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Kingscairn Issue 1
Publisher: Uyuxo
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/02/2020 08:38:52

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This small ‘zine clocks in at 27 pages of content, already sans ToC, editorial, front cover, etc.; the ‘zine is laid out in the customary booklet-size (roughly 6’’ by 9’’/A5), and it should be noted that is has some serious white space and wiiiideee margins.

Then again, that’s probably somewhat intentional, as much of the ‘zine’s aesthetic is base don the use of the really inspiring (and imho underappreciated) artworks of William Thomas Horton – each of the 6 backgrounds, for example, gets their own associated artwork, and in-between, vistas using the clear, but never starkly-rendered contrasts of the style help to provide a unique identity. My review is based on both the by now unfortunately out of print physical version of the ‘zine and the pdf.

So, what is this? In short, it is a first glimpse at a setting for Troika that is somewhat more grounded and more conductive to a prolonged campaign than the average crazy trip through the Humpbacked Sky. The tone of this setting could be described as hauntological in its references of old types of science-fiction/fantasy, closer to the Vernesian, or to Gormenghast. Indeed, it is probably Gormenghast that was my very first association upon reading this.

Kingscairn is an island-bound city-state, ruled, big surprise, by a King, and is best known for mining the Urth-mineral Kingsium (to mention the sort of somewhat Dickensian humor herein); the introductory paragraph does have this weird glitch in the prose that makes it look as though the lake is on top of the city, thankfully the only such weird hiccup in the booklet: “Kingsium, that is found in the depths of the lake that sits on the top of the island.”

Anyhow, from the introductory setup, we move to a name table with names (mixing Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon ones), surnames, professions (that exist in real-life) and mien. All of these are one-word things. However, we also get two d6-tables: One for guilds and gangs, and one for holidays and events. Here, the respective entries are elaborated upon: We learn about the Bridgebrickers Union,. The Gentlethieves Guild, and the revolutionary Cesium Brotherhood; as far as festivals are concerned, the important Fig Harvest Festival and the Flying Fish Fair are noted.

The pdf then proceeds to offer a die-drop field of color-coded hexes, courtesy of Daniel Sell, to determine weather before we move to the 6 new backgrounds. These have in common that they are well-balanced and carry this very special blend of the classic and retro-weird: The Brother of the Guild of Gentlethieves has pledged to practice the chivalrous act of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, hearkening back to a day of gold-hearted scoundrels with dashing swagger. Disgraced Matriarchs start off with 3 spells and may test their luck to convert individual to their cause. Beyond the early industrial sprawl, the important figs are growing on steep cliffs – and it is the Fig Poachers, those daring individuals, that risk life and limb to supplement their opulent lifestyle.

The structure of Kingscairn mirrors social status – the farther away from the bottom and water, the more prestigious, and as such, the Guardians of the Wayward Path stand vigil over the few paths that lead from the city’s apex to the lake, while the Starweaver prefers the few unspoiled regions of the isle, gazing into the stars through their dreams. They can test their luck for hints and begin play with 5 spells and 3 Astrology, but not much else beyond that. Finally, there would be the Octomancer, a failed soothsayer who has mounted an occult octopus (!!) on their head – which translates to getting the stealth-enhancing Ink Shroud spell, among other things. As a whole, I really liked these backgrounds, and the sense of somewhat nostalgic mono-no-aware they seem to exude, at least for me. (And yes, each background is faced by a gorgeous and fitting artwork.)

The final section of the ‘zine contains three regions: The Bridge of Bountiful Bazaars, the Low City, and the Piers. Each area comes with a brief paragraph or two on it as a whole, and a d6 table of encounters. The bridge has a supplemental d4-table for the spice-merchant, with all 4 entries having meaningful effects – which is great! (I know that Troika! tends to eschew the details, but I’d have appreciated some prices for those.) The low city has no additional tables beyond the encounters, while the piers come with 4 visions of the dream whale and 4 general fishermen rumors. Minor thing, but it irritated me: The tops and bottoms of tables in the book lack the black line to denote their closure.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are good on a formal level, very good on a rules-language level. Layout adheres to a per se minimalist one-column b/-standard that works well on the background pages, less so on the others, where the amount of white space bothered me aesthetically somewhat. The physical zine is stapled and has covers with a solid sturdiness. The pdf comes with full bookmarks, nested for your convenience – navigation is comfortable.

This is, to my knowledge, the freshman offering of Kevin Gorff (at least for Troika!), and frankly, I like it a lot. The combination of the artwork with the relatively down-to-earth setting (as far as Troika! is concerned) manages to elicit a blending of a sense of subdued humor and nostalgia that is hard to describe. The atmosphere is, most assuredly, rather unique. On the downside, the ‘zine is very much what I’d consider to be “sparse” – sparse in detail on Kingscairn, sparse in detail of how it actually operates as a society, and somewhat sparse on content for the page-count. That being said, the very low and fair asking price ($3.00 for the pdf, and the physical ‘zine was offered at a fair 5 pounds on Melsonia.com) do offset this somewhat, as does the fact that this was the author’s first offering. As a whole, I consider this worth considering if you’re a fan of subdued humor and fantasy in the Victorian tradition, this most assuredly is worth getting. My final verdict will be 3.5 stars, rounded up – now when do we get a more in-depth look at this intriguing, if as of yet very sketch-like setting?

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Kingscairn Issue 1
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Gellarde Barrow
Publisher: Zzarchov Kowolski
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 12/01/2020 12:15:43

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This adventure for Neo-classical Geek Revival clocks in at 12 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 8 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This review was requested as a prioritized review by one my supporters via direct donation, and also as a regular request by one of my patreon supporters.

This module contains two different spells: Craft barrow guardian (based on Simulacrum) and barrow hex (based on Trigger & Summon), both focusing on making guardians for barrows. The module also includes a really cool treasure, the mallet of Gellminster, a carpenter’s mallet that can be used to drive sharp objects into pretty much anything: Nail ghosts to walls, etc. Cool concepts! But: its rules are opaque. It will “strike more heavily than an ordinary mallet” (okay, what effect does this have?), and it e.g. doesn’t note how actually nailing critters to objects works rules-wise.

The module comes with a brief random encounter table and sports no read-aloud text.

The module is a barrow crawl for low-level/relatively new parties, and as far as the unique things that set NGR apart go, it doesn’t utilize many of those, feeling very much like a conventional OSR-module. In spite of this, it is one of the harder modules for both players and GMs to execute.

In order to talk about why will require that we go into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.

..

.

Okay, only GMs around? Great! So, the PCs are about to explore the barrow of fabled Luc Gallarde, who was rumored to be capable of duplicating anything that can be made of wood in other media, like stone. Note that this is true: In the very first room, a chair (constructed as one would make a wooden chair) of marble can be found. Cool! It weighs 150 pounds, nice, this’ll make it hard to get to safety for the party! Problem-solving ftw.! …wait. It’s valuable, right? The module says as much. Then why doesn’t it list a, you know, actual value? This problem in the details isn’t the only one, but it illustrates one of the weaknesses of the module.

As far as strengths are concerned, we have a few as well: Beyond bandits in one room, we also have a dangerous hipposteus that can be outmaneuvered by a clever party (if they read the signs well) – and one room is particularly interesting: At the top level, there’s a walkway blocked by pallid, white roots that crosses a larger hall; these roots attack and regrow pretty quickly, but not too quickly. Below, we have the biggest room of the dungeon, including a stationary root monster thing that not only can be outmaneuvered by clever PCs (to at least stay out of melee range), it also throws curled up trilobites (!!) as ammo. That is AWESOME. Seriously, two thumbs up. This creature, alas, also serves as a good way to illustrate that the module isn’t always consistent in how it rewards the players: That hallway with the roots reaching up? If the party takes the time and clears out all the roots, the monster below will fall to the floor. Does it suffer in any way, shape or form from this? NO. In fact, it gets tougher, because now it’s angry and mobile. Granted, bypassing the roots in the corridor above may be the smartest move, but penalizing wanting to deal with the monster in a clever manner strikes me as counterproductive. Taking potshots at it while it’s rooted is much more efficient. I was also surprised to note that it can unroot, because the regular write-up doesn’t imply that, with its limited mobility/can’t reach PCs that stick to the walls angle.

The second part of the module that makes it kinda tough, is that the barrow has essentially three levels crammed on one map, and a gimmick where two levers allow the party to flood the barrow to a degree. This process is pretty much a question of trial and error (there are only two levers, so that is somewhat valid), but since they seem to lock in place until the water has reached the new level, it can be a bit weird. Anyhow, it would have been REALLY HELPFUL if the individual regions that can be flooded actually noted some sort of shading on the map. Granted, each room that can be flooded notes its differences in the flooded state, but yeah. Considering how simple the actual module is regarding its set up, I shouldn’t have to make notes and reread the module and puzzle that sort of thing together. It’s not that it isn’t there, it’s just that it’s inconvenient.

The aforementioned mallet, btw., was used by a tomb robber to nail a shadow thing to the wall as he lay dying. The shadow thing, obviously, can’t be trusted, but tries to get the party to free it. And no, there are still no rules for nailing enemies to solid objects – or how to get, you know, out if you’re nailed to an object.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are okay on a formal and rules language level; I noticed a couple of hiccups. Layout adheres to a 2-column no-frills b/w-standard, and the pdf uses some nice stock art. The b/w-maps by Dyson Logos are really neat, but I wish there was an unlabeled, player-friendly version, or even better, a proper jpg for VTT-use. None is provided. The pdf has no bookmarks.

Michael Moscrip’s Gellarde Barrow does a lot right; it has a cool item premise in line with Zzarchov’s aesthetics, and when he gets things right (like the ranged attacks of that one monster), he does so rather well. However, at the same time, the complex doesn’t really live up to the cool “I can nail ANYTHING together”-premise. I mean, picture what you could have done with that!! Instead, we get a pretty solid, if inconvenient little dungeon crawl. The whole water/flooding premise, ultimately, is underutilized as well – you could have made some seriously cool puzzles with that, influence and redefine how one or more combats operate, etc. There is a ton of promise here, but as a whole, much of the promise is not realized properly. This also holds true regarding all the possibilities NGR offers in contrast to other old-school systems; the game has so much more to offer than what’s on display here.

As a PWYW-offering, this is worth checking out, I guess, but in contrast to the other OSR/NGR-compatible adventures, it falls a bit flat. My final verdict will be 3 stars.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Gellarde Barrow
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Gear Book: Operative Weapons
Publisher: Evil Robot Games
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/30/2020 10:04:39

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This supplement clocks in at 8 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 5 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreon supporters.

So, this book is all about filling a mechanical need. Namely, to add in weapons for trick attacking at all levels. Like the first of these gear books, this supplement begins by clearly laying out its design concerns and the issues it tries to fix.

The book begins with a clear analysis of the curve for the weapons, including correctly discerning that the 1st and 7th level weapon perform above their peers, and takes the Starfinder Armory content into account as well – and the design paradigms underlying those, including how they interact with core rules. E.g. switchblades, etc. keep the damage of knives while expanding the utility – design in breadth, if you will. This book, then, provides versions for the weapons to fill the gaps. It should be noted that not every level is truly mechanically distinct: A survival knife and a survival knife 2 and 3 are base-damage-wise identical, but have different levels and increasing costs – which is relevant for seals and fusions. Then again, e.g. the hunting knife 3 (level 6) does get a damage increase to 1d8. The tables provided in this book also clearly designate the weapons from the big Starfinder books in bolded script – very helpful.

And the pdf goes a step further and manages to include some differentiation between these upgrades – at level 14, we have, for example, a power sap! (I don’t know why, but a powered sap is such an outrageous concept, it just made me smile. I can picture the sap with this glowing tech-cylinder striking, then a discharge of steam as it kicks in…it’s weirdly hilarious to me…and yes, there is a level 20 neutron star sap.)

And the book goes one step further with this very transparent approach that lets even GMs not usually interested in the nit and grit of design discern what’s suitable and what isn’t, as the pdf walks the reader through the design concerns by weapon type. I very much enjoy this transparent design approach, as it a) shows the degree of thought that went into this and b) means that I don’t have to explain why the design decisions made are valid.

Anyhow, the pdf features separate tables by weapon type, and the pdf actually provides…drumroll errata for some of the…let’s say…problematic aspects of the Armory book. Like the damage output of e.g. gale batons. Two big thumbs up!

So, is all great? Well, almost. I have checked the entire array of tables herein (and yes, that was some serious work) and consider all components added to the game herein valid; but I also noticed a glitch in the one-handed advanced melee weapons table. EDIT: This glitch has been rectified!

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules language level; with the glitch purged, this is a precise and well-wrought pdf. Layout adheres to the series’ two-column full-color standard with nice artworks included. The pdf has no bookmarks, but needs none at this length.

Paul Fields and Jim Milligan deliver a really handy booklet that pretty much all operative players will definitely want to take a look. This pdf fills a hole in the game, and does so in a well-reasoned and clever manner. Math-wise, the content herein is well-balanced and performs in line with SFRPG. This is so ridiculously useful for operative players, I do feel comfortable in granting this my EZG Essentials tag; not having to switch weapon category is a big deal for me. EDIT: The glitch has been taken care of, which upgrades this to 5 stars + seal of approval.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Gear Book: Operative Weapons
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Quests of Doom 4: In the Time of Shardfall (PF)
Publisher: Frog God Games
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/30/2020 10:02:48

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This module clocks in at 29 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page advertisement, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 22 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This review was requested as part of a series of reviews by my patreon supporters. My review is based on the PF-version, since that’s the one that was requested. I don’t own the other versions.

This module is designated for 4–6 characters of 5th or 6th level, and as always for Frog God Games, a well-balanced group is very much recommended. Nominally set in the Lost Lands campaign setting, the module can be adapted rather easily to other campaign settings…with a few caveats that may be relevant for you. On a formal level, it should be noted that the module has 7 neat b/w maps, but much to my chagrin, no player-friendly, label-less versions are provided; jarring, considering that FGG used to include those. We get random encounters, rumors, and essentially a hex map with a couple of smaller regions where everything zooms in – nice, I like a good wilderness/location scenario. (As such, it should be noted that this isn’t linear per se, though the module does seem to work best in a certain sequence.) The module features well-written read-aloud text.

The module is penned by none other than Michael Curtis, who is generally a guarantee for an awesome module, so let’s see if this module can break the curse that seems to have affected this series.

The following discussion of the module contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.

..

.

All right, only GMs around? Great! So, the backstory of this module taps into an inconceivably ancient prehistory where the Great Old Ones waged war. In this age of dinosaurs and worse, the dracosaurus horribilis was created – the proto-dragon Ghurazkz. This thing was so powerful that the demon frog god Tsathogga’s tsathar servitor race had to intervene, creating a mirror of raw obsidian, the Akaata – this would drain the life-force of the shoggoth-slaying monstrosity, but even it would not suffice. And thus, they cast the mirror with its prisoners into the vortex of time, into the far future. Eons passed, empires fell, tsathar degenerated…and that future has come. It’s the time of the Shardfall, as the Akaata shatters, releasing its prisoners.

Readers familiar with DCC will note the references to essentially a time of chaos back then, to dark forces battling, etc. – I like the tone here. However, if your game does have a pretty established lore regarding ancient eras, that’s something to bear in mind. Some of the module’s impact is also predicated on the fact that suddenly, prehistoric creatures are roaming the landscape is deemed to be odd, so if you have a dinosaur county in your setting, perhaps don’t play the module near that one.

The module begins pretty much with a bang, and has the party face dinosaurs and pretty soon find the first of the 5 fragments of the ancient mirror; I do like that destroying these is very much possible and rewards being smart (don’t attack the reflective side); after some serious (and cool/deadly) dinosaur action, the trail of the fragments will sooner or later confront the PCs with Jouktar, the most memorable NPC herein, and also a symptom for the book: This fellow would be a tsathar from the pre-degeneration phase, when they had an intelligent, refined culture; he was imprisoned as well, and could fill in the party on what happened…but the language barrier is severe due to millennia of differences, and as such, pantomiming is suggested, with some serious ideas re pantomiming etc.. I love that per se.

Yeah, unlike in DCC, languages aren’t a problem in PF. Comprehend languages, anyone? Tongues? Seriously, why does this module ignore basic strategies for solving this? Heck, the issue extends beyond system borders! In S&W (the go-to-OSR-system for these), the whole problem can be circumvented by writing down communication and casting read languages, a frickin’ 1st-level magic-user spell. 5e also has this little-known 1st-level ritual…it’s called frickin’ comprehend languages. I really don’t get it. This sort of issue could have been bypassed with just a proper narrative framing, but instead, we get some serious consistency issues in ALL THREE SYSTEMS this was released for. This is particularly jarring, as the tsathar actually makes for a reliable and unconventional ally during the module, and is one of the few non-combat scenes in the otherwise combat-heavy scenario full of neat setpieces, which also includes a tar-pit-laden bog of poisonous mists, with a nasty necromancer on the loose. AWESOME.

…why does none of the undead here get special tar abilities? A proper mini-template, done? Where are the cool environmental effects? Absent. It’s such a great backdrop, where is the mechanical significance? We also have a few minor formatting glitches and e.g. misnamed skills like “Riding” instead of Ride, but these are cosmetic.

Ultimately, the PCs will need to make their way to a tribe of ogrillons to the proto-dragon and deal with it before it regains its strength….and it’s a MEDIUM creature. It’s CR 7, and essentially a juvenile gray dragon. It’s a solid, challenging boss…but it’s so incredibly lame after the cool set-up.

