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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: Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is, first of all, a very strange name for a role-playing game. The author, James Edward Raggi IV, explains the origin of the name in this interview, in case someone really wants to know. Skipping the (admittedly cool) name, what is it? Well, it’s a “retroclone”, and a very interesting one.

A “retroclone” is a copy of old (first edition) Dungeons & Dragons, with modifications. This is quite legal due to the OGL, though there are various requirements – for example, you cannot use the name “Dungeons & Dragons” anywhere, so games end up using all sorts of stuff like “compatible with version X of the world’s most popular role-playing game” and such. But the legal side skips the important issue of “why?”. Why take an ancient game engine, with lots of weird design when compared to modern stuff, and use that as a basis for anything? I can see two reasons. One, there’s the nostalgia factor; lots of (older) people started off with 1st edition Dungeons and Dragons and still have fond memories of that. Second is compatibility; while the engine is old, it’s also quite simple and easy to tweak, and there’s a ton of material that is easy to convert for it.

So we’re left with “why one more retroclone, don’t we already have lots of them?”. I’m glad to answer that with “because this version goes in somewhat different directions compared to the original game”. LotFP terms itself “weird fantasy roleplaying”, and quotes authors like Howard and Lovecraft. The intent is to go in the old “sword & sorcery” direction, where magic is dangerous and erratic and not all tales have a happy ending. To this end, the box set (yes, it’s a boxed set) does some heavy modifications on basic D&D. First off, many of the classes and mechanics are tweaked. No more Thief, instead we have a Specialist which uses the game’s (also tweaked) skill system to emulate thieves and lots of other professions besides, for example. The spell lists are quite different from the base version (though some similarities remain). I have to admit it’s been ages since I last looked at the basic D&D ruleset so I’m sure I did not spot all the changes, but there’s a lot – in many ways, the game engine has been “modernized” to run better. While the game still has alignment, “good” and “evil” are gone, there is only “lawful”, “neutral” and “chaotic”. As someone who hates good/evil alignment distinctions, this is awesome. Oh, and magic users are all chaotic, to keep with the “sword and sorcery” tropes.

More importantly, there’s a huge emphasis on how to (and how not to) tell stories. There are no stock monsters here (a controversial choice, but one I do agree with), because the author felt that they diminish the scariness. If you can name it, it’s not a horror anymore, it’s just “one more kobold”. Same goes for magic items: the GM is strongly encouraged to keep them rare and unique. No +1 swords, for example. This is sure to be a shock to many old-school D&D players who lugged around +N swords like golf clubs, but I agree with the author on this one too.

Organization-wise, the kit is divided into three books: “Tuturial”, “Rules and Magic”, and “Referee”. The Tutorial is both awesome and a bit unnecessary. Awesome bacause it has one of the most complete examples of play I’ve ever seen, and a very comprehensive intro into the whole “what is roleplaying?” thing. I even includes a “Fighting Fantasy” -style solo adventure!. As for “unnecessary”… well, how many total newbies are going to pick this one up and try to figure it out by themselves? I’d guess not that many.

The “Rules and Magic” book contains the meat of the thing: rules, spell lists (both magic user and cleric), that sort of thing. There’s also a lot of cool, inventive stuff like a randomized summoned creature generator (with some potentially very nasty results). Finally, there’s the “Referee” book, which contains a lot of advise on how to run the game and set the tone.

My copy is the “Grindhouse Edition”, which contains definitely NSFW art with gore and full nudity. I found this to be a nice touch, in keeping with the “Sword & Sorcery” game theme, but I’m sure there are many Americans and other prudes who will be shocked (shocked, I tell you!) and seeing pictures of nude people (and creatures). Those people should probably get the “Deluxe Set”, which is an earlier edition with tamer art (and some extra included adventure modules).

While the game is certainly not to everyone’s taste (ruleset based on old D&D, NSFW art and an emphasis on sword & sorcery and horror instead of stock D&D hack&slash), I must say I really liked it, much more than I was expecting.The ruleset is compact, there are lots of inventive tweaks, and there’s a ton of pre-generated material out there that could be run with this for a very different feel (just remember to remove most of the pre-generated magic items and huge piles of loot, and to replace the monsters with your own creations). I especially liked the emphasis on style and tone, and also on making magic and monsters unpredictable and dangerous. Far from being a direct clone of D&D, this game is something interesting on its own.

As an aside, the redheaded swords-woman on the box cover looks very much like a real-life swords-woman I know, which is an interesting coincidence. I very much doubt the picture is actually based on her.

