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Cult Worshippers - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/16/2014 01:07:11
This track starts out very creepy, almost scary, with very deeply-pitched vocals that sound like they might come from some otherworldly entity. Then the track goes quiet, lapsing into a long stretch that sometimes gets near to silence but mostly exhibits very quiet vocals and ethereal sounds. It remains eerie, especially when all the sounds but the voices stop and you continue to hear this ominous chanting. Honestly, this one is almost too spooky and fairly disturbing—which means, I think that evokes exactly the feeling it's supposed to evoke.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Cult Worshippers - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Civil War Battle - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/16/2014 00:54:56
Rifle and canon fire, the shouts of soldiers, and even the occasional sounding of a bugle combine to very effectively evoke the sense of the 19th-century US Civil War. The only thing that detracts from the scene is the occasional whistling, which comes off as a tad too jaunty for the scene. Also, the volume level seems to be noticeably lower than that of other Ambient Environments soundscapes. At any rate, this soundscape meets its goal very admirably.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Civil War Battle - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Car Chase - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/15/2014 18:59:11
This tracks jumps right into the middle of the action—as it should, for a background loop—with a car engine running at a pretty high RPM, followed shortly by the squealing of tires. There's even some breaking glass and such to show the speeding car's effect on its environment. It's a fun track that certainly puts listeners right inside the car, though it's up to you and the story whether that's the getaway car or the car in hot pursuit. There's quite a lot of gunfire in the track, which actually limits your options a bit. Some of the gunfire is rather high-pitched, almost implying "laser bullets," so you could probably use this track in a near-future chase as well as a modern chase. You can't take this back very far into the past, though. Even the 1920s (think Call of Cthulhu) would not support cars that sound like this. I did not notice any sirens in the soundscape, so you're not locked into having the police involved in the chase. I think I'd like to hear a version without the gunfire, but otherwise, I consider this a great track for modern urban scenarios, including superhero games.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Car Chase - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Burning Building - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/15/2014 18:48:35
Flames—which sound surprisingly similar to river rapids—surround the listener, as the sounds of falling wooden beams and shattering glass let you know that the building is in bad shape. The presence of shattering glass does limit your options somewhat in the time periods or kinds of buildings you can use with this track. For example, it might fit with a fantasy-medieval cathedral, palace, or wizardry school, but not with the town mill or farmer Grizzle's barn (to hearken back to one of the earliest scenarios I used to introduce D&D to my older son). All in all, I think a modern setting feels like a better fit. Of course, you could also play this track in the background while playing Flash Point; gaming background loops don't have to be just for RPGs.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Burning Building - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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ICONS: The Nemesis Crisis
Publisher: Ad Infinitum Adventures
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/15/2014 13:11:36
If you enjoy comics series along the lines of Marvel's "Secret Wars" or "Contest of Champions," DC's "Salvation Run," or BOOM!'s "Deathmatch," you should be able to have a blast with "The Nemesis Crisis." The storyline revisits some well-worn ground—cosmic being "kidnaps" metahumans for a sort of contest—but with enough distinctiveness in the cosmic antagonist's motivation to keep the story interesting. It's particularly notable that author and artist Dan Houser includes guidance for giving the adventure a tone appropriate to the Golden, Silver, Iron, or Modern Age in comics.

It's not quite right to call "The Nemesis Crisis" an "adventure" in the traditional sense. By design, it's really more of a framework for an adventure. Dan gives the GM a lot of information about the antagonist's and deuteragonist's motivations, which of course is absolutely critical. Beyond this, the meat of the plot information for GMs comes in the form of a timeline describing what happens if the player characters do nothing. Since the whole scenario stretches out over a week of in-game time, this is a good format. What it lacks is sufficient information for inexperienced or harried GMs to know how the deuteragonist will respond if the PCs do not remain idle, which of course they won't. As a GM with little prep time and, frankly, below-average improvisational skills, I would have appreciated an additional sentence or two for each entry in the timeline, something like "If foiled, [deuteragonist] will …" This isn't a damning weakness, but I'd call it a significant missed opportunity.

Production values vary depending on what you're looking at. Dan's artwork is, as always, evocative and entertaining. As a writer, Dan's strength is in conceptualizing stories, not in wordsmithing. The prose has a rushed quality to it. Grammatical errors, typos, and such are not infrequent. Some of this can be written off as a "conversational tone," but some can create annoyance or confusion. For example, the cosmic antagonist is called "Justicar," and while the name clearly derives from the English word "justiciar," it's not clear whether the spelling "Justicar" is an intentional variation or a mere misspelling. Also, for somebody so interested in justice, it's laughable that Justicar at one point refers to "not guilty" as a "sentence." There's also a disruptive column-wrap error in Derecha's stat block. But these things are all GM-facing, and only affect the aesthetic experience of reading the module, not the play experience at the table.

