12.31.2012

Razor Coast, EZG and a happy new year!

Hej everybody!

Today, I want to take you back through a bit of my personal history:




When the 3.5-days of old were winding down, I was disillusioned with much of the rpg-offerings out there: I didn't like the encounter-format WotC was starting to promote, didn't like the direction 4th edition was going, my go-to publisher Necromancer Games was on hiatus and I was not sufficiently active online to know about the "secret" small companies that didn't show up at my FLGS.

Then I bought "Burnt Offerings" - and liked it. I liked the gritty minor bits and pieces and thought "I'll give this one final try". I bought "The Skinsaw Murders" and "Hook Mountain Massacre". And was blown away - here were finally authors being daring, with wicked, atmospheric characters and writing of top-notch quality.

That is when I started doing some research and found Nick Logue's by now legendary failure of a company called Sinister Adventures and while in time it wound down, it was there that I "met" Lou Agresta. Who pointed me towards 0onegames "The Bloody Fix". Essentially, that is what got me hooked. I was one of the most involved posters on Sinister Adventures and raged and seethed and wanted the company to succeed since it was covering EXACTLY what I wanted to see.

Alas, it was not to be. Life crushed down hard as it is wont to do and Razor Coast, this superbly ambitious and intriguing project, vanished, evaporated and almost saw the destruction of the reputation of a good man and stellar author - though admittedly, a bad business man.

It is during this time that I started to lurk on Paizo, began posting uninformative, dumb reviews and started getting into the whole 3pp-world and it is here that Steven D. Russell from Rite Publishing gave me my very first complimentary copy EVER.

Perhaps it's me being quixotic, perhaps I'm in love with what seems to be lost causes, perhaps I just like extremely ambitious projects - it is here I stumbled, again, via Lou Agresta, across Slumbering Tsar. The Magnum Opus of Greg A. Vaughan was in the limbo and, from the ashes of one of my favorite companies ever, rose Frog God Games to publish this gigantic, massive tome.

And well, they managed to pull it off. Since then, FGG has provided a lot of great books, among which is the by now legendary Rappan Athuk. The Frogs have managed to put out the very largest, most ambitious of products and time and again proved their commitment to quality and delivering.

Where is this leading? Well, Razor Coast has been acquired by Frog God Games. The kickstarter is running and better yet, the preorders are honored as well. And I REALLY want this extremely ambitious kickstarter to fund since if anyone can pull it off, it's probably the crew of Frog God Games!

I have seen the artwork, which is Paizo-level (including a Wayne Reynolds-cover). I have read parts of the unedited writing and it's glorious. I have the utmost confidence in Nick's ability as a writer and in the Frogs to actually deliver this monster of a book.

Without Razor Coast, I would have never started reviewing. This was what I wanted to see in the first place. I would have never found Rite Publishing, Open Design/Kobold Press, Frog God Games and perhaps, none of the over 900 reviews I've written so far would exist without this book.

What I'm trying to say is: Take a look at the kickstarter and if you like what you're seeing and can afford at least a couple of bucks, do me a favor and pledge. If this kickstarter works out, we may not only see one of the most ambitious projects devised by a 3pp, we may also set a precedent for what can be done by us, as a community.

And, you would make me a happy man indeed.

Thanks for reading this ramble and I hope the holidays have been kind to you and that you'll have a happy new year!

All the best, peace and prosperity,
Endzeitgeist out.

12.14.2012

EZG reviews Oathbound Seven

Hej everybody!
Today I'm taking a look at a review that took me for ages to write:


Oathbound Seven is a massive tome of 496 pages, 2 pages editorial, 2 pages ToC, 1 page SRD and 1 page back cover, leaving us with an epic of 493 pages of content, so let's check this out!


Before I go into the details of this review, I'll tell you a bit about how I came to finally review this. Remember the 3.X days of old when just about every one cranked out supplement after supplement, book after book and the glut stared growing? Much like other people, for me, this was an age of uncontrolled spending - each visit to my FLGS yielded a precious new slew of books and while there admittedly were many that plain and true sucked, there were gems to be found. Now, some years after the bubble burst, I'm looking back at the time and honestly can't find much merit in many publications, the amount of worthwhile settings in particular being only a fraction of what was published. I have fond memories of the L5R-adaptions to d20 (though I prefer the original rules) and in my honest opinion, Arthouse's take on Ravenloft remains the most superior iteration of my very favorite setting; Its gazetteers, VR-Guide to the shadow fey and dark tales and disturbing legends in particular rank among my all-time favorite RPG-products ever. WotC should have never taken the license away from these extremely talented, dedicated people - but that's just my opinion. If you can track the books down, do yourself a favor and do so - they are stellar, even if mined only for ideas. Among the other settings I consider truly brilliant, we have Midnight - a truly dark setting if there ever was one and one I'd also consider a must-have, if only to read its fluff and ideas. There also were the Scarred Lands, which, although marred by horribly unbalanced crunch influence my campaigns to this day and, would my players know about it, they'd see nods galore that bow to the excellent ideas of the setting. Well and then there was a small but fierce (pardon the theft of the catchphrase Wolfgang!) 3pp called Bastion Press. Their books caught my eyes by being full color, lavishly illustrated affairs and thus, I got myself some. And boy. I'll never forget reading their compilation of lovingly crafted villains. Now Bastion was known for hardcore products indeed - to give you an idea, just let me tell you that I didn't have to make their villains stronger by completely redoing them from scratch in order to challenge my players.

