Monday, June 25, 2012

Tommy's Take on The Dark Woods

The Game Arts Guild were responsible for the interesting RPG Squawk a while they've released The Dark Woods, which is a very specific RPG, straddling the line between board game, RPG and story game. The most important question, however, is "is it good"?

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: The PDF is only $4.99 at RPGNow, but you can order the softcover for $7.99 and a bundle for $9.99. The game is built for 4-8 players, but doesn't use a GM. The book is pretty small, only 37 pages (inclduing covers). The premise is that The Dark Woods are ruled by a dragon sorcerer and his minions, and the PCs form teams to fight past each other and take on the dragon sorcerer. There's no GM, so each each side alternates between playing their sorcerers and playing the enemies the other side is fighting.

The Dark Woods are filled with denizens from boggarts to dryads to dragons to nagas to humans (who almost always become corrupted and wind up transforming into something else) to varana (humans who have turned into lizard men) and more. Pretty much all of these have pictures accompanying them to help you out.

The rules are given next, using a single d20 and adding modifiers in order to beat a difficulty number. Each character has three defenses, which are derived from various abilities and include Agility, Intelligence and Strength. In addition, they have a Toughness ability which helps determine Hit Points.

Next are the breakdown of abilities, with pretty much everything having Toughness. Next are Attack abilities, which include Shooting, Knockout and Wrestling. Stalking Abilities are Stealth and Detection. Movement Abilities cover Acrobatics, Flying and Swimming. Support Abilites are things like Healing and Command. A 1 page rules summary follows, with a combat example following that.

From there we get to character creation, with abilities purchased by spending 24 character points. Toughness is the most expensive, and the one that everyone must have. A handful of sample characters are provided, including a dragon sorcerer not unlike the Big Bad, a human big game hunter and a Morlock necromancer. Once PCs are created and paired off, each team has to pick an association to belong to, with options including Necromancers and Rangers, and each faction having special rules in place for when they encounter certain types of creatures in the woods (like Necromancers that encounter undead immediately forcing them to attack the other team instead).

A map is included, and the teams move around the map, encountering enemies along the way (sometimes set for the map space and sometimes based on a random roll). As you beat enemies, you can drain their essence and gain more power. Stat blocks are listed for everything you can encounter.

Rules are provided for extending the game, which basically just entails whoever overthrows the Dragon Sorcerer becoming the bad guy for the next game, as well as six sided die and card variants for people who don't own - or hate - d20s. A short story is included for flavor, as is an index.

WHAT WORKS: A nice mix of stock fantasy elements combined with some new and/or relatively rare fantasy components. Simple system with easy enough character generation, good for a pick-up game. A ton of art for a tiny book, it never gets in the way and especially does a nice job of depicting the more uncommon elements.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: Honestly, the book feels like it was almost laid out backwards. I'm used to flavor fiction at the beginning of the book and not the end, and I almost always prefer character generation before rules.

CONCLUSION: I'm not sure I'd call it an RPG aside from the character generation, and I'd be hard pressed to call it a story game. It's really almost a board game in a book, but given how easy the map is to print, and the low price point, I don't think that's a bad thing. If the physical book is laid out the same as the PDF is, I'd recommend getting the PDF over the book and just printing out the map, since the map is almost smack in the middle, then using some kind of tokens or figures to track movement around it. Definitely has the potential for a fun beer and pretzels type game.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Tragic News

I'm only mentioning this since the news has gone public now among the Savage community, but Kevin Rohan of Silver Gryphon Games recently suffered the most stunning a tragic loss imaginable when his 6 year old son  Michael passed away after an accident at a public pool.

There are no words to express how horrible this is, and even though I have only dealt with Kevin in a Publisher-Reviewer capacity, the news brought me to tears. My heart and my prayers go out to Kevin, his family and everyone affected by this tragedy.

For those who have the means and the inclination, the Rohan family has set up a memorial fund in Michael's memory. If you would like to make a tax-deductible donation to the Michael Rohan Memorial Fund, mail a check to: State Bank of Spencer, 728 Grand Avenue, Spencer, IA 51301, Memo: Michael Rohan Memorial Fund. Any questions call Mike at State Bank: 877-551-6580.

