Mar 072017
 

Mayhem is an RPG from Midnight Campaign that was published in 2013. Product of the minds and effort of Rob and Aubrey Hicks, the book contains everything you need to play the game.MAYHEM Volume one, core content

Mayhem comes in a POD book with over 200 pages in full colour and, in the edition I have, softback. Although I don’t know what POD service was used, the quality of the printing is pretty good and the paper is thick enough. The binding has seen a lot of use in the last few weeks and yet all pages have survived without a problem.

Layout of the book is actually very good, with great attention being paid to design and detail. Although it could do without the background pattern in the pages, the frequency of the illustrations is enough and, dare I say, pretty impressive for a book that is the product of just two people.

The indexing system is actually very good. On the left page you will find an icon for each of the ten chapters and on the  right page an icon for each section within chapter. Although the chapters are not long enough for those icons to have any real practical effect, they have been very well designed and look pretty awesome, so I like having them there.

Artwork throughout Mayhem is a mix of good and mediocre. Although usually I would make an issue out of this, the fact that this is a book published by enthusiasts I can’t fault it too much. Yes, it could be much, much better, but what is there does the trick and there is a fair amount of it, so I won’t fault it too much.

The game takes a fair bit of time on the rules and they do sort out, or try to, a number of issues. The core system is simple enough. Depending on the skill level you have, the die will be higher. For a skill of 5 to 6, one rolls a d6, for a skill of 8 or 9, you would roll a d8 and so on.

Although this requires to keep track of a few dice depending on what level skill your character has for each ability, it also provides with a nice progression path that reflect how much better the character gets on a skill by skills basis.

There are two truly interesting things about the rules for me. One is the hit points chart. Hit points are calculated based on the Endurance and the Willpower of the characters. Endurance marks how many total hit points a character has. Willpower, however, determine how many hit points of damage a character can take before falling unconscious. Although this might make it easier for the character to be put out of order, it also means they are likely to be more durable.

The second thing that got my eye was the feedback chart. Every spell and similar in the book has a feedback cost and character with more Willpower can take more feedback than those less. Feedback points are like hit points for the mind. You can use a number of them, but if you overexert, then you are in trouble and get mental damage. What I liked about it is that it provides with a fairly clear method to keep track of the ability of the character to cast spells – perhaps psionics in the future – and at what point they can start to be harmful, as well as decide how many points to use for spells too.

The rules section also cover combat, movement, flight…

Character creation is a relatively simple affair. Although you don’t have to do a lot different from other roleplaying games, the sheer amount of races and curses that can be applied to those races means you have to do a lot of reading.

Mayhem comes with 22 races and 11 talents and curses of which only one is human and there are no elves, dwarves or the more common races typical of fantasy worlds. Races are divided in several sections that include demonic and celestial races and among them you will also find animal races. This is actually something interesting, though it could also lead to some problems if you try to use demonic and celestial, or undead characters in the same party. So a lot of preparation work would be needed.

The curses and talents are another good addition. They are there to add depth to the characters with abilities and conditions to expand their nature. Not all races are compatible with all talents or curses, but they do add a lot of variety.

The sections on equipment, magic, abilities… they all have enough options to enhance your character, but not so many that it becomes overwhelming to actually learn them or manage them. They are divided in small sections and the information is concise enough to be easy to find and remember, but detailed enough that you can actually use the skill at hand.

Mayhem’s setting is rather interesting and very, very rich. Although there is nothing overly original in the setting, the background itself is solid and well described. A world with several continents and an interesting cosmology, the world has enough foundation for many adventures. Also adventure hooks are dotted all over the description of the land to help you come up with some ideas.

The game ends with a short chapter on storytelling with description on how to create adventure, type of plot hooks, managing the rhythm of the game… very handy and full of tips that are always good to learn if you are new, or be reminded of if you are a seasoned player or GM.

Conclusion

Mayhem is very clearly a product that needs a lot of work, but also one that shows a great deal of potential.

The writing is very good but could do with some editing. The artwork is in the right places, they are right illustrations and they are numerous enough, but they need an overall improvement in style. The layout is sound but needs a bit of tightening…

The rules, although not the slickest to get to grips with, truly work. The hit point system gives a great deal of flexibility to allow players to play as they see fit without the fear of instant death.

The feedback system is probably my favourite bit of the game. The idea that you can use your points and force their minds a bit to use more powerful spells or powers, recovering some of those points to recover enough to use the power again… That I enjoyed a lot.

