Thursday, January 26, 2012

Kingdom of Ierendi: RPG Items I Like

Region sourcebook covering a island confederation dedicated to "adventure" in the Mystara  setting. 

I continue my reviews of the entire classic D&D gazetteer series. After a series of really strong entries in the series, we come to a weaker one. GAZ4: The Kingdom of Ierendi  feels like a throwback. Instead of the focused setting building of the previous three entries, Ierendi presents classic adventures and story seeds. Not that this is a bad approach, but it doesn't quite fit with the other books. It offers adventure sandbox- with the cultural details purely as flavor. The material on all levels depicts Ierendi more as a place for PCs to go to or through rather than come from. Again that isn't bad- just different. Still there's a great deal of inspiration- general and specific- to mine. I like the idea of a set of islands as a former fantasy penal colony. I've certainly used that. For more on the Mystara and gazetteer series in general, please see here 

Once again we get a tri-fold screen, with interior panels featuring a castle and a diagram of one of the key islands. There's also a color mini-hexmap showing Ierendi's relation to its neighbors. The fold-out hexmap enclosed shows all of the Ierendi island chain. It also has a decent and useful map of the City of Ierendi, with insets showing some of the port defenses. On the reverse side, it has a black & white hex sheet (strangely with black as the background). This is intended for use with the sheets of counters included with the supplement. These cover ships and navies from across the area so that DMs can set up grand sea-based battles. 

The 64-page booklet follows the same basic design as the three previous series entries. However, there's a greater use of white space here, and the font size has clearly been increased a point or two. Strangely, after the density of the other volumes, that actually makes this seem more empty- even though it is easier to read. Cylde Caldwell  provides another signature cover, and Stephen Fabian  provides interior illustrations. These are mostly atmospheric scenes from the various islands, plus a handful of NPC faces peppered throughout the book. Ierendiuses a good deal more boxed text than the other books- mostly to mark out all of the suggested adventures. The center of the booklet is a pull out section for the players, intended to offer a “tourist brochure” for anyone thinking of heading there. Anne C. Gray  wrote this, as well as several other D&D books. 

The booklet opens with a brief description of the contents, followed by the key background points for the nation: history, timeline, geography, key people, government, and economy. Ierendi has a strange layered history- beginning with conflicting stories of the origin. The Makai are described as aboriginal natives, but the “Islanders” seem to be the more dominant group. They claim to be the original settlers- exiled criminals from the Five Shires (covering in GAZ8: The Five Shires ). Those original criminals are said to have numbered eleven humans, four haflings, three dwarves, and five elves...which must have made for an odd culture. These criminals survived and flourished. When word got back to the Shires, they sent ships to stake a claim to the lands. However the exiles (along with the native Makai) managed to fight them off. The true stories a little more complicated- involving the Thyatian Empire who controlled the Shires at the time of colonization. It was a more formal penal colony (ala Australia), set free by a rebellion which established a monarchy. They managed to fight off Thyatian Naval forces with the aid of a local secret magical chantry located on Honor Island. That power keeps Ierendi as one of the most important naval forces in the world- hence the inclusion of the various naval game bits in with the supplement. 

Ierendi is made up of a number of islands, with a wide range of climates and terrain. That gives the DM a great deal of range to run in. Volcanic activity and magic can, of course, be used as an excuse for strangeness in the area. Ierendi also differs in being ruled by an “Adventurer King and Queen" elected in a competition every year. A council exists as well to advise- and there exists a kind of hereditary noble class on the island, with a hand in the Navy, the Royal Brigade, and the tourism industry- that being a key source of revenue for the nation. That's an interesting twist- and given the heavy use of magic for things like transport, it actually makes sense. And tourism was a historically important source of revenues and interaction- the Greeks toured the Ancient Pyramids, just as modern tourists do today (though perhaps with less creature comforts). The Ierendi book only offers a single page of key NPCs, six characters. It seems like an oddly truncated entry in the book- but the focus here is on session seeds and adventures. Ierendi society presents a strange mix of “Islander” traditions mixed with what I can only call “Adventurer” culture. It is a classic fantasy feudal society, with those rulers chosen yearly in a tournament. Some of the implications of that kind of power transition are mentioned, but only a little. The focus of the society is on tourism, with the wealth of that any local food plenty making this a tropical paradise. 

All of this material is covered in the first 17 pages. There are some interesting ideas there, and more than any of the previous books, the ideas seem aimed at offering DMs ready quick adventures. Several boxed story seeds appear within this section alongside, the societal discussion. It is worth noting that there's a significant section on The Eternal Truth, the religion of Ylaruam presented here (covered in GAZ2: The Emirates of Ylaruam ). It is odd and given more space than some of the more related material on Ierendi. the section depicts the faith as militant, joyless and demanding. That presentation's somewhat at odds with that of the earlier gazetteer. There's certainly historical evidence for greater militancy among Muslim groups outside of the Middle East, and I wonder if that's the analogue source for this. Perhaps it draws on the nature of Islamic trade groups in places like the Pacific. Whatever the source, it just stuck out for me. Finally there's almost nothing offered on making up a character from Ierendi, compared to the material given in the other books. 

The middle of the booklet has two different pullout sections. One offers a tourist guide to Ierendi, which- while more than a little goofy- will be useful for DMs using the nation "as is." The other provides four pages on Ierendi's military, in particular the Navy. It presents more detailed ship rules and naval combat options, intended to complement and expand the rules given in the Dungeons & Dragons Set 2: Expert Rules . There's some basic discussion of the different port capacities across the nations of Mystara, a combat resolution table, and a sea battle chance event table. The rules aren't deep- and while they have a wargamey feel to them, they aim to give a DM tools to play out such a battle, rather than to simulate precisely these kinds of conflicts. 

The rest of the booklet (19-28, 37-64) covers each of the major islands in turn. Though it varies from section to section, each has between 1/3 to 2/3 of the material devoted to adventures from seeds to dungeon locations. That's quite a shift from the other books which focused on background and mostly offer plot seeds (often a linked series) in a chapter at the back. 

