Monday, December 26, 2016

What Do I Know About Reviews? Force and Destiny: Nexus of Power

Much like the quest of a Force sensitive individual who is being pursued by the Inquisitorius and is attempting to piece together useful information about Force traditions in a galaxy that is fraught with danger, I have finally completed my month long quest to finish this book and write a review. Upon finishing it, however, I cannot move things with my mind or see the future. But nobody tried to kill me either--I just had job interviews, testing, a general life chaos to deal with.

A Place In Time



Nexus of Power came out in March of this year (2016 as of the writing of this blog post). That means unlike some of the other Fantasy Flight Star Wars books that I have reviewed, this book was published not only after the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm, and not only after the Legends designation was created, but after The Force Awakens had already been in theaters.

Because of this, the book contains references to a lot of more recent Star Wars material. Lothal, the location from Star Wars Rebels, makes an appearance. References to Yoda's spiritual journey to find immortality, detailed in the "lost season" of the Clone Wars (which first aired on Netflix) also play a significant part in the content of the book. Other Clone Wars content, such as the infinitely fascinating and ultimately frustrating Mortis arc contribute to the lore referenced in the book. Finally, the Dark Side shrine located under the Jedi Temple on Coruscant, first referenced in the Tarkin novel, makes an appearance as well.

Legends and Mythic Forms



This book continues a tradition introduced in the Force and Destiny Core Rulebook, which references Legends material regarding Force traditions and the history of the Jedi, Sith and other groups, but then casts what was history in the Legends continuity as essentially parables or myths in the modern era. This means that GMs can decide if they want to assume that the events from Legends literally happened in their campaign, or if the general stories from the Legends continuity might be told, but either aren't true, or aren't able to be verified.

Specifically, the book references the "Qel-Droma Epics", which contain the stories that we would know as the Tales of the Jedi comics from the 90s, but then mentions that the "Revan Mythologies" may not be a separate story so much as a more modern retelling of the same fall and redemption arc. This is actually a pretty fascinating way to frame these stories for games set in the Rebellion era of Star Wars, because it actually feels like an authentic scholarly discussion of ancient religious texts.

Physical Manifestation

This is a Fantasy Flight book. Do you want to guess how it looks? How the artwork is? The layout? Continuing the broken record, all of these are really attractive. One interesting note is that the sections that detail "myths and legends" have their own distinctive formatting (like the core rulebook), almost as an indicator to pay special attention to these sections. The book is 144 pages, like the other "location" sourcebooks in the Fantasy Flight Star Wars lines.

Introduction

This section has a one page fictional account of a Force related trial, and then details what you can expect in the book. The layout of the book is similar in form to the other "location" sourcebooks from the Fantasy Flight Star Wars line, but unlike the Edge of the Empire books, it follows the same pattern as the Strongholds of Resistance, detailing locations based on a theme rather than on galactic region.

The theme, in this case, is worlds strong in the Force. This is especially reinforced with the section on Vergences, locations where the Force manifests in especially potent ways. In addition to a chapter on specific planets, there is a chapter on Vergences (some of which are located on the planets in the previous section), a chapter on player options (character species and gear), and modular encounters.

Worlds of the Force



This section details Illum, Naboo, Dagobah, Weik (a new location detailed here for the first time), Lothal, Bardotta, Auratera (another new location), Aleen, Devaron, Iktoch, Empress Teta, and Ossus. Unlike some of the other location source books, where there are a few pages at the end where a wider selection of planets is detailed in a paragraph or two, in addition to all of the planets that get full, multi-page entries, only the longer entries are present in this section.

The first thing I will say is that I like having a wide range of somewhat detailed entries for planets that aren't the big name planets from the movies available to use in game. It's very easy to go blank when creating an entirely new world, and not every planet needs to be Coruscant or Nal Hutta. That having been said, there are a few worlds in this section that don't seem to fit with the theme of the book. Naboo, in particular, doesn't really seem strong in the Force so much as the place where Palpatine is from, and while they mention the Emperor's Retreat a few times, no real details are given.

Weik is a planet that has dark ages level of technology, where the Force is seen as magic, and there are multiple Force using traditions that labor under this assumption. There was also a crashed starship that is where a Jedi/Paladin hybrid order is based, and I feel like I'm nitpicking when I point out that the artwork shows a Star Destroyer bridge. For how long ago this should have happened, that really shouldn't be a Star Destroyer in the artwork. I want to warm up to Weik, but I can't get past the idea that it's not just a low tech world that thinks the Force is magic, it's an intentional wink towards the RPG industry by presenting a D&D style world in Star Wars. That feels too "on the nose" to me.



Auraterra is a much more interesting new planet. Having gone back and forth between being a Sith and a Jedi held planet, the Jedi finally just removed it from the star charts and hid it from everyone. There is a Vergence on this world with a Jedi temple on one side and a Sith complex on the other, and it just feels very evocative, like a fun concept to play with, especially if the Jedi did something similar with other worlds.

The description of Dagobah actually makes me want to have PCs go there, not to run into Yoda, but to encounter the weird ecosystem, traveling Force manifestations, and maybe even run into THAT tree.

Empress Teta and Ossus have fairly brief overviews of what may have happened on those planets based on the Legends continuity, but the level of information actually feels very consistent with Legends locations that have been introduced in new canon material like Rebels. The interesting part about these entries is the information regarding what the galaxy really knows about them.

There is a lot to like in this chapter, but a few worlds could have used more detail and sample encounters, and a tighter focus on the theme might have been nice.

Powerful Vergences



Before I even get to my summary, I'm just going to say this is my favorite part of the book. Vergences are places where the Force manifests and acts differently. This may cause people in the Vergence to see visions, confront their fears, or gain a boost to Force powers when they use them in a specific way.

