Monday, 18 October 2010

The Miscellaneum of Cinder

One of the blogs that I frequent most often – in fact on of the first gaming blogs that I started to seriously follow – was that of Jeff Rients. So when I learned that he had produced a couple of OSR gaming supplements – this and the 'Ye Olde Book of Spells', to be reviewed shortly – they immediately went on my 'to be purchased' list.

OK, it wasn't going to be particularly likely that I wasn't going to like this one, and I did. I only have one complaint, which is fairly easily addressed, that I will get to at the end of the review. Physical structure first? The cover, well, sucks. Who cares. It does exactly what it says on the tin, and I stopped judging books by their cover years ago. You get a thirty-six page digest-sized book that fits perfectly on the lower of my 'little book nooks'.

The book is simply and gloriously a fairly random selection of random tables, that can frankly be used with just about any xD&D game or simulacrum. Someone running an Arduin game would love these. In order, you get:

Monster Mutations. A great table to personalise a specific monster, and the overcome the 'not another Goblin' problem. Or even to create a whole new variant race, along the lines of Arduin's flying kobolds.
Six Sages. Slightly weaker than the first, simply because there are only a few here, but still six useful NPCs, each with an adventure seed.
Twelve 'What's My Motivation' for this dungeon crawl tables. Brilliant. But...there are a hundred entries in the full table! I'd have printed the whole darn thing, myself. Bumped the book to forty pages.
Treasure Map Destinations. I stopped using 'Treasure Map' on random tables because my players insisted on actual freaking maps. Something like this is excellent.
A dozen random saints. Great stuff. Lots of 'hey that's' call-outs as well.
The 'Twelve' (sic) Gods of Neutrality. Actually Twenty, but more is always good on a random table. And these are good entries.
Twenty 'Loathsome Toad Gods'. Great – but you try and pronounce 'JaeXYI'!
People to Meet – non-monster encounters for the road. Again, always a good thing. Just ask my group. (Who shudder when they see a carpenter...or a joiner...!)
Carousing. A table of consequences from an all-night bender. Great for the 'ale and whores' types.
The Living Dungeon. Brilliant – always great to keep the players guessing to make changes to the dungeon. And when those changes cause them to get hopeless lost and eaten by the grue, I now have someone to blame!
One Hundred Room Names for Dungeons...fine. But I'd rather have had the full hundred motivations.
Humanoid Politics. Another great table for working out what that minor, randomly rolled group of gnolls are up to.
Orcish Moodiness – similar to the above, but more individual.
What are the Goblins up to? Trying on pretty pink dresses, of course! (This is definitely going into my next campaign.)
Beyond the Goblin Door – what is behind that weird door in the dungeon that you haven't mapped out yet...this answers that question.
Deadly gases – variation on the 'room filled with poison gas'.
Dungeon Escapes. Used for a 'West Marches' game where the PCs choose to remain in a dungeon rather than return to safety. More fool them!
Minor Magic Items – again, always good. I'll take the Dragonscale Codpiece.
Loot Storage Alternatives. Great to fool players used to finding 'chests' lain about a dungeon.
Pre-rolled treasure hoards – as stated.

In all of these tables, there are several real wins - 'Monster Mutations', 'Minor Magic Items', 'Humanoid Politics' and 'Treasure Map Destinations' are probably my favourites, and only a couple of misses. I use random tables a lot during a campaign, to introduce that random element to keep me guessing, and to provide for times when the PCs go 'off the map'. So this book is great, and wins on the 'gonzo weird' chart.

My criticisms are minor. Complete tables would have been better – it is not as if the page count is limited by anything, after all. And it's whetted my appetite, so how about Volume 2....

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

B/X Companion

A couple of days ago, I began to sketch out the details of my next campaign, and I was planning on making it a 'White Box' game, using Swords & Wizardry. Now, I'm not so sure, and it is largely due to my latest acquisition...the B/X Companion. This is one that I have been looking forward to since it came out, and it has not disappointed in the slightest!

What we have here is a book that works with 'Basic and Expert' rules sets, specifically the '81 sets, and is designed as the 'Companion we were promised but never got'. I'm going to say that the Companion, Master and Immortal sets never made a vast amount of impression on me first time out, in fact I don't think I ever actually used them in a campaign. I don't tend to do much high-level play. (My 'sweet spot' is 1st to about 6th...)

