Oct 172018
 

Advanced Adventures: The Barrow Mound of Gravemoor (OSR)

This installment of the Advanced Adventures-series clocks in at 13 pages, 1 page front and back cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1/2 a page advertisement, leaving us with 9.5 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

 

My reviews of this series were requested by one of my patreons, to be undertaken at my convenience.

 

This adventure, like all in the series, uses the OSRIC rule-set, but can easily be converted to other old-school rules. It should be a given by now that there are a few formatting peculiarities that are still consistent in their application, so boil down to a matter of aesthetics. The cartography is functional, as always, but we don’t get a player-friendly version. This adventure is intended for level 5 – 7 characters and a well-rounded party is very much recommended. As far as supplemental material is concerned, we have an artifact that plays a part in the story (would have been nice to get a means of destruction, but that may just be me) and an evil magical weapon, a mace that evil clerics will adore. The pdf also includes a new monster with its own illustration, the barrow golem, a being that can encapsulate PCs…pretty nasty one!

 

All right, that’s as far as I can go without diving into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.

..

.

All right, only GMs around? Great! *ähem* “The Clans are marching ‘gainst the law/bagpipers play the tunes of war/death or glory I will find/rebellion on my mind!” Richard Dirkloch has rallied the clans of a moor-like Highland region to march against the good King Oldavin, whose men have burned Dirkloch’s beloved for the witch she admittedly were; the battle was fierce, but in the end, the good King did triumph…but Richard Dirkloch is not yet vanquished and found. Having retreated to his barrow fortress, built atop the ruins of castle Grimspire, it’ll be up to the PCs to bring Dirkloch in and squash his plans for sedition, which actually turn out to be darker than anticipated!

 

The PCs begin their adventure on the field of battle, with several means of getting them there provided. The gravemoor as a region comes with an appropriately creepy array of different possible random encounters that make sense and don’t devolve into the too fantastic…and when they reach the Gravemoor barrow mound pool, they’re in for a surprise: Richard Dirkloch assaults them as a wight with unique properties – this establishes the antagonist early and allows the GM to roleplay the dichotomy between sadist and romantic lord. Sooner or later, he’ll retreat to the ice-cold and murky depths of the pool, leaving the PCs to explore the grave moor barrow mound, which is a combination of maze and regular dungeon – and it is littered with secret doors.

 

The winding tunnels and non-linear-structure of the barrow hill make for a surprisingly, considering the brevity, nonlinear experience here. Secret doors galore conspire with the dungeon’s global effects to generate a sense of claustrophobia I did not expect. Even better, this is also enforced by global rules applied to the dungeon, penalizing attacks with anything but small weapons, and the curved structure means that ranged weapons are less effective as well – an excellent example on how a dungeon’s design and map can help emphasize the theme and generate atmosphere. Two thumbs up!

 

This intelligent notion also extends to the keyed encounters in this massive mound – while there are only 7, these do have in common that they provide twists on classics and feature evocative adversaries. Strategies for Ach na Creig the gleistig, half woman, half goat, are provided, and manage to make her a credible threat. This all-killer, no-filler attention also extends to the terrain features like magical pools, a lobratory – there is player-agenda here, and e.g. cleaning a saint’s statue may net a potent boon. Hidden below the barrow level, there is the second level of the dungeon. Smaller and more compact, it represents a respite from the horrors of the claustrophobic barrow and doubles as the base of Dirkloch, where his undead steed and personal quarters await – and where he will orchestrate his masterplan, unless stopped: Courtesy of the midnight opal, he seeks to animate the untold fallen soldiers and lead an undead army against the king – preferably with his bride returned to his side…and only the PCs stand between him and the fulfillment of his ambition…

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to the series’ two-column, classic old-school style, right down to the font. The artworks are b/w and solid, and the cartography is functional, but we do not get player maps. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.

 

Andrew Hind delivers big time here. The plot and dungeon scenario are both classics, and executing these well, in a matter that does not feel stale or bland, is an achievement indeed. The concise writing not only produces a very atmospheric dungeon, it also manages to make the adversary plausible, the struggle against him more personal and thus, engrossing. This is, at least for me, the best of the early Advanced Adventures – it manages to evoke more atmosphere than many modules of thrice that size, leaving me just with the lack of player-friendly maps as a serious criticism. This time, though, I do feel that mapping is such a crucial part of the experience, even in VTT-scenarios, that the module doesn’t suffer from their omission. While this may be brief, it is better than many longer adventures – quality over quantity.

 

As such, this receives a final verdict of 5 stars + seal of approval.

 

You can get this adventure here on OBS!

 

Endzeitgeist out.

 

Oct 172018
 

20 Things: Lich’s Lair (system neutral)

This installment of the #20 Things-series clocks in at 11 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of advertisement, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 5 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

 

All righty, we begin this installment with the locale outside of the lair, with 8 different, flavorful entries establishing the influx of evil magic on the surrounding area; this is further supplemented by 6 whispers and rumors: As the tales of vanquished would-be lich-slayers ring in your ears, the floors approaching the lair as smooth, destroyed equipment littering the area, telling tales of all the failures that came before you and your friends…

 

But the true horror begins within, where10 trinkets and 20 horrible spell components are provided: These include brightly polished shields, boiled and shrunken heads, ruined diamonds suffused with cracks…some truly amazing ones here. These are further enhanced with 20 entries of lair dressing, where remnants of disintegrate spells left trails of dust and persistent shadows cling to the masonry, refusing to be dispelled by encroaching light…

 

12 strange sounds and smells make the saturation of unearthly magics very clear, with sighs redolent with despair and ear-splitting gongs just a few of the examples; oh, and there are also 12 strange events and effects to be found: From spontaneously coalescing blood-runes on the walls to iron masks twisting into grimaces of unspeakable pain. If you use these, the players will have no reason to claim that you did not foreshadow your deadly undead arcanist…

 

Of course, an important aspect of any lich’s lair would be the thing that holds the undead archmage’s lifeforce; as such, no less than 10 sample phylacteries are included in the deal – and these include the bones of the lich’s erstwhile first animal companion. Hidden inter-dimensional recesses, a rusted comb…there are narrative implications here, and the choices are creative and interesting…what about the lich, for example, who used a paladin’s holy sword to house his life? Yeah, that one’s nasty…

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to an elegant, minimalist 2-column b/w-standard, and the pdf sports a couple of really nice b/w-artworks. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, and the pdf comes in two different versions, one of which is optimized for screen-use, and one is optimized for printing it out.

 

Creighton Broadhurst ups his already super-impressive dressing game in this supplement. The dressing-files for the lich lairs within this humble pdf ooze flavor galore and made me grin from ear to ear. This is easily one of the best installments in the whole series, worthy of a 5 stars + seal of approval verdict.

 

You can get this great dressing file here on OBS!

 

You can directly support raging Swan Press here on patreon!

 

Endzeitgeist out.

 

Oct 162018
 

The Creator’s Handbook

This installment of Drop Dead Studios‘ expansion of the Spheres of Power-series clocks in at 36 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1page blank, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 30 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

 

We should start analyzing this book from the back, as the last chapter provides quite a few rather important clarifications of the Creation sphere’s parameters – particularly, the woefully brief definition of what can and can’t be created receives a much-needed, more precise clarification that should prove to be a boon for many GMs out there. Interaction with magic items, anchoring items and destruction/dismissal of objects also are very much relevant. Additionally, the base sphere now allows for the expenditure of a single spell point to extend the duration to 1 minute per level SANS concentration. That part is important and helps render the sphere significantly more appealing. The pdf also clarifies the interaction of the creation of multiple falling options and size categories and the creation of slippery and dangerous terrain. Similarly, the creation of very small objects and dropping objects is tightly codified, making these rules-clarifications pages worth the price on their own.

