Review: D&D Monster Cards 6-16 by Gale Force Nine

As my D&D campaign has progressed my players have slowly murdered encountered tougher and tougher opponents. It’s the way that D&D works, which meant that sooner or later I was going to want to field creatures with challenge ratings above 5. We’ve now reached that point, so it seems appropriate to review the second of Gale Force Nine’s Monster Card packs, which covers CR 6-16.

This slighly smaller pack provides 74 creatures, once again using a mix of regular and double width cards with images on the front and stats on the back. The majority are double width, which isn’t really surprising given the more complex rules associated with many of these creatures. As with the CR 0-5 pack the cards are of good quality and presented in a consistent, clear format that includes their special abilities. As a reference resource they work, though you’ll need to look up the details of any spells that are listed (which is understandable)

Unfortunately, as with the CR 0-5 pack Gale Force Nine have chosen to omit a number of monsters, including some of the more iconic entries. You get, for example, all of the Young Dragons but not a single Adult Dragon. There’s also no Beholder but for some reason the CR 17 Dragon Turtle and Goristro are present (I don’t know if this is a mistake in my pack or not because GF9 don’t list the contents anywhere I could find). Apparently some of the omissions are because they didn’t want to include anything with a lair action, which I think is a rather ludicrous choice given the stated CR range.

All in all the pack is rather disappointing, while I will make use of the cards for quick reference the omissions compromise it too much for me to recommend it at the RRP of $16/£13. That goes double if you already have easy access to the Monster Manual.

All reviews are rated out of 10, with Natural 20s reserved for products that go above and beyond my expectations. Unless otherwise stated all review products have been purchased through normal retail channels.

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New Release: Trick of the Light Adventure Starter

Recruitment drives. When you go through Agents at the rate the Brotherhood does they’re a necessary evil. Normally we’d send somebody from personnel but they’re on an away day. Again. So pack your bags, you’re off to Vegas and the Convention of Magical Americans. We need you to scout the show for any potential recruits, every year there’s at least one true student of the arcane arts mixed in amongst the stage magicians. Not that you should discount the illusionists, misdirection and sleight of hand are just as valuable in our line of work.

We’ve nabbed some press passes for you. Well, we told them you were influencers… whatever that means. So look the part and try not to go too viral, your health insurance doesn’t cover that.

Trick of the Light is an adventure starter for the Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors RPG by Dead Gentlemen Productions. Inspired by the Demon Hunters: Slice of Life episode The Amazing Velma this adventure starter provides an open framework for GMs to adapt and run the adventure for their own groups. Can the Chapter find and recruit mystical talents without blowing their cover? Was the death of famous magician Griff McCarn really an accident and how on earth do we get Nicky to leave us alone?

Trick of the Light is available at drivethruRPG & Itchio as a Pay What You Want PDF download. Paid purchases, feedback or reviews are greatly appreciated and keep me motivated to produce more material.

Download it now from drivethruRPG or Itchio

2019 Progress: Halfway there?

As ever time marches on and all too soon the first six months of the year have passed. Given my hope of this year being the one where I move a host of projects forward I thought it would be worthwhile to do an update on my goals for 2019.

Have dones

  • Written and playtested Ghosts of Iron for the Crystal Heart RPG. I’m in the process of revising the text before I submit it. Should be released to Kickstarter backers later this year.
  • Completed the draft for Trick of the Light, my next Demon Hunters adventure starter inspired by the Slice of Life web series. Currently editing and moving it to layout so should hopefully be released soon (ideally before GenCon).
  • Drafted three missions for The Sprawl and handed them over to @HyveMynd for editing / layout. Aiming for a release later this year.

Ongoing

  • Attending conventions – I made a 1 day trip to UK Games Expo 2019 and will be attending BurritoCon 3 in Manchester later this month. I’m also aiming to attend DragonMeet later in the year, if I do I’ll be running games as part of Games on Demand.
  • Progress on Project Cassandra! I posted up the current characters and a rules summary (which is now itself out of date) and am in the process of putting together a playtest packet for BurritoCon. First public playtest since the disaster of Dragonmeet.
  • I have notes for the remaining two Slice of Life adventures and have decided that the Clean-up Crew scenario will be a Fiasco playset given how well the episode meshes with that system. These will be my next focus after Ghosts of Iron and Trick of the Light.
  • The D&D Immortals campaign continues and has passed the tipping point, with the characters ensnared by Destiny and heading towards some epic showdowns with the previous generation of Immortals.

