Oct 182013
 

1-to-the-edge-of-the-map[1]By Megan Robertson

The first part of the Slayers of the Great Serpent saga for Dungeons & Dragons 4e, this adventure for characters starting at 1st level takes them on an epic journey.

Publisher’s blurb: “The story begins when a messenger arrives at the royal court with a warning of apocalyptic magnitude. A terrible menace that is about to awaken; heroes are needed to cross the ocean and travel to the distant East in order to search for the lair of a gargantuan snake known as The Destroyer and The Eater of Worlds. These heroes must travel far from their homes, and try to find the country where the Great Serpent lives. Very little is known about this land, save for rumours that it lies to the east of distant Xi, a strange and romantic kingdom on the other side of the ocean. Nothing will be certain on this journey, not the final destination of our heroes, or the incredible dangers that they are sure to face. If no one can find this monster and lay it low before it rises from its torpor then the world will fall into an age of darkness and become transformed into a nightmarish hellscape of misery and death.

“The majority of this adventure takes place while the adventurers are traveling; they must contend with both the everyday hazards of life on the road as well as cowardly plots initiated by an agent of the Church of the Destroyer. Before they can think about crossing the ocean, the adventurers must first find and reach the coast of their own continent. The first task they will need to accomplish is to leave the borders of The Kingdom by the Sea and then cross the dangerous Iron Ridge Mountains. On the other side of these mountains the adventurers will encounter a violent and lawless region known as The Outlaw Kingdoms. Should they make it across this land and yet live, they must still face the unknown dangers of the enchanted Forest of Night. It is here that the adventurers will brave a final showdown with the mysterious agent that has impaired their progress from the start. During the confrontation, the cultist summons a horrific Nightmare Snake, a living fragment of one of the Great Serpent’s dreams.”

Megan’s review

A journey begins with but a single step… but here the first stage in what promises to become an epic journey-based adventure, one where much of the adventure is the journey, sweeps the characters from attending a jovial festival across the breadth of the land and indeed towards the edges of explored territory.

Beginning with a campaign overview and then delving deep into background, the product starts with a collection of monsters, items and other game mechanics – including the theme ‘Hero of Song’ which is rather interesting – before looking at an overview of the lands which will be travelled. There’s a lot for the DM to take aboard, but it is well worth it to aid in the development of a rich background through which the party will travel. Throughout, there are suggestions for running the adventure from motivations to participate through to nightmares the characters may suffer.

With the overarching theme being one of travel, the actual adventure itself is presented in a wonderfully flexible way. Once the characters have accepted their task, you are presented with a range of encounters and events to run as appropriate whilst the party travels through the areas which have already been described. The party has freedom to choose their own route and most events can occur as and when you decide during their travels. Random encounters and notes on survival are also provided. It is important to highlight how the journey begins in lands familiar to the characters, but how every step takes them further into unknown territory.

The flexibility of this approach allows the DM to tailor the adventure to his players’ tastes. Events where role-playing or investigation might be appropriate are presented in such a way that challenges can be met through die-rolling or by playing out the encounter as preferred. There are also specific quest targets set which may be attempted or ignored… some are incidental, some will advance the core plot. Everything is well laid out with all the game mechanical information you need to hand, and plenty of flavour text on which to base your descriptions. At the beginning, in particular, there is quite a lot of ‘read aloud’ text to get essential information over. You may need to break this up or otherwise vary the presentation to avoid players being overwhelmed by ‘info-dump’ especially if they are not the sort to enjoy listening to lengthy discourses.

As the adventure gets into its stride, however, there are plenty of opportunities for the characters to engage in combat and in the struggle to survive often hostile environments. Again, game mechanical information, appropriate maps and notes on the opposition’s combat tactics are put at your fingertips. To add variety, there’s a story-telling challenge and even a pub game called Seven Tiles for which sufficient information is provided for you to recreate it if wished, as opposed to disposing of a game with a couple of skill rolls which other groups might prefer. There is even a dungeon-crawl (just the one) which provides an action-packed session… and this episode ends with a good fight!

An appendix provide full-page versions of all encounter maps ready for you to use as appropriate.

Overall, the adventure is excellent with a wide mix of activities to suit all types of group with inherent flexibility to enable you to delve deeper into those encounters that most interest your players and a tight plotline that yet manages to work in a ‘sandbox’ style giving players the feeling that they are very much in control of their own destiny.

