TL/DR: Buy if you are a fan of the novels.
One of the cool things about Christmas is you’ll occasionally get a present you’d forgotten you’d even put on your “wish list”. This is how The Powder Mage Roleplaying Game made its way into my collection. In case you are unfamiliar with Brian McClellan’s work, the Powder Mage series postulates a fantastic world where magic exists alongside technology similar to the Napoleonic period in Europe. I read the first trilogy set in this in this world several years ago. They are well worth a read. A Kickstarter for a Savage Worlds roleplaying game set in this world was done back in the Fall of 2016. I had weaned myself off jumping on every RPG Crackstarter by then, but always intended to pick up a copy.
My copy was from DrivethruRPG. It is a 6×9-inch, full color paperback. For the most part, the art is nice. There are some really good maps that have appeared in the novels. The size of this game limits their utility for actual gaming, I’d love to have larger copies of these, even if in PDF form. Much of the art looks like “watercolor sketches” of the various peoples of this world. The artist has concentrated on the military uniforms and this is a great choice, both given the nature of the Powder Mage stories and because the uniforms are quasi-Napoleonic in design. Most of the art appears a little dark, or “muddy”. I think this is less an issue with the art itself and more due to the paper quality and printing process.
The game begins with brief introductions from Brian McClellan (who I think did most of the work on the background chapters) and Alan Bahr (who I am guessing wrote all the rules). After that we get four pages on how to be a GM in this universe, including a page and a half about using the X-card. It is an interesting tool and could be useful for some groups Given the stuff that is missing from the game, it would have been nice to spend less space on it. The last two pages of the chapter are a concise overview of the Powdermage universe.
Character Creation is the next chapter. I haven’t played Savage Worlds in years, but it looks like you generate characters pretty closely to the core rules. There are no non-human races in this game. Characters do get some starting skills, based on their homeland, to add a little variety to the game. There’s a new skill, Third Eye, which characters with arcane backgrounds have access too. Unfortunately, it didn’t make it onto the character sheet. There are also two prohibited skills, Driving and Piloting, but (you guessed it) they are on the character sheet… Next we dive into the rules for the new arcane backgrounds. Powder Mages gain their abilities by ingesting blackpowder. The rules handle all the “normal” abilities that I recall from reading the novels (faster, stronger, more observant and able to do amazing things with a firearm). The special abilities that Taniel and Tamas have are not discussed. Privileged are very similar to mages in other games. The conceit of this universe is they can reach into “The Else” and manipulate reality. They must where special gloves to do so, or they will burn their hands on the raw magic. Knacked are characters with special abilities. For the most part this means they have an Advantage. Many of the Knacked advantages, like Darkvision, would not require an arcane background in other games. The final arcane background is the Magebreaker. These are characters who gave up the ability to be Privileged, but can instead suppress magic if they are near to the caster. You’ll notice there are no rules of “Bone-eyes”, the type of magic that Ka-Poel uses. This type of blood-magic is supposed to be rare and powerful, but it is a shame that we didn’t get a hint about how to run a character like this. The chapter rounds out with a few rules changes for the game (update to Shaken which always seems like a contentious condition in Savage Worlds) and tables for weapons. I’m going to go off on a little rant about this section: there are no Muskets only Rifles. My bet is Mr. Bahr doesn’t know what the distinction is, but it is important in a game using this technology. Muskets should have shorter range and be quicker to reload than rifles. Also, the melee weapon table is predominantly a list of medieval weapons. I don’t think anyone was swinging a great sword in these tales and there is no entry for a bayonet – a crucial weapon for armies of this period.
The next three chapters: Nations of the Nine, Lands Beyond the Nine and A Brief History of the Nine contain the background and history for the world of Powder Mage. I’m spending the smallest part of the review on this section, but honestly this is the best part of the book. The chapters form excellent reference material for fans of the novels and give a lot more details on some of the nations and peoples that the novels have only touched on. I really loved the “current schemes” sections and all the adventure fodder they contained.
The Pregenerated Characters chapter was a considerable let down. It looks unfinished. There are five characters, but they are just the stats, hindrances, etc. There are no names, background or sketches to go with them. Each of the characters takes a full page up in the book, but half of that page is blank. As is, this chapter feels like a waste of space. If the characters had been named and had a background fleshed-out they could be handed out to players for a quick gaming session. Even if we were only to get the stats, these characters could fit two to a page to avoid the white space.
