Should You Buy It? – Kobold Guide to Plots & Campaigns

Product reviews are something I’ve never really done on the site before, but I’ve decided to dip the toe and see how the water feels. I think the title I’ve chosen for these reviews gets to the heart of what I’ll be evaluating. My reviews are going to be very much about the usefulness of the items I review and which type of gamer they’d appeal to, if any. I don’t think every gaming product is going to suit every gamer, and money can be tight these days, so I’d rather steer my readers towards products of actual use. I’m not a mouth-piece for any company, and on that far-off day when I might get review copies given to me, I still promise to give my honest opinion of the product in question (and I’ll always tell you if I was given a review copy, because that’s just good manners). With that said, let’s jump to the meat of the post.

If I were going to offer a university degree in tabletop games, the Kobold Guides would be the text books for an entire stream of courses. Each volume contains a number of essays from experts and veterans in the field, writing about the things they love and know. Besides doing the thing, I can’t think of a better way of learning about a subject than to absorb the words of people who are better at it than you.

The Kobold Guide to Plots & Campaigns, the sixth book in this series, is like taking a master-class in designing a role-playing campaign. The essays collected here are by some true masters of the craft: Zeb Cook, Jeff Grubb, James Jacobs, Amber E. Scott, and Margaret Weis just to name a few. All are names I’ve encountered in any number of my favourite Dragon Magazine articles, gaming sourcebooks, and adventures over the years (and in one case, at the gaming table a few time, much to my continued delight), so I know there is a wealth of experience in the pages of this book. And they deliver that experience to you in nineteen essays covering a wide variety of campaign design topics, curated and edited by Michele Carter. The essays cover everything from how to start a campaign and how you might incorporate published adventures into your campaign world, to slightly more esoteric subjects like running an evil campaign successfully, or running a campaign which spans generations of characters.

If I gushed about every essay this post would get stupid long, so I will limit my gushing to just two, hard as that is. “Choosing an Ending First”, by Wolfgang Baur, is a great look at how to design your campaign around the climactic end-scene you envision for the characters. On the surface it sounds very rail-roady to reverse engineer your campaign based on how you want it to end. But Wolfgang does an excellent job of explaining how your ending can inform your campaign design without stamping train tickets for your players. It was a way of looking at campaign creation I had never considered before; usually I figure out how I want to start things, and the end-game is nebulous. His suggestions and ideas gave me a lot to think about, and have already influenced two of my campaigns.

I’d been lucky enough to actually meet and somehow befriend Amber E. Scott a number of years ago. We’ve gamed together a few times, and I always enjoy speaking with her and hearing her on panels. You know how, when you have a smart friend, you think you know how smart they are? And then they do something, and you realize you only thought you knew? That was my experience reading Amber’s essay “Using Cliffhangers Effectively”. I’d been using cliffhangers in my campaigns for years, (I thought) properly and successfully. Amber’s essay corrected my thinking on that, and I realized I’d been using them like a cudgel when they could really be more of a rapier. A stand-out moment for me, and one of the reasons I love reading collections like this.

So who would I recommend buy this book? Any game master who wants to get better at running their campaigns should read Plots & Campaigns at least once, and ideally enough times for it to get dog eared.  If you are a new game master this book will serve as an invaluable toolbox for years to come. Heck, Richard Pett’s “Crooked Characters” is going to keep you hip-deep in NPCs for the foreseeable future. If you’re a veteran, you’ll discover things you never knew as well as refinements of topics you thought you understood fully. And “Crooked Characters” is also going to serve you well.

If you’re a player but not yet a GM, I’d say it’s worth it to borrow a copy if you want to get a peek behind the GM screen. The book is definitely not written with the player in mind, and that’s okay. But as a way to get insight into what your GM is doing for you every week, it’s a good read.

Since scoring systems seem to be popular, I’ll give the Kobold Guide to Plots & Campaigns four frothy mugs of ale out of five, and drink the fifth one myself while re-reading the book.

Have you read the book? What did you think? Drop a comment to let me know.

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Card Hunter

Largely because of Facebook I became a fan of browser based games. Something about there simplicity tapped into both my mildly obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and my love of the simple arcade games of my misspent youth. I try not to take on too many at once, however, because, well, obsessive-compulsive. If I have things to get done, too many browser games means that won’t happen.