Why am I rambling on about them? Well, they released a setting called Oathbound: Domains of the Forge and it fit perfectly with their style and ambition. If I had to describe Oathbound in one sentence, it would be "Planescape meets Ravenloft" - without flinching one bit. If you know about my love for both of these settings, you'll realize that for someone revering them with what borders n religious fervor, this is high praise indeed. But let me elaborate what I mean by this: Oathbound details the World of the Forge, a vast planet that touches upon vast slews of planes settings (and can thus easily call any group of heroes to the setting), but which can't be left. Known as the Forge of Heroes, the world draws the best, brightest, most malevolent and darkest and pushes them to their very limits - all in the Forge is more vibrant more extreme, grander than in most worlds, making few want to find a way to escape the winding clauses of the oath that defines this planar prison, in which the very creator of all things was imprisoned and lies sleeping, bound by the magic of thousands of gods from vastly differing worlds, the prison being guarded by the 7, once against of the creator made jailer and masters of the domain. Much like Sigil, no gods may enter the Forge and thus the 7 of the Feathered Fowl reign supreme, but more on that later.

RPGNow.com

Much like the mists of Ravenloft given faces and identity, the 7 are essentially powers-that-be, longing for freedom from their eternal vigil, as they themselves are bound by their very own oaths, thus seeking to create heroes in this larger than life environment, while at the same time being compelled to destroy those unearthing too much of the secrets and oaths governing the unique world. Speaking of unique and larger than life, newcomers to the world, so-called seeds, get a gift by the latent powers of the creator, ranging from luck bonuses to charms and abilities like chameleon skin to give the seeds an edge in an environment that has bred the finest of unimaginable many worlds via conflicts and selection to the point where its inhabitants would be seen as paragons in other worlds. Speaking of uncommon - the Forge boasts two suns and to moons, which govern the year and attention and explanations are given for the hours of the day, festivities, months etc., providing the reader with a first glimpse at the painstaking and loving detail with which this setting was crafted. But before I go further, why Oathbound Seven? Is it a remake? Yes and no - it is a compilation of material from the books released so far, yes, but it is also a revisit: The Forge is not static and 7 years have passed since we last took a look at it when it was headed by Bastion Press and much has changed in the intervening time: For example Penance, one crossroads and capital of the world, has seen a change in rulership when Belus managed to succeed at a coup d'├ętat vs. the city's queen Israfel, thus sending waves of changes and its not yet fathomable repercussions for the Forge.

Now, while Bloodwar-ravaged Penance is providing potential for adventures galore, the area is not the only one introduced to us: Take the red deserts of Arena, where endless war is waged between feuding warlord and clashing armies under the watchful auspice of Barbello to the legendary Wildwood, primal prototype of all types of forests, spanning all imaginable types of wood and being home to all kinds of wild and dangerous predators under the command of Haiel, the grand hunter an master of this untamed wilderness. And that are only the ones that have been detailed in the Bastion Press books... for the sake of not escalating this review beyond any readability, I'll refrain from commenting on the other areas and instead point you towards the book detailing the latest domain, also by Epidemic books, Eclipse. (And I swear it won't take me this long to review that one!) Just let it be known that cities of vampires (including publicity campaigns!), lands of eternal night (eclipse..d'unhh!) and things like living glaciers all can be found, remaining true to the truism of being a world concise, yet decidedly fantastical in every possible meaning of the word. If you're like me, you'll be once again deeply entrenched in the lore of the forge by the time you read page 119, where recent events, already hinted at in the tantalizing power-shifts, are recorded.

