Category Archives: Reviews

Please relax and enjoy the show!

…an immersive visual and audio experience…

I last played Final Fantasy VII when it came out originally. I liked the original, and probably count as a fan of the franchise generally, though my favorite iteration remains Final Fantasy VI, and I have slightly less experience with the modern action-leaning incarnations (X, XII, XIII, XV, and various spin-offs). Playing Final Fantasy VII Remake was probably the most sustained attention I have directed toward a video game in the past 10 years, taking about 40 hours total. While this may partly be due to the current shelter-in-place pseudo-quarantine context, it nonetheless speaks to the engaging spectacle and beauty of the reimagined Midgar. So keep that in mind as you read on. There may be spoilers throughout regarding the original FF VII storyline, as well as some spoilers near the end about the way the remake approached the material.

In the train graveyard

The original game was linear—almost all FF games are linear to some degree—and especially so during the initial Midgar sequence, which is the only material the remake covers, ending as Avalanche leaves the city. Since I started writing this review, I also played through the Midgar sequence of the original on Nintendo Switch, which took me about six hours, meaning the expansion/inflation is about sevenfold. Though lengthy for a prologue or tutorial section, the Midgar sequence works well in the original partly because the railroad feels subjectively like it opens up once the player finally reaches the overworld map and can begin to explore the mysteries of the Ancients and Sephiroth in a more self-directed manner (though this is somewhat illusory, as there are often a limited number of choices and a clear next step). In contrast, the Remake is one scene—quite literally—after another, leavened somewhat by numerous side quests (though many of the side quests are thematically weak “find lost cats” style collect tasks). The side quests seem inconsequential most of the time, and are limited to particular chapters. The strongest aspect of Remake is the visual care with which it was clearly constructed. In comparison to the original, the way the developers maintain and add detail to the original designs is impressive. Even putting aside the new plot elements—which I will discuss more near the end—the game aspect of Remake also has some shortcomings.

Memorialization

These gameplay shortcomings include some strange difficulty/balance issues, intrusive minigames, and confusingly modeful play. As a brief aside, Remake offers three difficulty modes: classic, easy, and normal. Hard mode becomes available after you beat the game. “Classic” is a nod to players desiring something closer to the original combat system. This is realized by replacing player controls with AI for basic attacks, dodging, and blocking, leaving the player to only select special moves and spells when the stamina bar (or whatever it is called) fills. Hard (which I have yet to try) only becomes available after beating the game; hard mode prevents the player from using items and makes rest areas only restore HP (no MP replenishment). Classic mode makes the combat much easier, rather than just changing the style, to the degree that it almost feels like cheating. I would say that the combat difficulty is moderate near the beginning of the game (probably easy for anyone even slightly better than me at action RPGs) and gets steadily easier. I defeated every boss on the first try except the Airbuster robot and the motorcycle sequence monster truck thing (which uses a different combat mode). So, the game has to be pretty easy, even on the highest difficulty mode available initially. I deferred to Classic mode twice early on, once with the rabid dog quest and once with the first Reno encounter (because he is twitchy AF). This is a long way around to say that the goal of FF7 Remake seems to be more sumptuous visual novel than gaming experience.

Picking flowers

The minigames are either forgettable or mildly frustrating. Further, they tend to be separate from other gameplay skills and unique to the particular minigame, rather than building on previously developed skills. In the Remake’s defense, the minigames in the original are just as distracting (and far more prevalent than I remembered, even just limited to the small portion I replayed). However, the original generally has clearer breaks between game modes, allowing the player to easily predict how the game will behave, whereas in the remake gameplay, cut scene, minigame, and in-between modes blend together and functionality sometimes disappears or shifts confusingly. The Remake also has issues with communicating contingency to the player, by which I mean connection between what the player does and what happens in the game world. Sometimes it is unclear whether you are just pressing a button to advance or performing some skilled action. For example, I still have no idea whether Tifa’s progress in jumping chandeliers in the Shinra building had any connection to what I did with the controller, but I ended up with a keycard in the end so whatever. I suspect the Remake would be improved without most of the minigames. (It seems like the developers recognize this at some level, because one of the perks unlocked by beating the game is the ability to skip the motorcycle sequences when replaying chapters.)

This calls for a song

The combat is satisfying, and fits the FF VII style, especially once you get the hang of some basic tactics. There is a slow motion, bullet time effect that occurs when you pause the action to issue commands, which is realized beautifully. Most of the strategic decisions involve distributing materia—the items that enable casting spells or using other abilities such as summoning—between characters. There is a subsystem with a separate experience point economy for upgrading weapons, but the choices seem hard to get wrong so the whole subsystem could probably have been automated and hidden from the player without loss.

No promises

Now I am going to discuss the Remake-specific aspects of the story. The game has a lot of potentially meta content, as in communication from developer to player directly rather than through storytelling, so much that it has to be intentional. Throughout the Remake, mysterious ghost things (“whispers”) intercede to shape the narrative, and while a final interpretation will need to wait on the next installment, it seems like the whispers will be an excuse to write a new plot going forward, especially given the final premature encounter with Sephiroth which, no matter the direction future games take, short-circuits some of the slow burn of discovering the nature and power of Sephiroth in the original game. The strange title and marketing also makes more sense in the context of future divergence; it is not Remake part 1 because part 2 will be a different story. I suspect the subtitles of future games will make this clear; perhaps the next installment will be called something like Final Fantasy VII Rebirth. The closest analogue to what I think the developers intend is the rebuild of Evangelion, the first installment of which roughly kept to the original anime. However, the second and third Evangelion Rebuild movies became steadily more baroque additions with new plots and characters.

