Friday, July 10, 2009

A Few Quick Reviews

Over the last month, I've made a few fun and/or exciting and/or tasty game-related purchases and I thought I'd share my impressions here in the form of little capsule reviews. These are all, to some extent or another, "playtest reviews," in that I waited until I actually was able to use these books in play or otherwise reach a point where I felt I could give a fair opinion based on more than simple initial impressions.

So here goes:
  • Blue Rose Core Book: I wrote a bit about this before. As I said at the time, I picked up Blue Rose after an old co-worker expressed interest in RPGs and then expressed interest in playing an animal as a PC. I'm all about making the players happy (although some of my players might argue that my definition of "happy" can be a bit skewed at times...), so I grabbed the Core Book during a quick stop at Active Imagination in Albuquerque when I was out in New Mexico last month.

    Now, I can see why the game stirred up controversy when it was released. As the whole Carcosa kerfluffle proved, there's a pretty strong vein of conservatism running under the surface of a sub-culture that normally likes to think of itself as outside the norm. And I can understand the problems some folks might have with the utopian, New Age feel-goodery of the default setting. But I have to say that, when we all got together a couple weeks ago to create characters and play our first session, it felt like good old-fashioned D&D to me. Did I run the game 100% in keeping with the setting as laid out in the book? Of course not! But I think the seeds of the essence of "romantic fantasy" as defined by the game were planted; it felt of D&D, but it definitely was also apart from trad-D&D.

    The campaign, incidentally, is pirates-themed. I found an interesting little campaign outline that I used as a jumping-off point for my own ideas. And as a sign of how much Blue Rose is, under all the Art Nouveau, Romantic Fantasy fluff, still just good old D&D, I easily adapted an old adventure from Dungeon magazine that featured a tribe of bugbear pirates operating off the back of a zaratan, a giant floating tortoise-island from the Al-Qadim setting. In fact, my biggest critique of the True20 engine that powers Blue Rose is that it doesn't go far enough in stripping down d20!
  • Ultimate Toolbox: Another Active Imagination purchase. I had AEG's Toolbox in PDF form, but the massive d20 stat blocks were a bit of a turnoff for me. Ultimate Toolbox is an improvement on multiple fronts. For one thing, it's much BIGGER. More charts than you could ever feasibly have use for in a lifetime of gaming, which makes it well worth its admittedly steep cover price. I used a couple of the charts in my first Blue Rose session, and as with all random goodness, it steered the game-play in directions I couldn't have anticipated or come up with on my own. Also, unlike its predecessor, it is system-neutral. This is a huge plus for me.

    The emergence of system-neutral publications since the debut of D&D 4e has, I think, been an unintended boon brought on by the clustermuck of the GSL debacle. As great as the OGL has been for all its innovative uses (Castles & Crusades, the retro-clones, games like Mutants & Masterminds or Star Wars Saga Edition), it also promoted a "one-true-wayism" that led to that good old d20 glut of a few years back. Seeing system-neutral books like Ultimate Toolbox or the Points of Light setting books emerge in the wake of the GSL has been, for me, a really encouraging trend. I love nothing more than taking seeds of ideas and growing them in my own way (more on this in a future post); I don't particularly care for everything being laid for me from A to Z. Give me A and let me go from there. The system-neutral books are a perfect balance between justifying their existence while simultaneously allowing GMs to actually do something other than roll dice and facilitate PC bad-assery.

  • Lovecraftian Tales from the Table: This is a DVD-ROM, eight gigs strong, of Cthulhu-related goodness. In 2005 and again in 2007, Paul of Cthulhu, the bloke (and I can use that term cos he's British) who runs, and players from his local gaming club got together and recorded, from start to finish, their happy romps through the mega-campaigns Masks of Nyarlathotep and Horror on the Orient Express. The result is, I believe, about four solid days of audio. I checked out both podcasts when they came out, but I'm not a very avid podcaster under normal circumstances and with both series I let my attention wander after the first handful of episodes. But even at the time, I really enjoyed and appreciated the effort and the experience of listening. As Paul notes on the DVD:

    An obvious question may be, "Why do this?". It is difficult to say for certain why audio recordings of roleplaying games should be popular, but over the years since our groups started and a with range of feedback from those who listen, it would seem the following are key points:

    The games remind lapsed or infrequent players of what they miss. In a way, recordings can act as a surrogate game and help maintain an interest and enthusiasm in RPGs. Anywhere from highly active listening to its use as audio wallpaper.

    Recordings can be a good way to assess how new games can play. There is often a dfference between reading a roleplaying book and actually playing the roleplaying game. Audio provides an example of the latter.

    People who are curious about roleplaying, but never quite sure what it is, can now listen to games being played. This is a far more powerful introduction than the typical "What is roleplaying?" section at the start of many rule books, especially if you've got no-one else to introduce you.

    Sometimes they are listened to purely for entertainment as part documentary (of the players' lives) and part radio-play, by people who may never anticipate playing RPGs, but who find the stories and banter engaging.

    Tips & examples. On occasion Keepers of Arcane Lore may listen to identify potential pitfalls in the plot, and to see how some sections of the campaign could play out.

    And to that I'd add that it's quite fascinating to get an insight into other gamers' snacking habits! With all the episodes now contained in one place, I'm diving back in to the podcasts. I'm currently on Session 10 of Masks and enjoying it tremendously. I'd especially agree with the "tips & examples" Paul cites; if I ever get around to running Masks (and I'd very much like to), I'll have a much better idea of how to go about it having heard it played through already.

    In addition to the podcasts, the DVD contains a bunch of nifty bonus material, including--happily--a full suite of PDFs that would allow a gaming neophyte to fire up a Call of Cthulhu game straightaway: the "Quick Start Rules" plus character sheets, an adventure, and even a sheet of number chits to substitute for dice. There's also PDFs of the venerable Freeport Trilogy and the new (systemless!) Cults of Freeport. Although perhaps a strange inclusion at first glance, the overtly Lovecraftian elements of the Freeport modules/setting make it an obvious inclusion and a great bridge for hardcore D&Ders looking to incorporate Lovecraftian elements into their fantasy gaming.
  • The Elfish Gene: My one bad review. As such, there's no direct link to any purchasing source; you want to read this turkey, track it down yourself! Likewise, I'll just point to some other well-written reviews of the book that pretty succinctly sum up my issues with this "memoir" that's actually a rather disturbing insight into the psyche of the ultimate self-hating geek. I was pretty disappointed as I had bought the book thinking it was the literary answer to the praiseworthy final episode of Freaks & Geeks, one of the few examples of mass media treating RPGs as something positive rather than as a target for mockery or derision. Let's bask in the warmth, shall we?

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