But every once in a while I find a game like Card Hunter by Blue Manchu that’s just so much fun, I give in. In the world of Card Hunter you are back in junior high, hanging out in your buddy Gary’s basement. You and Gary are swilling sodas, scarfing junk food, and playing a cool D&D-esque boxed role-playing game, Card Hunter. You put together your party and Gary, like any good newbie GM, leads you through a series of adventures, equal parts thrilling and ridiculous.

Now this would fall firmly into the category of “generic fantasy browser game”, and I would have hit it and quit it a while ago. Except the game really embraces the feel of two young nerds (nerdlings? nerd cubs?) huddled in their parent’s basement playing RPGs. The graphics play into that feel, from the character sheets to the sometimes hand-drawn look to the maps. Play is turn based, and each character (and monster) has a deck of cards they use to resolve combats and move around the map. You gain more and different cards based on the treasure you equip, and you can equip more powerful treasure as you level up. Adding to the overall feel, is the interjection of Gary’s older brother Melvin (the actual owner of the game) who is a Card Hunter veteran. He is constantly bragging about his gaming exploits, and at one point you even play through a module Melvin wrote (Melvelous the Magnificent). Eventually Melvin’s bullying gets too much for Gary, and that leads to the adventure “Against the Cockroaches” fighting the Demon Lord Morvin the Malodorous. Then Melvin takes the game away and they aren’t going to be able to play, until Karen the Pizza Girl reveals that she is a GM and has here set in the car…

Yeah, there’s a bit more going on than just your usual fantasy click-and-crush play. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of click-and-crush. While there is definitely strategy to the game, don’t look for an immersive role-play experience in Card Hunter. This is old-school hack ‘n slash, baby, just like we used to play over a bottle of our finest Mountain Dew.

And that’s what grabbed me and kept me playing. For a little while it put me back in that long ago basement I miss so much. Not because I think the games were better back then. But because I was still discovering the hobby, and approached it with a sense of wonder I miss. That’s why Card Hunter grabbed me. For all that it may be just another browser game, it reminds me of good times spent messing around with the hobby I love. If you are an Old Gamer like me, I suspect it might grab you as well. But even if you aren’t an OG, Card Hunter is a heck of a lot of fun.

How about you, any browser games you get a kick out of? Drop your suggestions in the comments.

Review: Mythic Adventures

I was a big fan of D&D 3.5, right to the end. Even when they were shotgun releasing to get product out the door before announcing 4.0, I liked most of the source books that came down. One of my biggest disappointments, though, was the Epic Rules system WotC put out for 3.5. While I liked the idea of ramped-up, higher stakes game-play, the Epic rules just seemed to be a power creep enabler; sure things got bigger and tougher, but nothing really felt epic. Plus, the Epic rules only came into play once you had already played through to 20th level, so very little of the book could be used right away, if at all.

So last year, when I heard that one of the products in the pipeline for Pathfinder was something called Mythic Adventures, I had mixed feelings. Yes, I loved the idea of mythic, larger-than-life adventuring in Golarion. But all I could think of was the crushing disappointment of Epic, and so my hope was tainted with dread. Of course you’d think I’d learn to trust Paizo by now, wouldn’t you?

Put simply, Mythic Adventures is everything I wanted the Epic rules to be, and wept bitter tears when they weren’t. The source book guides both players and GMs through the key elements of a “mythic” campaign: setting, tone, delivery, even how to incorporate mythic elements into an already existing game.

The book features chapters on mythic feats, spells, and magic items, all ready to add a legendary feel to your campaign. The best thing about these new resources and challenges, is that you don’t have to wait for characters to get to higher levels. In a lot of cases you can begin adding these elements to the campaign right from the start, because the mythic abilities are gained in tandem with your regular character advancement. Because of this, and the fact that a mythic character is harder to kill, the book recommends GMs use the Medium or Slow advancement track for experience points, otherwise characters may quickly outstrip the challenges the GM has created.

