Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Reviews that Were on DriveThruRPG - pt. 2

BLUEHOLME:  The Maze of Nuromen, by Dreamscape Designs.

I've finally got around to writing a review of The Maze of Nuromen and, again, wanted to share it first here for feedback before posting it to DriveThruRPG.

The Maze of Nuromen is a short, introductory adventure module for use with the BLUEHOLME Prentice Rules. Just as the BLUEHOLME rules are a retroclone of the Holmes edition of D&D, “The Maze of Nuromen” is meant to evoke the sample dungeon from the Holmes edition, without being a direct copy of it. In this the module succeeds greatly. The map of level 1 of this dungeon is reminiscent of the layout of the sample dungeon. The background to both are similar, as is the geography above the dungeons.

Like any good sample dungeon, there is a good variety of combats, tricks, hidden treasures, and things to do. There’s a stolen item to retrieve, a useful password to look for, and even a riddle to answer. For an Old School module, there seems to be a dearth of traps here. There’s also very little opportunity here for role-playing. We know what the elves are up to, but the bandits and goblins have no reason for being here, nothing to learn from talking to them.

Many of the old D&D basic modules for levels 1-3 assumed you were starting with a party of 1st level characters and would level up 1-2 times in the course of play. This adventure is probably too dangerous for that unless the players go in with a large party, bolstered with hirelings, or with a smaller party containing at least one 3rd level character.

The artwork is too grisly and unpleasant for my liking. Others may find that very appropriate for the sort of games they run.

My last minor complaint is that I feel an opportunity was missed here. It would have been nice had there been at least some hint as to how to combine the Holmes sample dungeon level into this dungeon to make a deluxe, 3-level dungeon.

All minor complaints aside, it IS a pretty solid adventure, very Old School, highlighting its simplified style with one-line stats for almost every encounter. With 25 rooms on 2 levels, there is plenty enough here to do for multiple game sessions.

City of the Gods, by Zeitgeist Games.

Up front, I want to say I bought the City of the Gods eBook hoping for more of a gazetteer-type book. I wanted a big map of the whole city and block-by-block descriptions of what I would find there. That’s what I was hoping for. What I got was an Expedition to Castle Greyhawk-style adventure module that uses a plot to railroad you along just a selective path through an expansive setting.

Now, that’s not necessarily bad. I really enjoyed Expedition to Castle Greyhawk, but that was because I already had several other Castle Greyhawk-related titles to help me fill in the blanks. In this case, I was going into City of the Gods blind, as it were.

So I guess the real question is, did I learn enough about the City of the Gods to make this a worthwhile purchase? Of its impressive 108-page page count, I got 5 pages of introduction, a whopping 48-page wilderness adventure taking place in the Valley of the Ancients around the City of the Gods, and 33 pages on the City itself. Some of the stuff inside is neat, like the table of effects of mixing magic and science, the list of mutations from radiation, and the table of laboratory specimens, but already having S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and DA2 Temple of the Frog, a lot of this felt like déjà vu to me.

In the appendices, there are 11 pages of new monsters. Most of them did not excite me, but the fire nymph might fill a niche outside this particular environ and the thermal godmite is impressively spectacular. There are 4 pages on new equipment, half of which is pretty neat hi-tech gear treated as magic items (which is very Blackmoor-ish), but some of it seems weirdly out-of-place, like elven bucklers.

The maps are pedestrian. Most of the art is good, but some images are inappropriately full-page, seemingly just to fill up space. I highly recommend this book – BUT, only for someone who doesn’t already have Expedition to the Barrier Peaks or any of the DA module series. For owners of those products, this purchase is entirely optional.

Cupid Must Die!  Kobolds Ate My Valentine, by 9th Level Games.

Not as funny or creative as the rulebook, but an interesting mini-scenario that might require more problem solving than laughs.

Reviews that Were at DriveThruRPG - pt. 1

I just learned tonight that I've been breaking the rules at DriveThruRPG by posting reviews of other people's products there, something publishers are not supposed to do.  Thank goodness I hadn't written any more than I did!  I'm taking them down off their site, but I hate to let anything I've ever written go to waste, so I'm saving them here.

