Friday, December 30, 2011


Ringing in the new year by finally catching up on some old reviews!

Panopticon (Posthuman Studios) is the first of possibly several in a series of catch-all books cover parts of the Eclipse Phase setting that can't quite warrant their own book and don't fit into the theme of other planned books.  The three topics that are detailed here are: surveillance/sousveillance, space habitats, and uplifts.  The book itself is gorgeous as is the norm for the Eclipse Phase line.  The books are worth it for the art (especially check out the O'Neill cylinder for the Habitats chapter opener p 52-53!).  It also has the nifty ribbon bookmark which has become common in the Eclipse Phase books.  The binding does seem rather fragile though.  During the first read through it was already starting to crack and looked dangerously close to losing some pages.  Panopticon is the first self published (think that is the correct term at least) Eclipse Phase book after going through some troubles with previous publishers so the binding may just be growing pains related to that.

Onto the book itself!  The first section on surveillance (watching from above) and sousveillance (watching from below) deals with the effects of ubiquitous tracking and observation that comes with a high tech society who are always plugged and have easy access to a variety of forms of monitoring.  Simply put due to the ability to watch everyone does setting up a society that can literally watch the watchers in many cases.  Naturally the resultant outlook on privacy changes greatly with such a plugged in society.  This section felt the least useful from a new setting information perspective.  The concept of sousveillance was new and not one covered heavily in the core book so that is useful.  Also useful is how people go about thwarting it.  Overall the discussions just felt a bit wordy as if it could have been written more concisely.  Specific details on how surveillance devices work, etc are also described and that will be more useful to players who need new ways to spy on other people.

The habitats section provides a good overview of the different types of habitats.  Arguably this might be the most straightforwardly useful portion of the book as some of these habitat types are not exactly familiar to the average layman.  There is also detail on the life in a habitat including hazards to spice things up if need be.  Finally a close look at the various system/subsystems that make the habitats run.  This section can be a bit dry as a lot of the information is very technical.  However, it's highly likely that at some point someone will need to break into or disrupt a habitat and this will certainly supply the gamemaster with a wide variety of ways to allow the players to do exactly that.  (And coincidentally be able to use all those wonderful surveillance techniques from the previous chapter to make it a challenge for the players at the same time!)

The final chapter is on uplifts.  This is the chapter that might interest players the most as it lays the groundwork for a bunch of new morphs.  It lays out the history of the uplift process as well as how exactly the process works.  The various types of uplifts are covered in detail as well expanding up what the core book has.  The variety here is impressive although personally I have to admit that I wish a neo-elphenant had survived so we could get stats on that.  The diversity here is impressive.  Fickle players looking for an interesting uplift should be able to find something that tickles their tastes.  Finally the chapter takes a look at the very diverse groups who revolve around uplifts and their rights.  Uplifts may be one of the most divisive issues within the Eclipse Phase world and with that comes a colorful array of organizations that players can get entangled with.

The finally chapter provides mechanical information that has been presented earlier in the book.  Loads of new morphs and tons of surveillance devices abound.  Players and gamemasters alike should find all sorts of fun things to play with.

Final thoughts: This book did not match up to Sunward or Gatecrashing for me but still a good buy.  If uplifts feature greatly in your Eclipse Phase campaign I would argue that this book becomes a must as the information here is extensive and the additional cast of uplifts who enter the fray are great.  The Eclipse Phase line sets the bar high everytime and this is no exception.

Available in print* and PDF.

Links: AmazonDriveThruRPGNoble Knight, also available as a bit torrent for free since all Eclipse Phase products are Creative Commons licensed

Up next: Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah (Wraith: The Oblivion)

Changeling: The Lost

Changeling: The Lost (White Wolf) is the new World of Darkness' take on Changeling.  If you're familiar with Changeling: The Dreaming this is quite a different feel although if you're at all familiar with the tone of the new World of Darkness this should not be terribly surprising.  The book itself is very attractive with one of the better covers of the new core books.  Binding is good (something that can be iffy on White Wolf books at times) and art is a good representative of the feel that the book itself invokes.

Changelings represent people who've been abducted by the True Fae at some point in the past and have spent time in Faerie (referred to also as Arcadia).  Eventually they manage to escape their abductors and find their way back through the Hedge (the barrier between our world and Arcadia).  However rarely do they find happiness when they return.  In their place a simulacrum called a Fetch has replaced them so no one is even aware they are gone.  Worse they have been changed by Arcadia becoming half-Fae taking on aspects of whatever their masters had them represent or do in that realm.  Having fought their way home they now find that it is not really home anymore.  This is the lot of The Lost.

