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Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: Of Predators and Prey

Of Predators and Prey is an anthology of stories (edited by Justin Achilli) based on the new “The Hunters Hunted II” book for Vampire: the Masquerade; in fact, it was one of the Kickstarter stretch goals. Despite being a “secondary” artifact of a roleplaying source book, this is a pretty good collection of stories and I enjoyed it quite a lot. Not every story is a gem, but there’s a lot more good than there is bad or mediocre here, some of the stories offer quite clever twists on the basic “vampires versus vampire hunters” theme.

While this is connected to the V:tM roleplaying game, I think this would work quite well for readers not familiar with the game, also. No game terminology is used, and the internal world of the vampires is kept quite mysterious since this book focuses on the “mortals” (who, more often than not, have no idea they are in over their heads).

Good lightweight entertainment, especially for readers who know and like the game. Of course, “lightweight” does not mean “bright and happy” here, some of the tales told here are very bleak.

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Minireview: Beyond the Rim (Edge of the Empire)

Beyond the Rim is the first dedicated adventure/campaign book for Edge of the Empire, featuring an exploration theme “beyond the rim”, as per the title. I don’t want to spoil the plot here, not the least because I intend to run this for my player group, but in general terms it concerns the hunt for a long-lost Separatist “treasure ship”. Someone has finally gotten hold of a solid lead on where the ship vanished to, ages ago, and the PCs are sent (or coerced) to find it. Of course, things aren’t all that simple, and the action involves more than one planet.

I liked it. It gives PCs a chance to really use their astrogation and piloting skills, it gives exploration-oriented characters a lot to do, the new settings are fun, and there is a wide variety of things to do in general. Sure, there are combat encounters, but also lots of exploration, social encounters and general investigation. The NPCs are detailed and varied enough to be interesting, with multiple possible hooks on how to involve the PCs. While the main plot is fairly linear, there’s a lot of leeway and many sections will probably become quite freeform in practice. There are bits here and there which I’ll probably tweak a bit when running this myself, but that applies to most published modules.

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Minireview: Edge of the Empire

Edge of the Empire is the first core book in Fantasy Flight Game’s new Star Wars roleplaying game line. The ruleset is an adaptation of the Warhammer Fantasy 3rd edition rules, including a set of custom dice. It’s a dice pool system, and it’s a damn good one; the dice have a set of game-specific symbols on them instead of numbers, and in addition to fail/success state it also provides lots of other information on one roll: additional positive or negative consequences (regardless or fail/success), and information about where the success/failure of the roll came from – was it due to skill, natural talent, environmental effects, or just plain luck? I loved this system in WHFRP 3e, and I love it here. Skipping the dice system, the mechanics are fairly lightweight and quick to learn. Characters do not have “levels”, but they do have “character classes” of a sort – but those classes (Careers/Specializations) do not act as hard barriers to anything, so character options are quite open. A “Smuggler” may well later become a skilled negotiator and politician, for example.

The game itself focuses on the edges of Galactic civilization, the “rough edges”. So more Tatooine and “hives of scum and villainy”, less Coruscant and jedi lightsabers. In fact, Jedis are noticeably absent here, which makes sense since the game is set in the time between the first Star Wars film and Empire Strikes Back; Jedis are dead or deep in hiding. There is a low-level Force option, “Force-sensitive Exile”, which allows characters to attain some Force powers without going all Jedi on everyone. The design goal is quite specifically Han Solo -type characters, doing semi-legal or illegal things in the Outer Rim. The next game in the line is Age of Rebellion (which focuses on the Empire-Rebel war), and the third game is Force & Destiny which (presumably) gives us full Jedi options. In a way, it’s a mirror of FFG’s WH40k game line, where the first game was the low-power Dark Heresy, and the later game lines introduced more powerful characters. I think it’s a reasonable model for splitting a game world into thematic slices, trying to cram the whole Star Wars universe and all the possible game themes into one game book might have lost all possible focus. Even now, the Edge of the Empire core book is quite a hefty tome.