The number of races is pretty amazing and well worth considering. Although not all have the same level of information – or indeed the same information – the are all very intriguing and congruent with the world where they are located and although the sheer diversity makes it complex to create a coherent party, the potential is truly huge.

To have over 600 feats, skills and spells might sound daunting, though the way they have been located in the right place and in the right numbers make them easy to use. Being divided by weapon, skill set, magic area, etc, means they come in chunks small enough to be very easy to use.

In terms of world building, the thing I liked the most is the potential for epic storytelling. In Mayhem, even the Sun, the Moon and Stars are actually sentient beings that can, somehow, be interacted with if you are the right type of adventurer.

It is also massive, which is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because, although the book only covers one of the continents that create the geography of the planet, it is so rich that it will never be too small for the players.

However the amount of information about locations, empires, landmarks… it feels like it is not enough and needs much more. It is pretty obvious this book needs another 200 pages just for the world where it is played.

The storytelling chapter is very handy. Although it doesn’t give any ground-breaking advice, for a beginner it will go a long way to help get to grips with RPGs.

I am not sure, though, if this is a good game for beginners. Although all the premises, rules and backgrounds are explained with sufficient detailed, the variety in the races, richness in the story and complexity in the rules could make the experience a bit frustrating for those with little experience.

Overall  Mayhem should be praised. It is a solid game even if it feels it’s unfinished. This is all because the authors are just two people and have created the whole thing from scratch, with money from their pockets and doing the best they can.

And the best they can is pretty good.

I am not going to compare this with any other well-established publisher material. That would be unfair.

If you want a game that has a ton of information to offer and a lot of truly excellent ideas but needs a bit of work to bring to the table, this is for you and I thoroughly recommend it.

If you want a fully finished product that will allow you to play with little extra effort, look elsewhere. But you will be missing out on a lot of good things.

 

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Jan 012017
 

Return to Crypt of the Sun LordReturn to Crypt of the Sun Lord clocks in at 41 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 37 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

It feels like yesterday when I first reviewed a module that was flawed, but had promise: A1: Crypt of the Sun Lord. The short level 1-dungeon crawl introduced to PCs to a nice little complex and provided some pretty easy challenges…but it also introduced us to the fascinating frontier’s village Rybalka, saw some improvement, and, more than that, it already exhibited what I consider the most crucial strength of AAW Games’ modules: A mix of action and brain-teasers and, more importantly, an admirable ability to depict cultures that feel “real” – yes, they feel alien and fantastic, but a sense of realism and detail suffuses the best of AAW Games’ works that can’t help but draw one into the diverse world of Aventyr….though, back then, the world had no official name yet. 😉

Since then, the company has grown by leaps and bounds, so let’s revisit the crypt of the sun lord and see what now can be found in the place where the PCs first hands on the mystical blade of the sun lord. It should btw. be noted that the blade of the sun lord, even when you have not played A01, will be found and gets full stats. This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.

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All right, still here? Great! The previously explored upper floor (with a graphically enhanced map) has seen better days – beyond bandits, a sense of dilapidation haunts these halls and thus, the PCs venture forth – and may find that a stair is not what it is supposed to be: The wards that keep a mimic in stair-form suspended in time are about to fall, thus adding a level of danger and eureka-effect to the exploration of groups that have braved A01 back in the day. In Ka’Teek’s final resting place, the PCs can now unearth a secret door that leads from the muck-filled, crumbling tomb to the halls below – and here, you’ll be blown away. No, really. The lower level not only sports one glorious full-color map, it also has a lavishly-detailed isometric version of the already beautiful map. And yes, the isometric map is full color and drop-dead-gorgeous. I’m talking about as detailed as back in Ravenloft, only in color! A key-less version of this one is provided as well, though I’d only hand out the respective rooms after the PCs have explored them – e.g. traps and the like can still be found on the isometric version’s key-less one. Still, this map is gorgeous and greatly enhances the sense of immersion – not that the module required that, mind you.

What do I mean by this? Well, first of all, the exploration of the temple of the sun, hidden here in these depths, does sport bulettes that have dug into the temple…but the temple also has an ingenious intrusion-countermeasure: The very doors of the complex. You see, the exploration itself is an interesting puzzle, with doors preventing the opening of others while open: Some doors can only be opened while others are open and some can only be opened when others are closed. While the puzzle can potentially be brute-forced by capable PCs willing to spend time and resources, exploration with it intact proved to be much more rewarding. I mentioned, in the beginning, the strength, as a company, to create a blending of the fantastic and realistic and indeed: From paralytic flees to spikes of searing light, this oscillation is well-represented in the hazards of this complex. On a cultural note, a fountain of balance that provides boons, but also dishes out pain to those dishonest – and yes, there is a clear and interesting logic to this test of a creature’s honesty, one that can be gleaned from experience and one that constitutes a great example of unobtrusive storytelling.