After more than 20 pages of extremely well-written chronicles of the bloodwars, we start to get into the mechanic details of the races that inhabit the Forge - and from the entry on humans, we quickly gather a peculiarity of the Forge: Its power level. Humans gain an additional gift and a discount on evolutions, but more on that later. The other races herein are no less powerful - take for example the horned, tiger-like winged humanoids Asherakes who may choose from racial feats to enhance their flight or scent, the jellyfish-like, telekinetic amphibious Ceptu, the small draconic-looking Cromithians, the canine humanoids called Dovers, the sly and crafty (and almost demonic looking) Fausts, the bipedal cat-beings called Frey and their larger wildcat-like brethren, the telepathic and sightless  weird yet loyal Haze, the lazy reptilian Nightlings, reptilian gypsy-like beings called Picker, the organic metal beings named Silver, plantlike Thorns to the goatlike race of bandits called Valco ad their larger, more deadly war-like brethren, we are introduced to an array of highly unusual races that have in common that they are many tings - but not balanced with the core-races. Since the Forge thrives on competitiveness, the races herein are significantly more powerful than one would expect, coming with multiple abilities and often extra senses, movement modes etc. - it is for the sake of brevity as well as for the internal setting's balance that I will refrain from listing their racial traits. Suffice to say that the respective races run a vast gamut and that the introduction of new species should be simple given the setting's background. Would I allow any of the races in a standard PFRPG-game? Hell no! I don't even allow drow or all variants of tieflings in my home game! Much like in my review of Amethyst Renaissance, though, I'm rather sure that within the context of the setting and its assumptions the aces work as intended, lacking utter game-breakers. While powerful, the races do work in the internal context of the setting - or they could. Potentially. When in fact, as much as it pains me to say, they are unbalanced and range in powers from PFRPG-ARG to ECL +3 and more. Now Oathbound's crunch was never good, but I really hoped they'd get it right this time. Nope.

RPGNow.com

In the next chapter we are introduced to Forge-specific application of skills like the crafting of blood glass and flesh, the knowledge about the strange anatomies of its denizens, knowledge (warfare) and (earth) and similar skills help the seeds survive. On the mechanical side I have a minor gripe here: Some of the skills mention synergy-bonuses, which are not part of PFRPG design-standards. If they'd adhere to the excellent system introduced by Misfit Studios' "Superior Fantasy Synergy" I'd probably be less inclined to complain, but as presented, they feel like a design-remnant from the 3.X days of old. Speaking f not conforming to standards - the feats, of which we get a wide variety, put feat-names and skill-names in the prerequisites in italics. While no big problem, is a peculiarity I felt the need to mention, as italics usually are reserved for spell names. The feats themselves deal with improved racial capabilities as well as e.g. improved ranged combat prowess in storms etc The feats are solid and some of them tap into the concept of the Forge's inherent magical nature and expanded class abilities, but more on that later. For the same sake of brevity mentioned above, I'll also refrain from going into the mechanic details of the 8 PrCs presented herein, which range from Zealots and Hunters to Demagogues - and surprisingly, it is these classes that could be easily scavenged into a regular setting - depending on the power level of your own, you may wish to add a requirement here or there if used outside the Forge, but overall, they are well-balanced, smart and adhere o the respective design standards and thankfully lack the dreaded "dead" levels of 3.X-design. Special mention deserves the demagogue and its nice execution of a truly legendary master of rhetoric that could be a blast to play.

Of course, where there are PrCs, one can also find core classes and two new ones are introduced: The feral warriors (d12, 2+Int skills per level, full BAB, good fort- and ref-saves as well as improving natural weaponry that gains monk-like powers to pass DR but who can't use armors and don't gain weapon proficiencies) and  the Rafters, treasure hunters not unlike Pathfinders that gain d8, 8+Int skills per level, 3/4 BAB, good ref-saves, proficiency with martial weapons and whips and a plethora of powers that make them suitable for scouting, exploration and masters of the whip, their weapon of choice. The class feels like a nice blending of scholar, explorer and scout, though it and its feral warrior brethren suffer from one crucial flaw in design - they are linear. If PFRPG has shown us something, it's that choices are simply more fun and that every class should have a toolkit of options to choose from - whether it be rage powers, ways to invest Ki etc. Unfortunately both per se nicely designed classes lack such choices, which is a pity indeed - personally, I'd think about rage powers for the feral and roguish talents for the rafter, but I'm currently too thinly stretched time-wise to properly balance them and can thus only remain with this suggestion.

RPGNow.com

Beyond what one could consider normal PrC, there are also 4 so-called channeling PrCs that harness the inherent divine creative powers of the Forge. Channeling can be considered a separate magic system that allows its practitioners to weave raw magic int so-called patterns, with unique effects depending on the PrC chosen. Unlike traditional spellcasters, channelers may weave multiple patterns in rapid succession, enhance patterns by spending more energy on them (somewhat akin to how Psionic Power Points can augment powers, but less restrictive; Artficers and Spellwardens have no stacking limit for their powers while disjoiners and ravagers do.) etc. Channeling may be done defensively and can be interrupted like casting, though it does not require somatic, verbal or material components. Each channeler has a basic assortment of Mana Points of Con-bonus times character level and once that is used up, channelers may still cast on, but at a price - the raw magic starts to burn through their bodies and damage the respective key-attribute of the channeling class. Artificers are mainly concerned with conjuring things and even life out of thin air, while their disjoiner foils are all about undoing and unravelling things. Spellwardens can be considered defensive channelers that are supremely suited to foil casting classes, while the warlike ravager essentially are a combination of warlike powers and e.g. force-field like telekinetic blasts - if you ever wanted to go Dragon Ball Z on your foes, this one does the trick (though, of course, not in such a ludicrous proportion as in the series). I really enjoyed the respective PrCs and their abilities, though I once again have a gripe with their linearity - while cool in and of themselves, I think the PrCs would have vastly benefited from actual choices of patterns available instead of clinging to a linear progression which, while offering VERY cool options, nonetheless remains linear.

