Category Archives: Reviews

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.


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. As with all my reviews, I attempt to review impartially, and always buy everything I review, never accepting review copies.


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.

Maze Rats review

2017-01-01-22-05-19-maze-ratsBen Milton’s Maze Rats is a traditional fantasy RPG ruleset in 13 landscape-oriented A4 pages (the last of which is a pair of character record sheets for printing). There is no art. Ben also runs the Questing Beast Youtube channel, the most active (as far as I know) video DIY D&D RPG reviewer. Maze Rats started as a hack of Into the Odd (which I discuss here) and still occupies nearby design space, though there is less implied setting. Maze Rats relies only on six-sided dice. For best results, players should have dice with different colors for the 36 item tables described below.

System Basics

The player-facing system uses three stats (strength, dexterity, will) and resolves outcomes using 2d6 + stat with 10 or higher indicating success. There are a number of other ad-hoc systems, such as the familiar side-based d6 initiative, but the 2d6 ability check is the workhorse. The standout rule for me is the simple but flexible class-free advancement system. The random spell creation and atmospherically named character features (briarborn, fingersmith, etc) are runners-up. My least favorire rule is XP rewards for “overcoming challenges” (I prefer more impartial and concrete rules in this area). It is a minor point though and trivial to house-rule.

Random Generators

2017-01-01-22-05-49-maze-ratsApproximately eight of the twelve text pages are mostly consumed by 36-item lists used to jumpstart game content. For example, there are lists of clothing adjectives, mutations, monster traits, and so forth. Each list is essentially a two-dimensional (6×6=36) d6 random table where you roll one d6 for the first blob of six possibilities and another d6 for the particular possibility within. This is clever but I still wish there were numbers on the lists (the d66 notation some games use would work well). Many tables belong to sets that work together. For example, monster = animal base + feature + trait + ability + tactics + weakness.

Sample Generated Game Elements

Random adventurer. STR +1, DEX +0, WIL +2, health 4, roofrunner (advantage when climbing, leaping, balancing), athletic appearance, tattoos, background: headsman, perfumed clothing, personality: stubborn, mannerism: overly casual, blah blah choose some more gear (random rather than alphabetic arrangement of the item d66 table would allow items at least to be done with a single d6 throw). I think I randomly generated Vin Diesel, or maybe wannabe Vin Diesel (given the physical stats).

Random spell. Formula: physical effect + physical form, name: resurrecting sentinel (the first word came from the physical effect table, the second from the physical form table). I think this probably animates a receptacle using a piece of the sorcerer’s soul (temporary max health reduction) which will attempt to raise allies that have fallen to zero health (STR check). The resurrection check risks bad necromantic voodoo (WIL check).

Random monster. Aquatic, anglerfish, gills (no too boring, roll again: plumage), colossal, spell-casting, tactics: ambush, personality: mystical, weakness: moonlight. So the anglerfish lure is clearly a fully-sized humanoid and this cyclopean peacock fish is trying to gather an army of hypno-drones to somehow get rid of the moon or block its influence.

These were the first three elements I used the rules to create and all turned out interesting so I count that as a system success. There are more sets of tables for other game elements (cities, wilderness areas, dungeons, and so forth).

Magic

As written, players randomly generate new spells during each recovery, which must be interpreted and defined. It seems like this would create wonderful opportunities for player creativity. At some level, however, this also makes all magic-using characters functionally identical given that they are all rolling on the same tables. As a player who tends toward magic-using characters, I might want more individuation.

There are a number of easy ways to push this system into more adventurer-personalized territory without jettisoning the novelty benefits of regularly determining random spells. Possibility 1: characters can prepare current spells again if desired rather than randomly determining a new spell. Possibility 2: characters can choose specialization defined by fixing results for one or more of the tables used to generate spells. For example, one sorcerer may be able to choose physical form spells while another may be able to choose spells with deceiving ethereal effects. Possibility 3: characters can record particularly desirable spells in a library at some cost. This would allow each sorcerer to build a unique collection of spells. Cost could be monetary, specific sympathetic component (probably requiring adventuring), or both. I would find this last library option particularly satisfying as a player. Any or all of these approaches could be used together.

