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Minireview: Blood of Martyrs (Dark Heresy)

Blood of Martyrs is a religion sourcebook for Dark Heresy. Of course, since this is Warhammer 40k, this means talk of the One True Religion (worship of the Emperor), with all else being heresy. On the other hand, having One True Faith typically means that you’ll have lots of factions, cults and interpretations of that faith… and that’s where this book steps in.

We get a lot of detail on the internal workings of the Ecclesiarchy, including details on many notable and/or important NPCs, all of which is great stuff for players of church-oriented characters, especially in campaigns featuring internal schisms and political intrigue. The church of the God-Emperor of Mankind is a vast and fairly fragmented construct, even though it tries to maintain a unified official front for the masses. Historical corollaries can be drawn with the Catholic Church in medieval and later times in Europe: religion is politics and vice versa.

Additionally, the book contains multiple new options for Adepta Sororitas characters. In addition to the basic “Sister of Battle” template given in the Inquisitor’s Handbook, we now get interesting variants into other directions: Sisters specializing in social and genetic control (shades of Bene Gesserit here), and others specializing in information gathering. Not to mention specialized healer/medic options.

Also included are a bunch of new church-oriented career paths. Confessors, Drill Abbots, Witch Finders, etc. Should be useful in creating religious PCs, should the options given in the core book seem limited. All in all, it’s a nice package of church and religion -oriented background information in the Warhammer 40k world, and as always the production values are top notch.

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Minireview: Edge of the Abyss (Rogue Trader)

Edge of the Abyss is a fairly thin but content-filled sourcebook for Rogue Trader. The initial portion is perhaps the best: you first get a bunch of ingame rumors and reports, purely as an idea source for plots and moods. This is followed by a big chapter detailing various random worlds and places in the Koronus Expanse, suitable for throwing at the PCs. Some are straight-out hostile, some are just weird, but pretty much all are interesting. Each place has a general description and then some plot hooks and ideas which could be used to incorporate these into the game. Most descriptions also contain vague references to possible lurking events, so the GM can easily add more detail and horror elements (since most of these details are on the horrific side) if needed.

Next up is a section with basic details on several alien races. Along with the standard Orcs, Eldar and such, this section also introduces a few new ones: the militaristic and Tyrranid-like Rak’Gol and the trader-oriented Stryxis. Neither fill any vital gap, but they are both useful enough, especially if the GM wants to throw something new at players familiar with the base game world and the “standard” xeno races.

After this there is a section on Chaos antagonists, followed by a list of famous Rogue Traders. Both contain good info, especially the Rogue Trader list – it’s handy to have a bunch of detailed major NPCs available. The book ends with a scenario, which is fairly decent: the PCs shuttle down to a planet to check out a dig site for archeological artifacts, and (surprise!) things turn nasty. It’s nicely freeform in most places and has stuff to do for lots of different character types.

Not much to complain about here, it’s a grab-bag of various bits and pieces to help a GM flesh out his game, it’s well written and the there should be something interesting for everyone here. I could quibble a bit about the price, it’s a pretty thin book with a (comparatively) not-that-thin price tag. Also, this is not a core book in any way; while it contains fun plot and locale ideas and examples, there is nothing essential presented here.

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Minireview: Ascension (Dark Heresy)

When the Dark Heresy game came out, a major complaint was the power level. Some people had been expecting to be able to play Inquisitors in the manner of Eisenhorn or others, and instead got to play “Acolytes”, assistants and staff to an (NPC) Inquisitor. I didn’t mind that at all, I liked the relatively low power level of Dark Heresy and the “Cthulhu in Space” vibe, but that doesn’t change the core argument: DH does not give you tools to play Inquisitors.

Ascension attempts to rectify that. It’s an expansion book for the base Dark Heresy game (and requires that book for the actual rules), expanding the rule coverage to higher ranks and providing higher-level career paths (yes, including Inquisitor). There is some attempt to streamline the system (like Rogue Trader does); many skills now have a higher-level version which replaces the base version and covers much broader ground, in effect combining multiple lower-level skills into one. It’s a good start, though the system does look like it can get a bit cluttered with all the piled-on stuff – Rogue Trader seems a bit cleaner, since it’s built from the ground up to support higher-level play. People have reported that Ascension characters can be a bit hard to keep track of. However, the book has also been reported to provide what it says on the tin: higher-level Inquisitorial play.

