6.20.2016

There's a "Bring-Endzeitgeist-to-gencon-bundle"!

Dear readers of Lou Agresta's RPGaggression!

This is endzeitgeist, the guy that posts a lot of the reviews you see on this awesome site.

As some of you will know, my financial situation isn't the best - quite frankly, without my patreon, I couldn't do any reviews at all. As in: "I'm working all day to scrape by." The patreon literally keeps the lights on right now.

While my trip to Copenhagen and job application there and at other places (as some of you may know, I've been pretty busy in that regard) *may* remedy that situation, for now, my resources are incredibly stretched; they have been so for quite some time and I'm working hard to change that fact. I don't really talk much about it or advertise much of that aspect of my life since frankly, I'm ashamed of being poor in spite of my qualifications.

Anyways, I am working hard to change that reality, but this post is about something awesome - something that can benefit you:

There's a colossal bundle of AWESOME books gathered together by publishers, authors and friends with one goal: To make it possible for me to actually attend Gencon. The flight is far beyond my capabilities to afford; same goes for the other components associated with attending. It's a long shot, but guess what? You have nothing to lose and the bundle contains some of the most glorious books out there!

AAW Games' "For Rent, Lease & Conquest"; Fro God Games' legendary "Cyclopean Deeps"-saga; Rite Publishing's "Breaking of Forstor Nagar" & "Secrets of the Masquerade Reveler"; Kobold Press' "Courts of the Shadow Fey"; Everyman Gaming's legendary "Ultimate Charisma"; Legendary Games' glorious grimoires and must-own "Mythic Solutions"; Rogue Genius Games' classic make-Bravery-suck-no-more "Bravery Feats" and "Hellfire Magic"; the glorious "Pixies on Parade" by Playground Adventures; LPJ Design's awesome Ultronesque Cyrix - and that's not even close to everything in the bundle! Notice something? These are pretty much crème-de-la-crème of files, the top-tier-OMG-must-have-books.

And yes, when I got back from my trip and saw this, I actually teared up!


So take a look at those gems and the HUGE discounted bundle of awesome material you can get on them here!


If you just want to get me to Gencon and don't care about those awesome books (or already have them), you can actually donate here on OBS via Pay what you want - so yeah, if this works out, I may actually be able to *finally* meet some of you awesome folks in person and roll the bones with you! I'd certainly love to talk shop with you all and talk to you fine folks in person!

Thank you for reading this. And to all the publishers that contributed to the bundle and everything -I'm absolutely blown away. Words fail to properly encapsulate what I'm feeling right now. Roleplayers are simply stellar people. Thank you.

Endzeitgeist out.

6.03.2016

The Dracula Dossier: Director's Handbook

The Dracula Dossier: Director's Handbook



This massive hardcover clocks in at 372 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 2 pages of editorial/backer-lists, 4 pages detailed ToC, 1 page inside of back cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 362 (!!!) pages of raw content, so let's take a look!

This book was moved up in my review-queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange for a critical, unbiased review.

So, what is this book? Well, first of all, this is the companion tome to the Dracula Unredacted-tome, which is perhaps the most detailed, massive handout ever crafted for a roleplaying game. I'd like to urge you to read my review of this book first before taking a gander at this review here, if only so we're all on the same page. I'll wait here.
*whistles badly*
*tries to look inconspicuous*
Okay, back? I know I'd be a sucky agent. Anyways, this is, in a nut-shell, the Director's book for the campaign. Surprise. If you were btw. thinking how you, as a GM, can keep tabs of the intentional inconsistencies, vaguenesses and hooks contained in the glorious tome called Dracula Unredacted...well, remember me mentioning the numbers in the review of Dracula Unredacted? You have an index of those here, one that supplement the massive index provided for this book and helps you stay one step ahead of the players. Properly depicted workname-lists and checklists further enhance the options of running this campaign.

Still, structure-wise, this book very much differs from the classic mega-adventure/AP/what-have-you-not. Why? Well, this campaign understands itself as an improvisational campaign  -which, I can see, already has some of you roll your eyes. Well, wait a second - basically, this book can be considered to be the single most massively free-form campaign I have ever read...but it doesn't feel like it - at all.

What do I mean by this? Well, the book is meticulously structured. At this point, we are already familiar with the structuring elements of the Conspyramid and Vampyramid  as established structuring elements in Night's Black Agents-games - but the level of detail that has been provided herein is...well, staggering. If you take one of these and the respective levels inside, you'll notice detailed, crunch-supported responses to what is happening. From basic information-gathering to burning agents, the response/assault structure of the adversaries in this book, ultimately, is exceedingly, stunningly detailed and sensible - and yes, the stakes are high. Wait, stakes...good note: The book does offer advice on different playstyles - from stakes to burn and dust and mirror, different takes on the subject matter and advice for thematic modifications can be found in this tome.

Another simple reason why this does not feel like a typical free-form-GM-does-all-the-work-campaign is simply the staggering level of detail that has been provided in order to make running this massive campaign easier on the GM: Over 60 location, over 60 NPCs, almost30 strange objects - basically, even if you are not interested AT ALL in running a Dracula-themed campaign, this still remains a superb toolkit for your perusal.

But all those details don't sound very improvisational, right? Well, here a genius element of this book comes into play. Everything, and I mean friggin' everything, is utterly and completely customizable. The NPCs? They represent, in many cases, archetypes - but they also are characters: The Icelandic Diplomat, for example, is a fully developed character, with quirky mannerisms, history, ideology - true. But there are alternate names and looks, for one. Secondly, the entries focus on different options - generally, you get at least 3 options out of each character depicted - as an innocent, as a member of the conspiracy and as a direct minion of Dracula - and no, these are not the same, but more on that in the SPOILER-section, Similarly, from photos to jeweled daggers or Báthory's journals, the artifacts and objects have multiple iterations - they can be major items, often with rules-relevant repercussions upon being used, less important items, fraudulent -and all has been carefully laid out for the director's perusal.

