Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Ideas of the Fall: Some Thoughts on What I Would Add When Running Gods of the Fall

My review of Gods of the Fall left me with some ideas about the setting. While there were some naming conventions and setting ideas that didn't work as well as they could have for me, the setting overall, and the concept of the game itself, is very compelling.

I'll throw this disclaimer out here right now--I'm not saying this is the way the setting should have been, or that I'm making it better. These are ideas that I had about how I would run the game, after reading and reviewing the game. Hopefully if you are reading this, you will enjoy the ideas, but some of this is just me thinking out loud and using the internet as my notebook.

The Cycle of Dooms

The Five Deeps are evidence of the Cycle of Dooms. At the beginning of the world, the Fates decided that gods that become complacent are dangerous for the world. For this reason, they wove the Cycle of Dooms into the world. Whenever the proper set of circumstances has come to pass, the home of the gods falls from the sky, the old gods die, and the new gods are born.

The time between the Cycle of Dooms was once much greater. The older ages of the gods lasted much longer than the reign of the last few families of gods. The reason for this is found in the pride of the gods and their willingness to truly refresh the world. The more devastated the thinking beings of the world are by the Fall, the more the world renews itself.

The last few families of gods left humans and other species more intact than previous civilizations. Some did so because of their pride in the mark they made personally on the old societies. Some did so out of pride in their family or nation. But the more beings understand and remember about the time before the Fall, the more likely the Cycle of Dooms is to repeat, even more quickly.

The most painful decision that the new gods may have to face is to scourge society to allow it to flourish anew, keeping only the absolute most important ideas of the past, and casting aside all others in order to survive. The gods must do that, or perhaps face their own fall much sooner than any god would want.

The deepest secret roiling through the aether, however, is that perhaps, just perhaps, the key to breaking the Cycle of Dooms isn't to scourge society, but rather to recognize the final tasks the gods were meant to fulfill, and then allow themselves to pass beyond.

The Krakens

The Krakens are a huge range of mountains cutting across the outside of the Nightlands. Few contemplate the name of the mountain range, but among some of the Nefar, there are legends of horrible creatures deep beneath the mountains, with terrible beaks, mouths, teeth, and tentacles. It is for this reason that the Nefar are displaced from their underground home.

In some ancient records, there is a legend of a powerful fleet of pirates ruling over the oceans, and humans devising a way to fight back against them. They created powerful sea creatures that crushed and devoured the fleet. The Pirate King, however, entreated sorcerers loyal to him, and converted many of his ships into airships, and began to harass the lands not touched by the shore.

Humans gave their creatures the ability to adapt, and soon their beasts not only could attack the Pirate King's troops on the ground, but the creatures, working together, raised the mountain ranges with their digging and probing, creating a wall that became harder and harder for the airships to move beyond.

This began the ancient rivalry between the Nefar and the humans, as the Nefar were displaced. The Pirate King may have been defeated, but thousands of tribes of goblins, orcs, and ogres swarmed human settlements to take what they needed to survive, now that the human's living weapons had moved from the deep sea to the deep earth.

Those In-Between

There are beings that few thinking creatures have ever encountered. These beings live In-Between, in the void between their home world that is falling apart, claimed by Entropy, and the this world. They can be seen as shapes out of the corner of the eye. Tiny, huge, man-sized, these beings are nearly impossible to actually see, only briefly perceived.

In ages past, the In-Between have attempted to ask for help, to communicate to with the inhabitants of the world. The In-Between have found a means to alter the physical world, but only through some ability to manipulate some fungal growths in the world.

The In-Between attempted to communicate images of their former, beautiful world through the mind-altering spores of some of the fungal creatures. After thousands of years of attempting to communicate, the In-Between realized that they were dying, and they began to manipulate other fungal growths to break down nutrients in the real world and transfer those nutrients to the In-Between.

While the legends are now lost to time, some ancient records view the In-Between as beautiful fey creatures, enticing beings to another world, and potentially causing them woe and trouble. The spores of the fungal creatures were thought to literally transport the "kidnapped" beings to another world.

Here Be Dragons

In ancient times, powerful, greedy sorcerers became dragons. Traditional dragons. When the gods saw a sorcerer that became too powerful, they would wait to see if other sorcerers would reign them in. If this did not happen, they would arrange for their servants to deliver a message to the sorcerer. If this didn't dissuade the sorcerer, then the gods would enact the Curse of the Dragon upon the sorcerer.

Not all evil sorcerers fell under this curse. Only those that became immensely powerful, and who hoarded magic from the rest of the world, would fall under this curse.

While some would argue that turning sorcerers into dragons granted them yet more power, the Curse of the Dragon forced them to spend time with their hoarded treasure, far away from civilized lands. Dreams of ruling the world or stunting the magical grown of other spellcasters were quashed. The drive to guard the treasure became all.

Why did the gods not simply destroy the Sorcerers who would be dragons? Because treasure they wished to be hidden from men could be placed with dragons. Dragons could be compelled to act as tools of the gods for brief periods of time. The Curse of the Dragon converted a Sorcerer set upon greed and power into a tool for the gods to use.