Book Details:
Author: David Caffee
Publishers’ Reference:
ISBN: 9781304382900
Paperback, 100 pages
Date: September 2013

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Jan 032013
 

108996[1]By Paco Garcia Jaen

I like crunchy things. When I have a sandwich at lunch time, I like to have a packet of crisps with it (that’s chips if you’re in the US of A) and eat it with my sandwich because it adds a touch of saltiness and a lot of crunch. What can I say, I am a crunchy kind of man. But it has to be the right kind of crunch. For example, the crunch from pork crackling or cheese and onion nachos (I don’t like cheese and onion) wouldn’t be right. Also it has to come in the right dose. I don’t to have to have a huge slab or crunchiness, I want bite sizes.

This product is to D&D 4E what a packet of crisps is to my sandwich. It adds that extra bit of crunch.

The problem some people may have, though, is that 4E is already quite crunchy and this product might prove to be a bit too much for their deeply stuck in the game teeth.

Enhanced 4E is a collection of extra rules that have been designed to work specifically with D&D 4th Edition. They take concepts already present in the rules and take them further to create a more realistic experience. Or at least bring it a bit closer to reality.

The advantage of that is that it makes the game a bit more believable. It can sort out a lot of arguments and, generally, make things clearer. The disadvantage is that it adds complexity to an already complex system.

No, 4th Ed might be easy to understand, but it’s complex. More than some and less than others, but complex nonetheless.

The presentation of the book is the standard of officially published D&D books by Wizards of the Coast. I will say from the start that I haven’t seen the physical version of this book and I am writing this review based solely on the PDF, which, although is unlike me, I thought I’d make an exception.

The physical book can be obtained through Lulu. I haven’t had any particular issues with Lulu’s books in the past, but I haven’t blown away by them either. I know people who are super happy with books from Lulu and people who are disappointed. I’m afraid you’ll have to buy this book to find out what group you fit in.

The layout is the typical two columns. There is nothing special about it and it is fairly easy to read for a rules book. Caution, don’t read the whole thing in one go… more on that later.

There were some things I really liked about the design and some that made me feel “meh!” about it. The “meh!” bits were when I saw the text inside some text boxes touching the edges. Sorry guys, padding. You need padding. I don’t care if WOTC started the trend of making the text touch the sides of the text boxes. It looks sloppy and it should not happen. There were other minor details, but they are more about having missed a chance to improve rather than having done things wrong, so I won’t go into them in this review.

The illustrations are excellent, I have to say. The book is well stocked of both illustration for purely decorative and ones to showcase the execution of the new rules. Both are pretty stunning. The decorative illustrations are either photographs of game sets. The sets, mostly made out of paper cut buildings and ornaments are terrific. Whoever has put them together has spent a long time cutting, pasting, assembling and generally taking good care of it. The photos have been well taken and treated in some software to make them look consistent throughout. Something a lot of companies with a lot more experience should take good note of. The pencil drawings that dot the book here and there were also really good. Some of the 3d renderings of creatures brought back that feeling of “meh!”, but there aren’t that many, so don’t worry about those.

The editing, although is not bad, could do with some TLC. There is a huge amount of word repetition and, although I can understand this is rather unavoidable, like the use of the word “square”, a watchful and careful editorial eye could have gone a long way to make it better.

The content is, simply put, superb.

The book is separated in 7 chapters, each chapter covering a different area of the ruleset. The first chapter introduces paces instead of, or rather as well as, squares. Yes, now you can measure distances in steps in stead of squares for more precision. Good thing? You’ll know exactly how far your spell or your arrow gets. It will add to the arithmetic and measurements.

Chapter two deals with motion states. This was my favourite chapter. It delves into what happens if you finish an action in a move state, or in a static state. Now this might sound like something you don’t need, but when you read what the consequences and how to use the in-motion state to your advantage, it’s actually pretty sweet.

Actions get attention in the third chapter with the introduction of off-turn actions (amongst other thing). The aim of this chapter is to add rules that allow players to actually do things while it’s not their turn. This can help the problem some groups experience when there is a combat in which only one player acts and it can take a while until you get to act again.

Chapter four expands on chapter two with special in-motion movement. I won’t go into detail on this one, but I’ll mention two things: Spring and Vehicle Movement. I will only say that I’ll be using both in my games from now on. Yes, they are *that* good.