Following Vergences from location to location, world to world, may be a less precise way of learning about the Force than finding a living instructor or learning from archives or a holocron, but Vergences aren't easily destroyed by Inquisitors. They can give vague hints or powerful boosts, so tailoring Vergences to individual campaigns is a great way to make the campaign unfold in a particular direction. Not only does the chapter detail Vergences big and small, but there is a section on creating your own Vergences, which I think can potentially add a whole lot to a Force and Destiny campaign.

The description of the Wellspring of Life makes me want to run a campaign just based on the PCs trying to figure out how to learn the process of becoming Force ghosts, and the way Mortis is presented actually makes me want to use it. Having it appear as a moving Vergence not bound by a specific location, and having it show the PCs what you want it to show them, makes it a lot more interesting than it was when it was the focal point of a confusing Clone Wars story arc.

Player Options



This is the section where we get new species and gear that goes with the planets, species, and traditions introduced in the rest of the book. Like the planets chapter, this one strays from the theme a bit. The focus seems to be on supporting the planets introduced rather than reinforcing the "strong in the Force" theme.

The species introduced are Aleena, Bardottan, Devaronian, and Gungan. I'm not a Star Wars fans that wants to excise all Prequel references from Star Wars material. I'm all for having Gungan stats. That said, 75% of the species presented are kind of odd ball species that are usually played for comic relief, and that means the species are not much of a draw to this book unless you really want to be the goof ball in the party, or you really want to play against type.

A lot of the gear presented is low-tech, based on the planets introduced. It's a minor quibble, but I'm not sure why gear like this has to be named based on it's planet. It makes sense for there to be greatswords in a book with a world that is based on D&D tropes, but why not just call it a greatsword, instead of a Weik Greatsword? That seems to imply that if greatswords show up somewhere else, they might not have the same properties as a greatsword from Weik, but I don't think that's actually the intention.

If you really wanted stats for Ezra's energy slingshot, they are in this book. While I know that the game stats differ quite a bit, it's a little off-putting to see the similar Bardottan Electrolance and Gungan Electropole both take up a slot in the same equipment section.

Where the equipment gets interesting is in the "Drugs and Poisons" section, where we get things like sulfur inhalers that only work for Devaronians, Frangawl Force Powder, which is powdered Force ability extracted from sacrificial victims, and Longsight.



The Relics and Talismans range from interesting and fun to base part of a campaign around, to super specific to a location.Some are especially useful as inspiration for similar items the GM may customize for their own campaign. For example, there is a legendary lightsaber that has stats outside of what you could customize a lightsaber to do normally. My favorite is probably the cultist's sphere that is used to drain the Living Force from victims. Oddly, all of this seems to be less "players options" than "GM Plot Ideas," but they have the same format as gear in the game.

There is a section that I would like to see in future "location" sourcebooks, which is Location-Specific Motivations. These can be used for PCs that are from or have a specific tie to one of the worlds detailed in the book. I think it's a great way to present new roleplaying options to players in a way that increases the usefulness of the new material in the book.

Modular Encounters



This section returns from other location based sourcebooks, with "plug and play" encounters that you can slot into existing adventures, that can be fleshed out into full adventures, or that can be used as a bridge between adventures. The number is closer to what we saw in Suns of Fortune, rather than the fewer, more fleshed out, encounters in Strongholds of Resistance.

Some of these feel very rushed as presented. "Destiny tells you to do a thing, and you make some rolls, and make a check flavored by your Morality strength and weakness, and have some extra XP." Others feel very random. "A Force sensitive person attacks you. They may have a backstory. The plot says they get away if the GM gave them a backstory. The end." It's not that there isn't good stuff in those encounters, but for the players to encounter that good stuff, the GM has to do a lot more work than to just dropping the encounter into a night of gaming.

Other encounters aren't based on a planet so much as a type of place on a planet. These usually have to do with finding an ancient Jedi site, and figuring out how to get in or what to gain from that place. There are some really nice guides presenting training trials to players seeking to sharpen their Force skills, and some interesting Force power applications that are outside of the box in these. That said, in one of these encounters, Dark Side Force Adepts that work for the Empire and wander around performing rituals to corrupt Light Side sites are mentioned, but not detailed--I want to see those guys! That's great material for an ongoing campaign, not a throwaway explanation for why there are weird creatures running around.

The Naboo specific modular encounter doesn't feel like it needs to be on Naboo, and feels like it takes place on Naboo to further justify Naboo's inclusion in the book. It's not a bad encounter, just not overflowing with Naboo atmosphere. The Weik encounter is okay, but doesn't thrill me, except that it does make me want to see a literal crazy old wizard leave the planet and work as someone's Force sensitive henchman, while still insisting on using spellbooks and components. The fish out of water element is more interesting to me than the planet itself.

Honestly, I think this section would have been stronger had they done the same thing they did with Strongholds of Resistance, and have fewer, more fleshed out encounters that were more strongly tied to Vergences and Jedi trials. Those seemed to be the best encounters in this section.

The Son



The book loses a lot of focus when it deviates from it's theme. Some of the material included feels more like it was general Star Wars material that some book in one of the Star Wars line "had" to cover, rather than strongly supporting the theme of "Worlds Strong in the Force." The player options aren't overly exciting unless you have a very specific theme you wanted to pursue for your character. Some of the modular encounters feel thin and rushed.

The Daughter



Vergences are exciting, and feel like they should really be making an appearance is just about any Force and Destiny game. The way some famous locations are presented, they feel like they could be the high point of a campaign. Visiting Dagobah or Illum or Ossus could have a lot of meaning to players that invest significance in those places. The way Legends material is referenced and framed is inspired, and is a great template for including that kind of material in a campaign. The trials and the way the Force is used to solve puzzles in some of the Modular Encounters is wonderful.

