Review: Hell 4 Leather

Hell 4 Leather is an RPG of bloody revenge on Devil’s Night by Joe Prince and published by Box Ninja. To quote the website:

An RPG of Bloody Revenge on Devil’s Night…
You were the meanest most badass SOB around. Everything was tight – you rode with the Devil’s Dozen – toughest chapter going. No fucker messed with you.

Except…

Your ‘buddies’ screwed you. Life is cheap. What’s a little murder between pals? But… You cut a deal with the Devil. You got one night – Devil’s night – to exact vengeance. You’re gunna show those bastards what a REAL Angel of Hell can do. When the rooster crows, your chance for revenge is over – you’ve gotta go Hell For Leather!

That blurb sets out the entire premise of the game, which plays out over a series of scenes as one character returns from the dead to try and enact retribution on those that wronged them. Hell 4 Leather is a GMless, and settingless story game, with play and character archetypes guided by tarot cards that work to build towards a climatic finale. I first played it a number of years ago and it was my first encounter with GMless story games. It’s one of those little known systems that I wish more people knew about. If I ever put together an emergency ‘Games on Demand’ pack this will be one of my go to’s.

Mechanically the game is extremely simple – each scene is outlined by one player, guided by the flavour of a pre-defined tarot card. After that everything plays out organically, up until the point at which the Rider enters and attempts to kill one character. Another simple mechanic decides whether they succeed. It’s to the point and doesn’t intrude on the roleplay.

So why should you play Hell 4 Leather? First up it’s a great game for filling a gap between sessions. The premise of the game means it is meant to be run as a single one-shot. You can play it in as little as an hour (though that does require short, succint scenes) or over a more leisurely pace of 2-3 hours.

The second reason? This is a great way to set up the opener for a campaign in another system. Deadlands, Shadowrun, Dresden Files or even D&D. The settingless nature makes it ideal for flipping between different worlds, outlining a grisly series of murders that serve as the opener to the main campaign. With a little work you can even transport it to games that don’t support the supernatural.

Finally this is a game that is oozing with character. From the use of tarot cards, to the choice of scene framing and the simple yet all encompassing premise Hell 4 Leather is a game that embraces its inspiration and doesn’t set a foot wrong.

You can purchase Hell 4 Leather from drivethruRPG.

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.

Advertisements

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 (reviewed here) 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.

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.

Quick Review: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward Podcast

Charles_Dexter_WardI don’t listen to many audio dramas, I find that compared to a typical discussion podcast they require me to give the audio my complete attention or I’ll lose track of what is going on. The same is true of Actual Play RPG podcasts, I shy away from highly produced shows towards ‘at the table’ shows that include out of character discussion and banter.

I made a recent exception to this when I heard that the BBC had released an adaptation of the H. P. Lovecraft story ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.’ The adaptation was produced to follow the format of popular true crime podcasts such as Serial, with the story unfolding over 10, 20-30 minute long episodes. It took me a couple of episodes to get into it but once I did I was hooked. The resetting of the plot to the modern day was perfectly handled and while the story diverged somewhat it remained true to the intent and tone of the original. There was no doubting that this was Lovecraft, with its slow build and eventual slide towards despair as the truth was uncovered. I don’t know if the BBC have plans for any further adaptations but I hope that they do, there is such a wide library of inspiration to call upon that it would be a shame not to.

Review: D&D Monster Cards 0-5 by Gale Force Nine

One of the things I’m slowly coming to appreciate with D&D is just how central monsters are to the game, more so than for any of the other systems I have run. Combat is a central thematic pillar and the majority of the time the expectation is that those combats will involve Monsters as opposed to intelligent NPCs. That one of the core books is the Monster Manual should be a massive giveaway here. As part of our Fall of the Immortals campaign, I’ve been trying to utilise a wider array of monsters than I am naturally inclined to thanks to my previous GM experience.

It quickly became apparent that keeping a copy of the Basic Rules on my tablet for reference just wasn’t going to cut it. Interesting combats should include a variety of creatures, which meant that I found myself flicking back and forth between pages every combat round to double check stats and abilities. It slowed the game down and was generally just a pain to deal with. Printing off the monster stats in advance helped quite a bit, right up until my players turned left and initiated an encounter I hadn’t planned for. Fortunately, Gale Force Nine produce a product that is ideal for this situation – Monster Cards, with sets covering CR 0-5 and CR 6-16.

IMAG0544_1.jpg

The CR 0-5 set covers 177 monsters, presented as a mix of standard and double sized cards. The front features artwork depicting the monster in question while the reverse covers the game statistics, with the double width cards employed when creatures have a number of special mechanics. Due to the size constraints of the card format there is absolutely no descriptive information, you’ll need to refer to the Monster Manual if you need that.

