Aug 172014
 

mindjammer_coverBy Paco Garcia Jaen

In the first part of my Mindjammer review, I laid the path for a positive review. In this second – and last – part I plan to actually make it very clear this is a positive review.

I previously wrote about the rules system, including character creation, spaceships and equipment and also running Mindjammer as a GM.

“What’s left?” I hear you think… Well tons and tons, I’m very glad to say!

Essentially the second part of the book is all about world building at a galactic scale and this is the part that showcases what an incredible designer Sarah is.

First thing that made me jump with excitement was the creation of organisations in chapter 15. It basically explains how to turn an abstract and possible unreachable concept (like a government, inter-planetary corporation, cult, civilisation, etc.) and give it some shape that can be interacted with. So if a group of players want to influence the outcome of an election in a planet, that government becomes an organisation with its own attributes, flaws, aspects, etc. and that gives a means to attack it and influence it by performing actions against – or towards – it. Suddenly truly epic adventures are possible without them getting out of hand and with measureable and (hopefully!) obtainable targets.

The following chapters cover the setting. A relatively short history of The Commonality and human expansion gives way to understanding cultures in the following chapter, worlds and civilisations in the next. Why is this important? Because at the same time there are plenty of rules and techniques to create your own worlds with their unique culture and civilisations and no, they are indeed not the same. Mindjammer doesn’t assume that any and every discovered world is a mono-culture environment

Needless to say star systems and stellar bodies are covered. And now just covered, they are also incredibly well explained with some scientific data to go behind everything.

The game comes with rules to create star systems and quadrants too. Choosing the right type of star, nebula and other galactic bodies and being able to calculate distances, map them out in the provided octant, sub sector or sector gives an incredible depth to the level of detail you can have in your campaign if you choose to.

This is not just about throwing a sun and a few planets to create a solar system to explore (unless that’s what you want, of course), it’s about being able to choose what type of star could have what sort of planet with what sort of atmosphere to create what sort of environment and what sort of life-forms.

Oh, and talking about life-forms, none of this Star-Trek syndrome of having mostly bipedal and oxygen breathing species. Alien life in Mindjammer is truly strange and unique. And yes, they can have their own technology, culture, language… and scale. Having a planetary intelligence is super exciting!

The book ends with some chapters on scenarios and campaigns, themes, game play styles and a ready for you to use section of the galaxy to run your adventures in: The Darradine Rim. 19 different planets all ready for you to use with their history, climatology, geography, aspects… All ready and in a full colour insert for you to enjoy. And you will enjoy them, I can assure you. They are just what you needed to get you in the mood for some galactic exploration.

It doesn’t end there, though. It ends with the appendices. Appendices that have Character sheet, character creation worksheet, construct sheet, organisation sheet, culture sheet, planetary map sheet, system schematic sheet, octant, subsector and sector sheets…. Yeah… sheets galore than you can also download from the Mindjammer Press’ website. WHOOHOO!!

A few more pages with reference sheets and a glossary, as well as a detailed index, and the book, sadly, ends. And then you’re left wanting more. A lot more.

Conclusion

Mindjammer is probably the best Science Fiction RPG ever written. As simple as that.

The setting is both easy to approach and understand and very easy to relate to, so coming up with new material is actually very easy. The rules are well explained and the index so precise you can find what you need very quickly. The level of complexity can be elevated to a huge level to create highly detailed everything.

And pretty much everything is catered for. And more. Some of the concepts in this game are just pure genius that a lot of other games should take note of.

To top that, Sarah’s writing is truly excellent and easy to understand and her knowledge and understanding of the FATE system becomes all too obvious. I have always struggled with FATE because I wasn’t able to give a specific setting reading the rules and Mindjammer has changed that.

There was something I missed in the game and hopefully we’ll see this in the future: Characters. The worlds, governments, etc… there are no characters and I missed that. For me creating an adventure without that is more difficult.

Word of warning: If you are a beginner take this game easy. There is *a lot* to be covered in this game and the data can be overwhelming at time. Mindjammer will take a lot of time to get to grips with and patience is highly recommended.

Despite my initial reservations about the size of the book and the word count, I have been won over by this game without any reservations. Mindjammer should be in any gamer’s shelf, and I’d go as far as to say in any Sci-Fi lover’s collection. A true masterpiece!

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Aug 122014
 

Servants of ShadowBy Endzeitgeist

Servants of Shadow: Five Necromancy-themed Races is a massive racial book by TPK Games that clocks in at 67 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, leaving a massive 64 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?