The Father

There is so much to like in this book. The Vergences, some of the famous locations, and the examples of how to create trials testing your PCs are items that will keep you building more and more for your campaign for quite a while. I just wish some of the modular encounters had been cut to make some of the others stronger, and that the player options felt more compelling. There was a little bit too much in the book that felt like it was perfunctory instead of supporting the strongest ideas present. The ideas that are strong are really, really strong.

*** (out of 5)

Gaming Wishes for 2017

I was about to title this post "Gaming Resolutions," but, let's be honest, I don't want to be quite that definite about these goals. Lots of stars have to align to make sure that gaming goes the way I want it to go, and so these are just what I hope happens, gaming-wise, and the direction I want to push my gaming.

Get Back On Track With My Read and Reviews

I definitely made some progress with my backlog of gaming material that I need to read, but December slowed any progress down to a crawl. I need to make some formalized time to do this, and to get away from any distractions so I can make progress, take notes, and take a bite out of that list.

Adventure in Middle-earth




I like both The One Ring and what I have seen so far of Adventures In Middle-earth. Ideally, I'd like to play both and get a feel for the differences and the way campaigns unfold in each. I'd be happy if I managed to do one or the other for a least a short campaign. I really want to find a group of people that both love Tolkien enough to want to play in the setting but love gaming enough not to get too upset with me if my version of Middle-earth drifts slightly towards the movies from time to time.

Run an Age of Rebellion Campaign Again--This Time Successfully




I've run campaigns of Edge of the Empire multiple times to resolution, and a short campaign of Force and Destiny that went pretty well, but my Age of Rebellion efforts, as well as my Inquisitors/Force and Destiny/Edge of the Empire/Age of Rebellion crossover game, didn't end in a satisfactory manner.

I still want to try the Rebel insurgents in an isolated system game, this time from the beginning, without inheriting characters from another campaign that already have some baggage attached to them. I also want to attempt a slightly more ambitious campaign, with the PCs being a special Alliance team shutting down half-built superweapons unleashed on the galaxy between the Battle of Endor and the Battle of Jakku.

Experience the Full Shadow of the Demon Lord




I really want to run a game of Shadow of the Demon Lord for 11 sessions (which is a campaign in that system, if you follow the expected play style). I've been really impressed with the game, have a ton of material for it, but it always seems to get overshadowed (ahem) by D&D. I don't want to run it at the same time I'm running a D&D game, or when my players have too much D&D in their systems.

Visit Dungeon World Again




I own Dungeon World, and have gotten to play it exactly once. I would like to run it, but like Shadow of the Demon Lord, I don't want to run it for people that are already saturated with D&D. I'm really interested to see how the game flows after running Monster of the Week and World Wide Wrestling a good amount over the last year, but I don't want it to be competing with D&D to make an impression.

Accelerate a Dresden Game




I really want to finally run a Dresden game. I've been excited to do so since I first got the full Dresden Files rules, but time and my lack of enthusiasm over the magic rules has kept me from making it a priority. The accelerated rules have me wanting to revisit the setting, and I really want to run a Fate game that isn't just a one shot.

On the Other Hand, Those One Shot Games . . .

I was going to attempt to run a series of one shot games last year, but never quite got far enough to do more than one or two of them. I would love to do multiple one shots based on the Fate Worlds of Adventure that I have as well as some of the Powered by the Apocalypse games that I have, but I need a steady schedule first, and I feel like the more regular campaigns I want to run will push this idea aside for a while.

Successfully Complete Storm King's Thunder




I'm enjoying Storm King's Thunder, and I want to run it to the very end of the adventure. I like 5th edition D&D better than my previous 3.5/Pathfinder/4th edition experiences. That said, I am also looking forward to completing the adventure so I can move away from D&D for a while again. I'm having a blast with it, but I always have this nagging thought at the back of my head that I'm playing it "safe" when I get too settled into D&D, and that I honestly like playing with new game systems.

Get Some Cypher Gaming Going






I have a lot of Cypher System material, and I really am interested in both the settings and the game rules. While I would prefer to play a campaign of The Strange, I'd be happy with a Numenera game, or even a short campaign based on one of the Worlds of the Cypher System I have coming when they are completed.

Explore Some Venues

Just like I want to get used to playing and running more game systems and settings, I want to expand my horizons on where I can run games. I'm still trying to figure out some options here. It's not a matter of not liking to run games online or at the FLGS, but exploring what can be done at other venues. One of the things I would like to do in the future is tour some of the potential locations I've been coming up with (library, student unions, coffee shops) and see how they "feel." I also imagine suitability is going to vary based on trying to run, for example Age of Rebellion versus a session of Action Movie World or Fate.

Get Some More YouTube Video Sessions Going

I actually enjoyed posting my Marvel Heroic games on YouTube. It's not that I think I'm a great GM, or that those sessions just had to be seen, but I did get a bit of feedback from people that weren't sure what to do with the game that appreciated seeing it actually being done. I'd like to do that with more games, and honestly, I like having the record of what happened that I can look up.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

What Do I Know About Reviews? Age of Rebellion: Strongholds of Resistance

Daunting challenges of juggling work and family obligations nearing the holidays aside, I've finally made my way through the next book on my backlog. Feels kind of appropriate to finish reading and reviewing an Age of Rebellion book this close to the release of Rogue One.

One Moment In Time




Strongholds of Resistance came out in November of 2015. By this point in time, not only was the Disney acquisition old news, the Legends transition was old news, and The Force Awakens was nearly in theaters. In non-tabletop gaming news, this was also around the same time that EA's Battlefront was about to ship, which led to an interesting bit of (anti-)synergy.