Thank you for reading this, and keep the Rohans and their family, extended and immediate, in your hearts in this trying time that no one should ever have to endure.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Tommy's Take on Streets of Bedlam

Jason L Blair, of Little Fears fame, recently released his first Savage Setting: Streets of Bedlam, which intentionally shortens to SoB. I like Savage Worlds, I like Blair's work, and I backed this on Kickstarter.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: The PDF is 255 pages and currently available on RPGnow...still lacking a few finishing touches before it'll get sent to the printers, where it'll seemingly retail for $30. The book is in black and white, fittingly, and drawn by Shawn Gaston. It also has much saltier language than your average Savage Worlds book.

The book is divided into five chapters plus an introduction, and requires some version of Savage Worlds (though it was written for Deluxe, but there's not a lot of hard work moving from edition to edition).

The Introduction provides an overview to the feel of the setting, citing things like Sin City, Boondock Saints and Assault on Precinct 13, and Mr. Blair also said in a chat that emulation of movies like Payback and Four Brothers was certainly possible. Again, this chapter is just a broad overview of the inspirations and source material, as well as a brief breakdown of Bedlam, which is actually two cities (Bedford and Lamrose, the former being the money of the city, the latter being the wrecked out remnants of a blue collar city). The chapter serves as a nice, brisk introduction to what Streets of Bedlam is all about.

Chapter one dives into the city itself, a neo-noirish Gotham that is split in two distinct halves by the Artifice River. In Lamrose, the prostitutes rule Bricktown, the Lamrose side of the river is dotted with crack houses, we have casinos under various management, a Little Italy and a Chinatown. On the other side of the river, Bedford is where the rich and the righteous live, with fake swamps, theatres, cathedrals and a pair of pro ball teams (football and baseball). A handy list of local slang is provided, and it's not so long or dense as to become distracting. There are Italiant, Irish and Polish, and Triad mobs in town, and the cops are little protection. A handy quick-list of businesses and street names are provided, with shoutouts to authors like Elmore Leonard and Ed Brubaker.

Chapter 2 is character creation, which is standard Savage Worlds creation...with a little twist. For one thing, you start an Archetype, a pretty specific foundation for your character (with the option of a Citizen, who is essentially a blank slate). The Archetypes have required skills, as well as free Edges and Hindrances, and then you customize from there. I rather like the descriptions for this game, being three sentences: A physical description, a social one and a mental one. An example of an Archetype is a Badge, catch-all for the cops. This one gets extra Reputation for certain actions, but you also get to choose whether you are straight or dirty, with the former giving you an enemy for crossing the wrong person and the latter providing extra money...but meaning you're in the pocket of someone. Others include Boss (as in gang bosses), Valkyries (the now militant hookers), Drifters, Hitters (Hitmen) and even Marv-like monsters, each with their own customization point even before you buy your skills and Edges.

Chapter 3 gets into the rules changes, providing suggestions for Setting Rules and adding in new Skills, Edges and Hindrances. Some of the Skills are expected, like Interrogation, and others are interesting, but odd, like Eyes of G*d, which allows you to tell whether or not someone is a very bad guy. Edges include things like Street Cred and Sucker-Proof, which provide well explained bonuses, as well as one (Heart on Your Sleeve) that reads like it should be a Hindrance and a couple of Edges that are described, but either have no - or poorly explained - mechanical benefits (like Protected or Entourage). Hindrances include Infamous, Priors (you have a record) and Trigger Happy (where guns are your first solution). Rep is explained here, a stat similar to Charisma, which can fall under three spheres: Public, Underworld and Authority. Interrogation rules are present, as well as an interesting system for Investigations, using card draws to determine the crime, the clean-up and the escape, complete with an example. There's also a Dramatic Damage table, which is basically just flavor, and a system for Roles, which include things like Hero, Sidekick, Love Interest and Plot Device, and can change each session. Each role gains a couple of new effects it can spend bennies on (like Sidekicks pumping a hero's ego up). There's also a bit of a GM section here, pushing for you to jump into the middle of the action and keep it hot, before providing a selection of common story/mission/adventure types (like the ever famous Man on a Mission).

Chapter four is a huge listing of NPCs, made up primarly of Kickstarter backers, like intrepid reporter Shane Hensley, Underworld icon Gareth-Michael Skarka, and drug pusher Nathan Reed. The first 14 of these are tied directly to the archetypes to serve an iconic function. The rest of the Kickstarter backers are named, with mini bios, to fill out the city, with a nice selection of attribute arrays and skill sets provided to mix and match stock NPC stats on the fly.