As far as I know, the various game lines here will be drop-in compatible with each other. They all have some small tweaks to help focus the game in the default themes: here, we have Obligation, a mechanism for dealing with character tie-ins to various background forces. In Age of Rebellion, this becomes Duty (with similar but not identical aims).

Overall, I’m very happy with this book, and based on one beginning test game, the system seems to work well. It seems to be a well-designed game, and I’m looking forward to the expansion and other core books. Of course, it’s not all fun and sunshine, and it’s not a perfect tome. The writing style is… functional, but not very inspirational. That’s to say, it’s a pretty dry read, good thing that the Star Wars universe itself is quite colorful. Also, while the organization of the book is overall pretty good, many of the mechanisms are explained in an overly complicated way. I’m pretty sure that the page count could have been dropped significantly in some spots, while at the same time providing more clarity. The system is actually quite simple, it’s just made to feel more complicated than it is, here and there. Also, I would really have liked to see clear pictures of all the available spacecraft, instead of a random few. Many ships are not pictured at all, so unless the Internet can provide an image for you, you’re out of luck while describing some ships to the players. The art is quite good, overall, like in most other FFG products.

To me, the game mechanics strike a nice balance between the narrative and the exactly-defined. The dice pool and associated system gives me a nice resolution system that is not just binary, but the rules themselves are very flexible with regards to timing, distance and other factors. Many things are assumed to happen “at the speed of plot”, which suits the Star Wars universe just fine.

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Minireview: The Witch Queen's Revenge (Pathfinder "Reign of Winter" 6/6)

The Witch Queen’s Revenge brings the “Reign of Winter” adventure path to a close, and it’s not a bad ending to a (surprisingly!) good adventure path; while it doesn’t rise to the heights of the previous Rasputin-themed one, it’s still a solid ending. Having rescued Baba Yaga, the PCs still need to actually free her. This requires delving into the intricate pocket dimensions hidden inside the Tardis… err, hut, where Baba Yaga has hidden some failsafes to guard against worst cases like this.

On the downside, it’s very linear and much too much of a combat-fest to my liking. On the other hand, the pocket dimensions are interesting, and the inhabitants can (and probably should) be tweaked to be less auto-attacking monsters and more role-playing challenges. And, of course, there’s the end question: given that the PCs succeed in freeing Baba Yaga, what then? While it may (or may not) end the current crisis, she is still a vastly powerful and evil-tending being. The PCs will need to tread carefully here.

Overall, I enjoyed “Reign of Winter” a lot more than I thought I would. It’s by far the most “gonzo” adventure path Paizo has published so far, but it holds together quite nicely and the individual episodes are mostly very good – the usual D&D problem of “too much combat” does crop up, of course, but that’s game conventions for you. The “PCs visit Earth in historic times and fight Rasputin and Russian infantry” thing should have fallen flat on its face, given the somewhat crazy premise, but somehow it pulls things off in style. This is one of the better adventure paths Paizo has produced, so far.

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Minireview: Tongues of Serpents, by Naomi Novik

Tongues of Serpents is the sixth book in Novik’s “Temeraire” series, and it’s very much a transition piece. The previous book, “Victory of Eagles”, wrapped up most of the earlier major storylines, and saw Lawrence & Temeraire get exiled to Australia – a better fate than getting executed as traitors, but an ignoble one nevertheless.

Once they arrive after an uneasy sea voyage, they find the prison colony of New South Wales in turmoil; the previous governor has been overthrown and the political situation is unstable, to say the least. To escape, Lawrence and Temeraire enlist on a surveying expedition, which quickly becomes a rescue mission once a dragon egg gets stolen. The bulk of the book deals with the search & rescue expedition, and the discoveries hidden in the depths of the Australian desert.

While there are lots of potentially great story elements here, it doesn’t really come together. The sense of urgency and great impending events is gone here, and I got the feeling that the author herself was slightly at a loss of where to take the story next, other than “lets fly around alter-history Australia a bit”. It is, quite frankly, a fairly dull book, and adds very little to the main plotline. There are nice bits here and there, but nice bits do not a good book make if the main bulk is meandering and repetitive.

Meh.

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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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