It was so horribly anticlimactic, and without the dinosaur angle and background story, it’d feel like just another dragon lording over humanoids. This, more than anything, screwed with me; why doesn’t the fellow get a unique statblock? Even better option: Why is there no gathering of power/special abilities? It’d have been easy to assign one unique ability per fragment dealt with; all the abilities only work against the proto-dragon, and as such, they could have been used to have the PCs deal with a boss far above their weight-class!

You know, something like: “Power of the Ages (Su): As a swift action, you can tap into the life-force of those who perished at the claws of the proto-dragon, fortifying yourself against its attacks. You gain xyz temporary hit points, as the spirits of these damned shield you from harm. You can command these spirits to attack as a standard action…” (No, this is not in the book; I improvised this.)

You know.

Something WORTHY of the epic set-up!

As written, a well-optimized party can eliminate this fellow in two rounds, tops, and a real power-gamer can one-shot the “epic” proto-dragon. Also: It’s MEDIUM.

All this set-up for a MEDIUM dragon…sigh It’s also weaker (as in: less Strength) than many of the dinos unleashed. I can’t recall when I’ve been this underwhelmed by a module’s boss.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are okay on a formal level; on a rules-language level, the lack of familiarity with the target systems, particularly the PF-version, of an otherwise great author is very much evident…as is the fact that the Pathfinder conversion by Dave Landry is just BAD and barebones, failing to account for realities of the system in instances where these aren’t just statblock errors, but actually the conversion hampers the frickin’ plot. Layout adheres to a clean two-column b/w-standard with some solid b/w-artworks that might be familiar to fans of FGG. The b/w-cartography is per se really cool and detailed…but we have one map with a 10 ft.-grid, and one with a 20 ft.-grid (an epic T-rex battle); both grid-sizes are a PAIN to work with in PFRPG. The lack of player-friendly versions is also a further strike against the module, particularly in light of the cool set-up. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.

Michael Curtis’ “In the Time of the Shardfall” is an excellent example of an amazing yarn sunk by sloppy mechanical execution, at least in PFRPG. I can’t comment on the 5e and OSR-versions, but as outlined above, unless the module was rewritten (which I doubt) for these versions, the language-issue at least will persist. This module was frickin’ heartbreaking to review…because its framework does so much right: It is relatively free-form, has really cool dino-battles, awesome backdrops that ooze atmosphere and a cool concept for a final boss….and then proceeds to squander all of that potential. Where are the sticky tar-modifications for the undead? Where are the unique hazards? Why is the final boss so incredibly lame?

I think, I might have an idea. I’m just suspecting things here, but I assume that this was written in a system-neutral manner, with different specialists assigned to jam the module into the respective systems. And at least for PFRPG, that operation has fallen flat. Big time. This needed more pronounced rewrites to work in the system, and instead, we get what feels like a rushed minimal-effort conversion.

…can you have fun with this? Theoretically, yes. If your party isn’t that deep into PFRPG’s mechanics, and you gloss over the problems. But in many ways, this module is symptomatic of issues that sunk some other great modules in this series. I really hope the remaining modules in the series will leave me with more positive things to say.

I need to rate this, though. And as painful as this might be for me, I can’t justify rating this higher than 2.5 stars, rounded up, but only barely. This has all the makings of 5 stars + seal of approval, but fails to capitalize on them in the most aggravating way.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Quests of Doom 4: In the Time of Shardfall (PF)
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Black Void: Core Book
Publisher: Modiphius
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/12/2020 05:52:28

An Endzeitgeist.com review

The Black Void’s core book is a massive tome of 404 pages if you take away editorial, front cover, ToC, backer lists, character sheet, (brief) glossary, index, etc., so quite a lot to digest.

I have received a print copy of this tome for the purpose of a fair and unbiased review; this has been simmering on my backburner for quite a while.

You can think of this book as pretty much two in one: Approximately the first half of the book is devoted to the rules, while the second half, the GM-chapter, is essentially the setting, including NPCs, bestiary, etc.; Personally, I’d have preferred them to be split in the middle, as I enjoy handing books to my players, but that just as an aside.

Before we dive into the analysis, how would I describe it? Well, picture this: Babylon’s in full swing, seen through a lens of Clark Ashton Smith. Suddenly, tendrils of black grasp everyone, and humanity ends up stranded in a strange, uncaring and far-off cosmos, and pretty much at the bottom of the social hierarchies. The cosmology knows three primary components: The cosmos is the vast expanse of space we know; the void lies beyond it, and is the home of the truly esoteric and strange creatures, but not necessarily in a Lovecraftian vein; instead, it also is the origin of beings we associate with real world mythology like the Lammasu, the asura, deva, etc. The interesting twist here, ultimately, is that the creatures from the esoteric realms might be more familiar than anything else, inverting the premise of fantasy as we know it in pretty much every game. Cosmos and void are separated by the Veil, which reminded me in its function of games like Esoterrorists and Bloodlines & Black Magic.

The assumed story-hub would be Llyhn, the eternal city, situated at a crossroads of sorts where the veil is thin, and where the trade-routes converge; the city is rules from vast towers by unseen rulers who generally do not directly interfere, and as such, the core playing tenet might remind you of a twist on Planescape’s Sigil, or the fantastic City of 7 Seraphs by Lost Spheres Publishing; that’s a good thing. We add a sprinkling of spelljamming, for the Void allows for planetary travel…but all of these decidedly high-fantasy concepts are presented in a way I have not seen before: Black Void has a distinct focus on dark fantasy, some might say horror – the in-character/flavor pieces throughout the book illustrate rather well how the world can be considered to be dark…but I probably wouldn’t use the word “grimdark” for it.

You see, in many ways, the core tenet of the game is that of a humanist fable: What would happen if humanity had been thrust into a thoroughly alien and indifferent environment where we are not the apex predators and dominant species? The world presented by Black Void assumes that there are quite a few massive civilizations out there, but for those Mesopotamian stragglers stranded in Llyhn, survival within a social hierarchy that is rigged against them is actually a struggle. Instead of the cosmicism of a vast pantheon of ancient gods trampling us like gnats, the horror in this setting stems more from the experience of living in a society that is at once alien and indifferent. It is effective because it is NOT simply an array of horrors and inevitable madness. As such, I do think that the dark fantasy label, with a definite weird fiction angle best encompasses what this is about. However, my first association when I put down this book for the first time was a different one: I thought: “Okay, so this is a Babylonian Tékumel with a dark fantasy/horror-focus!”

In case you wondered with the whole Babylon angle: Yes, sexuality, slavery and similar mature themes are included, but in a rather tasteful, mature manner, and the presentation is not explicit. For European sensibilities, this is pretty much PG-13, though some people from the US might situate this differently. That being said, like in every horror/dark fantasy game worth the moniker, I wouldn’t recommend it to the professionally offended, so if anything darker than Equestria Girls triggers you (no jab vs. Bronies intended! I think the series can rock hard!), I’d suggest going for a different game.

Okay, this basic premise out of the way, what about the game-engine aspects? How can one situate Black Void regarding its mechanics? Well, here things become more difficult to answer. In how the mechanics feel, I’d suggest probably likening this to WFRP or Storyteller – the Black Void has a pretty simple basic resolution mechanic, wherein you roll a d12 and various modifiers against a target value, with a natural 1 a failure, and a 12 “exploding” in certain instances, i.e. you get to roll again and add it to the result.

Character creation is based on point-buy, with 3 suggested point-ranges for different power-levels provided. The game knows 8 so-called “traits”, which are essentially the game’s ability scores: Agility, Awareness, Stamina, Strength, Intellect, Persuasion, Presence, Willpower. These range from a rating of 0 to 12, with modifiers ranging from -3 to +9, though it should be noted that humans have at least 1 in each score. For every 3 you have in a trait, you can select a talent, which are listed by trait.

Which brings me to a huge pet-peeve of mine: Like most roleplaying games, this begins with character creation, and throws you in on the deep end. While the book does explain the basics of a roleplaying game, it does not explain the basics of its mechanics in an adequate manner before prompting you to create a character. I HATE this tendency with a fiery passion. Why do I have to skip ahead to the “Playing the Game”-chapter (Chapter 3 in this book) and read that first? I can’t make an informed choice in character creation if I don’t understand how the game works.

To illustrate this: The talent Ambidexterity notes that it reduces the penalties for dual-wielding to 0/-3. Okay, at this point, we have no ideas how fighting, let alone regular dual-wielding, works. (You get essentially an extra attack per turn – main hand -3, off hand -6, and the penalties are applied to the action AND the initiative!) You can’t make an informed choice when you don’t know how to play the game. And this is all the more galling when you realize that the action-based gameplay actually has some neat depth and breadth to offer and is explained in a tight manner. Why not start with that, and instead erect this arbitrary difficulty/confusion wall at the start? On another note, since we’re talking about initiative: If you roll a 12 on initiative, you get an additional action during the first round at -6; I assume that this happens regardless of modifiers, and stacks with e.g. dual-wielding, but couldn’t find clarification on that particular scenario.

But I digress. Actions are defined in a clear and concise manner: Some might require sequential successes; some might be contested, and cooperative. The game differentiates between resisted (passive) vs. opposed (active) actions, and an easy chart helps Arbiters (the term used for the GM) and player alike gain a good idea of positive and negative modifiers applied to actions.

The character creation includes a whole lot of means to tweak your character, offering wide and diverse choices that are meaningful: You are human, but you may be a half-blood, or a voidmarked; if you are a pureblood, you are human as we know it; otherwise, you might have attributes; voidmarked can have esoteric attributes, like being ageless…they can be considered to be the somewhat unearthly planetouched of the setting. All of these, however, draw upon the point budget. Beyond traits and homeworld, you can spend points on safe places to stay, connections, loyal allies, etc. – in that manner, the game reminded me of Shadowrun. Magic is generally used via Willpower (Furor – emotional casters) and Intellect (Gnostics – studied spellcasting) and organized in spheres. There also are blood rituals, but more on magic later.

Skills range from 0 (untrained, -3) to 12 (+9), and are associated with one of more traits: Acrobatics might be associated with Agility, Stamina or Strength, for example, depending on what you do. Your point budget also is used to determine your caste, for Llyhn has a rigid caste society, and humans are at the bottom of the barrel…and thus, even if you spend some serious points, you won’t start at the highest echelons…but everything’s better than being casteless...or a Kalbi (which literally translates to “dog”). Anyhow, there are two things that you can’t start investing in – Enlightenment and Wastah. Enlightenment is your cosmic understanding and can only be attained in play via interaction with entities from the void or the void itself; Wastah is the social clout/charisma/bearing of the individual.

The book contains a massive array of items, services and goods, and here, we get additional options, for there are different quality levels (illustrated lavishly), but here is a good place to note once more how the sequence of rules-presentation is needlessly obtuse. I consider myself to be an experienced roleplayer, but when I read the following in the drug section, I was puzzled: “Refined varieties may induce stupor. Stamina Roll [7]: Delirium effect < 7.” Note that, at this point, Delirium had not yet been defined; once you’ve read the book, this makes sense, but the like is not always the case. Terrible quality weapons, for example, note that they have a -1 to attack, damage and speed rolls. I am pretty sure that should be initiative or Agility. That sort of thing is jarring, since the game, as a whole, does a surprisingly great job at delivering the degree of customization I enjoy, so if you’re coming from PFRPG or 5e, you will have enough meaningful choices to fiddle with from the get-go. The breadth and depth is here, and in some aspects transcends those games. Want poison grooves, wave pattern blades? Not only can you have such weapons, these modifications actually have RELEVANT effects in-game. For a tinkerer like yours truly, this is frickin’ amazing. This amount of differentiation also extends to armors, fyi: They offer a variety of options to customize them, and act as essentially damage reduction. Weapons have a size, armor a bulk – these denote the minimum Strength required to sue them sans penalty – otherwise, you suffer a penalty for every point by which you fail to meet the prerequisite.

Surprising for a game with tables for exceptional hits and yes, health levels, the Black Void’s combats run in a relatively smooth and quick manner. The game has derived statistics like Health and Sanity, which pretty much do what you’d expect them to, the latter being harder to replenish…but you can essentially spend Experience Points to regain Stamina, so this is no game of uncontrolled escalation down the insanity rabbit hole. (And before you ask: Yep, fear, madness and delirium are presented in the sanity chapter…once more much later than where the concepts are first mentioned. Some internal cross-referencing “For delirium, see pg XX” or better sequence of presentation would have been prudent.)

While we’re talking about combat: I genuinely LOVE the action engine presented: There is differentiation between regular movement, running and sprinting, and a whole array of options: Parrying, blocking, aiming, called shots, grapples, and so much more – all available. A handy table lists the base combat actions with a handy shorthand table for your convenience, and with essentially attacks of opportunity (here called “attack opportunity”), the game runs surprisingly tactical combats….to a degree. You see, my main gripe with Black Void as a system comes from it feeling somewhat indecisive of what it actually wants to be. We have all these cool, tactical combat actions and concrete ranges for ranged weapons (yes, with increments), and guess what? The game tells you that it assumes “theater of the mind” for combat. Yeah, I have almost 20 years of in-depth experience with such games, and rest assured, that playstyle is great for more rules-lite games, but as soon as you add attack opportunities and components based on concrete tactical placement of individuals, things get messy in theater of the mind. FAST.

And this strange inconsistence can also be found in other aspects, most notably those associated with the voidmarked and magic: The esoteric attribute Daimonic Discord, for example, has this text:

“The character is able to twist other people’s spoken communication so that listeners will hear something different than what is actually being said. The player nominates a target within hearing distance. The character must be able to understand the conversation to twist the words. The conversation can be twisted as much as the player wishes, but the more the message is distorted, the less believable it becomes. A minor tweak, such as replacing a few names or details in a conversation would go unnoticed while making someone appear to say the opposite of what they actually are is conspicuous and would likely be noticed.”

That is the entire text provided regarding rules. Now, don’t get me wrong: I can really appreciate the ability; I picked it out since it’d be one I’d definitely take for my own PC. But notice something? We don’t get information on whether this can easily be done in combat; it doesn’t seem to be a resisted or opposed action. It just WORKS. And it has no limits. All details are left up to the arbiter. And there are quite a few instances in the book where these very narrative components suddenly pop up in a game that is otherwise rather meticulous regarding the precision of concrete rules to resolve its gameplay. For a while, I figured that this was intentional, mirroring cosmos vs. void: You know, concrete rules for the cosmos parts, while void-related stuff gets the more abstract, narrative tricks. And I think this actually is the rationale. But I maintain it doesn’t work well. In direct comparison, abilities like Daimonic Discord are ridiculously powerful in the hands of a half-way smart character (or NPC) – no limit, no concrete boundaries. It also creates this disjoint and underlines the fact that the game’s system is slightly confused regarding what it wants to be – a complex, tactical game, or a more narrative experience?

So yeah, as far as I’m concerned, the rules get a TON of things right; the core engine presented is GREAT. But in the details, this could most assuredly have used a capable and strict rules-editor to put the wishy-washy outliers in a proper, hard-coded context. Particularly since the (rather subdued) magical options actually tend to be codified in a precise manner, with ranges, etc. The system as a whole is presented in a concise manner that is rewarding to play, flawed in some details though it may be.

Anyhow, regardless of whether you want to actually use the game as presented or not, I do maintain that this tome has got something seriously amazing going on for it: The setting. From the bird-like Ka’alum to the shirr, who move on muscular-contractions, gliding over the ground, to the fauna presented, the second half of this book breathes wonder and excitement: Mysteries abound, the cosmopolis’ politics are diverse, and I have rarely read a setting that felt so fresh to me; indeed, not since I first read “Empire of the Petal Throne” have I had a similar experience of a fantasy not indebted to Lovecraft or Tolkien; and apart from City of 7 Seraphs, I would be hard-pressed to name a setting that is so fantastic.

But this? It’s also horrific and decadent, and if you know me, then you pretty much realize by now that this makes the campaign setting a homerun for me. This fantasy manages to feel both ancient and novel. Additionally, the underdog situation humanity finds itself in adds a great angle: In many ways, the whole system is constructed to make it very easy to ask questions of what it actually means to be human, of what one would do to thrive or survive. This reminded me of Shadowrun or Cyberpunk 2020/RED in quite a few of its underlying themes, save that is presents these notions in a holistic, fantastic vision. In its themes and how the game is set up, the Black Void has more in common with those games, than with the D&D-based reference settings like Planescape or Spelljammer. And yes, this is dark fantasy. However, there is a reason for my Tékumel-comparison. This may be a dark setting, one that may seem nihilistic at first glance – but I’d argue that it really, really is not actually nihilistic or grimdark. Why? For every horrifying and disturbing concept presented, for every hopeless struggle, the book also provides something downright stunning and taps into that same wondrous feeling of jamias-vu Tékumel does. Heck, even the Void and the things, planes and creatures related to it are actually not (all) tentacled, sanity-blasting monstrosities. In what might eb the best meta-twist I’ve seen in a setting for quite a while, these aspects may well be the ones you consider to be more familiar, less weird, than those encountered within the “regular” confines of the setting. You might not notice consciously, but your brain will.

It’s been quite a while since I couldn’t put down a campaign setting’s information, since it captivated me to this degree. As far as the setting is concerned, this is a resounding success and amazing vision.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are good on a formal and rules-language level; in some instances, the rules language felt more verbose than it needed to be, and I have encountered a couple of instances where the verbiage is less precise than it should be; on a formal level, I e.g. noticed minor glitches like a whole paragraph in italics, when only the play-example should have been in italics. I can’t help but feel that the book would have benefited from establishing some formatting conventions with italics, bold text etc. to make parsing of rules-language more effective. Layout adheres toa 3-column standard, and is per se gorgeous; the backgrounds etc. make this book beautiful to look at; however, from an information-design perspective, the book is rather inconvenient in its organization and lack of cross-referencing. The artworks of the book are DECADENT. The tome is littered with top-tier, stunning artworks ranging from glorious full-color to some b/w-pieces; most weapons and armors get their own artworks, for example; the majority of the artworks are full-color. The hardcover is a massive, really neat offset-printed book with sturdy binding; it’s beautiful. That being said, I think that some artworks are a tad bit too dark on the matte paper; I can’t help but feel that the book was intended to be printed on glossy paper at one point; the artworks are stunning, but their details sometimes become slightly indistinct on the matte paper. That is me nitpicking at the highest level, though—this book has one of the best art-directions I have seen.