 

All right, that out of the way, if we do tackle this supplement in a linear manner, we begin with a well-written introductory prose before presenting an assortment of new archetypes, which begins with the lingichi warrior for the armorist base class, who receives proficiency in light and martial + 1 exotic weapon as well as light armor and shields, excluding tower shields. Instead of summon equipment and quick summons, the archetype provides armory arena, which allows for the summoning of an infinite array of weapons surrounding the warrior, causing damage in an area surrounding the character that grows over the level, with damage caused allowing for the choosing of physical damage type. The character may exclude targets up to spellcasting ability modifier from the aura, and the aura leaves a difficult terrain of weaponry in its wake, allowing characters to pick them up and fight. Higher levels allow for the use of create in conjunction with the ability, making it possible to establish the aura in a faster manner.

 

Higher levels also provide the means to maintain multiple contiguous auras. Instead of bound equipment, higher levels provide scaling enhancement bonuses for these ephemeral weapons; armor training is replaced with nimble and the archetype receives no less than 10 exclusive tricks that provide the means to use spell points to increase the damage output, control between enhancement bonus and special abilities, establishing a kind of control within the arena, exclude targets from the difficult terrain effect, have weapons dance…this archetype is INSPIRED. I mean it. Perhaps it’s the otaku within me, but I found myself reminded of Fate’s Gilgamesh and similar characters. This is a very magical archetype, and obviously not one for super-gritty settings due to its theme and supreme magic item flexibility, but for high fantasy? HECK frickin’ yes!

 

Archetype number two would be the word witch for the fey adept class, who uses Intelligence as spellcasting ability modifier and gains, surprise, the Creation sphere as a bonus magic talent, replacing fey magic. Instead of master illusionist, creations made by the archetype that require maintenance or concentration, ultimately remain for +1/2 class level (min 1) rounds. Shadowstuff is replaced with a massive engine-tweak dubbed “words of creation”, which is powered by a word pool equal to Int mod + ½ class level, with the DC being the classic 10 + ½ class level + Int-mod, if any. These word points may be used to create a wide variety of effects that include the creation of runes of flame that may then be launched in bulk or against multiple targets; similarly pillars of ice trapping targets, severe blasts of wind (correctly codified!) and analogue effects can be created – overall, I enjoyed these and was once more reminded of a rather compelling ability array, with higher levels providing the means to render objects animated or silver them. The adamantine coating is also secured behind an appropriate minimum level, and the archetype provides an alternate capstone.

 

Next up would be the dustbringer mageknight, who gains proficiency with simple and monk weapons as well as light armor, and begins play with the wrecker oracle curse as well as Creation and the limited creation drawback – as always, this can be offset if the character already has the sphere. The archetype nets alter (destroy), which should, alongside the curse and name, cue you in on what it specializes in: The dustbringer is an unarmed monk-y item-destruction specialist that blends unarmed strike with alter (destroy) and sports 7 unique mystic combat options that include auras that can destroy incoming attacks, extend the ability of alter (destroy) to animated objects and constructs, or, with another talent, living beings etc. Minor complaint here: Formatting isn’t perfect in this one and somewhat inconsistent. Some moderate Destruction sphere synergy is also possible, allowing for (blast shape) talents to be added.

 

The thaumaturge may elect for the path of the knight of willpower, who modifies forbidden lore to add +50% CL increase to Creation, Light and Telekinesis, though this does not influence invocation bonus. This may be boosted even further, but at the cost of unavoidable backlash. I consider the increase here to be somewhat overkill – sure, the drawback is significant, but the escalation of CL is something that worries me greatly. The meditation and lingering pain invocations are replaced with Will-save rerolling and adding a shaken effect to glow effects from the Light sphere. They also get a buff/debuff aura versus fear plus immunity instead of occult knowledge, and an alternate bonus feat list. Incanters can gain two new specializations, one of which, at 2 points, Master of Creation, prevents taking Sphere Focus (Creation) and represents a specialization here, while Sword Birth nets armory arena and limited arsenal tricks. Hedgewitches may choose the new transmuter tradition, which nets Knowledge (engineering) and (nature) as well as Intimidate and limited use item changing via touch that improves regarding the maximum size of item affected at higher levels. Later, these folks may transmute objects into creatures and animals into different types, while also bestowing knowledge on how to use this new body via one of the 4 new tradition secret. 3 grand ones are also included here. A general one allows for dabbling in these tricks, and the section closes with a talent for the unchained rogue to create tools.

 

The undoubtedly most important chapter within this book, though, would be the basic magic section, wherein the creation of alchemical items and poisons is tightly codified and makes for a very important, and flexibility-wise super cool modification. Similarly, being capable of altering unattended non-magical objects in burst is great…and creating objects with momentum makes dropping objects on foes a significantly more feasible option. Fans of the Loony Tunes should take heed! The update of the Expanded Materials talent, which encompasses acidic creation, gaseous creation, plasma production, etc. is similarly a godsend. Magnifying and minimizing objects, creating matter from force, generating significant amounts of liquid…and what about the talent that lets you generate a constant stream of replicas with your effects. Manipulating how rigid objects are, creating restraining cases for targets, making material transparent…this chapter is a complex expansion to the sphere that it desperately needed, and it presents a whole slew of versatile options for clever players.

 

The advanced talent array this time around, and it contains 10 advanced talents; as an aside, I am not the biggest fan of the talent Plasma Production having the same name as the ability of the subsection of aforementioned Expanded Materials: Plasma Production; a single “advanced” or somesuch word would have made working with the nomenclature here easier, but that is me nitpicking. And yes, this allows for the creation of energy weapons. Want a light sword? There you go! Really high-level characters can learn to create adamantine and similar materials, and yes, with these, you can use advanced talents to modify the body of targets into other materials. Skin of gold? Yes, siree! There also are crossover tricks here – spherecasters that also have the Nature sphere and fire package can create/alter lava and magma. Picture me cackling maniacally here. All in all, I very much enjoyed this section as well.

 

The pdf then proceeds to present no less than 12 different feats. Once more, formatting is not always perfect within these pages, but there are feats that provide multiclassing support…and there are some really neat ones: One lets you ready an action (alternatively, works with spell point + immediate actions) to alter destructive blasts and codifies the types via damage and interaction there correctly. Countering ranged attacks and spell effects is another pretty potent and cool option here. The classic Dual Sphere talent array that we expect here is included as well, providing synergy with e.g. Enhancement and Telekinesis. Creating longer walls and disguise specializing via wardrobe creation may be found as well. 4 traits can be found – these are potent and meaningful, going beyond boring numerical bonuses.

 

The drawbacks presented are interesting: Being limited to water/ice/steam creation, to gaseous forms or needing to be in contact with objects certainly made me think of comic book heroes and interesting character concepts. Using your own body in a painful way to “create” could be seen as an interesting engine base-line to duplicate an array of iconic scenes as well. The pdf also sports a new general drawback that requires the drawing of a diagram to work – this reminded me, obviously, of Full Metal Alchemist – and that is a good thing. The section also presents 7 alternate racial traits that focus, unsurprisingly, on the Creation sphere.

 

Finally, it should be noted that the pdf contains 6 magic items. Beyond aforementioned energy swords, there is the +3-equivalent plasma blade property; Wall slats allow for a the creation of expanding walls as a nice low-cost item. The wizard’s cube of gaming is basically a fold-out gaming table and acts as a challenge of skill and luck that rewards those that play well; two variants of this item are also part of the deal here.

 

Conclusion:

Editing per se is very good on a formal and rules-language level; formatting, on the other hand, isn’t. I encountered quite a bunch of faulty italicizations and formatting instances of rules-relevant material, and due to the complexity of the system at hand the nomenclature employed, these deviations made a couple of rules harder to grasp than they otherwise would have been. Layout adheres to a two-column full-color standard and the pdf sports a couple of solid full-color artworks. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.

