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Minireview: The Ascension of the Magdalene

Ascension of the Magdalene is a strange creature. It’s a pregen adventure set in 1610 AD Prague, dual-statted for Unknown Armies and D&D (of all things). Yes, it’s a pretty bizarre mix, and ends up being a bit problematic for the adventure in general.

The base plot is interesting, and quite suitable for UA. A notorious and religiously (perhaps) blasphemous painting has vanished, and several factions know where it is and want it for themselves. The player characters are suitable dupes who can be talked into invading a mad emperor’s castle and stealing the thing. So far, so good, and we’re given a nice set of factions and motives so that the startup can be made into something quite a bit more intresting than a “you meet a man in a pub”.

…but then things go awry. The main problem is that UA and D&D are just very, very different games, and you just can’t write up something that works as-is for both. While the writer here has to be given points for even trying, the end result is a strange semi-mystic dungeon crawl which doesn’t quite jive with either game’s tone. There are interesting bits in the thing, and I’m sure that with some effort you could get either a nice historical UA game or a nice D&D dungeon crawl out of this – but it would need some work. For UA, you’d want to remove most of the “dungeon crawl” aspects, and for D&D you’d probably want to increase them.

I hesitate to call this a totally failed product, it doesn’t deserve that. On the other hand, neither does it really work all that well. I think this project was doomed from the start.

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Minireview: Conquest of Bloodsworn Vale (W1)

Conquest of Bloodsworn Vale is one of the first published Pathfinder modules and the first of the (W)ilderness series. I’d rate is as “ok”… it’s a collection of mini-encounters with a “taming the wilderness around a logging town” theme. The town itself is featured in many Pathfinder modules, so you could well build a mini-campaign around events in this area of the Paizo campaign world.

The encounters are mostly interesting, though of course they follow the standard D&D “go and kill the monsters” theme. Some parts are a bit illogical, but no huge problems. The end Big Bad has enough flavor to be interesting, even though he is only featured in a small part of a fairly compact adventure module. I get the feel that how this one plays will depend a lot on the player group itself. The adventure is more of a sandbox than anything else, so plot coherence and advancement are largely things the GM will have to improvise on the fly. At least it’s not too railroady.

So… nothing exceptional, but reads like it should be fun with the right group of players.

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Minireview: Dungeons & Dragons, 4th edition

Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition is probably the most-hyped and also the most controversial new tabletop rpg product in recent times. Is it any good? Well… yeah. Kinda sorta.

I stopped playing/running D&D ages ago, when AD&D 1st edition was the current one. It was a fun first tabletop rpg game, but the limitations of the (frankly crappy) ruleset had started to grate at that point. I moved on to Rolemaster, and then on to other games. I mostly skipped the 3.x phase, and don’t really know much about that ruleset; or let’s say: I know enough about it to know I don’t much care for it.

Honestly, I doubt that I would have picked up this new version had not Amazon had an amazingly low (preorder) price for it; I got it for under half price as compared to local game stores, and that’s including shipping. At that price, I went “hell, why not” and ordered the thing. I have to feel a bit sorry for game store owners, there is no way they can compete with that kind of price competition.

Complaints about this version abound on the net. It’s gone very far in the WoW direction. It’s dumbed down. It has nothing except combat.

You know what? The complaints are mostly correct. It has taken a lot of cues from WoW. It is pretty dumbed-down (or “simplified”, if you prefer). And it is pretty much only about combat.

Thing is, I’m not seeing those as being totally negative things. Trying to appeal to the WoW crowd does make a lot of sense. Tabletop rpgs still offer a lot of things that you simply cannot get from WoW (or such), and lowering the barrier of entry makes all kinds of sense. The dumbing down is a mixed bag. One one hand, at times the text reads like it’s aimed at 8-yr olds, which is extremely annoying. One the other, the mechanics seem pretty smooth, and I have no love for 3.x’s complexity (which to me gives very little in return). The rules feel pretty slick, in fact, in spite of the steals from computer games (aura effects, group roles, easy healing, etc). The game wants to emphasize fun, it seems, and that’s good in my book.

About the combat… well, hmph. I’ve never really seen D&D as anything but a fantasy combat simulator, to me it’s never even tried to much support the roleplaying aspects. So the fact that 4e is pretty much a fantasy combat simulator and in some respects more tactical board game than roleplaying game doesn’t surprise me much or seem all that odd. On the other hand, I can well understand people who have gotten used to running more “serious” games with the 3.x ruleset being turned off by this new incarnation. In addition, this edition is even more geared towards using miniatures than any previous one.

To sum: to me, 4e looks pretty sleek, and it seems designed to do the lightweight dungeon romp thing pretty well. On the other hand, it seems very lightweight and at times I get the feeling it’s aimed at younger kids. I can understand the criticisms it’s receiving, but I can also understand the praises. What you think of this game depends a lot on what you’re expecting and what your background is.

