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Ambient Environments - Egyptian Tomb (encounter)
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/28/2013 18:34:49
“Ruins of the Pharaoh” ups the ante on its companion piece “Temple of Dread” with more distinct and forceful sound effects. Vague moans and sighs, hissing and slithering snakes, fluttering bats, and perhaps even the sound of dripping water populate this track. It could be really effective to use “Temple of Dread” when the PCs arrive at a lost temple in the desert and explore the outer reaches or upper floors, switching to “Ruins of the Pharaoh” as they get to the inner chambers but haven’t yet awakened the mummy. A few of the sound effects in “Ruins of the Pharaoh” seem to me too loud for the background, though, and could disrupt gameplay a bit. The publisher has populated the ID3 tags well, even embedding the cover art in the MP3. Note that you can save a dollar by purchasing “Ruins of the Pharaoh” together with three other tracks in the Adventurer’s Soundtrack 1 bundle (http://bit.ly/19ebUHs).

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Ambient Environments - Egyptian Tomb (encounter)
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Ambient Environments - Temple of Dread
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/28/2013 18:29:17
“Temple of Dread” does a great job of evoking a spooky, mysterious, vaguely threatening atmosphere. As the name and catalog description suggest, it would be perfect as the backdrop for exploration of an ancient temple in the desert. One minor glitch: the catalog description calls this “track 2 from the Adventurer’s Soundtrack,“ but it’s actually track 1 according to the illustration and the ID3 tags. Speaking of ID3 tags, Ambient Environments has done a good job of populating them fully, and has embedded the cover artwork in the MP3. Note that you can save a dollar by purchasing “Temple of Dread” together with three other tracks in the Adventurer’s Soundtrack 1 bundle (http://bit.ly/19ebUHs).

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Ambient Environments - Temple of Dread
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Publisher Reply:
Thanks for the review! Also, thanks for catching that glitch. It has been fixed. Let us know what you think of the other tracks. Your reviews are very helpful to us. ~AE
Pro RPG Audio: Court of Azathoth
Publisher: Plate Mail Games
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/28/2013 16:31:00
Spooky, unpleasant, disturbing, even grating on the ears—this track is perfect for Azathoth. Play this track in the background when you want your players to know that something is dreadfully wrong, but they don’t quite know why, or when everything in the PCs’ world has ceased to make sense.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Pro RPG Audio: Court of Azathoth
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Pro RPG Audio: Pirate Ship on the Open Sea
Publisher: Plate Mail Games
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/28/2013 14:24:55
This is a really nice soundscape, nonintrusive but flavorful. It loops seamlessly. Before you buy, be sure you understand this track consists only of sound effects (creaking planks, waves, birds), with no music.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Pro RPG Audio: Pirate Ship on the Open Sea
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Stark City Soundtrack
Publisher: Fainting Goat Games
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/28/2013 14:01:15
Your reaction to this soundtrack is likely to depend on your taste in music. Most of this soundtrack is simply too dance-techno for my own personal tastes. If you’re into more into EDM than I am, you’ll probably like the soundtrack a lot better than I did. But to me, most of the tracks evoke the feel of a dance hall or a low-budget ’80s crime drama rather than modern superhero epic. It’s hard for me to imagine any of these tracks behind scenes from any recent superhero movie, for example.

The two Geartown tracks, done in a more rock style, appeal to me more than the rest. But two tracks do not redeem the whole album for me, and “The Geartown Grinders” still has a considerable dose of EDM in it. My favorite track of the bunch is “Geartown Trouble”; I really like the rock style, quick tempo, and driving guitars, and it’s one of the better tracks with respect to looping. It could serve as good background music for a gritty Stark City fight scene, if it’s not too distracting (turn down the volume). However, it’s also very short (2:24).

Some of the tracks (“Crawling the Catacombs,” “Geartown Trouble,” “Platinum Coast Nightlife”) loop reasonably well if you don’t listen too closely, or if you set your player to eliminate the silence at the end. Others (“Freefall”) have beginnings and endings that are too definite for looping. None of the tracks sound like they were actually designed to loop, which is a big oversight in gaming background music. Also, the ID3 tags did not include an album name in the release that I downloaded, and the cover artwork provided separately (rather than embedded in the MP3s) has the rectangular aspect ratio of a letter-sized piece of paper (i.e., the cover of the Stark City sourcebook) rather than of a typical CD or MP3 album insert (square). This makes the cover art look odd and disruptive next to the other albums in my iTunes collection … and just trimming the cover artwork down isn’t a good option because of where the words are placed in the image.

