Settlers of America: Trails to Rails utilizes the simple, fun Catan hex-tile grid to map the United States of the 19th Century. Collect and trade resources in order to purchase and move settlers, build cities, lay rails and acquire and move trains. Create rail links to acquire gold, which lets you buy resources and use opponents’ rails. Use trains to distribute goods to rival cities. But, as your settlers populate the West, they deplete the resources of the East. Still, your options always abound.
Apparently I review a lot of supers games these days, and the latest in that field is the Smallville RPG, newly released in PDF for $20 at RPGNow, and available in hardcopy at GenCon for $40.
I’ll be honest…I’m not a big fan of the show. I tried watching it in the early seasons, but got turned off by a mix of “Freak of the Week”, Tom Welling’s one facial expression and how seemingly every episode ended with the same overwrought scene between Clark and Lana where she went on at length about how people can’t keep secrets from one another and Clark, well, had his one facial expression. I sure did enjoy Lex and Lionel Luthor, though.
That being said, it’s not the license that brings me to the game, it’s the system. Smallville was released by Margaret Weis Productions, who are handily taking over the slow once occupied by Eden Studios as the cult license company, previously releasing Serenity, Battlestar Galactica and Supernatural. All of their games use their own in-house system known as Cortex, which ranks any abilities, perks and what have you in die types, and you roll the relevant dice together. In Smallville, you virtually always roll three dice (unless you spend Plot Points to roll more), taking the highest two results and adding them together.
One of the major areas where Smallville departs from the other Cortex games is that your characters don’t have ability scores in the classic sense. Instead, they have Values: Duty, Glory, Justice, Love, Power and Truth. What’s more, each Drive is further defined with a sentence. Clark Kent, for example, believes that Power Corrupts, and ranks that Drive with d4. Zod, on the other hand, ranks it at a d10 with the tag on sentence “Kneel before Zod!” Again, every character has the six Values, ranked from d4 to d12, and every character has a sentence describing their connection to the Values.
The next thing they are ranked on are Relationships…which includes relationships with the other PCs (PCs are called “Leads”), as well as major NPCs (Features) and minor NPCs (Extras). Relationships can grow and change over the course of the game, getting stronger, weaker or even changing dramatically (rivals slowly becoming friends, or lovers drifting apart). Just as with Values, every Relationship is ranked with a die type and a descriptive sentence.
Distinctions are descriptive qualities, often positive and negative, that are triggered with Plot Points, or grant Plot Points. The negatives are often choosing to do something in character, but detrimental, in exchange for a Plot Point. Lionel Luthor’s Family Reputation allows him to gain a Plot Point and give his opposition a d6 whenever his reputation precedes him, or he can add a d6 to the GM’s (Watchtower’s) “Trouble Pool” (dice the Watchtower uses to add opposition to a situation, beginning with 2d6 and changing over time) in exchange for a “get out of jail free card”, that is, buying his way out of a sticky situation.
Abilities are things like superpowers, and Smallville provides a good number of them, plenty enough to add in your own. As it’s not a heavily “balanced” system, there’s not nearly as much tinkering involved in inserting new Abilities (or Distinctions, for that matter). You can use the die type of Abilities for relevant rolls, or spend Plot Points to do amazing stunts.
Gear is a lot like Abilities, just mainly for the non-powered types.
Lastly are Resources, such as Extras and Locations, which can be tapped up to twice in an Episode for aid. You can even tap someone else’s Resources…you just have to pay them a Plot Point for taking away their Resource.
Also, as mentioned, Leads have Plot Points which are used to trigger Abilities, call in Resources, roll extra dice, include extra dice in your final result (instead of just the two highest), tag a Useful Aspect in a scene that gives you an extra d6 to call on in the scene, or add a Relationship on the spot.
For someone who is generally a pretty traditional gamer, like me, there are a lot of concepts and philosophies in Smallville that confound me a bit, such as Relationship Maps, Stress Pools, and so forth. Character generation, in fact, is a group session that also entails basically creating the world, because each player adds important NPCs and Locations to the game as they build up their characters. Luckily, the book is filled with examples, including a step by step walkthrough of character generation, complete with diagrams of the Relationship Map.