Now, I've mentioned gifts that the Forge bestows upon its seeds and 100 different arrival gifts are detailed in here, ranging from scentlessness to attribute- and skill-bonuses and even an empathic power that allows you to determine the emotional state of others. Beyond this massive list, we also are introduced to earned gifts, which are bestowed upon the people of the Forge for special deeds and actions: Ethereal Sight, mind-reading and the ability to invade dreams are just some of the examples. And then there are evolutions which I mentioned in the discussion on the modification of the basic human race. Essentially, evolutions are AWESOME ways to further customize your character. First, you take the "Evolve"-feat and after that, you choose a focus (a kind of evolutionary path). The evolution costs XP and can be progressed further if you choose to do so at higher levels. Furthermore, there is a ritualistic component which also needs to be completed, making evolutions not only sound crunch-wise, but also a great seed for potential adventures. Some also require focus items and to make matters more exiting, you can also choose from mutations, which essentially are the smaller brothers of full-fledged evolutions. Evolutions also have restrictions and run the gamut from additional limbs, web-spinnerets, gills, resistance to energy drain, improved attributes, spines, quills, an aura of anonymity, fertility with all races to becoming a living prism or functioning in vacuum - these evolutions rock and a DM looking for interesting (and potentially double-edged) ways of rewarding his/her players should definitely check this chapter out, even when not running an Oathbound-campaign.

In Chapter 9, the section on equipment, we are introduced to blades that can be thrown, scatter guns, armors and modifications thereof to account for additional limbs, horns etc. and a wide array of cool equipment types to facilitate survival in the Forge as well as all the necessary information for the special materials available in the Forge. Spellcasting in the Forge also follows its own peculiar rules: Divine spells and arcane spells may still be cast, the first powered by the creative energies of the planet, the second y the Oath. Casters may, however call directly to the inscrutable Oath and potentially have their spells slightly empowered or weakened. Also, some spells are harder to cast due to sanctions of the Oath, requiring a steep concentration check and resulting in potentially lethal stuns on the character's side. The changed effects of summonings, teleportations etc. are all detailed before we dive into spell-lists by class, including new domains. HOWEVER, and here is a HUGE pet-peeve of mine: The APG-classes and the Magus, by now staple of PFRPG, are completely left out - especially when the summoner's eidolon and how it works in the forge would have required some clarification - and eidolon evolutions PLUS forge evolutions would be awesome! And what about Alchemist's mutagens? Epidemic books needs urgently to address these things, perhaps in a future book. Also, sorceror's bloodlines feel like a kind of "evolution" to me and mixing both could yield some interesting results rules-wise - more to do!

After the lengthy chapter on spells, we are introduced to new magical items, artifacts (Ever wanted fully functional adamantine wings that can shoot feathers and act as vorpal weapons? Yes, here!) and golem, mana and even anti-grav engines! Hell yeah! The different faiths and philosophies are also introduced in lavish detail, including tenets, oaths and benefits, associated domains etc. for different types of atheism and agnosticism as well as for the varied religions and pantheons that can be found in the Forge. I've said it once and I'll say it again - we don't have enough cool organizations in PFRPG and thus I'm rather glad that Oathbound remedies that by going into extensive detail regarding several of the Forge's most infamous and prominent organizations and brotherhoods, though, again, while their writing is excellent, they lack organization stats.

In Chapter 13, then, we're introduced to the peculiar flora and fauna of the Forge, including a vast array of useful plants, drugs, fungi, animals big and small to be bought and sold (though sans stats) and microorganisms and diseases - the attention to detail and love poured even into such seemingly miniscule details makes the setting feels so much more distinct, so unique and compelling and for your convenience's sake, the chapter also provides a list of flora, fauna, organisms etc. by terrain type - now this is what I call DM-friendly!

The massive tome closes with an appendix that consists of a glossary of oathbound terminology, but lacks something I consider crucial at the size of this massive TOME and a tome it is - This setting lacks an Index.

RPGNow.com

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting has got to have been a herculean task for this huge tome of a campaign setting. To get it right, the tam of Epidemic Books must have invested a lot of time and effort, for right they got it. I noticed less than 5 formatting glitches over all the pages, weird choices like putting feat-prerequisites in italics not included. Layout adheres to a 2-column standard in full-color, with parchment-like background, tribal-like faded pastel-signs in the background and is in gorgeous, jaw-dropping full-color. The often organic, almost Gigeresque-looking artworks we know from Bastion Press have partially been used again, while in other instances, we are treated to true beauty: Some of the artworks here, rendered in what lacks like masterful works of water-color are so beautiful they could feature in an art gallery and render a instinct graphic identity to the setting that almost makes me wish the old artworks had been expunged from the book. The pdf, as is a must in such a massive tome of a book, is extensively bookmarked with nested bookmarks, though hyperlinks, which lately feature in a lot of releases, can't be found in these pages. If my raving and ranting was not ample clue: Oathbound Seven is a GORGEOUS book indeed, but if you go only for the pdf (there's a POD for b/w (cheap) and full color (expensive)), be WARNED that there is no printer-friendly version. Printing out the whole book in full color killed a whole array of toner cartridges for me. As soon as I have the money, I'll cave in and get the full-color version.