To sum up, the quality of the music isn’t bad, but heavy dance-techno feel of the music clashes for me with the superhero genre.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Stark City Soundtrack
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WINTERHAWK: Church
Publisher: Fat Dragon Games
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/06/2013 02:57:26
This is another beautifully-illustrated and well-designed model from Fat Dragon Games! Assembly isn’t too difficult, and the results are very nice. Interior floorplan tiles (beyond just the very basic stone with trapdoor) would have been a great bonus; you’ll get very worthwhile mileage out of the exterior, though, and the cost is very reasonable.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
WINTERHAWK: Church
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HS1 The Slaying Stone (4e)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/04/2013 20:07:28
“The Slaying Stone” marked Wizards of the Coast’s second pass at heroic tier adventure modules for D&D 4e, and as such it incorporates several years’ worth of innovations and lessons learned. The whole thing is written in a way that is very helpful for beginning DMs but never patronizing or insulting to experienced DMs. The storyline is pretty much in the “search for a MacGuffin, with complications” mold, but there are enough interesting NPCs and competing factions to keep things interesting. The layout and presentation are very nice, and the module makes the transition to PDF well, with just a couple of caveats about that. First, the module was originally designed for print, with the assumption that the writeups for tactical encounters would span two facing pages. Thus, if you’re running the adventure from the printed book, you just lay it flat and you have everything you need—all the maps and stat blocks and such—right in front of you without having to flip pages. This gets slightly more complicated if you’re running the module from a computer screen where you have to scroll up and down a lot, or on a tablet where you’re seeing one page at a time. The other big limitation, of course, is that the PDF version does not include the poster map that came with the printed version, so you’ll have to find an alternate way to construct those tactical encounter areas on your tabletop. On the other hand, the PDF is well bookmarked, something that doesn’t apply in print. Each version uses its medium well, although WotC could have gone one better by including printable maps.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
HS1 The Slaying Stone (4e)
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Against the Darkness: Into the Fire
Publisher: Tabletop Adventures, LLC
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/04/2013 13:53:13
Although I’m very glad to see a new release for “Against the Darkness” (albeit six years after the core rulebook), I cannot rate the product as high as I’d like to. “Into the Fire” is pretty straightforward and showcases the tone of “Against the Darkness” well. On the other hand, the adventure is a little too straightforward at critical junctures, and the production values are noticeably below those of the AtD core rulebook.

Let’s start with the adventure’s strengths, though. The plot is straightforward and very easy for a beginning GM to run. Author Vicki Potter has very helpfully provided guidance for running two versions (shorter and longer) of the scenario, a feature worthy of emulation. Various scenes in the adventure invite the Justiciars to make both mundane and miraculous contributions to resolving the scenario’s major problem, a forest fire. Overall, the adventure is a pretty good way for both GMs and players to become acquainted with “Against the Darkness.”

However, there are some noticeable downsides as well—but I cannot explain them without giving away some plot elements, so consider this sentence your spoiler alert! The product description begins with the setup: “An unnatural forest fire threatens a Catholic center for contemplation and prayer.” Based on this description, I expected some kind of connection between the fire and the retreat center. There really isn’t one; the center functions a lot like the village inn in a stereotypical fantasy RPG, a mechanism for having all the PCs together in one place at the beginning of the adventure. At crucial points in the story, vital clues just run straight into the Justiciar’s open arms (and that is close to a literal description of what happens). Again, I expected more investigation going in, but there’s not really much of that. The whole thing really is kind of predictable: unusual occurrences turn out to have a supernatural cause. I can see a real danger of an AtD campaign turning into a “demon of the week” kind of thing, and unfortunately this adventure falls into that pattern.

Finally, I have to note that the production values are well below those of the AtD rulebook. The use of clip art and stock photos from a variety of sources and in a variety of styles is fairly jarring and somewhat off-putting. The very first page features no fewer than five different typefaces, another aesthetic misstep. Even the Table of Contents wavers inexplicably between Times New Roman and Palatino (or the Windows clone thereof), uses colons inconsistently at the end of headings, and switches between colons and dashes about 2/3 of the way through. The inconsistencies and poor aesthetic choices don’t interfere with the adventure as such, but they do hamper my enjoyment of the product.