The temple also houses iron-pyrite clad guardian warriors and indeed, the interest of PCs and players and the understanding of the dynamics of the temple may prove to be helpful – for the challenges faced inside are nothing to scoff at: The respective combat encounters are interesting and dangerous with not a single boring one among them. PCs will thus be motivated to actually unearth the methodology of the temple’s beliefs – if they understand it, they are rewarded.

Things become, at least in my opinion, even more interesting once the PCs manage to bypass the crysmals and breach the sanctuary – for here, the runes of the ancient people are provided as inscriptions that the players can decipher. I really liked this section, particularly since I can fluently read runes and since we have a pretty simple letter-substitution, so no, your players won’t be flustered for a long time, even if they have no idea regarding the meaning of runes. Within the depths of the complex, a secret altar awaits, providing not only a glimpse into ages long past, but also offering perhaps one of the coolest boss fights I’ve read in a while: The blade of the sun lord can be used to conjure forth the spirit of Ka’Teek – when have you last fought an honorable LG spirit of an ancient priest-king with a blinding aura that also may yield you a better blade? Oh, and this is NOT the end – You see, the temple also hides Ka’Teek’s suit, which is the only way to handle the true treasure herein: The Sliver of the Sun. Unprotected exposure to this artifact can lead to many very dangerous effects – and the table of these effects also constitutes a great scavenging ground for more lethal exposure to radiation and the like.

What does the sliver do? Well, it friggin’ CHANGES THE CLIMATE. This may break a particularly nasty winter or make a summer truly devastating…and its weaponized use can carry whole campaigns on its own – the potential outcomes presented certainly suggest different ones and can be used by any GM worth his craft to make plentiful follow-up modules. In fact, this could easily be the story for a whole campaign, should you wish to go that route… And yes, if you don’t want such a game-changer in your campaign, you can easily destroy the item in a cataclysmic blast…which coincidentally, with minor modification, would make for a compelling adventure in the plane of shadows…

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no problematic segments. Layout adheres to a beautiful two-column full-color standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks for your convenience. The book offers a significant amount of gorgeous artwork and the cartography by Tommi Salama and Justin Andrew Mason deserve special mention: The maps are GORGEOUS. The inclusion of an isometric map (including a key-less version of it) render the map-material of this book, at least in my opinion, absolute top-tier; not only regarding 3pps, mind you.

But, know what? All of that wouldn’t be enough, were it not for the crucial part – the writing. Jonathan G. Nelson & Stephen Yeardley have surpassed themselves here: The core-authors of AAW Games deliver a perfect culmination of the development of the company in this module: With formal quality turned up to eleven, the duo has retained the unique feeling or realism blended with the fantastic, the fascination for these cultures that makes the module feel like exciting, fantastic and strange archeology. The inclusion of material to occupy one’s mind via several unobtrusive puzzles also improves the module’s feeling of diversity beyond the varied encounters and hazards. However, the true accomplishment here is, much like in Stephen Yeardley’s superb C07: The Sussurus Tomb, the fact that the players are rewarded for engaging in the indirect storytelling the complex offers.

If the above was not ample clue: I *LOVE* this module! It feels like a great culmination, at least up until now, of the development process of AAW Games as a company and the authors: While retaining the key-strengths of the captivating cultures depicted, the diverse challenges herein are much more streamlined than in previous modules. Better yet, the rewarding of players engaging the indirect storytelling as well as the inspiring end of the module render this one exceedingly well-rounded dungeon, perhaps one of the best in this size out there. My final verdict with clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval and a nomination as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2015 – a wonderful tribute to Cliff “CJ” Jones, to whom this module is dedicated.

Endzeitgeist out.

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Jan 012017
 

13th Age Candles, Clay & Dancing Shoes13th Age: Candles, Clay & Dancing Shoes of clocks in at 8 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/SRD, leaving us with 6 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

So, what this 13th Age: Candles, Clay & Dancing Shoes provides is interesting – we get items that are obviously the result of the craftsmanship of minor sorcerors, here called alchemists and talismancers – basically, everyday items. However, beyond the basic concept provided, each item sports 13 rumors related to it, some of which may be true, some of which may be false…all depending on the GM. This customization option is something I truly cherish here…so what do the items do?