To tie in with EA's Battlefront game, the Battlefront Twilight Company novel came out ("read the novel, so we don't need to do a story mode"). Although by the time of Strongholds of Resistance's publication we were well past Fantasy Flight including canon sidebars mentioning the sourcebook's place in the Expanded Universe, it still felt a bit odd to have this book come out about the same time as Twilight Company.



Specifically, Twilight Company goes into the liberation of Sullust and the timing of it, compared to the beginning of Return of the Jedi. While Strongholds of Resistance has lots of material gleaned from Legends as well as fully canon material, the Sullust description in Strongholds of Resistance leaned heavily on Legends material, which stood out compared to the Twilight Company novel. It doesn't affect the quality of the material or it's usefulness in game. It's still possible to tweak things a bit here and there to make both Twilight Company and Strongholds of Resistance true for a given campaign that you might be running, but the timing made the contrasting information stand out more.



The section on Chandrila takes some of it's history from the Rogue Squadron game on the N64, and the Tierfon Yellow Aces were reintroduced to current canon by the Force Awakens Visual Dictionary. The book also includes the G2 repair droids that first showed up in Disney's Star Tours ride, and while the G2s haven't made an appearance, the RX pilot droid showed up in an episode of Rebels. The history of Polis Massa as a Rebel base is part of the storyline of Battlefront II, back when Battlefront games had storylines. I'll stop now.



Crude Matter

Does anybody know what I'm going to say about the art, formatting, and general appearance of this book, based on what I've said about every other Fantasy Flight book I've reviewed so far? This one is no exception. In fact, the longer the Star Wars lines go on, the better they look, as more and more artwork is created and shared across the various card, board, miniatures, and RPG products. Like most of the "location sourcebooks," this book is 144 pages.

Introduction

After reviewing a few of the adventures, I had gotten used to the opening fiction tying directly into the plot of the adventure, or for it to introduce NPCs from the adventure. This isn't an adventure, so the one page digression into fiction is a first person account of an Imperial spy infiltrating a Rebel base.

Since this isn't an adventure, the introduction, in general is a bit short. It just mentions what chapters are coming up, and what the book is about--in this case, worlds sympathetic to the Rebel Alliance, and bases from which they operate. The chapters include Worlds in Revolt, Hidden Bases, Player Options, and Modular Encounters. Unlike Suns of Fortune and Lords of Nal Hutta, this book doesn't detail one region of the galaxy, but is more thematically based, jumping all around the galaxy.

Worlds in Revolt

Despite the title, these are worlds that have some kind of Rebel sympathy, but most of them aren't technically in revolt. There are in-depth profiles on Chandrila, Kinyen, Mon Cala, Sullust, Ord Gimmel (introduced by this book), the Roche Asteroid Field, Thyferra, Yavin 4, and the Independence (the Mon Cal cruiser that served as the flagship for the Alliance before Home One was constructed). There are also a few paragraphs each on Barkhesh, Chardaan, Contruum, Hoth, Kolaador, Mygeeto, New Alderaan, Sanctuary, Talay, and Vergesso Base.

There are a ton of adventure hooks in this section. That said, I wish there had been a more specific section that detailed potential adventures or campaigns on each of these worlds. For many of them, the adventures almost write themselves. although the idea of Rebels stranded on Yavin 4 after the evacuation is such a good one that I would love to have it as a full-blown alternate option to start Age of Rebellion campaigns.

Chandrila and Kinyen are a bit odd. Chandrila has a lot of potential for sneaking dissidents off world, attempting to break the blockade, and smuggling food and supplies on and off world. Unfortunately, a lot of the space on Chandrila presents the world in a bit more of a gazetteer fashion, rather than "why is it interesting in an Age of Rebellion game," and the planet comes across as a planetary Whole Foods that also exports debate club members and extemporaneous speakers. Kinyen is interesting, from the point of view of examining the Gran, their religion, and how all of that interacts, but it feels like it has the least direct connection to the Rebellion of all these worlds, except that some of the priests kind of like the Alliance. Even at that, Kinyen is a fun read, and Chandrila, in the sections where it talks about blockades and spies and the like, has a lot of adventure potential.

Of particular note for fans of creatures that showed up in the movies--this book has several well known creatures from The Empire Strikes Back statted out. Wampas and tauntauns show up in the paragraphs on Hoth, and the Roche Asteroid Field entry has stats for exogorths (space slugs) and mynocks.

Hidden Bases

This part feels like the strongest section of the book. There are several bases presented, and for each base, the size of the base, its general function, an NPC found at that base, and a few adventure suggestions are presented. Not only do I really like this format, but it also creates a nice template for the GM to capture the purpose and feel of bases that they might make on their own.



Echo Base, Polis Massa Base, Tierfon Outpost, and Defiant Core Base (created for this book) are all presented. Defiant Core deviates a bit from the way the other three bases are presented, in that the base is presented in multiple stages of development. This allows the PCs to either go on missions specifically to expand the base with resources, or to check in on the base between missions, and to see it develop as a means of seeing time pass in the overall campaign.

Each base also has a "Consequences of Discovery" section that deals with how the Empire might find it and what the PCs might have to do to get out safely and potentially salvage whatever the Alliance might need from that base. The Echo Base section essentially covers alternate things your PCs might be doing if they are stationed on Hoth during The Empire Strikes Back.



One of the things that struck me about this chapter is that you could definitely show the progression of the Galactic Civil War by the way that you stationed the PCs in the game, had bases discovered and evacuated, and introduced new bases. Just following the bases presented and the sample adventures (which are only a few paragraphs each, but have some good ideas), you have half a campaign structure right there.