Oathbound. The Forge. Perhaps one of the most unique settings ever devised for d20, with vast details, excellent writing, captivating metaplot  - all updated for PFRPG, with glorious evolution-rules, updated races, new things that happened and SO MUCH CONTENT! Good content, actually. From the ideas present in Oathbound could have easily crafted 10, 20, perhaps even more campaign settings that would have felt more original than many out there. The setting is THAT rich in details, ideas and coolness, while never degrading into feeling incohesive. In fact, even though the Forge is an openly artificial world, it is more organic, more alive than so many worlds I've read about. Fantasy Authors out there should take a look at how world-building was handled here, for this is how it's done. Balance-wise, the options presented herein are all on the upper scale of power and when haphazardly introduced into a standard game, could wreak havoc. In their own world, though, they work and are balanced at the high end of the power scale that is the Forge. And with the advent of mythic rules right around the corner, I think enterprising GMs who don't want to check out the Forge will still find a treasure-trove of crunch, information and ideas here - especially when you're new to the Forge - this is the book to start your journey.

That being said, the TOME, as is wont with such an insanely huge setting (which is btw. insanely cheap for what it offers) has some flaws. Crunch-design wise, the skills still mention synergies, which should be eliminated. Class-design is perhaps the biggest offender: The linearity of the classes and PrCs just is disheartening, especially since they don't have dead levels and offer some tangible benefit at each level - with some options to actually chose from, the respective classes could, one and all, have become unanimously recommended pieces of awesomeness. What I'm trying to say is that they are good, but could have easily been excellent - channeling in particular feels like a massive chapter/capital idea trimmed down to its bare bones.

And then there's my grudge par excellence, my pet-peeve gripe in any conversion: No support for APG, Magus, et al. No archetypes, no teamwork feats, etc. Which is a HUGE wasted opportunity. Alchemists, Inquisitors (agents of the fowl?), Oracles, Cavaliers (weird mounts, baby!), Summoners - they all SCREAM Oathbound to me. Nothing. In order to truly go with the times Oathbound needs to embrace these new classes and I hope I'll get to see such a book in the future, wholly devoted to these.

So...How do you rate an extremely cheap iteration of a mind-blowingly excellent setting with stellar, captivating writing...that lacks a printer-friendly version and any support for APG, UM, UC etc. and massive balance-issues? Were I to rate this book sans context, just for its fluff and mechanical ideas (NOT executions!), I'd immediately slap 5 stars + seal of approval on it. I love this iteration of the setting more than its previous one. As a private person, I urge you to support this book so we get to see more of these awesome Oathbound books. As a reviewer, though, I can't rate this massive beast that high - the lack of a printer-friendly version, the lack of APG,UM and UC-support, the lack of new options that build decidedly on PFRPG-mechanics and the linear classes would usually mean that I'd bash this setting to smithereens. In fact, the race-balancing and the crunch generally is bad. The race-balancing, I'd even consider horrible, while several feats and components we are introduced to could worsen the problem. I'd usually crush this pdf.

Only that the classes are still great and the rules still solid and often times innovative. And the fluff.

Oathbound's setting is a bit like a good book - if you're like me, you'll start reading it and realize that it's morning when you alarm clock goes off. It is this attention to detail, this captivating prose, that, while the setting's not perfect, makes it impossible to rate this supremely innovative setting as mediocre. Thus, in spite of its glitches and flaws and due to the insanely low price (almost 500!!!! Pages for 10 bucks! In full color! With several full-page illustrations!) I'd recommend this immediately. Were it not for my function as a reviewer, which makes me feel only justified in giving this setting a final verdict of 3.5 Rudii, but WITH endzeitgeist seal of approval for the fluff and ideas. Crunch-hunters, dig elsewhere and buyers: Be aware of the power level and the amount of work you'll have to do - without it, your Oathbound game will suffer. Now let's hope for more Oathbound goodness in the future!

 


Endzeitgeist out.

12.12.2012

EZG reviews Rituals of Choice III: Race for the Crystal Fold

RPGNow.com
Hej everybody!

Today, I'll take a look at a module of a series particularly dear to my heart:

Rituals of Choice III - Race for the Crystal Fold



This installment of the Rituals of Choice AP is 50 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD and 1 page back cover, leaving us with 46 pages of content, so let's check this out!


This being an adventure-review, the following text contains SPOILERS. Potential players may wish to jump to the conclusion,

Still here? All right!