The final chapter, Adventures, has four scenarios for the game. I’m always happy when a game book includes some sample scenarios. Even if I don’t use them “as is”, they give you ideas on how to structure your own scenarios. Each scenario looks like about a single session’s worth of play. None of them really knocked my socks off. They felt a little unfinished and the endings… Well, there were so many loose endings that the GM would need to do a lot to resolve them. I’ll give an example. (I can’t figure out how to do “spoilers” in wordpress, so I’ll change the background to black. Highlight the next paragraph and hopefully you can read it, but only if you don’t plan on playing the first scenario.)
The first scenario is a murder mystery. A nobleman has been murdered. When the characters track down the killer they discover that he was not murdered. He has a Knacked ability to switch appearance with another person. He faked his own death because his sister was trying to poison him. Well… He is still a murderer and there is no information on checking out the story about his sister the poisoner. The premise of this adventure is really interesting and I think it could be made to work. First, let’s make the nobleman a more sympathetic character. Instead of him murdering someone and switching identities, what if he was attacked and killed the assailant while defending himself? Seeing an opportunity, he switches identities with his attacker. He has a manservant who can vouch for the story and the characters could try to locate a Knacked that can detect lies if they still don’t believe him. Now we can move onto the sister… What if she was getting tired of failed poison attempts and hired that thug to murder her brother? They find evidence of it… Maybe a handwritten note explaining where to collect payment? The nobleman suggests switching appearance with the character with the best social skills to talk to his sister and get her to admit to the deed. Of course, the sister wants no loose ends and has planned to get rid of the assassin. She springs an ambush after admitting the deed and all hell breaks loose.
I’ve already mentioned problems with the character sheet; it is also nearly too small to be usable. The lack of rules for Bone-eyes is disappointing. All magic in Savage Worlds uses the same mechanic, so we really just needed the types of spells that blood magicians can utilize and some ideas for “trappings”. The lack of information on Wardens is a real oversight. They play a significant role in the novels and stats for these sorcerously-warped beings should really have been included. Heck, they show one on the cover of the game for Hastur’s sake!
If you are a fan of the series and want more information on the world this game is certainly worth picking up. I don’t think the rules for playing Powder Mages, Privileged, Knacked or Magebreakers are revolutionary enough that they are worth the price alone. This game could have been a lot better and it would have only taken a little polishing on the adventures, characters and inclusion of Wardens and Bone-eyes to take it to that level.
The Powder Mage Roleplaying Game is available at DriveThruRPG.
TL/DR: A good page-turner, but hard to get over the premise.
The Darkening is not a book that I would have normally picked up. I was looking for post apocalyptic fiction in the vein of Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033 series when I stumbled across it. The “back cover” description sounded intriguing and the reviews were generally positive so I picked up a copy.
I want to start with the premise of the novel, because it was the hardest thing for me to come to grips with: light, or rather the shadows cast by light can kill. Imagine this for a couple of minutes… People would have to learn to adapt to complete darkness in order to survive such an environment. You’d need to stay indoors, in a room with no window, except during the night hours when the moon was not in the sky. I couldn’t suspend disbelief long enough to fully enjoy the novel. I kept questioning how people could survive these conditions. Anyone who’s ever tried to navigate a Lego-strewn living-room floor to let their dogs out in the middle of the night understands how utterly dangerous it is to be without any light. Also, you can’t make a fire to boil drinking water or cook food. Even if you didn’t break your leg stumbling around a forest on the first night, you’d probably die of dysentery in a week.
OK. Put that paragraph in a box for a little while and let’s dig into what this novel does well. The first thing that struck me was the excellent portrayal of the main character. John Piscus is a survivor. He’s seen horrible things. He’s done horrible things. He’s filthy, frightened, practically starving to death and he’s batshit crazy. It’s not surprising. He’s been living on his own since the world changed. His personality has fragmented. He constantly plays with his cigarette lighter, but can’t bring himself to light it up and end it all. I simultaneously loved and loathed this character. He was a complete and utter son-of-a-bitch, but the author still managed to portray him as someone you could empathize with. Hastur only knows how far any of us would go to survive if the world ended.
After the author established John’s character, he introduces the big wrinkle. John meets a girl. A girl who glows with a soft light. Light kills, remember? Is she a demon? Is she the ghost of his daughter back to haunt him? John doesn’t want anything to do with her. He tries to drive her off, even threatening her with violence so he can go on with his miserable existence. It doesn’t work and when he finally believes she is not there to hurt him, John begins to regain some of his humanity.
The girl is being pursued by unknown forces. Men who can walk in the light. John reluctantly decides to help her and continually confuses her with his long-dead daughter. The author shows John’s inner turmoil during this portion of the novel. The “survivor” in him wants him to kill or abandon the girl, while the “father” in him is desperate to help her. John is no hero though. He’s barely capable of taking care of himself. He stumbles through the next sections of the novel bringing death and pain to the only people that tried to help him.