Cloud chilling

The neo VII project more broadly—perhaps a series, perhaps a nascent “cinematic universe”—is ambitious and as yet unclear, though it seems from the signs in Remake that the creators are comfortable taking a demolitions approach to nostalgic fandom. While I have no trouble maintaining distance between the new and the old—after all, the previous game remains unchanged and cheaply available on many platforms—I suspect that many other fans feel differently, so this seems like a strange stance to take on the part of the developers. In total, the game was enjoyable and visually striking enough that I can see myself playing it again at some point, but as such a small portion of the original plot and with cumbersome retcon groundwork, Remake also feels like a opportunity missed.

(All images are screenshots I took during my play-through.)

Spire of Quetzel

The Spire of Quetzel is a collection of four adventure sites: The Spire of Quetzel (by Patrick Stuart), The Bright Vault (by Chris McDowall), The Hexenwald (by Ben Milton), and Graveyard of Thunder (by Karl Stjernberg) written for the game Forbidden Lands, which bills itself as retro open-world survival fantasy. I take this to mean something similar to the hexcrawl or west marches play styles. In these play styles, stocking the wilderness with sites to explore is a (perhaps the) central responsibility of the referee. This will likely be familiar to DIY/OSR/classic gamers, where dropping modules onto a campaign map is common practice.

Below, I will first discuss the physical book and then consider the adventure sites contained within, both as modules for Forbidden Lands and for potential use with OSR games. (As shorthand, I refer to each entry using the title’s first noun (Spire, Vault, and so forth). In sum, the book as artifact is excellent; I have no complaints. All four entries are distinctive, creative, and clearly created with an eye to actual play at the table, especially compared to other offerings of modular adventure content. Further, the scope of adventure sites as suggested by Forbidden Lands is highly functional for the kind of exploration-focused game I like to run. Despite this, the trend for successful OSR products seems to be moving away from this level of modest complexity, toward the magnum opus.

Book and Layout

Hard to emphasize how nice the book feels in hand

The physical book is gorgeous and feels well-made. The cover material has a texture that reminds me of painter’s canvas, but slightly thinner. The binding is stitched. I find the interior style attractive, all in high-contrast black and white, with a crisp and restrained aesthetic. Fantasy references are vanilla-adjacent, but with a fairy tale sensibility, closer to Warhammer’s Old World—but with less Renaissance—than to mainstream D&D. The layout is superficially pleasing but is weakened by often failing to keep related content on a single spread. One of the major advances in adventure layout I have seen over the past few years is organizing sub maps and map keys all within the same spread—for layout examples in this mode, see the Lamentations products Forgive Us and Cursed Chateau. Using spreads and excerpt-fragments would improve the usability of all the sites included. This is a difference between good and great, however; as is, the information design is okay but nothing special.

The presentation of each site uses what feels like a system-mandated template, which includes, in order: elevator pitch, background, legend, rumors, locations (this is basically the map key), monsters (or NPCs), and events. Using a template in this way involves a tradeoff. On the one hand, it guides referees (or supplement writers) toward table-relevant content (legends, rumors, events, and so forth). According to the Gamemaster’s Guide (p. 6), players are supposed to learn about the setting through play at the table. No homework! Score one point for the template. On the other hand, following the format strictly feels occasionally like a straight-jacket in practice, especially when entities are referenced prior to being introduced or described. The individual entries are short enough—less than 20 pages each—that the necessary page flipping remains manageable, but the process of initially learning about the sites as a referee is more disorienting than it needs to be.

Utility for OSR or Classic Game Referees

Forbidden Lands uses its own system, which is different enough from TSR D&D that converting actual numbers directly on the fly looks to be impractical. OSR/classic game referees will need to either A) be comfortable making up stats based on the descriptions or B) spend preparation time figuring out how to convert numbers more formally. I would personally be fine with A) and avoid B) as a waste of time, but take this into consideration based on your own referee style. The challenges presented are compatible with OSR type games. If you use XP = GP rules, you will probably need to add some value here and there.

Adventure Content

Forbidden Lands organizes adventure site into three categories: castles, dungeons, and villages. The four included here are listed as castle (Spire), dungeon (Vault), village (Hexenwald), and dungeon (Graveyard), but the actual entries correspond only loosely to these types, with Graveyard being most conventional of the four. Spire is more a nightmare romp through a collection of situated vignettes than an architecture that can be explored.

Early on, Spire presents its legend as a Spencerian stanza, which gives some foreshadowing for the style of what is to come. Rather than spatial or geographic maps, the areas are loosely connected spaces of feeling or emotion, which lends a sense of immateriality, at least from the perspective of the referee. The areas are striking and distinct enough that they carry it, but be prepared to improvise the layout of elements such as a maze or a nightmarish “city of black spars” on your own as required. The meat of the site is several set-piece encounters, all of which are compelling. Also, it has a boss fight, so if you want to see what a boss fight by Patrick looks like, this is the adventure for you.

The Bright Vault is a prison for several demons. While it could be run as a simple dungeon heist, there is potential for more by playing the demons and their captor off against each other. This entry could have used some reorganization. Perhaps a solid orienting paragraph would have been enough. As is, using Vault requires a lot of bouncing around to figure out what is going on. For example, one of the major NPCs, regularly referenced throughout, is only described at the very end of the site. Like all the entries, Vault is short—18 pages including the art—so this is only a small inconvenience. The demons themselves, and the resulting situation, involve one of the stronger organizing themes of the four entries, though I think it may also require the strongest referee skills to juggle and roleplay the social interactions of the various entities.