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Minireview: Hollow's Last Hope (Pathfinder)

Hollow’s Last Hope (written by Jason Bulmahn and F. Wesley Schneider & graced with the code “D0”) is the first published Pathfinder adventure – or more exactly is the first adventure in the line that later became “Pathfinder”, at this point it was just a line of adventures for D&D3.5 under Paizo’s “GameMastery” label.

This module was originally given out for free as part of “Free RGP Day” in 2007, and thus distributed in print form to some participating rpg stores. It was also available (and still is) as a free PDF download, so getting hold of it is easy… but getting hold of the print version is anything but. It took me almost 2 years of on-and-off eBay hunting to track down my print version.

It’s an intro adventure for 1st level (D&D) characters, and is quite decent at that. The town of Falcon’s Hollow (the target of multiple calamities in later Paizo modules) is suffering from a plague, and (surprise!) it’s up to a group of intrepid young adventurers to venture into the wilds in search of components for a cure. There are some ok wilderness encounters, and then a showdown at an old temple. What makes this adventure nice is that it ties in directly with Crown of the Kobold King (D1), which in turn can be followed up with both Revenge of the Kobold King (D1.5) (also a free download) and Hungry are the Dead (D4). So this can easily kick off a mini-campaign, with a unified plot and locale. Quite nice.

As a standalone, the adventure is ok but nothing really all that spectacular; it’s a straightforward “find some medicine ingredients and save the town” thingy.

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Minireview: Carrion Hill (Pathfinder)

Carrion Hill by Richard Pett is a newish Pathfinder module, with a somewhat unusual heritage: it’s a Pathfinder Cthulhu module. Sort of. It’s directly and deliberately influenced by Lovecraft, to the extent of using names from Lovecraft’s fiction and in having sidebars which direct people to also check out Chaosium’s “Call of Cthulhu” game. This isn’t the first time that Paizo has done something like this; there are lots of Lovecraft fans among the Paizo folk and some of the earlier modules have also contained some Cthulhu references. However, this is probably the most directly “Cthulhu” thing Paizo has done to date.

I have mixed feelings here. On one hand, it’s fun to mix and match genres a bit, and there are lots of nice scenes here. Also, the mechanic of the Big Bad’s strength depending heavily on what the PCs do is a nice one – if they just barge along without thinking, they may get their asses kicked.

On the other hand, D&D and Cthulhu are an uneasy mix. Cthulhu relies heavily on the PCs being totally out of their depth and generally helpless versus cosmic horrors, whereas D&D (which Pathfinder is a version of) is firmly in the see-monster-kill-monster genre. As a result, a lot of the potential creepiness is lost since the PCs can usually just draw swords and carve up the beastie into bite-sized chunks.

The story concerns what seems to be some sort on monster, rampaging in the misty small town of Carrion Hill. It may devolve into just a “bug hunt” but there is also food for a bit of investigation and non-combat playing here. The plot isn’t the most original of plots, but does read like a good bit of fun to play or run. The main problem, as noted, is the dilution of the horror elements in the D&D genre assumptions (i.e. “if we see it, we can kill it”). The lack of any sort of sanity mechanic in Pathfinder is also a small hinderance to this sort of thing.

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Minireview: Crypt of the Everflame (Pathfinder)

Crypt of the Everflame (written by Jason Bulmahn) is the first standalone Paizo adventure module to use their new Pathfinder rules (instead of D&D3.5). I don’t currently use D&D or Pathfinder rules myself so to me it looks pretty much the same as the earlier modules ruleswise, but of course it’s a milestone for Paizo. The stat blocks do look a bit cleaner now, and in general the layout is nice and neat. A number of sidebars are included, with conversion notes back to D&D rules and some explanation of new Pathfinder rules mechanics. Very nice job there.

This is a first level scenario, intended as the springboard for a larger campaign if needs be – there are two follow-up adventures in the works which can be linked to this. I have to say I liked the module quite a bit; the end does go a bit more in the stereotypical D&D direction but the first half is pretty damn cool. There’s actually a reason for the PCs to get together and “go adventuring”, and it’s a very good one with lots of extra story potential. Even though the players will of course suspect that things are not quite what they seem, the PCs themselves go into this with somewhat… misguided expectations that have to do with (their own) coming-of-age ritual.

Small warning: the description of this module on Paizo’s site contains some spoilerish info, so if you intend to play this I suggest you at least try to ignore that.