Christoffer S. Sevaldsen, with contributions from Yadin Flammer, Cameron Day, Killian DeVriendt, Bryan j. McLean, Luke Maton, Gabriel Norwood, Predrag Filipovic, Dan Cross and Jon Creffield, has crafted a singular, distinct vision. The game system here manages to present a complex, rewarding engine that is not just a derivative of a d20-engine or similar game, and that shows off VERY well what kind of tactical depth you can achieve without increasing the complexity of the rules unduly. The system is very close to being a stunning, resounding success. However, its sequence of presentation is obtuse, its lack of cross-referencing annoying, and the instances where the book labors under the delusion of being a primarily narrative-driven game, when its complex engine makes pretty clear that it works much better with a battle-map, is jarring. All of these could have been easily caught and fixed. So yeah, as a system, it is one that has a ton of potential, but also plenty of stumbling stones, and here, “esoteric”, one of the buzzwords associated with this game, is not a positive descriptor. And yes, I am hard on this game – not out of spite, but because this gets everything I look for in a game ALMOST perfectly right.

The setting, in one word, is STUNNING.

I love it. I love its complexity, its daring, its distinct vision. I love how it flips familiar and unknown, I love its obvious humanist concepts; it love how it plays with feelings of estrangement and wonder, with the horrors of the conditio humana in an inhumane world. I seriously think that this book is worth its asking price even if you’re just looking for ideas or a genuinely fresh and exciting setting. And frankly, the setting is actually good enough to deal with the minor hiccups of the system.

But I can’t rate the two components divorced from each other. I have to rate this book as a whole. (Yep, that’s another reason I bemoaned it not being two books…) And that’s hard. You see, for the rules-section, with its inconvenient presentation-sequence, I’d probably settle on something in the 3.5 star vicinity; for the setting, I’d give this 5 stars and slap my seal of approval faster on this than you can say “blood ritual table.”

This book is not perfect, but oh boy is it exciting. My final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, and while I’d love to, I can’t round up. This, however, does get my seal of approval and a heartfelt recommendation for anyone looking for something novel, both in setting and mechanics.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Black Void: Core Book
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A Faceless Enemy
Publisher: Chapter 13 Press
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/11/2020 07:40:19

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This module clocks in at 33 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 30 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue at the request of one of my supporters, who also donated the softcover to me.

DON’T SHOW THE COVER TO YOUR PLAYERS. This is one of the modules that has a SPOILER on the cover. -.-

This module is nominally intended for 4—8 characters of 5th level for DCC, and it takes place in the “Tales from the Fallen Empire”-setting. …yeah, if you’ve read my review of that campaign setting, you might realize that this isn’t exactly good news as far as I’m concerned. HOWEVER, it should be noted that this module, while indeed placed in the somewhat unfocused campaign setting, actually doesn’t really integrate MECHANICALLY with the systems presented in “Tales from the Fallen Empire”: Neither the sanity mechanics, nor those for magic item creation or ritual casting are actually used herein, which struck me as somewhat puzzling. Indeed, when compared to other 5th-level DCC adventures, this yarn is positively tame in quite a few instances, so if you expect world-shattering, save for the final confrontation. That being said, when compared to “Colossus, Arise!” or similar high-level DCC yarns, the module is definitely less challenging. It also focuses more on rollplaying than quite a few DCC modules, with player-skill being slightly less important.

Genre-wise, we have a sword & sorcery yarn here, and one that can be converted to other campaign settings with relative ease; I’ll go into that aspect below, in the SPOILER section. The module comes with a nice b/w-map of the region it takes place in, which annoyingly lacks a scale, making distances just as difficult to determine as in the campaign setting. The other two maps deserve both being cheered for and booed: They get cheers for the fact that we actually get player-friendly versions sans SPOILERS. They get boos for their actual utility, for they depict, in scope and function, essentially a corridor and a boss-arena; overarching regions/complexes are not included. While aesthetically pleasing due to the artworks included on the maps, I couldn’t help but wish that the budget for these useless ornaments had instead be spent on actually useful maps.

Okay, this out of the way, let use dive into the SPOILER-section. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.

… .. .

All right, only judges around? Great! So, the knights of Tal Abastion are essentially an order of austere knights that looks after the ruins of the fabled city-state of Uruk, pretty much the magical ground zero of the setting when it comes to dark magics; as such, the knights are financed by other nations and states, and behave in a way like a foreign legion of sorts, where the stalwart, those that wish to escape, or that have a higher calling, can attempt to get away, start anew, and guard the realms. If you can insert a kind of super-deadly and dangerous ruined city in your game, and justify an order of people guarding it, then you can run this module.

This guardian army is facing a serious issue: their fortress of Harkanis Bek has been systematically deprived of the supplies they need in the wastelands surrounding Uruk by the brigand band known as the Red Scarves. The modules begins in the city of Tasagaroth, where Shou Shen hires the party to deliver an important magical item to Harkanis Bek, the Heart of Yan Shia, which can generate water and once per lifetime, heal a wounded person of their injuries. Unlike what you’d expect, this item is not properly statted, nor are its weight or dimensions ever properly defined, which is somewhat weird, considering that a local thieves’ guild, in a meaningless throwaway encounter, might well attempt to steal it.

The first grand decision the party needs to make, would actually be the caravan to join, which guide to hire, or if they want to set out on foot. This differentiation actually might well be meaningful on a micro-level, and I enjoyed the differentiation. While traveling durations are provided, the lack of an actual hex-map or overland map with any kind of grid somewhat disappointed me: The option for the players to actually plan their independent trip seems to have somewhat fallen by the wayside, with the caravan/guide options clearly the intended path.

That being said, once in the Dol Minor Wastes, the module manages to achieve something few published scenarios achieve – a genuinely branched pathway in a pretty story-driven adventure. You see, there obviously will be encounters with local fauna and random encounters, sure – but, no surprise, sooner or later, the party will happen upon the Red Scarves…and battle is very likely. Here’s the rather impressive thing: The module walks the judge through the army’s responses to the no doubt formidable resistance the party provided, as well as through negotiations and an invitation to the Red Scarves’ camp. And in a nice twist, NOT fighting through an obviously impossible force to beat is the better choice. (Which is also why I think this’d have worked better at lower levels…level 5 DCC characters may well wish to keep fighting…) Anyhow, this is one of the better instances of the “negotiate/capture”-angle I’ve seen modules in the Sword & Sorcery genre pull off.

The Red Scarves are led by the horribly disfigured Flayed Man, who, in conversation with the party, claims to be none other than the presumably dead Jannik Bel’Tarul, direct descendent of Tal Abastion, and former commander of the knights. This is a mind-blowing twist…that really needed to be set up. I strongly suggest judges who wish to play this module to mention the order and explain its history well in advance, establishing the significance of this revelation, because the module doesn’t do that, and it’d be a shame to have this revelation fall flat. Essentially, Jannik was captured by the demon Prince Mozarak, who flayed him and wears his skin; Jannik was rescued by his children, but the demons, with a copy of Jannik’s form and memories, has assumed control over the stalwart order of the knights of Tal Abastion – thus the guerrilla warfare of the Red Scarves. Jannik also confides in the party: He is dying, and he doesn’t want to leave this conflict to his kids, so he asks for help to destroy the demon prince in command of the mighty army. The depiction of the important NPCs and complex negotiations here is rather neat and enjoyable.

On the other hand, if the party managed to avoid the Red Scarves, the module may well end with the delivery of the artifact to the fortress of Harkanis Bek (which is also (briefly) touched upon; I kinda wished the module had more room to develop this strand. Either via a condemned man looking for his family, or in league with the Red Scarves – the party needs to navigate a secret tunnel (one of the small battle-maps noted) …and it sucks. It’s a twisting tunnel, where multiple “invisible-line” traps are included. You know, the sucky “walk somewhere, take damage because you didn’t guess correctly”-kind; one of the worst 3.X-design paradigms on full display.

Thus, they enter the ruins of Uruk! The fabled city! Do we get a map of it? Nope, need the campaign setting for that (back cover provides an excerpt of it…but only that); and no, the awesome, ultra-creepy, magically polluted ruins? The end of an Age in the setting? It’s so disappointing. Some random encounters, and then pretty directly the boss arena. No exploration. No actual roleplaying of skill involved in finding the antagonist…one of the most iconic environments in the entire campaign setting, relegated to window-dressing. That hurt my soul. Similarly, we get another battle-map of a ritual room, where the demon disguised as Jannik is scripted to complete the ritual. No use of the ritual rules from the book. No player skill involved. Just a hard railroad, which sucks big time as far as I’m concerned. It’s also super-obvious to all but the most inexperienced players. Making ritual-completion timer-based and actually having a developed Uruk, where actions and consequences influence the timer…well, that’d have made the actions of the party actually…you know. Matter.

Anyhow, there is one thing the module does rather well, and I get why it’s scripted this way: A gate opens, ritual complete, and the demon slips through the gate with the party in hot pursuit…only to emerge in Uruk, right in the midst of its demonic cataclysm! This is where the party can use those 5 levels, as they need to fight through demonic strike-forces and defeat the (rather mechanically bland) type IV demon prince while the city burns around them. Once more, it’d have been awesome to actually spend TIME here and have RELEVANT CHOICES. But at least the “time-travel to prevent the undoing of history” and cataclysm angles are compelling enough to make it easier for the judge to paint over the lack of depth regarding the module.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are pretty good on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to the setting’s two-column b/w-standard, and artworks employed are a combination of neat stock art (I think?) and original pieces – the b/w-art is consistently nice. The b/w-cartography being present in player-friendly versions is nice, but the absence of a grid or the like for the overland map and the lack of a map for the final areas hurt the module in this department. I have no complaints regarding the PoD-softcover; the pdf, though, commits a cardinal sin: It has bookmark. No, that was no typo. It has a grand total of ONE bookmark, making navigation a massive pain.

After the atrociously bad modules included in the back of the campaign setting book, Oscar Rios delivers a definite and HUGE improvement here. This module has several things I genuinely enjoy about it: For one, it manages to capture that elusive feeling of a Sword & Sorcery yarn, which so many published modules miss. This feels gritty and yet heroic and reminded me of one of the longer good old Savage Sword of Conan storylines, actually managing higher level gameplay without losing the feeling of the genre. The set-pieces provided are great, and the characters presented actually manage to acquire a modicum of depth, something I did not expect.

…but on a design side of things, this module also has serious issues. While it has all the set up and markings of a modular sandbox, these branching paths and options tend to fall by the wayside, which smells like a serious amount of cut content to me. And indeed, the module’s biggest weakness is that it provides an illusion of modularity, when its story, set-up, premise…all look like the material of a 64-or 128-page sandbox. And it could have been excellent: Present starting area, with map, and options; present overland travel with actual meaningful routes and choices, perhaps a fleshed-out caravan or two. Then present the warring factions, and have MEANINGFUL timelines for the plans of both, and how they respond to the actions of the players. Then, actually have the final, epic region be, you know, game-relevant and not just pretty window-dressing. This module has a set-up for a fantastic sandbox and manages to severely tarnish it by jamming it into a story-driven railroad that will have the judge scrambling to keep the party on the tracks.

Moreover, the actual design of the combat encounters and the (thankfully brief) tunnel-exploration are really…lame. Nothing of DCC’s usually high interaction-density can be found here, and these regions reminded me of 3.X-modules of yore, with “invisible line crossed, take damage”-traps and consequences scripted in a way that was somewhat hard to stomach for me.

You might not realize these shortcomings when you read the module; it reads like a neat yarn; but contact with actual play will require some serious work on behalf of the judge. Now, even though this might sound awfully negative, I actually do think that this is a yarn worth checking out for fans of the genre; I strongly suggest expanding whole sections, and personally, I’d divorce this module from its setting, foreshadow its lore, etc. – if you do that, then you may well have a truly epic, awesome experience. In contrast to the modules in the setting book, I actually enjoyed this one, and it’s worth running if you’re willing to rewrite parts and expand upon its ideas. … I can’t rate it for that now, can I? I can only rate what’s here, and what’s here is a deeply-flawed adventure. One I somewhat like and consider worth potentially salvaging, yes…but not something I’d consider to be operational for most groups as written. As such, my final verdict can’t exceed 2.5 stars, rounded up only due to in dubio pro reo.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
A Faceless Enemy
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Advanced Occult Guide
Publisher: Rogue Genius Games
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/03/2020 07:54:58

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This massive tome clocks in at 435 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages editorial/ToC, 3 pages of SRD, 2 pages of KS-backer thanks, leaving us with 427 pages of content.

…okay, 3 are an index, which is a very much required feature for a book of this length.

This review was requested to be moved up in my reviewing queue as a priority review by my patreon supporters. Oh, and I’ve had various iterations of this book available throughout its genesis, just in case you’re wondering how I can have a review of a book of this size done at release. It’s because I’ve been able to test this as it became more and more refined for quite a while.

The first thing you need to know about this is this: This is one densely-packed colossus of RULES. While there is flavortext, while there are artworks galore, this massive tome is essentially ALL FRICKIN' RULES. That is more page-count than e.g. two Alien Archive tomes back to back. And approximately half of it is player-facing stuff, which might make this one of the meatiest tomes of player options for SFRPG out there, perhaps even the meatiest.

As you can glean from its sheer size, the volume of the book makes an analysis of every single piece of content prohibitive – while possible, it would take weeks of dedicated work to talk about everything, and bloat the review to a wordcount that would all but ensure that nobody will read it in its entirety, so I’ll be giving you a general overview of what to expect within this tome, highlighting what particularly stood out.

As for the scope of this tome, it behooves me to state that this delivers several components of gameplay that I consider all but mandatory for my enjoyment of SFRPG: This book unites rules for age categories (mechanically-relevant), rules for ritual magic, rules for corruptions, rules for curses and diseases that include level-scaling, and size-change rules, including the tools for grid adjustments. Oh, and pact magic.

If you’ve been following my reviews, you’ll note that all of these are things I love…but this also means that this has very big shoes to fill, and usually safe bet books that I think I’ll love end up disappointing my, but I digress. The avid reader will have noticed at this point that some of these components have been released before, and indeed, in many ways, this is a best-of compilation of previous Starfinder-material released by Everybody Games, save that it’s, well, not just a simple compilation. Much to my pleasant surprise, I went through my previous reviews of individual files and realized how damn often the minor niggles I had were addressed, how often the designs had been adjusted, improved, smoothened.

But I’m getting ahead of myself once more. We begin with an assortment of various new themes, which includes the options to play old characters, young prodigies, chosen heroes, isekai adventurers (people from our world), and those who have fallen through time; and yes, the concept of the chimeraborn is also represented via mutations – these have been streamlined into a superior context, namely by making them functional according to the COM-rules, but also in accordance with the PF2-inspired, highly modular and rather cool species reforged series of Star Log.DELUXE-pdfs. Want proper emotional awareness, a draconic bloodlines, or limited ability for regeneration due to levialogos limbs? You can have that. And no, this can’t be cheesed.

(In case you’re new to the latter: The levialogoi are super-deadly and EXTREMELY hard to kill outsiders inspired by Supernatural’s Leviathan story-arc. They are awesome and have transcended this basic concept to being essentially all-consuming, nigh-unkillable super body-snatchers...and yes, they are in the bestiary.)

The book also presents no less than three base classes, with only the zoomer, the dedicated speedster class being something that SFRPG-fans may have seen before, though, suffice to say, the fellow’s been expanded and streamlined. The two new classes fill important niches in SFRPG that will have some fans jump in the air: For one, we have a dedicated shapeshifter class, which begins with a limited number of dedicated forms and expands these over the levels; adaptations allow you to customize your shapeshifting, aspects provide scaling benefits (4 per aspect); beyond these, we also have instinct, which are the talent-like further options available…oh boy can you tweak this fellow. Yes, you can make hybrids. And the class has its own massive forms-engine to easily and quickly tailor your forms. Want to crush enemies? Have a breath weapon?  Yeah, possible. Want species traits? Yup. Oh, and in case you don’t want to wait, guess what – premade forms available. This is a class with an incredible depth, and considering how modular it is, it is astonishing how well its results come out. So far, I haven’t managed to use it to break the game – it delivers potent builds, but none that would render the game askew.

Secondly, we have the elementian. What’s that? Well, it’s essentially a kineticist-like class, save that its engine hasn’t been copy-pasted from PFRPG; instead, it has been rebuild from the ground up with SFRPG in mind, with the Burns-equivalent being Strain. It should be noted that the class offers multiple choices regarding key ability modifiers, and the option chosen also influences how Strain affects you. You can gather power to gain Energy, you get the idea. However, the way in which the elements have been modified is impressive – while thematically clearly the heir of kineticists, the elementian’s chassis is completely different, with each element noting its associated ability score, skills, weapons, the elemental strike damage and weapon properties that can be applied to them, etc. Of course, these also provide a linear array of abilities, and a serious number of techniques allow for customizing this fellow. It’s also notable that building an elementian for the first time is a much quicker process than making your first kineticist.

