Sunday, April 23, 2017

Product Review: Designers & Dragons

Product Review: Designers & Dragons
Book & pdf $20 Pdf $10
by. Shannon Appelcline

Designers & Dragons is broken down in four separate books. The 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s.  The breakdown is by what companies were created in that decade.  Companies both defunct and still in existence.  Each book stands on its own nicely, and at the end of each section is a handy reference on what to read next depending on if you want to follow the books organization or jump from the end of TSR to the beginning of Wizards of the Coast and so forth.

Each volume reads nicely, with a narrative flair that tell the story of the people and the games/companies they made.  I wish I had found this gem earlier, or like so many things wish I had a time machine to read this as a kid as it was not only a great read about hte companies and games I love(d) but about companies that I never knew existed, yet either influenced my hobby and style of play, or were more in line with what I was looking for but never knew.

The style of writing does change with more emphasis on mechanics design, especially in the 00s. Of course as with all history, it is easier to understand why a mechanic or idea came about when you can interview the direct source, rather than relaying on interviews of someone that has already passed on.
The indie revolution of the 00s focuses a lot more on the development of game theory and so forth.

Finding out some of the logic about why my favorite lines of games died (it isn't always just sales were low...) was enlightening if bittersweet.

The book may miss your favorite obscure publication, I know it missed one of mine, however the book tries to focus on games and companies that had impact on the gaming community.  So certain omissions are to be expected, however, the books are quite extensive and cover as much as they can.

In the world of Amazon and DrivethruRPG friendly neighborhood games stores are getting fewer and far between.  Which in turn makes it hard for new games to get exposure and get known.  The series serves as a great treasure trove to discover what has and does exist out there and may provide some fun and interesting systems for people to go out any try.

Some personal favorites from the books include:

- Clarifying a rumor I heard as a kid about Vampire the Masquerade.

- As a young player of Vampire the Masquerade I was told that the Tremere clan existed because one of the founders wanted to play their DnD Wizard in the early game. Reading a developer history (Designers and Dragons '90) I found out this had more to do with the acquisition of the rites to Ars Magika by WW, which was going to be the original "history" of the world of darkness. Tremere is a house from that game, and was directly implanted over. The Order of Hermes in Mage:the Ascension is a hold over from Ars Magika as well. Although the idea was scrapped, you can kind of think of Mage: Dark Ages as kind of a re-invention of the Ars Magika roots.

- Why the Warhammer wasn't in Mechwarrior Online launch.  The Warhammer is perhaps one of the most iconic mechs from Battletech.  I had seen a nearly identical looking mech in the anime Macross, and began to wonder which came first.  It turns out that the whole issue comes down to a miniatures production company and licencing (The owners of Macross anime had the design first, which licenced it (and others) to a miniatures company, which sold them to FASA (with a licence), then FASA was later sued by the folks who had gotten the robotech licence and that conflict resulted in it not being there much to the surprise of many fans (along with 13 other mechs).  I guess the issue has been resolved since the Warhammer is in the game now.

-What killed FASA and White Wolf

The short version is Microsoft killed FASA and the company that ownes EVE Online killed White Wolf.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Product Review: BENEATH: The Inverted Church

BENEATH: The Inverted Church

For: System Agonistic (your choice of OSR/ D&D Clone)
By: Justin Sirios
Cost: 15.99 print 6.66 kindle edition (redirects to amazon for purchasing)

This is an adventure; so spoilers ahead.

The book itself had some wonderful cover art of the primary NPC, and is bound a the unique size of 8.5 x 8.5 inches.  The pages are a newsprint pulpy paper which gives it a rough feel and slightly grey coloration to the pages, but it wasn't off putting, as the pages felt durable.  The black and white interior art is crisp and detailed as well.  As a result from the moment you pick up and flip through the book you FEEL like this is going to be a different product.  It is clearly labeled as an 18+ product, and it is.  As a change of pace from many "adult" products the art is not what makes the book adult.  The actual content of the adventure and the choices the players have to make are.

The adventure starts off with the hook to get the players involved, and doesn't fall into the trope of a map or a McGuffin the players are to quest for.  Rather, something very strange and horrible has happened and it gets the PCs to start questioning what has happened.

The adventure has a good mix of combat, traps, and non-combat encounters.  The primary shtick of the dungeon is that lewd acts have to be performed to advance through mirror-doors throughout the dungeon.

The "big bad" at the end of the adventure has been luring people into the dungeon and converting them to a hedonistic path as part of a plan to breed the perfect race- by having everyone blended.  I like this because the monster isn't just a thing that is fought, it is the reason for the story.
As a result the majority of the encounters within are the very townspeople that the players should be saving.  Only a few of them are willing to be saved and can leave on their own, meaning the players are stuck between killing them or taking a bunch of unwilling prisoners as they continue on and THEN have to deal with the real combat encounters.

The book has a convenient list of tables and information at the end as well as important information in bold or otherwise marked as you go through the adventure so you don't miss something important.

The book does have some drawbacks though.
The first is formatting.  Section headers are on occasion the last thing on a page and Tables are often cut off part way though a page requiring you to flip pages to use them effectively.

The second is that the end feels cheap.  There is more to the UnDungeon but the players are prevented from entering it by the very same mirror-door they have been encountering the whole dungeon but it just doesn't work.  This is further aggravated by a bunch of soldiers from a nearby battle showing up and descending into the dungeon.

Then you are hit with it "to be continued" Yes this is listed as book 1 from the title page, but I've never met with something so game disturbing.  The adventure leaves off at such a point, that I can't logically get the players to go and adventure somewhere else and I can't do anything else here without voiding what will occur in the future books.  So until future books come out I expect it would be better to just tie off the adventure by letting the party kill the monsters and ending the threat.

There are some situations that are oddly presented in the book.  Like being exposed early in the UnDungeon to people who don't know how the UnDungeon works only to later encouter other townspeople who are hanging out just beyond a trap with no good reason to be.  I mean did they walk there and someone set the trap behind them? Were they all just lucky and didn't set them off when undoubtedly the players will?  I get it I'm nit-picking now, but the lack of logic bothers me, and I'm going to have to come up with a reason that makes sense within the context of the game.

My final gripe is some special encounters.  These are random and require a special trigger to occur but the monster design is just infuriating.  The area regenerates the players, and some of the encounters have 250 or more hit points.  As a result the game will be reduced to a long slog fest of boring combat rounds unless they think to escape the fight. all together. The end feeling is that these battles are not meant to be won, just an excuse to kill PCs in the most un-creative way the adventure has to offer.

Maybe my gripes will be answered in future books as right now we only get to see a fraction of the whole idea.

All this being said, the adventure has some really neat and novel ideas.  Presents some easy to convey visually stunning moments for players to encounter, and will definitely be unlike anything a party has previously encountered. It does a decent job of trying to tell a story even if it leaves it unfinished at the moment, which thankfully can be easily corrected with the production of the rest of the trilogy.