The first item would be Blacklight Candles – mundane candles of black wax…but only the wielder can perceive the light they shed. Sounds boring? Well, what if it’s true that only drow make these things? Or what if the fire started from such candles also is invisible? The latter is a genius hook I’m going to craft a whole adventure around. Clay of Life helps stabilizing the dying and can even be used to help re-attach severed limbs…and it may be fermented dragon droppings…or it may a plot of none other than the Lich King! Obviously, it would be pretty awesome if the extremely expensive clay sold in Horizon works – it returns the dead to life…but it could also transform them into mindless golems…

Dancing Shoes are a great idea: they allow you to dance like a pro…ONCE. As soon as you stop, they’ll burst into flames. Need a variant on the Cinderella-trope? Here’s an interesting one for you! (Oh, and yes, if you’re VERY unlucky, they may burn you – but hey, the show must go on…right?) What about arrows that are particularly lethal versus ethereal foes (and less lethal versus physical targets), allwoing the PCs to better fight the threat of dybbuks and similar adversaries? Featherlight Skirts are also awesome in just about any decadent environment – these skirts puff up like a parachute and feather fall the wearer. The sample stories suggest e.g. a cadre of bored noble women using these skirts for what amounts to illegal base-jumping – and the idea alone is glorious: Think about the narrative potential here for an uncommon murder mystery…or a conspiracy waiting in the wings.

Finally, Grave Dust has a chance to work as a pretty potent sleeping agent…which is okay…but what if it’s true that gelatinous cubes and similar slimes hate the taste and may spew forth immediately anyone covered in the material? Or what if it’s true that the effects of the material end immediately in the vicinity of royalty? What does that say about the tavern-brawl featuring the material you just witnessed?

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, i noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to 13th Age’s neat two-column full-color standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks for your convenience. Artworks are full-color and nice.

ASH LAW delivers some cool low-magic/alchemical items here. Yet, on their own, the fall somewhat flat. It is due to the absolutely inspired amount of narrative potential provided for each of them that they truly come into their own – what, on paper, sounds like a selection of solid, if a bit unremarkable items, becomes pretty awesome pretty fast by virtue of the inspiring 13 hooks provided for each of them, transforming the items into something more than the sum of their mechanical benefits.

Granted, I could nitpick some of these potential options: “Does the invisible fire created by blacklight candles visible burn objects or does it create an illusion of things being in order?” and similar reasoning – but that would be a disservice to the inspired ideas herein…and it would take a bit away from the GM’s options to customize the living hell out of these items to suit his or her need. I consider this to be an inspired installment in the series, one that oozes flair and panache, not only for 13th Age. The one reason (beyond aforementioned nitpickery) this does not reach the highest echelons of my rating system is that the items are story-items, one and all – they don’t really do something mechanically interesting. My final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 for the purpose of this platform.

Endzeitgeist out.

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Dec 162016
 

magissaMagissa is a game designed to be scalable so anyone from about any age can play. Advertised as “Role for children”, it promises a lot, but does it deliver?

Magissa was published in 2015 by Spanish publishing company NoSoloRol. At the time of writing this review, there is no English edition.

It’s hard to say why, but children today are, or seem to be, a lot less interested in getting into fights with Goblins, Orks or to tame Dragons. At least that is what many RPG publishers will tell you considering how few RPGs for kids are sold and how hard it is to sell those that do sell.

Many questions can be asked but the main one is “why?”. However answering that question is not the purpose of this piece. To tell you what Edana Patsaki  and Fernando Real have done about it is.

The book is a landscape bound small book, full colour and hard cover with over two hundred pages of information. And it feels very heavy in my hands. It is actually very nice to handle, even though I usually don’t favour landscape binding.

The cover illustration perfectly reflects what the book is trying to accomplish: Children as fantastic characters running adventures in a fantasy world. Everything about the image is right. From the composition to the colour palette, the whole image feels just right for this book.

Layout is well done, though I know of a few people who would probably complain about the parchment texture. A three column format with fairly small text makes the book easy to read enough, though the font used for the titles are hard to read and in some places, like the spells in the magic section, the subtitles are too close to the spells and it makes it hard to know where one ends and the other starts.

Illustrations vary from excellent to merely acceptable throughout Magissa. Generally they do the trick in terms of providing a good visual reference and being attractive at that. Even though the quality of some of them is somewhat lacking, especially compared to other ones, the book can’t be blamed for having bad artwork.