I really can’t describe the rest of the book without spoiling it, but I do want to say that it was a real “page turner”. I spent a couple of late nights reading chapter after chapter to find out what the next calamity would be. It’s a bang-up job. Despite my inability to come to grips with the premise, I was drawn into the story and wanted to see where it would go.
Unfortunately, it took a wrong turn. The “big reveal” was another place that I had a lot of trouble suspending disbelief. The main adversary was two-dimensional and seemed a little too much like a mustache-twisting villain in some sections. The final showdown was messy and left of lot of things unresolved. I had come to like the main character despite the horrible things he had done and while there was redemption, the ending of the novel didn’t give me the closure I had hoped it would.
Would I recommend it? Probably no… There are better tales out there. If you are interested in how far someone would go to survive a holocaust, the portrayal of John and many of the other characters in the book would be great source material. Check the library for a copy or if all else fails you can grab it at Amazon.
TL/DR: Another winner from Osprey!
Paleomythic, written by Graham Rose, is the second role playing game from Osprey Publishing. I picked it up at the same time I picked up Romance of the Perilous Lands and I am glad I did. The title of this game immediately drew me in. “Paleo” roughly translates to “ancient”, so I started thinking about a game of ancient myths. The sub-title: “A Roleplaying Game of Stone and Sorcery” sealed the deal.
Physically, Paleomythic is a great product. It is a “novel-sized” hardback clocking in at about 280 pages. The formatting is well done. (I could quibble over the lack of column headers on some of the tables, but they are easy to make sense of.) The book is very readable, with black font over a light tan background. The art is top notch and sets the tone of the game perfectly. It is a mix of color plates and “stone age” art that reminiscent of the cave paintings at Lascaux. Again, Osprey has chosen to include a racially diverse mix of people in the art which is nice to see.
The Introduction explains the premise of the game (Stone & Sorcery – I love it!), role playing games in general and an overview of the ancient continent of Mu. The author covers a good bit of ground in the first few pages. I’m very much a fan of concise introductions that set the tone so quickly. The remainder of the chapter is an overview of the game system. Paleomythic is a “Roll A Six to Hit” (RASH) system. Characters are defined by their Traits and Flaws. When a character attempts a task, they gather up a number of D6 equal to the total number of Traits the character has. If they have an applicable Trait (for example, the character is Strong and is attempting to shift a heavy boulder) they add a bonus die. If they have an applicable Flaw (Weak if we use the above example) they subtract a die. If they have a tool (maybe a lever?) they add another bonus die. Now roll that handful of dice and hope for a six.
Characters, the next chapter, includes rules for creating the heroes that populate the ancient land of Mu. Character generation can be completely random, player-controlled or any combination. Paleomythic does not attributes like many other games. Instead, they are defined by their Traits (advantages), Flaws (disadvantages) and Talents (skills). Characters can have 5 Traits and 1 Talent, 4 Traits and 2 Talents or 3 Traits and 3 Talents. You can choose to increase Traits by up to 2, but you must take an equal number of Flaws. I am not sure if it is well-balanced. You give up 1D6 for all rolls when you take a Talent, but they are pretty limited in scope (they do give you extra starting equipment though). There are also a lot of Talents in the game: 36 of them. Each of them have special snowflake abilities. Some seem much more useful than others. I think it was about this time I decided that Paleomythic was not a game I would want to run. Paring that list of Talents down to about 12 or so and making them more broadly applicable would help.
Adventuring in Ancient Mu delves into the rules of the game. It begins with combat and there are a surprising number of tactical options in the game. For example, all weapons have special effects that come into play if you roll a “6” on your “tool die” during combat. It’s a very cool mechanic. Special effects are based upon the material your weapon is constructed from. The problem is there are many variations of weapons; six, yes that is right, six kinds of spears for example! It makes you look at the list of polearms in the old D&D books with new respect… Anyhow, it looks like a lot of time will be spent mastering the combat system and referring to the special abilities each weapon has. You’re also going to need to do it a lot during fights. Weapons break if a “1” comes up on the “tool die”, so combatants will be using different weapons during the fight and probably finishing off their enemies with bare hands. Characters don’t have hit points, rather when they are wounded they temporarily lose a Trait. This is an interesting mechanic since each Trait lost will make your character weaker at everything. The rest of the chapter discusses pretty much every other action your character may do in the game. Climbing, hunting, crafts and so forth are all detailed. There are some great random tables in this section for hunting as well.