Good crisp layout, nice maps, good story… this one reads like a winner, as far as starter “D&D” scenarios are concerned. I suspect this module will become quite popular with people starting up a new Pathfinder game, or just wanting to run a test game / oneshot.

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Minireview: The Sixfold Trial (Pathfinder #26)

The Sixfold Trial (by Richard Pett) is the second part of the Council of Thieves adventure path, and is also perhaps the most un-D&D -like adventure I’ve yet seen from Paizo. I mean this in a very good sense. Looks like the first part, which promised more social interaction instead of endless combats, wasn’t just a fluke.

What makes this adventure unusual is that the PCs are expected to become actors and perform a play to a select audience of nobles. The reason has to do with infiltration into a noble household, but the play is the main event here. Since this is Cheliax and the court of a decadent noble, the play is far from safe… in any fashion. There is an actual expected death toll, and the PCs will need to scramble if they don’t want to become “acceptable casualties” in the process. Sure, the PCs might also decide to do the more conventional thing and do a ninja sneak foray into the household (more like “fortress”) in question, but that could become very tricky very fast. Being invited guests makes many things so much easier. To the author’s credit, the possibility of the PCs deciding to skip the theater part is mentioned… but of course, if mostly boils down to “well, in that case you won’t be able to use half of this stuff”.

As an additional fun point, the actual script of the (short) play is provided, so the GM/players could actually go through the thing line-by-line if they feel like it. Not sure how many will do that, but in any case including the play itself gets points from me.

It’s not all theater and woe, of course. The second half of the adventure is more conventional “sneak around and dodge traps and monsters” stuff – but even that is quite interesting, since the locale is… a bit unconventional. Don’t want to give up too many spoilers here.

This is a very strong scenario, at least it reads that way. If Council of Thieves keeps this up, it may just be the best adventure path so far. Or, of course, if might tank suddenly. For some reason, the lower-level stuff almost always manages to be more interesting, later on it usually devolves into a boring high-level combatfest. Most D&D writers (and to be fair, most D&D players) don’t really grasp the idea that you don’t have to challenge PCs just via combat – in fact, if the PCs are very good at combat you need to give them anything but combat if you want to keep things interesting. Exalted teaches you this, because challenging Exalted PCs with just combat becomes pointless fast. Other types of challenges, especially moral dilemmas, tend to work much better. I’m not saying “don’t do combat”; it’s fun now and then and of course it’s (still) the core gameplay of D&D (and yes, Pathfinder is D&D). I’m saying “don’t do just combat”… and that seems to be the direction Paizo is taking this one. Me likes.

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Minireview: The Bastards of Erebus (Pathfinder #25)

The Bastards of Erebus (by Sean Reynolds) kicks off the latest Pathfinder adventure path, “Council of Thieves”. It’s supposed to be a more-or-less city-based path, so I’m looking forward with interest to see how this one develops; city-based adventures are much rarer in D&D -type games than wilderness stuff or the ever-present dungeon crawls.

The beginning is very promising, at least. The thing is set in the city of Westcrown, the slowly decaying ex-capital of the Cheliax empire (which has now turned to demon worship). The players are expected to be “concerned citizens”, ones with deep ties to the city and reasons to care about it – otherwise, the moment things get rocky the PCs might just decide to head off somewhere else. Which might make sense for the PCs, but would sort of kill this adventure path dead. It probably works best if the PCs aren’t too wealthy and don’t have connections outside the city. In other words, don’t have easy ways to flee or secure their own safety.

This adventure entangles the PCs in a resistance movement of sorts, one which wants to do something about the corrupt nobility which is letting the city slowly slide towards ruin. An initial incident forces the PCs to flee into hiding, after which it is assumed they start to form “ze resistance!”. So yes, like in all pre-plotted longer plots, some railroading is needed… but here, I think the smartest thing would be just to talk with the players beforehand and establish what you’re going for.

The adventure is pretty good, and is noteworthy for including a lot of NPC details. Not stats, but important things like personality etc, for people who normally are “nameless lvl1 cannonfodder” in D&D games. Paizo is clearly trying to push the normal D&D envelope a bit here, since this one is very far from the usual combat fest. Oh, there is combat,. but even that is of the interesting sort: the PCs are expected to stage an ambush, and are given pretty free rein with that and multiple (good) options. Nice, that.

This looks like a very cool adventure path, assuming the style stays somewhat like this first installment, with more focus on non-combat skills and social stuff. Also, the whole city of Westcrown is pretty nice as a locale… a city in a state where the state religion is demon worship, but which is still a perfectly functional environment for the inhabitants. Something like that could easily go in a stupid cliched “we’re evil, waaagh!” direction, but thankfully none of that is present here. It’s just a city, with a somewhat unusual structure for religion and law.