Player Options




Polis Massans, Quarren, and Verpine are presented as player character species in this chapter. As with some other species presented in these books, the Polis Massans and Verpine aren't exactly common species in the galaxy, but unlike, say, the Drall and the Selonians in Suns of Fortune, who don't have much of a reason to leave the Corellian system, Polis Massans and Verpine have logical reasons for being Age of Rebellion PCs. All of the species seem to have some fun abilities and traits based on the information about that race, and none of them have a bonus so good that they seem better than any other similar species at a given task (I'm looking at you, Corellian humans).

If you have always wanted a ton of Mon Cal weapons, armor, gear, vehicles, and ships, this is your chapter. I have to admit wanting to see a Mon Cal run around in powered armor myself. Beyond that, a lot of the gear is either general "useful to Rebels" gear, or gear that might have a tie in to one of the worlds presented in the book.



Two oddities jump out at me. The Verpine Heavy Shatter Rifle (a Verpine railgun) does a whole lot of damage and uses the gunnery skill. While it's very, very expensive, it also isn't cumbersome, meaning that an average to low strength person with ranks in Gunnery can just tote this thing around, not mounted to a vehicle, and shoot it all day long without penalty. The other oddity is the Blaster Suppressor, which mentions a "stifling effect" on range and damage for weapons with the attachment installed, but doesn't give any actual stat modifications that indicate this. The book also introduces some interesting "stealth" but not "cloaked" stealth fighters and light freighters, and quantifies how that would work in the rules.

With the exception of a few hiccups, it's a pretty solid chapter, and with equipment like organic gills, repair droids that talk more than they work, false voice transmitters, and comlinks that can talk to some species directly in their brains, there is a lot more than just power gaming gear--there is some fun roleplaying material as well.

Modular Encounters

Like all of the "location sourcebooks" so far, this book has modular encounters. These are multi-page adventure ideas that aren't quite full adventures, but wouldn't take much effort to make into one, and can be dropped into other adventures fairly easily.

This time, all of the modular adventures are tied to locations explored elsewhere in the book, with adventures near Polis Massa, Mon Cala, Sullust, and Ord Gimmel.



A few things make these modular encounters stand out from some of the other ones that have appeared. First, different locations are definitely geared towards different specialties. Polis Massa favors fighter pilots. Mon Cala favors diplomats. Sullust and Ord Gimmel have a lot of stealth, slicing, and sabotage built into their plots. While it makes them individually a little less functional, the individual modular encounters all feel a little more meaty, and closer to full adventures than some in the past.

Polis Massa's adventure picks up almost immediately after a significant event mentioned for that base, and Ord Gimmel and the Mon Cala modular encounters further expound on the current state of those worlds. In fact, if you were wondering why Mon Cala isn't available for a full blown Rebel base if they just threw out the Empire, the modular encounter helps to explain that.

The Sullust mission feels a little strange to me. Essentially you are wrecking a bunch of SoroSuub's stuff in order to convince them that it's more trouble than it's worth for them to take Imperial contracts. While the SoroSuub agent introduced in the modular encounter is mentioned as being a former Imperial, how the PCs would find this out isn't really mentioned. The missions boil down to damaging a neutral party's stuff so they won't deal with your enemies, which feels a lot more like full blown terrorism than most Rebel missions do. I'm not so much against that kind of thing being brought up, but I wish the book had spent more time discussing the moral implications of this, and how this might be viewed inside the Alliance itself by different parties.

I really like the diplomatic mission to Mon Cala to keep the planet from falling into another civil war. I like that the Mon Cala aren't presented as the obvious good guys when it comes to their conflicts with the Quarren, the way some older Legends materials seemed to imply. That said, I really wish there were a few more mechanical tools in this modular encounter rather than just broad suggestions about what the ISB agent would be doing.

I really like the idea that there are names, motivations, and personality traits for a lot of the Imperials, even if they tend to be a bit two dimensional. My only nit pick would be that I would love to have a few more suggestions on how to introduce those names and personalities to the PCs in game, so they have a face to put on the leadership of the Empire while opposing it.

In fact, my biggest complaint about this chapter is that most of these modular encounters were intriguing enough that I wish they had been fleshed out as longer adventures on their own. I know I could do that, but I want to pick the quick and easy path, dang it.

Imperials Have Entered the Base




The biggest down sides to this book are that there are a lot of really good ideas that are only briefly introduced. A few pages on Chandrila and Kinyen feel like they could be sacrificed to flesh out the good stuff a little more. The early section of the book could have used more of the suggested adventure treatment and how to use this at the table advice that the bases chapter got. A few places begging to be further developed didn't get the attention that the ideas warranted, due to the format of the book.

Woo Hoo!




While there are some ideas that could have been fleshed out, because they were so good--those good ideas are still in the book. There are a ton of adventure hooks in this book. The base chapter provides lots of structural ideas for a campaign. The modular encounters can serve as full blown adventure seeds more easily than some. The development of Defiant Core base is a great way to model progressing time in an ongoing campaign. Mon Cala wearing powered armor, carrying torpedo launchers and spears that shoot laser beams!

Pulling Down the Statue

This is a very solid book. If you plan on running an Age of Rebellion campaign and want any kind of flexibility in campaign structure, this is going to support that very well. It's not quite as perfect for Age of Rebellion games as Lords of Nal Hutta seems to be for Edge of the Empire games, but it is still pretty close to being the best opening "setting" book you could hope for.

**** (out of 5)


















Wednesday, November 16, 2016

What Do I Know About Reviews? Sly Flourish's The Lazy Dungeon Master

I love discussion about running games. I mean, I love actually gaming, and talking about game sessions, and rules, and settings. But I also really enjoy discussing the act of running a game. What it takes, what can happen, best practices, and what can go wrong are all things that fascinate me.



In fact, you would think that as much as I read blogs and books, and listen to podcasts on the topic of running games, I'd be better at it. I can only think about how abominable I'd be if I didn't zoom out and think about the overall act--in the abstract--once in a while.

