Christmas in July: A few of my highlights

There’s a week to go in drivethruRPGs Christmas in July sale, the annual promotion to clear the virtual shelves before GenCon ushers in a wave of new shiny goodness so I wanted to quickly promote a selection of publishers that are included and worth looking at. All of these are personal picks based upon my own purchases and I did not receive any review or promotional copies.

Spy Master by CM Games

Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 16.59.54When it comes to spies and espionage there are few individuals more iconic than James Bond, sat the casino table with a martini in his hand. Utilising a system inspired by the equally iconic casino game of blackjack Spy Master works aims to emulate the genre with rapid fire mechanics where players must push their luck as they draw cards to build upon their characters specialities. The rules are designed to support play that sticks closely to the spy genre and avoids the trap of many games that try to build in eventualities for every gadget or weapon. Agent characters are just as deadly when wielding a pencil as they would be with a silenced Walther PPK, allowing for the action to spring forth from each and every scene.

You can find Spy Master on DrivethruRPG

The Cthulhu Hack by Just Crunch Games

Built upon the popular Black Hack OSR system the Cthulhu Hack applied the lightweight approach to the otherworldly incursions of H.P. Lovecraft to create a standalone game of investigative horror. With a focus upon simple, elegant mechanics the system is quick to learn yet provides enough depth to facilitate campaign play and the near infinity mythos of the parental material. Character creation is quick, befitting a setting where character death should be expected and campaigns may require a rotating cast of characters who interact only through the diaries and clues they may leave behind. Well worth picking up for both Lovecraft fans and those who have just begun their journey into the cosmic mythos.

You can find The Cthulhu Hack and its supplements on DrivethruRPG

RPG stock art by James Shields

Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 17.04.36JEShields should be a familiar name to anybody following my Demon Hunters or Project Cassandra posts as the majority of the artwork I have used in them has been sourced from him. Why do I keep going back to his art? First and foremost because of the consistent high quality and clear style that is available across a range of genres. Second because of the price, both stock art and direct commissions are extremely well priced. Finally because every interaction I have had with James has been positive and professional, both through his patreon and when commissioning artwork directly.

You can find his work on DrivethruRPG and on Patreon

Printable miniatures by Trash Mob Minis

Using miniatures at your game table can turn quickly become either expensive or restrictive as you either expand your collection to allow for the adventure your players seek or limit yourself to what you have at hand. Trash mob mini’s provides a way out with their themed collections of printable mini’s. For only a couple of pounds per pack you get multiple mini’s (most packs have 6) with front and back artwork plus bases. Simply print onto thick paper and cut out to build your encounter. Need a mob of goblins? Then print out multiple sheets and quickly expand your forces. With clear artwork in a fun, cartoony style Trash Mob Mini’s make a perfect addition to any fantasy RPG combat.

You can find Trash Mob Minis on DrivethruRPG

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Review: DnDice Copper Bone metal dice

DSC01206aWhen it comes to dice you get what you pay for, which is why high quality metal dice sets are expensive. I’ve been interested in buying a metal set for a while. The Easy Roller sets come highly recommended but once you factor in exchange rates and international shipping (US->UK) they just become prohibitively expensive.

Fortunately the UK is not without its own retailers of metal dice and so I recently decided to acquire one of their Metallic Dragon sets in a Copper Bone finish from DnDice. They come in at £25 (with free postage in the UK!) and are cast in zinc with an electroplated tarnished copper finish. The product speaks for itself – the dice are beautiful (not sure the same can be said of my photography) and well worth the money.

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I went for the bone finish for the improved readability, which is apparent all the way from the d20 down to the d4 and nicely complements the solid feel of the dice. There is no way that you’ll mistake these for a cheap plastic set. While the d4 is relatively light (and very sharp!) the larger dice all have a nice weight to them and there’s that solid thunk you’d expect from a proper metal set. Fortunately the case, which includes a custom cut foam insert to hold the dice, also functions well as a miniature rolling tray so no need to worry about denting your gaming table. If you require something a little larger they also sell rolling mats and trays at reasonable prices.

My only issue with the set is really one of individual preference – that it comes with 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 1d10, 1d% and 1d20. Personally I’ve only ever played in a single campaign it has been necessary to make percentile rolls and that can be accomplished by rolling a d10 twice. So for me the d% is superfluous and will mostly just get used as a second d10. Given that I’d have rather seen either a second d6 or second d20 in the set, as I’d use them more often. I understand though that the d% die is part of a standard set of dice and so can’t really fault DnDice for including it. While they don’t currently offer them I hope that in future it will be possible to order individual dice (and extra storage tins) to build a custom set though I can fully see myself buying a complete second set at some point. I just wish I could afford enough for some of the dice pool games I play.DSC01224b

Review: Don’t Starve Giants Edition (PS Vita)

This was originally written for the Nearly Enough Dice podcast blog.dontstarveAs Liz mentioned towards the end of Episode 147 of the podcast I’ve been playing a lot of Don’t Starve lately, mostly on my way to and from work. When I say playing what I actually mean is running around in a panic trying to survive another night (my first game I made it to all of the 3rd night before dying) or running away from whatever monster I’ve managed to provoke this time.