Now, the book also features a serious number of archetypes, some of which are old acquaintances – the legacy ones like shadow dancer, eldritch knight etc. are here; but personally, I was most excited by the pact maker (who does what it says on the tin)…and the soulmark user. What’s the latter? Okay, brace yourselves, fellow otakus: Fate/STAY – the archetype! You know, drawing soulmarked weapons from your body! Seriously, in another book, this’d have been a class of its own – here, it has been condensed to a surprisingly tight and varied archetype that spans two whole pages of delicious goodness. Oh, and there is a terminator archetype that essentially replaces/refines the previous assassin concept. I have one serious issue with this one: It lacks an ability that is called “I’ll be back.” ;) Kidding aside, the concept of the vessel has also been included in this section: Whether protean, demon, angel, archon, etc. – you can play a character housing such a passenger.

Of course, there is also a whole cornucopia of class options waiting for you: We occult method as a replacement for the biohacker’s scientific method and fields of study like aberrantology or necrology. Mechanics can have an infernal apparatus or a biomech drone chassis; solarians can be attuned to the music of the spheres; vanguards can choose the zero point aspect – and that is not even coming close to the depth of the material herein. For example, what about a witchwarper who replaces infinite worlds with a more planar-themed ability? The feats, in case you were wondering, follow similar high-concept/utility design-paradigms. What about one, for example, that lets you summon fictional characters from the zeitgeist instead of plain old critters? And yes, this has mechanical benefits.

The armory section of the book includes positron weapons that combine electricity with positive energy, and, as hinted at before…SHRINK WEAPONS! :D Black boxes for armors, a powered armor designed for fighting ghosts…or what about the option to store your vehicle in your armor? This might be a good place to note that, like all books of this size, this cannot be perfect – in this one, we have for example one instance where “vehicular” should read “vehicle”, but one still grasps the functionality of the material presented. Augmentations and cybernetics, from extending arms to golemgrafts and necrografts complete a pretty massive chapter, and yes, technological and magic items are included in the deal as well, and we do get artifacts…yes, including the infamous time-traveling hot tub. The new drugs presented are provided in the excellent format introduced in Pop Culture Catalog: Vice Dens, which renders them scaling and relevant for all levels.

The chapter on magic presents new spells that allow, among other things, to alter ages and sizes, call forth temporal duplicates…and yes, limited time manipulation. Several pages of new formwarps are included alongside a selection of rituals, which do include means to lock out targets (one of the best “create a barrier vs. critter xyz” takes I’ve seen for a d20-based game, and pretty crucial for my future horror-y designs), using your blood to banish foes (Heeellooo Supernatural once more…), and much to my joy, there is also the call the end-times, your friendly custom-tailored apocalypse ritual for all your insane cultist needs! (Endzeitgeist not included.) Binding agreements, clone creation, dividing targets into multiple creatures…or what about fantastic voyage, which projects your consciousness into nanomachine effigies, unlocking a whole new sphere of potential adventuring in creatures and on the microscopic level! The classic “use map to narrow down on target as it burns/otherwise designates the goal” is also provided. Rites to break potent spells, imprison targets, robotize them, etc. are also part of the deal. And no, I haven’t even mentioned all of them – suffice to say, they do come with adventure hooks. Not that you’d need them after reading them. The “design your own ritual”-section is super-appreciated as well, and rather smooth.

The pact magic section of the book is absolutely great; there is but one thing I dislike about it – namely that I’d have loved to see an entire tome devoted to it…one might dream. At this point, it’s also no secret that I adore Alexander Agunuas’ corruption rules, and have blood space, botanification, cannibal cravings etc. all in a handy book? Great. Ever greater, though: What about a corruption that ties in with the size-changing rules and makes you slowly become a titan, as “Attack on Titan”-titan? Yeah…shudder The cognitive fixation that can be used to roleplay intrusive thoughts is also one damn fine (and very tactfully-handled) piece of writing that gets two thumbs up. Levialogos subsumption, in which you slowly are absorbed into one of these monstrosities, also is one damn great corruption. You may want to get rid of it…but its benefits are so enticing…Going Akira, aging backward, going soulless…also part of the deal. (And yes, the classic like turning into a blob, therianthropy and vampirism are here as well…)

Curses include eternal sleep, wendigo psychosis, lost identity, amnesia and more, and from cures to affixes to modify them, the engine is concise and solid, and for diseases, a similar frame is employed.

One of the highlights in utility would be the handy grid adjustment section I mentioned before – that’ll be printed out and tacked to my screen. And in case you were wondering: The book does provide rules for ultrafine creatures…and supercolossal ones, the latter including rules for use in starship combat. Speaking of which: Let us talk about how cool the bestiary section is, because not one of the critters in it is lame or boring. NOT ONE. What about an earth elemental creature consuming emotions, aptly named apathyst, which also is presented in planetoid size as a nasty alternative? A best-of from the Star Log.EM-series is provided here, including Deisauryu, the Godzilla of the Xa-Osoro system; new critters include shrink devils, and one of my all-time favorurite critetrs every published, the Great old One Allakhadae, the Arsonist Against Reality. Speaking of Great old Ones? Good ole’ Cthulhu and Hastur are included, and our friend Slenderman also gets the Great old One treatment – The Tall One. Yes, these fellows are all beyond CR 20, obviously. Unlike many critters at such high CRs, they are, however, actually suitably hard (read VERY) to stop. Yes, I did not use the word “eliminate” for a reason…

Beyond these, we have aforementioned levialogoi, soulless, killer clowns…and hateflesh creatures. They are what you’d expect: Super-icky flesh/bone things that reminded me of Tomb raider 1’s Atlantean monstrosities, save they are even more grotesque… ”sinewed screamer” indeed. What about wererenkroda? One of my favorites would be the “thing-That-Walks”-template graft. Remember Kyuss and the worm-that-walks? Now picture you could make such a collective entity out of everything. The artwork illustrates this by providing a nightmare fuel kitsune thing-that-walks: Humanoid, consisting of thousands of the shapechangers…and boy it is disturbing. Want something more biblical? What about the beast with 7 heads and ten horns, the Woe of the Dead (CR 25)? Yep good luck stopping this harbinger of the end of days… The tome concludes with proper class grafts, template grafts, and a whole arsenal of critter abilities.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are honestly better on both a formal and rules-language levels than a book of this size crafted by a small team (and I mean size category superfine) has any right to be, particularly considering the density and complexity of the rules-operations and subject-matter featured within. Layout adheres to a two-column full-color standard and features a huge amount of artworks penned by Jacob Blackmon in his signature style. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. I don’t yet have the print version, but I’ll get it as soon as possible.

Alexander Augunas, with additional design by Liane Merciel, Matt Morris, Michael Sayre, Chris S. Sims and Owen K.C. Stephens, has done it. Seriously.

Let me make that abundantly clear:

For me, this is the most important Starfinder rules book I currently own. This is a superior achievement regarding not only scope, but also of quality of the content herein, and a love letter to STARfinder.

You see, it’d have been pretty easy to take PFRPG1ed’s concepts like pact magic, kineticist, size rules, etc. and just jam them on top of Starfinder’s chassis. The systems look so incredibly similar. This may be new to some readers, but probably not to most designers: That doesn’t work. Starfinder operates under wholly different paradigms in many ways, and the way in which its math is constructed is a long shot from PFRPG’s 1st edition.

This book shows that the author REALLY knows SFRPG…and LOVES the system. All the systems that a lesser designer would have half-heartedly grafted onto the engine? They have been designed with panache aplomb, from the ground up, expanded, tweaked, changed, improved – until this is what we got. This beautiful, wonderful tome that breathes SFRPG from every page.

The main achievement of this book, however, does not lie in the quality of its new class options and monsters, well-designed though they may be.

It lies in the fact that this book unlocks a whole plethora of inspiring storylines and scenarios, whole types of adventures and playstyles, that the system previously did not support. With this, you could theoretically play Supernatural in Space, a whole campaign in the body of a dying person, duke it out with the Great Old Ones, unleash apocalypses, play a  full-blown space-horror game , duplicate a ton of my favorite anime scenarios…and so much more.

Crunch can be good when it lets you do cool new stuff, when it helps you realize that one cool idea you had; crunch is outstanding when it sets your mind ablaze with so many ideas for new characters, plotlines, and campaigns, that stare, starry-eyed (haha) at the pages and can’t wait to use…everything.

How do I put this best? If I was an isekai stranded in the Xa-Osoro system, and you put a proton-rifle to my head and forced me to choose only one Starfinder book apart from the core rules, only book, and told me that’d be all I’d get forevermore to run Starfinder….i’d choose this one, without a second of hesitation.

It's not perfect, but it’s damn close, and it is more inspired than several hardcovers I could mention. And in contrast to most tomes of this size, it never lets up. It doesn’t have this one section where it feels like the author ran out of ideas or steam. This is a resplendent masterpiece that is a must-own for every self-respecting Starfinder-GM out there.

Right now, this is the best Starfinder book in my library. This is the tome to beat.

5 stars. Seal of Approval. Best of. Hot contender for the Top Ten of 2020 (and a true ray of light in this horrible year). And this is an EZG Essential. I wouldn’t ever want to run a SFRPG-campaign without it.

Do yourself a favor. If you even remotely are interested in SFRPG, if you are playing/running it…get this. If you’re a player, buy this for your GM. This is a truly outstanding gamechanger.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Advanced Occult Guide
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NEUROCITY
Publisher: Gavriel Quiroga
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/30/2020 16:17:34

An Endzeitgeist.com review

So, this game clocks in at 128 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page back cover, 2 pages editorial/credits, 10 pages blanks/separators, 1 page ToC, 3 pages of KS-thanks, leaving us with 110 pages of content, which are organized in a two-column standard and rather broad, so there’s a bit more content per page than you’d expect, so let’s take a look!

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review due to a direct donation. The review is based on the English version, namely version 2.0. Unfortunately, my Spanish is currently too rudimentary to properly judge the quality of the prose of the Spanish version. The book has a warning that states that it features adult themes and concepts, but that is, to a degree, par for the course. I found it impossible to be offended by anything herein, but if dystopian settings bother you, then this probably won’t be for you. It should be noted that the book calls “characters” “players”, which is a somewhat odd choice, as it makes distinguishing between the two a bit harder than it needed to be. It should also be noted that this game is aimed towards more experienced roleplayers, or at least, benefits from at least one experienced Director.

Okay, so we’re off to a good start, when the book starts with a quote from good ole’ Klaus Kinski, and then an introductory premise: Essentially, the Intranet was born from the internet, namely from the attack on science, on facts. The current attack on the very notions of truth and facts (which are NOT subjective; there is no such thing as “my” or “your” truth; there is just, THE truth, but that as an aside), and on academia, led to a total dissolution of the borders between fiction and reality, a state of disorganized confusion on a global scale, and in order to reign in the resulting chaos, A.I.s were employed – and the rest is history.

The eponymous Neurocity is a technological sprawl of a city-complex under a perpetually-glitched sun, overseen by the A.I. dubbed I.S.A.C. (Intelligent Singular Artificial Consciousness), which acts a de facto union of deity and state. I.S.A.C. has established a caste-system of sorts, based on a Social Index (nightmare food concept, as far as I’m concerned…but look to China, and it is rather likely as a development…): We have Deltas, Gammas, Betas and Alphas – though the book mentions 5 castes, not 4. Each caste but the Deltas have a minimum logic, and Deltas (50% of the population) are kept quiet by Soma. Brave New World reference? Check. Gammas are only 30% of the population, Betas are 15%, and Alphas don’t state how many individuals belong to the caste. The citizens are btw. color-coded. Finally, there are the Epsilon anomalies: Heavily persecuted by the system, these enemies of the wisdom of Vitalogy are essentially considered to be terrorists that can look forward to being “fixed” if they are caught. They are sent to Samsara, a gigantic biotech complex, where the Renewal and Rebirth processes happen – these essentially mean vaporization and replacement taken from the DNA database, or cloning. Suffice to say, the populace is sterile, and sexuality is considered to be primitive, and as such, is mostly found in the lover castes; love, on the other hand, is considered to be a dangerous mental illness that needs to be avoided.

Vitalogy, unsurprisingly, has the basic principles of Obedience, Discipline and Order, and the judicial system knows a grand total of 3 classes of offenses and associated punishments. The pdf then proceeds to introduce us to the ministries of Neurocity (Health and Technology are self-explanatory; the ministry of truth is, of course, the propaganda arm of the system in charge of the media, while the ministry of peace and order would be law enforcement, i.e. hunt for epsilons). The intranet has a clearance of Betas and Alphas; a brief d6-table is provided to determine the state of public terminals, and suffice to say, access sans proper authorization is strictly penalized. In case you were wondering: Cybertech does exist, but is considered to be impractical and basically only Sentinels, a type of enforcer, usually sport implants. Indeed, there is a shortage of resources, and thus a constant recycling of hardware and tech going on, and in fact, is in the process of transitioning from a digital to an analog age: Blackouts, system failures etc. are shockingly common.

The book clearly states being somewhat post-cyberpunk, with the technological regression explaining the tech-noir aesthetic of the 80s. Language-wise, there are two special dialects: Sygma, the language of the privileged, and Subh, the speech of degenerate Deltas and outcasts. Nice: The pdf does provide a random weather table – while temperatures stay at a constant 21°C/70°F. Why’s that nice? Well, I really enjoy seeing values for both Celsius and Fahrenheit here. Kudos.

And before you ask: Yes, mobile phones and flying cars are both outlawed. Too much freedom/danger in both.

The city itself is grouped in different, concentric districts (White, Gray, The Market, Developing Area (aka Limbo), and beyond, the radioactive Halo. All regions come with their own encounter tables, story seeds and the Halo sports a “What’s at the end”-table; minor niggle: The header for the Market reads “Stories Seeds for the Market”[sic!], which renders it the only such header in this section that seems to have been missed by the editing pass.

Okay, so far, so good regarding the setting. What about the rules? We have 5 Attributes: Logic (determines social index etc.), Personality, Technocracy, Instinct, Violence. Attributes range from 5 to 10 for humans, with 10 being excellent. All Attributes start at 5, and you get 9 points to add to them at character creation.

The basic conflict resolution mechanic is simple: You roll 2d6, and compare the result to the Attribute corresponding to the action: If you roll equal to, or below the Attribute, you succeed; otherwise, you fail. HOWEVER, snake-eyes (i.e. a double 1) is an insufficient success that requires another roll, and any total result greater than 8 is an outstanding success. In combat, the latter causes an extra wound. HOWEVER, at the Director’s discretion, double 6s are actually a critical failure. This is just my personal aesthetics, but I’m not the biggest fan of making the lower end of the success range a botch, and the upper end of the failure range a success – it seems needlessly confusing to me. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have very low results to be excellent successes, and very high ones particularly bad failures?

Anyhow, Neurocity has no initiative system – the Director (GM) decides the sequence, with Instinct as a general guideline. The game distinguishes between simple actions (success/failure) and complex actions, which can have more significant outcomes. Whenever a player rolls doubles in a complex action, a complication arises. Checks due to complications cannot generate another complication (Why? Real life does offer plenty of cascading failure examples…), and double 1s in complex actions can either cause a complication, or an insufficient success, the latter requiring another roll using the same Attribute. The game uses modifiers ranging from -3 to +3 to the Attributes. Let’s say, you’re intoxicated (-1), but have the advantage of numbers (+2) – you’d end up with a +1 total, which you’d add to the Attribute you’re checking to determine the actual value to roll under. Conflicts between players are resolved as per the regular system, but if both succeed, the player with the highest success roll will win. Okay, so does this also apply in opposed complex actions where one player has doubles? Not sure.

The game knows 5 functions (essentially the classes), with enforcers, cardinals (ministry of truth officials) and tech-runners having prerequisites, while monitors (snitches) and vectors not sporting any prerequisites. For every point of Personality above 5, the character gains a contact (friendship is considered to be a dysfunctional state, so this is semi-illegal and rare); each value in technocracy above 5 nets you one possession associated with your function (table provided). Firearms are only legal for enforcers. Using firearms in melee imposes a -1 penalty; aiming requires an Instinct roll, and grants +2 Violence on a success. Distances are noted in meters, and can result in penalties of up to -3, as per regular checks. At lower distances, e.g. shotguns can cause 2 wounds. Armor absorbs wounds before becoming useless.

An important mechanic would be Tension: Each character has a Tension limit of ½ Logic, rounded down. Weird here: The example highlighting this section contradicts how the conflict resolution works: The base rules clearly state “We will consider any successful result equal to or greater than 8 to be an outstanding success” (pg.48); yet, the example for Tension makes a result of 10, exceeding the character’s technocracy value, a failure. So there’s something odd going on here. Some things might trigger Tension checks, which are rolled with Personality. Anyhow, Tension can be spent for a reroll, and when Tension reaches the limit, we have an immediate neurosis – panic attack, anxiety, depression, fit of rage. Tension is healed by things ranging rom alcohol, humor, sex, sleep, violence, soma or other drugs. You only get to reduce Tension once per day, and only by 1 point. This is important, since some things (like Sex or Humor) require checks, while others (like alcohol or drugs) have detrimental consequences for the Attributes – but work reliably.

If a double-1 is rolled and a character is at their Tension limit, the Trancing phenomenon happens: The insufficient success becomes an overachievement, but the character will also understand the harsh truth of being caught in an infinitely repeating loop of existence in Neurocity. The Attribute is underlined, and in it, the character develops psychic abilities: You know, all those Matrix stunts like stopping bullets, extrasensory perception, that sort of thing – but having these abilities also makes you an Epsilon. Using a trancer ability adds one point of Tension and must be noted before rolling the dice. Then, he adds Tension to his Attribute before making the roll – so yeah, the higher the Tension, the better the trance – neat. You only get one such psychic feat per scene.