Principles

The referee advice (last two pages of text) is gold. The principles are basically distilled community practices for a game focusing on exploration, lateral thinking, creative problem solving, and so forth. The advice may not be unique to Maze Rats, but it is tightly written and clear. I know of few better sources for concisely explaining what to prioritize when running this sort of game.

Conclusion

As I began reading Maze Rats, I was expecting another set of old school house rules, some of which might be useful to me in my continuous project of rules experimentation. What I found was a tight, well-written system with strong identity. I am curious if the lightweight chassis can stand up to an extended campaign.

A minor issue: the layout makes it hard to copy chunks of text. (That’s probably easy to fix using some option to the PDF creator software.)

Currently, Maze Rats is pay what you want on RPGNow. It has a creative commons license so you can hack it and publish what you make.

Disclaimer: Ben reviewed my book Wonder & Wickedness positively and includes my name in the thanks section of Maze Rats.

 

Review of Klein’s The Ceremonies (spoiler-free)

2016-12-26-20-59-41-klein-the-ceremonies-coverSeveral years ago, I was looking for highly-regarded recent cosmic horror novels. I asked online and somebody recommended T. E. D. Klein’s novel The Ceremonies. I finally started reading it a few months ago, somewhat distracted by other books and priorities, but made my way through it slowly and finally finished in a few days ago.

One way of looking at The Ceremonies is as a 500-page callout to others in the know. The primary viewpoint character is a young, unaccomplished assistant professor of gothic literature, Jeremy Freire. Jeremy regularly discusses the various horror novels that he is reading to prepare a syllabus for a class he is planning to teach. This device allows Klein to drop literal references to the existing corpus of cosmic horror and its genre predecessors. Some key works within this literature even serve as diegetic plot elements, such as a short story by Arthur Machen. Because of this, The Ceremonies itself works as a syllabus of cosmic horror or strange tales.

Readers who enjoy this tradition of cosmic horror will recognize many formulaic elements. That may sound like a criticism, but the formulas are used skillfully and the writing act itself (on Klein’s part) almost seems ritualistic to me. Even the mostly-wooden characters are in keeping with Lovecraft. While I never really sympathized with any of them, they worked as archetypes with just enough individuation to keep my interest. Daniel Day Lewis would make a good Sarr, a farmer who is one of the main supporting characters.

The plot is slow and meandering. It is skillfully crafted enough that the events generally did not feel contrived to me in the moment, but when viewed from a high level the story does rely on several somewhat unsatisfying coincidences. The plot exists primarily to support a mood, however, and the mood is effective. At its best, The Ceremonies has some of the best horror writing I have come across, especially the way that Klein is not afraid to use classic elements where they serve his purposes, which I appreciate.

The parts of the story I enjoyed most were the evocations of mysticism and the carefully detailed monstrous elements. Klein never falls into the trap of Lovecraft-inspired cliches, there are no tentacles to be seen, and his horrors never seem taxonomic. Due to the almost inbred nature of the allusions and references, readers who are not members of the Lovecraft fanclub subculture may find the length trying. That said, my overall reaction is favorable.

The Ceremonies is Klein’s only novel, though he also has a collection of novellas (Dark Gods) that I am now interested in reading at some point. Supposedly, he has been working on another novel called Nighttown for 30 years and it may actually be published soon.

Kingdom Death

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5 of 7 core monsters with 4 prologue survivors

Though I heard about the first Kingdom Death Kickstarter when it launched in 2012 and adored the aesthetic, A) I do not really play board games and B) I had no experience assembling miniatures. So, I passed. However, after seeing some of the models in the wild, I took advantage of the Black Friday 2015 opportunity and bought a copy of the core game along with the Sunstalker and Flower Knight expansions. The game arrived early January 2016 and then it sat on my shelf unassembled for almost a year. The 1.5 reprint/update Kickstarter prompted me to actually attempt assembly. It took me a few weeks to assemble the four prologue survivors and all the core monsters.