As has become the tradition with TPK Games’ race books, we kick off with a short introduction by the author and then an expertly-written fluffy introduction, which this time around works also as a kind of origin myth. After that, we’re introduced to the Mortiss, the dead that have escaped from Nergal’s underworld – and from the get-go, the design is interesting: Being essentially the dead, they hail from a variety of species and still, the designer did not forget random age, height and weight statistics etc. – nice! Also nice – a variety of favored class options that are neither too strong, nor, get this, boring – for each comes with a short, fluffy text that explains it. Call me any name you want, but this makes otherwise dry crunch so much more flavorful. Kudos! Now what do Mortiss do? Well, as escaped dead, they get +2 Str and Wis, -2 Dex, have no constitution scores and thus determine hp and fort-saves via cha instead and only get a base movement rate of 20 feet, which is not modified by encumbrance, though. Mortiss are full-blown undead – with all the immunities, less attributes to divide points by etc. They also get DR 3/slashing (which they can exchange with a 15 foot aura of 5-round nauseating stench or full 30 feet movement rate), always consider stealth a class skill, get darkvision 60 feet, a vulnerability to resurrection and positive energy etc. – and most importantly – they are destroyed upon reaching 0 hp, sans means of being returned from the beyond.

Yeah…that is interesting. Point-buy-wise, this race clocks in at 17 points, but the ARG’s guidelines are broken, so that does not for a good orientation point make. Whether you consider this class overpowered very much depends on the frequency of which you use fort-based afflictions like poisons and diseases and on the lethality of your campaign – if your game is rather cuddly, the 0 Hp = game over caveat may be manageable; If you have a rather lethal campaign, the fast final destruction is something that will take a lot of brains (and luck!) to avoid. On the other side, only having to buy 5 attributes makes for much more powerful characters. The best line I can come up with, would be Sentenced’s “Neverlasting” – “Burn the candles at both ends – you and I aren’t built to last.” The Mortiss are powerful, but quite probably, will be more short-lived than similar characters that are alive. Solid race, though not made for every campaign.

There also is a racial archetype, the boneblade magus, which gets diminished spellcasting and sacrifices 2 points from the arcane pool to permanently improve their blades with the holy or unholy property. Unfortunately all other abilities of the archetype fail the kitten-test, big time: AT 9th level, crits heal the magus for class level Hp -kill ‘dem kittens! At 12th level, the magus may regain aracana this way. Urgh. And at 13th level, each hit nets the magus 1 temporary hp, lasting 1 hour, up to a maximum of class levels temporary hp. That’s three gross failures of the kitten-test at its most basic level, which renders the archetype utterly broken and deeply flawed. Unfortunately, something similar can be said about some of the feats: Take “Feign Death”, which lets you collapse in a heap as an immediate action – nice. But it fails to specify what skill-check DC modifications this has to your bluff-skill at feigning death, rendering a cool feat concept useless as written. I won’t complain about a feat to offset the no-resurrection penalty, but one that makes fifth level + characters easily healed via positive energy isn’t too high on my list, since that takes away one of the most crucial vulnerabilities of the race. Granted, negative energy now damages the Mortiss, but still. Turn resistance, +1 natural armor and an achievement feat to slightly increase positive energy output feel a bit on the weak end. Two solid racial traits and a nice 3-level racial paragon class as well as two spells, a full-blown Mortiss settlement and a sample character (especially the latter two deserve credit) are also provided for an overall solid, if not perfect race.

The second undead race herein would be the Forsworn. These would be people, undecaying and less grisly than the Mortiss, who have forsworn life via a ritual and acquired the Cr+1 forsworn template – consider it a kind of reward, if you will. The race also comes with plenty of favored class options, gain darkvision 60 ft., +2 channel resistance, Bluff, Disguise and Stealth become a class skill, energy resistance 5 vs. lightning and cold, +2 to bluff and disguise checks and +1 natural armor. Oh, and if their origin isn’t making that clear enough – these guys and gals are EVIL. They also do not heal naturally, unlike what was implied and not explicitly stated, the Mortiss. (Who do not have that caveat…) The Beguiling Witch archetype gets diminished spellcasting and instead, a warlock-like blast ranged touch attack with a range of 30 ft. that deals 1d6 points of untyped damage, +1d6 at 3rd level and every odd level thereafter. This blast is useable class level + int-mod times day. The archetype also gets arcane armor proficiency at 4th level instead of a hex and DR 3/cold iron that increases slowly further instead of the level 8 hex. Solid blaster archetype, though calling the archetype “Beguiling Witch” feels like a massive misnomer to me.