The World of Ancient Mu describes the people and places that inhabit this primordial continent. In case you’ve never heard of it, Mu is purported to be one of the “lost continents” of earth (along with Atlantis and Lemuria). There is no map included in the book, the people of Mu do not make them. The author divides the continent into four areas. The north is snowy and mountainous, the east is a lush jungle, the south is an arid desert and the west is a temperate region. The people of Mu, their beliefs, customs and so forth are described next and the author provides a method to randomly generate the various tribes and settlements the characters may encounter in their travels. The spirit world is discussed at length as are the stranger places of the continent. The chapter rounds out with a section on the gods of ancient Mu. This is really great material and the tribe/settlement generators can be purloined for any game.
Adversaries in Ancient Mu discusses all of the foes and creatures that stalk the continent. For the most part, the fauna of Mu is derived from the Pliocene and Pleistocene. They even have Glyptodonts! Creatures have Traits just like characters. Big creatures (like mastodons) can have “double traits”. This makes them harder to bring down, but they don’t add any extra dice in combat. I’m not sure how I feel about this… Creatures don’t use tools so they feel a little underpowered when facing a group of warriors. There are plenty of monsters for your players to engage too. Beast men, serpent people and other primordial beings stalk the dark places of Mu. Finally, there are plenty of spirits to tangle with as well.
The Game Moderator Section is all about running exciting adventures in this fascinating world. The author provides a series of tables to help generate adventures and even dungeons (called “paleo-delving”). I really appreciate all the work the author put into this section. I’ve purchased so many games that don’t explain what kinds of adventures work well in the world. This is great stuff and can be mined or lifted for almost any fantasy game. The chapter rounds out with ideas for how to use the game in a couple other genres: the “real world” Pleistocene (including rules for Neanderthal and Homo floresiensis) or for running a more traditional “sword and sorcery” game.
The game ends with an adventure (an old-fashioned “paleo-delve”) and an appendix of useful tables, character sheets and so forth.
Paleomythic is chock full of adventure ideas that you can mine for other games even if you don’t plan on playing in Mu. I’m not sold on the system. Don’t get me wrong… This looks like a solid game and certainly doesn’t seem any more difficult to learn than Coriolis for example. I’ve never been keen on “RASH” systems – especially GMing them – since I have trouble figuring out the odds. I’d probably use Savage Worlds as an engine to explore the primordial continent of Mu.
I have degree in Archaeology and Geology, so it is not surprising that I enjoy prehistory. I think I love “fantastic prehistory” – those imaginings of Atlantis, Lemuria, and Hyperborea – even more. Did you watch 10,000 BC? Did you enjoy Farmer’s Hadon of Ancient Opar books? Does the idea of the stories of Kull or Conan taking place in a stone-age era appeal to you? If the answer is “yes” this is a game you’ll want to take a look at.
TL/DR: A great little game!
Osprey Publishing has been supplying gamers and modelers with reference books for almost as long as I’ve been alive. The Men at Arms Series books are thin volumes (60-70 pages) with a little history of a unit and several glorious color plates of the uniforms. They are awesome for any miniature painter and I’ve got a shelf-full of them. It was maybe ten years ago that Osprey jumped into gaming proper. Frostgrave is probably their biggest game… They’ve partnered with NorthStar to make miniatures and have a ton of supplements for it. Their first published game was Dux Bellorum, an Arthurian miniatures game. Osprey recently (last year) made the jump into role playing games and it seems fitting that the first RPG, Scott Malthouse’s Romance of the Perilous Lands, is also based on Arthur.
The book itself is excellent. It is a hardcover volume about the size of a small novel (~250 pages long, dimensions 6×9 inches). The book is laid out and information was presented very well. The text is dark and has a high contrast against a lighter background making it easy to read (something that is getting more important as my eyes get worse). Osprey is known for its high quality art, and this game is no exception. Everything is in full color – battle scenes, monsters, characters – it is very evocative and certainly sets the tone of the game. The cover art is a prime example. It features a female knight front and center, next to her is a male archer and a black wizard brings up the rear of the party. This is a long way from Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur. It’s refreshing to see Osprey take an inclusive position with their games.
The book begins with a brief introduction to role playing and an “example of play” that all games apparently need to include. It then launches into a description of The World of the Perilous Lands. This is a great section. The author outlines the history and current state of the world in about eight pages. I really applaud this work. It’s concise and makes me want to get out in game instead of feeling like I am slogging through a history text book. You can also tell right away that this world is not the traditional world of Arthurian myth. This is a firmly fantastical world that bears many similarities to the stories of Arthur, but it is definitely not a “fantasy earth”. I really enjoyed how the author combined the world of Arthur with the world of Robin Hood. I read these stories back-to-back when I was young and they’ve always been tied together in my mind.