Will I evers

  • Patreon. With the change in how Patreon were going to charge creators I decided to sign up for one with the thought of actually starting it later in the year. Right now I’m sitting on it for the simple reason that it won’t work until I manage to build some interest in what I produce and the first step in that is to actually produce some material. I haven’t released anything since last year and right now I don’t have a core focus for any Patreon project. I don’t know if there is enough interest in material focusing solely on Demon Hunters while most of my other projects have been standalone. Regardless of whether I ever do use it my first goal has to be building up a catalogue of material I can point to.
  • The Kingsport Tribune one-page Cthulhu idea looks like it is going nowhere, just didn’t come together though it did give me some practice with a newspaper style layout.
  • Rocket Demons of Antiquity is on the backburner for now. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a scenario that will require an ongoing campaign to delve into as opposed to my typical one-shot playtests. Plus I’ve got at least three other adventures inspired by previous campaigns where I already know the story-beats to write up first.
  • DMs Guild material – While I have notes for a few products I’ve yet to make any move or progress towards writing them up. Although I expect they would be far bigger sellers than anything I’ve produced to date I’m fortunate enough to be in the position where that isn’t a priority so I can focus on the material that most interests me.

Review: Legend of the Five Rings 5th Edition Beginner Game

Legend of the Five Rings is one of those games that holds special significance for many players. Since its inception the world of Rokugan has presented players with an approach to adventuring in sharp contrast to the traditions of D&D. To paraphrase a statement I’ve heard from multiple people

“Everybody is trying to play a paladin, except your moral code is in constant conflict with itself to the point that any solution to a challenge is simultaneously both the right and wrong thing to do.”

It’s a complicated (and often intimidating) world, built up over decades by AEG through both its RPG and CCG. So when Fantasy Flight Games acquired the licence, reset the lore and redesigned the system to use their custom dice it left many fans hesitant. After a turbulent open beta the first product in the new 5th edition line was the Beginners Game box set, released in 2018. I picked it up at the 2019 UK Games Expo and wanted to share my thoughts.

The Contents

The beginner game comes with everything needed to introduce the world of Rokugan to a new group.

5d6 (ring) and 5d12 (skill) dice with custom symbols.
1 introduction to Rokugan pamphlet.
1 introductory adventure – The Topaz Championship
1 rulebook
4 character folios
1 double-sided map sheet (1 large map, 2 smaller ones)
1 sheet of cardboard tokens

All of the above is provided in full colour, with extensive artwork that lives up to the expectations set by previous editions of the game and professional layout. There’s no other way to say this – this game looks great. Everything is also clearly labelled in terms of read order – with clear “Read this first/second/last” and “Only turn this page when told to” text blocks that help delineate sections.

The character folios are well designed, with clear background information and two double page character sheets. The first presents the character as they are at the start of the adventure, the second is blank and allows for players to spend XP following the adventures interlude. A particularly nice touch is the legend that explains the various sections of the character sheet, which will help avoid the all too common “where is X” or “how do I do Y” questions.

The Adventure and Rules

At the core of the box set is the introductory adventure – The Topaz Championship. This has been a staple since the early days of Rokugan and follows a group of young samurai as they seek to complete their gempukku, the coming of age ceremony that will mark them as adults. The 5th Edition write-up presented here has been cleanly repurposed not just as an introduction to the setting but to the mechanics. Rather than introduce everything all at once each scene layers on a new component, from basic dice rolls all the way up full combat. While the structure of the adventure is relatively straightforward it is generally well designed, extremely well presented and ideal for beginner groups. There is, unfortunately, a potential for the contests to devolve into a simple series of rolls with little roleplaying and new GMs could easily find themselves overwhelmed.

For more advanced groups there are a number of suggestions on how to expand the scope of the scenario, through extra encounters and intrigue. By the end of the Championship players and GM should have a good grasp of the base mechanics… to a point. A number of rules have been simplified requiring players and GM to relearn some mechanics if they continue beyond the initial adventure.

The rulebook included alongside the adventure is there for groups that want to go a little bit further and includes rules that are closer to those found in the full Core Rulebook. I say closer because a number of areas are omitted. There is no character creation or further options for spending XP. Disadvantages are absent, as are any rules for magic while only a partial and quick system is included for duelling. Without owning the Core Rulebook it is difficult to say what else has been omitted and how many systems have been simplified (I get the impression that the answer is quite a lot).

An extremely notable absence is the matter of death. With the exception of to the death duels there are no rules for when a character dies (and even then it is left to GM fiat). They can be incapacitated or rendered unconscious but that’s as far the text goes. For a system that has historically been associated with sudden character death this is a major omission and just doesn’t make any sense.

But what of the new system? Overall I have to say that I really like it. The new take on role and keep retains the flavour of exploding rolls without being as needlessly complicated as FFGs earlier take on Star Wars. Similarly the use of approaches and skill groups is a great way to limit a single attribute from dominating play.

