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.

Monday 27 September 2010

Ruined Hamlet / Terror in the Gloaming

Launching the first wave of new reviews is 'Adventure Module BL1-2: The Ruined Hamlet/Terror in the Gloaming', an adventure for 'Basic-level' by Barrataria Games. This module is completely compatible with the '81 or '83 Red Box rules, or with Labyrinth Lord; one should be able to use it with Swords & Wizardry with no significant work at all. (But not White Box, for reasons that will become apparent...) The book is sixty pages long, including some handouts and maps.

(Going to make one key point here. When reviewing adventures, it is very difficult not to avoid spoilers. I will try, but no guarantees. Hell – if you are going to buy the adventure, you're probably not going to be playing in it but running it instead.)

This is going to be a pretty darn good review, to warn you in advance. When I ordered the book, I was expecting two separate adventures, but I did not get that. There are about five or six in here instead. The book essentially fleshes out a wilderness map, surrounding a small underground village, with fifteen locations in total described in detail.

The area is recovering from a recent period of total lawlessness, hence the large number of ruins in the area. In a bid to recover it, the local noble ruler selected one of the bandit gangs and put them in charge, giving them responsibility for the area. This means – interestingly – that all the guards and their leaders are Thieves rather than Fighters. (I would probably swap a few of the lower-level Thieves for Fighters, representing 'muscle', but I like the design decision. This means that White Box will not work as written, of course...)

The wilderness area is first. It starts with the 'Ruined Hamlet' of the title, which is a pretty effective overground dungeon area, and a nice variation from the usual 'starter dungeon' complex type. A party just starting out would struggle with this – if they did not have the ability to quickly exit the area after damaging encounters. This is followed by an extensive random encounter table, and again each possible encounter is well detailed, though again, some of them will be difficult.

I make no bones about it, and might as well say it here – this is a potentially pretty deadly adventure for the unwary. Players will need to be tactically astute, careful, and frankly lucky. This does not detract in the slightest, and appeals to my style of running games in any case.

We then have a series of keyed encounters on the map, including a series of farmstead scattered about (excellent places to rest up), fur traders, a graveyard (another excellently described 'overground dungeon' area, this time somewhat more deadly), ruined church (and another), ruined tower (another), a potential trigger to a module to be published in the future, and a small tomb.

This is one of the stellar points of the module, and one that a DM is going to need to be careful to save until the party have explored most of the rest of the area. Unwary adventurers can trigger a series of circumstances here that will potentially lay waste to most of the map, complete with a timeline of consequences triggered to other locations. This is an excellent way to conclude a short campaign. (In fact, if the PCs don't trigger it, an NPC should – an option not noted in the module. There are plenty of candidates among the bandits and brigands.)

Then we get to the 'Gold Hill Trading Post', which is unusually an underground series of chambers, with four different entrances to different parts of the complex. One takes you to the barracks, occupied by the new guards of the area, then next takes you to an inn, complete with rumour table. (And I like the fact that the higher your Charisma, the more likely you are to hear a 'true rumour'.) Then a smithy, which will be of great importance to most adventurers, and the trading post itself – which conceals a great secret. (Spoiler: Hidden thieves' guild!) There is a fifth chamber designed for important visitors (potentially the PCs), and a sixth that is walled off – a traditional dungeon complex.

The best thing about this section is that it is all described as if the players are exploring a dungeon. Which in a sense, of course, they are. Not only does this make it extremely straightforward for a DM to run a new party through this module, but it also opens up the intriguing possibility of the party playing a group of monsters, on the rampage through this settlement!

The adventure continues with a small selection of new monsters, spells and magical items, which are frankly nothing to write home about – except that they are from other sources, and have been included because they are mentioned in the article. Only one page – good call. (One note here – this module does not use the new material from the Companion Expansion. Again, I like this, as it means that you do not need two products to play. It would be easy enough to add this material in.)

What do I like about this adventure? It is logically laid out for someone running it, the descriptions are concise and clear, and all the NPCs, creatures, etc, are statted out correctly. You get a real feeling for the setting that the adventure is set in, without it being obtrusive, and this is applied consistently throughout the book. It is bursting with adventures; you could quite easily run a four-six session campaign with just the material in this book, taking a party from starting to the brink of third level. More to the point: this feels real. The setting has a distinctive but not distracting flavour.

