Saturday, August 31, 2013

Dungeons and Dragons 30 Day Challenge

After seeing this on a few blogs I decided to give it a shot. Luckily, I'm in good company.

The Other Side Blog
Polar Bears Dreams and Stranger Things Blog
Realms of Chirak Blog
Murky Murky: Roleplaying Advice and Fiction Blog
A Life Full of Adventure Blog
Wishful Gaming Blog
The Disoriented Ranger Blog
Hit Adjacent Ally Blog
Weird Opera Blog

Legends and Lairs, Twisted Lore by Fantasy Flight Games

How then can this book be anything but a waste of time?
Legends and Lairs, Twisted Lore by Fantasy Flight Games is a short book; shorter even than most modern adventure paths as it clocks in at a measly 62 pages. The book is focused on aberrations, oozes, and shape-changers which should excuse its brevity under normal circumstances, but this is a Third Edition product. Third Edition products are gluttons filling their pages with needless rules, superfluous text, and countless variations on the standard themes with a key eye on the repetition of trite, unoriginal monsters.

How then can this book be anything but a waste of time?

Before we can answer that question we must first understand what they mean by aberrations, oozes, and shape-changers:
. . . An aberration is a creature with either a bizarre anatomy, strange abilities, an alien mindset, or any combination of the three traits . . .

. . . [A shape-changer] has a stable body but can assume other forms . . .

. . . An ooze is an amorphous or mutable creature . . . (Twisted Lore pg. 2)
In addition to the three basic categories of monsters presented in this book there are an additional five types of monsters that this book was designed around: Grudge Monsters, Chase Monsters, Terrain Monsters, Plot Monsters, and Puzzle Monsters. Each type of monster was designed with a specific purpose in mind. For example, Grudge Monsters are designed to hurt your players and to have long term effects both mechanically and through the continuation of the story beyond that encounter.  I really like that Fantasy Flight Games have set out to create a book that actually possesses a potential beyond the standard, or even the very complex, encounter.

Since this book wasn’t made by AEG it might actually have a chance of succeeding in its goals.

The Monsters

The Bloodgnarl Tree (pg 4 – 5) is a good addition to any campaign looking to find a new way to shake up the players’ confidence. It is a smart creature that actively bates its victim – a rare commodity in most monsters. The picture for the Bloodgnarl is a bit of a crap fest to be honest. I wish that they had been able to get someone like Brom or Sam Keith to do this picture. Either of those guys could have done it justice without turning it into the heavy handed affair that Patricio Soler fell into. The lines are too thick and the overall impression given is of a really piss-poor imitation of Rob Liefeld.

The Curtain Crawler (pg. 5 – 6) is a waste of time and money as the concept behind the creature is a bit trite and the entry is poorly executed. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like ambush predators, but this is so lackluster that hardly feels like it should have been included in the book. It seems that the artist assigned to it agreed as they didn’t draw a creature that resembled anything like the one designed and instead drew an H.R Giger knockoff.

I like the idea of a Dopple Steed (pg. 6 – 7) but find the execution lacking. At the same time as it is entirely too powerful in certain regards it is too weak others, leaving you with the understanding that this was the pet project of one of the authors and they were bound and determined to have it be canon somewhere so that they might actually get to play with the thing. The illustration with this picture is so bad that I’m ashamed for the artist and cannot believe that anyone would willingly publish this picture.

On the one hand they can be a fantastic elder race in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft, but on the other hand, they require a lot of freaking work
The Face Hunter (pg. 8 – 9) is a well thought out concept with a shitty illustration. The concept is of a creature that rarely fights and only lives by slipping from one disguise to the next, never leaving its “disguise” alive so that it might be caught, is brilliant. I am absolutely in love with the concept and can’t wait to sneak this little villain into one of my campaigns. That said the illustration is a second rate imitation of Brom focusing on the more barbaric elements of the creature without focusing on the actual description. The Face Hunter should be a small, wormy creature that could easily find a place to occupy within a civilized setting – not a massive barbarian who could make even Arnold Schwarzenegger wonder if the guy’s been hitting the gym too much.