If Tension would be a kind of mental sanity mechanic, then physical health would perform similarly: Half of violence, rounded down, is the wound limit, and you can gain a maximum of 3 wounds per attack (1 wound would be a slash, 2 a high-caliber firearm, 3 an explosion, high-voltage shock, etc.). A character (here, we suddenly talk of characters) that meets their wound limit is in critical condition; this means -3 to everything, and unless healed by the end of the scene, they die. One step away from this limit imposes a -1 on everything. A wound-location table is provided. Head injuries also impose temporary penalties, and we have falling damage as well. Wounds can be healed by cardinals or physicians with a Logic check, provided they have their Medkit. However, only one point per wound may thus be healed, so the more serious wounds require special attention. Cardinals also issue death certificates, which result in Renewal or Rebirth of the deceased individual. Chilling. Reminded me of Kamelot’s Soul Society: “If my soul could revive from my carnal remains—what does it matter to me? If it all fades to black, if I’m born once again…then no one really is free.” …so yeah, not even death is a release, and in fact, the game does something pretty cool with its rules and setting, providing a read-aloud text and a whole mechanic for “respawning” – the default result of death is “Renewal”, a cloning process where you lose Personality and get Tension, with a table of deviations and the like included; only those declared dysfunctional risk Rebirth – i.e. being cloned as a baby and raised once more. While this, for all intents, is akin to death, it is no escape from the horrid loop.

The setting also has a built-in reason to work together: I.S.A.C designates so-called White Cells, i.e. teams of individuals that are supposed to work together to solve a certain issue. Some basic advice regarding story seeds and storytelling in Neurocity completes the section generally available.

The Director section is pretty neat – it features the questions and points that let you determine whether the system considers a character to be functional. The book also offers suggestions for I.S.A.C. types – from the doppelgänger to the entity communicating only in telegrams or movies, to a hateful Allied Mastercomputer (à la “I have no mouth, but I must scream”), these change the tone of the setting according to your needs. The pdf comes with a d20 background table on which the player characters roll, and which has rules-ramifications, but which is oddly in the Director-section. Anyhow, we have 6 different potential truths of what Neurocity actually is, and what is beyond it – the Otherside. These generally are interesting, and no, I’m not going to spoil them in this review. The section closes with a d20-table of minor events, and one of 20 major events for the Director’s use. The pdf also features 6 pregens, and a bank character sheet.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are generally pretty good, particularly considering that this is a) a freshman offering, b) a book made by a non-native speaker of English, and c) credits no editor/developer. That being said, it is still easily the weakest aspect of the book; a consistency check by a nitpicky developer would have really benefited this book. This also extends to the formal level – I noticed a few missing blank spaces, an instance of a missing verb – that sort of thing. We also have a few strange turns of phrases. What the book calls “involution” would usually be described as “devolution” or “regression” in English – you get the idea. You always get what’s supposed to be meant, but it can trip you up for a second. The pdf sports quite a few nice b/w-artworks that employ a collage-style modification of classic Argentinian comics, as far as I’ve understood it, at least. The Soundtrack by Espejo Negro is suitable and neat indeed.

Gavriel Quiroga’s Neurocity is an interesting setting, but I wouldn’t say the same about the rules, which are easily the weakest part of the game: While rules-inconsistencies are few, they do exist here and there. Considering the simplicity of the game’s rules there should be no errors here.

The organization and placement of information can also feel somewhat scattered. We, for example, learn about Attributes A LONG time before we get to the point where we get to know about how high they’ll be for the characters/how much they can invest in them. The terms player/character are not used consistently, and the rules could have been broken down on a single page; instead, they’re spread throughout the pdf, which isn’t helpful when teaching a system, particularly considering that rules-lite games tend to appeal to an audience that does not want to deal with a high entry-barrier. On the plus side regarding structure, copious examples for rules-applications are provided to explain the mechanics. As noted above, the possible confusion regarding the central resolution mechanic is a HUGE deal. On a rules-level, I’d probably rate this in the 2.5-star vicinity.

On the other hand, a great deal of thought seems to have gone into the setting of Neurocity, which I’d consider to be a solid remix of a plethora of classic cyberpunk/dystopia themes. A dash of 1984, some Brave New World, an optional side of Dark City, I have no mouth and I must scream…you get the drift, all set against the backdrop of an increasingly analog dystopia that reminded me of one of my all-time favorite movies, Brazil? Yeah, I do like this. I absolutely love the existential horror the Renewal-mechanic hard-codes into the system, and the setting’s modularity is another plus. On the down-side, I have a bit of a hard time picturing Neurocity and its infrastructure: Food, drink and transportation are aspects that I’d want defined in a more concise manner, and same goes for non-human security measures. Regarding non-human adversaries, having a few more monsters/statted foes would have been nice. Speaking of things that would have been nice: A level-system. There is no real advancement, save for Renewal/new characters, which limits the replay value and ability of the game to sustain prolonged campaigns. As written, this works for one-shots and brief campaigns, but beyond that, I can see its utility waver.

That being said, particularly in conjunction with the soundtrack, we have an interesting development in the classic themes of cyberpunk/dystopias, in that it focus not on super-human feats, but on the terror of existing in a system that is rigged against you, and the horrific realization of reality beyond it. If I had to describe this in one sentence, I’d call it low-fi (no longer) cyberpunk Paranoia with a dash of Kult sprinkled in. For what it is, I do think that it does a good job as a rules-lite, if not always simple system that ties in rather well with the setting it portrays. For the worldbuilding and setting-aspects, I’d probably place this in the 3.5-to-4-star region.

That being said, its current iteration does have a glitches that accumulate to the point where it becomes a flawed offering; on the plus-side, the game is available for a paltry $6.00, and I do think that it’s worth getting for that. How to rate this, then? As a whole, I consider this to be a mixed bag, slightly on the positive side of things – but not enough on that scale to warrant rounding up from my final verdict of 3.5 stars. I do hope that version 3.0, somewhere on the horizon, will iron off the rough spots, and look forward to revisiting Neurocity in the future.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
NEUROCITY
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13 Barbarian Talents and Feat (13th Age Compatible)
Publisher: Jon Brazer Enterprises
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/27/2020 07:59:50

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This installment of the little class expansions released by Jon Brazer Enterprises clocks in at 10 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 6 pages of content, including quite a few big full-color artworks, so let’s take a look!

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreon supporters.

Okay, we begin with expanded talents, which present new and alternate feat-options for existing talents. Barbaric Cleave gets a new adventurer feat, which lets you add escalation die to the AC after making an extra attack with barbaric Cleave, providing a defense alternative to the default offense. As a champion feat, we have escalation die damage to all mooks currently engaged with you when Barbaric Cleave is triggered, emphasizing the mook-sweeper capabilities of the talent.

Building frenzy gets a new alternate epic feat that adds escalation die to melee damage while frenzying. More damage instead of an additional use. Slayer gets a new adventurer and epic feat. The former nets a free action basic melee attack against the target when critically hitting a staggered enemy. The epic feat has a potent debuff: When your slayer attack drops a non-mook enemy, you lower your choice of AC or even PD or MD of all nearby enemies by escalation die. That is pretty potent compared to the default epic feat.

Strongheart’s adventurer feat lets you gain maximum recovery die in hp (12 since the talent upgrades that) when you rally while engaged with one or more non-mooks. Epic makes rallying more than once per battle only an easy save. The new epic feat for Unstoppable increases the recovery roll by triple escalation die. More powerful recovery vs. multiple sues – makes sense. Whirlwind gets a new adventurer feat: When you sue Whirlwind on a turn that escalation die is equal or less than your level, your crit range is expanded by 1. This ends when the escalation die reaches 6. Compared with normal miss damage, this is powerful, but fits the whole mook-sweeping theme going on here.

We have three new adventurer tier talents, all with feats for all 3 tiers. Brutal Blow nets a nearby ally your Charisma modifier to attack rolls when you stagger a non-mook; the adventurer feat lets you get an aura of fear, with the threshold equal to a monster of your level plus Charisma modifier; the champion feat increases this threshold further by escalation die and doubles the buff for the ally; the epic feat delimits the aura, making it apply every time, and also doubles Charisma modifier added to the threshold.

Naked Brutality nets you a bonus to AC equal to escalation die when unarmored (shields are okay), and the adventurer feat lets you add Constitution modifier to PD once per battle per day. This is upgraded to two battles per day at champion tier, and to always at epic tier. Swap Quarry lets you once per day as a quick action pop free, move, and engage with another nearby enemy. The Adventurer feat expands your crit range when using this by the number of allies currently engaged with the enemy. Champion tier renders the enemy you pop free from vulnerable to all allies’ attacks until the start of your next turn, and the epic feat lets you use it twice per battle. I have this evil idea of twin barbarians with this feat…

We get two new champion tier talents: Bellowing Charge lets you on one battle per day move to engage a far away foe and make a melee attack. You still may be intercepted. The champion feat adds escalation die to AC and PD until the start of your next turn when using the talent. The epic feat increases uses to once per battle, with enemies needing to succeed a normal save to intercept you.

Revel in Pain nets you once per day in a battle while raging +1 to AC, up to a maximum of escalation die, capping at 6) when an enemy damages you. The champion feat increases daily uses to 2, and the epic feat increases the maximum bonus to your level.

We also have two epic talents: Fearsome Demeanor lets you once per day in a battle make all nearby normal monsters and mooks suffer a penalty to their attack rolls and MD equal to the escalation die. If the enemy would instead gain an escalation die based bonus, they lose that instead. The epic feat increases this to two uses and expands the critters affected to Large and double-strength monsters.

Legendary Rage lets you once per battle expend a banked icon relationship roll of 6 as part of a quick action to start raging. If you do, you roll 3d20 on barbarian melee and thrown weapon attacks, and if two of these rolls are natural 11+s, you score a critical hit. Once you score a critical hit, the benefits end. With the epic feat, the benefits last until you have scored two crits.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level – the verbiage is very precise, can’t be misconstrued, etc. Layout adheres toa  nice two-column full-color standard, and the pdf comes fully bookmarked in spite of its brevity. The artworks herein range from great to okay, but for such an inexpensive pdf, impressed me.

Richard Moore’s options for the barbarian make sense in a lot of ways: They emphasize the brutal, fearsome mook-sweeper, the savagery of the class, and all pieces of design herein capture the theme coded into the barbarian class. The respective mechanics check out balance-wise, with only Slayer’s epic feat feeling, on paper, a bit strong; however, due to the circumstantial triggering conditions of Slayer, the benefits actually do check out. As an aside: Build a team of twin barbarians with the feats and talents in this book. It’s a genuinely cool character concept I’ll propose to my players. Anyhow, rating: This delivers some quality crunch with NASTY combo-potential, with all assaults feeling genuinely barbarian-y. What more could you ask for, particularly considering the super-fair price-point of a measly two bucks. 5 stars + seal of approval.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
13 Barbarian Talents and Feat (13th Age Compatible)
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The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions
Publisher: Lamentations of the Flame Princess
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/27/2020 06:59:26

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This supplement clocks in at 155 pages, already minus editorial, covers, etc. My review is based on the print hardcover, and I do not own the pdf-version, so I can’t comment on its electronic features. It should be noted that there is a lot of blank spaces, some blank pages, and many pages that are half-empty. I counted 19 pages that are either blank or represent the same sigil, not counting the numerous half-pages. There also are a ton of pages that only have two very thin lists of one-word-lines. This book has less content than it looks like from the page-count.

This review was requested by one of my patreon supporters, to be undertaken at my convenience.

First of all, let us talk mechanics: Even though this supplement is released by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, I am somewhat loathe to call it “compatible” with the rules, or indeed the aesthetics assumed by many OSR games; for the most part, the reasons for this stem from subtle components, but the 2 pages of house rules in the back do a rather good job at illustrating this, so that’s where we’ll start.

The rules presented are for “Perception Tests”, and propose the following, among other things:

“When you size up a situation, roll 2d6 and add your Wisdom modifier. On a 10+, ask me three questions. On a 7-9, ask two. On a 3-6, ask one. If you have a positive Wisdom modifier, you get one free answer.”

The questions presented are:

“Who’s in control here?”

“What’s my best approach?”

“What’s my best exit?”

“How could I assert my own dominance?”

“How could I disarm the situation?”

“If the situation proceeds unaltered, what will happen?”

…I really dislike this. It’s metagamey and doesn’t fit my aesthetics. And yes, I’m aware that there are plenty of games solely based on such mechanics, but these aren’t games I enjoy playing. In fact, even for storygames, that sort of precognition-like insight and knowledge seems utterly in contrast to what I consider fun in them, so…yeah. Weird. A better illustration of the contention of non-compatibility would be another of those tests, one available exclusively for magic-users. I quote directly from the book:

“When you unveil your inner vision and feel yourself outward from yourself…” – then we have the rules text (same mechanics as before, save that it uses Intelligence modifier). The questions posed here are:

“Which of these auras or plasms represent a threat to us here?”

“When I put forward a subtle provocation, how do these auras or plasms react?”

“When I subject them to stern rigor, are any of these auras or plasms misrepresenting themselves?”

“When I set aside my initial impressions and carefully reassess, are there any auras or plasms present that are more subtle, more faint, or hidden from me?”

“When I dissect these plasms or auras for the fingerprints of their creators’ psyches. Whose are they?”

“Which of these plasms or auras are truly beyond my personal comprehension?”

…WTF. This is the sloppiest, most wishy-wishy piece of anti-rules-language I have ever read. First: How does a magic-user “unveil their inner vision and feel outward”? What is “stern rigor” supposed to be in this context? Why do “initial impressions” matter? This book operates under some assumption of unspoken, undefined premises, but they are not the premises shared by the LotFP-game, or most OSR-games, for that matter.

But those rules are not exactly required to use this, so let’s ignore them for now.

Let us dial back the clock a bit and let me give you an impression of when I first opened this book after drawing it from my colossal to-read pile. This book is billed as a generator/toolkit for devising seclusiae, which are a cool concept: A wizard’s (that’s the term the book consistently uses, no an error on my part! This book takes a hint from Vance and assumes the term “wizard” to be more encompassing and applying primarily to apex-power entities) seclusium is essentially their tower/home-base or dungeon, and they undergo phases, during one of which, when the master isn’t home or indisposed, they can be assailed. This book is entirely about that phase of a seclusium and starts off in a manner that had me intrigued. The prose of the introduction mimics a treatise in some aspects, and establishes this as more than just a lair, as almost a kind of nigh-impregnable demiplane-ish sanctuary. Okay, cool, looks like we’ll get heist-tools! Are the other phases of the seclusium defined? No. Okay, so what are those plasms? They are undefined magical processes akin to photosynthesis. Creatures that feed on those are called plasmids, while powerful entities are called “plasmic entities”; beyond that, the book rewrites how magic’s supposed to work in the lore of your game: Turns out that you can only cast spells due to having a so-called “plasmic psyche”, and preparing a spell is inviting a plasmid into your brain as a sort of guest.

…this may be me, but it really bothers me when a supplement makes grand, sweeping claims of how something that is bound to have existed previously, like, well, magic, suddenly gets a new background and how it’s supposed to work, particularly if the like comes without precise explanations in the details.  Spells have an aura that doesn’t need to match the effect, got it. Are these consistent between spells? Contingent on the caster? Do magic items have auras that can be seen? If so, are their auras consistent? How do you see them? Does it require a spell? Are you born with it? Range? Consequences? Can this pierce illusions? No clue. Why does this spend so many words to talk about something that is actually properly codified in consistent rules-language in such esoteric and little-known spells as…I don’t know…detect frickin’ magic? I wouldn’t object to the lore-insertion here to this degree, but it makes the whole premise and system more wishy-washy and ill-defined, muddies the waters.

Okay, but all of that’s pretty irrelevant if the generator for the actual seclusiae is cool. And frankly, the idea behind the eponymous Orphone’s sanctuary is cool: The lady has started exploring plasmic realms (yep this also bleeds into cosmology…) and found a realm called Paume, which she planned on exploring in essentially a kind of suspended-animation tank. She did not expect that she’d be essentially locked in a perpetual orgasm by Paume, and now is stuck, and probably won’t be too happy, even if saved. The thing on the cover is her plasmic entity guardian Anguilla. Okay, cool premise! I am stoked!

…this excitement did not survive contact with the actual section of the book. Instead of providing an actual environment, this book acts as a weirdly specific, yet puzzlingly rudimentary generator that is almost bereft of mechanics. Let’s take a look at the guardian’s entry:

“Anguilla is a plasmic creature of a central node and extending tendrils. The node resides within the walls of Orphone’s ceremonial chamber, and if somehow exposed, appears as (choose 1)”

An echoing turbulence. A screeching pulse. A prismatic melancholy.

“it can extend its tendrils into the reality of the chamber, however, and they have a much more concrete form, serpentine in shape (as its name suggests), eyeless, and (circle all that apply):

Translucent. Swirling. Prismatic.

With:

Toothy maws. Mandibles Mouthless.

With:

1.Hooks and barbs.

Feelers. Sticky skin. Bone carapaces.”

Yep, this book pretty much works like one of those mood-diaries, where you briefly circle preselected stuff as a reductive shorthand for your emotional and mental state. To save time when not enough time is available for proper introspection, this may be a good call, and as a consequence, when time is short, and you need to prep the game? Having a well-written environment with some stuff to select from premade, easy to customize to your whims? Good idea!