For the last few centuries, even the most evil of sorcerer attempted to be careful, lest they hoard too many items. They trained apprentices for a price, so as not to hoard the knowledge of magic. Eventually the term became an ill-remember legend, which few gave any credence. The term dragon was cautionary among dedicated spellcasters, but it lost its meaning.

With the Fall of Elanehtar, the Curse of the Dragon is not laid upon any sorcerers now, and this has given rise to dangerous, powerful threats not known for ages.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Why Do I Know About Reviews? Cypher System: Gods of the Fall

Monte Cook is pretty much as close to rock star status that RPG designers get. Within the gaming community, he's a pretty well known entity. He was on the cutting edge of PDF sales for RPG products, and he was on the cutting edge of using Kickstarter to get a new game company off the ground. For a company that was largely founded on Monte's reputation, Monte Cook Games has put out some of the slickest, most attractive, well laid out products in the gaming industry.

The Cypher History

The first Cypher System game to come out was Numenera, a post apocalyptic setting with a twist, in that it's so far into the future that there are super science remnants all over the landscape, and humanity shouldn't still be around, but they are, a million years after they should have disappeared. This was followed up with The Strange, a setting where characters can travel to alternate realities based on humanity's collective concept of fictional places, like a fantasy world based on MMOs, or a cyber-/bio-punkish world, or even just Camelot or 221B Baker Street.

Eventually, Monte Cook Games put out a Cypher System Rulebook that was just the core system from Numenera and The Strange, but with some optional rules and a lot of advice on how to use the framework to run various types of games.

Full disclaimer: I really like the core rules of Cypher System. I wouldn't call them exactly rules lite, because there can be a lot of interactions between the moving parts of the game. However, the core mechanic on which it is all based is very simple to comprehend. That core mechanic may sound a lot like the d20 system upon which D&D is based, but it is implemented very differently. For example, characters rarely get bonuses to their rolls. Instead, things like training and proper tools lower the difficulty, so that the d20 roll is the pretty much all you are looking at for resolution.

In the Beginning

In February of 2016, Monte Cook Games did a Kickstarter for Worlds of the Cypher System, a project that would generate several RPG settings based on the Cypher System Rulebook. In many ways, it sounded like a proof of concept. "Here is how we can do a fantasy setting, here is how we can do a supers setting," and so on.

Gods of the Fall is the fantasy setting that came out of the Kickstarter. The premise of the setting is that the players are portraying mortals who have recently found out that they possess a spark of the divine. They will slowly grow into one of the gods of the setting. The twist is that the previous gods literally fell when their divine domain crashed into the world.

Essentially, the wrong people are now in charge of the world. Evil is rampant, half the continent is covered in eternal night, and the beasts that used to guard the underworld are now roaming the countryside devouring souls. Oh, and the bodily remains of the old gods are now howling monstrosities that show up and destroy people carrying too many shards of the old version of heaven.

This is a really cool, really compelling concept. So does the book live up to its divine aspirations? Let's find out.

Golden Idols

As far as appearance goes, the Gods of the Fall book is a beautiful RPG rulebook. It has evocative artwork, attractive formatting, very nice paper, and a seriously good looking map of the setting. The artwork leans towards a more toned down, realistic version of the kind of fantasy characters you might see in something like World of Warcraft, with exceptionally ornamented armor and glowing weapons and items all about them. It fits with the idea of mortal adventurers in a fantasy setting on the verge of becoming gods. The book clocks in at 192 pages.

Part One

The first chapter covers what the game concept is, what the setting is like, how characters in the setting would view the world, and has a number of call backs to the Cypher System Rulebook, which is necessary to play the game. As with most of Monte Cook-related RPG material, the sidebars do a pretty good job of referring characters to other places in this book or the core rules where pertinent information can be found.

The opening of the book does a good job of getting you in the right mindset to see what the setting will be about, and if there is a negative, it's that the chapter goes from the meta-game concept of what the game should be like, to the in-game concept of how characters view the world, and it covers a whole lot of ground, so it almost feels like multiple sections that got pushed together as preamble.

Part One also contains Chapter Two, a very short fiction piece from the setting. It's not bad, but I'm just not a fan of too much fiction on a setting book. I think that I, personally, read overviews of a setting and how it should run differently than I read short stories, and it's hard for me to shift gears while reading a rulebook. This also compounds the odd grouping at the beginning of this book, because Chapter Two is two pages long, and is followed by Part Two, Chapter Three.

Part Two

This part of the book delves into the setting itself, describing the various lands of the setting, the mysterious second moon, and the place that was once the resting place for souls after the death. The book creates a fantasy setting that isn't overly derivative of any one other setting, while still drawing on a few fantasy tropes. It also does a good job of portraying the world as being dark and grim, but not so devoid of hope that the players are likely to give up on the idea of saving the place, which can be a fine line to walk.

For clarity's sake, I would have liked the "this is what the world is like and how people see it" sections of Part One to have shown up as the beginning of this section, giving the meta-analysis of what the setting is like and how it should run it's own space in the front of the book. Your personal preference may vary.

This is also one of the first places in the book where one of my gripes about the book comes into play. I'll elaborate later, but I'll give you a hint: it  has to do with naming conventions.

