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HackMaster Player's Handbook
Publisher: Kenzer & Company
by Matthew T. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 04/24/2013 13:27:29
First off, the look of it. I thought the mini table of contents at the start of every chapter was very useful and made finding information within chapters quite easy. Each chapter is full of easy to read tables with tips and hints of playing noted on the side of each page. One minor quibble was they could have used a rehash of rolling up honor points at the start of the honor chapter, instead of having to flip back a few chapters to find this. Another small issue I found in the Priors and Particulars chapter. In the earlier edition of Hackmaster, they included several tables concerning parent's social standing, amount of money left to player character, etc. which were oddly left out in this edition. In a game that excels in character creation complexity, these were glaring in their omission.

Like it's earlier incarnation, this edition of Hackmaster user quite a long and in depth character creation method, utilizing Building points to slightly change parts of the creation process you don't like. Skills and proficiencies are listed as well and quirks and flaws, which can flesh out a newly created character a little more. However, some of the background rolls might force you to have one or more.

There are the normal character classes - fighter, knight, paladin, ranger, barbarian, thief, rouge, assassin and mage, plus a few multi classes - fighter/mage, fighter/thief and mage/thief. Greatly expanded however, is the cleric character class. This class has been expanded akin to the old specialty priests from Forgotten Realms. Each church (one for each of the nine alignments) has its own spell list and powers/restrictions/skills/preferred weapon(s) for its priests. By far the most interesting in my opinion, was the Church of Chance, where each cleric gets their spells for the day at random. This would certainly encourage characters to think on their feet!

Spells in the hackmaster universe are a combination of the memorization method and spell point method. Mages and clerics can only case a certain number of spell per day as one would expect from Vancian magic. However, the mage has to use from his pool of spell points to cast spells. He can even cast spells he does not have memorized for double the spell points. Luckily, spell points regenerate after a full 8 hours of sleep. In addition to using spell points to case spell, a mage can add his spell points to any spell to enhance any of the characteristics, such as additional power, duration, range, area of effect, etc)

Combat is handled a little differently for those who might not be familiar with Hackmaster. Each roll to hit is an opposed roll, meaning the attacker rolls to hit and the defender rolls to defend. Likewise, combat order is handled differently as well. In a lot of other systems, once initiative is determined, each participant moves once during the round. In Hackmaster, often (if not usually) the character can do multiple things during the round, which is measured in seconds. For example, once your initiative comes up (or 2 seconds after you are attacked by a melee weapon assuming you are still standing and not stunned, you can perform any of various actions. Luckily, a fully illustrated Knights of the Dinner Table comics strip and diagrams are included to walk you through a typical combat scenario. Or at least a typical one for the Knights. :)

Overall this is Hackmaster in all its complex glory, laid out in a well put together weighty tome, coming in at over 400 pages.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
HackMaster Player's Handbook
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Nova Praxis [Augmented PDF]
Publisher: Void Star Games
by Matthew T. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 04/09/2013 14:54:05
The Nova Praxis universe is one of omnipresent technology, transhumanism, and covert war. The game is visually attractive, with a blue/black computerized motif and evocative photorealistic illustrations. The “augmented” PDF includes a comprehensive table of contexts and index and hyperlinks that make navigation simple. The PDF bundle includes a low-res version of the game, character sheets, a handsome map of the Nova Praxis solar system.

The year is 2140 and while humanity has lost the Earth, it has colonized the solar system and beyond. The setting is hard(ish) space fiction with AIs, cyborgs, and uploaded minds, à la GURPS: Transhuman Space, but with more FtL and artificial gravity. Most of these “impossible” technologies are black box systems courtesy of a defunct super computer thus allowing the author to include beloved SF staples without breaking the realistic feel of the setting while at the same time precluding players from fiddling about with possible game-breaking science.

The old governments of Earth have given way to mega-corporations and exist only as disgruntled remnants fighting a terrorist’s war. These mega-corporations, called Houses, rule over a post-scarcity trans-nation but they are also fighting a secret war against each other. Further conflicts exist between citizens and non-citizens and between augmented and non-augmented humans.

The basic technologies (computers, nanotech, broadcast power, etc.) are discussed in detail as well as the culture of the setting. The setting is loaded with potential plot-hooks and interesting locales, including most of the solar planets or their moons as well as half a dozen “exoplanets”. Other “locations” include a number of “virtualities”, simulated realities where uploaded minds meet, vacation, and play.