Players stumble over item xyz too early? Okay, so you change it on the fly to a different iteration of its own, thus retaining control over this part of the campaign. This attention to detail btw. also extends to organizations and locales - from  the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels to the Echipa Mortii or the al-Qaeda in Rûm, the respective organizations can have wildly different roles from campaign to campaign and this vast arsenal of different interpretations, ultimately, also lets you maintain control - and easily switch-bait one iteration into another: "While these guys have been made to look like Dracula's minions, your painstakingly gathered intel now shows..." Similarly, the Rumanian government's branches have undergone a treatment just as detailed - which, alongside the locations themselves, does show one thing: Authors Kenneth Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan are history buffs and not only excel at the research of literature and its conventions as depicted in the Dracula Unredacted book - they also did their research here. Admirably so.

Know how impressed I was about Dracula Unredacted making use of the Icelandic Jack the Ripper-note? Well guess what? Their meticulously researched take on the locations and organization and history suffuses this book. I feel obliged to explicitly comment on this due to several facts: For one, a large part of Night's Black Agent's appeal lies in the realism of the setting, of it being "our" world. Particularly in research-heavy scenarios with historical figures, there is nothing that demotivates extremely involved players that do research in their spare time more than botching facts, dates, knowing nothing about structure xyz  -it breaks the suspension of disbelief and is highly destructive and unpleasant when encountered. You'll find no such instance herein - the respective locations, with handy maps of both dilapidated oil platforms (that may be prisons or not), cities and castles is precise and steeped deeply in real world lore - both historic and fantastic. Living a short drive away from Munich, I know about quite a few locales; similarly, as someone who had the chance to visit a lot of Rumanian castles, London and Iceland, I can verify that the depiction of these locations is downright uncanny in its presentation. I grossly, grossly underestimated the amount of work the Dracula Dossier would require for a fair assessment - I did research. A lot of it.

And the intriguing component is this: These real-life locations, organizations, etc. - they are fictional...and they are not. While the horrific threat obviously suffuses these places, they also remain grounded in reality - it's almost to the point at which I'd consider this book's depiction of places a form of augmented reality. If history is a grand narrative, a conventionalized consensus, then the accomplishment of this book lies in being almost too feasible, like an unredacted version of the things that could be, were vampires real. I may be too cerebral, I don't know - but to me, this vastly enhanced the overall fear and tension while playing this book - and it enhances the sense of immersion of the players.

More important, should you not care (or care less) about accuracy, will be that, even in this level of detail, the game-play elements are never lost - each entry and locale, everything is simply chockfull with things to do, stability to lose, traps, responses and, ultimately, fun. Have I btw. mentioned that this modularity also extends to the very identity of Dracula and his castle? There are multiple, thoroughly compelling candidates - which you can actually research. Yep. Lunch-break, thinking about the week-end's campaign? Interested in who the hell this one guy was? Research...and bam, you have meta-game and game generate a cohesive whole. Oh, have I mentioned maps for them? There is a second customization option for Dracula I consider very interesting  -but that is, frankly, SPOILER-material and will feature in that section of the review.

But perhaps, just perhaps, all of these tools, all of these details, in spite of the thorough indexing and massive amount of ideas, still feels like it's not enough to you. Perhaps, you want to have a bit more handholding,  a skeleton to put your plot-meat on, if you will? Well, fret notes - beyond the spines depicting how to craft a scenario from Dracula Unredacted annotations, the book also offers alternate ends, campaign frames (think of them as massive templates for the campaign) and an exceedingly-detailed looking glass chapter on Bucharest....but this is where I'm at an end regarding the SPOILER-free territory - I'll now go into the nit and grit of this tome.

Highly classified! Agents reading further will get BURNED and lose all stability! Agents should, at any cost, refrain from reading on and instead jump to the conclusion. Only Directors are classified to read further. CLASSIFIED. SPOILERS ABOUND.

...
..
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Okay, so you're a director and know how to handle this precarious information. Good. What I intentionally failed to mention above pertains to the nature of Dracula. You may not like the idea of supernatural, classic vampires, satanic adversaries of the like - the full book contains a massive selection of items and story-hooks that are based on a scientific interpretation of vampirism, tying Dracula to tellurgic energies, electromagnetism and thus manages to add a new and evocative potential twist to the subject matter - yes, including potentially an experimental rifle with a LONG recharge duration. More importantly, though, this does allow you to mix and match the classic and the unconventional ideas to create your own, unique take on Dracula and his spawn.

The book also has a vast selection of supernatural threats that brim with creativity and, combined with Drac's stats, make this worth it for the stats alone. But what do we get exactly? Well, beyond the obvious Báthory (who is a capital threat in her own right) to Lilith (an ancient vampire posing as the goddess...) we also cover more exotic characters: - from Abhartach, the blood-drinking dwarf of Irish myth to the Chinese Jin-Gui to Orlok, Jack the Ripper (in a classic, interesting take) and various national vampire programs, we also get some truly exotic beings: Alraune, a plant-like Übermensch-experiment gone rogue or Queen Tera, the supernatural cast of optional characters is glorious. Similarly, EDOM's forces and the cast of the novel and their descendants in different epochs are covered.

EDOM? Yep, for now things get VERY spoilery - basically, the central focus of the campaign can be summed up as that this branch of MI6, which is btw. also the "conspiracy" beyond Dracula's own, seeks to recruit vampires for Britain as super-agents. This nefarious cabal operates in the shadows beyond even mainstream espionage and conspiracies and thus is a lethal foe indeed - and reading the unredacted file...well, puts the agents in danger by this force and Dracula - pincered between two truly lethal forces. More intriguing, by the way - the organization's handlers, potential for double-agents among the player, organization-responses and facilities - all of these  can be found within the superbly detailed pages contained herein. Similarly, the cast of characters of Stoker's novel and their descendants may still be around, may be working for EDOM, Dracula, both or neither - the possibilities, literally, are almost endless and up to the creativity of the director and the responses of the players.