 

Michael Uhland has vastly improved his design-game since his humble beginnings. The handbook for the creation sphere certainly was one of the harder ones to craft, much less provide inspiring and interesting content for. This pdf manages to achieve that and makes creation fun and exciting, clarifies rules and vastly expands the material at hand. This would, were it not for the annoying formatting hiccups, my favorite handbook in the whole series so far; it offers a bunch of very interesting character options; unique feats, great talents – all in all, this is a really, really cool supplement and a worthy addition to the series. My final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, though I will round up for the purpose of this platform. The book is too good to round down. Well done!

 

You can get this cool supplement here on OBS!

 

Want the Hero Lab files? You can find them here!

 

The pdf/Hero-lab bundle can be found here!

 

You can directly support Drop Dead Studios making more Spheres of Power/Might-supplements here on patreon!

 

Endzeitgeist out.

 

Oct 152018
 

Black Sun Deathcrawl (DCC)

This supplement clocks in at 64 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 60 pages, laid out for 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), which means that you can fit up to 4 pages on a given sheet of paper when printing this one.

 

This supplement/module was brought to my attention by one of my patreons, who asked me to review this at my leisure and wished to remain anonymous. Thank you.

 

So, what is this? Well, “Black Sun Deathcrawl” is an experimental one-shot or basic campaign kit, depending on how you look at it. Others may call it “art”, while for some others, this may be about as enjoyable as a root canal; this is a polarizing booklet, and intentionally so.

 

This review could be said to “SPOIL”, the booklet, but it’s about experiencing *our* iteration of this anyhow – there is not much plot to SPOIL, but still, please consider this to be the obligatory SPOILER warning. This should also be considered to be a TRIGGER-WARNING regarding depression and all associated topics. If you exhibit strong reactions towards depressing movies, media or the like, if mono-no-aware stories can plunge you into days of bleak moods, then you should probably be very careful with this one.

 

From the first page, doom-laden proclamations in huge fonts are used to convey tone, rather than setting; indeed, that is perhaps one of the most defining characteristics of this booklet: The setting it assumes is paper-thin and mostly implied; this, like a good piece of atmospheric black metal or ambient, is not about the text it contains, though said text is important. Instead, this is more about giving you the toolkits and tone for a game unlike any I have ever encountered.

 

Flanked by full-page illustrations by none other than Gustave Doré, this archaic, savage tone is perfectly illustrated, the visuals of the public domain artworks arguably encompassing the despair inherent in this book in a way that few, if any other illustrations would have achieved.

 

The first page, in huge letters, almost screams at you “In the beginning…there was nothing.” Then, the twin suns ascended, and the eponymous Black Sun resulted in the anxiety of separation from the All; “The door between the All and the Other slammed shut”; in a kind of free-form poetry, in a form of gospel of the end-times, the pdf then proceeds to note that the Black Sun is now unleashed. It sits, a black hole, a singularity, a kind of entropy, at the center of a bleak and desolate land, and the survivors, the Cursed, they are digging, trying to escape the Black Sun’s dark light and the Terrible Thoughts it send forth.

 

Direct exposure to its light causes you to roll on a chart that ranges from migraines to skinscabs to extended limbs, with 15 entries provided. One grows a wormtongue, which will then proceed to have prophecies of doom being handed by the judge to the player. This is experimental in many ways, and it is not a supplement for those currently recovering from depression…or it may well be particularly useful for such folks…it depends on the temperament.

 

You see, in a way, the Black Sun is no antichrist – it will reach Ultima Omega and break free, consuming all; the Cursed, escaping its light, are loosening its shackles. The tone is further emphasized by the character-creation, veiled in so-called “truths”: “Identity is irrelevant in the face of oblivion.” Characters have no names, no races. They are only the Cursed. You roll 4d6 and drop the lowest result for attributes. Only the strong survive. Knowledge has no meaning – there are no wizards. Possessions have no value. There are no thieves. If there are higher powers, they don’t care. There are no clerics. PCs begin with 1d6 starting corruption and are warriors sans equipment.

 

Every half hour of real game time accumulates Black Light as well, with only a rare material offering temporary respite from the rays of the Black Sun. Most importantly, Luck is replaced with hope – and it is finite and does not replenish. Indeed, the book provides rules for the theft of hope between players, allowing for PvP and some nasty grieving. If your group can’t handle that and/or differentiate between PC and player actions. The final 3 points of Hope may not be stolen, only burned. Mighty deeds are only triggered by burning the last Hope.

 

Characters are immortal – if they are reduced to 0 hit points, they regenerate fully one round later, but they do gain Black Light corruption. Now, there is a level up system based on the entropy roll (which is never mentioned again…), but ultimately, that one is as moot a concept as you’d expect.

 

There is a god, the final god, falling back through time as a great leitmotif, and the aforementioned Terrible Thoughts…they can’t be killed. The appendix included for music, art and similar inspiration features btw. an assortment of media that I own and very much enjoy, but then again, that is no surprise.

 

If the minimalist rules-array and its consequences above don’t make that abundantly clear: This book is one of the bleakest supplements I have ever read, and it is remarkable in the purity of its desolate vision. That being said, somewhat to my chagrin, pg 47 ff, the book presents a series of 5 encounters with stats and read-aloud text that have in common that they employ regular fantasy elements…and that they feel, after the exceedingly tight first section of the book, like an addendum, like a watering down of what this is. It is an application of principles, yes, but it is one that is tamer than what has come before. You wouldn’t miss much skipping this whole section. The supplement comes with a char-sheet for the Cursed.

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good on a formal level; on a rules-language level, the material could be slightly more precise in a couple of instances. Layout adheres toa 1-column b/w-standard, with many pages containing but a few words, driving home the dogma of hopelessness that this seeks to evoke. The pdf has no bookmarks, which constitutes a comfort-detriment. The artworks by Gustave Doré are a perfect fit for the subject matter here.

 

James Mac George’s “Black Sun Deathcrawl” has been discounted as a lesson in abject nihilism, as a player-endurance test, as a grimdark test of the capacity to withstand misery. Those assertions, in a way, are correct, but they fail to see the whole picture…or they haven’t played it. Trying to run this will result in a couple of marvelous observations: As a species, we humans are conditioned to think in terms of cause and effect, according to quite a few philosophers and biologists, the explanation of the fear of the unknown and this tendency tended to forge us into the beings that we now are, that, as a whole, can believe in a higher power, in the fact that some random act of kindness will be repaid, that the evil are punished, etc., even though there is no objective metric by which this holds true. The fallacy of assuming cause and effect, of presuming a meaningful existence beyond the meaning we individually ascribe to it, is deeply ingrained in our psyche and cultural consciousness.

 

It’s why poetic justice resonates…and it’s also why some people exhibit an almost violent reaction towards any form of nihilism or nihilistic tendencies. The lack of a universal purpose is seen as an atrocious, all-consuming emptiness, and indeed, I have witnessed close friends reacting almost violently when confronted with this form of weltanschauung. The thing is, on a personal level, it is nigh impossible, perhaps due to an evolutionary imperative, to stop looking for or generating meaning, even if you subscribe to nihilism as your philosophy. It is impossible to play this supplement without the interplay of players and judge generating some form of meaning that is shared, even in a no-win-scenario like this, even if you preface the game by stating that there is no winning possible.

 

This is, perhaps, what can render this supplement, in the right hands, for the right groups, almost therapeutic.

 

In case you were wondering: the review above didn’t by accident evoke words that one would associate with Lars von Trier. In case you haven’t seen “Melancholia” – it is a movie that uses an end of the world scenario to showcase how basically an externalized metaphor for depression can prove depressive tendencies right and make it a somewhat benign factor. Suffice to say, I considered said movie to be extremely problematic, but also valuable, because it represents an apt visual metaphor for the depths of depression, when the certainty of futility and suffering is the only thing that can provide a twisted mockery of joy, when the depression-induced confirmation-bias of the very worst-case scenarios is all that you can accept.