The game assumes that players will be special agents employed by the Houses to fight their “Shadow War”. Thus they will function outside society most of the time. This makes sense as a post-scarcity society with near constant law-enforcement, while nice to live in, would be a bit boring for your average “adventurer”. Default PCs will be mercenaries, malcontents, and misfits engaged in espionage, surgical strikes, and general underhanded mayhem. PCs can be as “simple” as pure, un-augmented humans or as exotic as intelligent software unconstrained by mere flesh.

The game uses a streamlined version of FATE (itself a elaborated version of FUDGE). Fans of FATE can expect the same kind of character creation and game play as Spirit of the Century, The Dresden Files, and other FATEful games. For those not familiar with it, FATE is a narrative system that stresses story structure and player input. The key component of the system is “Aspects”: narrative descriptions of a person, place, or thing that have a direct mechanical effect of the game. Aspects work like modifiers in other systems but must be “invoked” by GM or players before they come into play. Aspects are invoked using “Fate Points”, a renewable resource that players receive through handicaps, roleplaying, and between sessions. Players create their characters by choosing 5 aspects that define a character’s motivations, beliefs, and talents such as “Graduated Top of My Class” or “Never Leave Anyone Behind”. At first glance, such a loose system may seem ill-fitted to a hard SF setting but I suspect that it will serve SF just as well as it does pulp of supernatural adventure.

Nova Praxis is a well thought-out game, with an easy and established system and an innovative setting with lots of provocative ideas and technologies. I would have liked a bit more examination of the implications of theses elements in play, perhaps a sample adventure or two. Still the stage is set for all kinds of science fiction strangeness and plenty of shadowy excitement too.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Nova Praxis [Augmented PDF]
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How to Spice Up Your Game
Publisher: Avalon Game Company
by Matthew T. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 03/11/2013 14:17:49
This PDF is presented in clear easy text, with simple layout and pleasing but minimal decorations. The writing is also clear and concise with only a few grammatical errors to break the flow.

"How to Spice up your Game" consists of 6 techniques GM may use to shake up their games. Each technique is fully explained with tips for incorporating it and examples of its use.

The techniques themselves range from the useful (using restricted PC knowledge to foster surprise) to the tricky (giving players control of the story -- including voting on story elements!) to the kinda obvious (miniatures -- but even here, there is some useful information). Other techniques include using riddles and puzzles to challenge the players over the characters, and using mini-games during an RPG to simulate in-game activities. Some of these ideas are not fully developed and others will radically alter gameplay. All of them will require careful thought, and some of them will require group discuss, extra GM work and/or some experimentation before they can be usefully incorporated into a game.

All told, "How to Spice up your Game" is a thoughtful little book with some intrigue ideas that GMs -- particularly new GMs or GMs that find their games becoming routine -- will find a useful starting point for trying some new things at the table.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
How to Spice Up Your Game
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CUPID MUST DIE! Kobolds Ate My Valentine
Publisher: 9th Level Games
by Matthew T. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 02/14/2013 14:27:43
Just in time for . . . the weekend after St. Valentine’s Day it’s “Cupid Must Die!”, a new mini-adventure for Kobolds Ate My Baby. In order to satisfy King Torg’s (all hail King Torg) impossible craving for baby-wings, the hapless kobolds have been dispatched to the humans’ annual Valentine’s Day carnival, there to capture Cupid, the only winged baby anybody can think of. At this “bacon-all” the kobolds will face deadly carnies, things on sticks, angry birds, catapults, and, of course Cupid and his lusty arrows. There are plenty of chances for the usually KAMB hijinks (death, over acting, more death) with the added bonus of PCs getting struck with Cupid’s arrow and falling in love with other kobolds, humans, cows, themselves, etc.

This is indeed a mini-adventure, with only a short session’s worth of material. But kobolds tend to complicate even the simplest assignment. Also there are plenty of opportunities for expansion. Anyway, it’s funny and free (for now), so what’s not to love. If you love KAMB, and you love love, you’ll love Cupid Must Die.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
CUPID MUST DIE!  Kobolds Ate My Valentine
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Doctor Who - The Time Traveller's Companion
Publisher: Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd.
by Matthew T. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/30/2012 11:30:20
This is a great book that adds lots and lots of new information and options for a Doctor Who game. Like all of the line, this book is pretty and easy to read. As a fan of classic Who, I was very happy to see that the book covered all the Doctor Who timeline both in the text and the illustrations.

