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[ICONS]The Super Villain Handbook Basic Edition
Publisher: Fainting Goat Games
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/24/2015 17:32:11
Let’s start with what’s greatest about this product: it focuses on the villains, and it focuses on their stories. A few days ago, my 11-year-old son was asking for advice on creating scenarios for ICONS. One of the things I told him was, “You have to think about the villains and their motivations. What do they want, and how do they try to get it, and how does this cause problems for the heroes?” The Super Villain Handbook provides a really nice resource for thinking about those questions. Jason “Dr. Comics” Tondro has structured the book around the dramatic roles that different kinds of villains play in comics stories rather than around their power sets. The “Stories” section of each archetype explores typical goals, recurring themes, and support cast rather than a bullet list of “adventure hooks” or specific capers (as in Fainting Goat’s Miscreants, Malefactors, and Megalomaniacs or the World’s Most Wanted series). Those “Stories” subsections are very good and, in my mind, they are the chief selling point for this book.

Now for elements that are of good quality, but not sufficient reason to purchase the book. The artwork is very enjoyable (though I’d like to see the Deluxe Edition include specific credits for the artwork, since I don’t know each artist’s signature). I also really appreciate how Jason has included an appendix that sort of “converts” archetypes from the Field Guide to Superheroes into villainous archetypes.

It’s not all wine and roses, though. This book is actually a subset of a larger project (not yet released at the time of this writing), a kind of “down payment” for those who backed the Handbook on Kickstarter. The unfinished quality of the work shows through in five particular respects. I’ll list them here from least annoying to most egregious. (1) The Basic Edition is only about half the length of the Deluxe Edition (in number of archetypes). This isn’t really a weakness of the Basic Edition, but it’s important information for people to have when deciding whether to purchase. (2) The book introduces and uses rules for cosmic-level characters that will be changed in the Deluxe Edition to line up with the official ICONS supplement “C is for Cosmic” in the ICONS A-Z series. I appreciate both Jason’s shout-out to the old Marvel FASERIP system in the rules included in the Basic SVH and his (and FGG’s) flexibility in changing the cosmic-level rules to match “C is for Cosmic.” Again, this is not so much a weakness of the Basic SVH as it is a caveat emptor so that potential buyers will understand the differences between the Basic and Deluxe editions. (3) Not all of the archetypes feature artwork. I don’t consider this a really big deal, but it’s really noticeable. (4) This is a 99-page PDF with no bookmarks. Well, I take that back. The cover, table of contents, and back cover are bookmarked—the three pages you least need to have bookmarked. A full set of bookmarks needs to appear in the Deluxe Edition. (5) The book’s big weakness is that the stat blocks at the end of each archetype lack context, and in at least one case they’re not really consistent with the archetype writeup. Essentially, Jason gives us stats for a character embodying each archetype. But although these characters clearly have specific individual flavors and personalities — they are instantiations of the archetype, not stats for a bland generic version of the archetype (and that’s a good thing) — they don’t have names or even brief backstories. This is a gaping hole that needs to be patched in the Deluxe Edition. The most jarring example of this is the Conqueror. The writeup is for the Brain, from the Pinky and the Brain cartoon. But the Brain is a laboratory mouse, so he doesn’t at all fit the advice given in the “Abilities” section of the Conqueror writeup. An unwary reader who didn’t perceive that the stat block reflected the epigram could easily become confused. And while I love Pinky and the Brain, I don’t think the Brain is really a good example of the Conqueror archetype for RPG purposes.

Jason Tondro is a good writer, so awkward phrasings and grammatical errors are much rarer here than is typical for FGG (sorry, Mike). The layout is bland but not objectionable; the page frame is easier on the eyes than the one for Stark City. The typography is boring to the point of stale (Arial? Trebuchet? Really?) Oh, and “supervillain” should either be one word or hyphenated, not two separate words. The phrase “supervillain handbook” denotes a handbook for supervillains; the phrase “super villain handbook” denotes a super handbook for villains. There’s a difference.

The bottom line is that I’d advise potential buyers to wait for and purchase the Deluxe Edition. The Basic Edition shows that the Deluxe Edition will be a great resource. But this is really more of a Preliminary Edition than a Basic Edition. I feel pretty sure the Deluxe Edition will be a 4-star or 5-star product, but at the time of this writing the Deluxe Edition isn’t out yet.