Chapter 5 gets into the GMing proper, starting with an outline for neo-noir adventures for folks to follow. This leads into an interesting variation on the Plot Point Campaign, with the characters starting off at the scene of a murder, and allowing them to follow up on the clues and plot threads they choose, directing you to scenes in an almost Choose Your Own Adventure-like manner, rather than the more structured Plot Point Campaign set-up. In true Neo-Noir fashion, the whole thing takes many twists and turns and has the potential to end in a way that burns the characters even as they deal with the murderer. Interesting arrangement for the PPC, and not in a bad way. A handful of "Orphan Stories" follow, essentially overgrown plot seeds.

The PDF ends with a note from the author, a placeholder where the index will be, a quick reference sheet, an Episode tracker sheet, an Investigation sheet and a character sheet.

WHAT WORKS: The writing is very crisp without getting at all cute. Nothing is hard to read here. The art sets the scene incredibly well. I love the Archetypes set-up for character creation, especially since there's still so much room for flexibility, and the Plot Point Campaign structure is a welcome change of pace. The city is a wonderful mish-mash of Neo-Noir tropes, giving you everything you need to play around, providing landmarks without roadmaps so everything is where you need it to be.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: Heart on Your Sleeve is either the worst Edge ever, or a misplaced Hindrance. Entourage and Protected could also use mechanical support. Bookmarks in a PDF are always great, and they don't exist here. I'm one of the few Kickstarter members who isn't a character in the city, because I'm not a fan of "vanity rewards". It takes me out of the setting seeing Shane Hensley or Gareth-Michael Skarka as NPCs in the setting, though I understand why vanity awards are present in KIckstarters.

CONCLUSION: I think Jason L. Blair has done a fantastic job of crafting a unique Savage Worlds experience while retaining the Fast, Furious, Fun feel the game exudes. Great new additions to the rules, a big sandbox to play around in and promises of more to come. Streets of Bedlam is the "over the top" cousin to Wellstone City, serving a similar niche in an ultraviolent and extreme manner. My biggest disappointment is that I didn't have the extra at the time to kick in for the print copy. Recommended if you love Sin City or crazy Mel Gibson revenge movies, and I love both.

My fellow blogger Darren G. Miller, who is present in the game as an NPC, offered up his thoughts over at Geekcentricity.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Tommy's Take on Castle Ravenloft

I'm a pretty big fan of Ravenloft. Even as I've decided I don't really care about every trying to run D&D again, I still love some of the settings, with Ravenloft the foremost among them. I also don't really care for D&D4e at all...but I did get the Castle Ravenloft board game by Wizards of the Coast, which does a hefty combination of the two.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: This is a high end board game, with lots of minis (unpainted D&D minis), map tiles and so forth. It retails for $64.99, but you can usually get it for around $20 less at buying from Amazon through that link helps support this blog). It's recommended for ages 12 and up, but my eight year old and I have played multiple cooperative games together. It supports anywhere from 1 to 5 players.

The "story" of the board game boils Ravenloft down to its basic elemements: Strahd and his nefarious evils are lording over the village of Barovia until a handful of heroes move in to stop him.

The system uses a streamlined 4e...streamlined to the point that the heroes are distilled down to Armor Class, Hit Points, Speed, Surge Value and Powers. Yep, Healing Surges are present here (the default being each group having two), with characters who are reduced to 0 health coming back at half strength.

The game is played without a GM, with each monster and villain have a list of tactics that pretty much govern everything they do (move closer to hero, what attacks they use in which situation, etc). The game board is made as you go, using a series of map tiles that range from big, open rooms and hallways to Von Zarovich family tombs, laboratories and magic circles.

Each turn is simple: Each turn you can Move and Attack, Attack and Move or Move Twice. If you end your turn at the edge of a tile, you flip over a new one (which guarantees the arrival of a monster). Every player's turn has a Villain Phase, in which the "Boss" of the adventure, if active, takes his turn, followed by every monster whose card you control taking a turn. Additionally, there are Encounter Cards which are played if you draw tiles featuring black arrows, and these are almost always Very Bad (and are also drawn if you fail to explore on a turn).