This pdf kicks off when the PCs are returning to the town of Far-rough from their trials and tribulations in "To Kill or Not to Kill" and are contacted by the greenbound Quayneel, though the job offering she provides is anything but simple - haunted by dreams of a by now golden jackal, she want the PCs to undertake a journey that seems to be rather urgent - for the dreams speak of keeping the crystal fold out of the hands of the sinister cabal, the sisters of Is-Nachblot. Unfortunately, even this talk does not work well - the PCs start to fall asleep and have to battle an undead version of Breandra (known from installment II) in dreamscape (also gain nice pieces of information and foreshadowing the things to come), while those resisting the magical slumber will have to defend their sleeping allies against a group of raiders - this dual fight, both in dreamscape and in reality, makes for a compelling start - and after that, the race is on!

And this makes the adventure interesting - for immediately, with the lure of magic, delays and time are a central plot of the module - whether they take their time or not, they'll have to deal with the consequences. Another leitmotif would then be honor - standing for one's word and convictions will have major repercussions in one of the climactic encounters of the module, as do courteous, honest, sincere and valorous actions.

 Mind you, this counting of honor and similarly virtuous behavior is not necessarily the easy option and it's often the conflict between the abstract urgency of the quest and what would be honorable to do that makes this module stand out beyond the standard.  Want an example: After the bribe sent their way, the PCs will find a blind oracle expert - a  child stuck in a chasm. Saving her and returning her to safety might be the honorable thing to do, but that will cause massive delays. Of course they could take her along - though she mystically sees truenames and has no qualms whatsoever discussing their choices and identities along the way...

They can also save a goblin that is being tortured to death by some commoners, encounter some litorians who try to cross the same rope-bridge (with all the machismo/honor vs. courtesy-repercussions you could ask for...), meet a sleeping, extremely lethal rune-reaver (whom they could ignore, try to kill in his sleep just talk to) and meet the inquisitive dark warden Ry-Derch, who may become hindrance of ally to the group, Finally, the PCs may find the wall and its Litorian watchers and challenge the litorians for the honor of reading the sacred wall of honor that is central to the PC's quest. and indeed, the quest is not simple, even here, including further deceptions to earn (and lose) virtue-points. And then, they get to decide what to do with Breandra, who has been caught by the Litorians - whether they'll see her hang as in their dream, return her to Rar-Rough for her just sentence or do something different - they will have to answer to an honor-rune manifest, who will reward (and punish) the PCs according to their respective deeds. Unfortunately, the sacred mound has already been entered by the PC's opposition. After braving a dread arcanoplasm, the Cs will encounter the grynlocs and rune-manifests (and depending on their speed, their opposition) to answer the questions that will determine worthiness of the Crystal Fold -with or without their opposition, they have to stand before one of the enigmatic Faradians and should receive their due reward with the fold - unfortunately for the PCs, the Faradian guard has already handed over the legendary crystal fold to the baroness - with the prophetic words that denounce them as "Not ready" for the burden - and potentially in danger.

After that, we get full stats for all named NPCs, including awesome full-color artworks, write-ups for all the magic items (including loresight information) and a what has gone before conclusion by Robert N. Emerson.

RPGNow.com

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are very good and while I noticed some very minor glitches, they did not detract from my enjoyment of the third installment of the Rituals of Choice-series. Layout adheres to a drop-dead gorgeous full-color, 2-column standard and the full-color artworks are beautiful, as is the stellar cartography, though the first two installments had more to offer in that regard. The pdf comes fully bookmarked.

The Rituals of Choice-series of adventures is awesome. Honestly, if you ever wanted to see some intelligent adventures that deviate in concept and appeal from the norm and go beyond "Slay the evil foes", these modules  do deliver exactly that, and this installment is no different: Where the first module emphasized the consequences of choices both for oneself and one's surroundings, where the second dared to ask the question about when it's okay to kill, even in an adventure module, this one takes a look at different virtues - and while the virtues seem like they shoe-horn the PCs into alignment-like paths and judge them, they actually do something more subtle: They make you question the absolutes the respective virtues constitute, they portray them as being inconvenient (as they are in real life - being good is quite hard) and make the players question their priorities and morality, the need to make compromises etc. This adventure evokes classic themes, but does so in an exciting way: The heroes' journey as a road to self-discovery, culminating in a judgment that the PCs may or may not like is handled with delicate precision and narrative panache, including the bittersweet cliffhanger ending - which had me asking for more. Unfortunately for a long time by now - Ceremonies of Sacrifice, the fourth installment of the AP, remains one of my most anticipated modules right now and what I've seen so far on the patron forums looks awesome. And so I remain, with yet another jubilant review of this brilliant series of modules, that is not only a must for Arcana Evolved players, but should also be considered a great inspirational module and worth the conversion to PFRPG for the DMs out there. My final verdict will thus unsurprisingly be 5 Rudii. 








As always, thanks for reading my ramblings!

