Mage Revised > M20

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I had really high hopes for the 20th Anniversary edition of Mage the Ascension. Mage is one of my three favorite OWoD games, the other two being Vampire and Changeling. For me, Mage was the core game – a setting that could account for all of the other game lines and settings within it’s expansive, flexible worldview. I got a kick out of PC mages in my games encountering other supernaturals who functioned according to rules they could understand, with some study. Mage was, and is, the game line that lets you peel back the curtain on the World of Darkness and not only learn about its inner workings, but have an impact on what the WoD is and what it means.

Running the Revised, essentially 3rd edition of Mage the Ascension always required pages of house rules. This is honestly true of World of Darkness games in general, at least in my experience, but Mage is definitely a game that drifted a lot as we played it for about a five-year span from 2000 when it was released until around 2005 (we in this case being my college gaming group). But Mage begged for this kind of drift, I think, with a flexible magic system that was, at best, evocative but ill-defined.

The 20th Anniversary edition of Mage clocks in at well over 600 pages, or twice as long as Revised. Including the How Do You Do That expansion, it approaches 800 pages. But in those 800 pages, there is less clarity than in the Revised edition’s 300 or so. Poor rules were kept and expanded upon (I’m looking at you, Martial Arts/Do), interesting rules (like Resonance) were dropped (though left in as a sidebar and a very optional rule). How Do You Do That, in particular, is a hot mess. For some reason telekinesis requires dots in Mind, and periodically magical effects arbitrarily require the expenditure of Willpower because…they seem hard. As if enlightened magick was not, as a rule, hard.

I like some of the updating for the setting that M20 provides, though that is hardly worth the price of the book (or the time spent reading it). For some players, the grim reality of Revised was too much, and with a more multicultural viewpoint the Ascension War seems far less over than it did in 2000. White Wolf always had a problem with representing non-Western cultures well in their books, and Revised was no exception, fascilating between some real research into Hinduism on the one hand and on the other the hi-ya antics of the orientalist Akashic Brotherhood.

The truth is, thought, that M20 is simply not worth the price of admission. In stark contrast to the overall success of Changeling 20th Anniversary, M20 adds to the noise and the mess rather than refining and clarifying. It does gather up a lot of material from the various Revised splatbooks, but it just kind of crams them together next to each other rather than working to make them more consistent with one another or simpler, which is what I’d hoped for. If you are a Mage the Ascension fan, I think you can stick to Revised and just update the setting as you like. Say the Ascension War was declared over before it truly was, the Technocracy’s victory was premature, and get on with saving the world.

Thoughts on Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition PreAlpha

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What It Is

In a word, interesting. This is touted as Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition, coming from White Wolf instead of Onyx Path. Remember, Onyx Path has been the publisher for the Requiem materials, as well as V20 a few years ago. (There is a kind of tangled history with White Wolf and Onyx Path, a failed MMO, and some other things, but I don’t want to get into all that). Clearly, they are counting VtM Revised as 3rd edition and V20 as 4th, and they are skipping ahead to 5th. As a lead designer and writer, White Wolf has brought on Kenneth Hite, who I personally think is amazing, and a very intriguing choice that wouldn’t have immediately come to mind. His game design skills, and deep knowledge of history and the occult will serve him well however.

What I Like

The feel I get from reading the design goals written in the PreAlpha rules packet is that White Wolf is going for something of a 5th Edition D&D type of coup, drawing elements from all previous editions of the game (including Requiem, as we’ll see) into something that will resonate with all Vampire fans. When WotC said that was their goal for D&D, to take 40 years or D&D rules and mash them together in a way that made their wide variety of fans happy, I thought it was impossible.  In retrospect, I called D&D 5E a coup for a reason – they got about as close as possible to their stated goal.

They are also going for a simpler, more streamlined system that is easier to learn and play. Some choices they’ve made are along these lines, while others are not, as we’ll see.

I like the streamlining of attributes – now there are only 3: Physical, Social and Mental. Each can have a specialty, which would be one of the previous Masquerade attributes like Strength or Appearance. These specialties add one die when they apply. The system is still an attribute rated 1-5 added to an ability rated 1-5 and then rolled as a pool of d10s. The ability list is very similar to previous incarnations of Masquerade, with a few additions like Physique functioning just as it does in Fate Core.

Damage rolls and soak rolls are both out, and I approve. They’re using the Requiem system of an attack roll against a defense, with the remainder being damage applied against the target’s health. I like this – I much prefer an attack resolved in two dice rolls compared to four. And generally speaking, this idea of mixing some Masquerade with a little bit of Requiem, the best parts of it anyway, runs throughout the PreAlpha rules.

Blood and hunger will play a more central role in V5, it seems. There is no longer any blood pool. Instead, you track your degree of Hunger, rated from 0 to 5. Your Hunger has a chance to increase every time you use a vampiric ability – instead of “spending blood” the term is now “Rousing the Blood” in order to power disciplines, appear human, etc. This leads to one of the PreAlpha’s big weaknesses, discussed below, but I like this change. Abstracting blood and hunger out, while also making them central to your dice-rolls, is a strong thematic move. Instead of blood being a resource you manage, hunger is a threat you deal with night after night.