Not that the GM will be twiddling his thumbs; the book has an entire chapter of mythic monsters ready to challenge the players at every level, as well as rules for adding legendary power to creatures. So right off the bat the players are going to put that extra toughness to good use. They may be ramped up but so are their foes, so the mythic campaign won’t be a cake-walk. I’m not going to give any spoilers, but I will say the party’s first encounter with any of the mythic dragons will be a legendary sphincter clenching moment, one they won’t forget (assuming they survive, of course).

Also included is a ready made mythic adventure for 7th level characters, either to drop in the middle of an existing campaign or as a mid-point adventure for characters that started as mythic. The book also talks a great deal about the the fluff and theory behind factors contributing to a mythic campaign. For instance, how to use failure to advance characters in your campaign. Setbacks are a key element to any great stories of legend; King Arthur and Hercules never had it easy, why should your PCs?

It may seem at a first glance through the book, that most of the mythic abilities are just a simple amping up of the existing feats, spells, magic items and so on. And while that is true on the surface, once you dig down and really read how everything hangs together, you see how well the mythic abilities are well thought out extensions of characters’ abilities. Not really surprising, since Mythic Adventures is one of the books that went through an open beta test, much like the Advanced Race Guide and the Core Rules themselves. Because of this the new abilities hang together very well with the enhancement of standard abilities. While there are sure to be some rough bits that have to be smoothed over during play, there doesn’t seem to be any real game stopping issues.

What I really love about this book is its elimination of the big problem I had with 3.5’s Epic rules: Mythic rules can be applied right from 1st level. No waiting around and slogging to get to the cool stuff, the cool stuff is yours right from the start. Of course, the cool stuff is there for the GM right from the start as well, so players beware! That leads me to the one potential issue that might arise in Mythic campaigns; GMs not making the campaign Mythic enough. It really does rest in the hands of the GM to keep his or her campaign at a truly legendary level, otherwise the players will not feel challenged and the game will quickly become like a bad MMO. So GMs be warned: before you dive headlong into a Mythic campaign be sure you are ready to keep a firm hand on the reins. But if you do, you and the players are in for a truly epic time.

Have you had a chance to look at Mythic Adventures? If so, what did you think? Drop me your thoughts in the comments!

CritSuccess and Dice Rings

While I was at Gen Con I had a chance to volunteer at the Cheapass Games booth, which was a blast. I met James Ernest, which is something I’d wanted to do since I discovered Cheapass Games lo those many years ago, and I also met some of the fantastic folks behind the scenes at CG, like Julie Haehn the marketing director and all-around excellent badass. I was there on the Sunday, which is important to the story only because that seems to be the day that companies will come around looking to trade some of their cool stuff for the cool stuff in your booth. It is the very geekiest of barter systems, and it is just a small part of what makes this industry cool.

As chance would have it, and fresh from their successful Kickstarter campaign, CritSuccess had a booth just across the aisle from Cheapass Games. CritSuccess were fans of Cheapass Games and vice versa, so the inevitable trade happened. As part of my thank-you for volunteering I was sent over to get a d20 Ring of my very ownsome, which I thought was very generous of both parties. I snagged myself a basic black (as shown in the picture) and tucked it away in my pocketses for later.20130901_141417

Regular readers of the site will know I am a bit of a fan of dice, in the same way Lady Bathory was a bit of a fan of virgins. So my initial impression of the d20 ring was, “Cute, but I like my dice.” I also had my doubts of its true randomness, so it was looking like it would stay firmly in my “neat curiosity” category. But I’d never use it in a game.

Which just goes to show, first impressions can be a joke.

Having had a chance to play with and test out the d20 ring since getting home, I have to say I am really impressed. It is never going to replace dice for me; until I can get a random number generator installed into my cyborg mind, dice are here to stay. But I performed a chi test on my ring, and it performed as well as my control d20s did…what? Look, if you aren’t willing to spend an afternoon rolling dice hundreds of times to generate both a control and result set, then you just don’t love dice like I do. And you are probably better for it.

But that test cleared up my first concern, whether the ring was as random as an actual d20. Then I put it to practical use in game, to see how easy it was to use. And over the course of several game sessions it bit me in the ass and confirmed crits much like my regular dice, which is to say plenty of the former and distressingly less of the latter.