Chapter 5 is all about counter offences and defensive actions. Again more rules are added for concealment, riposte, a new way to look at health points and healing surges to make combat quicker… For my money this was the weakest chapter. Don’t get me wrong, it is full of great ideas and they make sense, but, whereas the other rules jumped at me and some of them really made me excited to play 4E next Wednesday, this one left me lukewarm.

Chapter 6 deals with terrain. The rules in here were terrific. They really add some depth to the way can use obstacles, ledges, asses fall and how it can affect combat. Some of the rules are truly excellent!

The last chapter is basically a collection of pieces of advice to help run the game with the new rules. However they also apply to the game without these rules.

Conclusion

In a nutshell, this book takes 4th Edition D&D closer to a wargame. This is not a bad thing, though.

The way the book has been designed allows you to implement the rules as you learn them. If you like something, great. If you don’t like something, great too. You don’t have to use it and it will not affect the outcome of the other rules. Being able to implement them at your own pace maximises its usefulness. Vastly.

I didn’t want to like this book when I first started to read it, I will be very honest. I thought it was going to be yet another supplement from people who think they know better and want to turn 4th Ed. into the game they thought should have been in the first place, and then make a hash of it.

Well, they are the type of people who think they can make the game better, but they actually do a pretty good job out of it. So I had to like this book. Gladly.

It has to be said that it is not for everyone. If you don’t like crunch in your game, ignore this book. If you want more depth and enough information to turn your D&D evening into a squirmish sort of game, hurry up and get this book.

Overall I think some the rules will truly enhance the game if you think you can execute them quickly enough. If you’re quick at arithmetic and measurements, the paces will fit you very well. If you are like me, with little arithmetic ability, ignore. And so on and so forth.

The level of thinking and detail in the rules is truly smashing, though, and credit has to be given to the designers for really picking on the details that can seriously improve the ruleset.

Totally happy to give 4 stars to this book and give it a hearty recommendation.

Enhanced 4E: Combat in Motion is available from:

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Jun 072012
 

51uYt7UeGEL._SS500_[1]By Paco Garcia Jaen

Ever since I read the first one, I have been a massive fan of IDW’s series of D&D based comic books. As you can imagine, when this one came out, I was almost with the finger on the mouse to get it right away. It wasn’t what I was expecting, though!

First, the Story. After receiving a letter from her beloved, Khal rallies Fell’s Five and heads back to the Dwarven Stead where he came from to look for her. After an unexpected welcome and fighting off a fair number of Kruthiks, they set off in a rather dangerous journey that will take them in directions they truly didn’t expect.

And neither did I

The quality of the book is just tremendous. Great thick hard back, fantastically well bound and with thick paper that won’t torn anytime soon. The colour is vivid and the printing pretty much flawless.

The artwork is simply put, excellent. From Tyler Walpole’s excellent cover, to Andrea DiVito’s interior work and the illustrations by Andres Ponce, Nacho Arranz and Vicente Alcazar, they are well chosen and well placed. In fact, this time the art direction has been a bit more consistent throughout the book, which is great!

The script is just as good as in previous books, though the story itself is a bit more forced too. This one, although is good, feels more like a gateway story to provide with some sort of continuity for a larger plot in future books.

It is a joy to read, though. Characters are taken very good advantage of and the sense of humour around the book its simply superb. This book will make you laugh often!

However this is where the good news end. One of the things I have liked the most in this series so far is how some of the locations and monsters have been presented as encounters one could play around a table. For me that makes all the difference as it is the perfect product. You get stunning stories perfectly presented and then the way to play them with minimum effort. Ideal!

In this book, though, we only get the stats for the Kruthiks. And just the stats. Barely a paragraph with information about the animals. Why?

Conclusion

This book is indeed worth buying and, if you’ve got the previous two volumes, you certainly should get this. For the price it commands, there is absolutely no excuse. The problem is that, because the other two volumes are so much better, this one can’t shine as it should. And that is a pity.

The lack of at least some of the locations and maps from the story are very much missed. Having set a very nice precedent in other books, missing them here just doesn’t make much sense.

For that and because of the story being weaker (although still good) compared to the previous issues, 3 stars to this very worthy title.