Ierendi Island: The largest island, and the one which most holds to the social material presented earlier in the book. The material focuses exclusively on Ierendi City, rather than the island as a whole. That's useful since adventures will probably use this place as a hub. The details here again play into a looser and more wacky kind of campaign: magical P.I.'s, a formal Adventurers' Club, and royal postings for quests. 
Safari Island: A nature preserve, wilderness tour and theme park. The parks offer arenas for adventurers- with spectators able to observe through well-protected galleries. Weapons give are non-lethal, with a Lazer-Tag like belt registering damage done and taken. Two separate adventures are presented with maps, one involving Lizard Men and the other Hill Giants. 
Alcove Island: A pirate nest among the islands. While people have now settled here, pirate still hide among the lagoons and there's a secret port for them here as well. 
Utter Island: A deliberately creepy place, it is the home of a group of genetic albino humans who have lived here for generations. They have a unique Immortal patron, but are otherwise pretty normal. The presentation seems aimed at making the PCs nervous.
White Island: A difficult to access island of white stone, it has a small Druidic abbey. Legends surround the local white birds and apes, and the practices the Druids undertake to keep an ancient evil from returning. 
Roister Island: An island exclusively settled by the Makai natives. It seems set up purely to provide a backdrop for adventures involving the Makai. 
Aloysius Island: A former penal island, host to sickness carrying mosquitoes (oddly called mau-mau). The recent discovery of mineral resources there have made it a target of increased settlement and development, despite the risks. 
Elegy Island: Site of ancient Makai burial grounds and ceremonial markers. 
Fletcher Island: A loose take on Fantasy Island (complete with Mr. Coarke who spins the illusions). Ugh. (*Yes, they make a "The Carpet, the Carpet!!!" joke. )
Honor Island: The second largest of the island descriptions, Honor is home to a secret cabal of mages. They're the secret behind Ierendi's naval success. They jealously guard their knowledge of their existance, with a chantry in the heart of a volcano. That actually conceals a passage to the Plane of Fire- with elementals and mages exchanging information and resources. 

The weakest of the gazetteers so far, The Kingdom of Ierendi still offers much for a DM. It adds some interesting color to the setting- and some global material in the naval discussion. It does raise the goofiness bar a little- if you like more staid and serious settings, then Ierendi may be well out of your comfort zone. I'm a little surprised at the absence of any West World references in the adventure theme park section. For my own campaign, I took some of the key concepts and changed them up signifjncaitly. Ierendi remains a naval power, an island nation, and a former penal colony. I've played up the tensions its existance creates between several different powerful kingdoms who see it as their “property.” I used the Honor Island concept, although that particular chantry was destroyed in an earlier campaign. I also think of Ierendi as a much larger set of island, dozens and dozens of them, some of them with magical micro-climates. Perhaps the biggest change came in my conception of the rulership of the nation. Given that our game world leans more towards fantasy combined with steampunk and swashbuckling, I ported over the concept of Al Amarja  from Over the Edge  to here. So Ierendi City is a kind of strange crossroads of magic and conspiracy, the 'Casablanca' of my game.

Monday, January 23, 2012

GUMSHOE: A System Guide for New Gamers

I'd put together this guide over on RPGGeek a while back, and forgot to cross-post it then.

Below is a guide to the various lines of GUMSHOE products, arranged by date of initial publication. I've provided a brief description of the premise and what new ideas this iteration brings. As well, you'll find a link to the core book for the system, reviews for that core book, and links to other products in that line. In the case of Trail of Cthulhu, I've provided a link to the Gamer's Guide to that RPG.

Pelgrane Press has used their GUMSHOE rpg engine across a number of game lines. The mechanics of that system uniquely focuses on mysteries and problem solving. Not a generic system, GUMSHOE instead has a set of base mechanics and ideas tweaked, shifted and added to for each version- aiming to offer the best genre emulation.

For more game overviews, see the RPG System Metageeklist.

GUMSHOE is a ability-based system, with characters being defined primarily by the abilities they possess. Characters have two types of abilities: investigative and general.

Investigative abilities include fields of knowledge such as Ballistics, Forensic Anthropology, and Streetwise. These have a rating which serves as a pool for use of that ability. Possessing at least a one rating shows the character has expertise. When a player uses that ability to examine a scene, they do not have to roll. Instead, if there are core clues present which can be found by that means, they locate them. Points may be spent from an investigative ability to gain additional or extra information, at the GM or player's suggestion.

General abilities cover areas where players can risk failure- Athletics, Health and Shooting for example. Use of these abilities is uncertain and success or failure can have a dramatic impact on the story. General abilities also have a rating which represents a pool. To make a test, players roll 1d6. If they wish they may make a spend from the relevant ability's pool and add that to the roll. Players must meet or beat a difficulty set but not revealed by the GM. General ability pools require special circumstances to refresh (end of a story, time in a hospital, etc).

Review: GUMSHOE: RPGs I Like

The Esoterrorists
Premise: Players take the role of agents for the Ordo Veritas, a benevolent conspiracy. They battle against the Esoterrorists, a network of radicals and maniacs dedicated to breaking down the membrane between this world and the supernatural outside. They do this by crafting terror and manifesting otherworldly creatures. They operate like a terror network, with a focus on fear and publicity.

System Additions: This book sets up the basic GUMSHOE rules, with expert agents operating in a modern setting. Pelgrane plans to publish a second, revised edition of this game.

Core Book: The Esoterrorists
Additional Products: The Esoterror Fact Book, Profane Miracles, Albion's Ransom: Little Girl Lost, Six Packed, The Book of Unremitting Horror

Core Book Reviews: The Esoterrorists: RPGs I Like and Review Of The Esoterrorists By Pelgrane Press

Fear Itself

Premise: Players take the role of characters, perhaps victims, in a modern horror setting of slashers, creatures and maniacs. Fear Itself aims to simulate modern pop horror, especially cinematic horror of movies like The Ring, Pulse, and House of Wax.

System Additions: The list of abilities has been modified to reflect the lower relative skills of characters in this setting. The rules also include very basic psychic powers- with dangers associated with those. Characters can start from a list of stereotypes, and/or choose special Risk Factors- drives which explain why the character remains in the story rather than fleeing. Additional rules for stability appear as well.

