasure hunt of sorts across the solar system, and involves everything from elephants and underwater transhumans to mysterious space stations.

While the plot is decent and makes for an interesting read, the star here is the setting. Reynolds’ future Earth is quite different from your normal eco-catastrophe scenario, being quite optimistic about things. Here, humanity has mostly managed to repair the damage, and has also instituted a (mostly) benign form of a Panopticon in the form of “The Mechanism”, a surveillance system which constantly monitors everyone via their implants. Naturally enough, not everyone is happy with the constant surveillance, and some have formed off-planet “off the grid” colonies. Here, again, the general mood is positive; while a global surveillance system has Orwellian overtones, here it is mostly viewed as a positive force and one enabler for global peace. It’s possible that future books in the series change that tone, of course.

The pace is slower than in many other of his books, but overall I liked it, it’s a refreshing change from the omnipresent dystopias without being too cheerily optimistic. Looking forward to the next books in the series.

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Minireview: Bigger Bads (Monsters and Other Childish Things)

Bigger Bads is an expansion book for the Monsters and Other Childish Things game, by Benjamin Baugh. While the main focus is adding huge monsters to the game (think King Kong & Godzilla), it also contains lots of rules tweaks and add-ons, most of which are pretty neat. We get rules for abstracting how big a monster is (and what that means), for abstract distance and reach (needed when things go Godzilla-scale), an abstracted “Threats” mechanic which is quite nifty and useful for modeling lots of non-monster threats and antagonists, and various other bits and pieces including “weird skills” for the children themselves. The main bulk of the book consists of a list of new pre-statted antagonists, some of which use the new “big monsters!” rules. They are quite excellent; innovative and yet not tied to any one setting. Some are quite funny, some are more serious, and all are interesting. The book ends with a campaign seed, in which the PCs are kids recruited into a secret government monster-hunting organization… which is unlikely to stay secret very long, since some of the opponents are in the Godzilla category.

Great expansion book for a quirky little game.

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Minireview: Transhuman (Eclipse Phase)

Transhuman is more or less the “Player’s Guide” to Eclipse Phase. Unlike the previous support books, it provides very little new setting info, and instead focuses on filling in and improving some weaker points of the rules and the existing general world detail. Since the base character generation rules for the game are… well, “overly complex” to be charitable about it, this book introduces a new, “package-based” character generation system. With it, players choose and tailor general packages related to various character concepts instead of micromanaging each and every skill and related creation cost. While I haven’t tried it out, it looks very good and a big improvement over the original. There is also a new “lifepath”-based character generation option, which looks like fun.

Apart from the new chargen options, we get expanded information (and pictures) or lots of morphs and bots – good stuff since these figure heavily in the game, and having visual references is good. Then there’s a big section on Firewall itself, with guidelines and hints on how to play agents and what needs to be taken into account in the Eclipse Phase world when it comes to investigation, combat, stealth, etc. Very useful.

While it’s not perfect (there are lots of social implications of the Eclipse Phase world that I still haven’t seen covered anywhere, typical family structures being one), it’s very good. The writing is clear and entertaining, the art is good, and overall it just improves the game on many fronts. This book is close to a must-buy for players (or GMs) of the game.

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Minireview: Demon's Heresy (Pathfinder "Wrath of the Righteous" 3/6)

Demon’s Heresy is the midpoint of the “Wrath of the Righteous” adventure path, and it eases up the pace quite a bit. Where the first chapter had the PCs reacting as survivors and the second had them go on the offensive against the demon horde, this third part is more of a sandbox affair. They’ve secured their hold on the city of Drezen, and now need to venture out into the wilds of the Worldwound to seek out certain new McGuffins and seek new possible allies (and clues to how the demons might be stopped).

It’s pretty nice. The fact that it’s more a sandbox than a linear affair is good, since the previous events have been much more linear. The encounters are quite interesting generally, and the NPCs are nicely written and have varying motivations (sometimes very much against stereotype). Of course, the dangers of a sandbox exist here also; without good GM guidance this can devolve into a boring “wander around the wastelands aimlessly” affair. PC motivations and plot flow will probably need some GM tweaking here and there. In any case, the design here is quite solid, and while there is some “dungeon crawl” involved it’s not too bad.

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