The core rules here seem very fun and sleek, like I said, and I might even try to run a purely-for-fun dungeon romp with this at some point. I get the feeling that the game succeeds in doing what it sets out to do, provide a easily approachable tactical dungeon monster mash game, with some light roleplaying elements included on the side. It’s just that what it set out to do doesn’t match what some people would like. C’est la vie.

The books are the classic three. First off, a Player’s Guide which details the character options, the main rules, and most of what you really need in order to play. Second, the Dungeon Master’s Guide which contains detail on running the game and some additional rules, and finally the Monster Manual, with lots of stuff to kill. Production values are high, as expected, and the organization is mostly good. Small negative points for the lack of a good index, spells are organized by level and if you want to quickly find a given spell you have to resort to leaving through the book – which sucks. The Monster Manual is nice in that it gives lots of variations of each beastie, no longer do we have the uniform “all instances of a given monster are the same” thing. Points for that.

Trying to look at this game objectively: it seems to be a professionally designed game of dungeon looting, with heavy emphasis on tactical combat. The rules give the impression of being quite heavily tested, and play balance has won out over realism in all cases (not that D&D was ever realistic in any degree whatsoever). It seems like a fairly solid game, and perhaps later supplements may even widen the focus a bit, so one might actually call it a “roleplaying” game without putting tons of conditionals and disclaimers all over the place.

If you’re heavily invested in the 3.x ruleset and like it, you probably won’t like this new version too much.

So: purely as a game, I’ve give WotC pretty high marks for this. It’s still D&D, but it has been heavily tweaked to do at least one thing (dungeon crawls) very well and it contains some nice new innovations from computer games and some indie games. The price of that is some amount of “dumb-down” and the near-lack of meaningful non-combat options.

In the “black marks” department, we have the whole heavily bungled launch, the whole poison-pill GSL license drama (which shows the weasel lawyer side of WotC/Hasbro pretty clearly), the bungled and buggy “D&D Insider / Gleemax” web support thing, etc etc. But all of that is topic for another discussion.

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Minireview: Seven Swords of Sin (D2)

If we’re honest, for a Paizo module Seven Swords of Sin (by James Sutter & the Paizo staff) isn’t all that good. The module’s origins as an Paizo-internal “let’s write a list of deadly traps!” project shows all too well; while I like good deathtrap dungeons this isn’t a very good one – it’s just a random series of deathtraps strung together with an extremely vague plot.

It’s not strictly bad, I’m sure a fun evening of dungeon crawl could result from this. It’s just not very good either, there are better variants of this theme available. Some of the rooms/traps are inventive, though, and I suspect the best use for this module would be as a trap resource to insert into other adventures.

The plot, such as it is, deals with yet another evil sorceress trying to awaken ancient powers through yet another ancient artifact. Film at 11.


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Minireview: Pathfinder #9, Escape From Old Korvosa

In Escape From Old Korvosa, the PCs are expected to exit the city of Korvosa for the first time. As before, this points to the biggest problem with this adventure path: getting the players to follow the plot. Before this, you’ve had to give them reasons to stay in the city even though things have gone downhill fast. Now, you need to get the thinking about leaving. Fortunately you are given lots of help and player motivations, so it’s not as doomed an endeavour as you might think – but still, the GM will have to come up with Plan B (and C, and D, and…) in case the players don’t follow the breadcrumb trail.

This installment is half event-based urban encounter (like the previous two parts) and half dungeon crawl. The dungeon does seem quite interesting and has a reason to exist, so I suspect it would work pretty well in practice to break the game flow a bit. As before, the city encounters are very nice and varied – the players are given the opportunity to play Blood Pig, among other unsavory entertainments.

The whole thing seems pretty solid, with the disclaimer above about a fairly linear plot that needs to be followed in some fashion.

The rest of the contents are good, as always – we have some more new monsters (this time with an Indian style, because of module plot reasons), a new Pathfinder Journal installment, and such. The overall quality remains high.

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Minireview: The Demon Within (D3)

The Demon Within (by Stephen S. Greer and Tim Hitchcock) continues Paizo’s “D” series of modules, focusing on dungeon crawls and such. While those can be tiresome combatfests (and this one does have a lot of combat), here it’s thankfully not the only content. There’s an actual plot, and a pretty interesting one at that.

Presented is an order of knights who stand vigil over the “Worldwound”, a demon-infested wasteland. An ancient artifact (what else?) has kept the demons at bay, but now the demons have discovered a weakness in the defenses and are preparing to invade. Guess who gets to visit the place just as the demons attack? Right. No surprises there.

There’s a lot to like here. NPC motivations are key to several things, there are quite a few important non-combat encounters, and in general there is more a sense of plot than the usual “go to this dungeon and get the loot”. I’m not even sure if “D” is a fitting classification for this module… but be that as may, this is good stuff (assuming you’re ok with a lot of combat, too).