But wait, playing it on my commute? Yes, for Don’t Starve is now out for the Playstation Vita!

The Game

For those who may not be familiar with Don’t Starve it is a survival adventure game by Klei Entertainment where your character is thrown into an unforgiving landscape and must work their way up from building simple objects like a flaming torch or an axe to managing a complex set of resources that allow you to survive the harshness of winter and the various giant monsters that inhabit the world. The game is notoriously difficult, with little in game guidance of how to progress, made all the more difficult by the permadeath that figures heavily in the early stages of game play. Liz’s actual plays (Episode 1, Episode 2 & Episode 3) provide a good example of the early stages of the game.

Survival through exploration is the key to the game and thanks to the large maps, randomly generated for each playthrough, no two games are ever the same. The world can be customised to suit your preferences by reducing or increasing the frequency of particular features such as monsters or resources while the multiple different characters each bring a unique ability to the game, such as Wilson’s ability to grow an amazing beard (which is more useful than it sounds).

Beyond the default Survival mode there exists a secondary Adventure mode, accessed by finding a special location in the survival mode map. Adventure mode ramps up the difficulty by challenging you to escape your imprisonment by travelling to other locations which are even less hospitable. My one and only attempt at this mode dropped me straight into a harsh frozen wasteland with sparse resources and an extremely long night period. I lasted a day before being thrown back into the Survival mode world though to be fair I’ve also yet to make it past day 22 in Survival mode (winter is harsh).

Panic!
Run away!

The PS Vita Port

While the game was originally designed for the PC the PS Vita is, in my opinion, extremely well done. The world looks amazing on the OLED screen of my 1st generation PS Vita and the controls have been smoothly adapted to the dual analogue sticks of the handheld. For me the smaller screen size of the PS Vita also helps to build the tension somewhat in the game, just because there is less on the screen at any one time and I just don’t know what I’m about to encounter next. Included in the port is the Reign of Giants DLC, which introduces additional complexity to the game such as full seasons, more environments, two new characters and of course giants. Best of all the game is covered by cross-buy, which means that if you purchase it on the PS Vita you also get the PS4 edition for free (or vice versa), making the £11.49 cost of the game even better value, though unfortunately the save games are not cross compatible.

Being on a portable console does, however, come with a couple of downsides, notably with regards performance. The majority of the time you will encounter this is in the longer loading times, especially during world generation. Not in itself a big issue though I have experienced a couple of times when the game hung on loading screen, typically this is when moving between worlds and the game is trying to both save an existing map and generate a new one. The second performance issue I’ve experienced is one of frame rate slowdowns when there is too much happening at once. I’ve personally only run into this a few times, such as when my forest base got struck by lightning and everything caught on fire but I’ve heard of people also encountering after creating large bases later in the game. If you’re aware of the issue it should be possible to work around it by spreading your base out more but it’s still not an ideal solution.

Roundup

All in all Don’t Starve is a game that I would highly recommend if you’re looking for a challenging survival game and the PS Vita port is a great way to experience it as the game works well played in short bursts. Just remember, you’ve not truly played the game until you’ve run around in a panic screaming “it’s trying to eat me!”, which if you’re anything like me will happen pretty quickly.

Review: Steelheart

steelheart1One of the things that I ensured I did during my recent holiday (in November, posts since then were absent due to a crazy few weeks at work) was to read fiction, something I don’t get to do as much as I’d like these days (the real world, work etc being what it is). One of the numerous books I got through was Steelheart, the most recent novel by Brandon Sanderson who is perhaps best known for his Mistborn series and for finishing the Wheel of Time series.

Some minor spoilers below, you have been warned.

Continue reading “Review: Steelheart”

Review: Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide

cortexplusThe Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide by Margaret Weiss Productions is, as the title suggests, a book all about hacking and tweaking the Cortex Plus system. The book collects together a series of essays written by both the Cortex Plus creators and fans and published following a successful Kickstarter project. It is available now through DriveThruRPG. As a big fan of the Cortex system and of hacking games in general this wasn’t a product that I wanted to miss out on so I got in early on the Kickstarter for both PDF and print copies of the book, though as seems to be the case with RPGs on Kickstarter the print copy has been delayed and has yet to be delivered. The Hackers Guide breaks is comprised on three main sections, Mechanics and Structure, Game Hacks (further divided into History and Fantasy, Modern Life, and Science Fiction and the Future) and Core Rules.