It’d make preparation quick and easy, right? Well, in theory. Thing is that this book is not interested in doing ANY of the hard work for you. And I mean NONE of it. To illustrate and stick with the example, Anguilla gets the following “mechanics”:

“Mechanically, create Anguilla in two layers. Anguilla’s central node has hit dice, and each of its hit points appears as an individual tendril. Then, each of its tendrils has its own hit dice as well. When a tendril loses all of its hit points and is killed, the node loses 1 hit point that the tendril represented. Anguilla can extend at most 7 tendrils at a time. Write up Anguilla as you would any monster.”

…No.

You do that.

You designate damage, HD, special abilities. You do the job of an author and game-designer.

Apart from being just another lame tentacle-monster with a body-node, this is symptomatic for the book. It has a format that would at least somewhat validate its presentation as a timesaver, and then omits the stuff that would render it actually, you know, useful.

Did you expect pregenerated spell-lists? Tough luck, none here. A magic item generator? Nope. A hazard generator Nope. Stats for anything? Nope. So, in spite of looking like a quick-to-use “choose x-type” of workbook, this requires a ton of work, even for its most fleshed out seclusium.

Oh, I haven’t mentioned that, have I? Well, there are three seclusiae herein, and Orphone’s is the most fleshed-out; the other two are concept-wise blander and more generic, and progressively less fleshed out. The final section of the book then presents the general seclusium generator, and the “maps” – these are essentially a few obscure blotches that look a bit like the map of a country, and on it, you’re supposed to draw the seclusium. One has a very rudimentary pattern in the middle. No, we do not get geomorphs or handy tools. Draw, peasants!

At this point, I think it’s clearly established that the book is not user-friendly. But is its dressing good? There’s value in that, after all. Let me give you a few examples. For the magical elements of Orphone’s seclusium, we have:

An usual tree. “For its aura, choose 1:

It grasps and draws at your plasmic self, like a beggar for food. Its aura is silent and imperceptible, but conveys an undeniable sense of the predator watching the prey.

For its desire and impulse, we choose 1:

It would dissolve “right” and “wrong”, allowing utmost liberty… It would bring death…

…by inserting wheedling, provocative words directly and unsubtly into someone’s thoughts.

When people come near it, have all make a Magic save [sic! – that’s saving throw versus magic]. Failure means that the voice can speak in their thoughts. The source of the voice, the tree, isn’t obvious and it will likely mislead anyone who intends it harm. As with many creatures who despise their own existence, it will nevertheless act to prolong it.”

…so, telepathically talking tree. No other effects. Got it.

If you think I’m being unfair, choosing a bad example or focusing too much on one seclusium, let’s take a look at a servant of one of the wizards, Bostu the necromancer.

His servant Abmo Om “[…] is a man and is/has (choose 1 distinctive feature):

Unusually tall. Waist-length hair. Kindly eyes. A delicate face.”

OH BOY! Can you see how AWESOME this is? I mean, that’s pure poetry! Genius! Kindly eyes? Man, I’d have never thought of that! Unusually tall? WOW! And the final entry put everything into perspective! A delicate face! I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. The genius. The audacity. The imaginative potential! So magical! This is the be-all, end-all of RPG-writing, an epochal work…

krzkrzkrz Reviewbot-9000 has experienced sarcasm-overload. krzkrzkrz Rebooting. blipblipblip

ding

Where was I? Oh yeah, I was extolling the virtues of this splendorous tome.

The guidance provided for the referee is on a similar level. The book, for example, gives us the super-handy primers for when the player characters arrive:

“Who will meet them (if anyone)?”

“What magical auras will impose themselves upon Magic-User’s [sic!] attention?”

“What dangers and threats will fighters notice?”

“What atmosphere or mood will clerics become aware of?”

Who needs magical effects, traps, items, monsters, maps, NPCs, spells or anything like that when we have prose this compelling, guidance this brilliant and helpful, to aid us? A veil has been lifted off my eyes. I was blind, and now I can see! Hahahahaha. All RPG books in my library did dressing the wrong way! Formatting conventions are mere impositions of authority. Editing is for the unenlightened. Precise language is a crutch! The glory of the blank page! This book is the holy grail of…

krzkrzkrz Critical overheating in sarcasm-processor detected. Review abort. Review abort. krzkrzkrz

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are decent on a formal level; there are plenty of deviations from LotFP’s standard, and indeed, those of all comparable OSR-games I know of.  The rules-language is atrocious where present, making you almost glad of its imminent scarcity. Layout adheres to a two-column b/w-standard with sparse, solid b/w-artworks, and PLENTY of filler. Wide margins, a ton of filler pages, some blank for no reason. The hardcover feels weird. It’s lighter than all other LotFP hardcovers, even those of smaller books, and the paper has a slightly brownish tint. The book feels almost like a non-premium-PoD; I’d say that lulu’s PoD-quality is higher than that of this book, which is utterly baffling to me, considering that LotFP usually has really high-quality print books.

D. Vincent Baker’s tome on seclusiae is the most bloated, vapid, useless book I’ve read in ages. It fails in all ways I could review it:

As a setting supplement, it doesn’t offer interesting dynamics.

As a workbook, it is inconvenient and lacks all the components that would make using it for quick game-preparation work.

As a book of lore you read for the fun of it, it is too obtuse and incomplete to provide even a halfway decent reading experience.

As a dressing book, its entries oscillate between pure boredom and being utterly bereft of any sort of substance.

Indeed, that’s how I’d describe this book: I’d call it vacuous, were this effect not obviously intended. It’s a void of content, concealed by words. This book’s dressing, when it’s not jamming some terminology and assumptions into your game without explaining or defining them properly, is a great book for people who say “my truth” and argue that their subjective opinion should be taken as objective fact. It’s all about wishy-washy emotions, about how things feel, as opposed to how they are in the game world. From a design-perspective, it’s a bit like having the thief detect successfully a trap at a chest’s lock, but still trigger it, because the trap wasn’t there. Or to suddenly recognize that you’re walking straight into a blade. Its wishy-washy imprecision dissolves the consensus of language that is required to actually share a meaningful narrative.

The language herein is like one has taken a huge piece of old lard and smeared it on the language that is the camera lens into the worlds we play in, obscuring everything and turning all into this mushy, indistinct and hazy blob.

And yes, I am one of the people who enjoy surreal and dream-like prose; I love Machen, and I enjoy Vance, to whom this book is dedicated. I like flowery prose and I’m one of the weirdos who actually buys books of poetry. But this isn’t dreamlike – it’s all about the feels, which’d be fine, if the book had any proper substance to back it up.

But it has none.

Neither on a rules-level, nor regarding the actual functionality of the seclusiae, nor regarding their lore.

And if you think that the basic idea of the seclusiae is great, and that the author usually does much better? Well, I concur. But one solid idea does not make a book, and in fact, all value I could derive from this book would fit on half a page of paper. This book is incredibly bloated, repetitive, and yes, infuriatingly obtuse without earning it in any way. There is no substance behind its bloated language deprived of concrete meaning.

Do yourself a favor, and instead buy the superior and actually useful Raging Swan Press’ dressing books.

Or any other LotFP-book. Of all of their books I’ve covered so far, this is the only one I’d consider to be absolutely useless. How this could happen to the publisher, and to the author? I genuinely can’t fathom.

Final verdict? 1 star.

As an aside: I am aware of the irony of a sarcastic review being subjective to a degree; if you do own this book and consider it to be a valuable addition to your library, please do tell me why. I’d genuinely be interested how anyone can consider this book worthwhile owning, and what they see in it. Because I tried hard to see the positive in it, only to have it fail by any of the myriad measures I tried applying to it. This invitation also obviously extends to the person who requested this – if it was a troll, it was masterfully done. ;)

Edit: Yes, this was submitted to troll me. Well played! :)

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[1 of 5 Stars!]
The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions
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Gear Book: Battle Gloves
Publisher: Evil Robot Games
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/20/2020 22:09:24

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This little pdf clocks in at 4 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 2 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreon supporters.

This pdf fixes a very specific issue via equipment – this is its sole focus, and something to bear in mind. Armor Storm soldiers with Hammer Fist, and the glove is supposed to duplicate the effects of the item level of a heavy or powered armor. The core book is rather limited regarding its battle gloves, but it’s clear that you’re not supposed to have a paltry 1d4 punch in SFRPG, where the system very much requires the increase of weapon-damage.

This book, thus, presents new battle gloves, based on the one-handed damage charts; these are analog or powered, light weapons sans critical effect, and the table-header properly classifies them as basic melee weapons. One battle glove for every level is provided. All of the design-concerns above are concisely explained. Even better (a GOOD thing for high-complexity games like SFRPG), the reasoning is explained to the GM as well. And the math checks out as well – costs, damage, and item-levels are balanced so unarmed combat options hard-coded into the system are not invalidated.

This is per se great. But there is one downside to the battle gloves herein: Due to needing to adhere to the power-curve of unarmed attacks, there are a couple of battle gloves that have the same base damage, with the higher-level version just…costing more. This is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”-situation, though, so I get the reasoning behind this decision. That being said, there’d have been an obvious solution. Critical effects and special properties. While easy enough to add and modify, these could have been used as additional balancing tools – perhaps exchanging lower damage for effects or the like.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are good, I noticed no significant hiccups on a formal or rules-language level. Layout adheres to the neat two-column full-color standard of the Galaxy Pirates-series. The pdf has no bookmarks, but needs none at this length, and the color artwork is solid.

Paul Fields and Jim Milligan deliver an inexpensive, handy little supplement that makes Hammer Fist more viable. In that way, the pdf succeeds admirably. When it comes to differentiation between item-levels, the same can’t be said. This is a very focused item supplement, and in its niche, it does its job. Now, I’d usually harp more on the issue between item-levels and lack of differentiation, and round down from my final verdict, but this does have one crucial advantage: It costs a grand total of $0.99. What can you get for that nowadays? Where I’m living, you can’t even get a coffee at the student’s cafeteria for that. If you’re a student. Considering that, well, I do feel justified in rounding up from my final verdict of 3.5 stars. However, if you’re just looking for the items, and not for some help with the Hammer Fist ability, you may wish to round down.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Gear Book: Battle Gloves
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Tales From the Fallen Empire
Publisher: Chapter 13 Press
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/16/2020 09:37:10

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This massive campaign setting clocks in at 216 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 3 pages editorial/KS-backer thanks, 2 pages of ToC, 3 pages of advertisements, 1 page inside of back cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 204 pages of content.

These do include two pages devoted to a character sheet, and 4 pages of helpful index. Interesting choice: The book doesn’t begin with editorial/ToC, instead front-loading the legend of the setting, by providing an excerpt from the scrolls of Tian of Zhou. This prologue really manages to set up a great basic premise that managed to resound with the tone one associated with the excerpts from the Nemedian Scrolls.

It should be noted that my review was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review by one of my readers, who also sent me the softcover copy of this book. My review is primarily based on that version, and I have also consulted the pdf.

Anyway, the expectations set by the prologue are promising indeed: We learn that the world is essentially the remains of Leviathan, the grand dragon, slain by his rebellious offspring, with connections to other worlds/planes remaining; this simple planar geography lets you add different tones with relative ease, as the dragon’s portals lead to other places. So yeah, you can add a neat array of hodgepodge races here, though the world generally is assumed to be human-centric. Since back then, we had a sorcerer-king era, and said era ended around 100 years ago with the fall of the city-state of Uruk, initiating the Third Age. This premise is pretty much awesome – if you go with the classic heroes, it’d be situated somewhere between the age of Kull and that of Conan. This is a good premise. Alas, much to my chagrin, the book doesn’t really do much with the cool dragon-corpse angle. Sure, sun = heart, sea = blood, etc. may be nice – but the sea isn’t really blood (unlike in the Scarred Lands, for example), and apart from a great little line about things below keeping the corpse-world alive, there isn’t much going on here.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I love the Philipp Mainländer-ish take on living on the corpse of a deity; but the premise doesn’t really have consequences regarding weather, regarding seasons, regarding anything – as written, this could be any old planetoid world, and that frankly bugs me to no end. Okay. Maybe, I am overinterpreting things. If the creation myth is supposed to be allegorical, the world a regular planetoid, that’d be an explanation…but it’d be one that underwhelms me slightly. Why am I bringing it up, then? Well, because there are two more instances wherein you get to learn about the world, and there are discrepancies in these sections. These may or may not be intentional, since the book does drop a TON of lore upon the judge, and the information does seem to come from both authoritative and in-game sources.

The problematic aspect with the per-se solid lore, is that the book takes a few odd stances: On one hand, we learn that there are no proper gods, and hence no clerics in the setting. On the other, we get a massive pantheon of deities, some being the great dragons, some deities from other worlds. It should be noted that I am one of the judges who enjoy reading a lot of lore, but this book did make things a bit hard for me, as said discrepancies also apply to the general tone of the setting.

What do I mean by this? Essentially, this setting assumes a higher power-level than default DCC games – the variant character creation rules presented for playing in the world of Urd seem to champion significantly higher power-levels than DCC’s default. If there was no magical healing, this’d make sense to a degree, but turns out there is – the witch-class, one of the new classes herein, essentially takes the cleric’s role. The classes presented are barbarian, marauder, sentinel, sorcerer (wizard variant) and witch; beyond these, we have the man-ape and drake race-classes.

Since in-depth analysis of these classes would bloat the review, in all brevity; Barbarians gain a scaling Savage Ferocity Die, and in combat, can roll it, taking the rolled result, or any result below that. This is per se an interesting idea, but the effects are pretty diverse: As a result, it sometimes makes sense to roll the die and hope for a high result – and then not getting it. To give you an example: Entry 2 nets you an addition 30 ft. running jump movement for -2 to the AC. Okay, cool. But why can the barbarian execute that only in combat? Since you can always roll a 1, you can end up not getting this result…and e.g. fall to your death, when you could have escaped with this ability. The problem here is focus: The abilities should be attack-based, with the utility-based tricks relegated to another suite array. I like the idea here, but the execution can be potentially annoying. Man-apes are essentially brutes with deed die and a berserk rage. Marauders are pirates with black market connections, sentinels are sacred guardians in the Dol Minor wastes, somewhere between paladin, rangers and rogue. Yes, I meant rogue, not thief. More on that later. Draki are repitile people who are particularly good at using magic items. Sorcerers use ritual magic, and have been stolen from Dark Sun, in that their magics have defiler-like effects, drawing upon the life energies of those nearby. Witches get a custom spell list, are better at casting divination-like spells, and can Make Potions at first level and, as noted before, heal.

Regarding ethnicities, the book presents a whole array, including idiosyncrasies – when negative aspects are roleplayed, the player gets a coin that can be sued for rerolls, having the proper item on hand, etc. – the idea here is cool. The book also presents an interesting mechanic that ties a die of forbidden lore to lucidity – essentially a madness system applied to DCC, in aesthetics based on Call of Cthulhu. The system is relatively simple and easy to adapt, making use of DCC’s die-chain mechanics, and is rules-wise perhaps one of my favorite aspect herein. The book also presents an engine for ritual magic and magic item crafting. The ritual engine is per se mechanically-solid, but leaves one thing up to the judge that I really look for in ritual engines: An actual description of the actions performed. You know, some sequence, perhaps even a quick “ritual-step generator” so one can actually roleplay the ritual, instead of just having a spell with a long casting time and cost.

The crafting magic items sections deserves special mention, as it assumes that magic items are (usually!) the result of demons being bound in the item! As such, a variant rule is provided for obedience of the respective item. I like these. However, I might note that these are pretty. The book also provides a massive chapter of new spells and patrons, though the latter only have Invoke Patron and Spellburn tables, no individual corruptions – bummer. The spells include calling e.g. waste tigers to serve, a spell to kill off plant life, a spell to make a target a servant for a limited duration, a spell that causes harm by striking the shadow of the target, fire beams, insect infestation, making a massive tower of sand – these are classic visuals here. I generally like this, though the entire chapter also failed to introduce me to anything I haven’t seen before. It is very much a selection of magics as expected for the genre.

The book also features a total of 4 pages that provide basic naval combat rules. These are per se serviceable, but its presentation is really confused. I’m familiar with plenty of complex systems, and it took me a few rereads to get how the system works. It’s also very much contingent on having a marauder. If you are a marauder, you’ll be better at naval combat than anyone else, and to my significant chagrin, now much in the way of magic/ship interaction, or unique abilities based on class, are provided. My impression was that the system would be very boring and uneven to actually play, and said impression proved to be correct. I strongly suggest steering clear of the naval combat rules.

On the plus-side, the actual description of the world and its regions once more manages to capture the spirit of the prologue, and the cartography (by Alyssa Faden, I think) provided for the cities is AWESOME. B/w city shaped as a scarab? Heck yeah! Downside: All maps consistently lack a scale, which makes the world feel somewhat opaque regarding its scale. Still, the part of the book that depicts the world has some neat parts.

This cannot be said about the bestiary. The bestiary section of this book is easily one of the worst I have seen in a setting for quite a while. For one, the respective creatures are not that interesting mechanically. And there’s this other, nagging feeling. When we get that list of golem traits, and it doesn’t line up with any of the golems herein, when a will-o’-wisp-like creature is described as harmless, but have a frickin’ +14 attack for 2d8 electricity damage. We have instances where the Act die line isn’t properly bullet pointed (the raptor has the die and MV listed in the HD-line) – or the value missing. This is a weak, boring section. And it is here, finally, that I realized what irked me about this book.