This fairly evocative set-up lays out the theme and feel of the whole book.  Sort of a sad, behind the scenes despair of a non-homecoming and a struggle to keep going from there.  This theme is very strongly reinforced throughout the book that happiness is a struggle for the changelings.  Between battling the loss of their old homes, the mental and spiritual damage caused by the True Fae, and the changes to their very beings Changelings face a myriad of challenges to coping with everyday life.  This bleakness saturates the writing almost overmuch as in some cases it's hard to see why most changelings haven't outright committed suicide in face of such negative circumstances.  There is little to no hope presented.  While this holds to the outlook of the World of Darkness as a bleak and depressing place this felt a bit overdone.  Hunter: The Vigil gave a better hope at least winning some small battles even if the larger war might never be won.  It felt like Changeling lacked even that small hope.

Changelings aren't left entirely defenseless.  They do have a system of courts that provide varying levels of structure and support to local freeholds (freeholds being the name given to a local society of Changelings).  Their true form is also hidden from mortal eyes by the Mask hiding their true mien allowing them to walk amongst the regular human throng.  Changelings also have access to powers called Contracts giving them an edge over the normal mortal.  These power stems from their Fae roots.  Where their former Fae masters or powerful Changelings have negotiated certain responses from a concept in Arcadia allowing them to manipulate that concept in our world.  They also have the ability to create exacting Pledges which are binding promises with consequences, durations, etc all determinable allowing for interesting roleplay especially for devious players or storytellers.

Characters themselves have a Seeming which represents what they did in Arcadia.  So a Changeling who acted as his master's hunting hound might have a Beast Seeming.  Narrowly defining the Seemings can be done by selecting a Kith which indicates a more specific aptitude.  Most characters will also select a Court.  These Courts represent the political/idealogical outlook of character.  In the core book the four courts represent the seasons.  It is entirely possible to have a courtless Changeling but they tend to be mistrusted by those who are aligned and also limits their access to some Contracts.

Changeling caters well to a variety of play types although for once it feels that players who enjoying politicking, negotiations, and more socially aspected games may find more to enjoy in this then other World of Darkness games.  Given the ever-shifting nature of the freehold courts and the general paranoia of Changelings and the overpowering scary of the True Fae direct combat seems less likely an option in many cases.  Interestingly the True Fae could be used a big bad for nearly any World of Darkness campaign (especially cross-overs) as they represent a threat to all creatures that reside on Earth.  The True Fae would surely be interested as much in a vampire or werewolf (at least for curiosity's sake) as a regular human.  Some broad campaign ideas could be developed there!

Final thoughts: if you're looking for a dynamic but bleak game with a touch of madness thrown in this may be your game.  If you want to expand your World of Darkness collection you definitely want to pick this up.  If you are looking to play Fae-touched superheroes you're going to be disappointed or spending a lot of time rejiggering the system to your tastes.

Available in print* and pdf.

Links: DriveThruRPGAmazonNoble Knight

Next Up: Panopticon (Eclipse Phase)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ravenloft Gazetteer: Volume 1

Note: Messing around with the format to try a more informal style.  Maybe I can get some reviews out in a more timely matter this way...

The Ravenloft setting is an interesting departure from the standard D&D norms.  Ultimately what peaked my interest in the setting was the oft-heard tale from R.A. Salvatore about why he loves gaming which is cursorily associated with Ravenloft.  That got me to investigate further and turned up Sword & Sorcery Studios' 3.x D&D take on Ravenloft.  I love setting information so naturally before I've even read the core campaign setting I started working through the gazetteers.

There are five books in the series that cover the  world Ravenloft.  Each covers a handful of nations from the perspective of a wandering scholar who has been commissioned by a mysterious patron to explore the realms and provide a write-up on each of them.  The gazetteer is supposed to represent an real in world artifact that players could conceivably discover making for an interesting tie-in.  The write-up also has some commentary from the mysterious patron providing additional insight to specific points.

The first book covers Barovia, Hazlan, Forlorn, and Kartakass with a DM's appendix.  The scholar does his best to determine the zeitgeist of a given realm.  He details the history, people, culture, geography, and major cities of each.  I love general background and setting information and this being the essence of the book I ate it up.  Each realm also has it's own unique monster issue which I suspect is exactly what defines each of them from each other.  Interestingly while my initial impression of Ravenloft was a setting of isolated horror with each little village and city isolated from everything else by fear the book does a good job indicating exactly the opposite.  People go about their lives and trade and travel amongst many of the nations.  That's not to say they live without fear, the general populace a superstitious fearful lot, but they persevere on.

My biggest complaint about some of the setting information is how "cities" with a few thousand people are described as having very diverse and separated areas.  From reading just the description it feels like a place with tens of thousands and then I get to the population stats and it's 2800 people.  I've lived in small cities of less then a 1000 people and they really don't divide much like this.  Granted in a fantasy setting set in a more medieval time my perceptions may be incorrect.  It just felt like an inconsistency.