"The Nemesis Crisis" is envisioned as a "big crossover event," like DC's "Forever Evil" or Marvel's "Original Sin" (to cite two recent examples). To get this "big crossover event" feel, you'll need a very large selection of supervillains, and you may want to have your players adopt the rules of multiple superheroes, either in big teams where players run multiple characters at once, or in successive "meanwhile, elsewhere on the planetoid" scenes. Therefore, the "event" works best if you have easy access to Hero Pack 5 (the Hero Pack volume with the most substantial supervillain population) and/or the Villainomicon. By the way, "The Nemesis Crisis" is written with the original ICONS rules set in mind, but it's not hard to adjust on the fly to the Assembled Edition—in fact, I don't think you'll even notice the difference, except for the way qualities are written.

In sum, "The Nemesis Crisis" is an ambitious scenario that can easily bring the "big crossover event" feel to an ICONS gaming table. It's well worth the price, and worth the time to run, for what it pays you back in fun. It does, however, require an additional source of supervillains to be most effective.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
ICONS: The Nemesis Crisis
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Biomechanical Satellite Interior - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/15/2014 11:35:25
Right off the bat, the "bio-" is implied by a wet, squishy sound and the "-mechanical" by a constant low-pitched thrum. Later on, the thrum is joined by beeps that sound like they might be coming from some kind of control panel. I think I hear footfalls as well. I picture a group of space travelers walking through muck on a spaceship they've boarded, only to realize to their horror that the muck is living tissue. The track suggests a sort of creepier version of certain scenes from the Star Trek: The Next Generation pilot, "Encounter at Farpoint." I could easily imagine using this track for certain kinds of CthulhuTech, Delta Green, Star Trek, Star Wars, and Dr. Who scenarios. If you're setting an RPG scene in a venue where creepy biomass and high technology meet, consider using this track to add immersion.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Biomechanical Satellite Interior  - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Arctic Excursion 2 - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/15/2014 11:23:55
This track is so similar to "Arctic Excursion" that one might justifiably wonder why Ambient Environments felt the need to add it to their library. It's not that I can't hear any difference; it's just that the small differences I hear don't seem to matter much. The two tracks feel like they have essentially the same elements arranged in a different pattern. "Arctic Excursion 2" may go a bit heavier on the ambient musical tones. I was expecting something more different, and felt let down. Now, with that said, this is a fine track on its own—I just don't think it distinguishes itself enough from "Arctic Excursion" for most DMs to want both. I'd recommend choosing one or other other. I would give this track five stars if it didn't seem as much like a do-over.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Arctic Excursion 2 - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Arctic Excursion - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/15/2014 11:11:44
How do you imply an arctic setting with sound? This track does it with wind, and with the occasional avalanche-like tumble of snow and boulders plus the cracking of thick ice. I think you might also be able to hear some dogs (or walruses?) barking in the distance, but I'm not sure about that—which means those particular sounds are subtle enough to imply a vague threat, or a vague hope of assistance. If I'd had this track back when I ran a series of antarctic adventures, I'd likely have used it to help set the mood. Thinking more broadly, you could also use this track for a heavy snowstorm in an urban environment, or perhaps a post-apocalyptic ice age.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Arctic Excursion - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Alien Starship (interior) - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/15/2014 10:50:37
There's a constant low thrum in the background of this track, rhythmic enough to suggest a starship engine. Little beeps and twitters make me think of the control panels on the starship Enterprise, especially in classic and animated Trek. There might also be some robots moving around back there somewhere. Overall, the sound effects are relatively understated; they'll enhance a shipboard scene without getting in the way. I wouldn't suggest using the track to score a combat, as it's too peaceful for that. This track feels better for a diplomatic visit to a working ship, or possibly the exploration of an abandoned alien ship where the mood is one of curiosity rather than threat. It's a solid addition to Ambient Environments' library, a "workhorse" kind of track that can work in a variety of situations, and it does its job well.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Alien Starship (interior) - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Subway Busy - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/15/2014 10:35:49
This track basically consists of a bed of white noise overlaid with occasional sounds of footfalls, voices (some comprehensible as PA announcements, others just crowd noise), and metallic sounds (think of a subway train's brakes). It's a pretty good simulation of a subway station with a moderate number of civilians. The footfalls on concrete make it less suitable for a scene taking place in an actual subway car, just to be clear about the setting. In my view, the constant background white noise is a little overdone; it's too loud for my taste, and it doesn't have the rhythmic quality that would simulate the distant rumble of subway trains. Instead, it just sounds like noise, and it detracts from the other sounds. Otherwise, a fine track.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Subway Busy - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Subway Abandoned - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/14/2014 15:55:07
This track is characterized by a haunting windlike sound—not quite as monotonous as white noise—overlaid with dripping water, the occasional metallic creak, and rats skittering about and chittering to one another. That's about it. It's dark and desolate, as an abandoned subway tunnel should be. Of course, it doesn't have to be a subway tunnel that your PCs are moving through; this track could just as easily spice up a sparsely-populated fantasy dungeon of the good old "dungeon crawl" kind. I do think the wind/white noise might be a bit too heavy, though. It makes me wonder where that wind is coming from.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Subway Abandoned - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Tank Battle - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/14/2014 13:37:16
My son recently ran an ICONS adventure set during World War II, and this soundscape would have been perfect background accompaniment for the adventure. We were in the car at the time, though, and I didn't have the track on my phone. If you have any plans to run an RPG scenario set on a modern battlefield, whether in World War II or Operation Desert Storm, you should find that this track enhances the experience. Although the track is called "Tank Battle," you'll hear not just the advance of tanks and the firing of large caliber guns like those mounted in tank turrets, but also machine-gun fire, shattering glass, and the like. The only thing that seemed somewhat out of place to me were sounds that reminded me more of giant metallic footfalls than anything else—which could perhaps be great if you're running something with large mechs (Battletech, a kaiju game, or something like that) on an otherwise modern battlefield.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Tank Battle - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Wild West Showdown - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/14/2014 13:09:23
A lonely acoustic guitar adds some mournful music to this track, which is otherwise filled solely with gunfire and the occasional whinnying of a horse. If you use this during an RPG session (Deadlands or whatever), I would suggest keeping the volume somewhat low so that you don't have difficulty hearing one another at the table. At any volume, it's a great way to add to the sense of immersion, whether the PCs are involved in the gunfight or are engaged in other activities while the gunfight rages outside in the street.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Wild West Showdown - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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[ICONS] Sentinels of Stark City
Publisher: Fainting Goat Games
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/11/2014 21:05:51
This add-on for the Stark City setting from Fainting Goat Games presents nine superheroes who patrol Stark City. The characters are interesting and the art—mostly by Jacob Blackmon with contributions by Jon Gibbons and Dan Houser—is wonderful (though a little jarring when the three artists' works are composited, as on the cover). Sadly, the prose needs a thorough editing for grammar and consistency (for example, aspects are sometimes set in sentence case, some in title case). The table of contents is numbered 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14 instead of 1–9, without any explanation (the Kickstarter backers' version seems to have the same table of contents, so I don't know where the "missing" characters are). The Fainting Goat guys are capable of such fantastic stuff that it's sad to see these kinds of errors. The product's biggest weakness, however, is simply that it's a collection of superheroes for a superhero game—for which a collection of supervillains is much more useful. The heroes presented here could be used as pregenerated characters, or as notable NPCs, but for a long-term Stark City campaign, players are more likely to want to play heroes of their own creation. If you need a collection of superheroes for your Stark City campaign, though, this fits the bill.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
[ICONS] Sentinels of Stark City
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Gygax magazine issue #4
Publisher: TSR, Inc.
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/10/2014 18:36:22
In many ways, reading an issue of Gygax Magazine is like reading an old issue of the Dragon—which, I suppose, is pretty much what the editors are going for. The fantastic cover illustration of issue #4 evokes the series of chess-related covers that graced the older magazine back in its TSR heyday. Of course it does, since it's by the same artist, Den Beauvais! To me, the cover is really the highlight of issue #4.