 

Black Sun Deathcrawl, in spite of its grimdark trappings, tone and theme, in spite of doing something similar, is an infinitely more successful piece of fiction than the movie ever will be.

 

The Black Sun is an obvious metaphor for depression, or at least this should be obvious to anyone who ever had to fight it.

 

It sits square at the center of the world, and it expands, continuously. No matter how deep you dig, there is, no matter how far you retreat from the world, there is no escape. The Black Light will penetrate the covers, the doors, everything. The exposure chart, which features entries like migraine, skinscabs and mental and physical deterioration should sound familiar; the wormtongue mentioned before is reminiscent or a form of MPD due to a breakdown; degeneration, being only capable of walking of all fours (i.e. too weak to walk upright…akin to animals, akin to something lesser than human) – the whole chart, in a way, can be seen as symptoms as seen through the filter of gaming and dark fantasy.

 

It sends out Terrible Thoughts that destroy anything in their path, that can’t be stopped. Even the divine, even gods, can provide no succor, no shelter. The Black Sun is, in a way, a depression simulator disguised as a game.

 

That notwithstanding, I consider this to be an uplifting book; perhaps even a book that could help some people out there to claw their way out of the throes of depression. Why? Well, the first reason is one of mechanics. You can’t die. “Only when their Hope attribute reaches 0 may they actually perish.” May. Not Must. There is CHOICE there, and this single word is extremely important. It must be a CHOICE to succumb. Otherwise, the wheel in the sky keeps turning, and the nightmare continues. There never needs to be a game-over.

 

This serves an important purpose. It gives people who have never faced it a tiny glimpse, filtered through the lens of a game, of the immense struggle that depression demands from anyone afflicted, of the willpower required to even get out of bed, face another day with this horrid affliction, of the experience of universal futility and hopelessness sans recourse but the one you don’t want to take. Death. Choosing not to go on.

 

And yet, this is not a depressing book, contrary to the claims fielded against it. In a way, Black Sun Deathcrawl is a participatory performance artwork: By playing it, you cannot help but interact with other humans; you cannot help but tell your story, ascribe meaning on a personal level. The booklet employs the disjunction between the reality of the game and that of the table in an exceedingly clever manner: While, within the setting, there is no recourse, no salvation to be found, even if one subscribes as a person to the most fundamental anti-natalist level of pessimism and nihilism, this is, by its very structure, a performed subversion of the all-encompassing nature of depression; the Black Sun Deathcrawl, ironically, is the one thing that can defeat, or at least weaken, the Black Sun.

 

Because it, by nature of it being a roleplaying game supplement, exists beyond the confines of its narrative; because there will be laughter, anger, perhaps even tears at the table. Because there is something beyond the Black Sun, even if it seems to be impossible to defeat, even if it seems to be all-encompassing and all-consuming.

 

In a way, Black Sun Deathcrawl can be the light, the real light, that exists beyond the Black Sun; it, as a book, as a game, can help understand those affected by depression, while also having the potential of offering a brief glimpse of hope, just by being played.

 

This doesn’t have to work for everyone. I do not claim sovereignty regarding my interpretation or perception of this supplement, and I certainly don’t wish to claim that this is a therapeutic tool; this does not replace getting professional help, and it (probably – you never know!) won’t end a depression. I’m just saying that it can be a signpost, a compass, that, under the right circumstances, may point the way past the Black Sun’s seemingly all-encompassing glare.

 

I wouldn’t play this with strangers at a con; I wouldn’t play it with acquaintances. But I certainly think that, among true friends, this can indeed be a beautiful and eye-opening experience, and one that is not even marred by the somewhat lackluster encounters at the end or by the minor inconsistencies. This is not for everybody out there; but I maintain that, for some people, it may, at least for a while, garner understanding and perhaps even pierce the veil of the Black Sun and leave one or two Terrible Thoughts where they belong – in the pages of a small supplement, confined in the shape of a few letters and numbers.

 

Oh, and guess what? This is, at least in its electronic iteration, available for PWYW!

 

In spite of its minor flaws, this is very much worth checking out. If what I described even remotely resonates with you, then please, take a look.

If you suffer from depression, please get help; talk to your friends and family, and don’t be ashamed.

 

There is nothing to be ashamed of.

 

If I can do something for you, do tell me.

You are not alone.

 

My final verdict will be 5 stars + seal of approval.

 

You can (usually) get the pdf here! (As per the writing of this review, the PWYW pdf seems to be temporarily offline, but it’s likely to return!)

 

You can purchase the print version of this supplement here on Goodman Games’ store!

 

Endzeitgeist out.

 

Oct 122018
 

Mutants in Toyland (MCC)

This adventure/environment clocks in at 60 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a massive 56 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

 

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue…because I wanted to. Post-apocalypse is a genre that is not employed as often, and Goodman Games’ Mutant Crawl Classics provides a unique twist on the subject matter…and, unless I am sorely mistaken, this may well be the very first MCC 3rd part adventure released!

 

Structurally, this funnel is a combination of a sandbox that allows for a wide variety of different outcomes, and a more story-driven experience. It can be run as a straight fire and forget module, but arguably can provide more playtime by virtue of its free-form set-up. The module does include read-aloud text for the regions visited, and provides guidance with sample answers to likely questions posed in NPC interactions, making free-forming these conversations easy for judges usually not that well-versed in portraying such interactions.

 

Now, this being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.

..

.

Okay, only judges around? Great! So, after the Great Disaster, Sammy Squirrel’s Smart Toys went dark, as the AI running the place went into power conservation mode to weather the centuries. When Servitors of a bored Star Child found the store, it reactivated – and combat ensued. In the centuries since the Great Disaster, the neural consciousness had been severed, allowing the Smart Toys to gain consciousness. Pilgrims, in the meanwhile, followed the “Star” of the Servitors, encountered the toys and promptly began worshiping them as gods. Not all sentient Smart Toys liked that, and thus, further fragmentation and shenanigans ensued…but that’s not all. Amoral and bound to the program, the Sammy Squirrel began substituting organic components in the creation of new toys, giving rise to Toy-Borgs and abominations. It is into this chaos that the PCs stumble.

That is a recipe for delightful chaos, and the AI acting as it does makes sense; plus, the Freddy Fazbear-like style of Sammy on the cover immediately gave me the creeps, big time. Now, if all of this seems like it’s a pretty large amount of things to decide and room required to make the factions work, then you’d be correct. However, the module does not leave you alone as a judge; instead, and this is a big plus regarding replay value and unique adversaries: Each faction comes with an at-one-glance summary of goals, leaders, noting leaders, allies and the like at one glance before providing details regarding the faction in question. Moreover, these do include, for example sample stats for members. These stats, however, do not just come with the basics, oh no! Each of the factions comes with tables to customize the aesthetics of the adversaries and NPCs encountered, and in some cases also provide more detailed customizations with MV values included, to give you just one example.

 

Beyond the factions I noted, there also are the Dollies, who want to make the store presentable once more; there are the Furries, which are led, no surprise there, by a bear. I’m having 5 Nights at Freddy’s flashbacks right now. In an adorable and really cool twist, these guys do have a weakness – hugging them makes them hug back! This can really generate some bizarrely-hilarious “AWWWW”-moments. Unique abilities of e.g. the Servitors, Sammy’s holograms and mechanically-relevant Toyborg modifications to customize them… all of these details are bizarre, weird, and oftentimes hilarious in a way…plain and simple, really cool. Oh, and guess what: The module does account for the means of using a Toyborg as a replacement PC! (A similar option is noted for toy worshipers, fyi!)

 

Now, the module sports a rather significant array of toys, and as such, it uses Artifact Checks, but for toys, these do not require the expenditure of Luck, which adds to the leitmotif of whacky playfulness suffusing this adventure, allowing the PCs and players to experiment with penalizing them for doing so. The sandboxy support goes so far to have tables suggesting two-faction or multi-faction encounters, with the respective tables further making the actual use of the module easier. The module presents its sandboxy aspects thus as comfortable for the judge to implement as you can potentially demand from a module.