The Feign Beast (pg. 9 – 10) is a perfect ambush predator. The concept is well done, the game mechanics are well thought out, and the illustration evokes the right notes. I am going to be using this creature the next time my players forget to prepare for the long haul in the wilderness and have to go hunting for grub.

Glut Snails (pg. 11 – 12) are a mixed bag. On the one hand they can be a fantastic elder race in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft, but on the other hand, they require a lot of freaking work. Their entry is poorly written and confused; and their abilities feel tacked on and incomplete for a creature with such potential. My only advice is to use the creature in a way that makes sense to you and clean it up. Oh, and the illustration is about a billion times better than the description.

The Gorger (pg. 12 – 13) and its Larva (pg. 13 - 14) are fucking pointless. Use a Carrion Crawler instead and have a creature that is worth a fuck.

The Greater Lycanthropes (pg. 14 – 16) are a mostly pointless retooling of the Lycanthrope. The challenge ratings are not that much improved and the template abilities are either pointless or so over powered that it makes you wonder if there was a Dungeon Master out there just trying to justify his most recent Total Party Kill (T.P.K.) by arguing that they were really just fighting an ancient variant of the normal creature.

I’ve used the Guardian Ooze (pg. 17 – 18) on multiple occasions in my campaigns. It’s a pretty cool little creature that can be an interesting addition to the campaign, especially when you give it to the villain.
I’m telling you that this is a great way to take a wizard who’s becoming way too powerful and give him more power while pumping him up with a malicious little symbiote that thinks every bad, evil, vile deed that crosses the wizard’s mind is an outstanding plan of action.
The Husk (pg. 18 – 19) is kind of a niche creature. For the most part it seems as though working it into your campaign wouldn’t have that grate of a reward. But I can’t really fault it’s concept or execution.

I can’t think of a time that I would use the Lurcher (pg. 20 – 21). Unlike previous entries in the book this creature is without a narrative and comes across as a page filler rather than a well-executed monstrous entry.

The Mana Symbiote (pg. 21 – 23) was clearly created after someone watched way too much Vampire Hunter D. Now I’m not saying don’t use this little bastard, far from it. I’m telling you that this is a great way to take a wizard who’s becoming way too powerful and give him more power while pumping him up with a malicious little symbiote that thinks every bad, evil, vile deed that crosses the wizard’s mind is an outstanding plan of action. This is the sort of thing I was hoping for when I picked up this book.

Manglefolk (pg. 24 – 25) are a classic example of a failed concept and poor execution. The narrative for the creature tries so very hard to be scary and disturbing but comes off like a third grader telling you about his nightmare.

I like the Mind Rider (pg. 25 – 26) and could see it being used in my campaigns in a variety of ways.

The Mind Steed (pg. 26 – 28) is one of those creatures that I hated even before I read the entry (it’s the name if you must know). But once I read the entry I hated it even more. The concept is dull and its execution is poor. Fuck this creature.
You’re all crap and I hate that I wasted my time reading your entries. 
 Ooze Queen (pg. 28 -30) are another mixed bag. On the one hand you have an unfathomably old ooze with tons of treasure waiting in her gullet; and in the other hand, you have an intelligent ooze that can cast magical spells and communicate with your players telepathically that really doesn’t jive with how I want to run the creatures.

Your call on if you find that cool or not.

I hate the Ooze Sentry (pg. 30 – 31), the Ooze Swallower (pg. 31 – 32), the Pain Wasp (pg. 32 – 33), and the Phantasmal Jelly (pg. 33 – 34). You’re all crap and I hate that I wasted my time reading your entries.

By contrast to that shit fest above the Poltergeist Worm (pg. 35 - 36) is a blast. This thing has an attitude like a cross between a beholder and an aboleth. It’s really quite powerful and I would just love to drop this bastard into a long-term campaign as a major villain in the Underdark.