Since Inquisitors in the WH40k universe tend to operate largely on their own, a group consisting of all Inquisitors isn’t too believable – so the book does not even attempt to cover that. Instead it suggests a model where one of the players plays an Inquisitor and the others play high-power comrades and associates of the Inquisitor. If that doesn’t work because of player chemistry (“why does X get to be the Inquisitor!”), the book also suggests keeping the actual Inquisitor as an NPC and just giving the PCs much freer rein to reflect their status as high-rank Throne Agents. Of course, that also means “more rope to hang themselves with”.

It looks like a good supplement to expand the game into higher ranks of play. Some parts do seem a small bit cumbersome despite the rules streamlining, but it’s hard to say without actual play. As normal for FFG WH40k books, the production values are excellent and the book is packed with fun new career paths, equipment, antagonists and suchlike.

This should also work for people wanting to include a few Throne Agents in their Rogue Trader game, since the power levels are roughly equivalent. The books gives both “bottom-up” character design (to advance Dark Heresy characeters to this) and a “top-down” design which can be used to directly create Ascension characters. Nice touch.

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Minireview: Eisenhorn, by Dan Abnett

Game fiction is not something that generally inspires visions of quality, or even basic competence. For every decent-to-good book, there are probably hundreds of abominations that, to quote someone, should not be taken lightly… they should be hurled across the room with great force. Sure, good game fiction does exist. The Over the Edge novel Pierced Heart was pretty good, as was the Unknown Armies book Godwalker. The game Delta Green is also know for excellent fiction, as is Cthulhu in general. However, the amount of crap is still overwhelming; most of the World of Darkness stuff is mostly fit to be used as campfire fodder, and the less said about D&D books the better.

Sure, I’ve been know to read some game novels with no expectations of literary value, just to get some ideas for game plots and some basic feel for how the game world operates. Exalted fiction goes into this category; while none of the books are all that great as such (and a few are quite crappy), they do tend to be fun and fast reading and they do give you nice snapshots into the game world. Same for some World of Darkness stuff – the “Clan Novel” series for Vampire was horrible gibberish (with a few rare good moments), but it did give some fun illumination about the metaplot and I read it pretty much purely for that.

Anyway, I’m now running a small-scale Dark Heresy game, with game world info based purely on what I’ve read from the roleplay books (which do have lots of very decent information, admittedly). I’ve also heard that some of the Warhammer 40k fiction is actually quite decent, and that Dan Abnett is probably the best author in that genre. So I went out and bought the Eisenhorn Omnibus, a huge brick of a book which collects the linked novels Xenos, Malleus and Hereticus, with two additional short stories as links between the books.

Verdict? It was actually pretty good. Purely as a science fiction book, I’d rate it decent; the writing is competent but only that, and a bit too much time is sometimes spent in describing the exact weapons and armor the different characters are using (some portions feel a bit “gamish”). However, the plot is quite interesting and provides lots of twists and turns, along with a few real surprises. Bonus points go to the locale descriptions, some of the action here takes place in extremely inventive and weird locations. In short, a quite readable action romp into a weird far-future world. It’s told in first-person mode, which I liked but others might not.

As gaming fiction, this is quite excellent, ranking alongside the Delta Green books (and a few others) as among the best in that genre that I’ve read. I’m actually considering reading some other books from the same author (the Ravenor series, maybe). Also, it provided me with lots of world color and things that I didn’t get from the roleplay source material, which is a nice bonus. Of course, this is one author’s take on the 40k universe… but that’s always the case.

In Dark Heresy terms, the PCs would be Eisenhorn’s retinue of staff, his assistants. Looking at the survival rate of those… well, at least life is interesting (if short).

The books tell the story of one Gregor Eisenhorn, an Inquisitor of Ordo Xenos, tasked with rooting out vile alien corruption in the Empire. In the beginning he is a self-described puritan and hardliner, with little understanding or sympathy for the “radical” factions, those that try to compromise and possibly use alien and/or heretical means to fight those same factions. Fight after desperate fight, while members of his retinue die around him, he survives to slowly change his view on what is justifiable and what is not. Linked to Gregor’s destiny is an alien being calling itself Cherubael; probably a demon, it has plans of its own and Eisenhorn is somehow entwined in how events are meant to play out. Of course, a willful Inquisitor is not an easy chess piece to manipulate, and the hunter can easily become the hunted.