100 Dark Fantasy Hirelings, by The Amazing List of Things.

For a dollar, and what it is (essentially a big list), this is pretty good. The 100 hirelings are grouped by type into 10 shorter lists, each getting a 1-2 sentence description. Some are thought-provoking; all are at least decent. Names tend to be English, with both some other real world ethnic names and some fantasy gibberish names slipped in.

1st Ed Advanced Character Sheet, by Gold Piece Publications.

Visually compelling, but difficult to use, character sheet. It really needs bigger boxes and a back side for everything it leaves out.

Advanced Adventures #1:  The Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom, by Expeditious Retreat Press.

Rare and welcome are the level 2-4 adventure modules (or, “What to do after you finish a basic level module”) and this level range does seem appropriate for the adventure. This adventure is very short on story and background, but long on utility. Notes help the DM place this module for adventurers heading straight to it from civilization, or already exploring the underworld and just stumbling across this place. Opportunities for magical healing abound, making the locale not too difficult for exploring all in one expedition. Inverting the typical dungeon design, the bottom level seems like it would be the easiest. The pod men seem reminiscent of the old D&D vegepygmies, while the shroom is a tongue-in-cheek evil version of the old D&D myconids. Matt Finch is the “double-danger” of a writer who can draw as well and the interior black and white art is both suitably weird and engaging. If the product has any weakness, the maps are rather boring to look at.

BLUEHOLME Prentice Rules, by Dreamscape Designs.

This book is a retroclone – one of many out there – this one of the true second edition of Dungeons & Dragons, edited by Eric Holmes in 1977.

Part 1 is a very introductory introduction, more than the Holmes edition had and more, I feel, like how the 1981 Moldvay ed. spelled everything out for the novice gamer, especially in terms of spelling out all the different uses of the word “level” in D&D.

Part 2, though, is an excellently organized approach to character creation and the simplified tables are an improvement on the original version. While the rules do not deviate from Holmes ed. D&D, there are clarifications on almost every page, like how dwarven perception works or which weapons are “legal” for the cleric class. Information is grouped together better, like how scroll creation rules are now right there in the description of the Magic-User class. Elven multi-classing is explained better and we get a clearer graph of how a five-point Alignment system works.

Curiously, for a retroclone that otherwise adheres so closely to the original rulebook, the 2nd level Magic-User spell list includes several new spells, dealing with the heightened importance of Dexterity in this edition. The Dexterity spell makes sense, but the Ray of Clumsiness spell is mis-worded to apply to Strength and -- I've already been told by the author -- will be corrected in the next printing.

The combat section attempts to add some new rules with mixed results. The explanation for hitting with flaming oil is an example of a good addition. A confusing addition is separating weapons by light, normal, and heavy, which seems to have no game mechanic purpose here, though I've been told it will make more sense in the Compleat Rules. Other things are more clarification, like exactly how “infra-vision” works.

The section on how combat works is nicely written. I particularly like Strangelove the Cleric.

The monster section is very deadly for 1st-3rd level characters, with monsters like the purple worm and the vampire included for completeness’ sake rather than any likelihood of being encountered (under all but the meanest DMs!). The carrion crawler and shrieker are revived here under new names (I doubt I would ever get used to calling a carrion crawler a “grick”).

I like the separation of individual treasure and treasure hordes into different tables. It is very close to the old treasure types. The absence of treasure types in the Open Game License has been a problem for retroclones before and I would much rather use this system than Swords & Wizardry’s bulkier treasure system.

The magic items section conceals barely any new items, the best being the Staff of Clouting which I actually prefer to the old Staff of Striking.

Spelling has been uniformly switched to British English, a distinction D&D has always had a problem with consistency on.

The sample character sheet looks a bit top heavy, with a silly amount of space reserved for ability score modifiers (in a game with very few) and very small space for writing in equipment down below.

The art is good quality public domain art, but really, if given a choice, I’ll take a D&D book with Trampier and Wham art instead any day.

The book is currently available as Pay What You Want. Years ago, I had been lucky enough to buy a used copy of the Holmes ed. for $3. I'd say this version, as an ebook, is easily worth $4.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Mystery Man: Overview of a Comic Book that Never Was

Circa 1995-1996, I had plans for creating a stable of Victorian-era superheroes.  I’ve posted before about what would have been my flagship character, The Century Man before here.  The following is fleshed out slightly from a one-page synopsis I had written back then.