The book includes cultural and historical information about Gallifrey and the Time Lords, answering a lot of questions and offering tons of plot ideas. It's worth reading even if you don't play the game. Not only do we have the big historic events (like the Dark Times and the Time War) but we have information on daily life on Gallifrey.

Next is a whole chapter on creating Time Lord characters, starting with tips for getting around the "last of the Time Lords" bit. This fixes the only real problem I had with DW:ATS, namely everybody (naturally) wants to play a Time Lord. This chapter includes a step-by-step process for creating Time Lords with background information (like the Academy and naming conventions) and good and bad traits. Most of this information is drawn from the TV show. There is also a lot of information on regeneration. Regeneration is handled randomly with rolls and tables increasing or decreased stats and changing physical appearance and personality. I'm not convinced this is the best way to handle regeneration but it does reflect the sometimes extreme nature of regeneration.

Chapter 4 covers temporal tricks in a lot of detail (possible too much detail). There's paradoxes, and vortex manoeuvres, and nexus points, plus a plethora of temporal gadgets. This chapter tries to catalog and understand 30 years of Whovian craziness, and it does a really good job (particularly since I strongly suspect the Who-verse doesn't make complete sense). But it also adds lot of complexity to a game.

Chapter 5 is dedicated to TARDISes, their history, systems, and uses. There are details on almost every aspect imaginable from the "desk top theme" to "spatial overlap" and the Cloister Bell. There are notes on ancient to advanced TARDISes as well -- most exciting of all -- rules for creating a TARDIS complete with good and bad traits (an insatiably curious TARDIS may nip off to have adventures on its own!).

The rest of the book is given to "GM-only" information: dark secrets of the Time Lords, hidden technologies, and famous and infamous Time Lords (like the Master and Romana!). While there's lots of great information here, it won't be "GM-only" to anyone familiar with classic Who. There are chapters of adventure seeds, ideas for setting games during different periods of Time Lord history, general GM advice, and even more advances temporal phenomena.

Finally, there is an extensive and helpful index, as well as Time Lord and TARDIS character sheets and helpful reference cards.

As I said, there's a lot of information here, not just setting but rules: new rules, modifiers, stats, and charts. Enough so that incorporating all these rules could alter the feel of a DW:ATS game. While the system is still simple, this supplement adds lots of fiddly bits. Without a light touch, all these new details could bog down a game (something the book addresses). These is a great book to dip into, cherry-pick, or even obsesses over, just like Doctor Who itself.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Doctor Who - The Time Traveller's Companion
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Lost on the Road
Publisher: Game Soapbox Productions, LLC
by Matthew T. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/25/2012 20:30:58
Lost on the Road – Andre Kruppa


This one-session scenario for 4-6 players, by Andre Kruppa of Game Soapbox, presents a story of mounting wonder, tension, and entrapment where players must uses all their cunning, puzzle-solving abilities, and role-playing skills to survive. Though system-less, Lost on the Road is very thorough and detailed, making it easy to adapt to any system or even run free-form. The story too, while nominally placed in 1930’s New England may be set in nearly any time or place the GM’s desires. It may also be dropped neatly into an on-going campaign though, as the author warns, the adventure had at least 50% lethality in playtest.

The story is broken into 3 acts and throughout Mr. Kruppa offers clear summaries, background information, and staging advice, even including estimated playtimes for each scene. A detailed listing of all the NPCs, optional pre-generated PCs, a wealth of player handouts and GM aids (maps, letters, helpful summaries, etc.) complete this scenario. The PDF uses a mix of pleasing fonts, is illustrated with thematic photographs and stock-art, and thoughtfully comes in both a color and a black-&-white version.

SPOILERS AHEAD




The adventure sees the player-characters investigating the disappearance of a good friend, only to fall victims to same fate: entrapment within into the fairy-tale realm of the Fae-like Elder Ones. Only through a combination of trickery, bravery, and cunning can the PCs hope to see their own world again.