 

This level of customization options also pertains to the amount of hooks that the funnel provides. It is this amount of tweaks that ensures that the module’s factions and environments may remain relevant beyond the scope of this adventure.

 

That being said, this is nonetheless also a story-driven module, and as such, it begins with an introductory scene, wherein the PCs happen upon mula-a-pedes (with their own mutation table!) and thus happen upon the buried toy store – this choice of location also allows the judge to potentially bury the place sans bigger impact on the setting or seamlessly plug and play it into ongoing campaigns, should such a solution be desired. After all, the extensive customization tricks ultimately do translate to the module being pretty easy to organically scale to higher levels.

 

Anyhow, the PCs are greeted by the slightly mad Sammy Squirrel, who obviously is an AI hologram in its decidedly unnerving following of programming and inability to process the state of the world of Terra A.D. As the PCs proceed to explore the store, they can find a wide variety of unique toys that come with evocative descriptions and rules-relevant effects, with TLs and CMs noted as appropriate. From smart boomerangs to zeroballs and hoverboards, another man’s toys may be a wasteland survivor’s potent tricks. Encountering the toy worshipers (led by, obviously, Ma-Ma…), finding the seasonal room of the store that can indeed change, med-bay (featuring boo-boo bandages, for example…), fake and real traps…there is a ton of stuff to find and encounter, and indeed, quite a few quests can be unearthed by encountering the diverse factions. Sarge and his toy soldiers, for example, want to secure the store from the invasion that they know will come. Mister Bear, the leader of the Furries-faction has a slight temper, which makes the sample dialogue one of the most hilarious examples of writing I’ve seen in a while – picture it, and then remember that hugging the fellow will make him hug back. Regardless of short fuse and a somewhat less than enthused relationship with regular folks and moderates – damn meat-huggers! XD (For the information of real life furries – this is not fursecution; it is not mean-spirited…unless you want to run it that way!)

 

This glorious absurdity encapsulates and captures a tone that is hard to get right without losing the thrill, without devolving into just fun and giggles. Ultimately, it’s the oscillation between what’s funny and what could be played as downright horrific that makes sections like this so successful within the confines of the adventure. This can also be aptly envisioned by the second level, where a room has Sammy (who makes for a great judge-proxy; bonus points for inhaling helium before speaking as Sammy…): “These pods let your parents make a backup copy of what they value the most: YOU!…” This notion of kids being clones by potentially neglectful parents in a pre-apocalypse dystopia…actually managed to send shivers up my spine, particularly since the system isn’t (and perhaps never was) reliable. Pet-combiner is another such super-science aperture that really creeped me out, and its undone button is broken…

 

Heck, this tightrope-like oscillation of tones that makes this work so well, combined with the attention to detail, is pretty impressive throughout. Candy with weird effects and notes on using them as nutrition (and the consequences!)…those are just a couple of examples.

 

Where I frankly started to stare in disbelief at the pages in front of me, was when the module provided the Game Room. Here, the PCs can enter a holo-dungeon (complete with a d7-table of holographic character classes!) and basically roleplay a fantasy roleplaying game within the roleplaying game. Yep, including adversary overlay and obvious further adventuring potential – as Sammy Squirrel, GM, notes, they can always get the full experience! Questing for new levels or simulations could make for some great adventure hooks and may well allow for a combination of MCC and more traditional fantasy games or even the blending of systems! After all, it’s perfectly feasible that the hologram game played may adhere to different rules! Or, well, you can just have that be a brief, if fun encounters wherein the PCs battle illusory adversaries…but why waste this vast potential? I mean, you can roleplay MCC-PCs roleplaying usual characters! That can and will be funny as all heck!

 

Did I mention that PCs can well become sleeper agents, and that the module can conclude in a truly amazing free-for-all bout of epic proportions?

 

Conclusions:

Editing and formatting re top-notch, I noticed no serious issues. Layout adheres to a nice and printer-friendly two-column b/w-standard with purple high-lights. The artworks presented throughout are often really neat full-color pieces, but the aesthetic highlight for me personally would be the GORGEOUS b/w-isometric maps, with artworks, details and grids all noted…and even better if you’re, for example, playing via VTTs or the like: In contrast to the (amazingly beautiful) Good man games maps, the maps within actually do come with an unlabeled, key-less version! You could print them out sans SPOILERS, cut them up and hand them out or use them in VTT. That is a huge plus for me, particularly considering the top-notch quality of the maps.

 

While Keith Garrett has, to my knowledge, contributed to the Gongfarmer’s Almanac community ‘zine before, this is the first of his books that I have read, and it’s his first release as sole author. As such, this would have received a freshman bonus and some leeway from yours truly. However, Mutants in Toyland is a rarity among such books in that it frankly doesn’t need me to be merciful.

 

Even if I wanted to pick this apart, it would withstand such attempts, as it perfectly encapsulates the outré and outrageous, wild and weird tone of MCC, walking the narrow path between being horrific and hilarious. You could run this for laughs and giggles, as something utterly disturbing or a combination thereof; tonally, this reminded me of the essence of my favorite Fallout-series moments, distilled and expanded upon, and then injected in a concentrated form.

 

Mutants in toyland is a furious debut of delightfully quirky and quarrelsome factions and places that will stay with you long after the adventure itself has ended; in fact, I can see this acting as a really cool and novel starting settlement or PC homebase of sorts!

 

If what I mentioned above, if the concept even remotely interested you, then you will want to checks this out; I’d even go so far as to recommend this module beyond the confines of its system, for the unique concepts work just as well in DCC or any other game. This is one amazing book and provides yet another super-impressive entry in Purple Duck games’ DCC/MCC-lines. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval – highly recommended!!

 

You can get this great adventure here on OBS!

 

You can directly support Purple Duck Games releasing more DCC/MCC material here on patreon!

 

Endzeitgeist out.

 

Oct 122018
 

Pathfinder Playtest Analysis I – Ancestries v.1.4 Addendum

So, my observations regarding the ancestries in Pathfinder Playtest have been ninja’d by the release of the v.1.4 changes, which means that I have to go over A LOT of notes once more. In the meanwhile, consider this to be my addendum to the observations in my post on ancestries.

In case you haven’t seen it, you can find my original post here!

 

This series of posts was made possible by the generous contributions of the following folks:

-Jason Nelson

-BJ Hensley

-Chad Middleton

-Randy Price

-Christen Sowards

-Rick Hershey

-Chris Meacham

-Paco Garcia Jaen

-Justin Andrew Mason

-Stephen Rowe

-Jonathan Figliomeni

-Paul Fields

-Lucus Palosaari

-Anonymous

 

Now, the first thing I really enjoyed here would be that ancestries matter more. The double choice of 1.4, i.e. the fact that we get to choose a heritage and an ancestry feat at 1st level, translate to a more pronounced differentiation. That’s a very good thing in my book.

 

I am also pretty positive about dwarves losing unburdened and making it a heritage instead. Those are good changes. I also welcome the inclusion of higher level ancestry feats that allow further differentiation at higher level regarding ancestry-tricks.

 

Gnomes getting a speed upgrade is a good thing, and the heritage/ancestry-change means that half-elves and half-orcs are no longer all the same at level 1. The slight power-upgrade for halflings is also very much appreciated. Those are definite improvements, as far as I’m concerned.

 

That being said, if we take the ancestry feats into account, we’ll still notice a discrepancy in power between a few of them; Elf Step, the new 9th level ancestry feat for elves, for example, can in the long run add a whole tactical dimension, while Guiding Luck, in comparison, feels less impressive. Nonetheless, high-level ancestry feats are definitely a good step in the right direction. From a rules-language perspective, Elf Step already is one of the significant flexibility-boosting feats that X pdfs will forget about existing, resulting in potential cheeses.