Because I love discussing the practices of the hobby, I've accumulated a few books about running games, and I always look for more. I can't tell you when I actually picked up the book that I'm reviewing in this post, except to say that I'm pretty sure I purchased this after 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons was announced, but before it was actually released.

Thankfully, the epub version of this book was fairly easy to digest in between taking care of Adult Responsibilities, so I could actually sneak this in while working on another book that I only have in physical form (which limits the places where I can sneak in a read).



Sly Fourish's The Lazy Dungeon Master was published in 2012, towards the end of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition's lifespan. The book itself doesn't have a lot of artwork adorning it, but it has a nice professional cover, and is professionally organized and set up, at least in the epub form that I read.

Because there are a lot of smaller chapters, I'm going to break the book into the main body, a discussion of a few points from the main body of the book, and the appendicies that come at the end of the book.

The Main Body

There is a wide range of advice in the book, revolving around doing less prep work and the practices that can make running games less arduous for a DM. There is also a discussion of what prep work actually yields the best results at the table, and some specific practices to utilize.

The book looks at games at the encounter, session, and campaign level, and tackle topics like what you need to know to keep a game moving, how much to improvise, and how much to delegate to players in order to free up time and energy for the DM.



Because there are numerous small chapters, and some topics are relevant at the encounter, adventure, and campaign level, there is a bit of repetitive advice. Additionally, there are a few digressions into 4th edition D&D specific issues, but those digressions don't last too long.

Callouts from the Main Body of Text

The section on utilizing index cards in specific ways to plan adventures, NPCs, and campaign arcs is very good, solid advice, and is widely applicable. It's relevant to just about any game except those where the GM isn't going to be primarily responsible for the overall narrative.

There is a section on delegating tasks to various players that could be useful. Depending on the particular game, some of the tasks delegated won't work as well. While many editions of D&D assume you aren't going to divulge defense scores for monsters, for example, there are fewer mechanics that get muddied if you reveal them to players in 4th edition than in 5th edition, as an example.

An opinion is stated that published adventures might be as much work to utilize as just creating a campaign from scratch, and there is a link to a Gnome Stew article by the always-interesting Phil Vecchione, but once this link is established, there isn't much of a discussion supporting the opinion posited in the link, and there isn't much further discussion of using published adventures.

While the opinion is perfectly valid, and there are other GM advice books that handle the topic, the main reason this jumps out at me is that several of the Dungeon Masters that discuss their best practices later in the book cite using published adventures to save time in prep, which seems to contradict this section of the book.

Dungeon Master's Toolkit

The first appendix in the book is a collection of lists to help a DM generate ideas for adventure plots, NPC names, events, and random items, to kickstart the imagination. These lists have a lot of solid ideas in them, but all of them are relatively short. They are useful and well written, but there are definitely more extensive toolkits available both online and in other books. What is here, however, is very useful.

Dungeon Master's Survey

The next appendix collects statistics showing where DMs that responded spent their time, regarding preparation of games. While it was interesting to see the author back up his assertions about where and when to spend time and effort, the raw numbers aren't particularly riveting. They definitely serve to reinforce the credibility of the author and underscore the effort that went into the book.

Dungeon Master's Preparation Survey

The final appendix in the book is actually my favorite part of the work. A collection of DMs that have worked as freelancers, have a presence on the web, or both appear in this section, answering some specific questions about prep time and how they handle running their games.

There are some really interesting discussions of where to devote time, and even the strengths and weaknesses of the various DMs and what they do in order to compensate for those weaknesses and to play up their strengths.

I actually wish this section of the book were longer. That said, because each DM survey is presented in the same way, in the same order, the structure feels a bit repetitive, even if the answers are all very interesting. I'm not sure if it would have helped to have given all the DM answers for each question at once, or if that would have ruined the "flow" of understanding their point of view.

Regardless, that's a minor quibble on my part, as the most valuable part of the appendix is the actual DM ruminations.

All Nighter

Some of the advice in the earlier sections of the book can be repetitive. There are a few digressions on 4th edition specific issues that won't apply to people not running D&D 4th edition. While professional, some of the organization makes the information feel a bit dry, especially in the appendix.

Roll Out of Bed and Run The Game

The specific discussion of how to utilize index cards to plot encounters, adventures, and NPCs in the campaign is immediately useful to a wide range of games. The DM survey answers are informative and entertaining to read beyond their functionality. Most of the body of the game advice is very conversational and easy to digest.

Dice On The Table



The DM advice section felt like a very solid three star product to me, but coupled with the DM survey answers, the book suddenly gained a lot more potential functionality for GMs, like me, that are obsessive about discussing the meta aspects of running the game.

**** (out of 5)

Saturday, November 12, 2016

What Do I Know About Reviews? Dungeons and Dragons--Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide

When I first picked up the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, I rushed to a few pages to see what the status of a few things were in the 5th edition Realms, read a few entries pertaining to regions I had always enjoyed, and never gave it the full cover to cover treatment. What I read made me happy, but I didn't get a chance to return to the book as I had intended.



As in the previous review, I'm going to fully disclose my propensities, developed over decades of gaming. I love the Forgotten Realms, although the closer you get to the Old Grey Boxed Set, the deeper my affection. Despite my affection, even in 2nd edition, I started to cringe at the "we're only changing the proper nouns, and otherwise we're adding huge sections of Earth into the Realms" expansions. While Zhakara and Kara-Tur had their own high fantasy elements that I enjoyed, and felt they were unique, Maztica, the Hordelands, and the Old Empires were all a bit "on the nose" for my enjoyment.