A total of 18 feats (that, as written, don’t require the forsworn race – be very wary when allowing these!) are provided for the forsworn. Take “Bleak Spell” – The feat adds 1 negative level sans save to a spell, at +3 spell levels. Yes, that means NO SAVE for the negative level. OUCH. Combine that with unerring magic missiles, for example…rather easy to abuse and should probably have some caveat and instead a less severe level increase. The feat that auto-maxes the HP of undead you “prepare” is problematic – what does preparing entail? Do spawns qualify? If so, why does not every creature eligible have this? Seriously, this one is very strong and could use a tighter wording. Making your undead negative energy bombs is also interesting, as would be the ability to graft bone armor to undead. Greater Turn Resistance is once again flawed – “You gain DR 5/- versus channeled energy.” There is no such thing as “channeled energy” – there is positive energy and negative energy. And they, as energy would adhere to the resistance X-formula. Additionally, the feat, as provided, makes healing via negative energy 5 points less effective – intentional? The fortification-granting feats, while not getting the terminology for fortification right, at least are not ambiguous. Speaking of sloppy wordings – “Revivification” specifies “By expending two channel negative energy uses, destroyed undead in your area of effect are reanimated with half their normal hit points.” – what’s bad here? Well, it’s subtle. First, action type – I assume regular standard action, but I’m not sure. Secondly, do all the intelligent undead retain free will? Sans HD-cap? Instant perma-immortality for liches, undead dragons etc. Destroyed by pesky adventurers? No problem, loyal cadre of 1st level cha 13+ cultists and 1 (!!!) can INSTANTLY return you to life at half max hp. Though you’d usually be DESTROYED. This needs serious fixing, especially in the context of this book – if such a feat is inserted into the game with undead PCs, they can be brought back EASILY, for a regrowing resource, sans penalties. INSANE. Speaking of which – what about a feat that heals you when drawing negative levels from your allies, usable ad infinitum. Restoration and similar spells? Screw those. At least needs a daily cap. Worse, most of these feats have no racial prereq – avoid inserting them just wildly into your game.

The racial paragon-class is solid (though one ability has an annoying typo) and the write-up contains a cool level 17 grimoire in all glorious spell-lists, fluff etc., including a neat preparation ritual. We also get a shadow-themed unseen servant-style spell and a sample character. The forsworn are very powerful and lack any advice for DMs on how to judge this power in relation to other characters. The lack of ECL or RP-information makes clear these guys are intended for NPC-use, though the absence of guidelines in that regard for evil groups sucks. The base race is okay, if not intended for player hands, but the feats…oh dear. While almost universally cool in imagery, oh boy are their wordings SLOPPY. To the point where they contain a number of game-breakers. Avoid.

The third race, the Maghra are essentially degenerate half-ghoul barbarians, transformed by their deadly and strange practices. Theyare half-undead, get +2 Str and Con, -2 Int and Cha and come with full age, height, weight-tables, favored class options, +1 to fort-saves and immunity to paralysis, non-magical diseases and poisons, a bite attack for 1d6 (not specifying whether as a primary or secondary natural attack, though I assume the former), +2 to Knowledge (dungeoneering) and Survival checks made while underground. They also always treat Perception and Stealth as class skills and gain light sensitivity. They can also get claws for 1d3, but then reduce the bite damage to 1d3 as well – once again, failing to specify whether claws or bite become primary/secondary natural weapons when used in conjunction. Very cool as an idea would be the feats that net you to +4 to attribute-spells for eating elves or dwarves…but the feats fail to specify CL for the effects…and duration/whether it’s an extraordinary/supernatural/spell-like ability effect. This unfortunately holds universally true for almost all of the conceptually cool cannibalism-feats. “Blood Frenzy” is an interesting idea – when reducing a foe below 50% HP, the Maghra enter a frenzy for +2 to Str/Con, +1 to will-save for 1 round per level, useable 4+con-mod times, non-stacking with barbarian rage. per se, that’s awesome, though the 50% caveat is, as written, makes no sense – hand the barbarian a kitten for rage. Why not just eliminate the 50%.limitation? Gaining DC 10 +1/2 level +cha-mod paralysis for 1d3 rounds on ALL natural attacks is also insanely strong – Paralysis being one of the most crippling conditions in Pathfinder.

The bite-power enhancing 3-level racial paragon-class, the 6 new traits, the settlement, the sample character – all of these are nice, though. Urghs, this one was a pain – mainly because the base race is nice and only has very minor glitches, but the feats once again just are in need of a massive overhaul, breaking rules and sporting sloppy wordings left and right.