Endzeitgeist out.






12.06.2012

EZG reviews Up From Darkness

RPGNow.com

Hej everybody,

today I'll take a look at Rite Publishing's latest offering from the Japanese-horror-themed setting Kaidan,

Up From Darkness


This scenario is 36 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial,1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a total of 31 pages of content -not bad for the low price point!

This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS and indeed, more so than usually, I'd urge any player to NOT READ AHEAD. Much of this module's appeal is due to its mysteries and by reading on, you'll deprive yourself of the basic tenets o the module.

Still here? LAST WARNING

Okay, "You awaken in pure Darkness." These words are what the PCs first hear from the DM and it gets mysterious - they get pregens (5 are provided) that lack physical attributes in their sheets. The DM takes one of 24 cards of these attributes and hands them to the player, to fill in their sheets with the missing information. Now every time they die, they return "Awaken in pure darkness" and gain new attribute-cards. Oh, and they all suffer from amnesia and have no idea who they are or how they got here. Much like Monte Cook's classic "In Media Res"-adventure, finding a way out of the strange surroundings and understanding who they are is part of the module's appeal, for the PCs will be haunted by disjointed snippets of memories, flashes of insight that increase the sense of estrangement and possibly distrust. The snippets come at specific times or on 1s and 20s on d20-rolls, while the vignettes, larger chunks of memory, are rewards for besting mayor challenges along the way. Awakening inside a coffin and bursting free, the PCs are in a room with a total of 24 different coffins (their "pool" of bodies to succeed in the adventure, but they don't know that yet) and can read strange kanjis - womb, tomb, the shogunate's symbol, darkness...but what do they mean? Opening a coffin results in one of the reserve bodies being inhabited by an elemental spirit, raising the corpse as a soulless killer AND reducing the number of bodies available for the PCs - but, as mentioned, they don't know that yet...

After the PCs have escaped from this strange first room, they'll be haunted by the first undead samurai that inhabits these halls and indeed, haunts and traps seem to stud these darkened halls, making the danger here evident - even before finding out that a rather disturbing array of Gaki-no-kage spawn calls this place home. On the upper side, the PCs may find suitable weapons and armor, including thankfully magical protections - though they may pose dangers of their own.

The second level of the dungeon is rather cool in that is vertical and has the PCs navigate shafts upward - haunted shafts with flaming corpse-haunts, grease spells and stirges as well as kumo-gaki. In order to allow the CPs egress from these vaunted halls, they'll need to find rungs  to scale an otherwise almost unscaleable tube and brave yet another, though far more deadly undead samurai.

The final obstacle on the way out (and to regaining their memories) is a maze of pure darkness and the master of the gaki-no-kage the PCs have vanquished so far - including a stellar, disturbing one-page artwork of the creature. In spite of the heavy SPOILER-warning, though, I won't tell you the shocking truth the PCs may come to realize at the end of the journey, only that I'd insert this one-shot at some time during part 2 or 3 of the Golden Spear Trilogy to give the regular group a chance to meet the PCs of this one-shot...

The pdf ends with appendices containing the pregens, monsters, magic equipment, 24 body-stat cards, a total of 60 (!!!!!) memory-snippets and 3 memory vignettes, all ready to be cut out and handed to the players.

RPGNow.com

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are very good, I didn't notice any significant glitches. Layout adheres to RiP's bamboo-lined b/w-standard and Mark Hyzer's wonderfully disturbing original pieces of b/w-artwork lend yet more flair and graphic identity to the module. The pdf comes with extensive bookmarks and GM-advice on how to run it and enhance its creepy atmosphere.

"Up from Darkness" is suffused with twisted imagery that never beats you over the head with its horror - Jonathan McAnulty gets subtle horror and his Kaidan-modules have yet to disappoint me. This one in particular is pure gold, with its sense of uncertainty of identity and even whether one is alive or what one is creating a high-tension environment that, by nature of its design, can revel in being deadly without frustrating the players. In fact, I won't even complain that we don't get player-friendly maps of the dungeon, for a sense of disorientation and uncertainty would be lessened by handing out such snippets. Make no mistake: This module HAS to be run as a one-shot, but it is a glorious one and one that can influence your regular gaming group in ways they can't fathom while running through it.

This module is a stellar sojourn, a blast to read and run, offers plenty of bang for the price and is quite possibly something your players have not yet seen - even those familiar with Monte Cook's "In Media Res" will consider this one superior, if not in execution, then at least in length and atmosphere. My final verdict should not come as a surprise to anyone - 5 stars plus seal of approval. Do yourself a favor and check this out!

Endzeitgeist out.

12.03.2012

EZG reviews Advanced Encounters: Alternate Objectives

RPGNow.com

Hej everybody,

today I'll take a look at

Advanced Encounters: Alternate Objectives


This pdf is 40 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD and 2 pages advertisement, leaving us with 34 pages of content, so let's check this out!