Overview

It is surprisingly hard to find a concise description of the game. Here is my attempt. It is a cooperative campaign board game where four survivors wake up barely clothed in an unlit land. The ground is all stone faces. The survivors hunt monsters for resources and found a settlement near a pile of creepy lanterns. Players grow the settlement, building structures, developing innovations, and reproducing. They stave off inevitable entropy for as long as possible.

Male dung beetle dancer pinup concept art

Male dung beetle dancer pinup concept art

You have to assemble complex components yourself without any official instructions (though the community stepped up enthusiastically to fill this void). The art is beautiful, but the aesthetic includes sexual objectification, gore, and puerile humor that mixes the two. You will need to have friends that are okay with this if you want to play the game with other people. Your survivors start weak and fragile, similar to zero level characters in trad D&D terms. Rule zero of the game is when in doubt, rule against the survivors. Pinups like the one to the right are promotional items, not part of the game. (I am not interested in discussing opinions on the representation of sexuality or objectification in this game.)

Gameplay

Gameplay alternates between tactical combat and settlement building. More specifically, after the first story prologue fight that introduces basic concepts, the cycle is settlement, hunt, and showdown. This cycle constitutes one lantern year (the time it takes one of the creepy settlement lanterns to burn out). A full campaign in the core game is 20 lantern years. I think a reasonable real-world session would be one or two lantern years generally, but I do not yet have extensive experience. During my first play (we were four players), we did the prologue and lantern year one. This took about four hours but included taking cards out of shrink and looking up lots of rules. I think it would be significantly faster the second time. Note that you also have to assemble some miniatures first, though you can get by with only the white lion and four survivors to begin with (see remarks on assembly below).

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Hitting from behind!

Showdown Phase. The showdown phase (where you fight monsters) is straightforward two-dimensional tactical combat. Move some spaces, take an action. The showdown board is small enough that it seems like few turns would be movement-only (I consider this a good thing). Players rotate controlling the monster though the monster controller needs to make few decisions as the monster actions are mostly dictated by an AI deck.

In addition to the AI deck, each monster has a hit location deck which controls various monster reactions. After survivors hit, they must confirm damage as well (accuracy adds to hit, strength adds to confirming hits). I was worried at first that this might result in many turns where engaging multiple resolution systems would lead to no overall effect, but in practice that did not seem to be a problem. A monster-specific resource deck controls the resources that the monster could potentially yield. Actual drops are determined mostly randomly, though some hit locations give access to specific resources. If the survivors defeat the monster, they scavenge resources which can be used to build things during the settlement phase. Some monster fights use terrain pieces to increase the arena complexity. Overall, the tactical combat is simpler than 4E D&D, one of my few points of comparison (I consider this a good thing).

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White Lion monster AI card

Monster AI. The AI deck also doubles as the monster health score which means that the monster actions become less variable and potentially more predicable as survivors wear it down. The AI deck system also means that the same monster can be reconfigured in many ways with differing difficulty. For example, we fought the white lion twice, during the prologue and the first hunt. The AI deck construction was different between those two and the construction incorporated randomness. The lion we hunted (level one) had 7 basic and 3 advanced AI cards, randomly selected (this also meant that it had 10 health, though note that you need one final hit to take a monster down after that total is depleted). For me, the AI deck is probably the most compelling game design I have seen so far in Kingdom Death. It is approachable from a player standpoint but seems to generate a lot of emergent complexity. There are many lessons here for D&D monster design, probably best realizable through sets of tables.

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Hunt board

Hunt Phase. Between settlement phases survivors can go on a hunt, though this is not the only way to encounter monsters (encounters can be caused by settlement events also). The hunt, which hopefully culminates in a showdown (briefly described above) plays out on a one-dimensional track where events occur on the way to the monster. In our first hunt, one of our survivors was terrified to death by the screeching and yowling of a lion in heat so we went into the lantern year one fight with only three combatants. This could mean that one player might be out for the showdown. The game is collaborative enough that it might still be fun, but I am not sure (we did the prologue fight with four players but were down to three anyways for the first hunt and showdown). Our first lion hunt ended in a TPK. Since there are still some other survivors left in our settlement, the TPK is not game over.