Full disclosure: I received the Super Villain Handbook, Basic Edition as a free review copy. I did not back the Kickstarter — not because I didn’t want to, but because I was so distracted with other things at the time that I didn’t get my pledge in during the campaign.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
[ICONS]The Super Villain Handbook Basic Edition
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[ICONS] Worlds Most Wanted #4
Publisher: Fainting Goat Games
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/23/2015 21:34:13
Vertexor’s origin story is a real stretch, even for comic-book biology … but it’s so much fun, who cares? Shrinking heroes and villains are all the rage right now, as I write this review within a week after the Ant-Man movie’s release. Vertexor is permanently shrunk, adding a neat wrinkle. As with all the WMW and Space Supers issues, I love the use of an action figure card as the cover—but Vertextor’s “creator,” Prospero, would no doubt point out that the “actual size” Vertexor on the cover appears to be a 3.5"–4" action figure rather than an 8" action figure. For reference, 8" is the size of the G. I. Joes, Mego superheroes, and Star Trek figures that were popular back in the 1970s. The one on the cover doesn’t seem to have enough points of articulation to be an 8" figure. Okay, now I’m just geeking out. World’s Most Wanted #4: Vertextor is definitely worth the asking price ($0.75 as of this writing) and can add a dose of big fun to your ICONS gaming.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
[ICONS] Worlds Most Wanted #4
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[ICONS] Worlds Most Wanted #8 - The Locust
Publisher: Fainting Goat Games
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/22/2015 15:49:30
Just a couple of days ago, my younger son was thinking out loud about possible capers for insect-themed heroes. Now here comes the Locust to give him a great example of how the villain’s motivation can be somewhat independent of the villain’s theme/totem. Mechanically, the Locus is a little boring, but his personality as revealed in the two-page writeup is just the right amount of quirky. All three of the one-paragraph plot hooks are well worth exploring. For me, the third is the most inspiring, and I may use it soon or turn it over to my son for him to develop. The “MSRP” of $3.99 would be way overboard for one page of art, one-and-a-half pages of content, and the OGL page, but the actual selling price of $1.00 is a good value. My rating tops out at four stars instead of five because of production values. I love the “action figure card” covers on the series, and Ade’s artwork is great for ICONS, but the typography is boring (Franklin Gothic? Trebuchet?) and the text needed another pass or two by a copy editor (an “and” on p. 2 is missing its “d”; “outwitted” is misspelled on p. 2 as two words; and so on). But these imperfections aside, I really enjoy and recommend this installment in the WMM series.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
[ICONS] Worlds Most Wanted #8 - The Locust
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Land of the Giants - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/04/2014 19:33:49
The titular giants apparently live in a rocky, windswept clime. The track gives us wind, but I hear no rustling of trees. The overall effect makes me think of tundra, or maybe a place with the terrain Arizona's or New Mexico's canyon country, but a lot colder. I'm not quite sure why the track suggests such a northern reach to me; maybe it's that the wind sounds so much like the wind in Gil Luna's explicitly arctic soundscapes. The percussion in this piece could just be a way to provide a sense of menace, but it makes me think of giants beating drums, or throwing rocks at each other. Hill giants, stone giants, and maybe frost giants populate my mind while this track plays; fire giants and storm giants, not so much. The piece is great for exploration of giants' territory or negotiation with said giants. I would not recommend it for a combat scene; the pace is too slow for that.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Land of the Giants   - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Mage Tower - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/04/2014 18:51:55
Soft, vague instrumental and vocal music swirl around each other in this piece, creating an air of mystery. Sounds to me like the wizard is either quasi-friendly or not at home. I don't get a sense of menace or danger, unless some of those vocals come from ghosts who will later turn out to be hostile. The track would make great backing for an exploration or interaction scene; it's definitely not the right mood for a fight scene. Even though the title refers to a wizard's (or alchemist's or sage's) tower, I think the audio is much more flexible than that. The track would feel right at home under a scene set in a mystical forest glade, or under water, or any number of places. It would also work just fine for a visit to an alien planet in a sci-fi game, or even in a Cthulhu-themed game when you want to evoke a sense of wonder (you know, before the ghastly horror of the situation dawns on the victims, er, PCs).