The fourth race would be Nergal’s servants, the deathless – another templated race at CR +2 who gets the full-blown undead-treatment, darkvision 60 ft, +2 natural AC, resistance 10 against cold, lightning and fire, fast healing 1, a slam attack at 1d6 (primary or secondary?), detect undead at will, +2 Str and Cha, +2 Perception + Sense Motive and Alertness, Toughness and Iron Will as bonus feats. Oh, and whenever they die, they automatically respawn after 24 hours, with one point of permanent Cha-drain that can’t be mitigated. The ability unfortunately fails to specify WHERE the deathless respawns, whether s/he takes his/her equipment to Nergal’s realm to be admonished etc. The 4 racial feats give you negative HP (and being staggered), allow you to conjure forth a +1 undead bane dancing scythe that can, with another feat, made brilliant + ghost touch (very strong at low levels) and one “kill foes to heal”-feat that once again gloriously fails the kitten-test. The undead knight-style racial paragon-class is neat, as is the bone armor spell and the sample NPC. So, depending on your perspective, this is the race for the player who doesn’t want to lose his PC…or for the munchkin. The Deathless, as a templated creature, makes for a superb adversary, but lacks crucial information regarding balancing it with non-deathless characters. I would STRONGLY advise against using these in any but the most high-powered of games as PCs…but they do have a glorious usage: Remember Dark Souls/Demon Souls? Yeah. Make an exceedingly, mega-deadly campaign and see whether the PCs manage to conquer it – coincidentally, you could also take the Souls-series’ reclaim mechanics for gear instead of for full hp… So while I’d never allow the race in a common campaign, it does have its uses! Apart from minor gripes, neat!

The final race would be the Nephandim, once again a non-templated race, these guys are the pale, small servants or Nergal – they get -2 to Str, Cha and Con, +2 Int and Wis, are small and slow. Tehy are humanoids with fire resistance 5 (or DR 3/slashing), +2 to saves against death effects, +2 to will-saves to resist enchantment (charm + compulsion)-spells and effects and may save again. They may also, 1/day, reroll a Bluff/Diplomacy-check when proclaiming their service to Nergal. Additionally, they may 1/day cast bleed, chill touch, detect poison, touch of fatigue as a spell-like ability if their wis is 11 or higher, deathwatch at will, +2 to their channeling DC if applicable, 120 ft darkvision, light sensitivity and also have negative energy affinity, making them great allies/healers of the undead. These lack the RP/build-information, though. Generally, the Nephandim feel a bit overburdened to me – the spell-like abilities, the better channeling sans alternate racial trait to switch out…depending on the build, these guys can be extremely strong. For my taste, the race is too strongly geared towards the caster-direction and a tad bit too strong, though not to the point where I wouldn’t allow it after shearing some of the various bonuses to saves or similar ones, trimming a bit of the fat of the class.

The Sequestered Cleric archetype is a less paltry version of the concept of the cloistered cleric – d6, poor BAB, but +Int skills, the knowledge domain as a third domain, scribe scroll and 1/2 class levels to knowledge-checks (and the ability to make them untrained) – solid. The 4 new feats – are universally nice, though the achievement feat (of which there are a couple in this book) granting animate dead at will feels a bit excessive. The 3-level racial paragon class learns to ignore turn resistance and generally is solid. The spells are nice, though death conduit, which allows you to share hp with an undead within 50 ft. you control as a swift action makes for a powerful option that can be a bit strong for a level 1-spell. The Nephandim settlement and sample character are neat.

That’s not where the pdf ends, though – we are also introduced to the CR+1 Bonescriven template and an extremely brief write up of Nergal, God of Death -who gets btw. access to RGG’s superb Hellfire domain from the “Genius Guide to Hellfire Magic” – don’t fret, though – the domain information is included.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are okay – not particularly flawless, though – there is quite a bunch of punctuation errors, inconsistent formatting etc. to be found here – mostly not influencing the ability to understand the rules, though. Layout adheres to TPK Games’ elegant, printer-friendly 2-column b/w-standard with glorious pieces of original b/w-artwork. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience and unobtrusively hyperlinked.

TPK Games’ mastermind and author Brian Berg knows dark fantasy and knows the undead – his prose is exquisite and while most campaigns will balk at reintroducing an iteration of the death-god Nergal into their pantheon (and thus lose some of the cool fluff’s bonuses), the races per se can be easily transported into a setting. And the base races per se are interesting – while I would not advise on flat-out making the book available to PCs, the races support diverse playstyles, even offering new options for campaigns (deathless souls, baby!) and are diverse enough to feel very distinct from one another. While the templated races require special playstyles, the others feel like they can fit in respective campaign niches and while the wording of their write-ups has a flaw here and there, the problems per se are not that pronounced. The archetypes are a mixed bag, the racial paragon-classes on the nicer end of the spectrum.

But alas, there are problems. This pdf’s issues can be summed up in one word: Feats. If I didn’t know better, I would think that a completely different author wrote these. Brian Berg usually tends to get feats right, but the ones herein brim with issues – breaking balance, failing kitten-tests left and right, sloppy wordings – these feats often utterly break otherwise nice, balanced classes, providing sometimes a power-level that is ridiculous, sometimes failing to specify their limits/benefits and one even breaking potentially any campaign’s logic. Yeah, that bad.