This reads like a D&D 3.X campaign setting. It claims, time and again, that it’s gritty, but it really…isn’t. You see, it has all the dressing of a sword & sorcery setting; it has this notion of being a high-powered one, yeah, but the trappings are here. Ape-men? Check. A few b/w-drawings with exposed breasts? Check. Ritual magic etc.? Check. But it never feels like all of that is an integral part of the setting. It tries to accommodate for so much, it loses its footing. Magic’s supposed to be rare, yet we have magic creation rules. We have essentially Dark Sun’s defiler-magic, but no individual corruptions. We don’t have magical drugs or the like, no strange savage alchemy, but we do get a whole system of new coins to convert to (starting wealth table is btw. missing which coins it uses); we have golems galore, extraplanar guys, plant-zombies – you know, the usual D&D-ish array. Heck, same goes for the wraiths. We have no deities and clerics, but witches. In many ways, this feels cobbled together, and as though it had been originally written for D&D 3.X before being changed to DCC. Don’t get me wrong, for the most part, the rules are solid and do a decent job at what they want to achieve. But they never come together in a concise manner. The individual systems just float around, and quite a bit of the content feels like it’s there simply for filling page-count. Neither drake nor ape-man are interesting, and the other classes are also very cookie-cutter…or somewhat problematic in how they play.

Speaking of “problematic in how they play”: The book has two sample adventures, one 0-level funnel, and a module for levels 3-5. The former is missing any read-aloud text, while the latter has some.

Spoilers for the modules below. Potential players beware and jump to the conclusion.

… .. .

Okay, module #1, the funnel, is an “escape the slave pens scenario”; it opens, among other things, with this set-up:

“[…]These chains limit base speed to 20’ (DC 25 Reflex to either pick the lock or otherwise remove them). […]The gate on the bars of the pen is a DC 25 Strength check to break, or a DC 20 Reflex check to pick the lock.[…]”

…nobody can tell me that this was playtested properly. Later, we have a bear, skeletons and a water spirit. This is literally the most boring, uninspired jailbreak module I’ve ever read. And I’ve read a lot.

The Horrors of Hod, unfortunately, doesn’t fare much better: It feels like on of the really bad Lovecraft sword & sorcery pastiches that jam something ostensibly frightening into the context of the setting. It features spore zombies, but also a hell hound, darkmantles and similar D&D-ish critters. It feels like a regular fantasy dungeon with a few tangentially creepy critters thrown in. This module’s hook also has some tribal warfare angle that makes it seem like the world’s really small, but I’m not sure in that regard, since the book never specifies, you know, a scale. On the plus-side, saving a damsel from supernatural enemies is as classic as it gets, but the execution is so laughable. Since the dungeon itself lacks any real distinguishing features on a dressing or rules-level, the whole “turned into spore zombie” threat is lost. Even if you manage to evoke a sense of horror, that’ll be gone when you run into a bog-standard (haha) gray ooze. Oh, also always fun: Invisible line of death traps. You know, the “you walk there, take damage”-type. Also: Guess what? The lucidity rules the book introduces? Not used here. -.- Oh, and the boss? Same stats as standard critter, can only be killed by mcguffin. Why? No clue. This is super-sucky railroading and has logic bugs. I hated this adventure.

Conclusion: Editing is, formally, decent. On a rules-language level, and regarding lore consistency, it is rather uneven. Layout adheres to a two-column b/w-standard, with a blend of original and stock b/w-artworks. Aesthetically, the cartography of the cities is the undisputed highlight of this book. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks. The softcover is a solid book, with title etc. on the spine, though the front cover of my copy seems slightly blurred. I can’t comment on the virtues or lack thereof of the hardcover.

James Carpio, with contributions from Michael Curtis, Chris Lites, Colin Chapman, Mary Lindholm, Michael R. Smith, Walter Andrew Rinehart and Matthew Millman, has written a massive setting that has so much potential.

Potential that never came together. I never felt like this world came together. Goodman Games’ Punjar-modules do Lankhmar-ish sword & sorcery on the upper weirdness/power-levels better. (Same obviously goes for Goodman games’ Lankhmar…) And if I want to play in a low-powered sword & sorcery world, ironically the World of Xoth by Morten Braten does an infinitely better job for DCC, even though it was written originally for D&D 3.X. What sets this campaign setting apart, its unique world, is unfortunately just a backdrop that might as well not exist. The entire unfocused presentation breaks this setting for me. The book introduces a ton of stuff that is not crucial to the setting, but leaves us without things that truly distinguish it from comparable settings.

This setting feels like it’s suffering from a constant identity crisis: Does it want to be a dark, gritty tale in a savage world of gray moralities? Or does it want to be a goofy D&D hodgepodge of genres and planar themes? If you want to be gritty, then you also have to be somewhat outré, somewhat grimy. And ironically, the core modules released for DCC actually do a better job at conveying the vibe of sword and sorcery than this setting, much less the horrible modules included in this book. This setting lacks all grit and grime, and may be the most PG-13, playing-it-safe take on Sword & Sorcery I’ve seen. Unless you’re offended by (very few) artworks of female characters with exposed breasts (none exploitative, mind you), it’ll be hard to find anything to be offended by.

…yep. I actually think that quite a few default fantasy settings are grimier and grittier than this sword & sorcery setting.

Suffice to say, this is easily the most pronounced example of squandered potential I have ever seen. The lore started off so well, but at once point, it all started to blur together, with the discrepancies between sources managing to erode all of my desire to truly grasp all the nuances of the setting’s history. If I wasn’t a reviewer, I’d have shelved this book right then and there.

I wish I did. At that point, I was still rather ambivalent about the book, but as I progressed to the atrociously-bad adventures and the lackluster bestiary, this remainder of goodwill also started to evaporate.

I dove into this book wanting to love it; I took a look at the Appendix N provided herein, and started smiling. And it started so well. But…well. At this point, you probably guess that I can’t recommend this setting. In many ways, this feels like it’s either 100 pages to short, or 100 pages too long. The respective subsystems needed full integration or proper space to shine, and the world really needed some rules for things that set it apart, to develop its dragon-angle.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a super-bad book; but in many ways, it’s painfully vanilla and boring, and it has issues with its consistence and focus. I definitely hope that the module “A Faceless Enemy”, set in this world, fares better than the modules herein. Anyhow, rating.

I don’t enjoy bashing this work, but frankly, I’d recommend every sword & sorcery setting in my library over this one. For some idea-scavenging, this may be worth checking out. If you’re relatively inexperienced when it comes to the genre, that is. My final verdict can’t exceed 2 stars.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[2 of 5 Stars!]
Tales From the Fallen Empire
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Best Left Buried: The Deluxe Edition [BUNDLE]
Publisher: SoulMuppet Publishing
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/13/2020 05:37:06

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This game clocks in at 152 pages, 1 page introduction, 1 page editorial, 1 page character sheet, leaving us with 149 pages (A5/ 6’’ by 9’’) of content. My review is primarily based on the offset-printed hardcover, which is a sturdy tome; it’s glued, but expertly so, and takes a lot of punishment. The paper is super-thick, glossy, and indeed pretty deluxe. The stark black aesthetics of the book’s cover show a white shovel on a mound of earth, and the book has its name and creators on the spine, making it easy to locate in the bookshelf. It should be noted that the book makes copious use of bolding, allowing the reader to easily parse rules-relevant information. I have also consulted the pdfs.

I moved this review up in my reviewing queue because I wanted to cover this book back in spring, and then, well, COVID-19 happened, and I’ve been scrambling ever since. However, it’s now or never. Why? Because there currently is a kickstarter for Best left Buried: Deeper, a second edition of sorts.

What do I mean with “of sorts”? Well, it has more content, streamlined presentation, etc. – but the content of this book actually remains valid. All Best Left Buried materials released so far remain fully functional with the new edition – so thinking of Best Left Buried: Deeper as an expanded edition probably makes most sense.

Now, among my readers, the only people likely to be familiar with this game would be fans of the OSR, but Best left Buried can’t really be called an OSR-game anymore; the engine is radically different, using d6s, and taking some obvious inspirations from a variety of games, including Traveller. That being said: While I’d call Best Left Buried a rules-lite game in how easy it can be learned, it does differentiate itself from its compatriot systems in a crucial way: You can run Best left Buried for fans of systems like Pathfinder, D&D 5e and 13th Age without boring them or frustrating them due to a lack of options. How? Well, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s briefly talk about the setting, because it is quite important to contextualize the genre, because this is a genre-system in how it is presented.

Best Left Buried is a dark fantasy/horror game, which, as many of you know, are my first loves when it comes to roleplaying. However, unlike let’s say most of the more recent LotFP (Lamentations of the Flame Princess) supplements, the game does not focus on a historical setting and all that entails; Best Left Buried focuses on bringing dungeoncrawling and horror together; it is very much a fantasy-horror game, focusing on blending the experience provided by many classic modules (or OSR gems like Matthew Finch’s Demonspore) with a focus on horror.

If that sounds awfully obtuse to you and requires too much previous knowledge of RPGs, I have another summary pitch for you: Picture Darkest Dungeon without the repetition and grind, and with more options. If you’re as big a fan of Darkest Dungeon as I am, then this got your attention.

Best Left Buried has three Stats (the ability scores, essentially): Brawn, Wit, Will. Brawn is physical prowess and toughness. Wit is the stat used for agility, both mental and physical. Will represents the intellect – recalling obscure factoids, reading body language, etc. Characters start with +2 in one Stat, +1 in another, and +0 in the third. The default assumption is that regular people have +0s in every score. Best left Buried has two values that measure your survival: Vigour (Brawn +6), and Grip (think of this as a combined mana + stamina + sanity); You begin play with 4 + Will Grip.

Then, you choose an archetype (essentially a kind of class, but more freeform) – you get to choose from Believer, Cabalist, Everyman, Freeblade, Outcast, Scholar, Protagonist, Veteran. The Everyman archetype, in case you were wondering, would be the archetype that allows you to dabble in everything. These archetypes provide two abilities, and a drawback – if you’re a believer, you’re assumed to have the Guided by the Gods affliction, which makes you essentially convinced that the voices that talk to you are commands from above – Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Dancy Flammarion comes to mind. Cutthroats can’t make a heroic rescue; the dandyesque dastards have a harder time making Grip checks prompted by monsters or environments, freeblades have problems resisting the lure of gold, and protagonists don’t do well at lying – you get the idea. Like in most good dark fantasy/horror games, you have abilities, but also a drawback that is very much conductive to roleplaying. As an aside: Veterans start with an injury, which can, in what I assume to be a nod to Traveller, potentially result in death at character creation when e.g. using the random character creation tables in the back of the book – easily enough to mitigate by allowing for Injury choice, and unlikely, so a nice easter egg on a rules-level.

Then, you choose weapons and equipment from a list, and you’re essentially already done. Character creation takes less than 5 minutes, and the archetypes come with suggested Advancements (you do get to choose one of those), but we’ll come back to those later.

The base mechanic of Best left Buried is the Stat Check – you roll 2d6 and add the Stat’s modifier, if any. If you meet or beat 9, you have succeeded; below 9, you have failed. The target number is ALWAYS 9. You can, however, have the Upper Hand, this game’s equivalent of advantage – then, you roll 3d6 and discard the lowest die. Working Against the Odds is the system’s disadvantage – roll 3d6, and discard the highest roll. Against the Odds and Upper Hand cancel each other. If you have 3 instances of Against the Odds more than Upper Hand, a task becomes impossible; conversely, having 3 instances of Upper Hand more than Against the Odds means that you automatically succeed, because the task is trivial.

Observation checks are 2d6 rolled flat against 9. Rounds are assumed to take 10 seconds, and initiative is determined by rolling a d3 and adding Wit (and later, miscellaneous modifiers), taking turns from high to low. Being surprised deprives you of your first Turn’s action. The terrain is split up in Zones – you can move one Zone per turn. Note how there is no concrete dimension given – this is intentional: 20 meters of open terrain might take as long to traverse as a cramped 1,50 m crawlspace. During the character’s turn, they can move and attack, move again, use an Advancement (more on those later), escape (Wit check), and enemies might finish characters. Other actions are also possible. If you fail the Wit check to escape, you must either stay in the zone, or a monster in it gets an attack against you.

Attack rolls have a target number that usually ranges between 7 and 11, with a base target number of 8. Attack rolls are usually rolled with 3d6: If two of the three dice + the Stat used exceed the target number, you hit – and deal the third die as damage to the target’s Vigour. If two of the three dice + the Stat would not suffice to hit the target number, the attack does nothing. If an attack is trivial, you roll 2d6 and deal the higher die as damage. If the damage die against a target is a 6, it is a Critical Hit and the character or monster must roll an injury. Important: Monsters can gang up on you. You really don’t want that, as the horde will eliminate you; it’s also not an option for characters, which I approve.

Dying reminded me of the amazing “Fear & Hunger” indiegame – when you’re reduced to 0 Vigour, you flip a coin. Tails, you die. Heads, and you’re unconscious and return to consciousness after d6 hours, but gain an injury and an affliction. In combat, a monster can Finish an unconscious character, which can only be prevented by a Heroic Rescue. To do that, another character must be in the same or adjacent zone – this might require a Wit check to come to the aid of the character. A Heroic Rescue has no downsides – apart from one: The rescuer loses their next turn.

Characters can spend Grip to push themselves to Exertion, which lets them reroll a die, but you can’t reroll a reroll. Alternatively, you can spend Grip to cause an opponent to reroll a single die. Grip is also sanity – so there are Grip checks; this is a Will check against, bingo, target number 9. If you beat the check, you gain a point of Experience, but if you fail, you lose 1 Grip.

While we’re on the topic of combat, let’s briefly talk about equipment: Weapons are classified as hand, heavy, light, long, thrown or ranged, and use Brawn or Wit. They have damage modifiers ranging from -1 to +1, and may decrease initiative by up to -1. Optional gunpowder rules are included. Shields increase the target number to hit you by one, as does basic armor. Plate armor provides more protection, but requires 2 Brawn and decreases initiative. Armor does NOT hamper spellcasting.

Resting is required to replenish Vigour: Camping in an unsafe dungeon might well not replenish any VIgour; 6 hours of rest, single watch shift in a relatively dry cave with rations etc. nets 3 Vigour, and resting in a guarded base camp, on the surface etc. nets you 5 Vigour, while sleeping in a proper tavern replenishes 6 Vigour and 1 Grip. The game has easy rules for grappling, some conditions, and from encumbrance, drowning and suffocating, falling, etc., all of the usual suspects are covered.

You level up every 8 experience points gained, and gain 1 Vigour, 1 Grip, and an Advancement when you do. And this is actually the entire system; a lot of these more detailed rules are not required to be known by the players at first, only the Doomsayer needs to grasp them. Oh yeah, that’s the name for the GM. I LOVE it: “Doomsayer, may …“ Most kickass referee-name ever.

Okay, Advancements. Advancements are what one aspect of makes this game so incredibly compelling to me. Advancements are essentially like feats, class abilities, etc. Starting characters get one Journeyman Advancement for free. This means that even two characters of the same archetype with the same Stat distribution can play radically different. This is where my assertion that this game can engage fans of complex games stems from: You have more differentiation between characters than in some 5e classes at 1st level. These Advancements are very diverse: Ears of the Owl, for example, nets you the Upper Hand on Observation checks. Battle Frenzy lets you spend 3 Grip to enter a frenzy that forces you to attack the closest target, but nets you Upper Hand on attacks, and attacks against you are Against the Odds. The frenzy may be stopped prematurely for another point of Grip. Okay, cool. Extra Brawn, Grip or +1 to one Stat are also here. But that’s not the end. You see, some Advancements have one of 4 descriptors: Martial, Arcane, Holy, Devious. Once a character has taken a total of 4 Advancements, and if 3 are from one of these special types, they unlock new special Advancements. (As an aside, in one of the few unfortunate rules-relevant glitches herein, the overview rules state that 2 suffice, when all other sections clearly state that 3’s the magic number.) A character who has Battle Frenzy (Martial), Horde Killer (Martial), and My Shining Armor Gleams (Martial) would, for example, qualify to take the exclusive Martial Advancements. If you haven’t noticed: The names of the Advancements are AWESOME and ooze flavor, and indeed, apart from the boring Extra X Advancements, all do come with flavorful fluff. To give you an example:

“Thaddeus spoke the name of his God, and his sword lit with cold licks of holy flame. It swung with righteous force and took the head of the Crypt-thing clean from its shoulders.” It’s a small bit, but it makes you want to take these Advancements. So yeah, there is a ton of room to specialize, but jacks-of-all-trades are similarly very much valid. Much like in more complex systems, there are a ton of possible builds, which provides something for this game that many rules-lite games lack: Replay-value for prolonged campaigns that derives its appeal not solely from the story, but also from the system used. Additionally, experienced Doomsayers can take abilities from complex games and translate them to Best Left Buried with relative ease.

Injuries and afflictions are, in case you haven’t guessed by now, essentially just what the names suggest – adventuring is a dangerous job for a cryptdigger, and justifiably so. Cryptdigger? Yep, that would be the default name for the PCs. It’s also a component introduced in the Doomsayer-section that is important, so let’s talk a bit about that. Best Left Buried assumes the option to scavenge settings together, the hacking part so popularized by the OSR, with some neat ones noted, but there is a default region, the 13 Duchies of Lendal. These regions…were a surprise for me. You see, the regions are NOT hellholes; the world itself is pretty wholesome in comparison to many settings in the genre…and that’s where the nomenclature comes in. There are companies, organizations, which act as adventurer’s guilds of sorts – these share a few traditions (such as a special coin) and seek out Crypts. Not dungeons. CRYPTS. To dig them and potentially, well, encounter and potentially unleash things Best Left Buried. The cryptdiggers are exceptional beings within the world, but the Archetypes also render them damaged to some extent – and indeed, the general assumption of the game is that the murderhobo economy can help you climb the social ladder, at potentially ghastly costs. There is a reason why your character tends to have a failed career as a background… The fact that dungeons are, well, called CRYPTS also adds a sense of transgression to the very act of adventuring as tomb-robbing. This establishes a dark tone, but never drifts off into full-blown nihilism, instead focusing on, well great dark fantasy/horror gaming.