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Mage Tower   - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Spec Ops Team vs Mi-Go - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/04/2014 18:23:43
Soldiers armed with automatic weapons and grenades throw down against strange insect-like monsters from outer space. That’s what the title promises, and that’s what the audio delivers. There is enough difference between this track and "Spec Ops Team vs Otherworldly Being" (a.k.a. "Spec Ops Team vs Large Entity") that the two tracks aren't redundant, but they're enough alike that if staging a firefight between soldiers and aliens is rare for you, you could probably get by with just one. The big difference is that this track implies a larger number of smaller enemies, and the other track implies one larger enemy. This track is very good at setting the tone its title suggests, but it presents a dilemma. If you play it loud enough to be "realistic," it may interfere with the gaming conversation at the table. If you play it softly enough to be unobtrusive, it may sound like the fight is far away.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Spec Ops Team vs Mi-Go - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Mi-Go Laboratory - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/27/2014 22:56:25
Soldiers armed with automatic weapons and grenades throw down against strange insect-like monsters from outer space. That’s what the title promises, and that’s what the audio delivers. I like this track a lot, even though it’s very similar to “Spec Ops vs. Otherworldly Being/Large Entity,” with different monster sounds. The only downside to this track, as with the other “Spec Ops” track, is that the volume level you need to make the track feel right could interfere with the actual gaming going on at the table. You’ll have to sort that out yourself if you use the track, but I can definitely say that’s the only impediment to me using it in an appropriate fight scene.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Mi-Go Laboratory   - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Spec Ops Team vs Otherworldly Being - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/27/2014 22:47:12
Play this track, and you’ll find yourself right in the middle of a firefight between a heavily-armed team (machine guns, the other kind of RPGs) and some kind of monster. I’m not sure who’s doing all that screaming — bystanders or the unluckier spec ops personnel. The monster’s roars are pretty evocative. The flavor is just right. The downside is that the track is very busy and noisy, and could overwhelm the gaming going on in the foreground if you play it too loud. But if you play it too softly, it sounds unrealistic or far away. I’m not sure how to resolve that dilemma. By the way, the catalog description identifies this track as “Spec Ops Team vs Otherworldly Being,” but the ID3 tags call it “Spec Ops vs Large Entity.” A little confusing.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Spec Ops Team vs Otherworldly Being - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Skyscraper Under Construction (night) - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/27/2014 22:41:55
This track is not the same as “Skyscraper Under Construction (abandoned),” which I have also reviewed, but it’s not a whole lot different. The sound of wind is more subdued in this track, and there are more noises. In particular, you can hear sounds that strike me as heavy footsteps, as of construction workers. However, there are no jackhammers, piledrivers, no compressed-air hammers or screwdrivers. It doesn’t really sound like there is much construction going on here, which reduces this track’s value in comparison with “Skyscraper Under Construction (abandoned).” I don’t really see a need for both in a soundscape library. I’d probably opt for this one over the “(abandoned)” version.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Skyscraper Under Construction (night) - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Skyscraper Under Construction (abandoned) - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/27/2014 22:28:23
This track — which should not be confused with “Skyscraper Under Construction (night)” — doesn’t do much for me, but it does deliver what it promises. Mostly you hear the sounds of wind, of metal striking metal (like rivets falling on girders), and a few quasi-musical tones that could be distressed metal swaying in the wind or even car horns from down below. If you need to stage some kind of monster/killer hunt in an unfinished skyscraper, this track will do a good job of setting the mood. Don’t take the “under construction” part of the title too seriously. There are no sounds of active construction in the track.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Skyscraper Under Construction (abandoned) - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Submarine Interior - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/27/2014 22:08:07
This track delivered exactly what the name led me to expect: white noise (as of engines), pinging, and the occasional sounds of metal striking metal, or metal bending. The only thing missing is people. This submarine sounds like it’s deserted — which makes the track kind of spooky. Great for a “monster aboard the submarine” type of scene, or the exploration of an abandoned submarine; not so great for a wartime scene where the PCs are the submarine crew.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Submarine Interior - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Foreign Marketplace - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/17/2014 18:30:24
Despite the vague and unfortunate "foreign" in the title, this track does a good job of capturing an eclectic bazaar. Vendors haggle with customers, babies cry, donkeys bray, birds squawk, and a general hubbub immerses listeners in the marketplace. This would be a good track to use, for example, during the opening scene of the "Murder in Baldur's Gate" adventure or any other time such a market is featured. The soundscape is flexible enough to serve in fantasy, pulp, or modern games equally well.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Foreign Marketplace   - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Dwarven City (with music) - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/16/2014 14:05:16
I wrote the following review of the original "Dwarven City" soundscape from Ambient Environments: "This does not sound like a very friendly place! 'Duergar City' might be more like it. Barking dogs give you the sense that you're not really welcome here. Gruff voices, soft cries, and the sounds of pickaxes working away at ore deposits might give you the sense of slave labor. The track is pretty well done and relatively non-intrusive, even with the voices. But I don't see myself using it that often, unless the PCs at my table get captured by dark dwarf slavers or something like that." This product is the same track enhanced with orchestral-type music. The music is very well done, and gives the whole thing a very cinematic flair. I would definitely be more likely to use the "with music" version. But the tone is still ominous, befitting a place where the workers are slaves or the entire community is very much down on its luck. Still, the music adds enough depth and texture for me to give this one an extra star compared to the non-music version.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Dwarven City (with music)   - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Desert Winds - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/16/2014 13:56:03
This track is dominated, of course, by the sound of wind. It mostly sounds like someone left a microphone out during a sandstorm—which, of course, is the point of the track. In the background, you can barely hear some instrumental music with a Middle Eastern feel. The overall effect is very nice, though I could stand for the musical accents to be louder. The track is a good addition to the Ambient Environments catalog, but there is no "wow" factor to it.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Desert Winds   - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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Dead Swamp - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Publisher: Ambient Environments
by Chris H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/16/2014 01:19:27
There is a striking mismatch between the title of this track, "Dead Swamp," and the first sounds you hear, which are sounds of life (crickets and frogs). In fact, crickets and frogs, along with birds and some other vague sounds that might be footfalls, are mostly what you hear throughout the entire track. The sense of "swampiness" comes only from the bubbling sounds you hear during the seventh minute of this track, and from a splash in the ninth minute—a splash that might be an alligator sliding into the water. If you listen to the track thinking "swamp," you hear a swamp. If you don't have that preconceived notion, you could be on an oilfield, out in the prairie, next to a placid lake, and so on. The name doesn't fit, but you can use the soundscape to good effect for a living ecosystem near just about any body of fresh water.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Dead Swamp - from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
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