 

Thus, while I do consider this to be an improvement and now opens up much needed design space for future races to be released, the ancestries, as far as I’m concerned, don’t align perfectly on a power-curve at this moment.

 

I foresee another problem, particularly for half-orc and half-elf and the similar, inevitable hybrid ancestries, at higher levels: Previously, the prohibitive cost of being one of these fellows was the price to pay for the ancestry-feat flexibility at higher levels. This drawback is now gone, and the two thus get to cherry pick from 2 lists of ancestry feats. This wouldn’t have been an issue previously (or at least, less of an issue!), but the design-paradigm has changed to include more potent higher-level ancestry feats, which can and will produce issues sooner or later during the game’s lifespan. A limitation caveat for the cherry-picking of these options is something I’d very much suggest to be implemented for half-breeds.

 

It is unsurprising that, at this point, flavor-concerns are not addressed. However, as a person, I sincerely hope that the default speed value is changed back to 30 ft. Not only because it makes the job for those of us, who, like me, think in the metric system, easier – it’s also a matter of retaining a part of Paizo’s target demographic, as one of my readers remarked in an e-mail.

 

Indeed, I have received a couple of e-mails that specifically brought something to my attention that I did not take into account:

 

30 ft., or multiples thereof, are pretty much the default speed of a TON of different roleplaying game systems. From the mainstream iterations of D&D to a metric ton of old-school retroclones, there are a gazillion systems that assume a 30 ft. movement rate and the grids such systems feature, if any, the dimensions of traps, corridors, etc. are often based on these values. Now, sure, movement rates aren’t the toughest things to modify for a character, but they carry a long tail of magic modifications etc. with them, and as a GM, judge, etc., a deviation there could mean that certain dungeons eand effects no longer run as smoothly and require work where they previously didn’t.

 

But why would Paizo care about that? Well, at least judging from the folks that contacted me, there is a target demographic of folks that love the Pathfinder adventures, but that don’t like the system, perhaps due to time-constraints emphasizing a more rules-lite gaming to get more out of a session; perhaps due to other personal tastes. I have been asked time and again by 5e GMs to recommend some amazing Pathfinder adventure in both 1st and 3pp circuits. There also are quite a few GMs that prefer the facility of rules-lite OSR-systems, but who nonetheless enjoy Paizo’s story-driven APs over traditional old-school dungeon-crawling and module design. There are plenty of folks that play the adventures, but not the system.

 

Granted, those folks are not the central target demographic of Paizo, and I have no idea how many such groups there are out there, but they do exist, and judging from the requests and responses I received over the years, there seem to be more of these groups out there than I anticipated. Backwards compatibility to PF 1 is also something that’s hampered with this decision – though that may well be intentional. So yeah, still not sold on the speed base values.

 

As a whole, I consider 1.4’s ancestry-changes to be a HUGE step in the right direction, but at the same time, I am hopeful that we’ll get to see more changes and tweaks made to components of this revamped system. I don’t expect the goblins to go (though I’m not a fan), but from a purely mechanical point of view, version 1.4 represents a definite improvement as a whole. The details need some polish, but that’s what this Playtest is for, right? 🙂

 

Anyways, see you next week, when I’ll be covering backgrounds, skills, etc., with v. 1.4 already taken into account – hopefully without being ninja’d by v.1.5…

If you enjoy my articles and want to support what I’m doing, please consider supporting my patreon – it directly influences how much time I can devote to reviewing. You can find it here!

 

Endzeitgeist out.

Oct 122018
 

20 Things: Traveller’s Inn (system neutral)

This installment of the #20 Things-series clocks in at 11 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of advertisement, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 5 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

 

All righty, we begin this installment with 6 sample traveller NPCs, who, as always, are depicted as fluff-only write-ups, noting alignment, race and class, if applicable, in brackets. Class references do mention the old-school classes like thief and magic-users. A lavishly-illustrated ranger wearing a wide-brimmed, feathered head (seriously, amazing artwork!), a magic-user looking for a lost barrow-mound…some really nice write-ups here; the NPCs do sport plenty of adventuring hooks. The pdf then proceeds to provide 8 locals and staffers: From sharp-tongued old ladies to borderline alcoholics and chronically disorganized folks, these fellows are rather fun and a diverse lot.

 

A massive entry of no less than 20 entries of tavern dressing notes old carvings of names in tables, tables and chairs for small folk, expensive drinks in locked cabinets – I adored this section. It did what it’s supposed to do: Add detail and jumpstart my imagination in unconventional ways. 12 different sights, sounds and events, including kids bored into mischief, barrels running dry and the arrival of travelers can change the dynamics of the inn, and if you’re gunning for a brawl, why not take a look at the 6 bar brawl triggers?

 

Now, obviously, an inn is most commonly differentiated from a tavern by the presence of proper guest rooms – as such, 12 different dressing entries for the rooms are presented. With shutters that sport loosened hinges. Threadbare rugs concealing weathered parchments and the sigils of dark gods carved into headboards, these are big time adventure hooks – kudos here! Beyond these, there actually are 8 different things that previous guests have actually left behind. Cries for help penned hastily down on parchments left in cloaks, sodden mattresses smelling of feces, a shredded, bloody sock left in a bin – some neat discoveries here!

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to an elegant, minimalist 2-column b/w-standard, and the pdf sports a couple of really nice b/w-artworks. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, and the pdf comes in two different versions, one of which is optimized for screen-use, and one is optimized for printing it out.

 

Creighton Broadhurst’s take on a Traveller’s Inn is one of the strongest entries in the series – the dressing is diverse, inspiring and smart. It’s down to earth and easy to use, jumpstarts your imagination and the PCs *will* want to investigate quite a few of these! This is all one could ask of such a dressing-pdf; as such, my final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval.

 

You can get this cool dressing file here on OBS!

 

You can directly support Raging Swan Press here on patreon!

 

Endzeitgeist out.

 

Oct 112018
 

Club Anyone: An Interface Zero Novel

And now for something completely different!

 

Club Anyone is a novel that clocks in at a total of 308 pages of content, with visual representations of the setting helping to envision the setting, TRIC city, on Mars.

 

This review was requested by one of my readers. I have received a print copy of the book for the purpose of an unbiased review.

 

It should be noted that this book contains well-written descriptions of sex, substance abuse and the like – these are not gratuitous, and they are written in a concise and well-presented manner, but I felt the need to state this for your convenience. While I try to be as SPOILER-free as possible in my discussion below, I do SPOIL some structural surprises that the book has to offer. I only do so in an abstract manner, but I do so nonetheless in my discussion below; if you like the notion of cyberpunk/scifi-noir, then check this out sans reading further; if you’re skeptical regarding the genre, then you may want to continue reading.

 

So, let me preface this review with a couple of observations: This book takes place in Gun Metal Games’ Interface Zero setting, which means that it can draw upon a wide variety of different concepts and established lore – at least in theory.

 

This is, at once, a potential boon for the book, and, if one takes a look at the books released for other roleplaying games settings, a potentially huge issue. Don’t get me wrong: I have devoured a ton of Dragonlance, Forgotten realms, etc. novels in my day…but at one point, they all started to bore me to some degree. A central issue of books based on roleplaying systems is the question of system-adherence and structure: Roleplaying settings, system-immanently, expect not a single protagonist, but rather a whole party of them, and in my experience, there’s a pretty good chance that one or more characters end up as annoying – and the more such protagonists there are, the more disjointed is the sense of immersion, the less room you have to develop the characters in question. We can add to that the huge issue of the adherence to the system, which represents a gigantic Catch 22-scenario: If you deviate from the system’s realities, you end up disappointing the expectations of those wishing for a faithful depiction of the realities of the setting. If you adhere to them, you’re often left with issues regarding the story that you actually want to tell – the rules don’t always lend themselves to helping make the experience of telling a novel’s story exciting.