I heartily recommend the d20 ring from CritSuccess. Not only is it a fully functional d20 I can wear, but it is a pretty subtle piece of gaming jewellery, much more understated than the popular d20 necklaces and earrings. Which I have nothing against, by the way, but I tend not to wear that type of jewellery. It sits comfortably on my finger and I have the added bonus of never being without a d20. I don’t wear it everywhere, of course; like most rings you’ll want to take it off if you are working with your hands, to avoid damge either to yourself or the ring. But if you want a cool piece of gaming jewellery you can actually use, this product is right up your alley. And the $20 price point makes it a very affordable option for something that will see a lot of use. You can also get a wide variety of other ring types: the R100, 3R6Pips (3d6 equivalent), and even a ring that lets you play Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock, if you are into “The Big Bang Theory” or just enjoy a nerdier version of the classic game.

When ordering, make sure to size yourself properly. If you know your ring-size, great, but if not you’ll want to get that to make sure your ring fits. CritSuccess does offer re-sizing, however, so if you are wrong you can get a proper size just by sending it back and covering shipping plus a $3 exchange fee. Not the end of the world, but a hassle, so better to get it right the first time. Also, when your ring arrives they recommend you wash it in hot, soapy water and really grind the ring around while doing so. That clears out the machining dust from manufacturing and allows your ring to spin freely. You’ll want to do that periodically as you use it, just to keep it clean and spinning smooth.

Do you have a CritSuccess ring? What do you think? Drop me a note in the comments and let me know.

My Super Powered Love for Kirby Krackle

Confession the first: I was never a music guy.  I never followed bands or musicians, I can’t tell you what songs are on what albums that came out in x year.  The Billboard Chart might as well be a listing of actual billboards, and is for all I know.  Obviously I listen to music, and I know what I like/dislike.  But I had never really gone nerdy over music, not in the same way I had with, say, SF literature or games.

A few years ago that changed; I discovered an entire genre of music just for a guy like me: nerd rock.  Jonathan Coulton, The Great Luke Ski, MC Frontalot…theirs was the music my soul made when I gamed!  How could I not love this stuff?  I’m fairly certain I played it all on repeat enough times, my roomies planned my eventual demise.  But this music was the new soundtrack to my dorky life; the threat of death was a small price to pay.

Which leads to my second confession of this post: for as much as I was rabidly into the growing nerd music scene, I had never heard note one of Kirby Krackle until four months ago.  I know, I know!  That’s like saying I’m really into classical music, but who the eff is this Mozart guy?  Believe me, I’ve since made up for lost time; their self-titled first album and sophomore “E for EVERYONE” have been in steady rotation.  And as of Friday I was able to add “Super Powered Love” to my daily music cycle.

“Super Powered Love” continues delivering the things I love about Kirby Krackle’s music.  Fun, quirky, energetic music?  Check.  Lyrics rife with pop culture reference’s?  Check and check.  But three albums in and KK has kept what I consider to be their most important quality: heart.  Yeah, yeah, cue the Captain Planet-inspired snide comments, but I’m serious.  I have no doubt that if all Kirby Krackle released were clever songs featuring comics and video games, I would still give them a listen.  But without that heart they wouldn’t be in my play-list every day, sometimes all day.

Per esempio: KK could have written a cool song about how awesome it would be to be Iron Man, and that would have been okay.  Instead, they gave us Tony Stark, and showed us the heroism that comes from being flawed, sometimes failing and fighting anyway.  They could have stuck to quirky songs about pop culture and we’d have listened.  And while they did those songs (Teabagged, Great Lakes Avengers), they also gave us music that speaks to the isolation and loneliness that sometimes comes from being a geek.  On the new album, for instance, Big Heart exposes the hero that resides in even the meekest of us; Needing a Miracle and Open Up Your Window remind us that there is love, loyalty and hope out there for all us misfits, that we are not as alone as we may think.

Don’t be fooled, “Super Powered Love” still has a lot of fun geekery to go around.  Bite of Another is a rock-blues number about a guy trying to deal with his new vampiric status; Rainbow Bridge gives a look through Thor’s eyes, and has a great (and totally appropriate) ’70s rock feel to it; stepping into the position of My Favourite Math Song (previously held by Darkest of the Hillside Thickets Math Song) is Booty Do Math, a fun little rock-rap number encouraging women to bust out the arithmetic.  And In Another Castle?  The best description I can give you is “Mario’s ukulele lament” coupled with “awesome!”.