Smallville uses a Lifepath system called Pathways, and you build your characters in steps, starting with Origin (Rich, Ordinary, Gifted, Strange and Alien/Metahuman) which guides you on the initial adjustments to your characters. From there, each Origin has an “exit” to three of five Youth options: Jock, Average, Geek, Outsider and Paragon. From Youth you get your Focus options: Money, Life, Status, Technology and Paranormal, which in turn opens your Road: Risky, Straight and Narrow, Lofty, Underground and Ethical. This all sets up your Life-Changing Event, be it Advancement, Tragedy, Power Manifestation, First Contact and Destiny. These are the minimum steps to create “rookie” characters. Throughout this, the Pathways system is also giving you instructions on modifying the Relationship Map, so it is growing and changing as the character generation progresses and the game world is taking shape.
If you choose to continue After The Event, you get to move through the steps of Priority, Modus Operandi, Motivation and Identity…and then, if everyone really wants to keep on moving, the book provides handy guidelines on advancing even further, to have some truly seasoned characters.
This would all really throw me except, as mentioned, they use excellent examples in the book. Though the Pathways system encourages you to follow certain Paths, the book does mention that it is perfectly viable to skip around a bit, if it’s really suitable for your character concept.
Once this is all finished (using the Season 9 Leads of Clark, Chloe, Oliver, Lois, Tess and Zod), handy character sheets are provided for each Lead, matching the example just used.
Lots of advice is provided for scene framing, as well as Contests (complete with examples). If you’re losing a Contest, you can Give In and let the winning side get what they wanted from the Contest or you can run the risk of taking Stress (and possibly becoming Stressed Out). There are five types of Stress (Afraid, Angry, Exhausted, Injured and Insecure), and the types of Stress can be influenced by certain Distinctions and Abilities. If a Lead becomes Stressed Out, they gain a Plot Point, are basically removed from a Scene, and step all their Stress back one step. Giving In is not without risks, though. If you’ve rolled any dice, then Giving In costs you a Plot Point, either straight up, or gained by lowering one of your Values or Relationships.
One area I would have appreciated an example for is Advancement, as you use your Growth Pool (which includes healed Stress, or dice from Values that you have challenged through the course of the episode) to roll against the Watchtower to try to boost Relationships, Resources, Abilities, Gear and Distinctions. I think I’ve got it now, but it took a few re-readings. This makes for an interesting game, too, as it basically forces you to fail in order to improve your character.
Some good guidelines are given for making Episodes, starting by making an Episode Map with your leads, pinpointing Relationships to highlight and then finding Wedges (adversaries, generally) to provide conflict for them.
A whole chapter is also devoted to online play, although that one veers a bit into pretentiousness, in my opinion, and that’s not a good thing. (Asking for writing samples? Really?) The remainder of the book is just an in-depth dissection of everything that makes up your characters and how they are used in play,
A massive list of Distinctions are present, as well as useful guidelines on making your own Distinctions to fill in any blanks you might have. The same is done with both Abilities and Gear.
Resources are the big exception to the rules, as they are rated as 2dWhatever, and each have a couple of tags, which basically indicate how they are used by the Leads. For instance, Lex Luther has LuthorCorp Security with (Security, Retrievals) at 2d6…he can call them in and add their D6 to a die roll when trying to locate Lana, who has gone missing.
Every major (and a lot of minor) characters are included, with the notable exception of Pete Ross (who will surely show up in the High School Yearbook), full statted out for use as you see fit. This section is one of the few parts that doesn’t use screencaps, instead using art pieces that I wasn’t a big fan of. Among the heroes and villains present include Doomsday, John Jones (Martian Manhunter), Amanda Waller, Doctor Fate and Lex Luthor himself.