Part Three

Part Three of the book deals with characters. Specifically, it goes into details about what optional rules this setting uses from the Cypher System Rulebook, changes to the character types found in the book, and new options in addition to what is found in that book.

There is an extra step added to characters from this setting, beyond the normal Cypher System character creation. Normally characters are created by adding options that are essentially "this character is a (adjective)(noun) who (verbs)," but this setting adds, "God of (Dominion)," adding more of the burgeoning godly aspect to the character.

In addition to regular Cypher System progression, characters are expected to fulfill bits of prophesy and to perform godly trials in order to be eligible to purchase certain character abilities. In many cases, this is simply a matter of framing a "normal" adventure in light of the prophesy in question, or pointing out when the PC overcame a major obstacle, but framing the tasks in this manner definitely helps to play up the "working our way up to godhood" theme.

Two of the new descriptors are for races found in this setting, essentially snake people and blind giants, but the rest are, like most aspects of the Cypher System rules, pretty interchangeable with other settings and games that use the core rules.

This section was probably one of the most evocative in the book for me. Reading about the progression of PCs towards godhood, fulfilling prophesy, performing trials, and choosing symbols, made me want to apply this thought process to other fantasy settings where PCs could rise up to become gods.

Part Four

This section is the GM's Toolbox, where creatures, NPCs, cyphers, artifacts, and a sample adventure can be found.

I'll be honest, I wasn't overly impressed with the selection of potential adversaries native to the setting. While there is a list of adversaries from the core rulebook that can be used as well, this section could have been a great place to highlight what is special about this particular setting, and instead, we get some general bad guy knights and slavers, and some creatures that bump up against my naming convention issues that previously nagged at me.

The new cyphers and artifacts all play with the rules most used in the setting, and have names that evoke fallen gods and godly mantles. They are all solid and useful for the setting. However, a little more detail on those names might not have been a bad thing to get readers more invested in the history of the setting.

And then there is the adventure.

I'm not a fan. Without giving anything away, it goes something like this:

  • Adventures are gathered and told they are special
  • Stuff happens that they have to deal with, reactively, wave after wave
  • After all the waves are done, they are told they are really, really special

Honestly, if this is the framing device you are going to use to introduce to the PCs that they are larval godlings, it would almost be better to have all of it happen in their backstory, to tell them that X happened when they were all summoned together, ask them what they did while it was going on, and then move on to an adventure with a bit more structure and weight to it.

What's In a Name

First, the elephant in the room:  Monte Cook games has a lot of hype surrounding it that gives it an aura of pushing boundaries and doing things no one else has done before. The reality is that they make good, quality products that push some boundaries, but stay pretty firmly on the edge of mainstream RPG product development for the current era. There is always a little bit of a feeling that a product may be trying too hard to be special, instead of just being the solid product that it is, and in this book, that shows in the naming conventions.

The introduction makes it fairly well known that they didn't want this book to be "standard" fantasy. I think they succeeded, but the names they flavor the setting with are intentionally a bait in switch in a few places. It's one thing for dragons to be feathered and not actually like treasure, if you want to swerve expectations. It's another to say really powerful, evil sorcerers are called dragons, and there is no historical reference to traditional dragons in the setting. That's just what you call an evil sorcerer. Likewise, there are Krakens, a mountain range. Mountains. Named after a huge sea creature from our world's myths. The term Elf refers to the type of hallucination caused by spores from fungal creatures. No mention if people see fey creatures in these visions, or if there is any kind of mythology related to fey creatures that just happens to not be true. Elf and fairy relate to fungal creatures. That's it. Oh, and Seraphs are basically iron robots that served the gods. Honestly, that would wouldn't bother me, because it's tangentially related, except for the rest of this stuff.

What makes it worse is that things like Gorgons, Orcs, Giants, Vampires, and Rakshasas, to name a few, are pretty much what you would expect them to be. It's almost like there was a dart board with a bunch of fantasy creature's names on it, and whatever ones they hit with the darts, they decided to use for something completely unrelated to the origin of the name.

There is a lot of implied depth that could have come from mentioning that, for example, greedy sorcerers used to be cursed to turn into dragons, but now that the gods are fallen, they aren't punished in that manner any more, and that's the origin of the name. There could have been some ancient legend of creatures that lived between worlds that liked to mess with mortal minds and play games with them that first created the fungal creatures. There could have been some weird burrowing, tentacled land krakens that the mountains were named for. While you could introduce all of these things into your game that you are running, none of it is even touched on in the text. There is just the name, and a quick aside that if you had a previous notion of what that name meant, you were wrong.


Beyond the naming conventions, which may just be a thing that bothers me, the book suffers a bit from leaving too many things blank, and not explaining where other things fit. The section one/section two transition is a little sloppy, and the adversaries and sample adventure could have been much stronger.

Additionally, for a setting concerned with being different that what came before it, it relies on previous ages where mysterious things happened that the PCs may discover, which echos Numenera perhaps a bit too much. There is also an odd disconnect with a setting so concerned with philosophy and high concepts, but creatures like orcs and goblins are pretty much the cannon fodder evil minions that they are in other settings. Finally, there is the oddity of one of the levels of the underworld in the setting having dragons, demons, and devils, despite other sections of the book saying those things, in their traditional forms, do not exist in the setting. Except in this one layer of the underworld.