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Minireview: River Into Darkness (W2)

Greg A. Vaughan’s River Into Darkness is an attempt to do a D&D version of the classic “African river journey” story, but it only succeeds partially. Some bits are very nice; I liked the opening town of Bloodcove (despite the silly name), and the almost-paddlesteamer boat is a fun idea.

However, the encounters along the way seem a bit disjointed and not all that exciting, and the finale is maybe a bit too open-ended. Sure, it’s nice to give the PCs lots of freedom to choose, but some more detail on the consequences either way would have been nice. With a good GM and some extra prep, I’m sure this would be a fun romp to run/play, especially if you feel like some “out in the wilderness” action to give your outdoors specialist characters a chance to shine.

This isn’t bad by any means, just a bit lackluster compared to other Paizo modules.

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Minireview: Pathfinder #7, Edge of Anarchy

…and so begins a new Paizo adventure path, The Curse of the Crimson Throne. Judging by beginnings, it looks to be at least as good as the previous one; Edge of Anarchy (by Nicolas Logue) sets up the action quite nicely. It’s also an urban adventure set, which is a nice change of pace and provides lots of varied encounter options.

Without giving away too many spoilers, the story is set in the city of Korvosa, where the failing health of the king is about to cause civil unrest and worse. The players are people who originally just set out to get revenge on a certain crime boss, but quickly get sucked into higher-level dealings.

It’s quite nice. On the plus side, it’s a set of loosely connected mini-adventures, which gives the thing quite a bit of flexibility. On the minus side, that same flexibility can be a problem; the players are expected to do some very specific things based on sometimes very flimsy clues and prompting. Also, the beginning link from the crimelord thing to bigger issues is extremely tenuous, I can easily see players either missing it entirely or deciding to ignore it. I’m pretty sure that this thing needs quite a bit of extra GM work to make it play naturally, because you have to have a “plan B” and “plan C” ready for every time the players do something other than what’s expected. Which will be “most of the time”, most likely. So, unless you want to blatantly railroad things, read this through at least twice and do some extra prep before running it.

Is it worth that? I’d say yes, easily. The main plot is quite interesting here, and the whole urban environment thing opens up tons of opportunities. In addition, the encounters themselves tend to be pleasantly varied (no, it’s not only combat all the time). In order for this to work the PCs also need to have approriate motivations, but to Paizo’s credit that’s discussed at some length in the Player Guide to this adventure path. It’s actually nice to see a D&D adventure that takes a stance on what types of motivations the players need in order for things to work, not just “generate some characters and declare them a ‘party’”.

Other than the adventure, the book(let) contains the usual assortment: an article (this time on the local gypsy variants), a fiction “Pathfinder journal” piece, and some new monsters. I’ve always liked the fiction bits in these, and this one was especially good. I’m a tiny bit annoyed at Paizo’s near-1:1 copying of some things – the Varisians are (fantasy) gypsies down to styles of dress, then we have a people who are pretty direct Native American copies, and then there’s the fantasy Egypt copy of “Osirion”, etc etc. It probably wouldn’t have killed them to throw a bit of extra originality into those. I like Exalted’s style of mixing things up a lot more – you might get a vaguely Babylonian culture that’s mixed together with African tribalism, or a people who combine bits of Viking culture with Native American stuff. It creates cultures that are a lot more interesting and have recognizable “handles” without being copies, whereas here they just seem like generic copies with little flavor of their own. It’s not a huge problem, just a small gripe I have.

Overall, a good start to a new city-based adventure path, we’ll see where it goes.

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Minireview: Gallery of Evil (U1)

The first of Paizo’s “urban” standalone adventures, Gallery of Evil by Stephen S. Greer is a fun little romp.

It’s set in a high-class district of Absalom, a city in the Pathfinder game world of Golarion, but it could be transplanted to pretty much any D&D city with minimal effort. The plot is nicely nonstandard and involves paintings with murderous intent (yes, really). The villain of the piece is not just another stereotype “evil guy”, there are actual motivations involved… nice, for a change; all too many D&D adventures have “bad guys” doing bad stuff “just because they are evil”. Also provided are some pages of detail on the part of the city the events take place in, with a list of important people and places with some plot hooks – very nice in case the players go into freeform mode, and also useful in case you want a pre-populated section of city for some other game.

It reads like it should provide a fun evening or two of play. It’s fairly straightforward, and as written the players are almost spoon-fed clues about what’s going on. Were I to run it I would probably tweak it to make it a bit less linear and to involve a bit more actual player investigation. Matter of taste, I guess.

In any case, this is yet another classy stand-alone module from Paizo. I can’t find anything much to complain about here; the straightforward nature of the scenario can’t really be called a “fault”, since it does make this runnable with minimal prepwork and it’s easy enough to provide more complications if needed.

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