Before I go into character creation and the rules system, I must point out that the language the book has been written with also has been thought out to reflect that informal nature of the game and emphasize who are the target player: Children. Even though the book has been written for adults, the aim firmly remains to play with kids.

The rules are fairly simple, though the system tries to have a sliding scale of complexity and it allows, or tries to, you to play with FATE dice, d4, d6, d8, d10 or even d20 (no, I haven’t forgotten the d12). The core mechanic is just roll a number of dice and count the successes and the player with the most successes wins.

You can also add advantages and disadvantages (which give you, or takes away dice) to make things more interesting and encourage to use secondary skills or the environment.

Through the whole book, the authors keep giving explanations on how to use advantages and how to change the type of dice you can use for each age bracket. A suggestion of d4 for younger children i advised, with a sliding scale for older children and thus go up to d6 and d8 as the average, or go higher to d10 or even d20 for harder odds and more challenging play.

Character creation has also been designed so younger players can have simple characters with less attributes and abilities, and older players can have fuller characters with more complex abilities, spells and skills.

The playing characters are Human, Dwarf, Satyr, Child-cat, Centaur, Faun, Elf and Unicorn. Each one of them has their own advantages and backgrounds, with some classes suggested for each. For example the child cat is more geared towards being a Rogue whereas the unicorn is more geared towards being a wizard or a healer.

The standard attributes and skills are present in the game. From Strength to dexterity or charm. The choices are to play the character with four or with five attributes. The younger the player, the less attributes they use.

Professions are not original either, it has to be said. Fighter, Wizard, Rogue, Healer, and Explorer. However we have to remember we are playing with children and they will do because using complicated and obscure professions doesn’t really serve to make the game better.

The next part of the book, which is pretty much half of it, is something that more role playing games should do: devote time and space to teaching how to play the game and how to run it.

Over two chapters, the authors go on to explain the basics of running games for children to how to run games for educators without making the game boring. From how to organise adventures to storytelling, the description is comprehensive enough to give people more than a good idea about how to play. And, more importantly, how to play with children.

A small bestiary with the typical creatures – goblins, wolves, trolls, dragons… – gives a bit of food for more adventures. Although limited in its scope, it is large enough for beginners and children quite a lot to start with.

Lastly, a world description and some adventures conclude Magissa. The world is pretty interesting with a flat(ish) shape, a central continent surrounded by an ocean and a periferic outer continent, more dangerous and less described, which is a good ground for exploration as the children grow up.

Conclusion

Magissa is a book that is advertised in somehow the wrong way. The cover of the book says “Roleplaying for children” when in reality it should say “Roleplaying with children”.

Although the whole book is rather excellent, I wouldn’t give this book to a 12 or 1 o years old child. The complexity scaling with dice, character creation and rules make this game soa bit unsuitable for younger kids. It could be very easy to become confused and not know what rules to use, or how to apply them fully.

However, once you understand Magissa is for adults to be able to play with children, the whole thing changes and this game excels at it.

The language it has been written in, although childish in places, it helps keep the whole experience for kids, which is exactly what it should be. Plenty of examples throughout the book provide with much needed clarification for rules and systems, like combat and character creation.

The art direction, though lacking in places, is cohesive enough and some of the illustrations are really fantastic. The layout has some minor issues that probably won’t take much to amend in future editions of the game.

The thing that makes this book shine is the sheer amount of information for new GMs and how thorough and seriously the authors take the approach to gaming with children. The authors perfectly understand the positives of RPGs and do their best to ensure the reader gets the best possible start whilst keeping in mind all the time that the game is meant to be for children, not for adults.

By now it should be clear that I think this game is excellent and if you want to get your kids, or anyone else into RPGs, this book will give you a very good starting point.

Now we just need a version in English.

Dec 062016
 

Phoenix: Dawn Command cover

Phoenix: Dawn Command is the result of Twogether Studios successful Kickstarter and a roleplaying game in which what kills you, actually make you stronger.

By Paco Garcia Jaen

The world of Dalea is very much in peril again. Generations after the Dread was brought to a halt by the Phoenix, darkness is coming back to the kingdoms and the flame of Pyre has lit again.

You are a Phoenix, a human reborn after learning secrets and training in The Crucible, a mystical place of learning and growth, with abilities beyond that of any mortal and with the sole purpose of protecting Dalea from the Dread. You have learned that death is not the end and that every time you die you come back to Dalea stronger, better than before.

But your death must be meaningful and you must choose carefully when to die, for you can only be reborn seven times before you can’t return.