Mechanics and Structure

The first section of the Guide serves to introduce the concepts underlying Cortex Plus and it’s Action, Drama and Heroic variants then expands into the various ways of hacking the system. If you’re new to Cortex Plus or hacking systems in general then this is perhaps the most important section of the book, as it not only introduces the basic mechanics of the system but explains logic behind them in a setting neutral manner, aiding you in choosing which of the system variants will be right for your game. Following on are chapters on hacking stress and timed actions, a system for generating random features on the fly and finally chapters focused on learning the Drama variant of the game (which is the most complicated due to it’s use of the pathways map).

Overall this is the section of the Guide that I found most useful and I’d have liked to have seen it comprise a great proportion of the overall page count than it does. The Hacking Stress chapter was of particular value in prompting the would be hacker to think about the logic behind a change and highlights the fact that often simply picking the right name for a stress (for example a spy game might have a stress called paranoid) is often more appropriate than trying to introduce a new related mechanic.

Game Hacks

Moving on from the overview and general hacking are the three Game Hack sections, which provide a range of example games that can be achieved through hacking the system. The hacks presented are, in my opinion, a mixed bag. Some provide a good example of innovative ways to use Cortex Plus but a few come across more as ‘here’s how you can run my home game’ without any explanation of why a certain mechanic has been altered. In addition the examples presented are overviews, with a limited amount of space devoted to each none can go into extensive detail and the majority spend a large portion of that space detailing the composition of characters in the given setting. After the first few examples this does feel a tad repetitive. My recommendation to anybody looking to use this section of the book is to view it in one of two ways. First, if one of the examples closely fits the game you wish to run then use the material presented here as a very loose foundation, that will need to be shored up by details of your choosing. Second, if none seem to fit what you want to do, use these as very loose examples of what you will need to think about for the start of your game before making more extensive use of the core rules presented section of the Guide.

Core Rules

The final section of the Guide is something fans of Cortex Plus have been waiting for since Leverage was first published, generic setting neutral rules for the three variants which can be used as the building blocks for your own game. These cover pretty much everything that you could need for running Cortex Plus and include all of the material that you’d typically find in the rules and GM sections of a typical rule book. About the only thing that is absent is an extensive list of generic talents / abilities / pathways etc however, examples are provided for each in addition to notes on how to make your own. It’s worth noting here that the Heroic variant presented is Fantasy Heroic and thus not completely generic though the use of a limited setting does mean that there are more details provided for this variant than for Action or Drama.

Other details

Before I finish this review I want to just cover the non written aspects of the Guide. As you’d hope from a company with the experience that MWP has the book is professionally laid out, visually clear and easy to follow with each of the sections and chapters clearly defined along the edge of each page. The PDF version is well bookmarked, down to the level of subsections within each chapter and unlike some gaming PDFs I’ve look at recently the addition of notes or highlights haven’t been locked; given the aim of the Guide I expect it’ll be something that I highlight and annotate extensively. Visually perhaps the most disappointing aspect is the artwork, which appears to have been sourced primarily through stock photos and is used rather sparingly throughout the Guide.

Roundup

Overall the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide is definitely something that I’m glad I backed and that I’ll make use of personally. The Guide is aimed squarely at those that who want to tinker with the system and is, therefore, of limited wider appeal. I’d recommend it to those already familiar with the Cortex Plus system, if you’re new to the game however I’d suggest picking up one of the main rulebooks first before purchasing the Guide.

Overall score for a general gamer: 3/5

For the tinkering GM: 4/5

Review: Firefly RPG GenCon Exclusive

FIREFLYRPGThe Firefly RPG is an upcoming game from Margaret Weis Productions, with the GenCon Exclusive preview released during GenCon 2013. The full game is due to be released in early 2014 and utilises the Cortex Plus Action system.

Before I launch fully into this review I want to make clear the answer to a common question about the Firefly RPG, namely

Haven’t MWP already made this game?

The answer to which is yes, and also no. MWP’s first RPG release was indeed the Serenity RPG which introduced the original Cortex system. So what’s different? Two things things. First the new game is licensed with Fox as opposed to Universal and will therefore focus upon the events of the show rather than the movie.  Woo, legal nonsense! The second difference is the system, the original Cortex system was a relatively traditional game, with attributes, skills, wound tracks etc. The new game utilises Cortex Plus, a much more narrative driven game heavily inspired by FATE with both players and GM being able to introduce narrative aspects with intrinsically defined mechanical benefits. The GenCon Exclusive is a preview of the new game, a preview that comes in at over 250 pages and includes the core system, rules for character gen and not one but two introductory adventures.