The next biggest character I had planned out was The Mystery Man (also known as The Hood).  His story would begin in April 1888, when a young (maybe just 17) man named John would wake up with huge gaps in his memory, including how he came to be wrapped from head to toe in bandages and, beneath that, heavy scarring.  He would have fighting ability and enhanced (though not superhuman) strength he did not remember having, with the implication being it was somehow surgically given to him.

In May 1888, John would charge into a burning building to rescue people, discovering that his bandages were also fire resistant.  The bandages also allowed him to act anonymously, being dubbed by the press as The Mystery Man.
In June 1888, the Mystery Man – now combining his mummy look with a ragged hooded cape to give him a frightening mystique -- would begin patrolling London in a one-man campaign on keeping it safer.  After rescuing an architect from street toughs, the architect would repay him by taking John on as a draftsman apprentice.  Following the serious injury of the street toughs, however, Scotland Yard would take an active interest in discovering the Mystery Man’s true name and whereabouts.

In August 1888, John would have to return to his childhood home of Gravesend, which was being terrorized by a fairy Jack-in-Irons.  As the Mystery Man, John would confront it and win.
In September 1888, Sherlock Holmes would track down John, having surmised his true identity.  After a lengthy interview, Holmes would decide not to share what he knew with the police.  Around this same time, Jack the Ripper would be killed by a fairy Redcap, which would begin copying his crimes.

In October 1888, the Mystery Man would corner the Redcap – thanks to a clue from Holmes – and defeat it.

In November 1888, the Mystery Man would come to the attention of a man called The Enchanter, a magician using charm magic to move up through London’s social circles.  Ensorcelled, the Mystery Man would briefly serve as The Enchanter’s bodyguard and enforcer.

In December 1888, the Mystery Man would throw off the spell on him.  He would then work to discredit The Enchanter and ultimately confront him in a battle that would leave The Enchanter presumed dead and the Mystery Man badly injured.

In January 1889, John would be convalescing in the care of the niece of his architect boss.  His boss would not be pleased with this, however, and both fired John and forbad him seeing her.
In February 1889, John would receive a visit from The Invisible Man, who would suggest some shared points of origin for them, while refusing to do more than drop clues.  The Invisible Man would, of course, elude John, but he would run into H.G. Wells, hot on the trail of the Invisible Man as the subject for a book he was researching.

In March 1889, bounty hunters would lure the Mystery Man into a trap and attack him.  The bounty hunters worked for a wealthy socialite named Liam Mansfield, though the Mystery Man does not know this yet.
In April 1889, the Mystery Man would encounter the Jumping Man.  John would also, inspired by Wells, become a writer.

In May 1889, the Mystery Man is ambushed by gunmen working for Mansfield.  The Mystery Man would escape, injured, but this time with the name of their employer.  The Mystery Man would go to Sherlock Holmes for help and information to use against Liam Mansfield.
In July 1889, the British government would contact Mansfield and give him carte blanche to hunt down the Mystery Man and bring him in alive.  The government clearly knows the Mystery Man’s origin, but not his whereabouts.

In August 1889, the Mystery Man would be captured by Mansfield’s agents.  Liam would explain what little he had been told of the Mystery Man’s origin before MM escaped.
In October 1889, MM would capture Mansfield, confront him with evidence of criminal activity, and force a confession out of him that would end hostilities in a stalemate.

In November 1889, MM would investigate the Seelie Court – fairies welcome in Victorian society – and disappearances of some of their leading members.
In December 1889, agents of the Seelie Court, from the other side of the Fairy Veil, would contact MM and ask an alliance with him.

In January 1890, MM and the Seelie Court would thwart an Unseelie plot to replace Parliament with doppelgangers.
In February 1890, MM would cross the Fairy Veil to help take the battle straight to the Unseelie Court.

In March 1890, MM would find himself in pitched battle with the Dark King of the Fairies, and win.
In April 1890, Robar the Conqueror would bomb London from his super-plane, The Albatross.  MM would give chase. 

In June 1890, MM would finally catch up with Robar, the self-styled Master of the World, and defeat him.
In July 1890, MM would be captured by a now-dying Invisible Man, along with government men responsible for both MM’s origin and behind-the-scenes in the Invisible Man’s.  MM would free them all, but only after extracting a promise that the government would not try to have anything else to do with him from that moment on.