Core Book: Fear Itself
Additional Products: The Book of Unremitting Horror, Invasive Procedures

Core Book Review: Fear Itself: RPGs I Like

Trail of Cthulhu
Premise: Investigators against the Cthulhu Mythos. Adapts the key ideas of Lovecraft's work and the rpg traditions established by Call of Cthulhu into GUMSHOE. ToC notably moves the timeline forward, setting the game generally in the 1930's, rather than 1920's.

System Additions: Retooled ability sets to fit the genre. The rules offer two approaches to campaigns and mechanics, Purist versus Pulp, with the latter offering the players more of a fighting chance. Characters now have Drives which guide their behavior and choose a Occupation to start. Occupations determine starting abilities, credit rating and special talents. Stability has now been paired with Sanity as two distinct abilities. Those rules, including madness mechanics, have been expanded.

The rules offer a significant discussion of the Cthulhu Mythos, followed by an extensive bestiary for creatures from there and elsewhere. Rules for setting-specific magic and tomes appear as well.

Core Book Reviews: Hiking with Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu: RPGs I Like, A perfect marriage of setting & rules, and My Profane Thoughts

Trail of Cthulhu: System Guide for New Gamers

Share A Game - Trail of Cthulhu

Mutant City Blues
Premise: An event ten years ago resulted in 1% of the population gaining super powers. Players take on the role of officers with powers dealing with "heightened" crime and criminals. A predictable structure and pattern to the superpowers allows for investigations based on meta-forensics.

System Additions: An extensive set of super-powers, some of which operate as investigative and some as general abilities. Unlike other superhero games, powers must be chosen along certain lines. These lines make up "The Quade Diagram" a resources for players to figure out which powers associate with which evidence. Other abilities and rules focus on the police procedural nature of the game.

Core Book: Mutant City Blues
Additional Products: Hard Helix, Brief Cases

Core Book Reviews: Mutant City Blues: RPGs I Like

Ashen Stars
Premise: A far-future sci-fi setting in which players take the roles of "Lasers," freelance law enforcers. These operate in the Bleed, a region of space once controlled by an empire known as the Combine, now left to its own devices. Navigating between disparate planetary cultures and races, the Lasers balance ethics and the need to make a buck. Moves the idea of mysteries forward more broadly to problem-solving.

System Additions: Several alien races with special talents provided. Alien specific abilities and psionics, as well as an ability list tuned to the sci-fi setting. Cyberware and biological implant rules. Extensive systems for spaceship combat. Notes on handling improvised investigations.

Core Book: Ashen Stars
Additional Products: Dead Rock Seven

Core Book Reviews: Review & A Couple of Thoughts, Ashen Stars - A review, and Stars Like Ash

Premise: Not a stand-alone core book, Lorefinder adds elements of GUMSHOE's investigative rules to the Pathfinder system.

System Additions: Character creation within Pathfinder; drives for PCs; and new skills, feats and magic

Core Book: Lorefinder

Core Book Reviews: Is that GUM on my Pathfinder’s SHOE? Or, can an “old” dog learn new tricks?

Night's Black Agents
Note that the final version of this game has not yet been released. A pre-order is available, allowing purchasers a pdf version of the rules without art or layout.

Premise: Players take the role of spies who have been "burned" by their company. The reason: their discovery of a massive vampiric conspiracy behind the scenes. Now the PCs must remain alive while striking back at the monsters.

System Additions: Highly tailored set of abilities for the genre- with new ideas and uses for abilities. Rules for using investigative abilities and general and vice versa. Benefits for high level purchases of general abilities. Role specific talents. Mechanics for trust, contacts, networks and betrayal. Now options for cinematic combat. Chase rules. Vampire and conspiracy construction toolkit.

Core Book: Night's Black Agents

Core Book Reviews: I'm a secret agent there's nowhere you can hide and Tinker, Tailor, Vampire, Spy

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Principalities of Glantri: RPG Items I Like

Classic D&D region sourcebook covering a Magocracy in the Mystara setting.

Though the Red Wizards of the Forgotten Realms setting get more attention and have lasted longer, Glantri's IMHO the more interesting and playable nation of mages. The third in the gazetteer series (see here for more on the series as a whole), Glantri is essentially the Western European analogue within the Mystara setting. But- and I may sound stupid saying this- I didn't really get that until I went back to reread the series. Other entries, GAZ1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos and GAZ2: The Emirates of Ylaruam for example, wear their sources on their sleeve. The Principalities of Glantri conceals that beneath details of magic and the melting-pot background of nation. It is a country of immigrants, powerful noble families here having united under the banner of magical superiority. Only those possessing sorcerous skills have rank or power here. Each family borrows from a particular culture (German, Spanish, Italian, Scottish, etc) but that always felt like a surface trapping when I read the book. As a whole, Glantri feels most like France, with the different provinces sharing a common heritage, but with distinct expressions of identity and a strong independent streak. In rereading I spotted more of the literal borrowings, but they still work. For all that it riffs on those European stereotypes, GAZ3: The Principalities of Glantri manages to elevate those ideas and do something new with them.

The Principalities of Glantri remains my favorite of the gazetteers, with Karameikos coming in a close second. I've used ideas from it more than any other volume in the series. And I've only really only presented surface elements. We've had a few sessions skirting Glantri, but I've used characters from there, with their distinctive approach to magic and the cultural ideas. That's trickled down and informed other parts of my setting.

GAZ1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos presented a small nation, with two distinct cultural groups, and a focus on local NPCs. GAZ2: The Emirates of Ylaruam compressed a large number of cultural groups, essentially a sub-continent, into one country and focused on ideas and themes. GAZ3: The Principalities of Glantri again takes a large and diverse cast of cultures and brings them together, but with a tight focus on noble family. Beyond that, Glantri organizes itself very differently from the previous two volumes. Larger than the last two, 96 pages instead of 64, it presents a structure for a specific campaign. Glantri presents the tools for a DM to run a full party of mages from apprenticeship through adult adventuring life. That campaign has the characters uncovering the secret behind the power and powers of Glantri itself, the Radiance. Despite its difference, this approach still fits with the rest of the line.

