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Minireview: Numenéra

Monte Cook’s Numenéra is an interesting beast, a science-fantasy rpg from a designer known for intricate game rules and campaign settings. Surprisingly enough, the rules this time are extremely light-weight and try to minimize dice throwing; damage has constant values and in general, much of the ruleset is narrative-driven. It’s very “indie” in feel… and I say this as a compliment. At times the ruleset feels almost too streamlined, but without playtesting I find it impossible to say anything very concrete. It feels like it could work very nicely, but since it’s not based on any existing ruleset it’s hard to extrapolate.

The game itself is set in the Ninth World, a far-future Earth so distant from our time that we are not even mythology anymore. Over the millennia, mankind has (presumably) gone to the stars, perhaps returned again many times, discovered technology so advanced it is quite indistinguishable from magic, lost said technology… the list goes on. The past is an unknown, since the “current” inhabitants only say that their age is the “ninth”. Ninth what? Empire? Time between extinction events? Unknown (and of course up to the GM). It’s much like Gene Wolfe’s “The New Sun” books, a future so distant that it is like fantasy to us.

This, of course, is a storytelling device for creating an anything-goes game world. “Magic” exists, in the form of ridiculously advanced tech, which the current users can only barely use (and often use wrong). The basic technology level in the default setting is low(ish) and the societies fairly primitive, but of course there are more advanced enclaves. The inhabitants find old bits of tech, “cyphers”, here and there, and PCs can use them as “magic items” – though most of the time, they are only single-use or very limited-use. Various races exist, some of them very possibly “alien” in the “space alien” sense – but even they themselves no longer know for certain. They may “just” be results of genetic manipulation, or something even stranger. In the end, it does not really matter, unless the GM decides to make it a plot and important to the story.

Into this far-future landscape enter the PCs, as representatives of the three presented character classes (yes, the game has them, something I’m not totally sure it needs). We have “glaives” (fighters), “nanos” (wizards) and “jacks” (everything else, jack-of-all-trades). The stories can be whatever; you can set traditional fantasy “dungeon crawls” here, or something more ambitious. Due to the nature of the setting, a GM can easily justify pretty much anything, since “discover and explore weird ancient tech and secrets” is a fundamental theme.

In general, I liked it quite a bit. It’s a lot more lightweight and narrative rules-wise than I was expecting, and the “mythical future” Earth is a fun setting. The rules I’m undecided on, I’d have to try them out in practice to say whether they work well or not. The only real (tiny!) criticism I have of this book is that much of what is presented is perhaps too close to ordinary fantasy tropes, considering the setting possibilities. This may have been a conscious choice, to help ease in players and GMs used to more traditional stuff, but still, I would have liked to see some more weird, creepy and fantastic elements here. The book does have them, of course, and some are really nice… and of course, adding stuff like that is a good option for expansion books.

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Minireview: Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor (Monsters and Other Childish Things)

Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor, written by Benjamin Baugh, is based on “Monsters and Other Childish Things”. It’s not really an expansion book as such, more a standalone campaign/setting which uses a tweaked version of the Monsters rules. Where Monsters has you play children with monster friends, here the PCs are all orphan children, sent to the dismal Candlewick orphanage. There is also something strange and disturbing about all of the (PC) children, so instead of external monsters we have internal ones. Well, mostly internal, the setting also features quite a few external ones…

It’s a crazy quilt of all sorts of Tim Burton movies, the “Series of Unfortunate Events” books, and various other such sources. The town of Candlewick just oozes Burton-style weird details, and also contains secrets galore. One of the main goals of the PCs is to figure out who and what they are, and figure out details about their past. The players don’t know these details at character creation, instead the GM slowly figures them out and makes them parts of the plot. As for the game itself, the plots depend a lot on the player group and GM. but the default assumption is to highlight the alienation of (very!) weird kids in a remote and insular seaside town, possible bullying from other more “normal” kids, and Scooby Doo -style adventures, with a dark twist. And of course, they are all orphans… or are they?

It’s a brilliant game. It takes a great game foundation from Monsters and does something quite different with it. This is pretty much “A Series of Unfortunate Events, the RPG”… or it can be. It can also be lots of other things, assuming the GM likes the semi-Gothic setting presented here. The book contains a ton of background info about the town and the inhabitants, most of which have dark secrets of their own. Each inhabitant is a walking plot hook, and there are plenty of other plot hooks to draw from, too. Highly recommended.

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Minireview: Rasputin Must Die! (Pathfinder "Reign of Winter" 5/6)

I have to admit, I’ve found the “Reign of Winter” adventure path to be much better than I’ve expected. It’s dimension-hopping fun, and while it gets more than a bit gonzo at times, the action varies quite a bit and there are lots of options to choose how to approach problems. As for that gonzo portion: in this installment Rasputin Must Die!: the PCs need to face against the mad monk Rasputin, on our Earth in the year 1918. Of course, since this is a fantasy campaign, here Rasputin has real magic powers and is holding the fabled Baba Yaga prisoner. Also, since it is our Earth, this gives the GM and the players a chance to pit fireballs against Russian tanks and machine guns. It sounds like it shouldn’t work at all, but somehow it does: it’s well-written, the action flows smoothly, and it takes the unusual setting assumptions here and runs with it. Quite impressive, really.

I’m sure some people will hate this adventure for mixing bits of real history with D&D, but I really like the result here, especially since I was expecting this to fail.

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Minireview: Wardens of the Reborn Forge (Pathfinder)

Wardens of the Reborn Forge has a promising initial premise, featuring a steampunk(ish) environment and a plot which has mechanical constructs going off their programming (and some handy PCs to fix things, of course). Unfortunately, the execution falls far from the potential, the resulting adventure is surprisingly generic and mostly only has the steampunk elements as window-dressing. The main bulk of the module is one big dungeon crawl, filled with combat but very little else. Very limited social interactions, and even the introduction of firearms in a fantasy setting doesn’t do much here.

Sure, the environment itself is quite interesting, and some of the creatures are unique to this module. A player group who really loves combat will probably like this. Others may want to avoid; while this isn’t actively bad, it is very generic.

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