Now despite the last two paragraphs, I repeat that I’m very glad to see a published adventure for “Against the Darkness,” and I hope we’ll see more of them—with varied plotlines and threats, and with higher production values. I wish I could justify giving the product more stars, because I want to support and promote this product line. However, I have to be honest with myself and with review readers, and this adventure just isn’t as good as I wanted it to be, or as I normally expect Tabletop Adventures products to be.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I have contributed material to other Tabletop Adventures products [in the “Bits of” line], but I did not have anything to do with the production of “Into the Fire.”)

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Against the Darkness: Into the Fire
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Against the Darkness
Publisher: Tabletop Adventures, LLC
by Christopher H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/04/2013 03:09:31
Try to picture Fox Mulder and Dana Scully as Catholic priests instead of FBI agents, or Buffy Summers and her friends as seminary students instead of high school students, and you’re well on your way to getting into the spirit of “Against the Darkness.” The straightforward and effective rules set does a good job of covering many possibilities while remaining light on details. The task resolution system is used across the board for all situations, combat and non-combat. Die-hard “simulationist” gamers won’t be satisfied with the level of specificity; for example, a single “Combat” skill covers all forms of armed and unarmed combat, and almost all combat attacks deal the same amount of damage (which doesn’t require a die roll). However, if you can accept the system’s “coarseness,” you’ll find that the “rules light” approach allows you to keep the action moving along with minimal interruptions.

The rulebook bills the game’s genre as “Vatican horror,” and the PCs are assumed to work for or with a secretive order within a fictionalized version of the Roman Catholic Church. The treatment of religion (both institutional and otherwise) is fictionalized but respectful. Christian GMs and players might agree with the game’s implicit theology in the real world, but should not find it offensive in the fictional world. The game is flexible enough to accommodate anything from orthodox (if old-fashioned) Catholicism to a more Pentacostal flavor to something out of “The Exorcist” or “The Da Vinci Code.” (It might be relevant to mention here that I am personally a committed Protestant whose day job is teaching biblical studies at the undergraduate and master’s degree levels.)

I like the overall tone and mechanics of the game very much, but I do find the product lacking in a couple of respects. As a matter of production quality, the typeface choices are inconsistent and sometimes unattractive; for example, one body paragraph might be set in Garamond, the next in Times New Roman. However, with only a few exceptions, the book seems to have been well-edited; readers won’t be tripping over grammatical errors every paragraph or so, as is often the case with small-press publications. As a matter of content, I felt that Specializations could have been explained a bit more clearly, and the rulebook occasionally features some repetitions that could perhaps have been avoided. But the main thing that hampers the rulebook—and the primary reason for my 4-star rating instead of a 5-star rating—is the lack of a sample adventure with mechanics. Interludes of short fiction illustrate the kinds of stories one might tell with “Against the Darkness,” but these are not illustrated with game mechanics. The introduction claims that “[i]n this rulebook … you will find everything you need to understand the rules, create characters, and begin playing,” but that’s not quite true; the GM still needs to come up with an adventure for the PCs to experience. The rulebook does contain several intriguing campaign ideas, but the lack of an included mini-adventure or sample scenario is a significant omission. (Tabletop Adventures did later release an introductory adventure, but that was six years after the publication of the rulebook.)

All in all, “Against the Darkness” fills an interesting niche in the RPG market, and it does so rather well.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I have contributed material to other Tabletop Adventures products [in the “Bits of” line], but I did not have anything to do with the production of “Against the Darkness.”)