Character generation comes next. Characters have five attributes: Might (strength), Reflex (dexterity), Charisma, Constitution, and Mind (intelligence). Attributes use the classic “roll 4D6, take the best 3” method, or players can choose an “array” (9, 10, 12, 14, 16) and allocate the scores. I would have been happier if the game had combined the Might and Constitution attributes. There are six classes for the game: knight, ranger, thief, cunning folk (wizard), barbarian, and bard (why is there always a bard???). Each of the classes gives the player skills, talents (special abilities) and determines their hit dice. As characters adventure, they will gain levels and become more powerful. It’s a pretty slick system and allows enough customization that two characters of the same class won’t feel the same.
A chapter on equipment follows. Suffice it to say the weapons, armor and other gear are listed. I’m not a fan of how armor works in this game. It’s “ablative”. For example, chain will absorb the first 10 points of damage and then be useless for the rest of the fight. There are talents that let characters “rejuvenate” their armor during a battle though. I also don’t think there is enough difference between heavy armor and medium armor. Knights are supposed to be the tanks of the game, and plate plus a tower shield grant 16 armor points. A barbarian with chain and wooden shield can get 13 points of armor (and catch up to knights at level 5 due to their natural armor ability granting 3 AP). The easiest way to balance it out is to make chain a heavy armor and make leather into medium armor.
The game is very easy to understand and anyone with experience in D&D should have no trouble learning this system. Attributes are very important in this game because players must roll below the “associated attribute” on 1D20 to succeed on a task. For example, if my character wanted to spear a bandit, I’d need to roll below my Might attribute to succeed. There are situational modifiers of course. There is also an Advantage/Disadvantage system (roll the D20 and take best or worst outcome as appropriate).
The Spellcasting chapter outlines the spells available to Cunning Folk in the game. There aren’t huge reams of spells in this chapter and honestly, I think that is a good thing. I’m not a fan of D&D lists with dozens of subtly different “blast ’em” spells. Spells each have a level to denote how powerful they are and each has a cost (in spell points – a currency that cunning folk use to power their magics). An interesting approach this game takes is that cunning folk can attempt to cast a spell of any level; even if it is higher than their character level. If the player fails the casting roll though, watch out. They will need to roll on a backfire table to see what happens.
The World is described next. This chapter weighs in at about 50 pages and contains a lot of info about the Perilous Lands. It describes magical artifacts, locations, deities, factions and the major personalities of the world. The locations were particularly fun to read. The author has included a lot of adventure seeds in this section and a talented GM could probably let his players “hex crawl” and uncover adventure anywhere they go. The deities are based on the old Celtic gods. The rules suggest that characters have a patron deity, but there are no mechanical advantages too doing so. I think allowing players an advantage on a skill roll in the deity’s “domain” might be a nice touch. Of course, there should be some kind of geas to go with it and a disadvantage to those rolls when a character breaks the geas. Factions are next and there are some really great organizations for the players to get involved with. Of course the Knights of the Round Table are an option, but there are intriguing groups for non-knights to get involved with too. Adversarial factions that look to bring down Arthur’s rule or are not aligned with either the light or dark powers are described as well and will certainly inspire any GM with adventure fodder. Finally, the major characters of the world are “statted out”.
A very comprehensive bestiary is included. There are about 50 more pages devoted to adversaries (human, animal and monstrous). Most of the monsters are taken from Celtic Mythology, but some of the old classics like vampires and werewolves make an appearance too. GMs who wish to focus their campaigns around monster hunting will have ample creatures for their players to battle.
The final chapter is a guide for game masters and gives advice on how to structure the campaign, write adventures and some advice for running exciting combat encounters. I’ve deliberately avoided drawing a comparison to Pendragon in this review, but I’ve opened that can of worms and might as well address it here… Pendragon is a tightly defined game about playing knights in the Arthurian setting. Romance of the Perilous Lands allows you run more traditional adventures against a backdrop of an Arthurian-inspired setting.
Romance of the Perilous Lands is great game and well worth picking up for the art and setting material even you don’t choose to use the system. I think it’d be easy to convert to D&D (if that floats your boat). I don’t think I’d run this as written because the armor system grates on me too much. It wouldn’t take take too much hacking to turn it into a system that I’d want to use though.
TL/DR: Don’t read just one.