The Sailor’s Bane (pg. 36 - 38) is one of those odd creatures that is really appealing but you can’t ever imagine a scenario where you would make use of them. I mean if I ran campaigns like Iomandra where my players are constantly at sea this would make a fine addition to the mix, but I rarely run adventures near the sea; and my players, nearly all being mountain born and bred, tend to view bodies of water so large with a natural suspicion. No, it’s a good creature and well executed, but worthless for my needs.

The Silent Snatcher (pg. 38 – 40), by contrast, is a creature that I could regularly use in any campaign. It could blend in perfectly with a city, wilderness, or dungeon environment. It requires little additional work to make it serviceable in any of those areas and it has the best artwork in the book. Whoever came up with this creature, my hat is off to you sir. Well done.

The Sky Whale (pg. 43 – 45) is a serviceable creature that has been done before. Which is fine as these guys did so before Dr. Who so who minds it too much. Anyway, I like the concept of a sky whale just as I like the concept of an atmospheric beast that floats through the sky. There’s no way that I could give you a reasonable explanation for how either would be able to fly let alone find a sustainable food source, but I like them nonetheless.
It’s like someone had been watching a bunch of Troma films and though, “Huh, I bet that would make a good Dungeons and Dragons monster.”

You thought fucking wrong.
The Sound Devourer (pg. 45 – 47) is a bit of a daft concept that if you’re desperate might be salvageable. I’m not that devoid of ideas yet in my campaigns so I’ll move on. The Steel Ooze (pg 47 – 48) is a needless addition to the ooze family. By contrast the Vile (pg. 48 – 50) has more effort put into its description and abilities than most of the creatures in this book – unfortunately all that means is you get to wade through two pages of wasted text. It is the sort of creature you throw in for a jump scare and to punish your players when you’ve run out of challenges for a 14th level party.

The Waywatcher (pg. 51 – 52) is another service creature in the same mode as the Sky Whale (pg 43 – 45) and Guardian Ooze (pg. 17 – 18). It provides the player with a neat companion that can do more than just take up space. I don’t know that any of my players would be interested in using it because of its grotesque appearance, but it’s something that I would like to test out.

Finally we come to the Yeoman Jelly (pg. 52 – 53). I cannot express how much I hate this creature. It’s like someone had been watching a bunch of Troma films and though, “Huh, I bet that would make a good Dungeons and Dragons monster.”

You thought fucking wrong.

Appendix: Templates

The Swarm Drone (pg. 54 – 57) is an interesting template. It has heavy influences from sources such as the Tyranids but it comes up short. It would have been far better had the author drawn from M. John Harrison’s Viriconium and the Locust that populate the stories there. Instead there’s a heavy handed narrative that could provide you with a single use, maybe a double use if you’re lucky. But if you tweak it you could expand its influence exponentially.

I’m not a fan of the Alternate Lycanthropes (pg. 57 -62) that are proposed in the index either. They shouldn’t be here and should be included in the proper monster entries above. It’s an odd move to place them here.


The Skirr (pg. 40 – 42)

People hate bugs and the bigger the bug the more they hate it
The Skirr are designed as the only playable race in Twisted Lore. As such you would expect that they are given a fairly detailed description with an eye towards integrating them into your campaign worlds without causing the Dungeon Master a conniption fit. In this you would be wrong.

The Skirr is an aberration that begins life as a male and soon – if they’re fucking lucky – transform into a fully sentient female. Which is an odd turn. The implication is that the males are somehow not sentient and yet sentient. That’s like saying that you are a black man and not a black man. You either are, or are not.

So that’s a bit difficult.

The biological processes involved in the Skirr evolution is a bit of a stretch though it’s clear that the creatures are based, at least in part, with a nod toward the honey bee. The terminology is similar though the biological roles are reversed.

Now all that aside it should be easy to work such a creature into your game – until you begin to ask yourself how would a bipedal, beetle, with huge fuck-off wings that doesn’t wear clothing yet has all the normal human female extremities be able to function in a world where people wear clothes and run from scary monsters?