 

The second issue pertains lore-depth: You can’t assume every reader to be intensely familiar with obscure setting-details, but explaining them all in detail can result in huge, and potentially boring exposition dumps. This is an issue that we can observe with many comic books nowadays, where the interconnectedness and background canon has reached a ridiculous depth that makes them less accessible than they once were.

 

Thirdly, there is the issue of the type of story: Many books falter due to trying to tell a pen-and-paper-RPG-story in the guise of a linear book; perhaps one with only 2 – 3 players, but nonetheless. Combined with the above, this makes for quite a burden for the author, even before taking the need to be canonical into account.

 

Let it be known that “Club Anyone” manages to navigate these pitfalls admirably; to the point where the book made me intensely curious to read more from the setting. It does so in a pretty smart manner: Instead of jamming exposition dumps into the narrative where they wouldn’t fit, the book introduces a precious few concepts that all characters would be familiar with (and thus not talk about) in the beginning of a few of the chapters, in the guise of Encyclopedia Brasilia entries or a delightfully amusing advertisement for a piece of tech. Note that I experimented with skipping these, and the story and plotline STILL work without a hitch; they just serve to bring you up to speed with the setting.

 

The more important decision, and what really ultimately made this book work, is the protagonist Derek Tobbit. He is not a superhero, an outlaw, a chosen one. He is just a regular megacorp programmer, one who specializes in bioroids – think of these basically as lobotomized, programmable clone/machine hybrids. In the first chapter, the prologue if you will, we witness Derek become a hero of sorts on his first day at work on Mars after migrating there for the job…only to have him plunged into a personal catastrophe that spirals out of control on a personal and more global scale.

 

This approach manages to achieve something rather impressive, namely that it, by letting us share in the protagonist’s triumph, immediately generate sympathy for the man, which is then further developed upon. We have a relatable main character from the get-go. This is so important, because the novel could be described as a scifi-noir-thriller: We do have a very human and fragile individual here, not an iron-clad superman, but the cynicism that is so prevalent in noir aesthetics, is, at least in the beginning, absent.

 

Aforementioned personal tragedy and struggle then proceed to have this average Joe become pretty much steeped in the vortex of grime and twilight that we associate with noir aesthetics; in this, the early section of the book, the writing becomes pretty bleak, cynical and suffused with a rather potent sense of pessimism, one constantly enhanced by the dystopian corporate control, the omnipresence of augmented reality. It is here that, at least for me, some of the most remarkable (and wise) sentences throughout the book exist. The interaction with the severely limited cab-service AI Aygee, which poignantly remarks “Sorrow exists, Derek Tobbit,” serves as one example of this notion, and also as a kind of leitmotif. It should be noted though, that the book remains more personal and never reaches the sense of cosmic bleakness and nihilism that e.g. suffuses the “Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” or similar books by Dick et al. We remain deeply entrenched in the noir-aesthetics, and indeed, the book, without putting too fine a point on it, manages to retain the human dimension that is so crucial for noir-aesthetics. In a way, the Augmented Reality angle that is so important throughout the book represents a subtextual transgression of the boundaries of how reality is read by the characters, and proves to be the catalyst for the most potent narrative forces, both benign and malignant.

 

Indeed, one could argue that “Club Anyone” is exceedingly successfully and engrossing in the way it manages to encapsulate the tropes of the noir genre, and then proceeds to slowly subvert them; yes, there are plenty of examples regarding the tropes you’d expect within, but they are, on an intrinsic level, subverted in their tone and outcome. In a way, the book, like the leitmotifs of augmented reality and corporate control, controls them on a structural level, but transforms them in a rather benign and surprising manner; at one point, the narrative ceases to revel in the grime of Blade Runner-esque darkness, and transforms into a page-turner, a high-octane conspiracy high-scifi page-turner.

 

It is this bait and switch that represents one of the strongest points of the novel, and one of its weaknesses, depending on how you read it: On the one hand, there is careful deliberation in the motif of rebirth, which is also applied to genre that you’d associate this book with. On the other hand, I’d lie if I said that I didn’t get a kind of thematic whiplash during this turning point. Once it has passed, things happen quickly and ferociously, and the plot speeds up significantly. At least for me personally, this second part of the book felt like it could have used a couple of extra pages. There are a lot of unique and captivating ideas and set-pieces briefly touched upon, but ultimately, this section rushes to the inevitable conclusion in a more sped up manner than I would have liked; with 50 – 100 extra pages fully developing the transition in genres and character growths during it, the book would have ranked as one of my all-time favorite scifi novels.

 

As written, the almost post-modern playfulness with genres and expectations does not realize its full potential in this second half of the book. However, that is not to say I did not enjoy myself – quite the contrary! While this second half loses a bit of the gravitas of the first half, it did, even in its imho weaker sections, provide more entertainment than the entirety of the sluggish blandfest of oh-so-critically-acclaimed “2312”; it’s also smarter and, in my opinion, more successful in its world-building/setting-utilization than that book.

 

In short: “Club Anyone” is a surprisingly fun and intelligent novel; it sports interesting and well-written characters you can relate to; its plot and tweaks actually managed to entertain and often, even surprise ole’ me. It’s also the least bleak noir-story that can still be called “noir” I have ever read, and for that alone, deserves accolades. Whether you consider the very condensed narrative a plus or minus depends on your perspective; personally, I could have seen this cover a full trilogy of books – easily! That being said, in spite of not being 100% enamored with the second half of the book, I have rarely found myself this profoundly touched by a science-fiction novel, as in the first half of this book. Considering that this is Lou Agresta’s first published novel, it represents an impressive achievement in more than one area: The characters are relatable and interesting, the pacing had me turn page after page; the prose is oftentimes profound without being artificially obtuse, and the deviations from genre-conventions make the book stand out. Similes and metaphors, both cleverly tweaked and original ones, provide an optional cosmos of associations for the well-read that adds a surprising level of associative depth to the proceedings.

 

Club Anyone is a really captivating proof of a very promising talent, one that has me excited for future offerings. Taking the freshman bonus into account, my final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval. Even if you absolutely loathe noir storylines, this is worth checking out.

 

Sorrow exists, yes…but so does happiness.

 

You can get this fascinating novel here on OBS!

 

Want print? You can find that here on amazon!

 

Endzeitgeist out.

 

Oct 112018
 

Everyman Minis: Magus Arcana

This installment of the Everyman Minis-series clocks in at 7 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page introduction, 2.5 pages of SRD, leaving us with 1.5 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

 

This supplement contains a total of 15 new magus arcana, so let’s take a look!

 

-Abundant Metamagic: This arcana needs another arcana that adds metamagic effects to a magus spell with daily uses, and allows for the payment of arcana points to not expend the limited uses of such metamagic enhancer arcanas. Nice. Should probably specify requiring such an arcana as a prerequisite, though.

 

-Augmented Aspergillum: Upgrades the damage of the holy water in a battle aspergillum wielded in conjunction with spellstrike. Damn cool!! Love it!

 

-Blunt Strike: When dealing nonlethal weapon damage, the magus may choose to make the spell delivered via spellstriek nonlethal as well. Nice one!

 

-Combat Trapper: Another winner, this one allows for mancatcher magus use, as well as the channeling of spells into said catcher. Super iconic – picture the elite squad, subduing dangerous folks that way…Two thumbs up!

 

-Concealed Strike: Renders opponent flat-footed versus Conceal Spell-enhanced spellstrikes. Ouch!

 

-Consume Spells: Nets consume spells for magus arcane pool points instead. Not a fan, as it delimits the resource. It also doesn’t work RAW: The arcana specifies items as source, not magus spells, which generates a ton of questions regarding if they go dormant, if items wielded by enemies can be targeted etc.

 

-Dweomer Brace: Brace/spell combo. Nice!