It isn't surprising that Glantri- in some ways the most full-fleshed and developed of the gazetteers- comes from Bruce Heard, product manager for at least the early line. His name appears on most of the significant Mystara products in one way or another. The Principalities feels like something that the author has run and played with, rather than a product created to fill a niche ("OK we've got a Hobbit place on the map, who wants to do that?"). Heard's name also appears on the later version of Glantri- Glantri Kingdom of Magic- when TSR brought the setting up into AD&D 2e. I dislike that later product intensely, in great part because I like the material here so much. Instead of adding to it, that knocks down and ravages it in the name of change. Eventually I'll get to a review of those products after I've worked through all of these.

Besides the change in length, Glantri only has a couple of other minor changes to the physical design of the series. The main saddle-stapled booklet comes with a folio cover as usual. Instead of the tri-fold of the first two, this cover is a bi-fold. The two interior pages have location maps- one a common Wizard Keep and the other The Great School of Magic. The latter's a little disappointing, because it doesn't really look all that grand. It would be a few more years before we saw epic mage locations like those of Ars Magica, Harry Potter and Redhurst, so that can be excused. The enclosed poster-sized map is the first in the series printed on front and back. One side shows the hex-grid map of the Principalities, plus three inset map locations that are OK, but not great. However the reverse side offers a really awesome map of the City of Glantri- wonderfully laid out with canal waterways. Three inset images present details of the harbor and special buildings. This is one of my favorite city maps. It is interesting and useful- I can imagine running a chase using it.

The booklet sticks to the same three columns with tiny text of the previous two volumes. Some of the pages have a watermark, but those with illustrations or colored sidebars don't. Stephen Fabian provides the excellent art- there's a nice mix of images for key NPCs and illustrations of material discussed in the text. This book, more than the previous two, relies on narration and stories. We get tales from newcomers and foreigners, as well as testimonials from important NPCs. Just about every major section has some kind of game fiction dialogue. These are very targeted, with the narrator describing a particular event, person or institution. I'm often pretty negative about game fiction fluff- but here it works well. It sets the tone of the material and offers some insights on presenting the ideas to the players.

The Principalities of Glantri provides some of the same basic material as the previous two entries in the series: history, economy, geography and so on. But the actual execution of that material, as I mentioned above, is in the form of first and third person narratives. The stories say as much about the narrators as they do about the topics. The author also sets up the gazetteer explicitly as a campaign from the outset, discussing how the pieces presented fit into that. But even if you're not planning on running a Glantri-mage centered game, the material still works. I can attest to that, having adapted the ideas across years of my house campaign and across several different systems. DMs should be aware of a couple of important structural restrictions right off the bat. Dwarves are welcomed in Glantri, but mostly because of their desirability for magical experimentation (i.e. they can survive longer). Second, and perhaps more importantly, clerics of any kind are illegal within the lands. That's an interesting distinction- and offers some insight into a world where ascended Immortals take the place of gods.

I don't want to dwell on the specifics of the chapters- they thoroughly covering important aspects of life in this nation. That's tough to do given the diversity of peoples here. The DM will have to do some serious filling in of details of normal life, since the focus stays on the elite of the country. Different family lines govern each Principality, each with a distinct origin and cultural background. While they share a common adherence to the magocracy, they are (of course) at each others throats. That makes Glantri an interesting and highly political setting. A number of the families don't even come from this world originally. Most of the material presented in the first third of the book focuses on setting up those different families and their personalities for the players.

House of Sylaire aka d'Ambreville: "Mutant Werewolves of Averoigne"- I mention them first both because they're the most powerful and also because they have the strongest tie to classic D&D history. Veteran players may recognize them from the module X2: Castle Amber (Ch√Ęteau d' Amberville). They came to this world from that one. They're also a lift from both Edgar Allen Poe stories and from Clark Ashton Smith's stories of Averoigne. CAS remains my favorite old-school fantasy author, and it is interesting to see how his weird fantasy ideas translate into a game more heavily influenced by the likes of Vance, Tokien and Howard. As you might imagine, the d'Ambreville borrow from French cultural traditions.

House of Crowngaurd aka McGregor: "Chauvinistic Scots of Chaos"- another family who came here from the same world as the d'Ambreville. Heavily invested in necromancy, they are governed by a leader who has converted himself into a lich through the powers of Radiance (a concept I'll come back to).

House of Igorov aka Gorevitch-Woszlany: "Expansionist chaotic vampires"- another family with necromancy in its blood. Trace their family line back to the Traldaran's of Karameikos. As you can imagine, they come off as very Transylvanian.

House of Linden aka Vlaardoen: "Vengeful Followers of the Fame"- a family descended people originally from another world, their fellow refugees went on to found one of the two great empires in Mystara, Alphatia. They seem to be borrowing from the Dutch, but those connections are pretty light.

House of Ritterbeg aka Von Drachenfels: "Warmongering Military Technocrats"- The military backbone of the nation, and one borrowing heavily from Prussian and German cultures.

House of Silverston aka Aendyr: "Sneaky Alphatian Imperialists"- Rivals of the Vlaardoens they descend from more recent exiles from the Alphatian Empire. They don't borrow distinctly from a single culture.

House of Singhabad aka Virayana: "Lawful Pacifists of Ethengar"- They originally come from the nomadic peoples of Ethengar (covered in GAZ12: The Golden Khan of Ethengar). They have the most tolerance for clerics.

House Sirecchia aka di Malapietra: "Poisonous Thyatian Machiavellians"- They come from the other major empire of Mystara, Thyatis. However they have a more classic Renaissance Italian feel to them- which differs slightly from how the Empire ends up portrayed in the later boxed set Dawn of the Emperors: Thyatis and Alphatia. In fact, they have more in common with the presentation of Darokin (GAZ11: The Republic of Darokin) the nation of merchants.

Clan of Alhambra aka Belcadiz: "Proud Elven Swashbucklers"- This Elvish family doesn't come from the Elves of this continent, but rather from a land far away. They're short, hot-tempered and based on Spanish themes.

Clan of Ellerovyn aka Erewan: "Tree-Loving Elven Ecologists"- This Elvish family, on the other hand, comes originally from Alfheim (covered in GAZ5: The Elves of Alfheim). They're more classically 'Elfy'.

So you can see Glantri bursts with ideas and plots. Several excellent sections break down those families, provide insight on their relations and describe the major NPCs of each. That material bleeds over into the other major power-players in the lands- guilds, brotherhoods and secret societies.