And there is tons more to hear; “Super Powered Love” weighs in at a suped-up thirteen tracks.  So I haven’t even touched on Then Again, Maybe Not, or Hunt ‘Em All Down, or Comic Shop…look, just get the album.  If listening to it does not make your day even marginally better, I will personally buy your copy from you and gift it to someone not dead inside.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to grab my headphones and some comics.  Hit play, and…aaaaah!

What are your thoughts on Kirby Krackle? Have you heard the new album yet? What do you think? Comments section is right down there…

Random Acts of Publicity: On Spec Magazine

Although this is the 3rd Annual Random Acts of Publicity, this is my first time taking part in any way.  The yearly event was started as a way to make promoting a friend’s book (or just your favourite book) fun and interesting.  And I sort of dig (yes, I said “dig”; don’t harsh my mellow, man) personal forms of marketing like this.  Quick show of hands: how many of you have read a book strictly because of an ad for that book? And how many of you have read a book on a friend’s recommendation? Exactly.  So I couldn’t pass up a chance to take part in something like this; I love books, I have friends, and I even have friends who write books (which I love).

So all week I am going to post some thoughts on the work of my friends, ranging from novels to RPG books to periodicals.  As a matter of fact, I’m going to start with that last one.  Settle back while I tell you a story about a little periodical called On Spec

When I moved to Edmonton, lo those many moons ago, I took refuge in and got drunk on the many book stores available.  Growing up in Fort McMurray I had one book store, Coles Books, and they had an anemic selection of sci-fi and fantasy at the best of times.  Comparatively the booksellers of Edmonton were a treasure-house of the stories and tales I craved.  Why, the second-hand seller alone kept me…but I digress.

I first came across On Spec in the Smith Books in Southgate Mall.  Of course I had read Asimov’s and other Sf periodicals before.  But it had never occurred to me there might be a Canadian one available.  And not only Canadian, but produced right here in Edmonton, by something called the Copper Pig Writer’s Society (why Copper Pig?  It’s a secret known only to a few…).  Intrigued, I pulled a copy from the shelf, which happened to be the Fall 1994 issue.  It had a snappy little picture of a young boy in a cowboy hat riding a dinosaur (by Tim Hammell), and featured stories by, among others, Spider Robinson (No Renewal) and Charles de Lint (A Tattoo on Her Heart). Given that these were (and still are) two of my favourite Canadian authors, I really had no choice but to pick it up.  And I grabbed a few other quarterly issues just for good measure.

Now, I’d like to say that this led me to faithfully picking up a copy every quarter from then until now.  And I’d like to say that, because it would mean I’d have those issues to re-read.  Alas, it was not to be.  Don’t get me wrong; I loved what I read.  On Spec featured thought-provoking and entertaining short SF fiction, as well as great artwork and interesting non-fiction articles.  Robert Sawyer’s articles on how to write SF fiction are probably some of the best ones out there, for instance, and you could only find them in On Spec.  But life, she is fickle, and truth be told I didn’t have the wherewithal to subscribe like I wanted, and couldn’t always track down a copy around town. (Which still puzzles me to this day. Hey, bookstores and magazine shops: this is a unique Edmonton publication, sort of a no-brainer to carry it, don’t you think?  Support local literary work and all that?)

But I read On Spec every chance I got, and I have never regretted it.  Not only did I get exposed to a plethora of writing talent I might otherwise have missed, but in truth On Spec inspired me.  Seeing that much Canadian talent in one place every issue gave me permission to consider that I too could write something.  And though I have yet to make a foray into fiction writing, On Spec is at least partially responsible for my love of writing non-fiction, like this blog you are reading now.  I can’t honestly be sure I’d be blogging, or working at RPG writing, if it wasn’t for the unintentional nudge that On Spec gave me.