Combat is simple: Roll d20, add your attack bonus (based on the attack you are using and any relevant magic items), compare to Armor Class and apply damage. Most non-bosses only have 1-2 HP. You get a magic item for killing them and add their card to the XP pile, which you can use to block Encounter cards or level up to level 2 if have enough XP when you roll a 20 during gameplay (granting you an extra Daily Power, boosting your stats and giving a Critical Hit bonus).

Each Adventure has its own goals, and usually additional rules, giving a sense of variety even though the gameplay is pretty basic. Usually you have a boss fight of some sort to deal with, and occassionally a secondary goal.

The Daily, Utility and At-Will Powers - as well as each character's unique ability - make the characters feel different as well.

Hero options include a Human Ranger (who can "Explore" tiles she's not next to, and has lots of ranged attacks, as well as powers that allow her to either put space between her and the bad guys to open up her ranged attacks), a Dragonborn Fighter (who can breath fire, give an AC bonus to any ally on the same tile, and force monsters into combat even if they aren't adjacent to him), a Dwarf Cleric (who can heal himself and others, and has a few Powers like Bless and Flame Strike which'll be familiar to long time D&D fans), an Eladrin Wizard (who gives his allies bonuses to hit due to his knowledge of monsters, the ability to make a short range teleportation and some classic Wizard Powers like Magic Missile, Dispel Magic and Shield) and a Human Rogue (who gets a bonus to disarm traps, and has a lot of sneaky, high-probability, low damage attack options).

Most of the monsters feel very "Ravenloft", with Zombies, Ghouls, Skeletons, Gargoyles and Wraiths, as well as more esoteric choices like Burning Skeletons. Wolves, Spiders and Rat Swarms also feel at home, though I probably would have left Kobolds out.

The Villains include a Kobold Sorcerer named Klak, a Howling Hag, a Werewolf, a Flesh Golem, a Zombie Dragon, a Dracolich named Gravestorm and Strahd himself.

Treasures you can find include items like Thieves' Tools, Magic Swords, Holy Avengers (which provide an extra bonus against the undead), Crystal Balls and Potions of Healing, as well as Blessings that let you move faster for a turn, heal a hit point or even regain a spent Power.

The Encounter Cards are very flavorful, including things like Animated Armor attacking you, bat swarms filling the Castle to provide penalties to ranged attacks, Strahd getting into your head and forcing you to make an attack against an ally, and even a few Encounters that can go either way, like a movement in the corner of your eye that can either be a sneak attack or a friendly spirit who restores one of your powers.

The game includes 13 adventures (I've played 11 of them), from a solo scenario in which you have to escape Strahd's tomb before he wakes up, to an escort mission in which you have to lead a villager to the Dark Fountain before he transforms into a vampire, to a seek and destroy mission in which you play each of the five heroes (one after the other) taking out as many of Strahd's followers as possible in a blaze of glory, to a two-part mission in which you attempt to finally hunt down and destroy Strahd himself.

Additionally, Wizards of the Coast provides a few free adventures, and this game is also compatible with its sister games Wrath of Ashardalon and The Legend of Drizzt (and you can make your own scenarios, of course).

WHAT WORKS: The minis are great, and will see play in games outside of just this, I'm sure of it. Gravestorm is a particularly impressive centerpiece, although the Flesh Golem is amazing as well. The Heroes all feel unique with their various abilities, and the theme feels about as close to Ravenloft as you can get in a hack and slash dungeon crawler.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: It's HARD. Like, almost TOO hard. I think that we have only won once, defeating the Kobold Sorcerer. It is a meatgrinder, in part because so many of the monsters and encounters inflict a point of damage even if they miss (as opposed to 2 or 3 if they hit). The rulebooks really needed tighter editing, and it is REALLY easy to overthink the rules sometimes (Tip: Whatever the card, rule, etc, is, read it literally. That's usually the right answer).

CONCLUSION: If I got to roleplay more, the game would have been worth the price of admission for the minis alone. That said, the production values are fantastic and the gameplay is fun, if very difficult. I've had a blast playing with my son, in part because he takes it upon himself to roleplay his character, talking in character as we adventure through the castle, which usually sparks me into doing the same. It would just be nice to actually WIN sometime. Now I know how everyone that played in my Ravenloft games felt. Still, I don't regret the purchase at all. Probably not the best "gateway game", though, given the Meatgrinder effect.