Now I mentioned alternate capstones, right? The expected one, no surprise there, is the showdown with nigh-demi-god Dracula in his own castle. But the alternatives are no less compelling: Whether Dracula's endgame is becoming a god by ferreting out Zalmoxis, hijacking Russia by subduing Vladimir Putin or a showdown in the remote caverns beyond the inhospitable, exceedingly lethal wilderness beyond the Dracula's Mill-water fall or bringing final death at his unique, original tomb - the capstones, once again, can be mixed and matched to suit your individual campaign and resonate with diverse, unique ideas and leitmotifs as well as metaphorical charges. And yes, with ample unique challenges and even new characters, these are no mere sketches - they are distinct and lend a unique flair to the respective finales.

I did mention campaign frames, right? Well, the first of these allows you to run a Mythos-version of the whole campaign, completely compatible with Trail of Cthulhu, including a wide array of potential servants, threats and similar mythos-themed notions - AWESOME...and yes, this means that this should be in the library of any self-respecting ToC-keeper, complete with star-spawn and black monoliths. The second frame would be a stakes-frame, wherein a third faction enters the game - the Fourth Reich. Basically, here we have a less realistic blend of Nazi-super-science, pulpy aesthetics and the Dracula myth - including underground cities, powerful super-Nazi-bosses and the like...and yes, emphasis on the occult or the scientific both are possible in equal measure. Finally, the "Onto the Fourth Generation"-frame takes the generation-spanning plot and begins with 1894, then proceeds to 1940, then 1977 and then to the present day, weaving an epic yarn that begins with players directly involved in the incident that actually generated the Dracula-novel in the first place. These alternatives, obviously, can be extensively scavenged by the director to create a thoroughly unique vision of an individual campaign.

There is one more fact: The Dracula Dossier's Director's Handbook is not simply a free-form espionage campaign. It also has tie-ins. Particularly novice directors that are a bit out of their league with the free-form structure of this campaign will certainly appreciate that the book ties in with the superb Zalozhniy Quartet campaign and, obviously, The EDOM files. Though, unfortunately, I do not own the latter adventure-collection, I have tried the transition from the former to the Dossier and it worked seamlessly, smooth.

It should also be noted that a list of recommend reading has been included for your convenience!

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are top-notch - I only noticed a handful of glitches in a book of this impressive size, making this one of the most refined books you can find. Layout adheres to Pelgrane Press' superb 3-column full-color standard for Night's Black Agents and the book is chockfull with awesome full-color artwork - if there is an NPC, he or she will have a great artwork. Add to that great establishing shots and a high art-density in general and we have a gorgeous book. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks, while the print copy (which you *should* get) is a high-quality hardcover with glossy, thick paper - a  book made to last. My copy also featured a gorgeous cardboard 1-page-sized rendition of the glorious artwork of a potential castle of Dracula.

Kenneth Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, with support from Heather Albano, Paul Baldowski, Kennon Bauman, Walt Ciechenowski, Justin Farquhar, Elsa S. Henry, Carol Johnson, Marissa Kelly, Shoshana Kessock, Shawn Merwin, James Palmer, Nathan Paoletta, Will Plant, Wes Schneider, Christopher Sniezak and Paul Veccione have created a book that can only be described as a master-piece...and then, it still doesn't doe the experience of the Dracula Dossier justice.

If you read my reviews of Esoterrorists, Eyes of the Stone Thief or similar books, you'll notice a tendency: Pelgrane Press is actually becoming rapidly one of my favorite publishers. Much like these absolutely superb tomes, the Dracula Dossier can be considered to be a book that pushes the envelope by means of its depth, customization options and the vast, ridiculous array of unique options herein. Suffused by truly unique ideas and historic accuracy, a humbling amount of unique details and more material than you can shake a stick at, the Dracula Dossier as a whole is an experience that not only ranks among my favorites in my whole reviewer-career, it is also simply superb in just about every way. Its careful research and level of detail, its interaction with Dracula Unredacted - both conspire to basically render this book a nigh unprecedented experience: The fact that Dracula Unredacted generates a real-world experience supported by research undertaken by players enhances the immersion in unprecedented ways. Better yet, this colossal tome's genius organization renders actually running the campaign a feasible task, even for directors that are new to the GUMSHOE-rules-set: The tie-ins with the Zalozhniy Quartet allow for easier, more structured beginnings to get used to the themes of the game, while also planting the seeds for the highly modular campaign-smörgåsbord contained within these pages.

This book cannot only be considered to be excellence in game-design, it is also educational and pretty much the pinnacle of careful, deliberate and capable research. I honestly sat down with my own copy of Dracula and compared texts. I did research...and ended up being more impressed rather than less by the attention to detail and care that went into this book. Note that most texts, whether academic or otherwise, tend to elicit the opposite response from me.

This is, pretty much, a system-seller experience unlike any other you may have encountered during your experiences with investigative RPGs. It's, in one sentence, a milestone for our hobby as a whole. Obviously, my rating cannot be anything but a full 5 stars + seal of approval for this masterpiece. And yes, this is obviously a candidate for my Top Ten of this year; in fact, it is a hot contender for the number 1 spot! Seriously - even if you aren't interested in Night's Black Agent's - at least get the Dracula Unredacted book...though, if my prediction holds up, that book will make you get this Director's Handbook as well. They are simply too good to pass up. And yes, I hope I'll be able to review more of these absolutely superb GUMSHOE-books in the future!


You can get this superb book here on OBS!
A discounted Night's Black Agents starter kit with these legendary books can be found here!
The print of this superb tome can be found on Pelgrane Press' store here!


Endzeitgeist out.

Review/Miscellaneous Musings: The Dracula Dossier - Dracula Unredacted (System-neutral/GUMSHOE)

Review/Miscellaneous Musings: The Dracula Dossier - Dracula Unredacted (System-neutral/GUMSHOE)




This massive hardcover clocks in at 476 pages (489 in pdf form, with cover etc. being counted among the pages), so let's take a look!

This book was moved up in my review-queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

In a nut-shell, this is a twist of the original Dracula-novel as penned by Bram Stoker, with annotations. "I don't need to read that, I know Dracula's story already!" - I can see this impulse in at least some readers out there. You'd be wrong, for the text actually has been expanded by roughly 1/5 - 1/4 of its size, with characters like Kate Reed introduced to the fray, providing additional depth and perspectives. This only in the beginning to keep you reading - this is not vanilla-Dracula: The premise is that the unredacted Dracula is an after-action field report that has been censored and changed in the published version. So, please, indulge me and follow me on a little excursion - I guarantee that the following analysis may actually make you reconsider.