So… off to a good start.

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Minireview: The Final Wish (Pathfinder #24)

The Final Wish concludes the Legacy of Fire adventure path, and is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, it revisits some old locations (now greatly changed), which is nice and establishes continuity and the actions-have-consequences thing. On the other hand, it has the same problem that many (most?) higher-level D&D(ish) adventures have: it throws huge monster after huge monster at the PCs, in an effort to challenge them. For groups that enjoy combat this is probably cool, but I’m much more a fan of the Exalted style of challenging powerful characters – give them stuff that they cannot just blast away, give them hard choices to make, concentrate on social stuff. Oh, give the combat too, but don’t make that the main point. This module tries to do that a bit, at times, but it’s a bit too much of a high-level combatfest for my taste.

The PCs return to Golarion after an extended planar jaunt, and things have gone from bad to worse. In addition to seeing “their” own town under military occupation, it seems that some Big Bad is about to wake up. Cue fight scenes.

On the whole, I think the whole Legacy of Fire adventure path was a very mixed affair. The start-up adventure is excellent, and the pocket dimension planar excursion was also pretty damn cool (almost Exalted-like in feel at times). However, the background plot was very much in the background, and unless the GM explicitly spells things out, I fear the players could feel that they are just shuffled from one place to another with little rhyme or reason. There are lots of cool components here, but I don’t feel they quite fit together as a whole. It feels a bit incoherent. It might be that this one plays better than it reads, of course.

I have high hopes for the next adventure path, Council of Thieves, since it’s supposed to be more or less completely city-based. Curse of the Crimson Throne was also be supposed to be that, but wasn’t really (it still was the best one so far, in my opinion).

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Minireview: The Impossible Eye (Pathfinder #23)

After the quite wonderful End of Eternity, the fifth installment of the Legacy of Fire adventure path (The Impossible Eye by Greg A. Vaughan) is both not quite as good and also a bit more pedestrian. Now, seeing as it’s set in the legendary City of Brass, that’s maybe a bit weird. You would expect a planehopping adventure to present weird and wonderful scenes galore. Here the problem is the main setup: the PCs end up in a huge temple building located in the City of Brass – but said temple is the locus of a dimensional trap and is totally cut off from the rest of the city. So the fact that it’s located in a huge, legendary location doesn’t really matter in any way, and the PCs are essentially stuck inside a big dungeon with no access to the city.

In the end the PCs are assumed to escape and to interact with the city, and the book does give some small bits of help for that: there’s a “set piece” adventure detailing one way to return to their home plane, and then there’s an article detailing the City of Brass in general. Still… I sort of feel this was a missed chance, a lot more could have been done with this setting. In addition, there are some head-scratchers: fire-based traps in a place where most of the population is immune to fire, for example.

All that said, it’s not bad by any means. As a dungeon crawl it provides a nice variety of encounters, and not all are of the “see monster, kill monster” variety. There are multiple ways for the PCs to approach the scenario, and a social-based approach may well work (depending on who they talk to and ally with).

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Minireview: The End of Eternity (Pathfinder #22)

The End of Eternity (by Jason Nelson) is the fourth episode in the Legacy of Fire adventure path, and is also perhaps the best episode so far. Events take a sharp metaphorical left turn at the end of the last installment; this one happens entirely within an enclosed demiplane. Now, that can be good or bad, but in this case it’s pretty much all good. The demiplane involved is very cool and is essentially one big sandbox (literally, in parts) for the PCs to explore. Naturally enough, they need to figure out a way to escape… but thankfully that’s a puzzle with multiple solutions. Sure, there is a “most likely” way for them to get out, but plenty of other options are also presented.

The demiplane in question is an abandoned personal “resort space” of an ancient wizard, and as such contains plenty of bizarre features. As an added bonus, this back story makes for a good excuse for all that weirdness, which would not be very realistic elsewhere. Not that realism is even remotely something that D&D wants to be involved with, but still. Internal consistency is a good thing.

The only negative I can say about this section is that it requires some railroad in the previous episode, and also that it throws the PCs into something that’s quite different than what “they signed up for”. Most groups will consider this to be fine and have lots of fun with this… but someone may of course disagree.

In a way, this episode reminded me of Exalted. The demiplane shown here has many features that would be right at home in an Exalted game. I consider this praise.

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