So on the one hand, we have some truly awesome prose, cool concepts and neat ideas with minor issues and then a whole class of crunch that is almost universally flawed in its execution. This book has potential, oh yes, it does, but it also feels rushed, like it was abandoned halfway through. As much as I love some of the content, I can’t rate this higher than 2.5 stars, rounded up by a slight margin to 3 for DMs. As for players – you MUST ask your DMs, who should consider carefully which part of these rules to allow in your game…low-powered games and those very conscious of precise wordings should round down instead.

Endzeitgeist out.

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Aug 122014
 

129540[1]By Endzeitgeist

Dungeon Entrances, a Dungeon Dressing-installment, clocks in at 11 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page advertisement, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page SRD and 1 page back cover, leaving 6 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

What’s the first thing a noob-group trying their hands at Rappan Athuk will tell you? Yep. “We’ve been TPK’d by the entrance.” The first page makes one thing clear, if you haven’t been aware of it before (or by that anecdote) – a dungeon’s entrance goes a long way making a dungeon memorable. For the truly time-starved DM, 16 ready-made entrances are provided in the first table, several of which sport interaction opportunities for skill-checks, including DCs and all – what about a locked portcullis with an evocation-magic radiating phoenix, for example?

A 50-entry-strong, two pages spanning table of dressings and features can be used to add unique and memorable dressings to the entrances – including illusion magic (including disbelief-DC), graves of adventurers, abandoned campsites – foreshadowing potential galore, once again interspersed with minor crunch even minor treasure to be found.

A total of 6 traps is also part of the deal, spanning CRs from 2 to 6 and coming with variations to amp up the CR, if desired. Fusillades of arrows combined with pit traps and mist and lightning +storm winds + elemental-summoning make for interesting traps indeed, all provided in RSP’s extremely easy to use trap-statblock. While not explicitly multi-round in every trap, the effective results from springing these boils down to the players being occupied for a while…and don’t worry – just because one is called “Death Trap Foyer”, does not mean that these approach Rappan Athuk’s level of lethality…

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I didn’t notice any glitches. Layout adheres to RSP’s superb, streamlined and printer-friendly 2-column b/w-standard with thematically-fitting, neat b/w-stock art. The pdf comes fully bookmarked and in two versions, one optimized for screen-use and one to be printed out.

Greg Marks delivers a memorable little tool for effective foreshadowing, with all tables breathing flair and style galore. The traps themselves are detailed and actually explain how they work rather well, making it exceedingly easy to integrate them, even for DMs like yours truly that actually require their players to roleplay disarming of traps… My only gripe with this pdf is admittedly mostly cosmetic – I would have preferred a less conservative trap to be included as well. This is cosmetic, though – the pdf still justly deserves a final verdict of 5 stars, just short of the seal of approval.

Endzeitgeist out.

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Aug 042014
 

Ayutthayan_MonkBy Endzeitgeist

This installment of the player’s option-series introduces us to a variant monk class, the Ayutthayan Monk and clocks in at 13 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page credits -leaving 11 page of content. Yeah, my pdf weirdly has no SRD.

The Ayutthayan Monk gets d8, 4+Int skills per level, a completely custom list of weapon proficiencies, AC/CMD-bonus of +1 (scaling up to +5) when unarmed/unencumbered and even remaining when flat-footed and touch attacks. They have all good saves, 3/4 BAB-progression, scale bonus movement rate to up to 60 ft, increase unarmed damage to up to 2d10. ALl in all, quite similar to the regular monk, so where are the differences? Well, at 1st level, the monk gets a bonus feat called Wai Khru Ram Muay, a dance that can generate ki, but only temporarily – i.e. the ki is short-lived and dissipates after 1 minute. Still, this means up to 10 (!!!) points of ki that can freely be burned away. This is a problem. Ki is a non-exclusive, non-regenerating resource that plenty a class/book utilizes for various means and taking away the restriction and making ki so easily available can break the game fast and hard, even without digging too deep in your pdf collection…

Let’s continue: At 2nd level and every two levels thereafter, the Ayutthayan Monk gains another Dhoi Muay-feat though the choice is slightly influenced by the levels – low-level monks have less choices. They also get their ki-pool at first level, evasion at the second – sooner ki pool, but no other downsides. The class also gets a weapon-themed bonus feat at 3rd level and every 4 levels thereafter. The class also gets body hardening-feats from the tree provided herein as well – these make use of the rules from the “Strategists & Tacticians”-book. The thing here is – not all people use this book or even own it and while I *like* the support of the rules, some alternate benefits would have helped, especially since the abilities are ingrained in the class. If you were always interested in the bone breaking maneuver as presented in Strategists & Tacticians – this pdf has all the necessary information and thus has rather cool supplemental crunch here.