The middle third or so of the booklet (running from page 38 to 63) covers Glantri City and the Great School of Magic. While the various provinces have their own towns, villages, and castles, Glantri city is the hub. Most campaigns will begin there, and it alone could offer the background to many sessions worth of gaming. This chapter breaks down the city by neighborhoods, provides a calendar of festivities, and outlines the laws, atmosphere and daily life of the city. All of it is great and useful information, well-presented. More than any other GAZ in the line, Glantri brings to life a city with rich detail for the DM to draw from. On the other hand, I'm a little surprised in going back how little information the booklet actually gives for the Great School of Magic. It offers some mechanics and details (tuition costs, some feat-like bonuses which can be picked up, and graduation tests) but it seems a little bit of a missed opportunity. That may be in hindsight, given other more famous magic schools which popped up. Still the ideas given are excellent and fun.

The last third of the booklet offers substantial DM tools and mechanics. First, it provides a toolbox for creating new spells and magic items. Such things cost gold to create- representing resources invested in the project. Next, the book explains the secret of the Radiance, magical energy present in Glantri and tied to the Immortal Rad. The secret's in the name and ties back to elements from the Blackmoor background. This section provides some ideas on how the players might learn these secrets, harness spells from the Radiance and even change the course of history. That's, however, optional to the setting and feels a little unnecessary. Beyond that, the section offers new seven secret crafts (with new spells): alchemy, dragon magic, elements, illusions, necromancy, runes, and witchcraft. These offer some great ideas for a GM wanting to expand high-level magic in their campaign. Finally, the booklet finishes with a list of adventure seeds, broken down by level. Many of these are linked- given the GM the skeleton of a long-term campaign in this region.

I love this book. a DM could easily run a campaign just using the stuff given here. That economy is admirable- a booklet which offers in 96 pages what many books would have needed twice that to do the same thing. There's little waste here. There are a few goofy things- like the Scottish Liches and the Apocalypse Now references in the adventure section. But it offers a wealth of ideas, cultures and peoples. Most of all they're fun- even when they're a little sinister. Even the bad guys here have to function in cooperation with the other families, making it both more real and more interesting than the Red Wizards of Thay ever were to me. I've used the ideas, families and characters from this supplement for years. My players know those family names and can remember the distinctive traits of many of those lines. I count that as the mark of great source material- when it creates fun and memorable moments at the table.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


I have to admit that the last couple of years have really managed to complete my disillusionment. I'd described myself as a cynic, but really I had a measure of hope and faith in our government and elected representatives to do the right thing in the end. That we should even be considering legislation like SOPA and PIPA: ineffective, ill-conceived and so pernicious to free speech, under a Democratic President, seems bizarre to me. Where are the legislators and elected officials who can be role models, standing against this kind of corporate-sponsored awfulness? There seem to be no profiles in courage remaining. 

As others have said:

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Emirates of Ylaruam: RPG Items I Like

Classic D&D region supplement covering a fantasy nation with an Arabian flavor.

We come now to the second volume in the gazetteer series. I talked a little bit about the series and Mystara setting as a whole in my first review on GAZ1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos. It's interesting to look at how the follow up matches the patterns of the first book and how much it deviates from them. The Emirates of Ylaruam generally stays with the style of the first gazetteer, but doesn't rigidly adhere to it. There's greater emphasis on adventure seeds, a more distinct player character section, and a richer treatment of a single city. I like each volume in the series seems linked but at the same time shift to fit their subject. In this case we have industry veteran Ken Rolston at the helm. He would later design two other entries in the series, GAZ4: The Kingdom of Ierendi, and GAZ7: The Northern Reaches.

Design-wise, The Emirates keeps the same basic three parts: folio cover, map and 64-page booklet. Clyde Caldwell provides a cover combining the classic Arabian tropes with a map background. There's beefcake and cheesecake present in the illustration. A full-color page has smaller map of Ylaruam, showing its relation to its neighbors (the Dwarves of Rockhome, the Empire of Thyatis and- oddly- the the Viking-like Soderfjord Jarldoms directly to the north). The folio interior shows two top-down building illustrations and a two-page spread of an underground complex. That's accompanied by three detail inserts. The large fold-out map offers another classic hex-treatment of the Emirates, and five city maps. These are a little more detailed than those in GAZ1. They have keyed and labeled locations. The saddle-stapled booklet keeps the basic text design, with three columns of tiny text. This volume has much lighter and less obtrusive watermarks on the pages. Doug Chaffee provides all of the interior B&W illustrations. They're OK, a little basic and echoing the style of Elmore or early Easley. Unlike the previous volume, the images here focus on places and general scenes, rather than the NPCs.

The Emirates are the Arabian analogue for the Mystara setting. It's interesting to look at given our present context. I'll talk a little bit later to some of my reaction to the material and choices. For the moment I want to focus on the details presented here.

Ylaruam takes magical geography to an extreme- a desert kingdom bordered by mountains with icy climates and more temperate lands directly next door. It has ocean access as well. The booklet of material opens with two versions of the land's history: the local and the DM version. Ylaurum has historically served as the home to two distinct groups- hazar (city-dweller) and nomad. Conquered early by the Thyatians and Alphatians, with both establishing colonies in the more hospitable areas. Then arose a prophet, Al-Kalim, who quested and petitioned an Immortal to aid his peoples. Al-Kalim brought back his support and created the Nahmeh, the text which describes the dream and rules of the people of Ylaruam. Armed with this, the people of the Emirates threw out the foreigners. A confederation arose from the various tribes under the dynasty of Al-Kalim, the first Sultan. He established the Eternal University in the Emirates and a wise council known as the Preceptors. However with the passing of Al-Kalim, two factions arise. The first believes in rules by choice of the most wise, i.e. the decision of the Preceptors. The second believes in rule by the family of Al-Kalim. The former have control in the setting currently, but the latter represent a significant force in the region. The supplement lays this out in some detail over three pages, complete with a nice timeline that includes a few future events.