Blood. It is impossible to talk about Dracula without first going on a  brief tangent pertaining this most fascinating of bodily fluids. No other fluid alarms us to its extent - we are hard-wired to instinctually consider red an attention-catching color because of it: The blue or green blood of other species does not alarm us in the slightest, but red blood...there is something primal in its look, smell and taste and throughout recorded human history, blood has been a central component of our mythology - it is the gradient of life and the currency of death itself for our kind. We "spill blood" when we kill, the implication of casual shedding of it conjuring up an excess, a transgression against the "civilized" code of conduct we based our societies on. Perhaps most famously in recent TV-history, Dexter the serial killer ultimately is what? Bingo - a blood-spatter analyst, signifying his killer-nature - he reads, in blood. He divines with it, though he does so at the altar of science.

Altar? Yes, for at the same time, blood has always held more meaning - the sacral component is prevalent to this date: While we may have, for the most part, abolished the notion of offering blood to deities and spirits, sacrificial practices have been an integral part of religions all around the globe and indeed, continues to be. Before you shake your head and point towards your enlightened Christianity or other religion, please consider symbolism like "partaking in the blood of Christ" or similar practices: To paraphrase Sir James Frazer: We have moved up in our level of abstraction, but the thematic core remains; the original religion fades, but the icon remains and takes on a new mantle and guise. The haruspex of our day and age is the blood-spatter analyst.

Where there is the sacred, however, there also is the profane and nary a thing that exists in our world has as significant a powerful symbolic charge as blood - we associate its transgressive excess with connotations of evil, of the vile and debauchery. There is spectacle in fascination in blood, the grimy lair of an insane butcher that reverberates with the middle ages' social stigma of the meat-processing professions. A sense of revulsion, in this day and age more than ever, is associated with slaughter and death of animals - mainly due to the spilling of blood - for do we not all bleed red?

Bleeding red...it evokes an instinctual sympathetic response, triggering flight or the notion to help in most human beings...and here we have yet another intriguing component: This sympathetic response can obviously rise: For as long as there was fiction of blood, there also was a connotation of the sexual inherent in its appearance. From the bodily fluid of the female menstruation to the child-birth, the connotations of a triumphant hunt or battle - in no other symbolically charged part of our bodies has there ever been more of a blending, more of a fusion of Eros and Thanatos than in the blood that courses through our veins. Beyond the obvious requirement of blood flow for intercourse, the red lipstick, rouge on the cheeks, the red, sweaty lips set against a dark beard - all of these and infinitely more signify the passion of blood. We blush due to it. Our blood pump, commonly known as heart, accelerates when we are aroused. It does not require a fetish of blood drinking or any sort of kink to appreciate the powerful imagery and functionality that is associated with blood.

While the history of the non-folklore-vampire is a relatively brief one, our mythologies are stuffed to the brim with creatures feasting upon the blood of the mortals, prolonging their life and that often in sexually charged ways, coupling a thirst for blood with a thirst for a deviantly-coded sexuality free of the fetters of concern and empathy: The excess of spilled blood collocated into sexuality, blending the adrenaline-charged association of triumphantly dancing on the verge of death with the ample linguistically implied associations with La petite mort.

This is an intriguing turn of phrase mind - you: It originally pointed towards not our commonly used synonym for orgasm, but simply denoted a loss of consciousness and control. Consciousness and control - two factors that we value as a species, that we need to survive...and that, ultimately are NOT associated with any of the nigh-indefinite connotations we have with blood when we take a look at the above. Blood is excess, passion and ID running rampant - it is NOT control.

Against this backdrop, it should come as no surprise that there frankly is no tale in horror as well-known; none that has been adapted in this staggering amount of guises. The themes, ultimately remain - but they change. Oh, how do they change. Ask any person on the street whether they know what "Dracula" is and they'll know. Only...they don't. You see, we all have probably encountered the count in one of his hundreds of incarnations in various media and forms of art and when we haven't encountered him, we have encountered mythology derived from the original tale of the bloodsucking vampire, charged with eroticism. Take a look at any given array of vampire novels, from the infamous Twilight-books to the Shadow Chronicles or similar works of fiction and you'll find a plethora of narratives sporting a female (or male - this is 2016, after all!) heroine/hero who has to tame the dark and brooding vampire, come to terms with the associations and implicit violence and thus, ultimately, transcend death itself. It's basically a twist on the beauty and the beast-narrative, a tale, literally as old as time.

This, however, was not always so - the folkloristic origins of Dracula and many a bloodsucking mythological creature often were that of...well. Corpses. Decaying, foul corpses rising from the grave to kill their families. The sexual connotation only has been a relatively recent invention, with the eponymous novel Dracula by Bram Stoker being one of the first to exemplify just this. And while we all know the plot of Dracula, supposedly, precious few of us actually do. I mean...we all have heard about Van Helsing, Harker, Mina and the Count himself, obviously. Perhaps we have since then, via one of the countless vampire anime or adaptations heard about Renfield as a servant of Dracula and nebulously picture a kind of vampiric Igor or dashing, subservient underling who homoerotically serves his dominant master. We all know how Dracula and vampires in general have to return to their coffins at dawn, how they are destroyed by the purging rays of light unless they are daywalker-dhampir-half-breeds...you know, one of the most prolific angsty-teen-power-fantasies ever devised in the last generation? Well, if your conceptions of Dracula contained any of these tropes, if you thought by yourself "I don't need to read this, I know it already!" - then you'd be wrong. All of the above is not necessarily so in Bram Stoker's original novel. Come on, if you haven't read this one, then I did blow your mind there, at least a little, right?

And see, that is the point I wanted to make...or at least, it is the first point I wanted to make. You see, nary an iconic figure has so thoroughly underwent the transformative progress of popular culture like Dracula: We know Frankenstein's Monster, Jekyll/Hyde, we have werewolf-lore galore and still, none of these classic creatures of anthropomorphized IDs of the dark romanticism have had quite this impact; much less changed to quite this extent. In Bram Stoker's Dracula, there is, no kidding, a scene wherein the count walks the daylit streets of London with a straw hat on his head. Let *that* sink in.