At level 7, 12 and 20 the Ayuvatthan Monk may choose one of 9 sacred tattoos. These work as major bonuses, with bonuses to attributes, saves, unarmed damage and skills etc. being among the benefits. They also have slots (can’t have two tattoos in the same slot) and generally, are cool ideas. Problematic, though – a continuous protection from evil-granting tattoo lacks e.g. an effective CL of the effect/info on when/how to reactivate it after it’s been dispelled. It should also be noted that this version of the monk does not get purity of body, diamond soul, etc. The pdf also provides quite an array of new feats inspired by Thai boxing, if the nomenclature so far has not been ample clue.

Generally, let me step out for a second and say – YEAH. Thai boxing is damn hardcore and since my first girl-friend came from that cultural background, her brother actually taught me the basics. Getting even the basics right means you’ll hurt. A LOT. The feats per se, in concept, live up quite well to what they aim to achieve in reproducing the hardcore power of these fighting styles. On the downside, their wording is sometimes less than optimal: “With a successful unarmed attack as a standard action, you may use an attack of opportunity against the same opponent, making a single unarmed attack at BAB -5″ – does this mean the ability to execute the AoO automatically kicks in whenever one does just an attack as a standard action (as opposed to a charge/ full attack) or does it mean it only works when you initiate the attack explicitly as a standard action with the intention of doing the trick? The feat then allows the foe a save vs. DC 10 +1/2 class level + str-mod or be 1d4 rounds stunned. The feat also mentions “Costs 2 ki points.” What does that mean? The AoO? the stunning effect? When do you have to expend the ki points to activate this? And yes, the sequence matters. Which is generally a pity, for the feats, which often use AoOs as a kind of resource to add to combat maneuvers generally can be considered distinct and flavorful. Also interesting – a feat that allows you to make a ref-save versus an attack roll to mitigate the attack while fighting defensively and follow that up as an immediate action with a trip attempt that also deals 1d3 damage and knocks the foe prone. The question being: Why not unarmed damage? Is str-mod added? AoOs and the like have been taken into account there. Also mechanically a bit wonky would be horse kick – as a full-round action, make an acrobatics-check versus opponent’s initiative – on a success, attack at BAB-5 for double damage. All right – Acrobatics vs. Ini? Makes mathematically not much sense, the discrepancy is vast. Then BAB at -5 for double damage? Not that enticing. I like the base concept of the feat and think it can be salvaged, but as written, it’s too weak, especially since it and just about all these feats also cost ki.

I’ve danced around the issue here – (see what I did there?) – the concept per se is cool, the wording sloppy. A simple example “You gain a +3 competence bonus to initiate or

maintain a grapple.” So, does that mean I get both bonuses? Do I lose the initiative bonus upon maintaining a grapple? Can I opt out of the grapple bonus to maintain the initiative bonus? It’s a simple line and one that can be found in plenty a feat, but here both author and editors obviously have slept – I’m used to better quality control by 4WFG/PDG. Now not all feats suffer from such glitches, but enough do to be a problem.

We also get two nice new monk weapons and a new 1st level sample character.

Conclusion:

Editing on a formal level is good, on a rules-syntax level…not so much. Formatting is fine. Layout adheres to PDG’s printer-friendly two-column standard and the pdf has no artwork apart from the cover. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.

Damn. Concept-wise, this is by far the favorite base-class by Sean O’ Connor I’ve had the chance to review – I love the idea behind this variant monk, I love the slight power-increase…but I can’t deny the issues. The regenerating ki is a HUGE no-go and the overall pdf suffers massively from sloppy, convoluted wordings. The complex feats often get it *almost* right – it’s evident that something extraordinary, experimental and cool has been tried here and you can *see* what to be excited about in this one. Then you start reading and ambiguities galore creep up. From suboptimal wordings to downright confusing ones, weird rules/balance-decisions… It almost looks like there was this great concept and all base concepts done…and then, interest was lost by those involved and the final implementation of the concepts rushed out. This one has the full potential of 5 stars + seal of approval when fixed in all regards by a talented rules developer. Once the too strong/too weak feats have been brought in line, the unnecessary and excessive ki-costs streamlined, the wordings cleaned up – then this is an actually damn cool book. As much as I love so much in here, I can’t rate its potential, I have to rate what’s here – and what’s here is unfortunately very flawed. This would potentially score even lower, but the fine potential does not warrant that – hence, my final verdict will clock in at 2 stars.

Endzeitgeist out.