The answer is it doesn’t. People hate bugs and the bigger the bug the more they hate it. So how does that big fucker survive?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Empire by AEG

It’s as though Mike was so frustrated with the idea of a book about building an empire in a fantasy adventure game that he couldn’t stand it, but needed the paycheck
I picked up Empire, by Alderic Entertainment Group (AEG), last Sunday at McKay’s Used Bookstore for less than two dollars in trade. After my experiences with Dragons by AEG you might expect that I would be more hesitant to waste my time on their products, but this one was written my Mike Mearls; and I have been so impressed by Mike over the last couple of years that I decided to give this a try.

The introduction to this book belies a certain futility to the whole endeavor. At the start of the chapter is a quote attributed to Milton, “To sit in darkness here, hatching vain empires” (Paradise Lost, Book 2, Line 377).  I like the quote, but it really strikes me as an odd way to begin the book; it’s as though Mike was so frustrated with the idea of a book about building an empire in a fantasy adventure game that he couldn’t stand it, but needed the paycheck. Anyway, according to the introduction of this book it was designed to give players a new avenue to explore when attempting to play the game: rulership. The book is supposed to provide rules and guidelines that will help players and Dungeon Masters alike through this process.

I had high hopes, but that quote makes me wonder . . .

Chapter 1: Rules of Power
It seems like a more strategic version of Risk only without the fun
This chapter reads like the rules to a board game. It's boring and only half as interesting as Settlers of Catan, which is a fantastic board game if you're into resource management systems. Anyway, turns are divided by seasons and you have to manage your resources, peoples, and money. It seems like a more strategic version of Risk only without the fun of having a single unit defend the Congo against all comers for five hours straight. I don't know, this section is pretty lackluster.

Highlights: 
  • The spell, Greater Animate Dead (pg 14) is nifty though only useful if you have a necromancer in your group. If you have a necromancer as an NPC you don't need an exact spell - remember, you're the Dungeon Master.
  • The Loyalty system (pg 15) would be an interesting port for Hirelings in your game. It's simplistic and could provide a better mechanic for determining the actions of your Hirelings. As it is in the book it's completely useless.
Chapter 2: The Art of War
Don't get me wrong; there are times when I want to have a book that provides me with complex rules and detailed management systems, and when those happen I remember to take my medicine and wait for the moment to pass.
The number of times that I have thrown this book across the room has steadily increased throughout this chapter. Don't get me wrong; there are times when I want to have a book that provides me with complex rules and detailed management systems, and when those happen I remember to take my medicine and wait for the moment to pass. The combat rules in this chapter are clunky and while they are well thought out you'd be far better off with yanking the basic rules from Warhammer and using the Mass Combat Feats (pg 55 - 56)  from this book. You can basically port the races over and run the wars without too much effort. Or if that sounds like too much work and money you could pick up a copy of the long since out of print Chainmail by searching on Google and downloading the damned thing for free. Or ask Chirine about how he would run a mass combat game because the guy is freaking cool as hell. But for god's sake don't waste your fucking time with this chapter! It is clunky and labor intensive with a very minimal payoff. 

Chapter 3: Dogs of War

Pretty fucking useless unless you decide to waste your time with the mass combat rules presented in this book. Otherwise move on.

Chapter 4: Characters and Rulership

Another wasted chapter. I don't know what I want here, perhaps a chapter that brought in some new classes that are better designed for rulership roles and for roles within an empire's political structure. Instead what I got were some bullshit archetypes for the base classes as rulers that you're supposed to pigeon hole your players into and an NPC class that can be found in the Dungeon Master's Guide. 

Chapter 5: The Empire Campaign

This chapter is so dependent on the rest of the book that I found it incredibly difficult to wade through. There are ideas here that might be interesting if you're playing with these bullshit rules but for the most part you might as well ignore this chapter too. Honestly I've been so disappointed with the book that this chapter was a complete waste on me and just felt like too little too late. 

Overall Review
If I had actually paid money instead of trade for Empire I would have been pissed.
This book was such a disappointment for me. I do not regret reading it because Mike Mearls is still pretty groovy in spite of this fucked book but if I had actually paid money instead of trade for it I would have been pissed. There is so little worth keeping in this book and I am just thoroughly disappointed. 

Rating: 1 out of 10