How did this come to pass that we know so little about the Dracula we all ostensibly know? Well, to point to the above - the icon remains. Dracula is a symbolic vessel for our anxieties and agendas of a given day and age. When Bram Stoker's original novel gave voice to Mina Harker as a capable, female protagonist whose moral fiber outclassed that of their male brethren throughout most of the novel, later interpretations of the material had different foci: While Mrs. Harker, in the original, ultimately was re-absorbed into the norms and ideas of mainstream society in a lackluster addendum written to appease moral guardians or Stoker's own sensibilities, there can still be no doubt that she already exemplifies a new breed of female character, one beholden neither to the ever more normative feminist movement of her day and age, nor to the patriarchal structures of established mainstream British society- the transgressive element lies not simply in her actions, but also in her skill-set and when she chillingly remarks Dracula as her approaching husband, she is performing two subversions at the same time: On the one hand, this state, sprung from her spoiling through Dracula's blood has explicit connotations with rape and the breaking of one's spirit. In the context of Victorian and fin-de-siècle England, this can be seen as a scathing, sympathy-inducing attack on the angel in the house-ideal of the demure, passion-less woman. At the same time, however, it is also an equalization - for one devotion is replaced with another, with Dracula, according to previous observations, being obviously highly sexualized in his coded depiction.

In later adaptations of Dracula, a subtext of a less obvious nature suddenly sprang to life - namely the matter of fact that he is also a nostalgic relic. A book written in the fin-de-siècle-era obviously needs to contend and address a changing of values and the fears associated with the new world order, the anticipation of upheavals the like of which our species had heretofore never chronicled. English society, at this point, was suffused with a slowly shaking foundation - the 3 grand psychological malaises cast their shadow, as a mankind devoted to science and reason has to come to terms with neither being the center of the universe, nor a creator's chosen master creation, nor master of one's own faculties.

The rise of fascist ideology as an international phenomenon and the anxiety a devolution or degeneration of mankind could bring can perhaps be quoted as one of the reasons why Dracula's original at that time did not elicit the same manner of controversy as The Island of Dr. Moreau. Dracula's theme, though, proved to be the more stable one: For in the Count's nobility, in his origin deep within the Carpathians, he pointed for his contemporary audience towards a literally darker, but also nostalgic time, where science, something the characters in Dracula constantly, obsessively use, was of no importance. Indeed, Dracula requires a return to sacral rites of Catholicism of all religions (quite scandalous in Britain) and folklore; the light of enlightenment metaphorically and physically, can't seem to touch him. This association with ages past, with "simpler" times is a universal human notion - it was then and still is today. Dracula, in many a rendition in media, is a nostalgic atavism for us as a society, but he is, at the same time the exact opposite.

Above anything else, Dracula is transgression. When a given incarnation depicts him as beholden to the mast, it is to a potentially more romantic past; even if historically this was not true, he still remains sexually charged, emotionally vibrant; he still has all the trappings of the Beauty and the Beast-romantic. Even the number of his brides and his flaunting of conventionalized relationship-paradigms is ultimately transgressive. And when the present is mired in tradition, cluttered by an antique aesthetic, then it's Dracula's task to counteract exactly this with radical modernism and a violation of the aesthetics that have brought him forth - where once, Dracula rose and crept from the shadows, he'll later look down upon humans in the depth. And so, in time, I believe that Dracula will once again walk in sunlight.

Ultimately, the Dracula-characters throughout history remain a grand projection of empowerment...and interestingly, one for both males and females. He is the way out of normative patriarchal structures and suffocating, abuse relationships and familial structures, he is the easy hand to grasp, the male ID fulfilled. He is nostalgia and exactly the character a given generation wants - whether romantic and non-phallic, dominant and suave or bestial and brutal - Dracula has been coded in a myriad of ways in a plethora of movies, books, screen-plays...and games. Obviously. There is a reason why Vampire: The Masquerade had such a huge appeal - it was a fin-de-siècle fantasy for the 21st century, resonating with all of the aforementioned tropes and so much more, without the perceived clutter of the "old" structures and sentences.

You see, having read pretty much all of the classic pieces of dark romantic literature, I can, without a doubt say, that many of them, to our day and age's sensibilities, are somewhat plodding. Conditioned to enjoy short-lived and to the point entertainment and immediate gratification, I have witnessed, though never quite understood, the frustration with this literature. Until I had to read it all during my MA. Oh boy. Confession-time: I'll never, ever touch Dickens out of my own volition again. And Wieland, the first American gothic novel actually made me fall asleep while reading it - feat only a select few tomes have accomplished. I'm not the biggest fan of this kind of prose, preferring more the engaging and challenging works of Modernism and Post-Modernism. HOWEVER, I also encountered a lot of gems - I won't have to tell you that Poe holds up to this date. You know it. And while e.g. "The String of Pearls", the basis for the recently adapted Sweeny Todd-story was a chore to read, other books weren't. Cue in Bram Stoker's Dracula. While less frantic than most contemporary novels, this book remains, to this date, a page-turner. The constantly changing perspectives of narrators and their letters, diary entries etc. keep you engaged as you try to puzzle together the components. And the book actually wastes no time for the "big reveal" - you don't lose anything by knowing that Dracula is a vampire, nay, THE vampire. The book, pretty much from the get-go, makes this clear and then is all about struggling with this threat. And, from a gamer's perspective, the characters actually behave pretty much like a roleplaying group in CoC, ToC, or Night's Black Agents - you see different attributes and skills if you closely look; you see the drives of the characters. One could almost ostensibly assume it was a work penned about a certain horror campaign in Night's Black Agents Stoker personally played...