Can you make it count?

Phoenix: Dawn Command has been authored by Keith Baker and Dan Garrison. Keith’s resume includes more games I can remember, but, just in case his name is not one you are familiar with, he created Eberron. Keith knew Dan Garrison and Dan had a great idea for a game: Death is what makes you stronger. And they started to work together.

The result was a Kickstarter that funded very successfully and broke a few stretch goals that saw people like Kenneth Hite, Robin D. Laws, Will Hindmarch, Nika Harper, Mary Robinette Kowal and others.

And at a price that I found pretty amazing. For 50$ you got the game with the stretch goals, and considering the game mechanics are card based, I thought it was pretty good value for money.

When I got my copy of the game I thought they had included a brick or something similar in the box. It was very heavy for my little muscles. Much to my delighted surprise, inside the box was a 460 pages small size book, more than 250 tarot size cards and a whole bunch of tokens.

The box is very sturdy, thicker than most boardgame boxes, and it has the right space for everything it comes with, though no insert and if you sleeve the cards, it might be a tad tight. with a size of 25 x 17 x 7 cms, it will probably get into any rucksack and fit in any shelf, keeping all your gamey bits tidy. You can tell I love games that come in boxes!

The book comes in a pretty decent quality paper and the binding is most excellent. It is a softcover, so nothing too fancy, but it has resisted my handling while I read it and it has come with me in several bags and rucksacks resisting easily enough and without any pages coming loose or anything like that. Even the top of the book barely has any crises.

So far so good.Phoenix

The card material is pretty standard. It is coated, so it will resist touching by non-grubby fingers fairly easily. However, if you are going to play this game a lot, I would suggest sleeves.

There are different decks of cards. School (the type of Phoenix you are), Action cards (Grace, Strength or Intellect), Lesson (character abilities) and Challenge cards (basically, enemies) and each player starts with a hand of cards they can use to make a spread. Each appropriate card has a number and if the spread is equal or higher than the challenge, then the action succeeds.

There is also a card called The Torch. That card allows you to write a list of words, like the list of environmental items you find at a location. Why this is important I will explain later because it is a cool little feature of the game.

The artwork on the cards, which is repeated in the book too, is lovely. Line art illustration work with very simple style and limited palette. Think about the sort of glass windows you see in medieval churches (and maybe in not so medieval ones) and that is kind of the style we have here.

The number of illustrations is enough. Not every card has an unique illustration, but then not every card needs it either. They are meant to represent the characters abilities, enemies, afflictions, conditions… so I would say the only reason to see more illustrations would be to enjoy them, not because they are necessary.

The tokens are sturdy enough. They are used to keep track of your health, sparks, conditions (burning, bleeding, immobilised, enraged, stunned, vulnerable, exposed and hidden) and the icon design is very good. Simple, effective and unmistakeable, which is what this sort of tokens should be.

I should also say that the graphic design is generally very good. The icons are consistent, simple to identify, plentiful  and in the right places. The book layout left me a bit cold, though. I know you are limited when you have so many words to put inside such a small book, so I wasn’t expecting multiple columns layout or anything like that. However I did miss more illustrations and a bit more interesting side panels or inserts than we have. I am all up for simplicity, but sometimes it can be taken too far. Even so, the book is easy enough to read and only found a couple of layout mistakes with titles being at the end of a page and content starting on the next page. Not enough of them to be a problem, though.

Character creation is fairly simple, though it does require some thought and I would say even discussion with the other players and GM, or Marshal, which is how the director is referred to. There are various Flames a Phoenix can belong to and they each have different abilities and specialisms. They are also linked to the way the character died prior to transformation in The Crucible.

Basically, a Phoenix at level 1 is the reincarnation of someone who died in dramatic circumstances. It could be failing to protect someone, giving their life for someone, caught by surprise, horribly tortured to death… Anything. Once that character has died, they go to The Crucible where they choose what Flame they will adhere to and undertake the training needed to become a Phoenix. The Crucible is a space between life and death and each player has their own Crucible. Time there is immaterial. It serves as the perfect opportunity to justify a player taking some time off, changing characters or simply returning as soon as possible.

As mentioned, each Flame has its own quirks:

  • Devoted: They believe in unity and team play, thus with abilities that empower the whole team.
  • Durant: They are the tank of the team, able to take on injuries and enemies that could cripple anyone else.
  • Elemental: Closely linked to The Flame that brought them back, they can control fire and use it as a devastating weapon.
  • Forceful: This is the athlete of the team. Fast, precise and lethal.
  • Shrouded: The ninja type of character. Scholar of ancient lore and able to find any secret while hiding in shadows.
  • Bitter: Furious, reckless in battle, temperamental and willing to jump into battle before it even begun. You flirt with death more often than any other.