Hexenwald is listed as a village, and could play the role of shelter from the wilderness, but really describes the homes of several related witches. Well developed locations such as this are underrepresented in modules despite having high utility for adding seasoning to a hexcrawl. The particular format of a Forbidden Lands site feels somewhat constraining here. I think it might be better served by some sort of more graphical relationship map layout, or some way to easily review the goals of the various witches without needing to reread the character descriptions again. If I end up using Hexenwald, I will probably add some countdown clocks for several of the listed events to increase the dynamism of the location and how it interfaces with the rest of the setting.

I love details like this—from Graveyard of Thunder

Graveyard of Thunder is a dungeon in the middle of a dinosaur graveyard. In some ways, it is the most traditional adventure site in the book, with a subterranean complex and several factions of humanoid creatures struggling for dominance. It could be played as a simple dungeon delve or involve more complex social posturing and diplomacy. The challenges and hazards are well designed to support creative play. There are also a number of evocative flourishes—I appreciate the wind chimes chamber—that remain grounded rather than dialing everything to eleven. If I had to make one criticism of the site design, apart from the layout and organization issues I already mentioned several times above, it is that the map mostly remains anchored to the horizontal plane, and a dungeon involving dinosaurs and caves might benefit from more verticality.

I wrote most of this post a while back, but just ran The Bright Vault today in person for a pickup game, to kick the tires on Black Hack 2E. Really, in my head I situated all four adventure sites, but the players’ approach took them to Vault, so that is what hit the table. It ran well in practice, though the layout does require substantial page flipping, as I suspected. One of my players correctly guessed the author based only on the play experience and the clue that it was written by an OSR author that he was at least somewhat familiar with.

Conclusion

The scope of these adventure sites—which is also the scope advocated for by Forbidden Lands generally—is perfect for OSR content. This scope demands of a writer more elaboration and detail than something like a one page dungeon while respecting the referee’s time. In contrast, the current mandates of commerce seem to be summoning ever greater, more baroque endeavors. I think it is inescapable that commercial pressure has led to an inflation of ambitiousness and page count over time.

As a bibliophile, I can attest to liking attractive, substantial, hardcover books with solid, stitched bindings. And according to James Raggi, retailers like books with spines. It would be hard to market adventure sites like this individually as physical products, apart from as zines, which seem in practice to have some commercial ceiling. Spire gets away with presenting sites of this scope by being a compilation and also by riding on the coattails of a successful crowd funding venture for a deluxe format core game boxed set.

This recent inflationary trend has a different character than the simple pressures of payment by word, which bloat an essentially simple, boring thing until it reaches some commercially appropriate extent. In contrast to the bloat problems of yesteryear, newer material tends to be higher quality, both in terms of ideas and in terms of production values, due to community advances in techniques and the proliferation of new social media platforms.

Though there are counterexamples, such as Witchburner, the trend seems strongly to be that the market is rewarding more ambitious projects, with larger scope. This might be good for publishers and creators, and perhaps for the cause of game materials as art, but I am unconvinced that a shelf full of monumental works best serves the practical need of referees. This is a long-winded way of restating appreciation for the scope of the entries in Spire. I think the most useful tools for hexcrawls—and maybe megadungeons too, which can be well served by modular presentation—are probably closer in size to Forbidden Lands adventure sites than to the currently proliferating larger works.

In terms of RPG publishing, Spire is also notable for, in Ben’s words, being the first time a non-OSR book has intentionally hired an all-OSR writing team.


Purchase info

  • Date: 2018-01-31
  • Price: part of a pre-order bundle that was, all together, 799 Swedish Krona—approximately $90 USD
  • Details: PledgeManager preorder, includes shipping

The Spire of Quetzel was part of a bundle that also included the main Forbidden Lands Boxed Set, the Raven’s Purge campaign book, dice, cards, and PDFs of everything.

See here for my approach to reviews and why I share this purchase info.

You can buy the fancy hardcover version here and the PDF version here. The main product line page is here.

Woodfall review

Woodfall bills itself as a dark fantasy mini setting. I would describe it as a setting toolkit, inspired in form by Vornheim, but with less emphasis on content generation tools and much more emphasis on particular realized locales. There are more fish in this basket than manuals about how to fish or tools for fishing. I backed Woodfall based on the strength of the sample art, and if you appreciate the gloomy storybook aesthetic (which I do), the final product delivers on that dimension in spades. For the physical book, the format is roughly digest sized perfect bound (print on demand) softcover. Within are 32 pages describing the settlement of Woodfall, 11 adventure locales of several pages each, and nine pages of new monsters. There are also subsystems for harvesting resources from monster hunting and crafting items. The PDF is 96 pages including cover and everything. Overall, the writing is concise, though more functional than artful, and play usability looks high. The art is profuse and evocative. On the downside, Woodfall’s tone is saturated with unsubtle, somewhat distracting satire.