Which brings me full circle to this book - this is literature, yes. This is the original Dracula...but it is more. The premise of this book is deceptively simple: Dracula is real, there was a conspiracy, things went horribly wrong. Now the original file has fallen into your hands - with annotations by no less than three generations of agents fighting the vampiric conspiracy...or are they? Dracula has always existed in the fringes, in the haze; the demarcation line between light and day, passion and control, norms and rebellion - and now, once again, his narrative is put into the context of a new age, a new medium that is, much like Dracula, at the same time an old medium: This is a gaming supplement and it is literature. It is a fusion of the old and new, of nostalgia framed by no less than 3 meta-narratives - whose intrusion into the text is handled surprisingly smart. In color-coded hand-written notes and annotations, they tend to ultimately crop up in the filler-scenes, remark upon small, seemingly unremarkable details...and add whole new meaning and ultimately, terror to the book. When one can see the inevitable happy end approaching, one knows that it's, in fact, not the end - and we get to know why.

One of the achievements of the annotations and new content is that they take the small bits and pieces and point them out to the readers; Kenneth Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan did their research: Did you know that the first, Icelandic edition (Makt Myrkranna - Sagan af Drakúla greifa) of this book has a preface that mentions Jack the Ripper? Well, I did, but only because I studied both Icelandic and English literature extensively. Well, this book is full of such interesting tidbits...and the sheer fact that the original Dracula and his behaviors have become alien to our sensibilities, that he, indeed at this point is different from our expectations of what Dracula is, makes reading this book intriguing to say the least. But what about the clash of narrative voices? I actually indulged in a little experiment and handed this book to a friend of mine who had not read the original Dracula - and guess what? She was flabbergasted when she realized that this was not all penned by Mr. Stoker - Kenneth Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan have mastered the peculiarities of Stoker's style and vocabulary to the dot and, as a whole, this rendered "re-reading" Dracula actually a fulfilling experience, in spite of my excellent memory..

How good is my memory? Well, unless I have to look up a particular wording, I do not read any books twice. I can still recall the plots of movies, books, comics...the whole shebang I have consumed. My memory, at least for the purpose of retaining this type of information, seems to be quite pronounced. This means I basically remembered the whole original book. I still had more than just a bit of fun - the 3 meta-narratives and their epochs that are reflected in verbiage and in how they interact, lend a whole new dimension to an already inspired, intriguing book and the new bits and pieces integrate so seamlessly into the overarcing structure, they actually enhance the plot rather than just stretching it - this is, in fact, a better piece of literature than the original.

We are gamers. We are roleplayers. This is literature and, at the same time, the most massive hand-out I have ever held in my hands. So go out there, get this book, preferably in print - and when your investigators or agents or simply bibliophile players find a strange unredacted file, just hand them this book. It's perhaps the most awesome set-up for a campaign you can wish for, a huge, immersive facilitator of play, a book that they can analyze, engage and pick apart - this is a gaming supplement, exceedingly educational for players and GMs alike and a glorious supplement beyond the confines of Night's Black Agents, though, obviously playing The Dracula Dossier will amplify the experience beyond belief. By the way - those strange notes spread throughout the text? Those numbers? They are here for a reason, but since that reason is relevant to the gaming aspect and not necessarily required for the enjoyment of this book, I'll cover them in the second part of this review - the one on the game mechanics book, the Director's Handbook.

For now, let me express my gratitude for reading my rambling analysis of this wonderful supplement...and then go. Get this.

I'm old-school, I'd suggest the bound hardcover I used when writing this. But the pdf has also its glorious charm: Why? Because it's a glorious handout as well - you can *tease* this book...perhaps the PCs find some pages with one annotation type...and others that have another: You see, the pdf is layered and allows you to turn on and off the annotations of the respective agents and even the text. Hand them a white paper with only some cryptic annotations and watch agents trying to find the obscure means of making the text reappear. Yes - this is awesome from both an in-game and out-game point of view, exceedingly ambitious and a sheer joy to read and digest - a Dracula for our age. Now go ahead and weave your story with this, read a tale both old and new, literature that is a game in its experience and in its nature as a supplement. You won't regret it.

My final verdict, obviously, will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval and though this was released last year, I only managed to read an analyze it now - hence it is nominated as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2016. Get this and read Dracula like you've never read or experienced the yarn before.

You can get this superb book here on OBS! 

The print can be found on Pelgrane Press' store here!

Endzeitgeist out.
 

5.11.2016

Eyes of the Stone Thief (13th Age)

Eyes of the Stone Thief (13th Age)






This massive mega-adventure clocks in at 364 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 7 pages EXTREMELY detailed ToC, 3 pages index (useful), 1 page magic item index (even more useful), 1 page inside of back cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 347 pages of raw content, so let's take a look!

This book was moved up in my review-queue due to me receiving a print copy. While we haven't yet finished this massive monster, quite a bit of playtesting went into this review.

We begin this book with an interesting explanation - while this massive hardcover very much does present a mega-adventure, it aims to provide maximum customization options to make this book really your own, to account for your table's tastes. Hence, we begin with a list of icons and how they interact with the stone-thief...but the GM is NOT left hanging beyond that: Instead, we get detailed, smart observations regarding the structuring of the campaign and potential plot-lines to embark upon - this does include advice when to kill or not kill a PC, the effects of the escalation die on traps...well, and the submergence die, a handy and easy mechanic to track excursions into the stone thief and drive home the unique nature of the dungeon.