Initially I enjoyed 3rd edition, but it started to become evident that many elements of the setting were being altered to fit game design considerations, and I came to loathe important NPCs being given stats. "Elves are a PC race, so they can't be in Retreat, let's end that." "Dwarves are a PC race, they can't be dying out, let take away a strong roleplaying element for the race." "Elminster can't do that, because he doesn't have the right feat for it."

There was also a bit of a drift in the way the novels handled things. Early Realms novels depicted average adventurers doing typical things in the Realms and solving local problems. Plots went from saving a city or an important person to saving a nation, continent, or an entire plane of existence. Protagonists went from being adventurers and operatives to being Heroes, and having the same Heroes show up over and over again, even if they were just in the background of a story.

You can find on this blog my skepticism about the revamped Realms and about 5th edition D&D. If WOTC hadn't released the Basic rules for free, I might never have changed my mind.



Seeing things reversed in the Realms made me happy in a lot of ways, but I mention all of that to point out that I have my biases, and I've had a relationship with the setting for a long time. I don't think that makes my opinion invalid, but it does mean I can't completely separate my view of things from my experiences.

What Is It?

Aside from the free Elemental Evil Companion released as a PDF, the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide is the first book outside of the Core rules (until the recent release of Volo's Guide to Monsters) that wasn't an adventure. The formatting of the book is appealing, and the artwork is high quality and professional, but like Storm King's Thunder, there are a few somewhat jarring styles clashing in the book. Clear utilitarian maps appear aside more "in world" seeming cartography, and artwork that is new and closer to the style used in core books appears along with some previous edition recycled art that has the "glossier" appearance used at the time. The book is 159 pages.

Where Did It Come From?

Like Out of the Abyss, which came out just before the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, this book was developed by Green Ronin. This continued the trend of 5th edition books utilizing 3rd party developers staffed by freelancers familiar with D&D, the others being Kobold Press and Sasquatch Game Studio.

Now that we've talked about my baggage, and what and where the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide came from, let's dig into the contents of the book.



Chapter One

This chapter is pretty sprawling in what it covers. There is a quick overview of countries that the guide isn't primarily covering, but which are important enough to the overall setting to mention.The book updates the status of many of these nations after the Sundering, the cosmic reboot button that rolls back a lot of the changes that happened to the setting in the 4th edition era, without rolling the actual clock back on the date. There is also a section that covers the history of the Realms in broad strokes. It doesn't go into specific dates, but does create a few general epoch and gives the highlights of that portion of time.

There is a section on magic in the Realms, which generally just talks about how people view magic, the theory of how magic works, and then oddly zooms in to explain Mythals, the special form of Elven High Magic that creates persistent magical effects across an entire region. Again, all of this is in broad strokes, but doesn't go too deeply into number crunching or hard rules.

Religion in the Realms is the next section in this chapter. There is a general discussion on foreign (to a given reality) gods showing up in the Realms, and what death means to gods. Essentially this information seems to be here to tell you up front that no matter how firmly a product may have claimed a god's death, it probably isn't true.

The topics of religions institutions and priesthoods are also covered, with a much better, clearer takeaway that while many people have a patron deity, most people in the Realms worship multiple gods. Patron deities are usually just the "most commonly invoked" god on a list. This has been mentioned by Ed Greenwood many times when discussing the setting, but often seems to get missed by designers of the setting.

The final part of the chapter gives the list of various gods in the Realms, with charts showing their areas of interest, aligments, and domains, and paragraphs giving some information on the gods. Much of this section says about what you would expect of many of the deities, but here and there the book provides some details about the daily worship and beliefs of the faithful that can be useful to "worshipper level" roleplaying.



Overall, functionally, this chapter is kind of needed for people running (and designing) in the Realms, letting you know what country and gods exist for sure after the upheaval of 4th edition and the Spellplague. That said, the chapter is a little frustrating. While I don't expect solid, definitive answers, many returning gods don't even have myths or rumors covering their return to life or their miraculous survival. What the Sundering is isn't really clearly explained, other than that "it's a big cosmic thing that happened and now things are like this."

While it was hinted by designers and in the Sundering novels that Ao might have reset the Realms after allowing the upheavals to teach the gods a lesson, or that the worlds just naturally drifted apart again after a time of conjunction, strictly reading only the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, it is strongly hinted that the Sundering is the recurring consequence of the Elven High Magic Ritual that brought Evermeet to the material plane from Arvandor and the Feywild simultaneously.

It's almost like no one really wants to address the actual Sundering, it's just a code word for walking back some of the bigger changes made to the setting in 4th edition. The overall feeling is almost like the months right after DC published Crisis on Infinite Earths, where different writers and editors couldn't seem to agree on how much of the pre-Crisis world the protagonists of various comics actually remembered. Let's hope there isn't a Realmsian equivalent of Zero Hour coming to clarify things.

Chapter Two

Chapter two details what the book's title has already clued us in on--this is a more detailed guide to the Sword Coast, specifically. What makes this section different from the previous chapter, and from a lot of other campaign sourcebooks, is that all of the information is provided by characters in the setting, from their perspectives. This means that the information is provided by unreliable narrators, and some of them even mention their own biases as they present information in the book.

The voices in this section are a Lord's Alliance Agent who was once a Knight in Silver from Silverymoon, talking about the formal adherents of the Lord's Alliance, a retired dwarven warrior discussing the dwarfholds of the North, an old gnome sailor discussing the Island Kingdoms off the coastline, the Independent Realms being covered by an elf ranger from Evereska, and the Underdark, as presented by a half-orc former slave. Most of the information is pretty straight forward, but each section has a few digressions that play up the voice and perspective of the chronicler in question.