Overall, the Monster Cards do exactly what I need them to – provide a quick reference for in-game statistics. I’ve taken to clipping them to the top of my GM screen during play, allowing the players to see what keeping the multiple stat blocks right in front of me. The artwork is high quality and primarily lifted from the Monster Manual (from what I can tell). There are a few variant pieces featuring backgrounds, primarily used for cards representing tougher versions of a standard creature. Each card also includes a clear artist credit, an especially nice touch that many products would have omitted. The layout is just as professional and ensures that the details are clear and easily readable despite the condensed nature of the card format. Long term I will probably sleeve the cards to protect them, they only just fit the box and I’ve already seen one card pick up a small amount of damage just through the process of opening the box.

IMAG0543_1.jpg

So what’s not to like? I have one main issue, which is the contents. There are a number of creatures that are present in the Monster Manual/basic rules but absent from this set. The various beast forms that a druid might shift into are prominent examples, so if you were buying the set for that you’re out of luck. Similarly, there are no NPC type cards, no guard or bandit etc. While I can’t complain at the sheer number of cards included these seem like they should have been clear inclusions given how often most groups are likely to use them.

That these cards are missing is particularly frustrating because Gale Force Nine don’t list this fact or include the set contents anywhere on their website. Thanks to some research I knew about this going in but given these are officially licensed cards it would have been reasonable to expect either all of the relevant entries from the Monster Manual or a card listing. This problem doesn’t seem to be limited to this set, a number of comments online suggest that the CR 6-16 set omits a number of the most iconic Legendary creatures that grace the pages of the Monster Manual. Presumably, they’ll be included in a third set in the future but the omission is striking.

So would I recommend the Monster Card CR 0-6 set? For a GM seeking a quick reference tool, the answer is yes so long as you know that you will still need to refer to the Monster Manual for a number of entries. For players? No, this really is a GM orientated resource. Even if it included all of the forms a druid could shift into I still wouldn’t recommend it, there are simply too many cards that would go unused. You’d be better off checking the basic rules or SRD and getting the attributes from there.

Addendum: Since releasing this review I have also reviewed the followup pack which covers monsters with challenge ratings of 6-16 and can be found at: D&D Monster Cards 6-16 by Gale Force Nine.

d20-07

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.

Quick Review: All Rolled Up folding dice tray

After purchasing my first complete set of metal dice from DnDice it quickly became apparent that if I wanted to make good use of them it would be wise to invest in a dice tray to roll them in. There are plenty available on the market, covering all manner of styles. I am already a convert to the All Rolled Up gaming organiser so to accompany it I picked up one of their neoprene folding dice trays.

Like the ARU itself, the tray is a high-quality product, with plastic snaps that are used to both create the tray and to fold the tray up between use. Folded flat the tray fits nicely within the ARU, simplifying the packing process and ensuring I keep all of my gaming accessories together. Should you wish it is even possible to purchase a custom dice tray with an image of your choice, thanks to All Rolled Up’s collaboration with Patriot Games (Note: Since I haven’t purchased one I can’t comment on the process)

The only downside to the tray is the depth, being made of neoprene it sacrifices the weight of a heavier felt-lined tray for flexibility and portability. I was aware of this when I purchased the tray but if I were to ever acquire a heavier set of metal dice than I currently own it would probably require an upgrade to a sturdier tray.

d20-08All in all, I can definitely recommend the folding dice tray, it’s a good product at a comfortable price point (£12 at the time of writing) and an accessory that would be a valuable addition to any gaming table.

 

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.

Review: Dungeons and Dragons Art and Arcana

Artwork has been an integral part of D&D ever since its inception, helping to draw in multiple generations of curious gamers. While I missed the first three editions (3.5 was at its peak when I started gaming) I’ve watched the art shift through 3.5th, 4th and into its current 5th incarnation. The story of D&D can be told through its artwork, which is exactly what Dungeons and Dragons Art and Arcana: A Visual History sets out to do.

dnd2 Drawing upon the treasure trove of material available in the Wizards of the Coast archives the authors have created a comprehensive history of the game, told through imagery and accompanied by commentary from the designers and illustrators that helped redefine the game over and over again. I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of the book as a Christmas gift and I think my review can be summed up in a single word: gorgeous.

While each chapter spans a distinct era additional features peppered across the book connect the past to the present. Evilution pages take classic monsters and chronicles their progression from the original edition through to their current manifestations, while Deadliest Dungeons dives into some of the iconic dungeons from over the years. The book is peppered with pages such as these and their addition adds a depth that goes beyond a simple chronological history of the game.

dnd3

I d20-20could go on at length about how much I love this book, but I’d rather let this small selection of photos talk for themselves. Having never been a big history buff I’ve gained a lot of insight about the early years of D&D, but ultimately, as a coffee table book it lives and dies by the quality of the artwork. In that category, it’s a Natural 20 and I cannot recommend it enough to anybody invested in the hobby. It’s a book that I suspect is going to be a prominent part of my collection and one that I will go back to time after time, whether it be for inspiration or just to unwind in the evening.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.