You can buy Dungeons & Dragons: Down in:

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Jan 242012
 

dungeons_dragons_volume2_firstencounters[1]By Paco Garcia Jaen

Not long ago I had the pleasure to get my hands on the first volume of the D&D First Encounters saga, the Shadowplague volume. It was a treat!

Just in case you haven’t seen that review (you should) or have the book (you should too), this is a graphic novel published by IDW and featuring a D&D adventure. Or part of one at least.

IDW is well known. They have done TONS of stuff for various franchises, including also Dragon Age, and is a well seasoned publishing company capable of producing truly stunning work.

This is indeed one very good example.

The plot is simple. Our group of adventurers, after various happenings and mishaps in the first volume, end up in the Feywild. Since that is far a safe place to live in, they start to look to find a way back home. Hopefully in time too, we all know how dodgy time is in the Feywild.

The artwork is GORGEOUS. Not just nice, or lovely, or even great. No. It us truly stunning. Absolutely lovely illustration throughout, the inking is great, the colours vivid with terrific lighting and detail, the attention to detail just fine… this book oozes professionalism from cover to cover.

To make matters even better, the illustrations used to mark the chapters, mainly from Tyler Walpole are just fantastic. Also the ones by Jorge Lucas, very much in the style of early Jack Kirby and Stan Lee comics, are extremely well crafted. Although they are not my cup of tea, I cant deny the quality of those illustrations.

The script is terrific. The characters come alive easily. The personalities and idiosyncrasies making up for the obvious clichéd used when creating the gang of adventurers. One Human (Fighter), One halfling (Rogue, of course) , one Dwarf (Cleric. Of Morodin, no less!), one Elf (have a guess…. yep!.. a ranger!), one Tiefling (no… this is the Warlock). I told you it was clichéd!

Still, the characters genuinely feel real and have tremendous dynamics around them. The typical cheekiness and recklessness of the Halfling contrasts with the more uptight and sombre mood of the Tiefling; while the fighter and the ranger have more of a “been there, done that, and got the chainmail” attitude. And they are funny. Some of the lines in that book are just absolutely incredible and had me laughing in the bus on my way to work, much to the annoyance of the half awaken people around me.

At the end of the book there is the “adventure”. This is a somewhat short collection of some of the encounters in the graphic novel. It is not a step-by-step, or encounter-by-encounter recollection of the whole comic book, though, which is a shame because if that were the case, you’d have the best presented and quickest to prepare adventure ever. And I mean EVER!

Regardless, the encounters are very well planned, the cartography by Jonathan Roberts (Fantastic Maps) and the layout make this an absolutely perfect starting point for a set of adventurers. If you are a newcomer to being a GM, you want to buy this book and start here. It truly is perfect for that.

Conclusion

To say that I liked this product is an understatement. I genuinely love it. But not just because it looks lovely and all the other virtues I have mentioned at in my review.

The main reason I like this product is because it is quintessentially Dungeons & Dragons with all the good bits. There are lot of encounters in here, with the right amount of storytelling between them to provide continuity. Add to it a good dose of characterisation, and you have the perfect gaming session translated to paper in the shape of a comic book.

The way it manages to actually “feel” D&D is very exciting indeed, and, unless I am the only one feeling that way, it comes to show that the old game still has a lot to offer to the old gamers. And to the new ones too!

5 stars for this excellent book!

You can buy Dungeons & Dragons First Encounters – Vol. 2 in:

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Dec 192011
 

dungeons_dragons_volume1[1]By Paco Garcia Jaen

For all the slack they get, and I am guilty as any of that, when Wizards of the Coast get it right, they get it right!

I got this book at Dragonmeet pretty much by accident. I stumbled upon it in the second hand table and, because it was cheap and it was colourful, I bought it. Little did I know I was going to enjoy it so much and what it kept inside!

First things first.

The book is a hard cover graphic novel. When I say hard, I mean hard. As hard as any Dungeons & Dragons that WotC has published for the last few years. Hard. And just as well bound. Those pages are going nowhere any time soon. The paper is thick, with a lovely finish to them and the illustrations are colourful and vibrant.

They also had the good sense to give the work to be done by the professionals, and IDW has been the wisely chosen company. If the impressive catalogue of work by IDW doesn’t get you excited, the names they feature should. With John Rogers and Andrea Di Vito at the helm of this graphic novel, it was unlikely things would go wrong.