It’s a huge book, both in page count and in scope. The time span involved is around 300 years and the tone changes all the time. At times almost military science fiction, at times detective story, at times scenes of almost domestic tranquility, it shows that Inquisitors are complex people, surrounded by a staff of equally complex (and usually competent) people. It’s mostly a dark and grim affair, but there are touches of humor here and there, and near the end it almost verges on superhuman antics; the hero casually swats aside bullets with a sword, for example. It’s no ordinary sword to be sure, but still… like the whole 40k game world, it’s a strange mix of grim & gritty and overblown & campy. Mostly, I liked it, quite a bit.

The only problem here is that I’ve been given to understand that this book (or this omnibus collection) represents the best of the 40k fiction, so I’m not likely to encounter anything better later on. On the other hand, I’m quite happy with just something “as good”.

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Minireview: Dead Stars (Dark Heresy)

Dead Stars is the third and final book in the Dark Heresy adventure trilogy “Haarlock’s Legacy”. I’ve written before about how much I liked the first two books; in fact, I’m currently running a small campaign that will lead up to those (assuming we get that far). They are well-written, nicely organized and have an extremely good mix of intrigue, action and horror elements. Despite their somewhat limited page count, they manage to contain a lot of tips on running the campaign, including notes on general theme and mood. As an additional bonus, the adventure in Disciples of the Dark Gods (“The House of Dust and Ash”) is an (optional) initial part of this scenario sequence – I intend to use it as such, myself.

So, now we have the final book. I’m glad to report that it’s quite excellent, but will probably leave some people unsatisfied (I’m not among those people). The book does not contain stats for Haarlock, it does not reveal the secret of the Tyrant Star, and in general some Big Mysteries are left as such. I think that’s fine. Haarlock himself is more a plot device than a real antagonist here, due to certain unfolding plot details I don’t want to spoil – and the writers have always avoided tying themselves into any one explanation for the Tyrant Star.

Despite some “plot device” NPCs, the PCs are in very real control here, and have actual power. In the end, they are forced to make some very difficult decisions, which will have significant effect on the whole Sector. The “how and why” of that is a big part of this module, and I’ll try not to spoil that here.

The initial action centers on the forbidden world of Mara, and an abandoned Ice Station there. It’s a very creepy locale; there is a strong “haunted house” mood. The PCs are far from the only ones gunning for the same target, so this thing could get very deadly, fast. From Mara, the PCs go… somewhere else. Many somewheres. Here is where I’ll use the “no spoilers” card and just shut up on detail… except to say that the endgame takes place on an infamous Death World, where the PCs will have the chance to decide the fate of worlds. Not making a choice is also a choice, in itself.

I really like the organization and production values in these books. There is a lot of GM help provided, information is clearly laid out, and in general this reads like something that should be a lot of fun to run. I’ll see about that in practice myself, later. The level of detail is less than in most D&D -style scenarios; many places aren’t mapped at all, and lots of things are described as loose scenes that the GM knits together. I’m fine with that, I’m used to thinking of games that way, but it might be a bit jarring to someone who is used to having all information pre-digested for him. The GM will need to do some prepwork here, but it’s more along the lines of “add some detail here and there” than any number crunching or creature statting; that stuff is included and nicely organized.

I remain quite impressed with this adventure trilogy.

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It’s been a semi-hectic few weeks. Oh, fun, and almost all of the “hectic” part has been due to various hobbies and stuff like that. Still, I’m left feeling a slight bit frazzled and thankful that this week looks more sane. Maybe I’ll just get time to curl up with a book, or something..

The weekend before was spent mostly in the forest, at a paintball war weekend organized by a friend. Good fun and nice exercise, and some of the scenarios were especially cool (notably the VIP escort one, where I was gunned down by “terrorists” but the VIP survived by doing an very fast “duck and cover”). Extra thanks to the cooks on site, the food was delicious and there was tons of it.

This weekend was also full of stuff: on Saturday I ran the Battle Lines storyline VTES tournament in Otaniemi. We has 16 players and the win went to Aleksi Nuora with his True Brujah deck. Nice work. I’ll post a short tournament report about that in the newsgroup soonish. Yesterday I ran Exalted for most of the day, which is always fun but also pretty exhausting. The previous week went into a combo of game prep, toying with the new “Planetary Interaction” thingy in EVE, the Roxy Music concert on Thursday, and just… stuff.

I’m slowly gearing up to run a limited Dark Heresy campaign, based on the fairly interesting Haarlock’s Legacy pregen campaign series. Character generation is next week, after that we’ll see what happens to mutants, aliens and other Enemies of the Empire. It’s possible that all that happens is “they get nice things to snack on”.