Though I described the writing as lacking artistry, the illustrations more than make up for any shortcoming in the prose, and on balance the writing is fine but unexceptional. In terms of visual style, I find Woodfall to be one of the more enjoyable independently produced RPG products to have come out over the past few years. Even just the map of the Woodfall settlement alone is a fantastic, memorable locale that faces off respectably against any other town I can bring to mind from other modules. Memorable settlements breathe life into hexcrawls, but remain scarce as supplements. Visual presentation grants elements that might otherwise be overly prosaic or tedious a gloss of game utility, such as a a diagram of economic resource flows, though proof of this potential will be in the play. The visual component of Woodfall was clearly a labor of love, and nothing feels phoned in. Woodfall’s second strength is unfailing attention to game utility, with consistently inventive and generally non-generic ideas. Much of the complexity lies in relationships between elements. For example, the presence of a particular non-player character in the wilderness dampens the danger from a particular monster. Players can learn about and make use of this fact creatively. Another, in the form of a wandering monster: gossip earfish lurk around the swamp listening in on conversations have tiny mouths and communicate exclusively in very faint wispers [sic: caught a typo] (p. 74). These two examples only scratch the surface, and are the kind of thing that makes a module more than simply an exercise in stocking a map. The result is a rich, articulated framework that looks like it will respond in satisfying ways to player actions and choices.

That all sounds fantastic, but Woodfall does have one substantial weakness, which is a somewhat off key and inexpert sense of humor. Unlike Melan (see here for his review), I read Woodfall’s subtext as satirical rather than po-faced, more Addams Family than revolutionary vanguard. However, even tongue in cheek, the tone is a bit much and somewhat awkward. For example, the fairy liberation front—a resistance movement among faeries which fights against the enslavement and exploitation of faeries (p. 31)—is the kind of charming nonsense that often (inevitably?) emerges from table chat organically. I consider this to be a true shortcoming, rather than just an expression of my taste, and independent of any particular politics, because the players at my table (or yours) will readily add this finishing noise themselves, and it will be funnier, tailored as it will be to events of the moment and the idiosyncrasies of your table. Noisms’ post about D&D as straight man expresses a similar idea in a more general way.

A handful of other points deserve mention, both positive and negative. The hex map is usable and attractive but lacks coordinate numbers. The secondary locales are evocative and well-illustrated, but only lightly detailed, so referees that prefer more complex puzzles or challenges may feel poorly served (though as noted above, the relationships between the elements are rich with potential for exploitation by creative players). The swamp factions matrix—which captures alliances and enmities—is filled with mostly game relevant entries, but would be more useful with text labels accompanying the faction icons. As written, the setting of Woodfall secularizes sorcery in the presented setting, which tilts the atmosphere toward disenchantment. Curiously, this is at odds with the evocative illustrations. A referee running a low magic game will need to adjust descriptions accordingly. Finally, there are few crafting systems available for classic/OSR games, and the approach here, fully illustrated of course, looks both tractable and fun.

Personally, I consider the overbearing humor to be a venial sin, especially given Woodfall’s many other strengths. Unfortunately, the increased reliance on associative rather than deliberative thinking in the current intellectual climate means that many people will likely tune out before giving it a chance. Put another way, the badge of humorless activist boyfriend (to mangle Melan’s stamp of disapproval) may ruin what seems like an otherwise useful supplement for readers with condescension detection meters dialed up to full sensitivity. Ultimately, I think using Woodfall’s framework with modified tone and references would involve minimal hassle, even improvising at runtime, and offer substantial payoff. Considering the strengths and weaknesses of Woodfall, I wonder if there is a place for the module equivalent of silent cinema, supplements having minimal text that deliver content primarily through illustration and graphic design. Inventory v1 (my review) or A Land Called Tarot (AV Club review) could perhaps inform this kind of product.


Purchase info

  • Date: 2018-07-11 (backed) & 2018-12-06 (POD order)
  • Price: €15.00 + $5.62 CAD (at-cost POD softcover) + (a few more dollars for shipping) = $25-30 USD total
  • Details: Woodfall: A mini hexcrawl setting Kickstarter project

See here for my approach to reviews and why I share this purchase info.

Aquaman 2018

Here are some disorganized thoughts about the new Aquaman movie. There will be some light spoilers, but who are you kidding? Nobody goes to this movie for the plot. More below the big image of Atlantis, in case you want to bail.

Atlantis (Image source)

There is a copy of Lovecraft’s Dunwich Horror on the coffee table that that camera ostentatiously caresses during the prologue sequence. You know that you will be getting a Hollywood take on deep ones or something along those lines. And you do. Deep ones and scary friendly Cthulhu beast.

There is a scene quote of a Tie Fighter dogfight pursuit, underwater, with Ocean Master standing in as Vader.

Ocean Master (Image source)

Speaking of Ocean Master, the actors are, how do I put this, visually enhanced using digital means. It was well done generally, and presented no distraction for me during the movie, but afterwards I went to see who played Ocean Master, and (no shade) but Patrick Wilson is not the blond I was expecting.

Cool helmet (Image source)

The plot is in structure highly similar to that of the recent Black Panther movie, but with Atlanteans rather than Africans, and an error of commission rather than an error of omission on the part of the wicked king. There is a kingdom with magical technology hidden in the modern world, a ritual gladiator challenge of kings, and a big battle scene at the end that I swear Peter Jackson stealth-directed. (I found the battle scene in Aquaman more entertaining than the one at the end of Panther, though.) There are, among other things, crab mecha, giant incendiary catapults that are also seemingly crabs, fish people in power armor, and what look like an underwater crustacean take on space marines. Ocean Master jousts to battle on a colossal caparisoned barracuda rather than use his underwater spaceships with lasers.

Atlantis, with more spaceships (Image source)

Yes, the movie is probably too long, and the plot is 90% predictable, and sometimes you can see it in the actors’ eyes—Do I really have to say this line?—but there are a few sequences of close to cinematographic brilliance, such as the descent into the trench during the storm with the swarms of deep ones, revealed by the light of a red flare, or the chase/fight over the roofs of Sicily. The architectural spectacles of old and new Atlantis are stunning at times as well.