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Settlement board

Settlement phase. In some ways the payoff to playing Kingdom Death is the settlement phase. It is sort of like a fun, collaborative, non-homework version of building a character in games that require complicated character builds. However, unlike complex character building, success in the settlement phase depends not on voluminous knowledge of the rules text and combos, but rather on success during previous showdown phases and a few choices about what to prioritize. Also, as discussed below, I think that the settlement is the primary fictional element of play in Kingdom Death, not the survivor. As you can see in the image to the right, the settlement phase also has its own board, which similar to the hunt board is a one-dimensional track that walks players through the procedure.

Prepare to Die

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Defeated by ground fighting (TPK)

The survivor is not the primary element of play in Kingdom Death. The settlement is. When you lose a survivor, that is a setback but the settlement’s remaining population acts as a buffer (and the slain survivor’s gear is not lost but automatically returned to the settlement). As I understand it, settlement wipes are certainly possible (though I do not know how common). If you would be frustrated by such a loss after, say, 20+ hours of in-person play rather than experiencing it as the dark closing chapter of a story to remember, this might not be the game for you.

One strain of traditional D&D play is similar to this approach, where the setting and adventuring party are the first-order units of play and the adventurer is, while not disposable exactly, at least not central. I have run games like this before and participated in them and I think that this approach offers a unique potential for engaging play. In such a game, impartially resolved catastrophic failure is possible but not fatal to the campaign, increasing the potential stakes of decisions. Kingdom Death is a far more focused game than D&D but it provides examples that could be adapted to a D&D game centered around developing a party or settlement. In fact, I do not think it would be that hard to run an OD&D game using many Kingdom Death mechanics directly, perhaps replacing magic items and treasure with resource drops and settlement crafting and adapting monster decks to D&D monsters.

Metaphysically Ambiguous Dark Fantasy

Beyond gameplay though, the aspect of Kingdom Death that originally drew my attention, and sustains my interest, is the aesthetic and setting which reminds me of two of my other favorite fantasy franchises, Berserk and Dark Souls. This is not that surprising, as I understand that Berserk is an explicit influence on the designers of Kingdom Death. These three, Berserk, Dark Souls, and Kingdom Death, make up what is for me a dark fantasy trinity. All three have complex, well-designed, internally consistent worlds with ultimately ambiguous canons. There is enough detail to keep my interest but not so much that the audience ever really knows exactly what is going on.

The world of Kingdom Death is an endless plain of stone faces lit occasionally only by lanterns. Why? Where did the survivors come from? Who knows? Despite the detailed and baroque monster design, all three of these franchises also have an ultimately restrained sensibility that rests more on mythical resonance than raw newness. None of the three franchises are shy about recruiting cliches, but the cliches are never used thoughtlessly and often adjusted (though never entirely subverted, which I also appreciate).

For example, the background text for the Black Knight, previously a collectible model but being developed into a game expansion in the current Kickstarter:

They say if you take a lantern that never lit down the trail of corpses and past the whispering stars you will find an ancient figure atop a crest of determined faces. Treasured by a hidden cult of loyal squires, the figure will awaken for only the most honorable of challengers. For generations, the Black Knight has unknowingly defended a settlement of people hidden in the ruins of its home.

Assembly

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What wraiths look like from now on

These were the first miniatures of any kind that I have ever assembled. As noted above, the mini parts come attached to sprues as cast in the factory and must be clipped out. There are no official instructions, but I found the guidance on Vibrant Lantern satisfactory except for the phoenix and the watcher. I used this one for the phoenix and this one for the watcher (both linked to from Vibrant Lantern). For general advice, I found this conversation useful. Several issues tripped me up that might be obvious to experienced model builders. Below I address some of these issues. Hopefully that will be useful to other gamers with similar levels of experience.

Tools. You need to buy at least two things to assemble the minis: sprue clippers (I got Citadel Fine Detail Cutters, $35) and plastic glue (I used Plasti-Zap, $4). A model file would be helpful to clean up join points but I did without. Another useful tool that I did get was a clamp (Irwin One-Handed 6″ Bar Clamp, $12).