Now, between the naming conventions and the explanation of why those things exist there and not elsewhere, I'm sure some people will say, "that's for the GM to figure out in play," and I guess that's valid, but those "mysteries" are so far removed from the theme of mortals becoming the new gods and performing trials and gaining followers, I wonder why they even pop up.


I may seem like I don't like this book. That's not true at all. I think I may have been harder on it due to the fact that I love the game system and this particular concept so much, and I like most of what is presented about the setting. I'd love to run a game using this set of rules. The good definitely outweighs the bad in this case, but at the same time, this wasn't the killer app to show off how to do a "fantasy setting like no other" that it may have seemed.

*** (out of five)

Saturday, September 17, 2016

What Do I Know About Reviews? Edge of the Empire: Lords of Nal Hutta

Last time I posted one of these reviews, it was for the 2014 Edge of the Empire product Suns of Fortune, a Star Wars Edge of the Empire supplement detailing the Corellian Sector. As a comparison, I thought I would look at Lords of Nal Hutta, another supplement dealing with a geographical region of the Star Wars galaxy, for the same game system.

Lords of Nal Hutta came out in 2015, after the Edge of the Empire system had a few rulebooks under its belt. Additionally, and possibly more importantly, it came out well after the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm. Like Suns of Fortune before it, it is a well laid out, attractive book that clocks in at 144 pages of material.

The former Star Wars Expanded Universe had, at the time of publication, been branded as the Legends continuity, delineating Legends products from the movies, television shows, and the ongoing products from that point which would be considered part of the same canon as the projects George Lucas had worked on personally.

While there is a change in how information is presented is present in this book, compared to Suns of Fortune, it becomes even more pronounced moving into the Force and Destiny line, but that's a story for another day. Suns of Fortune presented as fact information about the Infinite Empire, the Rakata, and the founding of the Corellian system. Lords of Nal Hutta presents the wars with Xim the Despot as factual, as well as some of the events of A.C. Crispin's Han Solo trilogy, but the references feel a little less detailed, and the more modern events are added in a way that makes them seem more like adventure background rather than solidly defined history.

As an example of the book dealing with a "fuzzier" history than Suns of Fortune, while the book mentions events that happened with Nar Shaddaa during the Mandalorian Wars and the Sith Wars, one event is noted as having happened "during a later Sith conflict." The further back the references go, the less specific that dates get as well.

Showing that the book was borrowing from Legends, but not beholden to the events of that continuity, there are some events mentioned as being open plot hooks or potential adventures that are not resolved as they were in the Legends timeline. Specifically, the events of Tempest Feud, an adventure that came out for the d20 Star Wars line, which could be used in multiple eras, are referenced in the current, post Battle of Yavin era, but have not been resolved. Similarly, the Sienar Fleet Systems plant on Nar Shaddaa is mentioned, which first appears in the Force Unleshed video game, but there is no mention of it being destroyed or heavily damaged, or that a Rebel cell had attacked the plant in the past.

Given the development cycle, the book may have been in the works before any of the developers had any idea what was going to be happening with Legends, but it definitely looks like the book is pulling back from giving too many hard facts about the distant past, other than matters that can directly drive the narrative related to Hutt Space, like the aforementioned war with Xim the Despot or Treaty of Vontor.

That's a lot of rambling, so lets get into actually review the bits and pieces of this thing, shall we?

The Care and Feeding of Hutts

The first section of the book deals with Hutt personalities, clans and kajidics, and the history of the Hutts. This is the section that has the most interaction with what has been established in Legends, detailing the ancient wars of the Hutts, and their transition from warring clans to crime families.

Right away, this book distinguishes itself from Suns of Fortune in this regard. Not only is Hutt Space always on the fringe of whatever galactic civilization is dominant at the time, but the Hutts who rule it are criminals.

The history of the Hutts is engaging and reinforces their dangerous nature, as well as explaining why there may be PCs running around acting on their behalf. Hutt culture is largely based on using proxies to get things done, and that's well explained in this section.

Visit Hutt Space on Your Next Vacation!

The next section of the book details Hutt Space in a more geographical manner, introducing various notable planets in this region of space. Unlike most of the worlds introduced in Suns of Fortune, almost every one of these worlds has, as its primary feature, some form exploration, frontier living, or criminal activity.

There are several worlds that also contain hooks that pertain to the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire, but those hooks are clearly secondary to either working for or against the Hutts, or intentionally trying to stay out of their way. As presented, that means a lot of these locations are especially suited to Edge of the Empire play, but still have useful applications for other Star Wars campaigns.

Of special note are the worlds in the Bootana Hutta. While crime is a big deal when discussing places like Nar Shaddaa, the Bootana Hutta, or "garden of the Hutts," are the less traveled worlds in Hutt Space that house many of the species that regularly are enslaved by, or work for, the Hutts. This region has plenty of room for lost treasure, exploration, and even frontier colonization, playing to just about every aspect of what Edge of the Empire covers.

Want your players to be farmers and homesteaders holding out against Hutt gangs on a remote world? Plenty of room for that here. Want to navigate new hyperspace routes and get paid for it if you survive? The Hutt kajidics are always paying for more routes that only they know about.