Aquaman (Image source)

The scary friendly Cthulhu-beast is 90% Smaug. Which is fun, I suppose.

This Aquaman clearly checks the box for the “rugged” Grindr Tribe. I get the angle, and Jason Momoa pulls it off. I could do with the stylist turning down the Rob Zombie dial slightly for the next movie though.

And finally, if you ever wanted more Joseph Campbell in your superhero movies, Aquaman has you covered.

More Atlantis (Image source)

Final Fantasy Ultimania Volume 1

Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1 covers the first six Final Fantasy games, only three of which were originally released in North America. Physical quality is high: the binding is stitched and the paper quality is worthy of an art book. Props to Dark Horse. The overall content and layout is geared toward nostalgia, but that takes nothing away from the beautiful artwork. See the linked video for my full review (duration two minutes & 36 seconds).


Gallery

Final Fantasy Ultimania Volume 1 on a bed of blue velvetFinal Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1

Final Fantasy Ultimania Archive Volume 1


Purchase info

  • Date: 2018-10-17
  • Price: $44.70 CAD ($22.84 USD on Amazon.com at the time of this writing)
  • Details: Amazon.ca (product link)

See here for my approach to reviews and why I share this purchase info.

Forbidden Lands first look

Gamemaster’s Guide, p. 5

Forbidden Lands is a recently translated Swedish RPG that has many elements, both mechanical and aesthetic, placing it in the old school rules/hexcrawl tradition. The crowd-funding effort billed the game as retro open-world survival fantasy. The text focuses on exploration, emphasizes that player choices should drive the narrative, announces that player character death happens, and offers many random tables to help generate content.

The art is all black and white. It reminds me of Mentzer’s edition of Basic D&D in terms of style. The tone is, at first glance, quite vanilla. There are humans, elves, dwarves, halflings, goblins, ogres, dragons, and so forth. However, details sometimes tell another, often deliciously wicked, story. For example:

Teramalda had been taken prisoner, but her armor could not be opened. The hot-headed dwarven lord Garmar Four-Beard, drunk on power and alcohol, had the priestess thrown on a bed of hot coals during the victory banquet at Lumra, to bake her like a shellfish. He swore to eat her heart himself after it had been tenderized into submission. Perhaps the god Rust chose to heed Teramalda’s prayers for martyrdom, because the armor with her scorched body suddenly tore free from its shackles, rose from the fiery coals, and killed Garmar and his bodyguards. Since that day, this creature, a rusty suit of armor, roams through Ravenland hunting for enemies to slay. (GM Guide, p. 24)

And:

Zygofer’s daughter, Therania, had taken to the young king and offered him to be her husband and slave in return for his life. When he turned her down, she had him killed, brought him back to life with her necrokinetics, and took his dead body for a lover. (GM Guide, p. 30)

On dwarves:

They claim that since the age of myth, they have built and expanded the bones of the world, a sphere so large you can barely see it curving at the horizon. The sun and stars are hearths in faraway forges the god has placed to entice the builders until they can use them when they have built their way there. … There are massive ruins across the Forbidden Lands, seemingly useless constructions the dwarves claim are the foundation for the next layer of the world. (GM Guide, p. 56-57)

On whiners:

The so-called “whiners” are small, skittish humanoids who are hunted by both orcs and humans, since they are said to have “sweet meat”. It is said their living flesh has a healing and fattening ability, so infected or deep wounds covered by parts of a whiner heal quickly. … For all these reasons, whiners are caught in traps and held in cramped cages thus allowing them to be “harvested.” This process is, of course, very painful and in the end lethal to whiners, which is why they hate all other kin … (GM Guide, p. 69)

Gamemaster’s Guide, p. 10

That’s a whole lot of fantasyland names, but it’s memorable enough that I don’t even care. It feels a little bit like paint by numbers (so what are my orcs like?), but then the result ends up being creative more often than not. Undead are apparently a fact of life, just because, but “restless dead are rarely aggressive” and people often “go to the burial ground to sooth the restless dead with music and simple conversation, speaking to them as if to a child” (GM Guide, p. 45). Of course there are liches and so forth to destroy also, but these sorts of details give some parts of the official setting a pastoral, mournful air.

It is a quirky mix of precious campaign world with procedural generation and dynamic events. History, gods, and kin (what would be races in mainstream D&D lingo) take up a full 54 letter-sized pages near the start of the Gamemaster’s Guide. The setting has some elements that I would probably jettison, but I did actually read all of that material, and I usually end up bouncing off setting prose pretty quickly. I would probably replace the blood mist with something else, for example.

I will leave most discussion of game systems and mechanics for another post, but I will note that a great deal of care on the referee-facing side of things has been paid to providing functional tools that produce concrete results rather than just principles and platitudes. I have nothing against principles, but some meat on bones is nice too. The final few sections of the GM Guide (approximately 80 pages) are dedicated to guidelines for creating adventures sites, including a host of random tables, and three worked examples representing a town, a dungeon, and a castle (about 20 pages each). Some of the table entries are relatively pedestrian. The oddity of the village inn is… drum roll… a stomped floor! And the village is famous for… delicious bread! And the village oddity is… full of flowers. Wait okay that is kind of interesting; I can work with that. To conclude this overview, here is the map for the worked “castle” adventure site, Weatherstone:

Weatherstone—Gamemaster’s Guide, pp. 218-219

The Forbidden Lands official site is here.