Each character type has specific action suits composed of two out of the three types of action cards. For example, the Durant action suits are Grace and Strength with the latter one being its primary.

That means that having a diversity of characters is important because otherwise the party could miss on having some actions, which could easily prove lethal later on.

Each character also has a Talon, a unique item with  properties that only the player character can use. It can be a sword, a necklace, a garment, an animal… anything the player wants and wants to discuss with the Marshal.

The book makes a lot of emphasis on asking questions about the characters as you create it, so the personality is as important as the traits and attributes, which is good because it tries to distance the game from any other dungeon crawl, though it has a lot of elements of dungeon crawlers.

Why does it matter the personality? Because depending on the Phoenix flame, their actions should be linked to it. For example, no point in having a Bitter who is more interested in healing others and shooting from a distance. You might as well create a Devout. By asking all the questions early on, both the Marshal and the player can decide if they are going in the right direction.

Also, this is truly a team playing game, so getting to know the characters and finding some common ground is important, or you could find yourself facing a foe you can’t defeat alone (which is likely because the enemies are pretty bad ass).

The mechPhoenix: Dawn Command - The Innocentsanics sound simpler than they actually are. The player specifies what they want to do, the Marshal decides on a difficulty and what attributes the Phoenix needs to use to create the spread. That means there is a lot of interpretation to be done throughout the game. Also there are a lot of breaks you might need to use on some power-players who will want to do impossible things.

Also you have to interpret the spread into action. For example if there is a lot of Grace used, you need to come up with a graceful way to achieve the goal, rather than, say, hitting a foe with a hammer.

It does give a lot more scope for creativity, but it also places a lot more work on the more experienced players, and makes it a bit harder for those newer to roleplaying games.

Also, the fact that players have a limited number of cards in their hands mean they must be careful what cards they use or they could find themselves going from foe to foe, or challenge to challenge, and not having enough score to resolve them all.

Fortunately, the mechanics are geared towards team play, so joining forces with other Phoenixes to solve whatever is ahead of the players is not just desirable, but oftentimes necessary.

Earlier I mentioned The Torch, a special card where you can write certain items you find in whatever location you find yourself in. This is important because if the players use those items in a meaningful way, they get advantages. Also they might be clues to defeat the enemy at hand, so very well worth keeping in mind. Of course, the Marshal can also use that card to give a hint if the players get stuck at some point, like solving a puzzle.

Death is also an important part of the game. In fact the only way characters have to get stronger and “level up” is by dying. However that death must be meaningful in some way. If you just jump off the window to kill yourself and level up without any ulterior motive… well… that is boring.

Once the character has died, they go to The Crucible, where they learn new skills or improve on the ones they have. Basically, they level up. This can happen only seven times, which is a good move from the design team to make sure people don’t just jump into the fray to die and choose carefully when they are meant to spent their precious lives.

The manual also offers extensive knowledge on the world of Dalea, as well as the four kingdoms and the island of Pyre, where the Phoenixes have their base of operations. It is full of mega spoilers, so do not read it if you are not going to be a Marshal.

Which in some ways is a shame because the history of Dalea is fascinating and the way the Dread is spreading and why utterly terrifying. Don’t let the light hearted artwork misguide you, this is a seriously dark game with horror all over the place.

The bestiary is what truly gives you the extent of the horror and darkness of this world. They are seriously creepy, very tough and as original as they are varied (except the Shoggoth… we have seen that before in sooo many games), and most of them represent a serious challenge for any team of phoenixes. Of course they can also be made tougher for higher level Phoenixes.

There is plenty of advice on how to run the games, creating missions, expanding the world and, essentially, getting to grips with the vast amount of information this game comes with.

Much to my delight, almost half the book is comprised of four adventures that get tougher as the players play them. And they start pretty tough, so at no point players can get complacent or they will suffer greatly. I will not say in this review what the adventures are all about so not to spoil anything, but I will say they are fairly simple adventures and, although they do a great job of introducing you to the game and the world, they certainly just scratch the surface of how rich and interesting this game can be.

Conclusion

Phoenix: Dawn Command is a very solid game for experienced players and groups who know each other well.