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That’s right, those are all individual hands

Glueing. The plastic glue begins to set quickly as long as you do not jostle the pieces, so the technique I found most useful is to find a way for gravity to hold the parts together so that you can go do something else (the clamp can help with this). To be safe, I generally attach a few parts and then let them fully dry overnight before adding anything else. You can have multiple models in progress, but do not clip parts before you are ready to attach them because it would be easy to mixup or lose parts. Assembly was time consuming in a hurry up and wait manner but not exactly difficult. I found the absurd complexity of the process somehow motivating. I used up a full ⅓ oz bottle of Plasti-Zap to assemble four survivors and all seven of the core monsters, so I would recommend buying more than one bottle of glue.

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The four prologue survivors

Basing. Each mini base is two parts: bottom and inset. The core game comes with a small number of special face inserts. This is just a cosmetic detail, but you will not have enough for all the minis. I used four of them on the prologue survivors. Hopefully, the 1.5 Kickstarter will include an add-on to get more face inserts. See discussion of stone face bases here and here. There is no special correct placement of minis on bases. Just glue them on however looks reasonable.

Gaps. While most of the parts fit together well, if you are anything like me you will still end up with some fit gaps in the assembled models. The phoenix was the biggest offender here (use more clamp, I guess). I have heard good things about Tamiya Basic Type Putty (which is itself gray) and so will likely look better than Green Stuff before painting. I have not used either of those myself yet.

Expansions

I have not yet used any of the expansions in play, but as I understand it several of the expansions offer alternate campaigns (Dragon King, Sunstalker, and Flower Knight) while others offer monsters that can sub in for core game monsters. The Gorm can be hunted early on (otherwise the White Lion is the only monster that can be hunted during the first few lantern years). The Lantern Festival, which was intended to extend a campaign past 20 lantern years, was cancelled because the designer was not satisfied with how it worked. The Lantern King model is amazing though, so I hope it becomes available in some form. The upcoming Nightmare Ram (available through the new Kickstarter) is intended to offer some sort of dungeon crawl experience. See here for more. It looks to me like the game should play just fine with no expansions. The core game alone, if you dig the style, should provide lots of replay value.

Conclusion

My handsome pal Josh modeling the showdown board

My handsome pal Josh modeling the showdown board

Play was smooth and none of the phases were that complicated. The hardest part of playing the first time is finding the various kinds of cards (there are a lot of different kinds of cards). A few of the mechanics seemed like they could be streamlined in minor ways. For example, weapon and monster accuracy is a target number (used to hit) while strength functions as a bonus that is compared to a toughness target number. Both kinds of stats can have bonuses and penalties. It is also easy to get a few of the stats mixed up (strength versus accuracy, movement versus speed, and so forth).

I never felt like there was choice paralysis, even when we were making decisions about items to craft during the settlement phase. I can see how that might change as you build more settlement locations and have more kinds of resources to draw on but hopefully the complexity increases gradually. I am not yet sure which elements of the game are best served by cards and tokens as opposed to just writing things on record sheets, but so far I am enjoying the physicality of everything. At this point, I am kind of a super-fan of both the world and game mechanics, but I am not blind to the fact that there are a number of drawbacks which make Kingdom Death a big commitment and probably not for everyone.

Additional Resources

Chris Handley’s videos with Beasts of War are the only decent actual play videos I have found. They have so far released lantern year one, lantern year twolantern year threelantern year four, and lantern year five (I have not watched all of them yet). Chris’s Instagram has many nice examples of painted models too and is worth checking out for inspiration (and check out his amazing hair!).

Disclaimers

First, I am far from a Kingdom Death expert. That said, I have assembled all the core game monsters and played it, so I can speak to some aspects of setup and play. Hopefully the fact that I am neither a diehard board gamer nor a miniature person might help me speak to other similarly casual gamers that nonetheless find the Kingdom Death vision compelling. Second, I am backing 1.5 for the upgrade pack and some expansions.