Purchase info

  • Date: 2018-01-31
  • Price: 799 Swedish Krona (approximately $90 USD)
  • Details: pledge manager preorder, includes shipping

Contents:

  • Forbidden Lands Boxed Set – English
  • Raven’s Purge – English
  • Forbidden Lands Custom Card Deck – English
  • Forbidden Lands Custom Dice Set
  • Soundtrack
  • PDFs

See here for my approach to reviews and why I share this purchase info.

Economical zine storage

To state that I am not the biggest fan of Ikea would be… let’s just say an understatement. However, I try to regularly question my biases, and while making another expedient purchase, I decided to look for some boxes to use for hardcopy zine storage. I found FJÄLLA, which looks relatively attractive on the shelf, is perfectly sized for zines, and is $4 USD per box. I ordered a few (7×10¼×6 dimensions, article number 703.956.73), and they arrived today.

The quality is reasonable, especially given the price. The apocalypse will probably do FJÄLLA in, but as long as you avoid sitting on them, I suspect they will do a satisfactory job of holding your zines. If you are curious how the thing assembles, check the goofy instructions. I have been on the lookout for something like this for a while, so I thought it might be useful information for others as well.

For transparency (following my recent thoughts on good reviews), the purchase details were: order placed 2018-09-06, price paid $23.96 CAD (four units), and shipping $17 CAD (but that included a small hanging wall cabinet too).

(This kind of review post is rather uncommon for me, so I want to draw attention toward my policy regarding reviews: Any reviews I post here are based on purchases, not free review copies. Not that Ikea would solicit my publicity, but it is the principle of the thing.)

FJÄLLA, on a bed of blue velvet

FJÄLLA, on a bed of blue velvet

FJÄLLA, on a bed of blue velvet

Good reviews

A critic is someone who enters the battlefield after the war is over and shoots the wounded.
—Murray Kempton

What makes a good review? This is my take, and is unapologetically opinion. There are plenty of useful reviews out there that fail to hit all these notes. But these constitute my ideal. This post was prompted and informed by several Google Plus conversations (here and here, at least).

Constructiveness

Reviews of tabletop RPG products generally concern finished products, so why bother with thinking about improvement? The ship has already sailed. First, focusing on constructive feedback forces the reviewer to really think about why something is a problem rather than just following feelings. Second, writing constructive reviews helps avoid snark. Third, providing constructive feedback reveals reviewer priorities and biases concretely. Simple criticism is often underspecified. For example, if a reviewer says that the monsters were too generic or too simple, the reader has to infer the meaning of generic or simple from past experience or make their own best guess. If the reviewer says that the monsters would be improved by adding attack routines and combat weaknesses, then the reader knows that the reviewer is specifically looking for tactical complexity in monsters and can weight the review accordingly.

Thesis

The best reviews use the review form to express a more fundamental idea, rather than simply evaluate a product. I imagine this criteria may be somewhat controversial. I understand preferring a focus on functionality and simple facts. However, reviews have audiences beyond just immediate buyers. They also inform future creators, including creators other than the original product’s author. For example, when I discussed Courtney’s Megadungeon zine, I framed my review around the idea of presenting a megadungeon piecemeal using the zine form. I make no claims about how insightful that particular thesis is, but that is what I mean by more fundamental idea. Someone else might run with the baton you provide. Reviews shape the form in addition to describing and evaluating.1

Focus on value

Price is what you pay, value is what you get.
—Warren Buffett

Apart from ease of use, which is in some ways a measure of future opportunity cost, when I review something, I try to pay attention only to the value. I do not see the role of a reviewer as to judge whether product X is worth Y dollars. First, who knows what the cost will be in the future? For example, maybe a product will get new pricing (such as becoming pay what you want), be included in a bundle, or go out of print and become scarce. Second, I lack the info to evaluate how the value I see might match up to any particular reader’s resources. One person’s extravagance is another’s impulse purchase. On reflection, while writing this post, I decided that it may be useful to include how much I paid, and when, for commercial products, as that makes it easier for a reader to make a judgment and also makes the source of the product clear. So when I get a chance I may go back through my reviews and include that information. And that serves as a nice transition to considering free copies for review provided to reviewers by producers, and the attendant incentives.

Absent conflict of interest

The best reviewers do not accept complimentary copies. I believe Bryce buys all the modules he reviews (“I bought this stuff and read it so you don’t have to”). Consumer Reports buys the stuff they test (“Our shoppers pay full retail and purchase all the products we test to generate our ratings from the same places consumers do; we accept no sample products for testing”). I would never review something I was given a free copy of for purposes of facilitating a review. A commitment to this principle has been in the about section of Necropraxis since before it was called Necropraxis. I think this helps to maintain editorial independence.

For a given individual reviewer, of course ethics can outweigh incentives, but in the ideal case the incentive will be absent. I need to know more about a reviewer to have a sense of whether the incentive will matter compared to a case where there is no incentive. Similar concerns justify why people often prefer to pay for a fee-only financial advisor, because conflict of interest is less likely. I don’t think this is a categorical taint, but it is a factor that must have an effect in aggregate. I believe a norm against accepting free copies for review would be beneficial.

The scene is small enough that there will always be some degree of nepotism in reviewing materials created by friends. This problem is different than the appeal to material self-interest inherent in free review copies, but is related, and is probably harder to systematically combat in a small hobby scene, but we can still try. I disclose in a review if I feel this is a potential factor. All I can say here regarding this principle is to do your best and perhaps try to put on a slightly more critical hat when reviewing something by a friend or acquaintance.