System

The Cortex Plus Action variant utilised by the Firefly RPG was originally released as part of the Leverage game and it would have been easy for MWP to simply lift the system entirely without tweaking it to suit the new setting. They’ve clearly learned from the original Cortex games however, which were criticised to an extent for being simple reskinning of the original Serenity game. The system in the Preview shifts the Action variant slightly more towards a traditional game style through the inclusion of both attributes and skills but retains the Cortex Plus distinctions mechanic, which work to both help and hinder the PCs. As a Cortex Plus game many of the mechanics revolve around the creation of assets and complications so it’s good to see that the Preview covers these in detail with numerous examples throughout the book and a discussion in the GM section on keeping complications interesting.

One of the most interesting tweaks to the system is the inclusion of the Big Damn Hero mechanic. Essentially this mechanic is designed to get around the issue of characters over succeeding on little actions by letting players bank die to boost rolls when it’s actually time to shine. Given the way in which the show was about running into constant problems then coming through when the pressure was really on it’s an interesting mechanic that certainly helps to maintain the feel of the show. It’s tweaks such as this that emphasise how much work has already gone into the system and the full game promises to go further including full rules for creating your own ships (a basic outline is included in the Preview).

Character creation

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of the Preview was the inclusion of a chapter that details how to create your own characters for use in the game. As a preview of the game I expected to be supplied with character sheets just for the crew (which are included) but with the character creation rules present you could easily run an entire campaign without picking up the core rulebook when it comes out, though I expect the full game will include additional options for use during creation. Finally if creating your own characters wasn’t enough the Preview rounds it out with a collection of character archetypes that can easily be filled out on the fly during play. With a little work these archetypes could easily be used for one shots, short campaigns or convention games where the players want to jump right into the action but also want to customise their character a little.

firefly_class_ship

The Adventures

I’ve yet to run the two adventures so I don’t want to comment on them too much. Like the rest of the material in the Preview they are well written and clearly designed to emulate the flow of episodes from the show, with interesting plots and fairly detailed NPCs. These two adventures form the basis for what MWP are calling the Echoes of War line, a series of independent adventures that all tie back to the Unification War. Given the likely size of the Firefly license, especially in light of MWP losing the Marvel license it will be interesting to see how Echoes of War proceeds with future releases and whether we begin to see an overarching plot emerge from the line.

Layout and art

As you’d hope from a company such as MWP the overall layout and presentation is generally of a high quality. There are, however, a couple of issues. First is the artwork. The majority consists of stills from the show which works extremely well; the rest of the art isn’t as good. The individual sketches included in the adventures are an extremely mixed bag while the artwork for the character archetypes simply isn’t at the level I’d expect from a license of this size. The second issue I have is with the extensive use of blue backgrounds to highlight sidebars and character sheets. Not only does it clash with the pale cream colour used throughout the rest of the book but it makes printing the characters and character archetypes all but impossible unless you’re willing to spend a small fortune on ink.

Wrap-up

As a Preview of the upcoming Firefly RPG the GenCon Exclusive goes above and beyond what I’d expected, presenting pretty much a full system as opposed to what could have easily been a simple quick start guide. If you’re a Browncoat and a gamer then you’ll be happy to know that the legacy of the series appears to be in good hands and personally I’m excited about what is to come from MWP. About my only issue relates to some of the layout and artwork decisions but overall these are minor aspects.

Score: 5/5

Quick Review: The Gamers: Hands of Fate

handsoffateAs my many Demon Hunter themed posts might have hinted at I am a massive fan of Dead Gentlemen Productions who are responsible for not only Demon Hunters but also The Game: Hands of Fate. As I contributed to the Kickstarter I got to see the movie slightly early but I’m happy to say that for everybody else it’s free to watch until the end of August and can be found here on vimeo (or click the image at the top).

So why are you still here? Go and watch it then come back for my quick review.

Watched it? Good. As for my thoughts I have to admit that I am extremely conflicted. Not because the movie isn’t any good, it’s great and probably the best thing that Dead Gentlemen have put out to date. The writing is tight, it’s well shot, has the best acting yet and the story arc is well thought out. My issues lie instead with my expectations of the movie, based upon the previous two and Hands of Fate deviates significantly from those. Primarily because it’s not about a group of gamers, this movie is all about Cass. Sure Gary gets a secondary plot arc but Leo is reduced to the role of Cass’ mentor while Lodge and Joanna are basically named extras (though apparently the expanded non-theatrical edition will include a lot more of them). The reduced screen time for the group has an obvious knock-on, that the Player Characters introduced in Dorkness Rising are also virtually absent from the movie, a shame given the extent to which they had been previously developed.

So my final impression: Go watch it because it is yet another awesome production from Dead Gentlemen. Just don’t expect it to follow all the conventions set up by the first two movies.

Oh and Romance of the Nine Empires looks sweet, I am so picking up the Anniversary Box Set when AEG put it out.