The game material concludes with an extensive listing of locations from the TV show, but the book isn’t done yet as it provides extensive overviews of the first seven seasons, followed by episode breakdowns of seasons eight and nine.
The book is gorgeous, laid out in red and blue, with tons of screencaps from the show and it is just filled full of Smallville Stuff. I mean, I quit even trying to follow the show a couple of seasons in and I feel comfortable about running something in canon based off of the book. Combine that with the helpful guidelines to go along with the extensive examples of Abilities and Distinctions and they give you everything you need to expand the game as you see fit. I also have to applaud the MWP crew: Smallville Season 9 ended in May….this book released at the end of July…and is up to date from the end of Season 9. From my experience in following licensed RPGs, that is some really impressive stuff and speaks to the level of cooperation MWP had from someone on the Smallville crew.
Tremendous game with top notch production values…the best release I’ve seen from MWP yet and the best licensed DC RPG I’ve read, hands down.
This review has been kindly supplied by Tommy Brownel. My sincere thanks
This is more like it for a game and a company the calibre ofDungeons and Dragons andWizards of the Coast. Although my previous posting about the Dark Sun adventure was far from complimentary, WOTC has proven they can do it right when they want to.
For starters the cover illustration is by one of the best established and most experienced fantasy artist, not to mention one of the most talented, Wayne England. He has the amazing ability to capture the atmosphere and spirit of whatever is necessary. His extremely meticulous painting and his incredible attention to detail makes him a virtuoso with the brush (and yes, he still paints traditionally). With that, this adventure was on a good start.
And it continued on the good side of design, but let’s go one step at a time.
Product quality. It is pretty good for what it is. It will last long enough for the adventure to be played and then as long as you want if you don’t drop coffee (or any other liquids!) on it. The paper is heavy enough and the printing is very good. The illustrations are clear and the colours vivid, the wording perfectly readable and the maps very clear. The maps for all the encounters come printed in fairly sturdy paper and although they do the trick, the seams will break if you don’t handle them with great care. Shame WOTC doesn’t do limited editions with laminated maps. Still, the cartography is terribly well done, which is not surprising as it has been designed by Jason Engle, a young artist of great talent.
Graphic and art direction. It is pretty good, though nothing to start the fireworks for. The illustrations are very good, the cover art is amazing and the maps are terrific. If we had to judge the whole thing based on just that, this would get a 10, but we can’t, so it deserves a 7. To be picky, the fact that the lines are not aligned between columns. It is a little thing, but it does show they cold do better.
Story. It is solid enough, though once you leave the initial presentation or introduction phase, the chances of role play are extremely limited. You will meet some interesting characters and they will give you good motivations to go into the adventure. The encounters are tough, but not impossible and they keep coming. There are a lot of encounters (if you want to find how many buy the adventure… it’s worth it!) and they’re all great fun. Lots of traps, lots of puzzles and lots of orcs and other creatures you’d expect to find in any good dungeon crawler, which is what this is.
It could be better writen, mind you. If your party decides the cues given to start with are not strong enough to follow the adventure, the GM might need to do a bit of crafty rail-roading to get the players into the encounters. Some of the explanations given in preparation for the encounters are not all that clear either and some more background information would have been very welcome. Still, none of this detracts from a good experience and a good adventure that would fit perfectly in a much larger campaign as a way to help your characters level up to face more perilous dangers.
Overall this will keep your party happy for about 3 sensible gaming sessions or a weekend of constant gaming (which I know some of you do indulge and I envy you for that!). It is very reasonably priced for the amount of time it will last and its presentation. Takes about 2 hours to have it all ready to be played. Very well balanced regardless of the classes your payers choose, though some trap disabling will come in extremely handy!
Oh… and you do get to get rid of lots of Orcs. Do you really need any other excuse to play an adventure?
Let me put one thing straight from the moment go. I have been praying ( yes, praying) for Dark Sun to come back to publishing since the moment it was abandoned over a decade ago. It was my first setting I actually run when I was a young man and it was the first set of books I bought from eBay 7 years ago when I started collecting old TSR settings.
