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Minireview: Shades of Empire (Warhammer 2e)

One of the last books published for the Warhammer Fantasy 2nd edition line, Shades of Empire is a compendium of various organizations of the Old World, including some new careers (and plot lines) connected to these groups. It’s a nice set, covering all sort of groups and organizations, ranging from fairly open and well-known ones to secret societies and cults. I can see this one getting quite a bit of use in a Warhammer 2e game, since a ready-made organization can be a huge boon for GMs while prepping the next game.

Perhaps the best known groups detailed here are the Roadwardens and the Imperial Navy, while others (the Hedgefolk, the Knights of Magritta, the Quinsberry Lodge etc) prefer to keep to the shadows. Then there’s the Glorious Revolution of the People, which is pretty much what it sounds like, and a sure recipe for violent hilarity when it collides with the entrenched feudal system of the Old World.

Nice sourcebook, and of course the groups listed here aren’t limited to 2nd edition, they should be just as useful in a 1e or 3e game (with some stat conversion for NPCs, of course).

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Minireview: Caliban's War, by James S.A. Corey

Caliban’s War is the second book in James Corey’s (pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) “The Expanse” series, and it doesn’t slow down a bit from the pace of the first book – and is just as dangerous for causing sleep deprivation. The plot continues from where the first book ended, with some new people getting introduced. On Ganymede, Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Draper is witness to her whole squad getting wiped out by some sort of “supersoldier”, while in the halls of power (U.N.) Chrisjen Avasarala, and elderly politician with a foul mouth and quick temper, tries to figure out what the hell is going on. There’s also Prax Meng, a scientist on Ganymede, whose daughter has been abducted by parties unknown, perhaps involved in the recent violence.

…and then of course there’s James Holden and the merry crew of the Rocinante, now loosely allied with the Outer Planets Alliance. They get swept into the events, and (predictably) all hell breaks loose. Oh, and there’s also the alien “protomolecule” building who-knows-what on Venus, which makes pretty much everyone very nervous. Not that they weren’t already.

Like the first book, it’s tightly plotted and written in page-turner fashion. It’s almost an exhausting read, but in a good way. The plot twists keep on coming, and things escalate in a logical but still surprising fashion. Avasarala is a fun character, and provides a new viewpoint character for the series. Bobbie, the U.N. marine, is also a nicely nuanced character. Sure, some of the bad guys are almost cartoonishly evil, but it works here – their motivations (power, money) are classic but mostly believable.

A great read. While it is largely a self-contained tale which does (mostly) wrap up within this book, this book should be read as part of a series and after reading Leviathan Wakes, otherwise you’ll miss out on lots of details and character development.

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Minireview: Songs of the Sun and Moon (Werewolf: the Apocalypse)

Songs of the Sun and Moon is a byproduct of the “W20 Changing Breeds” Kickstarter, and like the other similar anthologies from other Onyx Path Kickstarters, it’s quite good. Perhaps surprisingly so, considering the “classic” quality of White Wolf fiction, which is… not that hot. Here, we get seven short stories about the “Fera”, the other (non-wolf) shapechangers in the (Classic) World of Darkness.

All of the stories are at least decent, with some being quite good. They focus on different types of Fera, and cover most of them (though not all, especially the ancient vanished tribes). Some are somewhat lighthearted (like Eddy Webb’s Nuwisha story), while others are much more grim (Matthew McFarland’s “The Sin of Sharks”, for instance).

A good, entertaining read, if a quick one. Works even if you aren’t familiar with the Fera (I read it before reading the actual “Changing Breeds” sourcebook), but probably works better with more background info.

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Minireview: Hillfolk, Blood on the Snow

Hillfolk, a game by the esteemed Robin D. Laws, is the product of a Kickstarter that got quite a bit of support; the originally pitched 128 page book with iron age clans + narrative rule system ended up as two books of twice that size: “Hillfolk”, which is the core game plus a big bunch of extra settings, and “Blood on the Snow”, which is billed as a “Dramasystem” companion and contains some rules discussion and tweaks, plus an additional big pile of settings.

The core of the game is the “Dramasystem” rule system, which is a highly narrative rules framework meant for playing socially-oriented games. Quite different from traditional rules systems, it focuses on dramatic moments in the story and runs on a Drama Point economy. Someone has described it as “a slightly more crunchy version of Fiasco”, and based on reading it I cannot disagree. It sounds interesting, but actual play (which I haven’t tried) is where the rubber meets the road. Fiasco works beautifully in what it sets out to do, so this one may also result in great games. I suspect it depends a lot on the players, and on them being on the same page. Like most narrative-heavy game systems, this would probably collapse if treated with an overly “gamist” approach and minmaxing. In any case, it’s a fairly lightweight and interesting system for running drama-based, social rpgs.

To this game system one plugs a game settings, here called a “series pitch” – one more nod towards the aim of dramatic stories, in the same sense as good TV series are. The default series pitch is a tribe of “hillfolk”, primitive hunter-gatherers who try to survive. It’s more actual history than fantasy, there are no magical elements here (primitive religion and superstition may exist, but they have no “reality” behind them). It’s decent, but maybe not something I’d run myself… which is not a problem since the book contains a whopping 30 extra series pitches, with genres all over the place. There are Cthulhu cultists, scifi settings, traditional fantasy, ninjas, pirates, and all sorts of fun stuff. In this sense also I get a small Fiasco feel from this; a simple core rules system which is plugged into a game/setting document.

Blood on the Snow is a companion book to Hillfolk, and features such things as LARP rules, discussion on rules tweaking and how to fine-tune the system, and (of course) an extra set of series pitches. Between these and the ones in the core book, I’m pretty sure there’s something for everyone – and you can always plug the Dramasystem machine into your own setting, it’s quite simple.

Overall, it’s a non-traditional and interesting narrative game framework + huge pile of game settings. The production values are great and it’s a good read, but as to how well it works in practice… well, that would require a playtest or two.

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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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