Most of the worlds in this section have either four or two page entries, often with a page or two of stats for creatures or characters likely to be found on that world. At the end of the chapter are a few multi-paragraph entries on less detailed worlds. Many of the worlds covered deal with the homeworlds of relatively well known Star Wars species such as Toydarians and Weequay.

Everybody Loves Options

The third section of the book is Player Options, or in other words, the crunchy bits. There are four new species introduced to the game (including Hutts), new weapons, armor, and equipment, a bunch of new cybernetic implants. There are also vehicles and ships that are often associated with the Hutts, like the skiffs and sail barges made famous by Return of the Jedi.

Of the new species presented, only one has the same problem as the species presented in Suns of Fortune. Sakiyans are usually homebodies, but they are also excellent bounty hunters, and in this case, being homebodies that work in Hutt Space is less of a problem than the Drall or Selonians that don't even like to leave the Corellian system proper. The previous section on Hutt culture is reiterated a bit here to let you know that Hutt PCs are younger Hutts trying to prove themselves to their kajidics or exiles from their clans. Ganks and Niktos are both species prone to being used as minions, and are pretty appropriate to appear anywhere there are Hutt interests.

There is much more culturally significant equipment in these pages than in Suns of Fotune, from Hutt Shell armor, to Sakiyan stealth suits, to Morgukai Cortosis staves, much of the specific armor and weapons found here have a reason to be showcased in a book about Hutt Space.

As mentioned above, the speeders and starships that appear in the guide are likewise very "Hutt-Centric" models. Instead of the mass marketed Corellian ships and the custom Nubian ships, which are produced in the Corellian Sector to be sold elsewhere, most of these ships are made for the Hutts by corporations elsewhere.

If there is a downside to this chapter, its that there are a few questions raised and not answered, and one entry that feels like it is obviously there to add a few pages. The Nikto tradition of the Morgukai is largely explained under the entry for their staff weapon and in the stat block for Morgukai, but more information on a cult that hunts both Jedi and Sith and that are largely thought to be extinct, yet are still on the list of prohibited religions for the Galactic Empire, feels like it warrants more space.

The Ganks, which were based on a throwaway line that didn't make it into The Empire Strikes Back, and were given their first visual reference in Dark Empire, feel very padded. They like to kill and hunt, and have lots of cybernetics . . . which just happens to let us use up a few pages introducing pages of new cybernetics into the game.

Finally, there is an entry for Gamorean axes, but not Gamorean PC stats. Where are my Gamoreas, Fantasy Flight?

There is Plenty of Time to Get the Smaller Modules on the Transports

The final section in the book is the section with Modular Encounters, mini-adventures that may not take up a whole night, but can be dropped into a game when you don't have anything else prepared. However, this time around, not only are the modular encounters set pieces that reinforce the themes of Edge of the Empire, there are some notes on how to string these together into a larger adventure that might introduce the characters into Hutt Space.

Not all of them are that deep. Going on fetch quests where you are lied to by your employer or stumbling into a firefight between two factions aren't exactly inspired, but what makes these interesting are that there are characters that can serve as contacts, potential employers, or long term enemies introduced into these encounters.

"Rubbing Slimy Elbows" is my particular favorite, because it seems to be the essence of what working for the Hutts is like, distilled into a modular encounter. You are basically given an invitation to come to a dinner where you have to compete with other teams, all sponsored by a Hutt, to see if you are worthy to work as agents for that Hutt. If you die during the event, well, then you at least entertained your host.

Final Thoughts

Honestly, this book feels like it is presenting the "home" section of the galaxy for an Edge of the Empire game. Yes, you can run Edge games in lots of locations, but Hutt Space seems to be the absolute idea region for the style of games that the line is attempting to promote.

There are plenty of interesting locations, plot hooks, and reasons to gain and lose Obligation. There are just enough ties to the greater galaxy that when you see Stormtroopers on Teth or TIE Fighters being built on Nar Shaddaa, you know you are in a Star Wars game, but just enough freedom to know that you aren't playing Age of Rebellion or Force and Destiny.

I'm not sure why the production schedule placed Suns of Fortune first. It's certainly not a bad book, but I almost think that had this book come out first, as more of the "ideal" location for Edge of the Empire games, Suns of Fortune could have been a nice "transition" book, coming out after  Age of Rebellion's official launch, with it's more "general interest" locations. Then again, had it been in development earlier, it's hard to say that the book would have been the same book it was, once the line had matured a bit.

This is a well put together model.

**** (out of 5)

It's Full of Stars (How I'm Rating Things)

Yes, I read two of the RPG books on my backlog while on vacation in Hawaii. No, I haven't posted my reviews yet (not that you were all that worried). Turns out, doing all of your laundry and recovering from not sleeping a whole weekend at the same time as getting over your jet lag can put a crimp in your plans.

That said, it occurred to me that I used stars in my first review, without giving you a functional definition of what those stars mean to me. At first I figured this would be self-evident. Then I read a review on Amazon in which the reviewer gave the product three stars and left a review with said only, "I hated it."

So, I'm guessing stars mean different things to different people.