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Minireview: The Radical's Handbook (Dark Heresy)

The Radical’s Handbook is an expansion for FFG’s Dark Heresy (Warhammer 40k) game, detailing various “radical” factions within the Inquisition. Some of these are still (barely) within the accepted limits and can be followed openly (though not without risk), while others go outside that zone – some are a direct express train to excommunication and execution if discovered.

Organization-wise, it’s fairly straightforward. We’re given details on a number of Radical factions, with notes on their beliefs, organization, goals, views and some notable NPCs. That is followed by some game crunch, i.e. what game mechanics benefits characters can get from belonging to one of these factions. There is a short chapter on aliens and alien equipment, and some details on other “nonstandard” (and “unsafe”) gear. The book wraps up with a discussion of how to use all this in a game.

It’s a very solid and useful expansion book. While it doesn’t bring anything critical to the game table, the extra options it gives are fun. As the end section details, you can use this stuff in quite a variety of ways. First of all, you can just use this to spice up NPCs and NPC factions; a couple of the factions here are definitely in the “evil bastards” ballpark and the others aren’t exactly “nice guys” either – not that much anyone is, in this game universe. Second, you can use this book to give your PCs extra options. The Inquisitor and the Acolytes might all belong to one of these factions. Or the Inquisitor might be a secret member, and slowly lure his underlings towards a “deviant” path. Or, most risky of all, the Acolytes (PCs) might start to harbor Radical beliefs, even though their boss is still orthodox. And, of course, you might well have a case where different PCs within the same group belong to different Radical orders (though that’s tricky to pull off without things descending into Paranoia mayhem).

The whole thing is quite well-written, and the factions themselves mostly quite interesting and not too one-dimensional. I got the feel that many “crunch” things here up the power level a bit – but on the other hand, membership in any of these factions brings large amounts of risk, so some decent benefit from it all makes sense. Risk vs reward, and all that.

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Minireview: Haarlock's Legacy Part II - Damned Cities (Dark Heresy)

Damned Cities is the second part of the Haarlock’s Legacy trilogy of adventures for the Dark Heresy game. The whole thing is actually slightly more than a trilogy, since the adventure included in the Disciples of the Dark Gods book, “House of Dust and Ash”, is also part of this storyline.

I’ve really liked the first installments of this series. The House of Dust and Ash was great (if deadly), and the first adventure book in the actual trilogy (Tattered Fates) was also high-class. Both of those did share one common flaw (or “feature”, at the least): they had extremely deadly portions to them. Expect PC casualties if you run those without modification. They are also a bit complex, so some amount of GM prep is necessary.

This whole series is somewhat freeform. While the general expectation is that you run either House of Dust and Ash or Tattered Fates as the intro, then the other one of those two as a follow-up, and then this one… nothing forces that sequence. As all of these are standalone scenarios with just some plot lines and themes linking them together, the GM is free to combine them in any form that feels natural, or to add some extra scenarios in between. I like the format, it’s very flexible. The upcoming last part is meant to be played last, however, since it is apparently meant to tie off the storyline.

Damned Cities continues the storyline of the Acolytes (PCs) chasing down the trail of the vanished Rogue Trader, Erasmus Haarlock. Haarlock has killed off most (all?) of his bloodline, and has also left deadly traps all over the sector and apparently organized some sort of grand plan, which is now slowly activating with various countdown times winding down.

This time around, trouble brews in the decaying formerly-grand Imperial city of Sinophia Magna. A series of brutal murders has upset the balance between the local nobility and the powerful criminal gangs, and the whole place is on the verge of sliding into anarchy. Something about the murders has triggered the interest of the Inquisition, and the PCs are sent to investigate. Mayhem, shootouts, insanity and heavy rainfall ensues.

It’s good stuff. While primarily an investigation piece, there is room for lots of action here too. It’s very freeform, almost a sandbox (with rain replacing the sand). The GM is given a host of interesting NCPs and a general timeline, with some helper events to spring on the players in the event that they bog down. It doesn’t feel quite as deadly as the previous installments, but that’s just a gut feel – there’s plenty of danger here. The PCs need to figure out the killer or killers, and the possible tie to Erasmus Haarlock, before things get… interesting. Where “interesting” means “very, very bad”.

Despite the fairly slim page count, the book is nicely organized and a lot of thought has been given to how the GM can best use the material. There are lots of GM helper ideas and events, with discussion on when and if to activate various subplots, and the NPC descriptions are very nice. I also liked the discussion on general themes and motifs for the whole series; the use of clockworks, countdown times and such as symbols, etc.

