Sunday, August 14, 2011

Wizards of the Coast's Dungeon Tiles DN2: "The Witchlight Fens"

I have to admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for swamps and bogs, and so when Wizards of the Coast announced that they were releasing a Dungeon Tiles set along those lines, it was just about a given that I would be buying them. The set in question, Dungeon Tiles DN2: The Witchlight Fens, however, ended up being not exactly what I had in mind.

This is my first dungeon tiles set, so I didn't exactly know what to expect, but it was largely smaller pieces that one would have to fit together with some degree of precision in order to keep any sort of continuity with fitting together larger tiles; in other words, you have the option of either dropping a smaller tile directly on top of a larger tile, making a difference in height (and allowing for the possibility that it could slip around), or else take a good number of smaller tiles and match them to the length of the side of the larger tile they're up against, rather than just use one. One would have to do a lot of pre-planning with fitting these together, because you can't just drop one and have that be the encounter location. Once you pop them out of their sheets, they immediately become unwieldy, so it would be very well worth it to have another of the Essentials tile sets that came with a box to store them in, otherwise I've been sort of popping them back in to the sheets wherever they fit just so I can keep them on the shelf like a book; not an ideal solution. How do most people store their dungeon tiles? Freezer bags? I honestly want to know, I'd like ideas.

For being a tile set for a "fen," there is not much water space. Every single tile has land on at least one side, so there is no way to create a large expanse of boggy, brambled, waist-deep water to trudge through, nor is the water by and large marked as "difficult terrain" (which seems reserved for small brambly patches). It would be difficult to create any sort of feature like a path with water on either side, either. The set lends itself to small dry paths around smaller puddles of water. Even most baffling, there are several tiles that don't have anything printed on them at all in some places, and it's just black. I have to assume that that's standard dungeon tile topology for a "bottomless pit," but that doesn't make much sense in a bog because it's a place where the water table is very high. There wouldn't be a pit if there was an expanse, it would be filled with water. I therefore consider any of the tiles with black on them to be useless, since why would you use them? It makes no sense. Most of the tiles with black attached to them also just have stone paths on them, which is completely inappropriate to a "fen" as well; give me more squishy tiles, and leave the black pits and stone walkways for other sets where those features are more appropriate. Why would I want a pit... in a swamp? I want a swamp.

There are also quite a few tiles that don't have land OR water on them, but instead have constructed objects like a house, a boat, a bridge. While these are cute little flourishes, it seems like there's probably enough tiles like that in other sets that you could combine with this one for those sorts of features that it ends up feeling just like you've been cheated of yet another useful square for creating an ample amount of boggy terrain. I've read that many people end up buying two or three sets of the same tiles, and that's why: they don't give you enough useful tiles of any one thing to really make it really useful. Maybe if I had a lot of money and I felt comfortable buying multiple tile sets I would be happier with this product... or if there were a couple more sheets of tiles?

While I don't want to leave a purely negative review, I will note that the art, overall, is very nice. I wish I did have more tiles in this set so I could build larger things with them. Each of the tiles is double-sided, so most often if you don't like what's printed on one side you can flip it over and hope that there's something more useful on the other. They also seem quite well made; I can't envision them fraying or falling apart too quickly, barring water damage or cat attack. I can imagine that for one or two encounters, these tiles would work really well and you'd probably be able to do really fun things with them. But after more than two, the terrain might get a little repetitive because there's just not enough there.

I fully expected to love this set, and being my first tile set, sort of colored my opinion of the usefulness of Dungeon Tiles overall. If somebody offered me money to take these off my hands, I would take it, but if somebody offered me another set of the same tiles, I would take that too. I don't plan on buying any more dungeon tiles, either. Perhaps what I was expecting were tiles that were more like geomorphs, where you could stick any tile next to any other tile and have a more or less consistent topology? Regardless, I can't say that this product really knocked my socks off and, in the attempt to be too varied in features, ended up having too little of anything. They sort of dashed my dreams of having a large adventure that took place entirely within the Witchlight Fens (or some other bog that was considerably less witchy)... but just as easily all of these problems might be a non-issue to people more experienced with utilizing dungeon tiles to their fullest capacity, and in which case I'll sound sort of like a deranged lunatic for all these complaints. That's fair too.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Etherkai, the Nightmare Dragon review

Etherkai, the Nightmare Dragon is the first in a series of "Worldbreakers," enemies that are so powerful that they can actually change the terms or conditions of the encounter or even literally affect the terrain. Written as modular sorts of enemies, they are designed to be able to be easily dropped in to any type of adventure with minimal or no re-skinning. That being said, as I was reading Etherkai for the first time I knew, instantly, exactly where I would use it in the forthcoming campaign, without any modification whatsoever.