The pdf also sports advice on handling leveling in the dungeon, etc. A chart provides the default configuration of levels at one handy glance in three configurations and then, we are introduced to the nature of the levels and denizens and yet another chart helps you keep track of relationships between fractions, icons and movers and shakers within the framework of this campaign - two thumbs up!
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AHRGH, I can't do this! Before my face turns purple-red: Players, seriously...skip to the conclusion NOW. I need to get into SPOILER-territory right now!
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..
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Okay, seriously, if you want to play this (You do!) as a player, skip to the conclusion.
*ahem*
Through the underworld, colossal structures roam - barely sentient, they move forward, mindless ly assimilating anything that gets in their way, integrating it into their structures. The keyword here is "mindlessly." Picture, if you will, standing on a keep's wall, guarding your home. Suddenly, the earth starts to quiver, then shake...and then, the green orchards burst open, like a violent ripple of storm-tossed waters, only that tons upon tons of earth are moved aside as the most titanic thing you've ever seen approaches: You see a thing so big it boggles the mind and results in a temporary paralysis, as your mind tries to comprehend the doom approaching: You see a titanic, churning mouth of pure destruction, where churning pieces of steel and towers loom, where ridges of arcades and erstwhile spires create a grotesque, titanic gullet that consumes not people...not dragons...but whole towns.
An (un-) natural disaster of epic proportions given sentience, a massive dungeon of power from ages long gone, a place with an agenda and the intellect to pursue it, a problem the Icons couldn't really fix. Your town is doomed...but you and your allies may manage to infiltrate this huge thing, like microbes in a whale, riding on the pieces of town, keep and structures, in a churning maelstrom of stone, rock and blood - for before you is none other than the stone-thief, and it needs to be stopped. The stone-thief - Makh Miz Adaor, she who undermines. Makh Adaz Akor, the Howling Pit. Khazar Vuk Varag, oldest of hatreds. That's how the dwarves know the stone-thief...and their lord personally wants it dead. The prince of shadows considered the stone-thief dangerous enough to steal its eyes (hence the title), blinding what otherwise would be a deadly threat...to anyone. The stone-thief may well be the creature to break the stalemate between the icons...so a lot of different icons want this beast either eliminated...or as the crown jewel of their arsenals.

If your first impulse of this was "Living dungeons?" - well, the absolutely awesome component here would be that the stone thief is its own world, if you will: Ever moving and blind, this titanic...thing's capabilities are incredibly sensible: Whether it's the structure of its levels (which btw. come with info on suggested levels, encounter-dispersion, etc.)  that includes the gizzard you use to enter or its details - you always get that this is no simple dungeon to crawl through: Having limited control over its constituent parts, the stone-thief grows ever more powerful, reviving and controlling its denizens.

Even death cannot save you, as the stone-thief's diverse denizens have means to recreate adversaries - flesh-forming, the undead...the stone-thief knows how to keep pesky small folk out...for the most part. I already mentioned the submergence die: You see, while this colossal thing burrows its paths through the planet like a poisonous worm in the proverbial apple, its insides contract, often in deadly ways...so one would assume that there is no life inside, right?

WRONG.

You see, while the stone-thief has a lot of control over its configuration, this control is not absolute: Deep inside, generations of people led by a witch live, trying to ultimately assume control over this powerful being.

The Orc Lord has sent an excursion that has established a foothold inside...but obviously, the green-skins shouldn't be allowed to control this beast either...but at least they keep the cult of the devourer in check: Basically a group of insane apocalyptic terrorist-cultists, these people worship the living dungeon and hope to bring ruin to the realms above. Oh, and then there would be a council of spirits within the very walls - the custodians, who not only engage in complex power-plays among themselves, they also guide the dungeon and make sure it does what they want - if the dungeon should ever regain its eyes, they'd lose their status...and perhaps, their usefulness. Within in the pit of undigested ages, treasures of ages past loom and an apocalyptic settlement of the desperate hide within the stone-thief's innards -Dungeontown. Whether that's a safe haven, a despotic, sick settlement or anything in between - all up to the GM, though the seeds to develop this haven are all there.

It's hard to talk about this dungeon without mentioning the structure of this mega-dungeon. So here goes: One issue of mega-dungeons is a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" structural problem. As anyone who has ever played and defeated one of these iconic dungeons can attest, there are two basic approaches, both of which sport their own issues.

The classic mega-dungeon would be static one, which I'll call "structured" for the purpose of this review: You get full maps for the whole thing, players and PCs can familiarize themselves with and secure areas and the process of exploration is classic, fun and all...but sooner or later, there will always be the session, where players are wasting time with a particular area; where the structure of the dungeon gets in the way. When you, as a GM or player are itching for an epic boss battle or the like, but you know you'll have to slog through x rooms of minion-combats first. It is then that structured mega-dungeons are at their most frustrating. On the plus-side, the story told, the familiarity gained of the areas explored - all of that really makes the dungeon feel lived in unique. These dungeons, like e.g. Frog God Games' Lost City of Barakus, Cyclopean Deeps, Rappan Athuk, etc., excel at indirect storytelling, but their structure can get in the way of direct storytelling.

Similarly, dynamic factions can easily be moved around within. Modular dungeons are a different manner - E.g. Savage Mojo's Lich Queen-saga champions full control over the dungeon for the GM: Instead of a concise overview map, one gets rooms and encounters that can be moved around at your leisure. While this does provide the means for the GM to always retain maximum control over the respective tension and requirements at the table, this approach has an inherent problem: You obviously don't t get a concise overview map, have a lot more GM-work on your plate and no matter how good you are as a GM, you probably will never reach the level of familiarity within the dungeon and the sense of actually exploring the place. These dungeons lend themselves to better direct storytelling than structured dungeons, but ultimately invariably suck at indirect storytelling, which, to me, is a component I value just as highly. By necessity of this approach, dungeons will feel more like a highlight-reel, less like an organic place.

I see pros and cons for both approaches and can enjoy both - I can rattle off excellent examples for either approach.
This mega-dungeon, however,  transcends the limitations of this dichotomy: All levels herein come with gorgeous, isometric maps, with the respective encounters using the environment in the best of 13th Age traditions to modify the surroundings and utilize the terrain in combat. Similarly, scaling for the rooms is provided...but here's the thing: The dungeon's structure allows for the recombination, inversion and resetting of areas and surroundings - and the book accommodates your needs: The killer-trap level the PCs will always have to traverse, the gauntlet, has more nasty traps and encounters than it needs - for your sake, so you get to choose, can maintain control over the pacing.

So you can keep the area familiar...yet fresh.  Your PCs and players will grow familiar with components - revived foes may let them pass after having their butts kicked before, for example - but the dungeon does not suffer from the issue of potentially becoming stale or stagnant: The recombination of rooms and inhabitants within the levels is a glorious idea...and the whole mega-dungeon always has a sense of urgency due to the submerge die: Once the thing starts rumbling, the PCs better start getting out (or to a safe zone!)...which ends a perfect means to track and for a GM to rack up the tension if the PCs are idling...and yeah, there are plenty of actions that increase the submergence die...