Act 1 sets the mood for the game with subtle hints and strange occurrences. There is a lot of set-up in this act and not a lot of opportunity for role-playing. Also the last scene ends with the PCs being taken prisoner, which some players may find frustrating. Still, handled with care, I believe the slow build-up can be fun and intriguing.

Act 2 brings the PCs into the castle of the “Elder Ones” and the heart of the adventure. Here the party meets these powerful and alien “hosts” (the Lord and Lady, the cruel Secretary, the conniving Crone, the babbling Mad One) as well as other mortal “guests” (a true knight, a blind harpist, an arrogant story-teller). After a feast, where they meet the assembled company, the PCs (if they behave themselves) are free to wander the pocket realm in which they are trapped. The PCs must gather information from various NPCs, including their missing friend (now transformed into a cat by one of the capricious Elder Ones). This is a vital act; violent, stubborn, or taciturn players may find that they do not have the needed resources to successfully survive act 3 (and may not even survive act 2). The GM must also strive to make clear the cruelty and danger of life in the castle, otherwise some PCs may decide to live out their days in the Elder Ones’ gilded cage.

After the build-up of act 1 and the resource gathering of act 2, act 3 hinges entirely on the actions of players. As such it is very open-ended. The goal is escape, but this can be secured only with permission of an Elder One. And since the Elder Ones are much too powerful to oppose directly, the players must be clever indeed to see their homes again. Several strategies are suggested include: recovering a Cold Iron sword capable of killing the Elder Ones, discovering and using the True Names of the Elder Ones, and striking Faustian bargains with the wicked creatures.

Lost on the Road is an unusual but solid adventure requiring a healthy mix of social, mental, and artistic adroitness from the players as well as the GM. The NPC write-ups are detailed and very important for a proper running of the scenario. Setting the proper mood is very important for this game, but the numerous player handouts and Mr. Kruppa’s advice and read-aloud texts makes things easier. Pacing may be an issue as some players may feel constrained by the earlier scenes and a GM should be prepared for this.

Finally, I can’t help thinking Lost on the Road would make an excellent prologue for a game of Changeling: the Lost.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Lost on the Road
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Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Session Prep
Publisher: Engine Publishing
by Matthew T. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/16/2012 16:18:18
Phil Vecchione is a wise man. As he rightly points out, most GMs are never taught how to prepare for a session; rare is the gaming book that discusses prep work; and gamers just don’t talk about it much. Sure, most of us have developed some kind of haphazard system that works enough, but imagine how much better our games could be if we got organized!

Well Never Unprepared, is the book we need. It presents, in a clear and straightforward style, advise on every aspect of game preparation. It demystifies the creative process, renders prep work non-threatening (and even enjoyable), and reveals how – far from consuming precious time – effective preparation actually maximizes quality time at the gaming table. The book is broken into three sections: Understanding Prep, Prep Toolkit, and Evolving Your Style.

In the first section, “Understanding Prep”, Mr. Vecchione begins by revealing the simple and wonderful purpose of prep: to allow us to run games comfortably, to be, as he puts it, a “back-up GM” to help you out of trouble spots. Prep is broken down into five stages (brainstorming selection, conceptualization documentation, & review), each of which is given its own chapter. This is an in-depth book, with a bit of work-booking, concert techniques for improvement, and common mistakes and pitfalls, in every area of prep. Whether it’s brainstorming on demand or the three stages of reviewing your game prep, this is the heart of the book and every GM will find something she can use here.

If section one is the “what” and “why” of prep work, then section two is the “how and “when”. “Prep Toolkit” concerns the actual tools available for prep work: notebooks, laptops, mutli-media software, etc. Instead of recommending a specific tool, however, Mr. Vecchione demonstrates how to choose the best tools to fit your needs and style.

When to prep and how to find or make the time, is the province of Chapter 9: “Mastering Your Creative Cycle”. This can be a sobering chapter, particularly for us older gamers, as we chart out our free time and realize how much less we have now than in days of yore. But Never Unprepared reveals not only how to squeeze valuable prep time from a busy schedule, but also how to discover when we are at our most creative, what to do when, and how to maximize our time.

In the last section, “Evolving Your Style”, we learn how to apply the rest of the book to our personal GMing needs. Mr. Vecchione discusses identifying our strengths and weaknesses and tailoring our prep work accordingly. He also demonstrates how to tailor prep work according to the needs of a particular game and campaign.