I stumbled across Joe Pawlowski’s books and when I saw “A Tale of Old Hastur” on the cover, my interest was piqued. Gothic horror, dark fantasy, the mythos and the title – The Watchful Dead – I was caught like a voormi in Atlach-Nacha’s web.
The central character of the story is a young boy, Ring Gargery. Ring is no typical protagonist. His father and uncle are slavers. His mother has been bed-ridden since he was an infant. He’s lived most of his life confined to his house with only household slaves as his companions. Ring is clever, introverted and a somewhat fascinating character. Many of the characters he interacts with are terrible excuses for human beings, but rarely does Ring judge them as such. This is a subtle, but incredible piece of world-building by the author. Wherever the city of Old Hastur lies, it seems culturally different than any place we are familiar with.
The The Watchful Dead is a not complete story. It introduces a lot of characters. I learned their motivations. I felt sympathy for some, despised others and was intrigued by how they all interact. While reading this book, I kept wondering, “what the heck is going on here?” When there were only a handful of chapters left I began to despair that the answer was “nothing”. I was right. The book never really had a story, rather it is the introduction to the real story that is told in the next novel in the series.
Things start to heat up in Dark House of Dreams. Ring, takes part in his first real adventure. Back in Old Hastur, the machinations set in place by his father’s cronies turn pear-shaped. Dark sorcery is practiced, the dead walk and soon the gods themselves contest over the right to rule over the ancient city. There were some really terrible happenings in this book… Rape, necromancy, and a child killer make an appearance. I found Pawlowski’s depiction of the dead haunting Old Hastur to be particularly enjoyable. After the initial shock wore off, people just started going about their lives. The wealthy could afford to exorcise obnoxious spirits. The poor just adapted. It seemed so… Reasonable?
Should you read these books? I’ll be honest, I would have given up after reading The Watchful Dead if I hadn’t bought both. I am glad I stuck with them. The story, world building and characters were really interesting, but I feel like it is an “acquired taste”. These are not action-filled romps with competent heroes, but slower and darker tales similar in vein to Clark Ashton Smith or Ambrose Bierce.
TL/DR: A rousing set of tales that any fan of sword & sorcery will appreciate.
Much of Lin Carter’s career was built upon loving pastiches of other author’s works. He dabbled in the worlds created by Lovecraft, Smith, Howard and many more, so it is interesting to see Robert Price take a stab (pun intended) at one of Carter’s best known heroes: Thongor. In case you’ve been encased in amber by a malicious sorcerer for the past 50 years, I’ll remind you that Thongor is a mighty barbarian that adventured in the lost continent of Lemuria thousands upon thousands of years ago. These stories are great fun and hark back to the classic “pulp” sword and sorcery stories of the 1930s.
Price’s book gives us ten more tales of the mighty barbarian king to enjoy. They are all written in the style that Carter adopted and are great romps across the primeval continent of Lemuria. Are they as good as what Carter wrote? Honestly, I’m going to leave that up to you to decide. What they are is an excellent chance to enjoy more tales set in this exciting world of mad wizards and dinosaurs. Carter, sadly, won’t be penning any more tales in this exotic locale and I applaud Price’s contribution to the sagas.
The Sword of Thongor is available at Amazon.
TL/DR: Real page turners. You’ll like them if you are a fan of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
We’re having our first significant snowfall of the season, so I thought I’d better get on my duff and type up a quick review of A Wintering of Evil – The Pandora Affair. (And If I’m lucky, the boy will shovel some of the driveway while I’m at it.)
I picked these books up a couple of years ago. I’d just read the Metro 203X series and Roadside Picnic and was looking for more “Russian SciFi” in a similar vein. These books are set in the Exclusion Zone surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. They borrow from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. computer game. The zone is rich in plunder and weird artifacts. Mercenaries, scumbags and all sorts of adventurers are drawn to the area hoping to strike it rich. Both Russia and the Ukraine tussle over control of the zone. It is a lawless frontier. Mutants, radiation and other anomalies pose additional hazards to the men and women trying to make a euro in the zone. If you’re not smart and handy in a fight, you’re going to end up dead in this environment. Unlike a lot of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fiction the books are not just “dungeon crawls” in the Exclusion Zone. There’s something deeper going on. Something that has been building since before Chernobyl melted down.
General Nikolai Petrosky (a right bastard of a man) has been working for years to get back into his old stomping grounds in Pripyat – a complex called Pandora. He has hard copies of files in his old offices and he needs them to blackmail top Russian government officials. He’s also got a secret project buried in the depths of this compound and he desperately desires to start up his nasty experiments again.