Two of the skill groups and the associated approaches, taken from the core rules character sheet

The approach of encouraging players to use of all the rings even carries over into combat as each of the stances is tied to a specific ring. This forces players to consider whether they want to use their best ring or the bonus effect associated with a particular stance. I haven’t had a chance to stress test combat and assess how lethal it is but the mixture of fatigue and critical injuries makes a lot of sense and I could easily see characters being quickly incapacitated thanks to the multiple ways in which fatigue can accumulate. It is worth noting that I have seen posts online suggesting that the core rules may take a different approach to damage (though it is possible these were referring to the beta rules) and until I buy that book it will be difficult to really appreciate how combat plays out.

Perhaps the biggest point of contention during the beta was the strife mechanic but I think it may be one of the best additions to the game. Representing inner turmoil with mechanically helps to not only make the characters more human but to normalise the idea that they will slip up on occasion and drop the emotional mask that society expects them to wear. There were complaints that it took away player agency but to me that’s missing the point. Emotional outbursts are all about losing agency, whether they are screams of pure anguish or raucous laughter from a joke that shouldn’t be funny. You’re not in control and the mechanics highlight that. What’s especially nice is that they provide you an option to grit your teeth and pretend everything is ok but doing so prevents you from keeping dice that roll the strife symbol.

All in all the system does well to incorporate more modern, narrative based approaches to roleplaying while retaining a traditional core and so long as you are happy with the limited character progression (and lack of magic) you could easily use this introductory rulebook to run your own adventures.

The Issues

There is a lot to like about the Beginner Game and I really want to say that I love it. Unfortunately there are just too many issues that detract from the set as a whole. First up are the mistakes. The booklets are littered with typos and sentences that don’t quite make sense. Most prominent is in the character folios, where the description of how to spend XP includes this glaring error:

The most prominent typo in the included character folios

That’s right, it says that to increase the ring costs 2x the new value and then uses maths that implies it is 3x. As an experienced gamer I can use my judgment and be fairly confident they meant 3x but this is a set aimed at new players, who might not be so sure. Given the retail price of ~£30 (making it more expensive than many starter sets) I would have expected proper proofreading from FFG. This appears to have been amended on the bonus online character folios so is hopefully something that will also be fixed in any subsequent printings.

Then there’s the choice of contents. Of the three maps (Tsuma village, the Emerald Champion’s castle and Rokugan itself) only one is actually used by the included adventure. The castle map requires that you download the free followup adventure, while the map of Rokugan would be better included with the core rulebook or GM kit. Next are the tokens, which are pretty much useless in my opinion. The game doesn’t use a combat map and while it does suggest you could use them to indicate where in Tsuma village characters are that just feels like an excuse to include them. How often will the party be separated to such a degree that you have trouble remembering where they all are? How often will you need 10 goblin tokens?

I just don’t see the point and would have preferred it if FFG had included the additional character folios from their website (you get only 4 while 3 more are available online). It’s also worth noting that if you wanted to print out additional copies of the included character folios you’ll need to purchase a digital copy of the beginner game. There is a standard, art free character sheet available online but it omits the useful explanations and background information that is present on the introductory folios.

Speaking of the characters – who on earth thought it would be a good idea to include a shugenja with no spells? Yes, you heard me correctly, one of the characters is a magic user but lacks any actual magical abilities! They can purchase a relatively limited spiritual technique during the interlude but that’s it, for most the adventure they are essentially just a scholar. I get that the characters are all young and in the process of completing the coming of age process but seriously? Magic is the whole point of being a shugenja and you couldn’t include even one basic spell? If the rules for magic are that complicated then just omit the class and include a note that it will be included in the core rules.

Wrap up

I have to admit that when I first opened the Beginner Game box set I was apprehensive. The open beta had left me with mixed feelings, the rules were too raw and felt like they had been rushed, as evidenced by how much even core mechanics changed during the course of playtesting. But I have to give FFG credit, they did change them and for the better. Legend of the Five Rings 5th Edition is shaping up to be a solid game, with all the style and character of the previous editions. Which is why I wish I could rate this product more highly but ultimately the rules and presentation are let down by one too many small issues. Typos and errors, a magic user that doesn’t cast magic, tokens and maps that aren’t actually needed by the included adventure.

So would I recommend purchasing this? I don’t think so. In many respects it is a great introduction to the setting and system and is an excellent way to ease an entirely new group into the world of Rokugan. But it’s an expensive introductory set (mostly due to the requirement of including FFGs custom dice) and I just don’t see many people new to the hobby picking it up. I think it would actually work better if it were slimmed down even further to a shrink-wrapped magazine like format including just the adventure, character folios and dice, sold for just a little bit more than the stand alone dice set. That would put it in the impulse buy territory for both new and old players.

For more experienced tables my advice is simple – buy the core rulebook and club together for a set of the dice.

All reviews are rated out of 10, with Natural 20s reserved for products that go above and beyond my expectations. Unless otherwise stated all review products have been purchased through normal retail channels.