 

Shadow of the Demon Lord review

Rob Schwalb is probably best known for his work on 3rd, 4th, and 5th edition (“new school”) D&D, though he has also worked on many other RPG properties, including Green Ronin’s Song of Ice and Fire tie-in, Warhammer, Witch Hunter, and Numenera. Shadow of the Demon Lord is a solo effort, originally crowd-funded. The short overview is that it is a (dark) high fantasy setting with some innovative and streamlined mechanics, both in the core engine and in the character build system. Like many non-indie games, it does not provide much in the way of referee procedures, instead trusting that you more or less know how to run RPGs already, but in this regard it is no worse than games like D&D 5, the AGE system, or various Fantasy Flight 40K titles (just for a few examples).

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 3.16.07 PMEngine. SotDL will be easily recognized as a d20 game. The two major resolution systems (attack rolls and challenge rolls) are d20, roll high and represent fictional results at a rather low level of abstraction. For example, attacking with a weapon or climbing a wall. Attacks are d20 plus some ability versus opponent defense (basically, AC). The other resolution system is the Challenge Roll which is a target 10 ability check. For both systems, bonuses and penalties are applied by rolling some number of d6s and taking the greatest result (much like the advantage rule in D&D 5, but only applied to the bonus dice and with more than two dice possible). The positive dice are called boons, the negative banes, and they cancel so that 2 boons and 1 bane reduces to a single boon. This sounds like a fun approach that also restrains potential bonus inflation.

The fast turn/slow turn approach to combat looks promising. Players always get to act first but combat turns proceed in two phases. Player fast actions are followed by enemy fast actions. Then, player slow actions are resolved followed by enemy slow actions. Each combatant only gets to take one action of either type generally, however, so opting to take a slow action (like casting a spell) means that you grant the enemy initiative. This is a rich tactical tradeoff that also obviates the traditional initiative overhead, which in my opinion often does not offer much in terms of gameplay beyond the casino uncertainty of simple side-based initiative as suggested by Moldvay Basic D&D.

Character Build System. There are around 50 pages of class options and that does not include spells (a separate chapter of almost 40 pages), “ancestries” (that is, races), or “professions” (that is, backgrounds). This means that more than a third of the 272 page book is made up of essentially character build options. That may sound somewhat damning to anyone (like me) for whom character optimization feels like homework. However, it’s actually done very cleverly.

Characters don’t have levels. Instead, the group as a whole has a level and there are advancement rules for up to level 10. Player characters begin at level zero and gain a class (“novice path”) at first level which is expected to be at the end of the first session. The novice paths are takes on the classic 4: magician, priest, rogue, and warrior. As characters advance, they gain an expert path at level 3 and a master path at level 7. Extra abilities from each path (and ancestry) factor in regularly as the group gains levels. For example, the advancement that comes from attaining level 6 comes from the expert path that was chosen at level 3. This means the various path abilities are interleaved trough character development rather than sequentially gained, such as with Warhammer style careers or D&D 3 prestige classes. It feels tight.

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 3.22.55 PMMost interestingly, the consideration set of path options explodes at each tier. There are 4 novice paths, 16 expert paths, and 64 master paths. Though there some clearly related sequential choices, there are no prerequisites. A character could be a magician, wizard, necromancer or a magician, wizard, sharpshooter. In all, there are 4096 basic class combinations just considering the paths. Recall that on top of the three paths, there are also ancestries, professions, and spells (for magic-using characters). The paths are laid out in a way that is not intimidating to me (which I rate as a significant achievement considering how I generally react to extensive character build options).

This kind of flexible, cross-archetype advancement was pretty much what I was going for back when I was working on the initial version of Hexagram (prior to The Final Castle), and as far as I can tell is completely realized here. And, it largely avoids the mess created by most multi-classing approaches. So, A+. The slow unfolding of character options is a wonderful example of smart game design that seems like it would serve many kinds of player well.

I have not read the options closely enough to know whether they are exploitable in the sense of being able to create a much more effective character based on rules mastery, but my general impression is that this danger is minimal. I also doubt initial character creation would take more time than Basic D&D. Select an ancestry, roll for or select a few ancestry background details, roll for or select a profession, roll for gear by starting wealth, and you are done. There is a standard battery of personality type questions, but they are really just suggestive and could easily be skipped in favor of just extrapolating based on the other background info or developed in play.