The background text, which constitutes the first few pages of the "book," is very well-writen, evocative, and interesting. I don't know what else to say about it without giving details away, but the story of Etherkai, and how he became what he is, is very complex and even a little bit sad, in a way. What is clear is that Etherkai is very frightening, compelling, and obviously needs to go in a major way.

Etherkai's stat block constitutes a whole page of content, as does his worldbreaking effect when it comes into play. As a level 10 monster, Etherkai is perfectly fit for a culminating encounter at the end of the Heroic tier, and he is powerful enough that it will likely have the overall effect of a "boss battle," even if Etherkai is not, in fact, the "big bad" of the tier. Perhaps the dragon is being manipulated by an even stronger power; perhaps he is just an accidental obstacle that turns out to be far more dangerous than anticipated. But I think regardless, the strength of the worldbreaker is that, since they have the ability to change the setting of the encounter, they act as a liminal space between one kind of storytelling and another and provide a literal, as well as a metaphorical, break between two arcs.

I look forward to future releases, as the author, Quinn Murphy, has proven himself a very capable and creative writer, and I really have nothing bad to say about this invention. I only wish I could run the monster sooner.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Postmortem Studios' "6-Pack Adventures: Black Rock Bandits" by Tracy Hurley

Black Rock Bandits is a standalone mini-adventure written by Tracy Hurley as part of the "6-Pack Adventure" series, which I can only assume means short adventures that one can run and play over the course of drinking a six pack. I mean, at least that's what I'd do. All 6-Pack adventures are short, 2-3 encounter adventures, and they can be finished likely anywhere within 3-5 hours; in other words, in a reasonable night of play.

The adventure begins with a quick (1 page) overview of the setting, the town, and some of the major locations and NPCs associated with those locations, then it launches very quickly into the first scene, in which the PCs are given their quests and have the opportunity to interrogate one of the eponymous bandits, who has been captured. Wasting no time, after availing themselves of what the town has to offer, they are pointed to the ruined temple where the bandits are supposedly making their hideout, and offered a monetary reward for each bandit whom they can prove they've defeated.

It is a straightforward enough setup, but what the players discover in the temple is quite surprising and a very good twist. It is an unexpected turn of events and a quite good introduction to the world of Dungeons and Dragons as a level 1 adventure. If I had a prospective new player who had never played D&D before, I suspect that this module would easily rise to the top of my mind as something I could quickly run as an introduction to the game and to the world in which the game exists.

Just shy of half of the overall page count of the module are numerous pregenerated PCs, so the module can literally be printed and set up within minutes. If the point of 6-Pack Adventures is to have a fully-contained mini-adventure which can be played with little or no preparation on behalf of either the DM or the players, I would consider Black Rock Bandits a resounding success.

I have but one complaint, and that is at the beginning there are two blank pages, and at the end there is another blank page, which reduces the "printer friendliness" by a little bit. The blank pages make it exactly 30 pages long, front and back covers included, so it's a tidy number. But if I were to actually print it out, I would likely remove those blank pages and put them back in the paper tray; it's a waste, paper is expensive. I'd probably print it double sided as well, and exclude the front and back covers because they're very ink-heavy. Either that, or have it printed at kinkos.

VSCA Publishing's "Diaspora: Hard Science-Fiction Role-Playing with FATE"

I first learned about Diaspora directly from one of the authors, Brad Murray, via the excellent At-Will 4e IRC channel, hosted by Quinn Murphy. You might have heard about him recently for his first Worldbreaker, Etherkai, which I will be reviewing soon. Diaspora is a more "gritty" approach to science fiction roleplaying, which is, to say, very unlike other new(ish) sci-fi RPGs such as Eclipse Phase. In the introduction to the book, the authors mention that they wanted to create a Traveller-style experience, using the FATE system, and updated for modern players.

Alas but Traveller is a game which I have never had the joy of playing, so I can only speculate as to the relative faithfulness of Diaspora to that kind of experience, but I have had a bit of experience with FATE, albeit only theoretically. Meaning, I've read a lot more books based on FATE than I have any sort of material concerning Traveller. FATE is ultimately a very modular sort of system, concerning a slightly nebulous "core" of mechanics, which then can be dressed up with all sorts of other mechanics for flavor and ease of use. This is a strength of the FATE system, in my opinion, and one of the reasons why I keep returning to it. While Spirit of the Century, the Dresden Files RPG, Diaspora, and Strands of Fate all use the same core mechanic, in other words, they nevertheless end up "feeling" like very different games because of the peripheral details.