Several topics get 2-3 page treatments next: ecology, peoples, and economics. The Emirates have a fairly rich and diverse environment. Each of the six provinces possesses slightly different climates and resources. While the desert makes up the majority of the land in the region, it includes coastal plains, grasslands, and plateaus. Some provinces possess greater access to fertile lands, encouraging a focus on urban settlement and lifestyle. Others much rely on a nomadic lifestyle. The provinces have distinct cultural heritages, with several heavily influences by contact with one or more of the colonial or foreign powers. Add to that significant ethnic groups in the land. While the Alasiyan culture and people dominate the region, the Emirates have peoples of Makistani, Thyatian, Alphatian and even Nithian descent. That's one of my favorite details of this supplement, and a story that runs through the various gazetteers. As you read through them, you begin to get a strong and present sense of older cultures, especially the Makistani. We see how they spread, rose, fell, and integrated with the various nations of the continent. That's a challenging concept to get across to readers, and perhaps even more challenging to get across to players. Consider that as a GM you can set up a particular set of elements as a national archetype: the Arabs of Ylaruam, the Italians of Darokin. Now add to that the complication of ethnic lines and sub-groups, people who live within the land but don't stake their primary identity as national. In Karameikos we got two primary groups: the colonial nobility and the native Traldarans. In GAZ2 we begin to see a richer and more complicated approach.

The largest section of the booklet covers society in the Emirates. That begins with the life and history of Al-Kalim. His words and teachings, as recorded in the Nahmeh, provide the key text for life in the Emirates. Interestingly, Al-Kalim began as a conventional hero- a skillful tactician who organized his people against foreign oppression. It would be only later in his lifetime, when it proved practical, that he focused on mysticism and philosophy. Again there's a practicality here that just begins to grapple with what living in a fantasy world like this would mean. Al-Kalim quests and bargains, gaining aid for the Emirates and pushing him forward on his own path to become an Immortal. Al-Kalim, retired from life, does not die, but continues on that quest for immortality. Lacking gods in a conventional sense, Mystara borrows more than a little of the Heroquesting themes of Glorantha. It actually becomes a little hard to follow in the text- on the one hand, Al-Kalim seems to be using the Immortals, in particular the Old Man of the Sea. His work seems to be focused on results, manipulation and general philosophies. On the other hand, the articles of faith have the people of the Emirates giving faith to the Immortal Guardian. How much that's a specific or abstract figure isn't as well described as it could be.

Al-Kalim's writings, as laid out in the Nahmeh, provide guidelines for right living and treatment. They also provide for the division of the peoples into three “ways”: of the Follower, of the Warrior and of the Scholar. The Scholar includes clerics, and the rules offer four culturally specific spells (including detect water and truthtelling). The rules include an interesting concept as well, gaining experience in ones social status. That's a new model for consideration. The book suggests ways in which NPCs “level up” and gain EXP through following the codes and rules of their particular class and status. That's a neat idea and the book doesn't overplay it. Instead it offers the DM a new way of thinking about the how and why of NPCs in a setting.

The sixteen pages of the society chapters cover many topics. From social structures and obligations, it moves to cover the politics of the region. The Emirates offers an interesting challenge for players in the form of a strong bureaucracy insulating the nobility from petitions and possessing a great deal of power. The book considers the policies operating internally (a focus on water resources, clamping down on tribal rivalries) and externally (peace with neighbors with some exceptions). Next it details laws, including the differing senses of ownership within the region (something which might have a significant impact on player behavior). Various customs are also addressed. For example, mages must wear particular clothing to identify themselves. It is worth noting that generally the Emirate supplement avoids the question of women and their treatment. While offering a fantasy refit of the Arab World, it leaves any question of women as second-class or restricted citizens.

The next section is one of the most interesting, a new development that would appear in some- if not most- of the later gazetteers. The middle of the booklet has an eight-page pull-out section, utilizing a slightly different background color. This covers “What Everyone Knows About the Emirates.” This is a great idea- opening with dialogue perspectives from several different sources. In two pages it offers a rich, playing-facing resource which the DM can easily pass around to players. Next the pull-out covers character creation, including a guide to naming (in some of the tiniest type I've ever seen in an rpg book). Following this it covers mechanics for riding checks, travel rates, heat exhaustion, EXP for playing points of honor, and storytelling. The skills system presented in GAZ1 does not appear here however, and is not referenced at all. A new class, the Dervish or Desert druid is presented, as a Cleric variant with a distinct set of five spells available at each level. The section ends with courtesy tips for foreigners and a glossary. One notable oversight here, and throughout the book is any kind of guide to pronunciation. Given some of the odd names thrown around, that would have been helpful.

Where GAZ1 offered an overview of the important locations of Karameikos and the key NPCs of the nation, The Emirates of Ylaruam takes another approach. Instead, over fifteen pages, it provides a rich and detailed location for DMs, the Village of Kirkuk. This trade crossroads showcases an important caravan stopping point. That makes it particularly useful for DMs who might simply want to take their party through Ylaruam, rather than centering a campaign there. This section offers plenty of details and many suggestions for how to stage the city and tie players into the stories and adventures. Following this the booklet ends with twelves pages on running campaigns in Ylaruam. It offers some excellent general advice on campaign-building, beyond simply talking about the region. As expected it includes typical monsters and rare treasures of these lands. The chapter presents nine adventure seeds, each with a nice multi-paragraph set up and suggestions about what experience levels might be appropriate. If I have any quibble with this section, it is that it too literally adapts material from the Arabian Nights, rather than coming up with new setting specific concepts.

I have to say I'm of two-minds about this supplement. I'm at something of a disadvantage based on my background. In high school and college, I took Arabic as my language requirement; I majored in Anthropology with a focus on the Middle East; and I studied for a year in Egypt. I'm a little wary about representations of other cultures- and the fantastic has been used as cover before for some pretty awful depictions. I'm not necessarily a subscriber to Edward Said and his Orientalism approach to all depictions of the foreigner. But I am a little wary when the figure of Mohammed gets rewritten in such a thinly veiled way. I have to wonder if as transparent a version of Jesus in a fantasy setting would be received well? That being said, I think this book is pretty amazing for how it manages to bring together some of the key elements of classical Arab traditions: the split within the faith (essentially the Sunni/Shia division), the division between urban and nomad culture and the values associated with it, the focus on scholarship. It balances the difficult differences and contrasts of the Muslim and pre-Muslim world.