The Doomsayer section also provides the usual suspects – deities of the setting, advice for running dark games (including the very prudent one that NOTHING BEATS COMMUNICATION). Advice for making traps have sense, for crafting monsters (not some generic entry, but unique critters…), you get the idea. It is here that the eminently hackable nature of Best Left Buried comes to the fore for the doomsayer: Much like with Advancements, it’s very easy to e.g. add certain special abilities from Pathfinder, 5e or another game by distilling them down to the basics, perhaps combine them with one of the many critter-generators popularized in the OSR. In many ways, Best Left Buried manages to have its cake and eat it, too. It should also be noted that the game does offer a “nice” version where Grip can be replenished more easily, thus partially negating the downward spiral theme, so if you want the game less gritty, you have the option.

Resting tables, mishap tables, setting information, and a brief introductory adventure (2 levels, and it features a deadly MOTHBEAR!) complement the section. The module also involves cat mummies, degenerate goblinoids, and paranoid madmen. Just saying…

The appendix section also sports rules for demi-humans, i.e. elves, dwarves, etc., including unique afflictions.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are very good on a formal level; on a rules-language level, the game is very tight as well, but does have a very few components that slightly mar the experience. Not to a degree that would become too problematic, though. Layout adheres to a crisp, clear 2-column b/w-standard, with a TON of cool b/w-artworks by Ben Brown – these generate a holistic, unified atmosphere that perfectly complements the prose. The cartography is b/w and provided by Patrick Eyler – it is neat, but player-friendly, key-less versions would have been nice. The deluxe hardcover is a sturdy, high-quality tome, and compiles the Doomsayer’s Guide, the Cryptdigger’s Guide and the Expanded Character Options; its main downside is that it has neither a ribbon, not does it stay open when put flat on the table, which makes actual use at the table a bit more cumbersome than it should be. I can’t recommend the pdfs as highly as the hardcover, though – the pdfs lack bookmarks, which makes navigation supremely annoying. If you want to for the pdfs only, I’d suggest rounding down.

I’ll come right out and say it: Zachary Cox’s Best Left Buried is currently my favorite rules-lite game. BLB play smoothly and swift; it’s super-easy to explain and has a low barrier of entry, but at the same time, it offers a ton of means to differentiate between characters. The rules are smooth and almost perfect regarding the ability to hack other systems and integrate pretty much whatever into the game. But where this REALLY sets itself apart, is with its abilities to sustain long-term campaigns. Even though it is a rules-lite game per se, you still get to feel like you’re playing a NEW character when your cryptdigger bites the dust, because you actually do. The Advancement system allows for a TON of different options, and while spellcasters can probably toast some serious enemies, they pay for these capabilities with Grip. Same goes for your barbarian-like guy with Battle Frenzy. This tapping into the same resource is an important balancing tool. Best Left Buried manages to provide MEANINGFUL character advancement, but injuries and afflictions also generate this wonderful spiral of escalation that characterizes so many dark fantasy/horror games.

Is this game perfect? No, but I LOVE it to frickin’ bits. To the point where I’d e.g. rather use this system to play the old, non-historic LotFP-modules and many similar adventures. If you love your fantasy gritty and horrifying, your heroes flawed and/or tragic, then this game delivers in SPADES.

My final verdict will be 4.5 stars, and I’d usually round down for the respective comfort detriments of the book not staying open and the pdfs having no bookmarks. But frankly, I don’t want to. This book hits its tone so perfectly, it deserves rounding up and gaining my seal of approval. Note that, if dark fantasy or horror gaming is not something you’re as fond of as I am, you should probably round down for these comfort detriments. However, as far as I’m concerned, this also gets my “Best of…”-tag for how incredibly well it nails its theme. If you like dark fantasy/horror gaming, you owe it to yourself to check out this game – particularly if you want to teach roleplaying to new players.

If the Soul Muppet crew doesn’t totally drop the ball, then Best Left Buried: Deeper may well become one of my all-time favorite games. ...and the deluxe version I’ve reviewed here? It may very well become a collector’s piece. Just saying.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Best Left Buried: The Deluxe Edition [BUNDLE]
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Book of Beasts: Magus Codex (PF 1e)
Publisher: Jon Brazer Enterprises
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/07/2020 11:18:13

An Endzeitgeist.com review

The second pdf in the series of NPC Codex books released under the Book of Beasts-line clocks in at 26 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of advertisement, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 19 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreon supporters.

Okay, in case you didn’t know, the presence of the word “Codex” in the title implies that this book focuses on crunch and statblocks, though, unlike most such supplements, the statblocks provided here, more often than not, actually do come with a bit of flavor, offering notes for a sample NPC, and where sensible, some brief notes on the NPC in a combat encounter or even some roleplaying tips regarding the NPC in question. Nice.

The book contains one magus-build for every single level, ranging from level 1 to level 20. The builds for level 2, 3, 4, 11, 13, and 16 are the statblocks that do not come with the flavor information for a specific NPC, in case you were wondering. The builds do offer tactical notes for running them before and during combat, and where applicable, base statistics are provided. Spellbooks are also noted in the gear where applicable for non-spontaneous magi – if you’re like me and loathe fleshing these out, that’s a big plus.

Now, as for the builds, we might begin with al elven magus at level 1, but after that, the builds quickly go more unconventional routes regarding the combination of classes and races, and the individual builds. The level 2 magus, for example, would be an oread shock trooper for the shaitan armies. There are no “statted up” builds herein, by the way – each level gets its very own build, no easy progressions of one build provided for several levels, as one often gets to see in codices.

The versatility of the builds is pretty interesting: At level 3, we for example get a hobgoblin that is supremely maneuverable and good at getting into melee, but not as good at getting out of it, as the build has no Acrobatics – an intended choice to make these raiders feel like a hard-hitter and not a guerilla fighter. The gnomish wild skirmisher is a different take on the concept, an eldritch scion’d magus with clever bloodline powers working in tandem to offset the less impressive base damage this one offers. It’s more trick-based, as befitting of the theme – though I probably wouldn’t have called the build skirmisher.

The elf-raised half-elf moon knight does the whole elvish knight angle well, with the sample NPC never managing to meet his elven sire’s approval. What about a goblin with a really fiery build? Blargg Firespitter as the sample flavor works as an adventurer-exterminator for a dragon, by the way. Love that concept!

The level 7 back alley avenger Lauren Nightfire made me flash back to Arrow; short of a vigilante-dip, this is pretty close to what you’d expect, with slow, alter self, web etc. giving off a low-key magic vigilante style, supported by excellent Ride and Stealth skills. For a more classic blade dancer-ish build, the Aerobatic spellsword (spell dancer level 8) is a classic agile, skirmishing high-threat-range build. The tiefling helltouched archer instead presents a ranged combat-centric magus build.

The wyvaran build at level 10 focuses on aerial assaults supported by spells, while the level 11 weaponbreaker combines high-crit with, well, you guessed it, sunder. The hailstorm harrier staff magus is pretty disruptive and also based on aerial superiority (and has a minor typo in the tactics section – “spellcasting” instead of “spellcaster”). The dagger-throwing ratfolk magus with its skirmishing tricks is pretty interesting, the NPC information hinting at the local Ratfolk Collective, which is an angle that makes sense for them. Nice!

Beyond that, we have a powerful level 14 hexcrafter as the final archetype’d build; levels 15-20 are all straight magus builds, though the focuses range from samsaran scholar and a halfling magus by class, burglar by trade to the classic retired adventurer, an ifrit general, a wyrwood elder, and finally a dwarven dealmaker with the forces infernal at level 20 – in case you’re using AAW Games’ gitwerc, this one is a great addition as a mighty ally to the agents of HEL. Just sayin’…

Conclusion: Editing and formatting on a formal and rules-language level are both rather impressive; while a few formal hiccups may be found, none of them compromise the builds in a significant manner. Formatting is generally just as tight: Italics are where they should be, and the same goes for bold components. Nice. Layout adheres to a two-column full-color standard with a black border on one side; it looks elegant and distinct. Artworks are full-color pieces and well-chosen, though they will be familiar to most 3pp-fans out there. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.

Dale C. McCoy, Jr. delivers a series of unique, well-wrought builds with some cool character nuggets thrown in. The builds are distinct enough to feel as though they have organically grown. Want 20 distinct magi? For a super-fair price point? Then get this pdf. The bang-for-buck ratio is very strong here, and the fact that we get distinct builds for every level, instead of just progressions, is the icing on the cake. Inexpensive, convenient, cool – 5 stars + seal of approval. If you need some neat magi, grab this.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Book of Beasts: Magus Codex (PF 1e)
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Knave
Publisher: Questing Beast Games
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/02/2020 09:44:47

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This game clocks in at 7 pages, laid out in a horizontal 3-column style that crams a lot of information on each page.

This review was requested as a prioritized review by one of my patreon supporters.

So, what is Knave? It is essentially a very rules-lite toolkit that is designed for general compatibility with OSR-games; the first column of the first page makes the basic design-tenets of the game pretty clear, and character creation is a straightforward manner.

Knave knows the classic 6 ability score, each of which has two related values, a more complex approach than what some games offer: These would be the defense, and the bonus. For each ability score, you roll 3d6. The lowest value you roll is the ability’s bonus. To determine the ability defense, you take the lowest roll and add 10 to it. Say, you rolled 1, 6, 5, then you only have an ability bonus of +1, and an ability defense of 11. You get to switch 2 ability scores after rolling the dice.

Strength is used for melee attacks and saves regarding physical power; Dexterity for poise, speed, reflexes, etc. Constitution deals with poison, sickness, environmental influences, etc. Intelligence is all about concentration and precision, wielding magic, recalling lore, crafting objects, etc. …No, I did not fail to mention something. In a somewhat odd deviation from the standard, Wisdom is the governing ability score for ranged attacks, and it deals with perception and intuition. Charisma deals with persuasion, intimidation, etc., and Charisma bonus caps the number of henchmen at a point.

Saving throws are based on ability scores: To make a save, you add the ability bonus to a d20, and compare the value with 15 – on a value GREATER than 15, you succeed. If the save is opposed by another character, the difficulty of the save is instead the enemy’s defense score. As usual by now, there is an advantage and disadvantage option to modify results. Roll 2d20, take the better, or worse, respectively. Advantage and disadvantage also apply in combat.

A PC starts with 2 days of rations and a weapon of the player’s choice, and you get to roll on the starting gear tables. PCs have a number of item slots equal to the Constitution defense. Most items take up one slot, but some take up more. Armor has a defense value, and it has a defense value of its defense minus 10. An unarmored PC has an armor defense of 11, and an armor bonus of +1.

Knave has no classes, so you roll 1d8 for starting and maximum hit points. A PC’s “healing rate” (per rest – this is explained later in the pdf) is 1d8 + Constitution bonus. Exploration speed default is 120 ft., combat standard speed is 40 ft. Then you add fluff, et voilà. Done.

Reactions are rolled with 2d6, and we have the 5 classic attitudes (hostile -> Helpful); creature morale is usually between 5 and 9, and rolled with 2d6: On a roll greater than morale, the monster tries to flee. Hirelings are also subject to morale rolls. Initiative is determined with a single d6 roll: On 1-3, all enemies act first, on 4-6, all PCs act first; this is rerolled every round. Each round, a character can move their combat speed, and take one combat action. To make an attack, you roll d20 and add either Strength bonus (melee) or Wisdom bonus (ranged) and compare that with defender’s armor defense. If the roll is greater, the attack hits. The game notes an alternative, where the defender gets to roll a d20 and add armor bonus, making that part a contested roll (opposed roll, in the system’s parlance). These opposed rolls are also used for stunts, such as disarming, doing extravagant stuff, etc.

On a successful hit, you roll weapon damage. If your weapon is suited for the enemy (such as attacking a skeleton with bludgeoning weaponry), you get an additional damage die. On HP 0, you’re unconscious; on -1 HP, you’re dead. I noticed advantage in combat before – when you have that, you can gain the standard benefit, or make an attack AND a stun attempt.

If an attacker rolls a natural 20, or if a defender rolls a natural 1, the defender’s armor loses 1 point of quality, and they take another die of damage; the inverse is true for the weapon of the attacker, though on such a fumble, the attacker takes no damage. Items reduced to 0 quality fall apart. Okay, so what if both roll a 20? Or what if both roll a 1? Nothing?

PCs gain a level at 1000 XP, and suggested standard values for XP awarded are provided. Upon attaining a level, the PC gets to roll their new level in d8s; if the result is less than the previous maximum, the old maximum increases by 1 instead; otherwise, the new roll is the new maximum hp. Additionally, defense and bonus of 3 ability scores of their choice are increased by 1. Abilities cap at 20/+10.

The character generation also includes a whole page of dressing and starting gear: These mostly are 20-entry tables with one-word tidbits: Physique, face, skin, hair, clothing, virtue, vice, speech, background, misfortunes. Alignment follows the single-axis paradigm, and the starting gear tables do their job. Another page deals with equipment and uses slots and quality as pretty nice limitations. The default currency is copper, but that’s easy enough to alter, should you so choose.

Okay, re magic: In Knave, you can only cast spells of your level or less, and spells are cast out of spellbooks, which must be held in both hands, the spell read aloud. Each spell book can only be used 1/day, and each spellbook holds only a single spell, and thus takes up an item slot. This is the option that maintains compatibility with the standard 9-level spellcasting of most OSR games. An odd choice here is that all spells, be they a level 9 spell or a level 1 spell, take up the same spellbook; it rubs me the wrong way, but I get it – it’s a conscious choice for the sake of keeping the slot system simple. Spell books may not eb copied, transcribed, etc. – like in DCC, the only option here is to quest for it. Quick conversion guidelines for most monsters are provided.

The remainder of the pdf, is, somewhat to my chagrin, made up of 100 level-less spells; these last for caster’s level x 10 minutes if ongoing, and when referencing item, they mean hand-held ones; when mentioning objects, these may be up to human size. Successful saves negate their effects. Now, I do enjoy level-less spells, and I’m particularly fond of “Wonder & Wickedness” by Lost Pages, but the framework provided for the spells here is a but too basic for me. To give you an example: “Time in a 40ft bubble slows to 10%.” Okay, love the idea; getting some concrete rules for this would be even cooler. As written, most GMs will have a hard time improvising how this works in combat. Or Spellseize: “Cast this as a reaction to another spell going off to make a temporary copy of it that you can cast at any time before the spell ends.” It doesn’t take a genius to note that the game usually has no reaction, so the timeframe when you can cast this is opaque at best (next round? Turn? Out of initiative order?). And don’t start with that “rulings, not rules”-nonsense-excuse often fielded for wonky design; Knave generally is very precise, and the spell literally needs one word to be precise, and the majority of rules language herein is very much precise. As a whole, the level-less spells are easily the weakest part of this system.

Conclusion: Editing is very good on a formal level; on a rules-language level, there are a few minor nitpicks to be noted, but as a whole, can be commended. Layout adheres to a no-frills three-column b/w-standard, and the game comes with a character sheet pdf and with a docx-version to encourage you to hack the system – kudos for the latter in particular. The pdf has no bookmarks, but needs none at this length.

Ben Milton’s Knave is a skeletal take on a rules lite system that can be used with relatively few tweaks with most OSR-games. While it looks pretty unimpressive on paper and doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it plays rather well indeed.

As a private person, I did not like this game. I am not a fan of the swingy results of opposed rolls. I do not like that only the worst roll in character creation really matters. I don’t like that almost all character progression is gear game, and that Constitution is easily the most important ability score; why Strength can’t be used to determine slots RAW is beyond me. I don’t like that Wisdom is the ability score for ranged combat, even though I get the design decision that required this change in the simplified system presented. As a whole, there are many design decisions here that do exactly what they are supposed to do, but that rub me the wrong way. There are no real tactics in combat or serious character growth (as opposed to gear growth) that are the result of this system; what’s here is here in spite of it, imported via e.g. spells from other rules-systems. By design, mind you. The game notes no magic item guidance in its content, and e.g. a handy haversack or similar item imported to the system wrecks the slot-balancing. How would magic swords and their bonuses interact with the attacks? Some guidance for adapting magic items would have been nice.

I totally get why so many adore this game. It is precise (for the most part), inexpensive, and presented in a succinct and concise manner. The designer’s guidelines throughout do a good job explaining design decisions to laymen. As a reviewer, the one thing that’s missing from this is…a reason to play this particular game. Unlike other ultra rules-lite games like Into the Odd, there is, by design, no implicit setting, nothing unique like Arcana that would drag me; there is no focus on special weaponry, magics, etc. – because it aims to be a generally-applicable rules system that can be used with all OSR games – its biggest strength and biggest weakness.

For me, as a person, I probably won’t touch this game again; It’s fun enough to play, but I, as a person, either look for something rules-lite and distinct, with a strong theme and focus for shorter games, or something with more serious differentiation options for longer ones. For me, as a private person, my very subjective internal rating for this would be 2 stars, won’t play again.

My criticisms and personal dislikes aside, this IS a good game! It can be fun to play, and just because it’s not for me doesn’t make it bad, and I’d be unfair to bash this game for things that might well be features for you, even though they don’t work for me. Even though this may not be for me, I do hope this game thrives for what it does.

As a reviewer, I consider this to be a 4-star file; it leaves a few things open and could use a few unique selling propositions to set it apart, but if you’re looking for a minimalist, class-less OSR-compatible game that focuses on gear, then this delivers big time.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Knave
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