In more recent times, I was lucky enough to meet and become friends with Diane L. Walton, Barb Galler-Smith and others whose names I had only encountered in the pages of On Spec.  Given my love of SF it is quite possible I’d have met these people anyway, but it is unlikely I would have had the same feeling of familiarity upon doing so, had I not first read On Spec for a number of years.  Turns out they are every bit as amazing in person as I thought they would be.  Nice how that works out sometimes, isn’t it?

Even more recently, I’ve become a volunteer editor with the publication, as well as their Twitter gatekeeper (you can and should follow them @OnSpecMagazine, by the way).  And I have to admit, I’m more than a bit honoured to help even a little with a publication I have come to love as a reader.

So if you are looking for a good dose of short SF, On Spec is the publication for you.  That it is a Canadian publication is just icing on an already delicious cake.

What are your thoughts on On Spec?  Comments await you below…

Master of Devils: Spoiler-free Review

In the interest of full disclosure, let me start with two facts: Dave Gross is a pal of mine, and he gave me a copy of Master of Devils (first copy in Canada!) for my birthday.  If you know me you can decide whether that would colour my review; if you don’t know me you’ll just have to accept my word that it wouldn’t.  I can be a bastard that way.

Since reading the serial fiction that Dave included with the Council of Thieves Adventure Path for the Pathfinder RPG, I was a huge fan of Radovan & Jeggare.  Dave’s first novel featuring the intrepid pair, Prince of Wolves, cemented that for me.  So I was excited to hear so soon after it came out that Dave was confirmed to write another “R&J” novel.  When I learned that it was to be set in Tian Xia, Golarion’s analogue for the Orient, I was practically giddy.  Many movie nights in Dave’s basement have demonstrated the depth of his knowledge and love of martial arts films.  If anyone was going to make the Tian Xia setting come alive, it was him.

In other words I had very high expectations going into Master of Devils; even a friendly relationship with Dave was not going to protect him if he didn’t deliver.

You (and Dave especially, I’m sure) will be happy to know our burgeoning friendship is perfectly safe.  With Master of Devils Dave has proven himself First Brother (yeah, you’ll have to read it to get the reference).

As I sit here prepping the spoiler-free version, I know I’m going to write a more in-depth, spoiler-ridden look at the novel.  I’ll have to, there is so much more I want to say.  But spoiler-free first, as promised.

So, first impressions.  I have long been a fan of Hong Kong cinema and wu xia films, and while I don’t consider myself any kind of expert I would have to say that Dave’s Tian Xia captured that feel for me perfectly.  Many familiar tropes and themes are present: martial arts masters (of course), justice and righteousness, beautiful maidens, magic and spirits (kami).  Even The Faithful Servant, a character present in many wuxia tales, was present; the chapters from that character’s point of view were some of the most delightful and funny in the book.

And at no point did the setting overshadow the story or our “heroes”, which can be a danger when dealing with such a strong, definite setting.  While Tian Xia was always there it was never the focus.  That focus was always firmly on the story and the characters, with Tian Xia as a vibrant backdrop.

I mentioned points of view earlier.  In a style familiar to readers of Prince of Wolves, each chapter in the book is told from the POV of Radovan or Jeggare (or a third character that I won’t ruin for you).  I really enjoy this technique, because in any given chapter I know something that character doesn’t, and it builds tension for me as they make decisions they might not have made if they knew what I know.  Dave is one of the best writers I know at this technique, and he uses it to great effect.

In tone, while the novel does have some light moments it is overall much darker than previous “R&J” offerings.  The stakes for our heroes, personal and otherwise, are so much higher in Master of Devils, and they go to some very dark places in trying to win those stakes.  Suffice to say, if you thought you knew Radovan and Jeggare before this novel, you might want to prepare yourself for how wrong you were.

Okay, before the urge to just spout spoilers like a fountain gets too much I’ll put a cap on this by saying: buy this book.  If you love a really good story, buy this book.  If you love wu xia and Hong Kong cinema, buy this book.  If you are a Pathfinder player/GM and you plan to run or play in Tian Xia, buy this book.  Heck, I’m going to go out and buy this book, and I got a copy for my birthday!

Some days it is good to be a geek.  The day I read this, that was a great day.

Master of Devils, everyone.  You’ll thank me.  But thank Dave Gross first.