What don't I like? Not much. My one niggle is the old 'Keep on the Borderlands' problem – none of the NPCs have any darn names! A key piece of preparation would be to list out all the NPCs, and there are quite a few of them, and give them names in advance. The title is a little confusing and complicated – I would have probably stuck with 'Module BL1: Terror in the Gloaming'. OK, you know I'm reaching when I am niggling about the title.

If you want an excellent adventure to start a new campaign that your players will remember, buy this book. If you want a grab-bag of wilderness locations to populate a campaign map, buy this book. They've beat Keep on the Borderlands at their own games. I can't wait to see what Barrataria Games does next.

Buy at Lulu

Friday 24 September 2010

Advanced Edition Characters

I went into this one expecting to like what I saw, and I came away initially with a slightly unsatisfied feeling – it took me a while to understand why. I'll explain later...

Physically (I picked up the paperback version from Lulu), the book is well-presented, well-laid out, and a good match for the revised edition Labyrinth Lord in terms of style. Everything seems to be in good shape; my one niggle is that there is no index, though there is a substantial table of contents.

The book opens with character creation, and here we have the usual races you would expect from 1st Ed, as well as the additional classes – new races Half-Orc, Half-Elf, and Gnome, new classes Paladin, Ranger, Illusionist, Assassin, Druid. As promised, this book allows characters to be created that match 1st Edition standards, without a lot of the clutter. I was pleased that proficiencies were left out, but that the 'Secondary Skill' table, providing characters with some background skill from their past, was included.

Frankly, it was at the part of the review that I hit a stumbling block. Suffice to say that this book contains most of the 'missing content' that 1st Edition had that B/X did not, but written as if it was a later book in the B/X product line – I'd almost say that this is the 'Companion' book we've been waiting for all these years.

This is my point – there is nothing here that we haven't seen before. That's what initially left me somewhat unsatisfied, but I rapidly came to see that this was the greatest strength of the book. In one 156-page book, all the elements of 1st Edition that I like have been provided here in a distilled format, and pretty much everything I dislike has been left out. I'm going to put it another way – this isn't the 'Companion' – this is what 2nd Edition should have been like.

Is this book a new, amazing read? No. But then it doesn't promise to be. Is this book good inspiration for games – yes. Is this book actually useful at the table? Definitely yes. I have a running debate with a friend of mine over sourcebooks that are 'cool and revolutionary' over ones that are 'actually useful at the table'. The former I will read an enjoy, and they will sit on my shelf unused. The latter I will read through, and then carry to every session and eventfully wear out through use – though on first read it didn't hit me as hard. This definitely falls into the latter category, folks. If you're looking to run a 1st-Edition style game, you could do a lot worse than pick this up. If you want a good 'sourcebook of stuff' for your B/X game, this is pretty much essential.

Will I use all of this? Probably not; I'd rather run a more B/X style game, racial class and all. Will I grab monsters, spells, magic items from this? Absolutely. Recommended buy.

Buy at Lulu

Original Edition Characters

As I have recently reviewed that Advanced Edition Companion, it seems sensible to follow it up with a review of another Labyrinth Lord sourcebook, Original Edition Characters. Like the AEC, the OEC is designed to help imitate a slightly different style of play, that of the original '74 D&D edition, but with some minor variations. It also has a second purpose, serving as a player's handbook to the game itself.

Physically, another good book. (Still no index, though!) You get a 64-page digest sized book, with some nice illustrations and generally well laid-out; everything is in a logical place. Everything needed for the generation of a Labyrinth Lord character is present - classes, races, equipment lists, and spell lists. As a player's handbook, it works well.

As a way of moving Labyrinth Lord closer to the 'original three', it works as well. Looking under the hood, for the GM it is essentially the same basic system in any case, so there is no need to make any changes there. The changes is for the players, who have slightly different options to choose from (no thief, elves effectively as dual-class characters), and a somewhat different ethos to the game.