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Aug 042014
 

Purple_mountain_v_the_descentBy Endzeitgeist

The fifth installment of Purple Duck Games old-school mega-dungeon crawl is 46 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of SRD – so can the fifth module maintain the streak of stellar modules that have recently graced the Purple Mountain? We’ll see!

This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.

Any DM who has ever run a mega-dungeon had this experience: At some point, even in hostile depths, the players need a homebase to study, retreat to etc. Preferably one that is not as monster-infested and/or hard to access/easy to defend. Enter this level, which not only spans a variety of heights (as evidenced by 4 maps, lending a sense of depth to the module), but also an uncommon premise, but let me go on a slight tangent first:

Let’s face it: The underdark is a damn scary place – more so in a dungeon. Even before monsters and vile civilizations enter the fray, the claustrophobic sense of entrapment is a very real danger we all can relate to – as is the sheer weirdness of what can be encountered in the depth. When I saw my first stalactite, dove into the first subterranean pool of water, I felt a sense of exhilaration derived from an explorer’s mien that is so hard to come by these days as well as a profound sense of the alien, of a place not meant for men. Many modules forget this sentiment of feeling like one doesn’t belong – not so this one, for this level of Purple Mountain actually is an investigation.

Yes. An investigation. In a dungeon crawl. And one that actually makes sense! But let me elaborate: This level is essentially the story of a “safe zone” gone horribly awry – the adventuring group that once made this place their base has suffered a terrible fate, having been driven slowly into a paranoid insanity by subtle fungus spores lacing everything. As an old Ravenloft-DM, I’m all too aware of the power of sowing paranoia and distrust not only between characters, but also players, but the way in which this module does it is awesome, because it’s subtle – because you don’t expect it. As the PCs explore the place and unearth the puzzle-pieces that paint a disturbing tale of suicide, hatred and escalating violence, so do they slowly descend into madness, lest they take heed and carefully nurture bonds of trust – a glorious opportunity for roleplaying, which may be handled sans mechanics or with them: Either option for the paranoia-inducing fungus is given.

Beyond even that, the areas per se actually feature one of the creepiest adversaries I’ve seen in quite a while and provide some rather horrific experiences a DM can further enhance by the virtue of this level’s special qualities. And yes, before you ask – there is enough to be done for all those aficionados of hacking and slashing things to pieces – it’s simply not the module’s only (or even cardinal) virtue. Another interesting facet of this installment of Purple Mountain would be the fact that, yes, we once again get the useful lists of treasure etc. and their value, and yes, the treasure is above what one would expect -but the respective treasure is also not always easily transportable, unwieldy or simply hard to find – so yeah, something I can get behind. Another thing I’d especially like to point out towards any authors really: If you craft elaborate back stories (helloooo, PFS!), make room for the PCs to actually GET TO EXPERIENCE/PIECE TOGETHER the story. This module does it right – by putting together the pieces, the PCs can actually find the cause of what has happened, making the module succeed where so many have failed – and without resorting to captain exposition to boot! And yes, I’m aware I’m being uncommonly vague about the details here – but I wouldn’t be able to do them justice here and I really think you should see for yourself.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I didn’t notice any glitches. Layout adheres to PDG’s 2-column printer-friendly standard and the module comes with some really nice pieces of full color, original artwork. Furthermore, the pdf comes fully bookmarked and with player-friendly high-res maps of the complex. The cartography does its job and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.

Third in a row. There are not many series that have done it – Purple Mountain now officially has. Author Josh McCrowell does not disappoint after the stellar third and fourth installment and adds his own twisted take on paranoia, horror even, by providing this eclectic mix of brains and brawns, a module that can be a crawl, but works just as well as an investigation, by creating a dungeon-module that could be toned up to emphasize the fantasy or the horror aspect, “as”, the bard would have said, “you like it.” For once, roleplaying does not fall by the wayside in a dungeon crawl and the intricately-crafted level of detail and sheer ingeniousness of the place makes this once again a 5 star+ seal of approval recommendation and further cements Purple Mountain as a dungeon you should not let you pass by – especially since it works so easily as an insert into just about any other subterranean complex. Old-school dungeon awesomeness indeed.

Endzeitgeist out.

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Jul 272014
 

mindjammerBy Paco Garcia Jaen

Mindjammer is a mammoth tome of an RPG straight from the mind of the talented Sarah Newton, experienced writer and designer with a catalogue of games that include Monsters & Magic, Legends of Anglerre and many others.

Mindjammer came to my attention for the first time years ago when the novel in which the universe is based was published. I devoured it. Knowing Sarah’s writing I knew it’d be good writing, but I was really unprepared for the story scope and magnitude of the setting.

As you can imagine I was gagging for the roleplaying game, and when I saw the book my heart both sunk and soared all at the same time.