The second highlight of this issue is undoubtedly the long and (overly?) detailed Top Secret adventure by Merle Rasmussen. The adventure offers a nice mix of a specific mission and a sandbox enviroment—almost literally, since you're going to the desert. Robotic camels and spy drones disguised as bats … what's not to love? If, that is, you still have a copy of the Top Secret rules lying around somewhere. I don't know what happened to my copy after I went to college and left my games behind with my younger brother.

I really enjoyed Michael Varhola's "Men and Monsters of Polynesia" (apparently for AD&D and retroclones) despite its andronormative title, and would have really loved to have this resource back when I started my current D&D campaign, which was mostly set in the South Seas until the PCs started plane-hopping. This issue's installment of "Leomund's Secure Shelter" did nothing for me, just adding complexity to AD&D archery that I don't feel a need for. Jon Peterson's "Adventuring Without the Magic" was a really fun romp down memory lane; I kept saying, "I played that! I remember when that came out!" I didn't care much for Dave Olson's "Necromancer's Cookbook" (maybe because my current game, D&D 4e, has plenty of varieties of undead) or the article on "Djinn" by Lawrence Whitaker and Pete Nash (though that might be different were I playing a game where djinn figure more prominently), and Bill McDonald's "Psionics Without the Points" didn't engage me either. On the other hand, Timothy Connolly's "Randomize Your Realm" will be a tool I'll bookmark, and to which I'll return next time I run a homebrew fantasy campaign.

As for the cartoons, Order of the Stick was okay this time, but Full Frontal Nerdity was really funny.

I think I noticed a couple of typos and such in issue #4, but they were apparently not serious enough to stick with me. I only have two complains about this issue. First, sometimes it's not obvious which system a particular article intends to address. You have to read two paragraphs into the article about djinn, for example, to learn that it's keyed to RuneQuest 6. Some kind of header tag at the top of the page identifying the relevant system would be most welcome. Second, 76 pages is long enough for the PDF to need bookmarks, which the publisher did not supply.

If you want new material for AD&D or its retroclones, or you just want a good dose of nostalgia, go ahead and get a copy of Gygax Magazine #4.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Gygax magazine issue #4
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