Referee Procedures. SotDL addresses how to run the game in chapter 9 which runs a bit under 40 pages. Most games within the D&D tradition have rather weak or only implied referee procedures, especially in second edition and beyond. Random encounters become relegated to optional subsystems and subservient to satisfying narrative development. Impartial game resolution is often deemphasized or eliminated within this tradition. Instead, fiction-derived and player satisfaction principles dominate, with deference to hero journeys, three-act plots, and ensuring that every player gets a chance to shine.

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 3.13.08 PMThe referee guidelines remain mostly within this paradigm. The first part of the chapter is tips about how to use the resolution systems (when to call for a challenge roll, for example). There are some notes about intended theme and how to convey horror, terror, and revulsion at a high, conceptual level. There are some good principles buried within, such as thinking about and planning roughly for at least three adventure conclusions, corresponding to success, failure, and partial success respectively. This approach would ensure that player actions have an effect on the story development which I find more satisfying than predetermined plot.

Apart from the system-specific guidelines though, there is not a whole lot here to distinguish what the referee does from other, related games with one major exception: an event generator called Shadow of the Demon Lord (from hereon, “Shadow” to distinguish it from the name of the game as a whole). The Shadow is a d20 table that generates scenario features reminiscent of Apocalypse World fronts. Basically, the Shadow changes the world in some way, generally creating a looming danger. For example, here is one of the results, Black Sun:

The Shadow eclipses the sun, turning it black. Impossibly, light still emanates from the shadowed disk, but it is brown, sickly, and unwholesome. The sun’s gentle warmth becomes a hellish furnace, destroying life as the landscape becomes a bone-strewn dustbowl.

In addition to setting changes, some Shadow results come with minor mechanical modifications, such as making certain kinds of monsters more difficult, though as far as I can tell that is mostly a sideshow. Most Shadow results are pleasingly substantive and many have further specific tables to help flesh out the results. The Shadow system is useful and does real work for the referee beyond just communicating good advice, which is really the tabletop RPG equivalent of broscience. The system could probably easily be bolted on to other games as an corruption event generator or magic catastrophe table.

It is also worth noting that that advancement scheme is designed around a limited number of sessions (10 or 11) rather than the traditional perpetual RPG campaign. This seems like a good idea to encourage concluding campaigns with a sense of closure rather than seeing them fade away due to waning interest or life intervening (players moving away, and so forth) but such an approach could also be applied to most systems without too much effort.

Setting. As presented, the default setting of Urth is surprisingly high fantasy. I was expecting something somewhat more restrained, or at least thematically consistent. Something like the early entires in the Diablo franchise or perhaps a realization of metal album covers. Instead, the setting is flying castles, institutionalized magic, and demi-humans everywhere. This is a matter of taste, but for me this detracts somewhat from wonder and horror. It feels a bit like someone took all the extra awesome things from the genre toolbox and jammed them into the same setting. Steampunk clockwork! Super-metal demons! Weird west gunfighters! So far, there is little established canon, however, so players should be unlikely to come to a game with very strong content expectations and this could easily be tuned or replaced by the referee. The level of setting detail reminds me of nearby market alternatives such as Numenera. Overall, this part of the book is neutral for me.

Roughly one-sixth of the book is monsters, which are arguably setting content as well, and while some of them are generic, many are creative. They probably deserve more attention in this review, but the post is already running long. I may discuss them more in a future post.

Bottomline. If you are going to have a tabletop RPG with a zillion classes but you do not want it to feel overwhelming to more casual players, this is a good way to do it. Unfortunately, the PDF is not bundled with the hardcopy. Perhaps it is a bit unfair to criticize, but given standard industry practice, this makes me feel like I am being charged twice for the same content. The total cost for me was $46 (hardcopy) + $10 (US shipping) + $20 (PDF) = $76. In the end, I decided that it was worth it to me, but it caused some internal grumbling. You can buy the PDF or pre-oder the physical book here. The physical book has not shipped yet, but Rob confirmed on G+ to me that the binding is stitched (yay!). I will make another note here once I have confirmed that in person. The expected delivery is currently December 2015.