Getting the physical nature of the book out of the way, my copy was well bound, and well illustrated internally and externally. It was also shipped pretty quickly from the States to over here in England, I had the book around ten days after I ordered it. (One slight point here in that I was a bit surprised that this wasn't been sold through Lulu. Not a problem, just a curiosity.)

The book builds on the previous information in the '81 books, so the actual class section is fairly short, without too many real surprises. It makes the point that Thieves' skills top off fairly early on in the 15- 36 levels in this book, so adds the new skills of 'Craft Device', 'Physical Prowess' and 'Deception'. Nice touches. The additional spells are again reasonably familiar. Some new lower-level spells are included, but the vast majority of the spells given are of higher level, as would be expected. These all seem logical and sensible.

Up to this point the book is competent and as might be expected, but around page 20, it starts to kick into high-gear. First there is a section on hazardous environments, as well as a collection of new retainers – including the Assassin, the Castellan (so the Keep on the Borderlands guy gets 2,000gp a month. Even after tax, that is one sweet job. No wonder he never bothered to clear out the Caves of Chaos!), the Court Magus, and even the Smith. Some new optional rules for combat are given that can simplify higher-level play, as well as the idea for 'variable combat damage by class' – but with the wrinkle that the type of weapon still has an effect. The mass combat rules are a real gem. Essentially, each unit is classed as a character, and is then handled in the same way as normal combat. I can see my group using cardboard rectangles to fight such battles out on a map; it's an excellent way of doing it.

Things get better in the 'Monsters' section. The 'Animals of Legend' are an excellent idea, and could be the focus of an entire campaign. The 'Ruinous Powers' could definitely be the focus of a prolonged campaign. Stats for the Leviathan that actually make it a truly fearsome opponent. Some improved versions of creatures such as the Ogre and the Goblin. (And this book even has stats for David Bowie! Sorry, the 'Goblin King'.) New human types – the Assassin, Bard and Druid are also included – I really like this.

The new Treasure types are listed at the end, and are more or less what would be expected from previous editions – vorpal blades, elven chain mail and the like. But then comes the 'Dragon Master' section. (I really love that title, by the way!) Some notes on running dominions, without multitudes of tables. Designing adventures for high-level foes. And even the 'Bard' as a character class (which basically translates to a Thief with some extra abilities.) The final page (which seems to come after the conclusion of the book, which threw me on first read) covers 'special adventures' – planar travel and the like.

To conclude. This book beats the Companion Set hands down. Will I ever run a game with 20th-level PCs? Probably not. But that doesn't matter, as there is material in this book eminently suitable for lower-level campaigns, as well as some pretty sound advice that compliments the '81 boxed sets well. I can recommend this.

(I'd say this book is totally usable with Labyrinth Lord without any changes at all. Swords & Wizardry will require some alterations, but most of it will still be very easily usable.)

Buy This Book

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Book of Wizardry / Book of the Divine

Two books being reviewed today, the 'Book of Wizardry' and the 'Book of the Divine'. Both of these are small, digest-sized books running to 38 and 30 pages respectively, and both are available on Lulu. Production quality on my copies is excellent.

When I bought these books, I was rather expecting books of new spells for Magic-Users and for Clerics. This is not what I got, and under other circumstances, I might have been somewhat annoyed. (To be fair, the write-up on Lulu looking back does indicate that this is the case, but perhaps not clearly enough.)

However, I have actually come to the conclusion that these have the potential to be extremely useful. What you have here, quite simply, are copies of the spells from the Swords and Wizardry Core Rules, for Magic-Users and Clerics respectively. The use is simple – hand a copy of the relevant book to each spell-using character, and he has his own description of the spells without having to leaf through the rulebook. This plays into a line from the 'Primer for Old School Gaming', which notes that in this style of play, the only character liable to be referring to the rules at all would be a spellcaster. And this makes that rather simpler.

Is this an essential purchase? By no means. You can come up with this yourself fairly easily. But they are pretty darn cheap, and have the potential to be useful as handouts for a game. And as I said, the production standards are high, and they are probably more durable than 'tatty paper'. It would be nice to see equivalent versions for the 'White Box' version and for Labyrinth Lord and OSRIC – it is exactly this sort of supplemental handout that can be extremely useful in play. I'm happy to have copies.

Buy Book of Wizardry at Lulu.
Buy Book of the Divine at Lulu.