I also briefly thought about going with a percentile ranking system. I used to like that from back in the day when I was reading various PC gaming magazines. The problem with that, however, is that a percentile ranking system looks a lot like a grade, but doesn't exactly work the same way.

For example. a 50% is an average game in that style of ranking. Not great, not noteworthy, but not terrible. You just might be able to find more exciting games for your money. However, because it looks an awful lot like the grades you might have gotten in school, instead of "average," a 50% looks like a fail, which led to several of those magazines, at the time, feeling they had to explain when a decent game got a 65% or when a game they liked that had some issues here and there got a 75%.

I'll also throw this out there. I don't like giving out "extremes." I see a lot of one star and five star reviews that don't reflect that the product is either one of the worst or one of the best things the reviewer has ever encountered, and to me, that's what that means. Also, I'm probably not going to waste a lot of time actually reviewing something I honestly feel is one star unless there is some kind of ambiguity about why it could be that bad.

So, with all of that in place, here is what I mean when I use a star system. This is my process, and my understanding, so if it doesn't quite line up with how others have expressed something similar, at least now you know the point of divergence.

*  This is a waste of time and money. Very few people are going to find value in this, but you can never say never.

** This product is flawed. If you are heavily invested in the source material, you may still want this item, but if you can, wait until you can get it used or on sale. Not essential or recommended.

*** This is a good product. It is solid, and is probably a reasonable value for the time and money you would spend acquiring and assimilating the information in the product. May not be integral to pick up if it is part of a continuing line of product, but if you have the time and money, or you are particularly invested, you probably won't be disappointed.

**** This is an excellent product. It is worth the time and money you will invest in it. If it is part of a line of products, it is probably one of the more essential purchases you should make if you are following that line. It may have some flaws, but overall it provides a lot of value and should not disappoint.

***** This is among the best products of this type to be produced. If you are interested at all in the particular line, you will want to have this item. Items of this quality may be worth having even if you aren't a fan of the particular product line because it is worth seeing what it does right.

And, as always, these are just my opinions, from my point of view. You may disagree, and I'm not going to tell you that you are wrong, just that what I pointed out is what I see, from my perspective.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Keeping Myself Honest

While you may or may not be waiting anxiously for my next review (I'm betting "not," but I tend to be a glass half empty kind of guy), I just wanted to throw a post up to detail step two of Operation: Read a Bunch of Backlog and Blog About It.

While I may still veer off to another game system and genre before I finish all of the Fantasy Flight Star Wars backlog, I kind of wanted to do a compare and contrast with Lords of Nal Hutta, having just done the Suns of Fortune book.

I think doing that book as a follow up will help to show some of what I was trying to convey in the Suns of Fortune review about tone and bringing a certain style of adventure hook to the table.

All of that having been said, I'm heading to Hawaii for my son's wedding this week, which means, while I may get some reading done (such a long flight), I probably won't be doing a lot of note taking or blogging until I get back next week.

So while I don't want to fall off the blogging wagon, I am going to be away for a little bit. Hope to see you on the other side!

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Gaming In-Betweener

A few weeks back there was some kind of dust up between various groups and factions of RPG players, and rather than actually going into the details, I'm mentioning that only because they are all sorts of factions that spring up in the hobby.

There are people that are proponents of one game system over all. I can totally understand having the comfort zone. I definitely fell into that way of thinking during the d20 boom, when every genre I was interested in had some kind of d20 realization, and I didn't want to change gears too often.

There are people that gravitate towards more narrative focused games, where strict stats are equal to or less import than various rules that might allow players to guide the narrative and produce specific effects that are less based on numerical value and more about resolving situations. I can totally understand the draw of that as well, having run a lot of fun Monster of the Week and World Wide Wrestling RPG sessions as well as a great Secrets of Cats one shot.

With the right people at the table, what could have been a good story guided by the GM can become a great story, as everyone adds something to the story and keeps everyone else on their toes, and pushes them to make the story even more textured and character driven.

There are people that are much more comfortable with games that have much more solid stats, stats that represent "real" things in the game world, and a more narrowly defined list of abilities and actions that a player can take. I can relate to that as well. There are times when I have a very clear idea for a character in my head, but that character supports the team, he doesn't drive the narrative. He does specific things, often to aid others or in reaction to others, and it becomes more challenging to play that character in a position where he would have to take the reigns of the story for a while.

I mention all of the above because I have been all of those gamers, and to some extent, I still am. Depending on the type of game I have in my head, the kind of players I might have at the table, and the more specific themes I might develop in play, I can see running a supers game with Masks, Icons, Marvel Heroic, or Mutants and Masterminds/DC Adventures.

The only thing off the table for me these days are games that require tactical maps and minis, and that's not because I think those things are bad or anything, but just because I know how much I obsess over "toys" when I game, and tactical maps and minis tend to make me fall into a sinkhole of prepping too much. That problem is one native to my brain that may not be an issue for a host of other gamers.