The fact that the box comes with enough cards and tokens for a group of three people is both good and bad. Good because having a small group is generally easier, and bad because if one player skips a session, then the whole thing can be messy.

There is no reason why you can’t just get another box with more cards and add players, though. It might mean you need to find more storage space, but hey, worth doing so if you can get another happy player.

I did miss an insert, now that I talk about it. Why? Because every player has a spread of cards they use. If you have to stop mid game for whatever reason, or simply the game ends and you have go to home, there is no way to separate in the box what cards each character had, so you either have to make notes or remember for next time. Having an insert that allow you to place the cards in the right place would solve that problem. Not the end of the world, though.

Once you get used to the mechanics, it is a very creative endeavour to play the game and, if there is good group synergy, creating collaborative spreads and working together comes pretty naturally. The initial efforts to get to grips with all the cards and tokens soon pay off, so don’t let that put you off. Beware, though, if you have to play with beginners. This game is not beginner friendly, even if character creation is very easy.

Also keep in mind this is a dark game. My only grudge with the art direction is that it doesn’t truly reflect this. It is only when you start to hear about possessed children who can kill whole villages or monsters that can obliterate entire communities and eviscerate them that you realise you can get real dark real soon with this game and it would make perfect sense.

Don’t get me wrong, the illustrations are lovely and I really like them, but I do wonder if this is the right style for such a dark themed game.

Now I only hope there will be more adventures and more supplement written for this game. It would be a shame if this is the last physical product we see for Phoenix: Dawn Command, because it certainly deserves the attention and dedication.

I would say if you want something that is not afraid of death and is not your typical world full of elves, this is a good investment for the price tag, so I would recommend it.

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Dec 062016
 

152736[1]By Endzeitgeist

The first installment of Raging Swan Press’ new campaign events-series clocks in at 12 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page advertisement, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 7 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

So, masquerade balls there are a couple of scenes in a given GM’s arsenal that boil down to being simply awesome and memorable – in my case, one such experience was a time loop masquerade ball that required the PCs to not be noticed by all previous incarnations of their previous runs of the time loop. The adventure was one of the most challenging I’ve ever run, not simply because of the time loop premise, but also because of the ridiculous level of detail required for the proper depiction of a masquerade ball in the first place.

If I had had this pdf back then, I would have had a much easier job – for example, we begin with a 50-entry table of sample masks – from elegant masks of lions to veined marble make-up, the list is diverse and cool – but we’re talking fantasy here. Hence, the second table, covering 50 entries as well, sports magical masks for the truly decadent: From snapping crocodile’s jaws to live squids you can wear or multi-hued bubbles, it is here that the book lights a whole array of idea-fireworks, with unique enchantments and mechanical benefits just being asked to be added to these masks.

Beyond that, though, two more tables provide the finery we really want to see – 50 entries for male and female costumes span the gamut of inspiring ideas, from dresses made all of pearls to insubordinate duplicates of the regent’s attire and military attires as well as stylized dragon costumes, this section is downright awesome.

Of course, anyone that has tried to run a masquerade ball knows that, while costumes and the like are interesting, what truly makes such an event difficult, ultimately boils down to the number of people required to properly pull the event off – and here, a massive, fluff-only table of 50 entries provides in spades – from half-orc wizards on staff to use mending and prestidigitation to fix costumes on the fly to disguised gnomes in the clothes of a roast pig, decadence and fun seep from each and every entry – and yes, there are obvious foils included in here.

Conclusions:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to Raging Swan Press’ elegant, printer-friendly 2-column b/w-standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. Additionally, the pdf comes with two versions – one optimized for the screen and one for printer-use.

Kat Evan’s Masquerade Ball is a pdf I did not look forward to reviewing, mainly because I do believe that masquerade balls are hard to capture in their style – and on one hand, this pdf spectacularly succeeds: As a dressing-toolkit, this is pretty much the apex of what can ask from a pdf on the subject matter and it is a great buy. At the same time, I do believe that the subject matter covered would have vastly benefited from a more in-depth coverage. What Do I mean by this? Disguise-DCs. Sample entertainments. Sample dances and mini-games – the whole party-shenanigans, would have made this a pdf I’d use for years to come, a book of pure awesomeness. A more thorough blending of fluff and crunch with GM-cheat-sheet-tricks and mechanical tidbits could have made this a prime candidate for my Top Ten of 2015.

At the same time, I’d be an unfair reviewer, if I did not acknowledge the level of quality and detail of the fluffy bits that *are* here – and these still warrant a final verdict of 5 stars.

Endzeitgeist out.

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