I LOVE Dark Sun and I was mega happy when I heard it was coming back on my table.
Fast forward to the recent past. I ordered the Dungeon Tiles, Deserts of Athas. I received them with cautious rejoice. Cautious because they were very standard. There was nothing unique to them that screamed “Athas” to me. Still, it is a sound product, good quality and, no doubt, will come in handy when I run the game.
Come to the even more recent past and think of the Open Gaming Day on the 19th of June. I run the first adventure for the Dark Sun setting. I was overjoyed. The adventure did capture exactly what I remembered of Dark Sun. The danger, the brutality, the inhospitable, yet gorgeous environment and the weird and wonderful fiends and friends one can expect in the Tyr region. Bring into the equation the good quality of the product itself, with lovely illustrations, great cartography and very good, sturdy pre-gen character sheets and it was onto a a winner.
Now come to the present day. WOTC decides to launch a mini campaign to aid the reawakening of Dark Sun and comes up with this feeble excuse of an RPG adventure.
I will not lie, there is very little I like from Fury of the Wastewalker.
I’ll get the good points out of the way. Great fights. That’s it.
The encounters are well balanced for 1st level characters and I am sure the players, if they are new to DS, will have a great time slaughtering the fiends sent their way. To make matters more interesting, the encounters are meant to run without a rest, so lateral thinking is even more important than good roll of the dice. A good skirmish session.
There are 4 interior illustrations. They’re good.
Now the bad. Everything else. It sucks, it really, really, really sucks.
For starters the cartography should be illegal. That’s how bad it is. Imagine you take your dungeons tiles, arrange them haphazardly and photograph or scan them. That’s what the maps for this so called adventure look like. It is so bad the cartographer is not even in the credits. Maybe there wasn’t a cartographer, which would explain that horrible mess. Or maybe he/she saw what rubbish was produced and didn’t want the name to appear on this product. Can’t be blamed!
The so called Art Director on this one, Mathew Stevens, should be really ashamed of himself. This is a very amaterurish product. It seems and feels it’s been put together by the junior staff at WOTC.
The plot is really sad and the adventure is terrible. Can’t be any more cliched. Guide a caravan from a city to another and get into trouble in the way there. How original.
The editing is not great either. I am no proof reader, but I can see the difference between Silt Runner and Slit Runner. Please M. Alexander Jurkat… you’re meant to be an editor. Edit!
I don’t know who to blame for the next one, the writer, Nicolas K. Tulach, or the guy in “Development”, Andy Collins. It seems that either no one has read about Dark Sun, that Dark Sun is going to fall from grace, or that they give a toss.
You ready for this?… there are goblins in this adventure.
If you’re new to Dark Sun, this will mean nothing to you. If you’re a seasoned Dark Sun player, you probably have your face in your hands now.
One of Dark Sun’s greatest points of interest when it came out, was that it didn’t have all the usual creatures, and provided with a huge amount of new ones to use. Off went the goblins, kobolds, orcs, trolls, knolls, dragons…. all of them. Out of the question. Why? Because someone in the setting, millennia before the events in the adventures, had committed genocide. All races except the few surviving ones, exterminated. And yet, in this adventure we have gobbos!
I pre-ordered the Dark Sun setting books as soon as they were available in my favourite online book retailer. I still plan on buying them, but I am bracing myself to be very disappointed. I am not one for changing adventures, settings or general material given by the publishers. I don’t have the time, to be honest. But if they change so much that they make this setting a common, un-charismatic one, I will probably do more than change the material they give me, and change game altogether instead.
A long time ago, probably in some part of my far, far, away memory… i used to play a lot of Space Hulk. The very first edition (with it’s expansions).
I tried the second edition once, when it was released. (The second edition was just the equivalent of the first edition box, without it’s expansions and an awful change to the flame thrower weapon. It’s the worst Space Hulk out there. So i’ll skip it… from the rest of this post).
Now i played this 3rd “ultimate” edition.