I have a couple of things to say as means of disclaimer. Firstly I know Sarah very well. She’s a friend. Thus this review won’t be unpleasant and it will be a bit biased. Having said that, I will be as objective as I can.

Secondly I didn’t like FATE when I tried to read it. I had heard a lot of good things about it and I backed Evil Hat’s Kickstarter campaign. I got less than 1/2 into the book and I had to put it down. I just didn’t get it. That made me read this book a bit begrudgingly.

This review is not exhaustive either. This game is too large to review it in one go, so this is the first or two reviews.

My heart sunk because when I said earlier that it’s a mammoth tome, I really meant it. Clocking nearly 500 pages, this hardback is a mighty beast and a heavy one at that. Sturdy hardback with a *gorgeous* full-colour map courtesy of Jason Juta and 24 pages in full colour with the rest of the pages in black and white. I’m afraid I am not a friend of huge tomes anymore.

And it soared because I know the absolutely amazing setting Sarah has come up with and seeing the amount of work and material thrown to it made me very, very excited to find out what was inside the book. Also, to see the production value of the book was heart warming. It is really a fantastic quality game.

So with a fair bit of trepidation I opened the book and started to read. As suspected, Sarah’s writing is approachable and easy to get on with. That is helped by a great layout and a good choice of font that let your eye glide over the pages without a problem.

The book contains 25 chapters (I told you it was mammoth) and they cover everything from some basic introduction, the rules basics, character creation, rules, skills, stunts, cultures… all the way to appendices that contain a few character and environment sheets.

The Introduction and the Basics chapters are all the players need to get started. There is enough in those two chapters to give newcomers an idea of what’s going on and how to use it. It’s by no means enough to run the game, but it manages to convey the atmosphere and ethos of the game well enough to get you going.

Then we start with the heavy duty stuff…

Character creation is a doodle. It is suggested that the character creation process to take place during a session and do it as a collaborative exercise between all the players. I would certainly agree with that. In fact I think is something most roleplaying games would benefit from. In Mindjammer’s case it’s more poignant because of the scale of the game. Mindjammer is a space opera with the potential to host adventures at an inter-galactic scale and consequences that could affect entire civilisations. Creating characters synergistically will help the adventures not get out of hand.

Cultures, Genotypes and Occupations and the game start to shine. This is a setting placed 15.000 years in the future. Things are bound to be a bit different. And they are. Consideration has been given to genetic manipulation, evolution, transhumanism, alien contact… You name it, is there. And is there in a way that invites you to explore and create your own variants. Ideas kept coming almost effortlessly.

And then we got to the rules. And at last I can say I now get FATE. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Sarah has managed to delve into the FATE system in a way that gives sense to everything I couldn’t understand in the FATE core book. The abilities, compels, dice rolling, stunts, consequences, skills and extras are covered in the following chapters and now I get it. And I even like it!

Then the game shines a bit more. The technology episode is tremendous. Believable-sounding explanations that are actually based on a layer of real science grabbed me right away and, once again made me think about the possibilities. And there are many of them.

Playing and Gamemastering Mindjammer gets a thorough cover in the following chapters, and thank goodness for that. This game is immense and the scope for it to get too big is just as immense. Mindjammer is so huge that one could just stand and wonder “so what do I do” and not know what to do because of the magnitude. These chapters help with that. A lot.

The Mindscape is one of the pivotal aspects of this game. A network so vast that can hold the consciousness of billions of beings and the memories of anyone who’s connected to it. Vast and vastly powerful spaceships travel between planets to update the databases and make them available to all to access. Like our current Internet with a neural connection and so hugely vast we can’t really imagine its size. Of course you can get inside it and play as an entity directly interacting with any conscious being, virus, defence programs, firewalls… Like TRON but a lot better, bigger and more exciting!

Starships, Space Travel, Vehicles and Installations are probably the weakest chapters. Not because they’re weak, at all. They have some fantastic examples of ships, vehicles and weapons of all kind. It’s just that they’re the most predicable chapters. Admittedly it’s very difficult to come up with something truly new and innovative on that ground and, to be perfectly honest it doesn’t really need to be. There’s some comfort in the familiarity of space travel as we know it from Sci-Fi tradition. Also it leaves you, the player and GM plenty of space to come up with your own ideas, which is something Sarah tells you to do throughout the book.

I am going to stop this first part of the review here because the next chapter, Organisations blew me away and I rather leave it for the next instalment than add another 500 words to this one.

So far my heart is soaring with this game much, much higher than it sunk when I saw the size. Even if I weren’t interested in playing (I am) I would recommend this book for the advice, ideas and sheer amount of useful data it contains.

Second part of the review with my conclusions coming very soon!

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