So far, I’ve liked this series so much I’m almost considering running them myself. Scary, that.

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Minireview: Rogue Trader

When the Dark Heresy game book came out, one of the most common complaints was that the power level was too low; you were playing low-level Acolytes serving a higher-up (Inquisitor). While it seemed fine to me, apparently most of the WH40k fiction has characters with much more power and some people were expecting that. Fair enough.

Rogue Trader is the next game in the line, and it has you playing Rogue Traders (duh). In the 40k world, these are individuals with ancient “warrants of trade” which give them power to do as they please (within limits). In the 40k universe, where most things are static and individuality is usually a sin, this is a big thing. A very big thing. And yes, these guys are much higher on the power scale than Acolytes – your typical Rogue Trader is captain of a huge (and I mean Huge) starship, commanding hundreds if not thousands of crew members and possessing vast wealth.

This has several important implications. First off, in a normal game this means that one player will be playing the Rogue Trader with the others staffing senior crew positions (think “bridge staff on Enterprise” sort of thing). I think that’s a cool feature, but of course does mean that one player is the leader. This may not sit well with all play groups, but it’s not a showstopper; the book suggests several ways of dealing with this situation. First off, the players could all be senior crew members, with the Rogue Trader played by an NPC. Or many of them could be Rogue Traders, sharing the trade warrant and command via some agreement.

Secondly… well, let’s go back to that Star Trek comparison. Star Trek always has the bridge crew rushing off to explore new worlds (and get into trouble). Realistically, that doesn’t make sense, but it does make for fun stories. Rogue Trader expects the same, it expects the PCs to get personal and head all exploration etc. But what if players try to get smart and send their hordes of underlings to do everything? Well, they can do that, but fortunately there are game world elements making that a non-optimal idea. Most importantly, there is reputation: Rogue Traders are all about rep, and someone who sends underlings to do his work tends to get a rep of “coward”… which can be bad. Secondly, the warrant of trade and associated documents actually say that a Rogue Trader has to personally do all sorts of things (claim a ship as salvage, claim a new world, or whatever), otherwise the claim is not valid. And of course there is the fact that many situations require negotiation. Nobody wants to negotiate with a flunky, that’s a sure-fire way to insult people. So… in case your players try to stay safe and use their low-lever crew members to do the important stuff, you have lots of ways of having that backfire on them.

So what’s the game about? It’s sort of like a dark 40k version of Star Trek. Explore strange new worlds, exploit the natives for resources, battle chaos entities (or deal with them for profit), bravely go forth and make a profit. I mention the profit motive here a lot because the game makes it explicit; profit is one of the most important game mechanics for the PCs, as it determines a lot of things. There is a new mechanic of “Endeavours” which is how the PCs generally increase profit, and it’s very nice. Pretty much anything can be made into an Endeavour. The players get the idea of shipping the exquisite wood from planet X to some Imperial hold, to be made into ultra-expensive furniture? Great. Make it an Endeavour. They want to negotiate with Death World natives in order to guarantee a supply of Groot Eggs for resale? Endeavour.

It reads like a lot of fun. I suspect it does need quite proactive players, but otherwise this should be a lot of fun to both run and play. It’s very different from the Dark Heresy game environment, with more room for heroics and player free choice. And let’s not forget that the players are captains of huge floating space cathedrals, with thousands of crew members. Someone else always cleans the floors.

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Minireview: Creatures Anathema (Dark Heresy)

Creatures Anathema is a “monster manual” of sorts for the Dark Heresy game, but it’s far from being just a boring list of stat blocks. In a way it’s a continuation of the earlier Disciples of the Dark Gods book – where that book presented a large group of specific antagonist organizations and individuals, this one lists more general threats (general “monster” types and alien races). What makes it so good is the fact that each entry is shown with in-game “notes” from various parties on how the creature in question is generally viewed, and there are also plot hooks given on each one. All this makes actually using these things in a game much easier than it would be with just a “stats” book, and it also makes for a much more entertaining read.

The creature types are varied and interesting, ranging fron non-intelligent “monsters” to diabolically intelligent major threats. A lot of imagination has gone into most of these (though the “space orcs” still make me cringe a bit).

In sum, yet another quality supplement for Dark Heresy. As always, the production values are excellent, this is one good-looking book. I did spot some typoes and some missing page references, so some small bit of extra editing might have been good… but those are minor issues.

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