Several of the gazetteers take a whole region and compress it down to a single nation, as here where the tribes/provinces represent the distinct and different facets of the Arab World. I think The Emirates of Ylaruam is a pretty great supplement- but I think it stands better as a fantasy treatment of Arabian history than perhaps it does as a living part of the Mystara setting. I think a couple of opportunities get missed here- especially about what faith and religion really look like in a world with Immortals instead of gods. The material here contradicts itself from section to section. Still, I have used The Emirates in my own campaign. Where I've changed and transformed the material from the other gazetteers, I've used this one pretty much whole cloth. In the end, that ought to be my yardstick for judging this material. I've been able to bring it to the table and it has served well as background for many sessions over the years.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Stolen Princess Syndrome: A Tabletop RPG Read on WKC

I like beating up monsters. 

When a video game rpg has a good, fun combat system, I really enjoy the process of tuning it, figuring out the right approach and farming monsters for experience and loot. That's actually what I really love about the last couple of Final Fantasy games. FFXII had the best combat system, allowing you to tune and program your actions. FF XIII, while it runs on rails, actually has combat mechanics you can consistently tweak and tune- each time working to get your kill time down and your stats up. I like the mundanity of it. 

But I would cut my own throat if I had to do that in a game with a GM. I like stories, I like choices, I like characters. Actually, even when I'm playing through a video game rpg, I tend to tell myself little stories about what's going on. When I played Valkyrie Profile 2, I got irritated when a new mage character popped up in the party late in the game. I'd already leveled and equipped so many PCs that he became superfluous; I didn't want to grind to level him up. So I stipped off all of his gear and put him in the active party anyway. Whenever we got into a battle I imagined him saying “Um...please, can someone give me a weapon...” or “So cold here without armor...” 

That made the process palatable. But the one video game recently that really forced me to come up with an alternate story was White Knight Chronicles. That's really what inspired my post The Worst GMs from Video Game RPGs. White Knight is a pretty game, with an OK combat system, and a story arc where all the PCs send up having to carry the stupid ball down the field. It was in the middle of it that I realized that the GM of the game was a dick. Once I realized it was a bad tabletop game, everything fell into place...

So the first warning sign comes at the start of the game. You've just finished making up your character, your Avatar. In the game that means choosing your appearance and gender. At the tabletop, you just finished rolling up your PC. You join the group and immediately get relegated to the back of the party. The other characters have real names, backstories, and they're clearly the focus of the GM's story. Leonard's the youthful hero, Yulie's the bow-wielding healer, and Eldore is the elder grizzled warriors with magic. You're joining a new group, one where the other players have played in the setting and know the GM's style. You play quiet, remain behind, because hey- it's a chance to play. I mean even later when the GM does a long sequence with the Leonard, you're willing to listen because you figure he's going to come around to you, but he doesn't. And then Leonard gets a big magical artifact right out of the gate. You look around at the other players- they don't seem to be reacting so this must be par for the course. So now you have four players in your group, but one of them can summon a giant fantasy robot from time to time to fight instead of him.
And then at the end of the first adventure, the GM pulls his first trick. The Princess you've been protecting gets grabbed. Despite the group being right there- despite the bad guys having to run to get to a giant lumbering airship, they manage to get away. The GM doesn't even let you roll. They're “too far” to catch up to, despite having been less than ten feet away a moment ago. He doesn't even let the archer take a shot. 
You begin to see where this is going. 

Still you press on, and have a couple of decent adventures. The recurring villain attacks and you defeat him- but of course he manages to fly away. You can buy that it builds up tension. Then after traveling through the desert, you arrive at a new city, at which point things start going downhill slightly faster. A new player joins the group, a girl the GM's clearly smitten with. Though she doesn't ask for it, she gets to have the coolest equipment. She gets to use a katana one-handed but no one else does. At least she doesn't get a giant artifact robot...yet. Of course it is pretty clear from the start that she has a dark secret.

Hint: she's in league with the bad guys.

But of course the GM won't let you follow that line of inquiry at the table. Whatever, you move on. It's another player at the table. And then you rescue the Princess again. And despite specifically saying that you wanted to keep an eye on her, the bad guys again manage to sneak up and snatch her away in the middle of an open stone courtyard. You grit your teeth and press on, even though the GM seems to have trouble remembering your character's name and you never get any scenes in the spotlight. Still it is an interesting world, the combats are decently fun, and the other players seem to be having a good time. Except for the new girl, Kara, the one the GM likes. He keeps taking her out of the room to do secret squirrel stuff and she always comes back a little creeped out. 

Anyway, you eventually get to the next city. That's actually pretty cool- a mining colony built on the back of a giant monster. This could be good. But then the GM introduces a new NPC to the party. Cesar- he's that worst kind Mary Sue GM character. He's cool because the GM says so, he's the son of the ruler of the city, he has a shit-eating grin all the time when the GM plays him. He's constantly joking lamely. And of course, he's immediately hitting on Kara. Still, you think, I can put up with this for a little while. So you play along and finish the dungeon in the city- and then it becomes clear that Cesar isn't leaving the party. He's here to stay. And now you have to listen to the GM do scenes between his Mary Sue NPC and other NPCs.

And it gets worse when you get to the end of the next dungeon, as the GM doubles-down on bad choices. First, it becomes clear that Cesar is another chosen one. He gets the next super-cool robot artifact. An NPC- not you or the other party members. Second, after you beat the bad guy- the party doesn't get to finish him. Instead the bad guy's lieutenant does that. And third, because he hasn't done it enough- the GM snatches the Princess away, despite the group outnumbering the opposition, being within ten yards, and possessing magical battle mecha. They get away again. 

By now you've invested some time in the game. In some ways, you really want to see if things can get worse. They do- as the GM plays out scene after scene between Kara and Cesar. That gets more and more tiresome. You almost pray for death when the group of pygmies capture your group- another instance of GM fiat, given your overwhelming firepower. Somehow they not only defeat the group without a fight, they manage to tie everyone to posts for execution- because suddenly all of the magic the group has acquired doesn't work? The GM waves his hand and moves on to yet another scene of an NPC rescuing the party.