I would recommend this book if you like reading about setting information or if you're going to be spending a lot of time in the above mentioned realms.  Otherwise it may not provide much use.  Just read as a book this is phenomenal.  This was one of the books I took for my flight to Japan and I raced through it!

Available: print*

Links: Noble Knight

Up next: Changeling: The Lost

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Cat (Wicked Dead Brewing Company) is an entertaining game about, naturally, cats.  The book is a fun, quick read.  The art is rather simple but fitting for the game.  The premise is simply that cats have been tasked with protecting humans from invisible little creatures called boggins.  Of course cats also have to contend with all sorts of other challenges from dogs to evil humans so their job is not an easy one.  They also must foray into the realm of dreams to protect humans there.  Due to its size the system is fairly simple.  Cat's design leans stronger towards pick-up games rather then a long term campaign.  The only issue that I ran across when reading was the challenge (as a cat owner) of getting a group of cats to work together.  They are generally solitary creatures and the book does not cover terribly well why they would cooperate.  As an interesting tie in at the end of the book there is a section on cat facts which is rather informative (and very amusingly written).  Due to it's somewhat limited scope but amusing read I'd rate this a 7 out of 10.

Sadly this book is out of print* and not available for pdf.  I'd recommend checking Noble Knight as they would have the greatest chance of picking up a used copy.

Up Next: Ravenloft Gazetteer Volume 1.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Inner Sea World Guide

The Inner Sea World Guide acts as the campaign setting companion to Paizo's Pathfinder game line.  This book is an update to the Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Setting (which was released before the official Pathfinder rules had been released).  Pathfinder if you aren't familiar is Paizo's updated take on the D&D 3.5 rules.  The primary world on the material plane where the action takes place is named Golarion and Paizo packs a lot onto this planet to cover many different themes and moods.

The first chapter covers races in Golarion.  These are your standard core races although there are several variations on humanity (mechanically all identical).  The racial backgrounds are a bit different especially for gnomes.  The authors don't shy away from doing things to make Golarion a little different then just a run of the mill campaign setting.  The second chapter covers the Inner Sea and this is the meat and potatoes of the book.  Here we get 4 page blurb on all the countries and regions that surround the Inner Sea.  Each section covers history, government, and has a gazetteer of key places.  All in all this gives you a decent high level view of an area that gives some places to see/investigate/avoid and enough information that a DM can extrapolate further upon with ease.  The sheer diversity of places should support nearly any type of game style/desired setting.  There are everything from communist military run nations to a nation in the midst of a French style revolution (with resurrection blocking guillotines), to a crusader kingdom, and a caliphate.  It's almost a guarantee that one of example of any common setting trope is found somewhere in the Inner Sea.  The only possible drawback is that at times this seems almost too obvious and neighbors who may share the same geography can have very different cultures.  For whatever reason this struck as a bit hard to believe.  Yes, I realize this is odd to say when it doesn't bother me that their are dragons, wizards, and magic in general everywhere!  It may also feel this way due to my initial lack of familiarity with the setting compared to say, the Forgotten Realms or Exalted's Creation.  This chapter also discusses the world beyond the Inner Sea and some previous civilizations that have long since slipped in the domain of history.

Chapter three cover major religions/gods in Golarion.  I'd argue this is the default Pathfinder pantheon.  It also covers some of the major non-deity based philosphies that dominate the land.  I found these to be pretty standard but I've seen a lot of deity write-ups so in that way I may be jaded.  I liked that there were just philosophies that are followed in Golarion though.  So many campaigns are completely dominated by gods that nothing else shows up.  This breaks that mold.  In fact there is even a completely atheist country that has banned any god based religion outright.  I don't think I had ever encountered that in fantasy campaign world before!  The religion chapter also does a brief purview of the planes and what beings live on them.  This felt quite unfamiliar to me (see also my review on the book covering that in more detail) but that owes mostly to many new planar beings that replace ones that are probably solely licensed by Wizards of the Coast.  I miss my slaads...

Chapter four tackles life on Golarion.  Not too exciting other then the technology section which is interesting because in some countries firearms and printing presses are starting to become common.  The fire arm rules are interesting.  The other technology is intriguing as it changes some of the dynamics of the otherwise bog standard fantasy world.  It's a change from that standard and I'll take it!  Chapter five introduces some major factions that are players in the politics of Golarion both good and evil.  Nothing too exciting here again.

The last two chapters cover the mechanical bits of the game including prestige classes, equipment, spells,  magic items, and monsters.  Nothing too exciting here as far as I'm concerned.