This chapter, taken by itself, is a pretty compelling read. If you were familiar with the Realms from previous editions, changes to various regions are discussed in a nice historical progression, instead of abrupt "everything you know is wrong" manner. There are, in equal measure, adventure hooks for Dungeon Masters and character hooks to work into player character origins for players.

If some of this information had been "gamified" a bit more, with some "meta" sidebars explaining the themes, types of adventures, and ongoing story arcs of some of these areas, this chapter could have been perfect. As it is, it's good, and does what the best Realms products have done--made the Realms feel like a place where people actually live.

Chapter Three

This section goes into the races of the Realms. There are a few new sub-races detailed for player character use, such as duergar and deep gnomes, and a few new options for half-elves and tieflings that allow them to customize themselves a bit more based on their heritage. Oddly, while half-elves can customize to reflect that they are half aquatic elf, aquatic elves are not, themselves presented. In fact, many of the previous edition elf sub-races are presented in a sidebar that essentially calls them out as being so rare as to be almost mythical in the current age.

The halfling sub-race information adds Ghostwise halflings into the mix as a PC option, and also seems to find a middle ground between the wanderlusting 4th edition halfling travelers and adventures, and the more hobbit-like halflings of previous editions. This is done by assigning those traits to different sub-races.



There isn't a lot of new ground covered for the non-human races, but the best section from a setting or roleplaying point of view is probably the new human ethnicities introduced. While many of them already existed in the setting previously, they serve to make humanity even more diverse than presented in the Player's Handbook, and also introduce a few more languages to flesh out the languages spoken across the continent and beyond.

Chapter Four

Chapter four details classes and information about classes specific to the Forgotten Realms. This takes form in two different ways. Many (but not all) classes have a new "archetype" presented that is nominally related to something in the Realms, and just about every class has a section detailing that particular class and how it functions and is viewed in the setting.

Barbarians, clerics, fighters, monks, paladins, rogues, sorcerers, warlocks, and wizards all get new options in this section. Some, like the monk options, are very much rooted in existing material, translated to 5th edition rules. Others, like the Purple Dragon Knight options for the fighter, really don't have much to do with Purple Dragon Knights at all. In fact, they give the archetype the alternate name of Banneret for use with non-Purple Dragon Knight characters. This is probably more appropriate anyway, since the main thrust of this sourcebook, the Sword Coast, doesn't actually include Cormyr.

Some of the roleplaying information provided about the classes, like the location of bardic colleges and their current status, and the druid information, which further reinforces the polytheistic nature of most of the Realms religious adherents, is pretty interesting. It just doesn't feel as if the same level of effort was put into the setting information on all of the classes. There is even a sidebar about arcane casters, saying that most people don't differentiate between Warlocks, Sorcerers, and Wizards and that they all view each other as colleagues, that is directly contradicted by the material in the individual class information.

The chapter wraps up with some cantrips that are aimed at combat, doing thunder, fire, lightning, and force damage. They are pretty potent for cantrips, and they don't really have a specific tie to the Realms. They aren't even named for a particular Realmsian spellcaster  to create a tenuous link.

Chapter Five

Chapter five details new backgrounds for players to choose for their characters. Most of the backgrounds, with the exception of the Far Traveler, utilize traits from other backgrounds, while providing proficiencies, languages, equipment, and features tailored to the new background.

A wider range of backgrounds is nice, but none of them is particularly Realmsian in nature. There are sections where Realms specific examples of the background are given, but many of those are very broad, and a lot of them range much further than the Sword Coast.

Appendix

While Out of the Abyss, Curse of Strahd, and Storm King's Thunder seem to have dropped this section, Princes of the Apocalypse and the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide both had sections on adapting the material to other settings.

In general, most of the class options and backgrounds were already sufficiently broad that they don't need a lot of conversion to make them work. That said, I'm not sure the conversion work is as valuable as it might have been.

As an example, discussions of Battleragers and Bladesingers for other settings seem to imply that those types of characters are native to the Realms, when both were introduced in 2nd edition as race, not setting, specific options. The section on converting the monk material to Dragonlance implies that there are two monastic orders in the setting, mentioning Sargonnas and Zivilyn, and completely skipping over Majere--the god of monks.

It's a short section, but it's not overly useful given the broad applications of most of the mechanical options presented.

The First Flowering

The book does a good job of presenting the present era of the Forgotten Realms for DMs and players. There are lots of useful plot threads and character hooks in the book, especially in chapter two. While a few of the mechanical options in chapter four aren't stellar, there are still some interesting options, and the broader range of backgrounds for PCs from chapter five are a nice touch, as backgrounds are one of my favorite aspects of 5th edition.

The Spellplague

The book has a lot of good material that should have been followed up on with more "meta" discussion about how to use the material at the table. Instead, space for that material was taken up by generic mechanical options and rehashed material. Given that sourcebooks seem to be few and far between in the marketing plan of 5th edition, using pages of what might be the only campaign setting books for years to present very generic D&D options seems like a lost opportunity.

The Tablets of Fate

This is not a bad book. Chapter two makes it worth the read, especially if you like the Forgotten Realms, and if you don't plan on just playing the published adventures, the extra information on the Realms is much more relevant to your game.

The book really suffered from serving two masters. Introducing more generic D&D material in the book ate up space that could have been dedicated to suggested adventures, discussions of themes, rumors, and sample encounters for various regions. Perhaps the book suffers in my eyes because I read Storm King's Thunder cover to cover before this book, and saw the way that it presents the character of many locations in the Savage Frontier with NPCs and suggested encounters.

The book is worth the money, but I can't fully get over the feeling that it could have gone from "okay" to "really good" if it had been more focused on being an actual sourcebook and campaign guide, instead of being required to hit the check boxes of "what is back in the Realms," "why you want this if you don't play in the Realms," and "oh, yeah, it's also a sourcebook for campaigns."

*** (out of five)