Luckily, it is about this time that Kara quits the group, more than a little fed up with the GM and the way his NPC keeps hitting on her- despite her obvious irritation with it. The next session, the GM has Kara (now an NPC) reveal her surprise- she was working for the bad guys! Cesar begs her to change her mind, and she seems about to, drawn by his clear charisma, but the bad guys take her away. Ugh. The next few sessions are a blur, with yet another session where the GM has the bad guys get away with the Princess before you can do anything. Then the GM introduces yet another obvious traitor NPC into the group. You try to follow up on that but the GM just keeps shooting you down. Quietly, you work out a plan with your fellow players- a fairly obvious gambit. When the traitor NPC springs his trap, you're ready for it, with preparations made beforehand. 

The GM is, as you imagine, a little pissed that his “clever” plot has been found out. He glowers for a minute and then says that the ground beneath the group's feet collapses suddenly- it was a double-trap since he knew the players would see through his transparent first trap. 

You sigh, clear the table and set up for another fight against a giant monster who will smack you around until Leonard and Cesar pull out their giant mecha. It will make the GM feel better. 

Eventually you climb out of the hole. You're a little relieved- this is clearly the last part of the campaign. Your misery will soon be over. You fight your way through yet another dungeon, with the same bad guys you've been fighting for the last two. The GM has a “puzzle” here which is easily solved not through any cleverness, but by exhausting the possibilities. Eventually you reach the end, and fight the boss who goes down easily. You've been saving up for the big fight and the GM looks shocked. So suddenly, that isn't the final fight. Kara reappears- and declares her love for Cesar, and how she was wrong earlier for treating him like he was a jerk and creepy. It is an awkward moment at the table with the GM playing out this dramatic scene between his NPCs. Then the bad guy kills Kara, which adds another layer of creepy to things. Eventually you fight the bad guy and beat him, but only because of the mecha. Still you get out and flee the temple as it collapses...

...and are saved once again by the actions of an NPC, as the Princess, finally rescued. summons a giant flying ship out of nowhere. 

A flying ship? Really. We walked all the way across the continent because this world apparently doesn't have horses and an NPC summons a flying ship at the end to rescue us so we could feel truly useless?


The fun doesn't end there. White Knight Chronicles 2 continues this tradition. Kara returns in a disguise even an idiot could see through...she's carrying the same weapon for god's sake...and her reveal is treated as a major surprise by the GM. And of course Kara reveals her love for the GM's NPC Cesar in a truly awful scene.

Anyway, the next time you're playing a video game rpg, consider what it would look like at the table. I'm not saying it couldn't be good- I talked about that a while back in this post- Emulation & Beyond: More Thoughts on RPGs & Video Games. But it does provide an amusing lens to look at what's happening and how much fun it is.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Worst GMs from Video Game RPGs

Video game RPGs arose out of tabletop rpgs- with D&D arguably being the font from which the genre sprang. Of course they evolved in different directions, utilizing the strengths of their particular mediums. What I look for in a computer or console-based rpg differs hugely from what I want at the gaming table. And some of the things that happen in VGRPGs would make me quit if a GM tried to pull that. Yet I'm pretty tolerant of that when I have a controller in my hands.

So below is a list of a few moments of video game rpgs, and what they would look like at the table-top. Don't get me wrong- I love some of the games below (and hate some). Some of these problems can be seen in many, many games (especially the "I Win, You Actually Lose" problem). Spoilers ahead in a couple of places.

1. Wild Arms 2 

GM: OK, you beat the bad guy...
Player: Yes!!!
GM: And he leaps up to his feet, grabs the item you were defending and flies off.
Player: Again?
GM: He's fast. 

2. Persona 2 
GM: The monster hits you.
Player: How much damage to I take?
GM: None, but everyone loses half of their money.
Player: Wait...what? (The fight continues). OK, I killed them, we get our money back from their bodies.
GM: Nope, it seems to have magically disappeared. 

3. Xenogears  
GM: You guys mind if I do a little time lapse and move the story forward a little.
Player: Um, sure.
GM: all of that? Next week we'll take up with the final boss fight.

4. Shadow Hearts: From the New World 
GM: OK, so I'm going to run a kind of supernatural investigation game set in 1929.
Player: Like Call of Cthulhu?
GM: A little, it has Arkham in it, but it has more magic and fantastic stuff.
Player: OK...well it sounds cool...
GM: Great. So I made up some pre-gen characters. So I have a boy detective, a Native American sorceress in a bikini, an crusading old man trained by South American ninjas, a fat ballerina vampire, a mariachi player with a gun-guitar, or a giant drunken cat. Everybody pick.
 Player: What the what?

5. Might and Magic IX 

Player: Man, I love this campaign world- I can't wait to get back to playing.
GM: Yeah, about that. I destroyed that campaign world. I'm not going to run it anymore. But it is really the same campaign.
Player: blew it up?
GM: Yup. And I decided to go with a new set of rules. But don't worry, you won't know the difference.

6. Suikoden III 

GM: That was a great session, but I think I want to run a different campaign in this game setting.
Player: OK, but we were just getting started with this one...
GM: No, I want to do another story...roll up new characters.
(Several sessions later)
GM: Yeah, so I want to try another story in this world...
Player: What? Again? We just got into the groove of this one.
GM: I have a cool idea, just roll up some new characters.
(Several sessions later)
GM: Yeah, so I was thinking...
Player: I'm going to kill you.

7. White Knight Chronicles 
GM: With a mighty blow, you knock your adversary down and bask in your victory.
Player: we...
GM: But the bad guys sieze the Princess and make off with her.
Player: She was ten feet away from us, and the rest of the party was guarding her.
GM: They snuck up and grabbed her.
Player: OK, we'll chase them.
GM: No, you're stunned by the turn of events.
Player: Grrr...OK, we'll recover from stun and shoot them with our freaking bows...
GM: Too late. They ran across the courtyard, jumped on an massive sky-anchor that dropped down and are now sailing away in their skyship. 

8. Dark Souls 
GM: TPK again!
Player: I wasn't done making up my character...

9. L.A. Noire 

GM: So, yes- all those murder cases you solved. They were all done by someone else!!!
Player: What about the crime scenes? The evidence?
GM: All faked. He was really clever.
Player: What about all the rolls I made and work I did?
GM: Moving on.... 

For some further discussion and analysis of this see my follow up post: Stolen Princess Syndrome: A Tabletop Read on WKC