This pdf seeks to provide us with aims in encounters that go beyond destroying enemy resistance and after a short introduction to the subject matter at hand, we delve right into general categories that help you design objectives like the ones featured in this book yourself. For example, achieve encounters are based on skill checks and things PCs want to do, potentially interlaced with multiple steps to final success. Escape is also covered and rather interesting: Some sample skill-DCs being included alongside different scenario suggestions and a variant of making a breach. Holding areas (for example for a ritual or a similar ticking clock scenario) against an unending horde of foes are just as much covered as obtaining objects as an encounter's primary goal. Getting the balance of hard, but not too hard to get objects and even protect/prevent scenarios right, how much time to assign to tasks and advice on combining these alternate objectives are covered as well.

A DM has to think a bit more when designing encounters that go beyond "Smash XYZ" and thus we also get a comprehensive, easy-to-grasp step-by-step guide to help you create advanced objectives. Is failure at such an encounter fatal or just important? Are the expectations for what the PCs are supposed to achieve clear? Do you want to integrate content from the stellar Terrain Toolbox (you should!) and what about skill DCs? Non-combatants? Fans of Zombie Sky Press' stellar, awesome incantations should also note that they are also mentioned and discussed, including advice on dark priests failing at rituals when they shouldn't etc. - nice synergy between 3pps here!

Now that we're well-armed with a plethora of pieces of information to design our very own alternate encounters, we also get some ready-made sample encounters:  The first being the task to steal a necklace from a  noble lady incognito, while evading capture from her guards. The NPCs are fully statted and alternate hooks/motivations for the PCs are also provided. The tavern is fully mapped (as, indeed all sample encounters) in a  player-friendly b/w-map and complications like town guards etc. are also mentioned. The second sample encounter has the PCs escape from a collapsing cavern of ice while being beseiged by ice elementals and there is also a different scenario on the other elemental side of the scales, there also is a burning warehouse-encounter included, of course with rules for spreading the fire and extinguishing flames. Protecting a prince from a cadre of elite assassins is also one of the more challenging sample encounters and if you're playing the classic boxed set by Necromancer Games or the Legacy of Fire AP, you'll also have an escape scenario fleeing from the city of brass provided herein. The final encounter works best when the PCs have met a once pure individual, in the sample that being a planetar: The aim is to convince the fallen angel to seek redemption for his past transgressions and help the PCs against the small infernal host he now leads. This encounter feels slightly odd in that, while it provides a bunch of statblocks, it fails to provide complications, account for PC strategies etc. and essentially boils down to a series of bland skill-checks that remain mostly un-developed and for the DM to judge by fiat. Per se not too bad, but when contrasted to the first encounter e.g. accounting for distracting performances, barfights etc., this encounter fell a bit flat for me.

RPGNow.com

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I didn't notice any significant glitches or ones that would have impeded my enjoyment of the pdf. Layout adheres to a  printer-friendly b/w-2-column standard and the pdf features nice b/w-interior artwork to go along with the cover. The pdf is also extensively bookmarked with nested bookmarks.

As you already might know from my review of the Terrain Toolbox, I supported the kickstarter that gave birth to both books, but was otherwise not involved in the creation of the content. The Terrain Toolbox was ennie-nominated for a reason, being one of the finest pieces of DM-help and crunchy goodness to enhance your game I've read in a while. Alternate Objectives is another fine installment in the same tradition, though, at least in my opinion, slightly less polished, but let me elaborate: The strength of the Terrain Toolbox was the sheer imaginative potential of general guidelines and vast variety of terrain hazards that DMs could utilize and make their own. It is a well-spring of awesome ideas. Alternate Objective starts off generally the same way, but e.g. lacks a table of sample skill-DCs, a table of mechanical severities and damages to inflict etc..
The content of the alternate objectives presented is awesome and their writing concise, but there is no bare bones basic guideline as in the toolbox. Furthermore, the complications and considerations could have used some more space to shine - perhaps at the expense of  the sample encounters, which end up taking up half the space in the book. Being level-specific due to statblocks, they can be used on the fly, but remain only useful for a limited range of play as provided. I really think this particular pdf would have vastly benefited from something I'm usually an enemy of: Statblock-omission. Seriously, the statblocks clog up so much page-count it's not funny - page-count that could easily have been used for more encounters, complications, scenarios, DM-advice etc. - i.e. content that would have truly enriched the offerings of this otherwise neat pdf instead of stats that actually limit the usefulness of the sample encounters.


Alternate Objectives, as presented, is still a very good offering that should come as an eye-opener for novice-DMs and serve as an inspiration for veterans, who can surely get a trick or two out of the pages of this rather cheap pdf. My problem is, though, that it could have been easily as good as the stellar toolbox and perhaps even surpass it. It doesn't and remains "only" a good book that falls slightly short of its own vast potential, something I hope will be realized in a sequel. *nudge-nudge* For this, though, my final verdict will clock in at 4 Rudii.






Endzeitgeist out.