I guess all I'm trying to say is that, having been all of those kinds of gamers in the past, and continuing to be those kinds of gamer to some degree or another at the present, it saddens me when I see people fall into tribes and retreat to gaming extremes. While I know not everyone wants to potentially play twenty different game systems, nobody is well served by declaring one type of game the natural evolution of the hobby or having the opinion that another type of RPG paradigm is the one true way.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

What Do I Know About Reviews?--Edge of the Empire: Suns of Fortune

The first book that I'm going to review from my infinite backlog of RPG books just happens to be one that I read quite a bit from in the past, but recently read cover to cover. It was one of the earlier releases from the Edge of the Empire line of Star Wars RPG products from Fantasy Flight, a soucebook on the Corellian Sector call Suns of Fortune.

Suns of Fortune came out in early 2014, and while there had been "class" sourcebooks for the Edge of the Empire game previously, this was the first location based sourcebook for the game, which would be followed in the Edge of the Empire line by Lords of Nal Hutta, and in the Age of Rebellion line with Strongholds of Resistance, and most recently with the Force and Destiny entry, Nexus of Power.

Historical Context

Reading this book cover to cover, now, reveals a bit of a shift in how Fantasy Flight was handling the story based material of the Star Wars game. This book feels much more clearly dedicated to showing you Corellia as interpreted in what is now the Legends continuity, up to the point in history that the Galactic Civil War happened. While there is a lot of game-useful material in this book, the book feels as if it is a bit more concerned with presenting "facts" than some of the more recent Star Wars books.

While it's not easy to call out specifics, more recent Star Wars books from Fantasy Flight have been more--impressionistic, to attempt to give it a name. There are facts here or there to hang a campaign on, but there is a lot of "stories say this" or "at one time people believed this" information, allowing Fantasy Flight to draw from the current Star Wars continuity as well as the Legends continuity, while pointing out that the book is really about giving GMs tools to make their own version of the galaxy.

If it isn't obvious at this point, and if you don't want to do the math, this book was written before the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm, and before the designation of previous Expanded Universe material as a separate Legends continuity.

She Looks Better Than the Falcon

The book is 144 pages, and the design and artwork are spectacular. This book came out close enough to the old Star Wars Saga era that the shift from whitespace and recycled art was pretty staggering (yeah, I know, Fantasy Flight recycles art for their card, board, and minis games, but that all makes sense).

Into the Chute, Flyboy!

Before I dive too much into the content of this book, I have to address the Ronto in the room. Back in the old days, when all we knew about Corellia as that Han was from there, they made big ships, and Corellians seem to have a reputation as pirates, smugglers, or adrenaline junkies, Corellia seemed to be a wild, awesome place.

Then Roger MacBride Allen wrote the Corellian Trilogy of novels back in 1995, and instead of getting space pirates, racing, and smuggling, we got an ancient alien artifact that holds the system together, two races that share the system with humans that generally don't do much other than keep to themselves, and Corellians that really like political maneuvering and games. To me, at least, the Corellian system got a lot less interesting once these books came out. Corellia doesn't seem a whole lot different than any of the other core systems, except for what goes on the "exports" line of the profile for a planet.

Because this particular book spends a lot of time being a sourcebook for the Legends version of continuity, we spend a lot of time revisiting the less interesting aspects of Corellia. The Drall and Selonians get a lot of pages devoted to them, even though both are species that rarely leave their home system, and, for different reasons, don't particularly like adventuring.

While the book is about the Corellian Sector as a whole, starting with the Corellian system and detailing all of this information slows down the pace immediately. Edge of the Empire is suppose to be the Star Wars RPG line about rogues, scoundrels, and explorers. What we get to start is a really well established, mapped out Core system with multiple species of homebodies.

To be fair, when the material dives into some of the political aspects of Corellia, of its former special status in the Republic and how that has changed, and even the ancient information that the Drall might have at their university, you get some great opportunities for Age of Rebellion scenarios. But that just makes this sourcebook feel less focused. I personally like the division of Star Wars RPGs by theme, and providing "generic" information, instead of criminal or explorer angles undermines what the product line split can effectively do.

Elements of Corellia are touched on that I would have loved to have seen played up. There is an asteroid belt in the system with competing bands of pirates, some native Corellians, some outsiders sponsored by Hutts and Black Sun. I want to hear more about these pirate gang wars. There is also some talk about CorSec, the Corellian equivalent of the Texas Rangers, introduced by Michael Stackpole in the X-Wing novels. But there isn't a lot of CorSec, and I think that was a mistake. Even a law enforcement campaign, in a system where learning what criminals you can deal with and what ones you can't, and where you have the pressure of solving crimes quickly before the Empire decides it needs to be less "hands off" than in the past, could be great and still fit the themes of Edge of the Empire. But CorSec is almost an afterthough in the book.

When the book moves out into the Corellian Sector, things get a lot more interesting. Only a few of the planets get as detailed a section as the planets in the Corellian system, but they have tons of hooks like lost treasure, corporate espionage, planets with super rare artwork, and ultra expensive custom ships. The rest of the Corellian Sector feels the way I wish Corellia itself did. I also get the feeling that the lack of Legends details on some of these planets allowed the staff at Fantasy Flight to fill in some details in a manner more consistent with the tone of the Edge of the Empire game.

So while there is information on interesting locations for Edge of the Empire adventures, the least interesting places seem to get the most word count devoted to them.

Boy, It's Lucky You Have These Compartments

The more rules oriented portion of the book has to do with weapons, equipment, and vehicles, as well as providing game stats for the sapient species native to the system, allowing them to be used as player characters.