Images used in this post were extracted from PDF screen shots of art in the book that I liked. I do not think all of the art is this good, but there are a lot more pictures not featured here that I also liked.

 

Concise 5E DMG review

On Google Plus, Paolo asked if the 5E DMG is worth buying.

I can only speak for myself, but (paging through it again right now) this is what I got out of it.

  • Campaign events section is good (can’t think right now if I have seen anything better anywhere else along these lines).
  • Cosmology is okay (but about the same as every other D&D cosmology summary). The 4E DMG might actually be the strongest in this area.
  • Adventure generator is okay (but Matt’s Tome of Adventure Design is better).
  • NPC generator is okay (but Courtney’s On the NPC is better).
  • Villain generator is good.
  • 10 pages of alternative rules is good.
  • The monster creation guidelines is a wasted opportunity for a generator.
  • Random dungeon generator looks approximately equivalent to the one in the AD&D DMG (which you can download for free from WotC’s web site). I haven’t used the 5E one yet.
  • Placing all the writing, story, and plot oriented books in the inspirational reading was a strange choice. For me, such are irrelevant to tabletop roleplaying. Get a copy of Apocalypse World and read the principles there (play to find out what happens, etc).
  • The actual directions regarding what a referee does in prep and in play seem somewhat muddled and poorly organized.
5E DMG page 215

5E DMG page 215

The wizards cabinet picture on page 215 is maybe one of my favorite RPG book illustrations and manages to both have super slick production values and be amazingly atmospheric. I wish the whole book looked this way. Page 262 is notably good also and feels a bit like a slightly more polished relative of Poag’s stuff. There are a few other good illustrations, but in general I find the art disappointing.

I consider the emphasis on rulings to be a good thing for a new referee, but if you are already somewhat experienced that does not matter so much.

I think it’s probably worth buying for the historical value alone, to see where the mainstream game is going and has gone. Also if you are playing anything approaching official 5E (which I am still interested in trying), especially for things like the magic items.

Oh, also the binding is glued rather than stitched, which is unacceptable for a book with a $50 sticker price, especially one that might be used heavily. This is what happens to books with glued bindings (image credit to Gloomtrain‘s Majordomo, Mateo). WotC, if you are reading, I would replace my current set of 5E core books with premium editions were they to have real bindings.

Inventory v.1

Inventory v.1 is a small paperback by Sam Bosma with labeled illustrations of items an adventurer in a fantasy setting might carry. That is all. It is a nice mix between mundane and fantastic, humorous and serious, functional and superficial. Immediately, my mind went to using the book as a trinket table for starting PCs.

There are 71 items, and they are not numbered. This is a somewhat awkward total to use as a random table. One could always roll 1d100 and re-roll results above 71, but 29% inefficiency is unsatisfying. There is a solution, however: the d6-12 table. This is a variation on the d6-6 table, where one rolls 2d6 and reads the results as a number base 6. A d6-6 table has 6 * 6 = 36 entries.

Happily for my purposes here, a d6-12 table has 6 * 12 = 72 possibilities, leaving one extra for the blank page at the end. (I put “roll again or choose” there.) So, to determine an item randomly, roll a d6 and a d12 and look up the relevant page. Since the pages are not numbered, I wrote in the d6-12 numbers for each item (as you can see in the pictures).

In addition to use as a collection of starting trinkets, each item could come along with a characteristic ability. For example, beginning with the Giant’s Axe might grant the ability to wield gigantic weapons (OD&D rules: 5 encumbrance slots but a full additive 2d6 damage). Beginning with the Abyssal Bell might come with fluency in the language of demons (and the bell itself summons a demon when rung; consult either the AD&D DMG Appendix D or the LotFP summon spell).

You can buy Inventory v.1 here. As far as I know, it is only available in hardcopy softcover. Some sample pictures are included below. LotFP Rules & Magic (A5 size) included for scale. Sam also has an art tumblr. I have been thinking about putting together a basic, portable DM box for myself (something about the size of the original white box with a base rule set or two, dice, a Moleskine full of dungeons, etc). When I get around to that, I think I will include this little book too.

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