The genius of this book, indeed, can be found in the fact that, much like the stone thief itself, it is a structure...that is alive and feels modular. It is inorganic and organic at the same time - to use a genre-wise inappropriate analogue, but one that my academic readers will understand: This is a cyborg dungeon. It is uncannily close to being what we know, but the capabilities are beyond that of the regular. This is no Frankenstein-hodgepodge - it is basically an evolutionary step ahead. Now I mentioned the requirements of direct and indirect storytelling. Indirect storytelling in structured dungeons works well - you crawl through the dungeon, because it is there and by virtue of room arrangement and the like, you slowly get a picture of what's going on. This works herein as well. However, the massive book does not merely leave you with a room-by-room accumulation of descriptions - no.

Instead, this book presents a huge assortment of handcrafted stories beyond the structure of the rooms - the Quests. These are not simply brief outlines à la "PCs go to room xx, then to room yy, then get..." - no. The quests provide basically campaign-level fodder and ideas for excursions in and around the stone-thief - for the premise is that the PCs will have to evacuate the dungeon more than once! (And yes - one idea includes the stone thief sloughing off the part with the PCs in it while submerged under an ocean...)

These quests can be ignored or used, combined at your leisure and much like the premise to explore the stone-thief and all relating to it, customized in a myriad ways. And if you're time-starved...you can still run the dungeon pretty much by the book. While I'd suggest reading this before running it as a whole, I tried running one level sans any preparation, blind - and it worked tremendously well.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are superb - for a book of this size to excel in both qualities to this degree is a thoroughly impressive feat. The superb organization via ToC and indices guarantees furthermore that you have a very easy time finding the actual information you're looking for. Layout adheres to the 2-column full-color standard established for 13th Age-products and the book comes with a metric ton of awesome artworks, with a lot of the bosses sporting downright evocative pieces in the distinct aesthetics established for 13th Age. The cartography of the respective levels comes in absolutely gorgeous isometrics in full color and leaves NOTHING to be desired. The electronic version comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks. The print-version is a glorious full-color hardcover and, sans hyperbole, one of the crown-jewels of my RPG-book collection - its production values are superb, the paper is thick and the binding great. This book is made to last...and it needs to.

Okay, this review took a lot of willpower to not immediately burst forth with what I really wanted to say:

Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan's Eyes of the Stone Thief...is the BEST MEGA-DUNGEON I HAVE EVER READ.

Regardless of system and setting. 

This has all the strengths of both structured and modular mega-dungeons and none of the weaknesses. The characters herein brim with creativity. The challenges, whether they be traps, hazards, creatures of the stone-thief itself universally are simply SUPERB. Excellence. Platinum-Standard. This is innovative regarding the rules, smart in its depiction, exciting to read and a single level has more ideas than some whole dungeons I've read.

The intriguing nature of the dungeon itself makes sure that the stone-thief basically is one of the coolest villains I've ever read: More so than the myriad of foes in this book, the dungeon itself is what will draw the ire of players and PCs and the advice for depicting it, the exceedingly concise presentation of the mechanics and rules to which it needs to adhere, the thoroughly evocative settings, the stunning modularity of the setting and structure...every page, every sentence in this huge tome breathes pure, unadulterated, undiluted excellence.

Let me once again emphasize that: This is my platinum standard for mega-dungeons from this day onwards. It quite frankly makes many of the mega-dungeons I've read look like a grade-school-flutist trying to compete with a world-class prodigy. This is pretty much a whole class of its own - it is smart, well-written, brims with more creativity than just about any mega-adventure I have read and...I'm running out of superlatives to heap on this book. No matter the scale you apply, this is apex-level excellence.

I'll go one step further: Know how console video-games are often branded as system-sellers? This is, to me, one of the very, very few books I'd consider worthy of this title.

This book is so good, I urge every GM, no exceptions, to get it. Even if you and your group have no interest whatsoever in 13th Age and its rules or setting. This book is so good that, on its own, it suffices as a reason to learn the rules. It can be converted and does not lose much, though you may want to give careful through regarding Koru behemoths -> replace with kaiju of your choice) and icons. Still, I wholeheartedly believe that learning 13th Age for the express purpose of playing through this book is worth every second, every dime. Even when taking the price of the core-rules etc. into account...this still is worth it a hundredfold.

This book is a glorious read, play even better...and. Let me give you a bit of context: I've read many 1st and 2nd edition modules. I have a HUGE collection of 3.X material. I own a metric ton of PFRPG-material. I have several 4E-books. I have a bunch of 5E-books. I have an extensive collection of OSR, CoC, GUMSHOE-books and a bunch of Midgard and Shadowrun books. My Pdf-only folder of books that I do not own in print is over 90 GB and this folder does NOT include pdfs of books I own in print.

 I have literally read more than a thousand modules. I have a lot of modules, both big and small, that I consider awesome for vastly diverging reasons. From superb-investigations, spine-tingling horror to massive APs or superb sandboxes with concise structures. Among all of these modules, there are pretty much only a handful I'd even consider mentioning in the same breath. This is basically the 1% of the 1% of the 1% in terms of quality and ranks as one of the best, perhaps the best mega-dungeon ever published. At the top of my head, the only book I'd consider truly on par with it in imaginative potential and scope would be Frog God Games' Sword of Air - and that one is not a mega-dungeon, but rather a superb combined wilderness/dungeon/investigation-sandbox...and my number 1 spot of last year's Top Ten.

Now I know, this was released in 2014...but I only got into 13th Age and thus, this book, relatively recently. And it needs to be honored properly. This gets a final verdict of 5 stars + seal of approval, is a candidate for my Top Ten of 2016...and should honestly be in any GM's library. Even for scavenging purposes, this is worth it. Even if you want to convert it to your system of choice, this is worth every second spent converting it. This is apex-level adventure-craft...and I really hope it has not forever spoiled me rotten regarding my expectations for a mega-dungeon. If you want to get one mega-adventure...get this one. It doesn't get better than this.

You can get this ridiculously awesome, brilliant mega-dungeon here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!

Endzeitgeist out.