The biggest problem with FATE, however, is the learning curve. It is a very abstract system at first, and it uses a healthy supply of its own jargon which can feel a little overwhelming to the new player. Also unfortunately is the fact that FATE books are written, by and large, by authors who already presuppose that readers will, like themselves, be able to parse that jargon. I tried to read the Diaspora book as agnostically as I could, assuming ignorance of the system, and that is where I believe the book's primary weakness lies: it does, in my opinion, an inadequate job at explaining the jargon. In the chapter on mechanics, it explains some of these terms like "tagging" or "compelling" aspects, or invoking "maneuvers," but does not explain fully the methods and ramifications of those things. For instance, a new player might ask "do the player characters get to see what Aspects their enemies possess?" or "can enemies just as easily compel Aspects on the player characters as vice versa?" To the authors' credit, these sorts of issues become less pressing as the book goes on, and the reader can absorb more information about how the system works from context, but at this point early in the book, a sketchy overview could potentially serve as a hurdle for a prospective player. One has to imagine, though, that this was intentional: expending too much time and effort on the abstract mechanics early in the book would probably also have the effect of making the game seem trudging and tedious, and it makes for a better read without dwelling on minutiae. It really isn't until the chapter on combat that the Aspect system really becomes clear.

That all being said, on to the good bits. Diaspora is set in a universe which assumes that there are weaknesses in the fabric of space that, when compelled (usually by artificial means), open a sort of wormhole to another solar system that is an indeterminate distance away. These weak points, which are called "slipknots" in game, are the key feature to the entire game universe, and are what enables a "diaspora" to become possible. Namely, one creates a "cluster" of systems linked by "slipstreams" that could be neighboring solar systems within the same sector of space, or may just as easily be systems in another galaxy billions of light years away. Travel between them via slipstream renders distance, in this special case, meaningless. However, points not linked by slipknots still suffer under the burden of sub-relativistic speed.

Diaspora also assumes that human civilization can only advance so much before imploding in on itself; therefore, technology is dangerous, and systems which are at the "T4" (pinnacle of advancement) stage, are also on the verge of collapse (or may have already collapsed), and have strange consequences. As the book describes it, "[T4 civilizations] are on the verge of collapse—they are about to unfold one or many failed dreams, spiraling into a transhuman ascension indistinguishable from a multi-billion death disaster." Heavy stuff. Diaspora therefore assumes that most (playable) civilizations are in the T2-T3 range, which is to say that they are "masters of their domain" in that they can exploit slipstream technology and travel between systems. For perspective, the ratings go from -4 to 4, and present-day earth is T0. Given what the authors describe in the introduction, this "limit" on technological advancement is intentional as a key feature of the game universe, as they want to constrain the game within the bounds of "gritty and dangerous," and steer far clear of the Star Trek vision of the future.

The default type of player character by and large seems to be human characters, but it does allow for alien characters, alien civilizations, and alien technology. Pair a T4 system with an ancient alien civilization, for instance, and you have the opportunity to create a situation like Ivanova's encounter with the Walkers of Sigma-957 in Babylon 5. Or have an encounter with one of the most distant systems of another player's cluster, and reenact your favorite episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (hint: it's Darmok).

The book rounds itself out at the end by providing good examples of how to start a story arc, what sort of interactions one might expect between cultures, and, to quote the title of the last chapter, "making it work." This is far and away the best chapter in the book, and it was only at this point for me when the game stops being an abstraction and really does feel like something that is playable. My only regret is that while there were many examples of spacecraft (which was helpful), there were not really examples of player characters. What I would have liked to have seen is, just like the sheets for example spacecraft, to have a layout of around the same number of characters, which could be used as PCs or NPCs, or just hashed out examples of what a character sheet looks like after it's all filled out.

Additionally the combat rules regarding range were a bit baroque, but I suspect strongly that once one actually tries to play it out it will become a lot more obvious. But that's just a minor complaint.

Overall, it seems that Diaspora is a very flexible system which allows for a very wide variety of gameplay, from harrowing paramilitary thriller to Firefly-esque space cowboy hijinx and anything in between, and I look forward to eventually getting to test it out with a group of real people. One of these days.