Absent numerical ratings

Numbers, or star ratings, when applied to reviews, are heuristics, designed to help the reader avoid deliberative thinking. Tabletop roleplaying products are way more complex than Uber rides, and Uber rides are about the most complex product or service that I think might benefit from using such heuristics. I prefer drawing attention to particular strengths and weaknesses, with explanations, rather than just providing numbers. Numerical ratings provide only an illusion of objectivity, unless they are tied to specific definitions, but even then I think ratings are more likely to get in the way of actual consideration.

Absent snark

Good reviews are entertaining, because who wants to read hobby material of any kind that is boring? Trashing someone’s work for the shit-stirring is the low road to entertainment, and can be particularly tempting when writing a review, as the mindset of reviewing is generally critical. As a writer, snark can be easily confused with wit. Unless you are Nietzsche or Wilde though, your snark is probably not witty.

Further, the Internet attention economy and social media feedback loops incentivize snarky reviews. In the short term, and maybe even in the long term, snark will probably get your blog more views. It might even be a road to low-rent celebrity. However, I would rather be respected by a small number of people for civility than known by a large number of people for being a clown. Of course, good reviews will honestly point out shortcomings or problems and avoid pulling punches, but there is always a way to do that without snark. Given the social dynamics and the technological affordances of the Internet, I am probably spitting into the wind here, but mean spiritedness and snark are the bane of thoughtful discourse.

Basis: play versus perusal

For RPGs in particular, it is also helpful to be explicit about whether the review is based on using the material in play or simply reading the product. Reading a product for inspiration or entertainment is a perfectly legitimate use of a game product, but the review reader may be looking for something else.

Consideration of format

I am a book snob. I like the physical objects, and poorly bound books make me sad. This means that, generally, I avoid print on demand books for anything other than small booklets or pamphlets. If it is hardcover, I want stitched bindings. I realize that others may have different concerns, but if I was reading a review, I would always like to know whether a hardcover book was produced using a traditional print run using offset printing and whether the book has a stitched or glued binding.


One of the more thoughtful professors I have had so far in grad school provided a template for writing reviews of academic articles in one of his classes. Though the task of reviewing an academic article differs from reviewing products in several ways, I think this template could still be a reasonable starting point. A functional review can often handle each of these points with a single paragraph.

  1. Description. Restate the core idea or main function of the work in your own words. Mostly avoid evaluation here. This ensures that you understand the author’s goal and potentially reveals misunderstandings earlier rather than later. In an RPG product review, it might be reasonable to foreshadow the overall evaluation either in a topic sentence or final transition sentence, but minimize judgment. If you have an idea around which you are organizing your review, here is where you provide an overture.
  2. Praise. List strengths. If there are no strengths, why are you even bothering? Deciding to review a product at all is a form of curation and publicity. There are no RPG products that are so bad that trashing them is a public service.
  3. Major shortcoming. Discuss the biggest problems. If possible, explain potential fixes. Keep this to one, or at most a handful, of issues, and prioritize.
  4. Minor shortcomings. Here is where you can unload on everything else. Again, explain potential fixes. This often works well as a list with bullet points.
  5. Conclusion. Tie everything together and summarize the overall judgment. Here is where you can best most effectively unfurl your opinion flags.

1. Tangentially, I think the same thing is true of good session reports. A good session report has a thesis beyond just a chronological list of what happened in play. Grognardia was particularly good at this. But that is a topic for another post.

Into the Borderlands review

Into the Borderlands is a hardcover compilation of the training modules B1 and B2, both originally published in 1979, along with conversions for fifth edition D&D. There are several intro essays reminiscing about experiences with these foundational modules, including one by Mike Mearls, currently manager of research and design for D&D. The early modules are scans rather than newly typeset and there are two printings of each original module, showing some minor textual and presentation differences. The conversion for fifth edition includes new black and white accompanying art and some expanded encounters. The original modules are classics for a number of reasons that I will avoid discussing much, but if you are curious some good places to start are the reviews over at Dungeon of Signs (B1 and B2). Also, check out this essay related to B2 on how limitation can help foster creativity.

Physically, the book has a stitched binding and, though on the large side in terms of width, feels solid and pleasant to hold. Though I can see this being only a collector’s item for many people, it would be usable as an actual game tool also. Apart from players only familiar with 5E, most potential customers probably already have copies of B1 and B2, if not physically then in PDF (drivethru links: B1 and B2). Because of this, the value that this product should add, for anyone other than a pure collector, must be over and above the simple information content of the original modules. The high-quality form factor definitely delivers on part of this.

Unfortunately, there are some weaknesses too. First, I noticed several typos, even just limited to the first few pages1. Second, the original module scans are a bit grainy compared to my older printing of B2. Third, while it is hard for me to really evaluate how useful the 5E conversion would be to a referee only familiar with that edition, from my vantage it does seem to waste some space. For example, who needs to be told in a stat block that siege weapons are immune to psychic damage? Fourth, this is a matter of taste, but I find the new art to be somewhat uninspired. The book also feels repetitive, given the multiple versions of the same module, and the 5E conversion further recycles a lot of text. This is somewhat baked into the product concept though, so take it more as a comment and less as a criticism.