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Against the Darkness
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ICONS: Operation Shatterstone!
Publisher: Ad Infinitum Adventures
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/04/2013 02:05:06
Operation: Shatterstone combines the “planetary disaster” and “alien invasion” motifs into a rollicking fun ICONS adventure. Author Dain Lybarger has populated this adventure with compelling situations, engaging NPCs, and interesting villains. Many possible plot elements and variations are included, so even novice ICONS GMs should be able to run the adventure pretty easily. The adventure would work fine as a one-shot, the beginning to a campaign, or an episode within a larger campaign. Dan Houser’s artwork lives up to the high standards he’s set in previous ICONS products. The layout mimics the layout of Great Power, but reverts to Helvetica Neue for body type, resulting in an overall less attractive presentation. Dozens of grammatical and typesetting errors and/or inconsistencies unfortunately mar the presentation. These issues aren’t significant enough to impede readers’ understanding, but they are noticeable. If DTRPG supported half stars, I’d add half a star to my rating.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
ICONS: Operation Shatterstone!
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Fantastic Maps - Iconic Island
Publisher: Rite Publishing
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/15/2013 23:49:27
This “Fantastic Map” differs from most of its line in two notable ways. First, the scale; instead of a miniatures-scale battlemap, this map presents an exploration-scale overview of the titular island. When I say “exploration-scale,” understand that the map itself doesn’t prescribe a scale. The land mass presented could be a relatively small island or a large continent; it’s all up to you. Second, the format: instead of the usual PDFs, this map ships as a set of four JPGs, allowing for easy editing using Photoshop, GIMP, or a similar tool. Third, the icons: the product includes a folder full of beautifully-textured icons (in PNG format) that you can layer upon the JPG backgrounds to produce a keyed map to your own specifications. If you’re competent with an image-editing program that uses layers and opens both JPGs and PNGs, you’ll find this to be an excellent product.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Fantastic Maps - Iconic Island
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Ground set #15 - Astral Plane
Publisher: Lord Zsezse Works
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/14/2013 14:24:06
Like all LZW Ground Sets, Astral Plane offers a substantial collection of 6x6 tiles in various configurations, with a “pavement” texture sitting atop a background texture. In this case, the background looks like outer space, and the pavement looks like bumpy green cobblestones. Many tiles are punctuated with ripples or vortexes of purple energy. The whole effect is sufficiently odd to befit an exotic setting like an astral plane, and the artwork beautifully complements LZW’s Battlemap: The Plane of Havoc. However, the Astral Plane tiles are 6x6 and the Plane of Havoc tiles are 7x10 with well-defined outside borders, so they don’t really fit together that well as a practical matter.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Ground set #15 - Astral Plane
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Battlemap - The Plane of Havoc
Publisher: Lord Zsezse Works
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/14/2013 14:22:39
This latest in LZW’s series of battlemaps with a connected storyline brings characters into an otherworldly realm “paved” with something that looks like green cobblestones. The artwork is beautifully executed, but perhaps a little too tightly tied into LZW’s ongoing story. The map is long and thin, with unfortunate bottlenecks at a few points, making it a little bit “railroady.” The really significant negative, though, is the depiction of Abaddon chained at the end of the “room.” Having him pictured on the map ties him down, either making him more of a terrain feature than a creature or forcing players and DMs to ignore the printed representation if Abaddon gets loose. Also, although the artwork here blends beautifully with the artwork in LZW’s Ground Set #15 - Astral Plane, the Astral Plane tiles are 6x6 and the Plane of Havoc tiles are 7x10 with well-defined outside borders, so they don’t really fit together that well as a practical matter.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Battlemap - The Plane of Havoc
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Limited offer - Abaddon [BUNDLE]
Publisher: Lord Zsezse Works
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/11/2013 00:31:10
This bundle is a great way to get the three included products at a discounted price. Please see my reviews of the individual products for details about each one.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Limited offer - Abaddon [BUNDLE]
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Dragon Magazine Annual, Vol. 1 (4e)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 06/10/2013 01:27:49
This volume, the first and only Dragon Magazine Annual from the 4e era, contains a selection of 14 articles from the first year of Dragon Magazine’s PDF-only, 4e run. About half of the articles are really DM material, such as the articles on Yeenoghu, kobolds, Orcus cults, and the Bloodghost Syndicate. All of these articles are a lot of fun, and can really enrich any campaign’s use of the creatures and organizations described therein. Of course, the stat blocks reflect the first year’s monster math, and most DMs will want to update the math before actually using the creatures. For players, you have star pact warlocks, feats for gladiators and assassins, paragon paths for gladiators and planar-attuned characters, and so on. Several of the articles on the player side tend toward the darker aspects of D&D (dhampyr, shadar-kai, assassins), and I personally wouldn’t have chosen them for a showcase volume like this one.

If you subscribe to D&D Insider, you have all of the information in this compilation already, including the original versions in Dragon Magazine. If you’re not an Insider and you DM 4th edition, you’ll find half or more of the volume to be useful, if you update the monster math according to the guidelines given in the latest rules updates. The fact that there was only one such annual suggests that non-subscribers weren’t that interested in the material compiled here.

This PDF has better bookmarking than the Dungeon Magazine Annual, although the bookmarks still seem to have been auto-generated rather than created by hand. There’s no need, for example, for a bookmark to the front cover, and when you burrow into the bookmarks at lower levels, some of the anchors don’t make a lot of sense.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Dragon Magazine Annual, Vol. 1 (4e)
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