Opposing the General is a man named Jarred McKenzie. McKenzie first crossed the Petrosky back in Vietnam. By exposing the Russian’s scheme during that war, McKenzie laid Petrosky’s career in ruins. Petrosky swore revenge. I’m not going to spoil the story, but let’s say the battle between McKenzie and him is very personal. McKenzie has pulled together a coalition of Russians, Ukrainians, and Stalkers who aim to take Petrosky down. They’ve been building a plan for decades and have the tacit approval from the highest levels of the Russian Government to move on the General when the time is right.
As if this wasn’t enough, there is a third player in the mix: an ancient race known as the Krailiaki. These creatures have stalked the Earth before mankind built the cities of Ur. Nearly impossible to kill, these apex predators are highly intelligent; they just don’t choose to use technology. As humanity has expanded, they have withdrawn into the darkest corners of the planet, but they are still there. I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to say that the secret project Petrosky was working on centers on them and they want revenge on all humanity for the suffering Petrosky has inflicted on one of their elders.
I can’t go into much more detail without spoiling the books, but they are well worth a read. The author knows how to keep you in suspense and writes great battle scenes. I’m not quite as sold on the characters. McKenzie seems a little too competent and Petrosky seems a little too evil. There are also a lot of characters. I think the author wanted to show that this was more than just a “good guy from the USA” versus an “evil Russian General”, but I had trouble following all of the agenda’s and names. A list of characters with a brief biography would have helped a lot. I should also mention that by the end of book 2, things haven’t been tied up. I assume the author had a book 3 in mind, but it has been 6 years since these books were published so Hastur knows if they will ever see the light of day.
There are some weird formatting issues in both of my copies: For example, long sections of white space in the middle of a sentence before they pick up on the next page. It’s annoying, but not too hard to get around.
TL/DR: Great art and atmosphere – dodgy system
I debated even doing a review for this game… It’s been out for three years and there are much better reviews out there than this goblin’s poor scratchings. Like other reviewers, I’ll say the game looks incredible, but the system lets it down.
The core rules are split into two books: Alter Ego is the “player’s manual” and has all the rules for creating player characters. Lex Libris is the “game master’s manual” and contains the game system, background, monsters and spells. Both books are gorgeous.
Combat is over-engineered… Each combatant has a number of “action points” based on their combat skill. They use these points to move, draw weapons, attack, defend and so forth. I can recognize what the authors are going for – an action economy where skilled characters can dominate the battle. It looks like it will fall flat. It will take dozens of adventures for characters to become skilled enough to do anything than a simple “to hit” roll. If I did my math right, I think the maximum skill level can reach 25. Die rolls are based on 1d20, roll below the target number. So a master swordsman can take 2 attacks per round – one at 13 “to hit” and another at 12. Pretty meh for someone of D’Artagnan’s level… Oh, and if you don’t put any skill points into the fighting skill you can’t do anything during combat. Not even move (if I read the rules correctly).
There is a limited chapter on monsters. Lycanthropes, phantoms, wraiths (a spirit that possesses a dead body), and vampires are described. There are several options for each creature to help keep them varied. I was pretty disappointed with this. I pictured monster hunting to be a big part of this game and would have liked some more creatures to challenge the players. RiotMinds has released a “monster manual” for the game however.
The Secret Arts include spells, religious ceremonies and scientific inventions. While very evocative, they all look incredibly difficult to pull off. There are skill penalties to perform any secret art, the character typically needs to know a host of different skills and obtain some pretty wild material components to actually utilize them as well. My favorite has got to be the tears from an innocent man who was killed for a crime he didn’t commit. I bet these are a lot more common than you might think… Most of the powers don’t seem to give a lot of “bang for the buck” either. For example, there’s a spell to call a bolt of lightning from the heavens. It is -9 to the caster’s skill and grants them the ability to cast 3 bolts per week that do about the same damage as a musket.
Enough of the complaints! Let’s talk about where this game shines: the world. Lex Libris has a really nice overview of 18th Century Europe. The major powers and exciting adventuring locations. There are extensive write-ups on the secret societies of the age (both real and imagined). The art is fantastic. The whole setting is just packed with ideas for adventuring.
So, what does this goblin think? Overall, I’d say buy it. The background and the art are just that good. I’ve spent a lot of time railing about the rules, but they actually don’t take up that much space in the books. The basics of the system are solid and if you like tinkering with rules, you could probably get a playable game. If you ditch the game system entirely and use something like Renaissance or Ghastly Affair you’ll be a lot happier. This game compliments Ghastly Affair perfectly and would add a lot of ideas, adventure seeds and background for any presenter. I picked up my copies at Noble Knight Games.