As far as Corellian gear goes, it's pretty standard. Some interesting things, like armored greatcoats and vibro-cutlasses, but nothing really jaw dropping or iconic, because, well, Corellia is a place that is kind of geared around selling it's stuff to everybody else. There are a few Corellian freighters in the book as well, but they aren't the most iconic ones, because those are already in wide use, and thus show up in other Edge of the Empire books.

None of that is bad, it's just not essential.

Then we get to the actual species native to the Corellia system. Drall and Selonians are both okay. I didn't see anything in their stats that made me think that they were over or under powered, but given that both races tend to stay at home, and we don't have many famous examples of either of them, they seem like "required" rather than "inspired" entries into this section. Maybe if that section on running a CorSec campaign had been in the book, I could have been more excited about these two species.

Then we get to Corellians. I'm just going to say, if you allow this book in your campaign, it won't be game breaking, but if you have a PC that intends to be a pilot of any kind, they are going to be Corellians from this point on. Corellians get to break the limit of two ranks in a skill for beginning characters, unlike just about every other species in the game. In the long term, standard humans and other species might catch up, but anybody that wants to be a good pilot right off the bat is going to probably take this.

I mean, not only are the stats just better, but your NPC examples of Corellians are people like Han Solo and Wedge Antilles. I would not be surprised if "pilot" and "Corellian" aren't synonymous at a lot of Fantasy Flight Star Wars game tables. Personally, I would have rather Corellians got a more thematic advantage, like gaining a boost die when in a race or in a chase scene. It seems as if it would have reinforced the cultural psychology rather than just saying Corellians are literally born better than anyone else at piloting.

You Don't Have to Do This To Impress Me

The last section in the book contains modular encounters, encounters that aren't quite a full adventure, but can fill in for one with a little fleshing out. They are all tied to some location in the Corellian Sector, and thematically, they all work a lot better with the Edge of the Empire theme than the general source material presented in the initial section. There are encounters that have to do with gambling, racing, theft, avoiding the law, dealing with corporate spies . . . all very thematic to what you should be doing in an Edge of the Empire game.

These are all pretty useful if you just want to drop some Corellian flavor into a game or you just have a short night of gaming and you want to have some kind of scene ready to go, and the fact that all of these seem to keep in mind what Edge of the Empire is framed to do tells me that a lot of that first section was the way it was because, ironically, obligation to present the Legends continuity version of the setting.

You Do Have Your Moments

Is the book worth picking up? I'd say yes, but not as a "tier 1" kind of book to flesh out your Fantasy Flight Star Wars collection. It's pretty and well designed, and it's perfectly serviceable, but there are a few square pegs and you have to do some work to dig for the adventure hooks you will likely want to use for your game. The book actually picks up utility if you play the other Fantasy Flight Star Wars games, but I think I would still give the game a solid three stars out of five.

*** (Out of Five)

It's Been A While--Let's Attempt a Project!

It's been a while since I posted anything here, after the last time it had been a while since I posted anything here. So let's attempt another attempt at trying to get content on the page, shall we?

It's okay, you don't have to answer. I've pretty much resigned myself to realizing I'm talking to myself at this point. How did anyone ruminate in ages past when they couldn't do it publicly on the internet?

Anyway, I've got a lot of RPG products in the backlog. It's not that I haven't read some parts of them. I've read sections here or there, especially when they might be useful to a game I was running or playing in. But I haven't read them cover to cover.

My attempt at a project, then, is to set up a list of backlogged books, read them cover to cover, and actually review them. Because I'm intending to review them, I have some things in my backlog, oddities that I'm more curious about than likely to play, that I'm skipping over. Beyond that, I want to actually get some critical thought on some of these things.

I've got a pretty wide range of backlog, from different genres and from companies large and small. I've even got some backlog that shows some interesting change in focus from when a line launched to its current production schedule, even without any kind of official "edition" change.

Two things I've noticed just starting up this project:

  • Bestiaries are really hard for me to read cover to cover. I have monster attention deficit disorder.
  • I really have a hard time with "in-game fiction" inside a rulebook. It's not that it's bad or that I'm not interested in game fiction. In fact, I think it can be great to get a feel for the setting to see a "typical" story in that setting. But I really don't like it when stories pop out of nowhere or introduce a section. I think I use a different part of my brain to read rulebooks/sourcebooks and to read a story I'm attempting to actually get absorbed in.

I'm hoping my long, long flight to Hawaii and back over the next week or so will give me a good head start on the books. That also reminds me--who the heck do we have to beg at Lucasfilm to allow Fantasy Flight to put out PDFs of the Star Wars books?

One other thing this project is reminding me is that some of the RPGs on the shelf, good as they are, or increasingly fading into the rear view mirror. Even the material I'm looking at for this project is unlikely to ever all reach my gaming table, but I've still got other games I've barely touched that, while good, aren't on my radar anymore, and aren't likely to come back into the picture.

I've got the first book ready to go, and I have a ton of notes on the book, so that should go up soon. I'm still debating on whether I want to jump around genres and game systems as I do this or if I should stay focused on one game system while whittling away at the list.

Thanks for listening to the words echo around my head!