Overall I liked this book.  Artwork and production value are the standard top rate quality that you'd expect from Paizo.  The map is beautiful.  The setting is diverse if a maybe a little too obviously so.  I'd rather have too much differentiation though then not enough so it's not a huge issue for me.  Even the parts that seem fairly standard are still well written and thought out.  I'd rate this a 8 out of 10.

Available in: physical* and PDF.

Links: AmazonPaizoNoble Knight

Up next: Cat

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Great Beyond

Paizo's take on the planes offers a different look at the well known "Great Wheel" cosmology of 3.x Dungeons and Dragons.  The Great Beyond expands upon the cursory descriptions given in the campaign guides for Golarion fleshing out the structure of the planes and the denizens that reside there.

Perhaps the biggest drawback to this book is that it is simply too short to give a proper treatment to all the major planes (much less important/notable demiplanes) and the inhabitants within.  As a result while the descriptions of the planes do a good job evoking how a given plane looks and feels there are two things lacking: actual planar traits and statistics for common denizens of that plane.  Both of these require additional books not necessarily needed for play (GameMastery Guide and Bestiary 2) to add mechanical support to the descriptions provided.  There are a few creatures provided (roughly one for each major plane that hasn't gotten some love from Bestiary 1) so the game master does have something to go on if they don't own Bestiary 2.  The GameMastery Guide I believe contains the actual mechanics for planar traits so unless the game master has some 3rd Edition D&D references to fall back on (again requiring additional books) they will have to improvise planar traits.  This might be a plus to some game masters/players but may also be a minus for others.

That being said, the book does a good job with a small page count on detailing all the different planes including maps and describing major/notable locations within them.  Also described are the denizens and their governments (if any) that control the planes.  From a setting perspective these could keep a campaign going for years without ever returning to the material plane.  Story hooks are also sprinkled amongst the descriptions giving characters interesting reasons to go to many of the different planes (other then just that planes are generally awesome to explore!).

The book does take some time to describe some esoteric planes like the Dimension of Time and the Dimension of Dreams which opens the door for some very unusual game types.  While not really up my personal alley for things I'd want to game about there inclusion is an thoughtful step to think outside of the box.  This is a trait that Paizo seems to have in droves and while it doesn't always hit the mark with me I cannot fault that they take the risk/effort to try and implement new takes in what would otherwise be a bland fantasy knock off of D&D (also a variation of existing fantasy settings not that this is a bad thing in and of itself!).

One final issue that is entirely out of Paizo's hand is the missing "iconic" planar creatures from D&D such as slaads and aasimars.  These are likely missing because they are licensed creations of Wizards of the Coast and as a result not part of the OGL/SRD.  This books (and the Bestiaries to support it) have provided interesting monsters in their stead but I still found myself missing the slaads when reading about the Maelstrom.

So to sum up the big problem with this book is that it's too small.  It just doesn't benefit much from being one of the short little booklets that Paizo puts out on a regular basis.  The production values are the usual quality one would expect from Paizo though so as long as the reader doesn't mind referencing other books for their crunch.  I'd rate this a 6 out of 10.

Available in: Physical* and PDF

Links: PaizoAmazonNoble Knight

Up Next: The Inner Sea World Guide (Pathfinder)

D & D Gazetteer

The D & D Gazetteer is an early product for Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition.  It introduces players to the world of Greyhawk.  As the title implies it is designed to give dungeon masters and players alike a brief taste of the variety of nations, places, and powers that abound in Greyhawk.

While I love settings Greyhawk is not one that I am all the familiar with despite the references to it throughout 3rd Edition D & D.  Part of this reason may owe to the fact that as the RPGA Living World very little material was published for the settings and rather players affected the world.  As a result this provides an interesting background for where some of the more famous spells of D & D got their names.

As a setting itself this does not feel terribly unique, however oddly this might be because this was one of the earliest settings so while a reader may be more familiar with Forgotten Realms or Golarion it's more likely that those worlds are cribbing off Greyhawk then the other way around (especially so for Golarion of course).  Despite that generic feel and the tiny amount of space given for each local the gazetteer does a good job laying out possible adventuring ideas and story hooks.  In the end it leaves a lot of room to play in allowing for more an easier sandbox approach.  Granted for people with extensive collections from earlier D & D may have access to far more detailed information on Greyhawk that fills out the world more but armed with just the gazetteer there is lots of space to do whatever the players or dungeon master desires.

Overall I'd rate this a 5 out of 10.  It's not terribly inspiring or exciting but the production values are decent (especially for an early 3rd edition product) and the world is certainly ripe for exploration and adventure.

Available in: Physical*

Links: Noble Knight

Next up: The Great Beyond (Pathfinder)