Kickstarter: JourneyQuest Season 4

JourneyQuest, the ongoing and award winning fantasy series from Zombie Orpheus Entertainment (ZOE) is back… or at least it will be if its kickstarter for Season 4 is successful. The show follows the exploits of a dysfunctional adventuring party, drawn together by destiny and fated to change the shape of the world, even if they’d rather not. During the course of the first three seasons JourneyQuest has developed not only its protagonists but the world of Fatherall and its Fourth Age into a fully realised setting that rivals the likes of Middle Earth or Westeros.

But what’s special about JourneyQuest? Well have you heard of The Gamers, perhaps the most famous creation from the combined genius of Dead Gentlemen Productions and ZOE? The Gamers is a love letter to the gaming hobby as a whole, focusing on players and the frequently absurd hijinks that they get their characters into. The Gamers is where you find a thief turned lawyer obsessed with stealing trousers, a bard that dies a dozen times a session or a monk that spouts such wisdom as:

He who stumbles around in darkness with a stick is blind. But he who… sticks out in darkness… is… fluorescent!

Brother Silence, The Gamers: Dorkness Rising

Where The Gamers is about celebrating the hobby JourneyQuest is the epic saga celebrating the fantasy genre itself. It’s everything that the many failed D&D movies should have been. A consistent fantasy world that exists beyond the current scene, with a sense of both history and future and that manages to portray a serious story without sacrificing its sense of humour. It’s a show that deserves to be hailed far and wide not only for its world and storytelling but for demonstrating what independent creators are capable of when they push for excellence every step of the way.

Having crossed the half-way mark with Season 3 the remaining two seasons of JourneyQuest promise to up the ante as the tales of Perf, Nara, Carrow, Glorion, Wren and Rilk come to a head. This is a series that derserves to be finished and ZOE can’t do that without a successful. The show is, and always will be, in the hands of the people that fund it – the fans. While it is available for streaming via Amazon Prime, YouTube and The Fantasy Network it remains a Fan supported, Creator distributed production. That means there are no network executives or external distributors deciding on its fate. There are just regular people, like you and me.

So if you’re still not sure or you’ve missed the first three seasons then go watch it for free on The Fantasy Network before checking out the Kickstarter video below:

UK Games Expo Links Roundup Part II

As I expected since publishing my first links roundup more UK Games Expo 2019 recaps and reviews have come to my attention. So without further ado here’s the second roundup:

Attendees

UK Games Expo 2019 by Old Scouser Roleplaying
UK Games Expo 2019 by Just Another Old School Gaming Blog
UKGE 2019 – A Round-up of the Good Things! by GeekGirlBookWorm
Expo 2019 – The Niggles by The Giant Brain
UK Games Expo Review by True Mister Six
EXPOsing Oneself by Autocratik
UKGE Debriefing by Darker Days Radio

Stallholders/publishers

UKGE Recap! by Goodman Games
Victorious UK Games Expo Machinations by Mottokrosh Machinations

State of the Conspiracy: Cheat-sheet, updated characters and going forward

While I may not have run it in the end the day before UK Games Expo I made a decision to bring along a set of character sheets for Project Cassandra in the off chance there was a chance of testing it out / showing it off / running it. Given the full text is still in pieces I knew I wouldn’t have that to fall back on so I also put together a one page cheat-sheet. Doing so really highlighted what I have known for a while – that while the current draft still needs further playtesting I have a game there. I could sit down and run it and it would be a fun game. The core mechanics are fun (but need stress testing) as is the setup (Cold War psychics saving the world). I’m even proud of the more novel elements such as Knowledges and the way the starting Vision allows for the players to both have an input in the entire adventure but in a way that means their characters are just as knowledgable about the challenges to come.

The new character sheets (albeit rather blurry)

So what’s holding me back? Me. Writing is not something that comes easy to me, editing even less so. The thought of picking up the manuscript again after so long away from it is daunting. Large chunks need rewritten, a numer of areas need significant expansion and then I need to go over it all again with a fine tooth comb. But I can do it, I wrote a 70,000 word doctoral thesis so I know I can handle a 20-30 page long game.

With that in mind what’s my next step? Ironically, not writing as I have a few other projects to finish first. Ghosts of Iron, Demon Hunters Slice of Life starter, The Sprawl Synth trilogy I’ve been working on.

What I can do now is run it and start some of that stress testing. Make notes and check that I’ve resolved the issues from that informative (yet so frustrating) Dragonmeet playtest. One of the big things I can do is to start sharing material again. After the Dragonmeet game I took my drafts down, partially because I expected to quickly replace them with updates but also becuase my excitement had turned to disappointment in seemingly jumping the gun.

So this time, material up piecemeal and as it develops, starting with the current character sheets and the system cheat sheet. All subject to change but also all out there for feedback and comments.