 

-Ethereal Strike: Pay arcana when using spellstrike with ghost touch to bypass incorporeal traits with the spell. (Has a min. level cap that holds it in check.)

 

-Hypnotizing Strike: Use hypnotist’s lockets or nunchakus to add Reach Spell to touch attack spells, but these do allow, thankfully, for a save.

 

-Magus Exploit: Replace an arcana with an arcanist exploit. Not a fan.

 

-Polearm Sweep: Cool one: Modify a cone-spell to instead affect all squares threatened with polearm, min 6th level.

 

-Sand Spray: Use poisoned sand tubes to deliver touch spells as part of a ranged attack, changing delivery method and allowing for a unique, cone-shaped variant with a short-range and tight rules. That being said, the arcana should specify that the three spells that can be imbued at once in the poisoned sand should have a limitation regarding casting time. That being said, impressive to see the spell recall synergy here done right.

 

-Shining Limelight: liming weapon property added, plus unique debuff added, though that one should have a duration stated.

 

-Spell bash: Shield Bash-dispel combo. Nice!

 

-Swift Augmentation: Spend arcane pool points to enhance the weapon s part of expending a swift action to trigger a magus class feature.

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level, with not much to complain about. Layout adheres to Everyman gaming’s two-column full-color standard, and the pdf sports a neat artwork. The pdf has no bookmarks, but needs none at this length.

 

Jen McTeague is an author who needs more work. So far, I have been impressed by everything she has penned, and this is no different. At this point in time, it is remarkable that a class as well-supported as the magus has still so many blind spots, and many arcana within actually allow for thoroughly exciting and unique combinations. I do consider a few of them to be slightly problematic, but similarly, there are more than I expected that I really ended up loving, that managed to inspire me. And, as always, I prefer daring design and complex tricks over bland and safe perfection. This humble pdf had more arcana inside that made me come up with character ideas than almost every such file I have previously read. As a reviewer, though, I have to take these minor flaws into account, which is why I can’t rate this higher than 4 stars.

 

You can get this cool supplement here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.

 

Oct 102018
 

Call to Arms: Deck of Cards

This installment of the Call to Arms-series of item-sourcebooks/compilations clocks in at 54 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with a massive 50 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?

 

As has become the tradition with this series, we begin the supplement with a recap of the history of the subject matter at hand, though this time, not only the playing cards as used in real life, but also of the cards employed in the iconic deck of many things. After this brief and informative history lesson, we receive descriptions and modifications for mundane playing cards, as well as more esoteric decks – with gold values provided, of course. The discussion, much to my pleasant surprise, does also mention the Thoth tarot deck, and, to my even bigger surprise, codifies the hanafuda deck.

 

Okay, so now you have decks – congratulations, but how do they interact with the primarily dice-based games we play? The pdf thus proceeds to provide basic rules for skills and their interaction with the in-game act of playing cards; want to look nasty so folks let you win? The pdf does take that into account. A couple of different ways to cheat are also expounded upon before the pdf proceeds to present 4 feats: one would be the Deadly Dealer feat introduced in the Harrow Handbook. There are three feats that build on this: Double Dealer allows you to basically flurry with Deadly Dealer cards; interestingly, it also allows you to potentially activate multiple effects of playing cards fired thus. Now, it should be noted that this explicitly allows for the ignoring of the traditional limits imposed here, which makes the feat potentially a bit troubling. As an aside, it should also be noted that card-magic based classes are not necessarily assumed to work in conjunction with this. Three Card Monte builds on that for a 3rd throw (and does not capitalize a skill-reference correctly), and Mulligan lets you use Sleight of Hand to attempt to mitigate unfavorable draws…but if you do, you may never use that particular deck again! Interesting one! It should also be noted that the pdf later proceeds to mention rules for blending of magical decks for Deadly Dealer purposes.

 

There are three class options included in the pdf, with the deck-touched sorcerer bloodline being first. This one modifies the random outcome of items like the good ole’ rod of wonders with its bloodline arcana, and the bloodline powers similarly are inspired by cards from the deck of many things and feature temporary alignment changes via touch. The rules-integrity here is solid, if not perfect – particularly from a formatting point of view, with stuff not capitalized that should be and vice versa, and sequence of DC formulae and presentation being nonstandard. However, unless you’re nitpicky, it should be noted that the function of the options per se is not impeded. The second option within would be the card reader focused arcane school based on divination, which replaces diviner’s fortune and scrying adept with the ability to use a deck of cards as a material component substitution for material components below 100 gp value and the option to engage in a 1/day 1-hour card reading for you and up to 6 folks, providing benefits depending on the suit of cards drawn. The pdf also presents the gambling subdomain of luck, which replaces good fortune with a Bluff-based means to reroll random outcome item/spell rolls.

 

The pdf also presents a means to use cards as die substitution for attack rolls – handy here: the pdf does explain the math behind this approach. Interesting alternative. As an aside – in case you do not have a deck of cards ready, the pdf also mentions a dice-based substitution for drawing cards –nice!

Using the infamous deck of many things in conjunction with Deadly Dealer is btw. also discussed – and yes, it is risky. The pdf then proceeds to compile various types of magical decks, namely the deck of illusions and of silvering fate, with the section devoting most of its space to magical decks I haven’t seen before. The deck of deals is a means to generate binding agreements; the deck of imprisonment can contain targets – you get the idea. Really cool for quite a few of these, including the deck of illusions: These decks tend to come with massive tables that note e.g. a playing card or Tarot-equivalent and then the corresponding effect; the deck of curses can curse targets with becoming leering and creepy, for example. Another example would be the deck of reincarnation, which provides an interesting tweak on the whole reincarnation angle. The fate-reader’s lenses have been reprinted here, and we also receive three decks of enchanted hanafuda cards (though one is a lesser version of another). I also enjoyed the weaponized prismatic deck, the chaotic deck of useful items…and it should come as no surprise that the grand-daddy, the deck of many things…actually gets its own chapter!

 

Beyond handy equivalency tables to simulate the drawing experience, the chapter also provides a cursed variant and optional rules for making card-orientation matter; there is also a kind of greater version – the full deck of many things, which exceeds in its power even its more commonly known regular variant! Card to card conversion notes are presented, and much to my joy, Ultimat Campaign synergy for e.g. drawing The Ruler is provided. The harrow deck of many things is reprinted for the sake of completion, though, oddly, the table rendered the text of the table for all readers I tried it on bolded. In the fine tradition of the series, we also get an intelligent item variant of the deck, The Hustler, who has a rather important agenda – to escape the Void. As such, playing a game with this one can be rather dangerous for those involved. Finally, if even the full deck wasn’t enough…what about a frickin’ mythic variation? And you thought the regular effects were massive…

 

Conclusion:

Editing per se can be considered to be very good; the rules-language is functional in the supplement. On a formatting perspective, the series has done somewhat better in the past: there are quite a few instances where sequence of presentation isn’t standard, and I noticed a couple of instances of feats and skills not properly capitalized. Layout adheres to the nice two-column full-color standard of the series, and the pdf comes with extensive, nested bookmarks for your convenience.

 

This is, unless I am sorely mistaken, the first pdf by Jessie Staffler I have read, and it does show a couple of beginner’s mistakes in the finer rules-formatting aspects; however, it also shows ample promise: there is a sense of unbound creativity beyond what I expected to find. The card-equivalency tables alone bespeak an honest passion, and the variant resolution mechanics included did show this willingness of the better installments of this series to go one step beyond. This feels like a passion project, and like one that consciously went much further beyond compiling existing material, instead opting to present a healthy dose of delightfully quirky high-impact deck-shenanigans. All in all, this may have a couple of rough edges, but it is a pdf that shows effort, heart, and potential. My final verdict will hence clock in at 4 stars.

 

You can get this fun supplement for a healthy dose of card-based chaos here on OBS!

 

Endzeitgeist out.