TL/DR: Don’t be drawn in by the deal – they don’t deliver.
My son and I have recently gotten into model trains. We had an abortive foray into HO a couple years ago. This time were are going with N-scale. We’ve settled on the T-Trak system for the layout. I really like the idea of this modular system. I can actually wrap my head around finishing a T-Trak module (I’ll post my first one later) rather than look at a large table and despair about all the work that needs to be done.
Anyhow, this brings me to Internet Hobbies… I ran across their website whilst looking for model train supplies. They had a (seemingly) great selection and lucky me – a sale was going on. Oh shiny! I bought a pile of stuff. Everything I ordered was listed “in stock” and had estimated shipping times of 1-2 days. Internet Hobbies happily charged my card on the day of purchase and I got an e-mail confirmation about the order.
So I waited.
And waited some more. “Hmmm, they’re having another sale…” Wait… Check the order status. Wait…
I wasn’t impatient. I gave them a couple of weeks and sent them an e-mail for a status request. They responded the next day telling me the order was scheduled to ship “this upcoming week”.
Before I get into the rest of the story, you should know that they do not answer calls. The website has a phone number, but it goes straight to voice mail. They do advertise a 24 hour turnaround on e-mail responses (weekends included).
So I wait another week.
“Hmmm, they’ve had about four of these fucking sales since I ordered. Why can’t they send out my damn order?” I’m getting a bit fed up and I finally search on reviews. Uh oh… No positive reviews… Anywhere…
I spent the next week e-mailing them asking for an update or a refund.
Finally, I e-mail them saying I am disputing the transaction with my credit card company.
Now I get a response:
“We’re sorry it came to you doing this. You’ll get your money back but you lost $163.00 in discounts that you won’t get anywhere else.”
That’s rich. I’m still trying to figure out how I lost $163.00 in discounts when I was never going to get any product.
I did get my money back at least.
Stay away from these jokers. Hastur only knows how they stay in business.
TL/DR: A really cool little game!
I purchased my copy from Lulu. It is a 6×9 inch paperback. A lot of people like to bitch about the quality of Lulu bindings, but I’ve always had decent luck and this book looks ok to me. The interior is laid out in a two-column format with some very nice illustrations. I’m particularly partial to the warrior on page 54.
The author has broken the game up into several chapters. I’m not going to go into detail on each of them, but rather discuss the book by various (arbitrary) sections.
The game begins with a short introduction. The author really nailed this. It is a great example of concise writing that packs an overview of the rules, the setting and a “what is roleplaying?” section into two pages.
The next section is character creation. Characters are defined by five attributes: Blood (strength/dexterity), Instinct (perception), Presence (charisma), Steel (combat skill) and Wisdom (smarts). This is my first minor quibble with the game. “Blood” and “Steel” are evocative names for attributes. The other three seem somewhat pedestrian by comparison. I honestly like games that stick with easy to understand attribute names. (Heck, I’m planning on selling all of my Eclipse Phase books to Noble Knight Games primarily because I can’t remember the definitions half of the attributes or skills.) Attributes and skills are rated by a die type and range from 1D4 to 1D12. Character generation is fairly detailed – it’s four chapters and 41 pages long. You determine Homeland, Background (previous profession), advantages and disadvantages during the process. The author has considerately created tables for many of the choices so you can do a fair amount of random generation to speed things along.
The rules come next. At first glance, I thought Travellers on a Red Road was going to be some kind of Savage Worlds clone, but the system is a little more nuanced. Skills and attributes are all rated by a die type. You roll your attribute and (not plus) your skill die against a target number of 4. If the score on both dice misses the target the character fails, if one of the dice succeeds the character gets a partial success, and if both dice beat the number a full success. It’s a clever little system. Combat, Spot Rules (fire, falling, poison, etc.), Travel, Magic and Campaigns (downtime) are all described in this section. I do want to do a special “shout out” for the magic section. There are some really interesting abilities and I really liked the rules for familiars in the game as well.
The Game Master section follows the rules. There are some very interesting monsters in the game. An overview of the world follows and then there is a chapter on referee advice. There is also a sample adventure. I’m really grateful the author included one. I’ve picked up so many games that are really cool, but always leave me stuck for “what the heck do you do in this world?”
A glossary, afterward and much appreciated index round out this game.
I really like this game. It draws from cultures that I have never explored in a RPG setting. I think if I did run this, I’d dial the technology back a bit – get rid the flintlocks and some of the industry. I’m not sure why, it just matches my picture of how I’d run a game set in this world.