Oh, and in case you were thinking of dismissing Mr. Vecchione as an anal-retentive fusspot, there is “The Prep-Lite Approach”, an entire chapter devoted to time-saving techniques, sneaky GM tricks, and clever “cheats” (such as re-using stat-block, creating only what the PCs see, etc.).

The last chapter examines that messy intersection between theory and practice and offers an array of contingency plans for Real Life incursions such as prior commitments, lack of energy, and the old college buddies that turn up out of the blue and want to game.

The book has evocative illustrations throughout. The PDF is easy to read, with a clear font and a single column of text. There is also a text-only file included in the download. Finally, as befits a book about time management and organization, there a list of resources for GMs and a fairly extensive index.

This is an excellent and important book. I can think of no GM who would not benefit from reading this volume. New GMs, struggling GMs, experienced GMs, even ad lib GMs confident in their ability to “wing it”, will find invaluable information within. Aspiring GMs and players hesitate to GM because of the work involved should definitely read this book as it takes the trepidation out of prep work and might encourage them to step behind the screen. Because this hobby needs all the GMs it can get.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Session Prep
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Dungeon Crawl Classics #69: The Emerald Enchanter
Publisher: Goodman Games
by Matthew T. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/11/2012 10:35:52
I’ve come to expect mysterious, bloody, full-on awesomeness from Goodman Games, and Dungeon Crawl Classics #69: The Emerald Enchanter does not disappoint. This adventure module for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game is crammed with combat, traps, weird creatures and magics, and that special new Old School charm that DCC invokes so well. This adventure is designed for 8-10 2nd level characters of all classes: thieves are needed to open doors, find traps and ferret out secrets, warriors will be tested with lots of combat, and spell-casters will find many strange magics to content with. There is lots of fighting, plenty of mysteries and surprises, and even some good opportunities for role playing if your interested.

I must say that the folks at Goodman Games apparently role play with much larger groups than I. 8-10 characters? I’m lucky if I get 4 players at a session! This circle is easily squared however by increasing the level of the PCs, by nerfing the adventure, or, as we did in my playtest, having the players run multiple characters (this option is quickly becoming the norm in my DCC games).

Ah, yes, my playtest. I was hoping to write a playtest review, but the game was a bloodbath, another DCC RPG TPK (don’t you just love this hobby’s acronyms?). As such, I only got to play about a fifth of the adventure, but what I ran was very exciting and what I was not able to run looks great.

If you’re a DCC player, all I can say is that this adventure will exciting and challenging. Tread carefully, think clearly, fight well, or meet your doom!

If you’re a GM, read on:

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. GMs ONLY



The Emerald Enchanter can be easily dropped into almost any campaign, though the introductory text assumes the enchanter is plaguing the PCs’ hometown. Most of the information needed is presented, though the GM should give some thought to the vulnerabilities, immunities, and special properties of living statues, golems, and such constructs (i.e. are golems susceptible to charm spells or paralyzation, etc.). There are also several mysterious entities as well as a dozen or so NPCs within the adventure that the GM may find herself role playing (including 3-4 potential 0-level replacements for fallen PCs).

There is a straight, brute force path through the adventure that heedless, lucky, and tough PCs may survive. But there are also a few shortcuts, mysteries, and hidden resources that a careful, clever, or daring party may use to increase their odds of success. If your players fail, there’s probably something they missed. And if you’re of the mind, you can play this several times before your players find everything.

A few bits of advice: special attention should be paid to the tactics of the enchanter since he will mostly likely be aware of the PCs early in the adventure; creatures suddenly turned from statues into flesh and blood should, in my opinion, be disorientated for a round or two; and the final confrontation may require map and miniature (or at least a few place markers and a doodle), as it is a tad involved. Also, as I reviewed the PDF version of this adventure I can say that if you’re planning on printing the module, you might want to print only pages 3 – 14 and skip the players’ handout and the maps. Nice as they are, they have loads of black space and will suck your printer dry faster than stirge cheating on its diet.

Oh, and one last thing I did learn from my playtest: the emerald enchanter has no adequate fire control in his citadel. If your players, say, climb onto the roof of the citadel, slip down a chimney, and accidently set fire to the kitchen, things will go badly.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Dungeon Crawl Classics #69: The Emerald Enchanter
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