Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: The Thousand Thrones (Warhammer 2e)

The Thousand Thrones is one of the last products released for the WHFRP 2e game line, and it’s a very ambitious offering: a grand campaign, taking PCs from beginning characters to (very) experienced, providing they survive. An obvious influence is the old “Enemy Within” campaign, as far as scope goes (the plot is quite different here). Unfortunately, while there’s a lot of good here, it’s a bit of a mess as a whole, and would need quite a bit of GM prep and reworking to actually run.

The core plot is quite interesting, both the parts which the players initially run into and the (much, much more complicated) background story. It seems that a young child has been identified with the sign of Sigmar, and is being hailed by the people as Sigmar reborn. The official church is a lot less thrilled, as as multiple other parties. The PC are sent (via various alternate initial hooks) to investigate, or perhaps even assassinate, this miracle child. What happens when they actually encounter the “Crusade of the Child” makes for a convoluted story, as does the “and what happened then” bit.

The main problem here is in the execution. Written by different authors, the nine scenarios which form the campaign have very different tones and writing styles, and do not easily form a coherent whole. There are odd bits of humor in places where it’s not too appropriate, and some events just don’t make any sense when compared to what has happened before (or even as stand-alone events). I found myself going “huh?” in some places, where the PCs are suddenly expected to do X… and I could not figure out why they would do that. In many other places, the PCs are expected to do one specific thing, and that only, with heavy railroading suggested if they do not comply.

Of course, keeping a big campaign “on track” is always difficult, and some amount of lightweight railroading is sometimes needed. However, I felt that this campaign would be especially hard to keep on track, since it’s such a convoluted affair and the PCs are expected to follow a very certain path – one they are almost certain to stray from, quite soon. There’s also the problem of the campaign hinging on one small child, if he gets killed then everything grinds to a halt. None of these issues are dealbreakers, but they do mean that this would probably be a very difficult campaign to run.

On a more positive note, there’s a lot to like here. As noted, the main plot is quite cool and there are lots of twists and turns. The PCs have plenty of dark secrets to uncover, and most things are not what they seem (and also, as a nice twist, many of the obvious first guesses by experienced players on “what’s actually going on?” would be wrong as well). A chaos cult is not behind every suspicious event. Some of the individual adventures are very well done, and all have at least some redeeming qualities. The artwork is nice, and the maps are especially nice. Lots of player handouts are provided.

One small extra niggle, though: the font used here is ridiculously small. This is a huge campaign, which has been crammed into a mid-size page could by squeezing things much too tightly. A new version, with more normal font (and bigger page count) would be nice. A new version with a couple of extra editing runs and a bunch of playtest-based tweaks would be even nicer.

Ultimately, it fails to be the milestone campaign it aims to be – but I can’t fault a book too much for having a bit too much ambition. There’s a great campaign here, provided the GM puts in quite a bit of extra work in customizing the thing and removing the “wait, what?” bits. There are also some lethality issues, I have a hard time visualizing any PC group surviving this from beginning to end.

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Minireview: Down the Rabbit Hole, by Juan Pablo Villalobos

Down the Rabbit Hole is a quirky, tragicomic tale, as told by a 7-year-old… who also happens to be the pampered and only child of a Mexican drug lord. It’s the story of a very strange and lonely childhood, where people getting shot is a normal occurrence, the only women around are either prostitutes or domestic help, and where you can get anything you want – except a normal childhood and play with other children. Tochtli, the boy in question, lives in a palatial mansion where his father indulges most of his whims (when he has time for it, from his gangsterly duties). Tochtli loves samurai stuff, so he gets that. Tochtli loves hats, so he now has a huge collection and choosing which hat to wear is an important decision. And now Tochtli has decided that he wants a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus for his private zoo.

Tochtli is an interesting viewpoint character. He’s smart, but he’s also a child and has been raised in very strange circumstances. His viewpoints are often amoral (to say the least), but he’s no monster, he is just a (pampered) precocious child.

Clocking in at less than 100 pages, it’s a very short book, but perhaps effective partly because of the compact form; there is no filler here. It veers between sadness and (black) comedy, and leaves the reader feeling more than a bit sorry for poor little Tochtli, despite his faults.

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Minireview: Herald of the Ivory Labyrinth (Pathfinder "Wrath of the Righteous" 5/6)

Here, in Herald of the Ivory Labyrinth, the “Wrath of the Righteous” adventure path winds up for the finish, with a side quest – but a fairly cool one, in which a goddess asks the PCs for help in raiding a demon lord’s realm and rescuing (or destroying) a corrupt Herald of hers. It’s extremely high-power stuff, as befits the “mythic” theme of this adventure path.

While it’s more combat-heavy than I prefer (hey, it’s a raid on a demon lord), it’s still nicely freeform in places and the PCs get a lot of freedom in how they approach the problem; anything from direct attack to sneaky attack can work, but both need solid tactics. There’s also the option of gaining allies (of sorts) within the “prison” where the Herald is being kept, so it’s not necessarily all combat. The setting is nicely weird, and there are some unexpected bits here and there. While as a whole it’s a side quest from the main plot, it’s a nice warm-up for the upcoming finale.

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Minireview: Leviathan Wakes, by James S.A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes is the first book in James S.A. Corey’s “The Expanse” series, and it’s quite something. Corey is a pen name of writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, and the book/collaboration started out as a world background initially meant for a massively multiplayer online game. So a collaboration between two somewhat unknown authors, and a premise originally meant for a computer game? Not a promising start. However, the end result manages to be one of the most kick-ass space opera / adventure books in a good long while. It’s one of those really-hard-to-put-down books, and may very well have you reading way past your bedtime. You have been warned.

The plot consists of two initially unrelated storylines. In one, Jim Holden, XO on a ramshackle ice freighter, survives the destruction of his ship by an unknown stealth ship. Together with a few other survivors, he embarks on a quest to survive (first) and to bring the guilty parties to justice (later). Meanwhile, a partly down-and-out police detective on Ceres starts searching for a missing person, one Juliette Mao, a rich kid gone awol. Ultimately, both storylines converge towards a massive conspiracy threatening the whole solar system.

It’s great stuff. The characters are fun and while not spotless heroes, not dystopian antiheroes either. Jim Holden is the closest the book has to a true “hero” (along with his remaining crew), but all of them have their blind spots and bits of darkness. Miller, the detective, is more of a classic “disillusioned cop” case, but he works fine as a driving force in one of the investigations. As “space opera”, it starts out without anything too outlandish, no FTL drives or other totally impossible stuff. The solar system is colonized, but distances are still vast and travel takes time (though I think less than it realistically would). Near the end, things get a bit wild, but I won’t spoil that part. Politics play an essential part here, with the tensions between Earth, Mars and the outer planets constantly simmering on the edge of war. When the book starts, the situation is a bit of a powder keg; nobody actively wants a war, but it would not take much to nudge the powers towards one. And in walks Jim Holden…

Very warmly recommended. This is one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in a good long while. It’s also something quite refreshing: a no-nonsense, straightforward adventure tale, with enough plot twists to keep the reader guessing.

The series is currently being adapted for TV by SyFy. I’m cautiously optimistic, based on the trailers so far (though they’ve changed things quite a bit from the books).

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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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