Do I recommend this? Let me put it this way - I'll be picking a copy up for each of my players for my next Labyrinth Lord campaign.

Buy at Lulu

Companion Expansion

I initially stumbled across this one on Lulu while I was buying my copy of the Advanced Edition Companion, and was intrigued by what I saw - intrigued enough to plonk down my money for a copy at the same time, though until yesterday it had remained on my shelf. Now, I think it highly likely that it's going to be a key part of my campaign.

Production wise, you get a 116-page book, pretty well illustrated, that is designed for 'Basic' and 'Expert' rules systems. (That has a familiar ring to it, somehow...) Although it is not associated with Labyrinth Lord or any other retro-clone, there should be no problems using it with any of the B/X-style rules-sets. I stress that point - the nature of this book will make it less useful with something like OSRIC.

I don't really consider this a 'Companion' in the B/X sense of the world. It isn't really a high-level supplement, though it does extend the level limits all the way up to 36. This to me is a good thing. I didn't actually think the original Companion book was that good, and I very rarely take campaigns above Expert level in any case; I find lower-level material a lot more use.

The best thing about this book comes right at the start. Seven new classes, presented in the OD&D style, that add more classes and races to the game - and each is distinctive. Although the new classes are drawn from AD&D, having them add something new to the game is taken as more important than apeing the class.

So you start with the Bard, almost all of whom's powers relate towards using his musical instrument. He has some of the Thief skills, some illusionist spells, starting at 2nd level, and abilities to inspire courage, alter reactions, and charm his enemies. The Druid is as you'd expect taking his spells from the Druidic spell list, but essentially a 'nature cleric'. (Yes - there are two new spell lists here. Another take on the Druid and Illusionist spells.)

Then it gets better - a varient Elf, the 'Wildwood' Elf. This again draws Druidic spells, but has a range of abilities designed for use in the outdoors. (The book recommends not using both types of Elf in the same campaign - I disagree. Great scope for conflict.) Then the Gnome, and this is a good one. Basically on the same power level as the Dwarf, but less good at fighitng and with illusionist spells. A much better fit to OD&D. Then Half-Orcs/Half-Elves. Interestingly, both of these classes have been treated in the same way in the game, with the same abilities; the take is that both are 'outsiders', and that the external differences are largely cosmetic. They are treated as outdoorsmen, again with some Thief abilities, some tracking abilities, and some to cure wounds. I like this idea in general, but I think in practice I might include some variation between the two.

My favourite race next - the Half-Ogre! We see far too little of this gem, and here he is for B/X. D10 hit points and damage bonuses form the bulk of his abilities, and make him a ferocious fighter, which is as it should be. Slow level advancement, though. The Illusionist - again - comes next. A fairly standard take on it. The final new class is the Scout, which is essentially a Ranger, but without clerical spells bolted on; I like this class, as it actually does add something new.

I've spent a lot of time on the classes, as for me they were what made the book distinctive. There is a nice comprehensive equipment list, but nothing particularly special. Then the spells, which take up about half the book - a few additional magic-user and cleric spells, and complete druidic and illusionist spells lists. Whilst these have been seen in other products before, I still like having lots of different spell lists to make the magical characters distinctive.

Most of the second half of the book consists of new monsters, and again we see a lot of familiar faces. A few that stand out are the Bookworm, which is death for a spellbook, the Rust Dragon (like a Red Dragon, but with a breath weapon that mimics the effect of a Rust Monster!) , and some nice varieties of skeletons to make those undead encounters interesting. This is one of those sections of the book that are more useful in the game than a great read; if you've been playing for a while you will have seen most of them before.

The book concludes with a selection of magical items, again drawn from AD&D, nicely sorted into tables. Again - we've seen these before, but they are all converted and are all here in one place. You can't really have too many magical items, I think. Plenty of reference tables finish the book.

Why did I like this? It is useful. I can use the whole book in my LL or B/X campaign without any modifications, or any changes to the basic nature of the game. It is still B/X, but now with a range of additional classes, spells, monsters and options. I can recommend this for that reason. It is available through Lulu, and there is also a free (non-art) PDF download available.

Buy at Lulu