The conclusion to all these playing:
“If you are a boardgamer first, miniature painter and/or collector second… this third edition is definitely NOT the best Space Hulk made. 1st edition still reigns supreme by a somewhat large margin.”
Thing is, the rules of Space Hulk have barely changed over the three editions. One or two mostly minor things here and there, change the components and there you go… a new Space Hulk.
Space Hulk, first edition, came with a standard box set. Then a campaign expansion book filled with new missions, a box set “deathwing” that added to the marines and slightly to the genestealer and a second box set “genestealer”, that added to the genestealers and a little to the marines.
But then, where does that leave the third edition, gameplay-wise? For the components, sure the board is of a very high-quality. But it’s just too large. Unless you have a big table, some scenarios may not fit your dinning table. For all that i can remember, Space Hulk 1st did not have such large rooms and corridors. I may be wrong on that point though… been over 15 years since i last played the 1st edition.
The minis are sure pretty to look at, but they sure are a problem playing the game. Some Genestealer are too big for their space. The minis themselves keep overlapping each other and it’s a problem. Take a genestealer mini from the board and you may have to untangle it from nearby minis. A problem the 1st edition had… but to a much MUCH lesser extent.
They added the “guard” option. Which i personally find pretty useless (probably because i learned to play Space-Hulk without it being available). They also added thhe broodlord mini, which i don’t really like as it’s mostly just plain old luck over tactics that can defeat him.
They also corrected some scenarios that were too hard for one or the other of the factions to win.
(edited next paragraph to mention comparison with expansions included to avoid confusion)
Now if we compare first – with expansions – and third editions together… it becomes clear the 3rd is the lesser version. Third edition brings together the 1st edition base game, half of “DeathWing” and about 1/10 of “Genestealer”.
– Gone are the “ambush” blips. Blips that could appear almost anywhere on the map (even behind the marines), but had 2 chances out of three of being “false signals”. They were a great way to bring uncertainty to the marine player. They were left out of this edition.
– Gone are the ability to “seal” genestealer entrances.
– Gone is the system to generate a random level.
– Gone is the system for solo-play.
– Gone are the exceptional 4, 5 and 6 genestealer blips.
– Gone are the Genestealer hybrids.
– Gone are all the various psychic powers from “Genestealer”. Only the librarian, in a reduced form, is present.
– Gone is the mission variety of the campaign book.
– Gone are the large corridor tiles (corridors with a width of more than one square).
Outside these missing things, it’s 95% the exact same game.
This meaning that if you have the first edition with it’s expansions… DON’T go expecting a new version of the game you love. At least not in the sense that Fantasy Flight remakes old games, like Twilight Imperium 3rd and Arkham Horror, which vary greatly from their old version.
Now, i agree that most of the things that have been omitted in the third edition were clearly not the best part of Space Hulk. The random dungeon generator created most of the time awful dungeon designs. The solo rules were barely “ok”. The psychic powers could destroy any carefully laid plan for both the marines and genestealers based solely on the luck of a card draw with a specific psychic power (looking at you dreaded Vortex card).
Still they were nice options that are currently missed from this old player.
I don’t see Games Worksop expanding this third edition to present the components of Genestealer anytime soon. I also don’t see them providing the missing components to make DeathWing complete either (ambush blips and Genestealer entrance sealing – although for the later, anything could do to mark a sealed entrance).
For an old Space Hulk veteran, this edition is sort of a let-down. The new elements (guard option and the broodlord) do NOT warrant the price tag. The components are sure nice to look at, but they are not the most functional pieces of gaming around. I’d take the new marines, but with the old Genestealers anyday (may even have to find a box of old Genestealers minis for Warhammer 40k to replace them – if i’m ever this fanatic over this game).
Still, if you never played Space Hulk and don’t have the patience or money to find a complete Space Hulk 1st (with expansions) on EBAY, this edition is nice enough to provide you with the Hulk experience, if you’re not too bothered by the publishers business practice (i just had to mention it didn’t I?)