The story is typical D&D. A group of adventurers stumble upon a series of events that could destroy the world around them and they’re the ones to stop it all from happening. The characters are somewhat clichéd, but then, I wouldn’t be expecting anything else and that’s fine. However, their personalities do shine through and Rogers has the stunning ability to surprise you more than once during the adventure. There is also a certain amount of inventiveness in the way the characters use typical D&D powers and magic, which was rather refreshing.

The thing I liked the most, though, was the back of the book. What you get is a few pages describing the major events of the comic book in an adventure style so you can actually play it at the table with your friends. Fantastic!

My only caveat with this approach is that not all the locations that really mattered in the adventure were there. I am not sure if they will be displayed in the second volume of this adventure, so won’t complain about it too much.

Conclusion

I can’t support this product enough. I love it.

I love the initiative of bringing quality graphic novels, both in the quality of the production and the quality of the story. I love adding the table-top adventure at the end of the book. I love the price, affordable and good value for money. I love the artwork and I love the script.

Leaving some locations behind in the mapping was a bit silly, though. I know I said I wasn’t going to complain about it too much, but it mattered enough for me to take one star out of this book.

As a humble suggestion and maybe a way for this to progress further as a product, please include big maps like the ones supplied with other adventures. I would gladly pay another £10 for a nice set of maps!

Well done Wizards of the Coast, and well done indeed to IDW!

You can buy Dungeons & Dragons Volume 1: Shadowplague from:

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Sep 052011
 

the-haunting-of-larvik-island[1]By Megan Robertson

Dungeons & Dragons 4e: The Haunting of Larvik Island

Publisher’s blurb: “For centuries the legendary exploits of the mighty warlord Larvik have inspired storytellers and adventurers. Despite his glory, Larvik’s fortunes were lost in the war between his sons following his death. What remains is a dangerous island that bears his name and the legend of its treasure accessible only once every 35 years.

“The time is at hand! Will your party be stout enough to explore the island, defeat both natural beasts and lost souls, and decipher the mysterious markers Larvik left behind? Will you uncover the lost caverns before time runs out and the secret is hidden for another 35 years? Or will you merely become another footnote in the history of the many who have fallen never to return chasing the legend of Larvik Island?

The Haunting of Larvik Island includes a rich history of the island, over a dozen new original monsters, and detailed encounter notes to help GMs bring the adventure alive on game night. The adventure also contains a summary of important locations, NPCs and myths to allow the GM to easily customize the adventure for their own campaign setting if desired.”

Megan’s Review

No messing, straight in to the Introduction, with an adventure summary for the DM and providing background to Larvik Island and what’s really to be found there. Are the rumours about vast treasures left behind by Larvik the warlord and adventurer of old true? Or has someone got there first?

There are some nice touches about embedding Larvik into the local area as a figure of historical significance and renown, useful for flavour whether you are running this stand-alone or intend to embed it into an existing campaign. Maybe the characters see a statue in the town square or even hoist an ale in the Larvik Arms whilst you set them up to begin the adventure. Two different quests are provided for you to choose from based on the interests and motivations of your group, or they may have already heard rumours of treasure to be had and need no further prompting to go and investigate. As they prepare in the local township there is opportunity for some role-playing interaction to gather legends – some useful, some less so – about what they might find on the island. It’s kept to a minimum unless you want to expand on it, so that eager characters can just get on with the adventure.

Next comes a description of the island as seen from an approaching boat, and information about what they’ll find when they land. The location of the entrance they are supposed to find is detailed as well, which will require some thought and mapwork… actually, this reminds me of an early exercise I teach in my land navigation class! It doesn’t get too cerebral, though, there’s plenty of encounters with local wildlife and more to keep them on their toes, before they find any of the subterranean places provided for them to explore.

The entire adventure is a pleasant meld of an ‘old-style’ approach to adventure design coupled with the precise detail for each encounter that the D&D 4emechanics provide. Several evocative player handouts are included, not just maps and notes but some of the ‘you see this’ style of illustrations reminiscent of early modules. Intended as the first part of a series of adventures, this will work fine as a stand-alone, or part of your own campaign (which could, of course, accommodate further adventures in the series if you see fit). It’s a good example of what can be done to provide exciting low-level traditional adventures with this ruleset.

Book Details:
Author: Stephen Newton
Publishers’ Reference: TSA001
ISBN: Unknown
Paperback, 44 pages
Date: June 2011

The Haunting of Larvik Island is available from:

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