There is so much potential in representing classic modules such as B1 and B2. However, the book for the most part ignores this low-hanging fruit. The three stocked examples of B1 dungeons are a step in the right direction, but there are many other unexplored possibilities. Goodman could have included alternative maps of Quasqueton, such as these beautiful examples from Dyson (one, two). Or, what about some creative play aids, such as maps annotated with content or player handouts? There could be essays about how to creatively flip some conventional assumptions, such as considering the keep as the target of heists. A discussion of adapting modules to local campaign worlds, along with possibly an example reskin, would have felt right at home and maybe even made the book a touchstone for thinking about integrating modules. For an example of creatively using the framework provided by B2, consider this idea about replacing the caves ravine with the Stonehell mega-dungeon ravine.

Overall, I am glad the book was made, and am continually impressed by the physical quality of Goodman volumes, but I wish that the compilers took more care with the finishing details for the text. I hope that Goodman continues the Original Adventures Reincarnated series with other classic TSR modules. That said, the product could have been so much more.


Purchase info

  • Date: 2018-01-29
  • Price: $49.99 + $9 (shipping) = $58.99 USD
  • Details: Goodman Games Store pre-order

See here for my approach to reviews and why I share this purchase info.


1. On the copyright page: 5E Edition (note redundancy). In Mearls’ essay: “It was the first D&D adventure I read, thought it would be years before I ran it” (thought should be though).

B2 room 12 fan art by Evlyn

Zines for megadungeons

(Being a review of Megadungeon #1, among other things.)

Since rediscovering fantasy roleplaying games sometime around 2011, I have followed the development of several home brew megadungeons. Some of my favorites include the taking-OD&D-seriously Dwimmermount, the Lovecraft-by-way-of-Vikings Black City, the Diablo-infused “precious shithole hellscape” Nightwick Abbey, the steam-age demonic fantasy cruise-ship-as-megadungeon HMS Apollyon, and the gleeful toybox-filled deity-haunted dungeon Numenhalla. These projects remain mostly unpublished1, present only as referee-musings, map-fragments, or, travelogue-style, as scattered session reports.

Numenhalla, however, is finally seeing (gradual) publication in the recent Hack & Slash zine Megadungeon, of which two issues are available as of this writing. This post considers Megadungeon #1, which contains a mix of referee advice, setting glimpses, some player-facing rules, and a couple intro dungeon areas. First, I will cover what I consider weaknesses, along with a few observations. Then, I will cover strengths and the promise Megadungeon (the zine) has for the practice of developing megadungeons for play.

The presentation has several weaknesses, the primary being transitions. Many of the sections began life as a blog posts, and it shows. This is only a minor flaw; in some ways, it even adds to the utility, creating a series of self-contained easy to reference nuggets, but it also makes the whole feel more like a grab bag than a carefully designed book. The amount of actual dungeon content in this issue is also rather small. While the two dungeon areas are wonderfully evocative, with beautifully hand-illustrated maps, they are also somewhat linear and detail only 15 keyed areas (dungeon content arguably occupies 5 of the 38-some zine pages). While I think it is a common mistake to attempt keying a giant sprawl of rooms when starting a megadungeon, rather than working with a more tractable map, I was still hoping for a bit more. That said, the creativity of the areas makes up somewhat for the quantity, and I realize that issue one also may involve more setting and play advice groundwork compared to future issues.

Crop from page 8

The biggest strength, apart from the obvious enthusiasm, is the art, which projects a sense of playfulness that is too often lacking in fantasy art. However, the playfulness never descends into explicit goofiness or self-deprecation, and at some points almost verges into a sense of the mystic (a good thing when attempting to capture the fantastic). The dungeon features themselves are often weighted with promise (see the pitch black door, for example). I have less to say about the various rules bits, such as the augatic class (a tin man style robot that gains new powers through upgrades), but they are well done and easy enough to drop into any game using a B/X type engine.

Though the last handful of years has produced several notable published megadungeons2, such as Stonehell, Barrowmaze, Castle Gargantua, and Maze of the Blue Medusa, I would still like to see more experimentation in different ways to present a megadungeon for direct use by someone that is not the dungeon’s author. To my knowledge, no existing megadungeon has used a zine format so I am curious to see where Courtney takes this. The closest approach I am aware of is the collaborative darkness beneath megadungeon published in the now-defunct Fight On!. Though there were a few standout levels, such as Sham’s level 2 and level 3, it suffered overall from a lack of coherent vision.

The zine format encourages zone-level publication, which naturally breaks down the task into more achievable units. While this might be less of a concern for Numenhalla, as I gather a large portion of the dungeon is already designed, it would probably be a good approach for any referee who wants to share their megadungeon. The major challenge using this form is that a good dungeon contains relationships between various areas, and this is difficult to pull off if one creates and publishes areas in sequences. How does one include a well-considered gate to level 5 in level 1 if level 5 is as yet undefined? Notably, the Numenhalla entrance halls do contain several (locked) connections to deeper areas, but we will need to wait for future issues to see if the dungeon can make good on this promise. 

Anyone interested in the idea of megadungeon play would probably get something out of this zine. As the text states:

Numenhalla lies beneath all cities,
All mounts and valleys,
And all lands.

As a disclaimer, I have gamed with Courtney both as player and referee.


Purchase info

  • Date: 2017-12-19
  • Price: $12.85 + $1.16 (local tax) + $5.32 (shipping) = $19.33 CAD
  • Details: RPGNow print on demand + PDF

See here for my approach to reviews and why I share this purchase info.


1. The ACKS-published extrapolation of Dwimmermount is the closest to publication for any of these dungeons, but ultimately completes a different project than the original idea behind Dwimmermount.

2. I make no attempt here to offer a comprehensive list of recent megadungeons, but the ones I listed stand out as attempts to push the form in various ways.