One of the things that Hunger does in this rules set is mess with your mind. Hunger afflicts different vampires in different ways, and one cool thing they have added is Clan-specific hunger afflictions. So a Malkavian, for example, might have an extreme mental illness episode due to Hunger, while a Gangrel might be made paranoid and have to obsessively see to her own security. There are general problems that Hunger could cause, and then each Clan has three or so of their own specific ones, and I really like this. Not only does it make hunger front and center, but it also brings Clan to the forefront. Both good things for a Vampire the Masquerade rule-set, I think.

The last thing that came to mind as I read through the rules was that more things are returned to the 1-5 scale. In particular, Willpower is now rated 1-5, which I like. It’s just more consistent. There is now a companion to Willpower, Composure, which like Willpower can be spent. It isn’t quite clear what the difference between the two is precisely, but I look forward to seeing more. My intuition is that they will be to similar and will be collapsed back down to one, but I could be wrong. For now, it seems that Composure is used to resist frenzy and Willpower functions a lot like it did in Masquerade.

When I moved from the rules document to reading the playtest scenario, I found another blood-related rule that I thought was interesting: blood from different mortals will have slightly different effects on those who feed from them. Feeding from a drunk person might give you a penalty, while feeding from a baby (I know) might make it easier to appear alive in the following scene, giving you the blush of health. Feeding from an anxious or athletic person might let you activate Celerity once without having to Rouse the Blood, and most of the benefits were along these lines – letting you use a Discipline once without having to take the risk of increasing Hunger. I like this idea, but I also note that it will involve yet more bookkeeping for the player, which is a weakness. Something they can fix, or work around, but there it is.

Not So Much

One change is a pet peeve of mine in RPGs. For the love of God, don’t make dice-rolls into coin-flips. This PreAlpha pack places the target number for all d10 rolls at 6+, meaning every die-roll is a 50/50 chance. Since they also remove the rules that 1s subtract successes and 10s can be rolled again, the d10s literally become coins. The only remaining reason to have d10s at all is legacy – they lose every interesting element as dice. This is always a design choices I dislike, even in games I otherwise love, like Mouse Guard.

I mentioned the Hunger/Rousing the Blood mechanic above as strong thematic move linked to a serious problem with the system. That problem is that in what should be a move to simplicity, the Hunger mechanics as written actually add a huge amount of bookkeeping to the game. Every time you use an ability that Rouses the Blood in a scene, you note it. At the end of the scene, you roll d10s equal to the number of marks you have, and that determines whether your Hunger increases. First, this will mean that Hunger will be increasing pretty much every scene, which means that frenzying and hunting will happen much more often in V5 than in previous editions. Second, this is an incredible amount of bookkeeping that will constantly take players out of the moment. Each scene has to end with accounting before you can move on. This is just a poor design choice, but again, this is a PreAlpha playtest rule-set, so presumably they will have tons of time to fix this.

Unfortunately, V5 takes it’s inspiration from Requiem’s version of Potence, which was terrible. You still have to ‘Rouse the Blood’ every turn that you use it, making it an incredibly expensive discipline. The reworking of Fortitude is actually similar to Fortitude from Mind’s Eye Theater, which I think is a good move compared to Masquerade and Requiem Fortitude, which is by far the most boring Discipline. But Potence was the only Discipline that stood out to me, as it does in Requiem, as something I would almost certainly never spend experience on. (And, like in Requiem, that’s easily fixed with house rules)

In Conclusion

I keep reminding myself that this is a PreAlpha playtest document. It is far from done. And I haven’t mentioned most of the Disciplines or some of the other things that are in the Appendices because, for the most part, the Disciplines seem very similar to previous versions of Masquerade, with the exception that activating them always requires that you Rouse the Blood. Again, I can see how this might result in a frenzy-fest with so much less room for error in the Hunger system, but we’ll see.

Overall I like the direction they are going – taking things from Requiem like simplified combat rolls and working to simplify and to place thematic elements like blood and hunger in the center of the system itself. I imagine it might result in more monstrous vampires who are less like blood-fueled dark superheroes. (I would not be surprised if Ken Hite was central to this move)

This is a strong showing, and if this is their new direction for V5, I’m on board.


Changeling 20th Anniversary Edition (C20) Review

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Changeling the Dreaming has always been a beautiful, broken game. The 20th Anniversary edition is less different from the 2nd edition than I’d expected. It is somewhat less broken, and still beautiful in its way. Lackluster kithain art detracts from it, and I would have preferred a bigger focus on new art in a game that is so driven by imagery (and so flush with new cash from the Kickstarter).

The metaplot is reiterated and updated, but it holds less interest for me than it did 18 years or so ago, when I first started playing the 2nd edition with my friends in college. It remains very US-centric, which is unfortunate, and the rise of David Ardry still comes across as someone’s first brush with fantasy worldbuilding.

All that being said, this remains a game I would run or play, and enjoy. There are solid updates to the rules to help with this, though it remains broken and in need of some house-ruling. If you love Changeling the Dreaming 2nd edition, you’ll love C20. If you already have the various splatbooks, though, I actually think you could skip buying the Anniversary edition. Many of the rules changes can easily be part of house rules, and the stunning new art that I was hoping for in a 20th Anniversary edition just isn’t there.

This is just after a single read-through. I haven’t had a chance to play C20, and I’m sure I’ll find more on subsequent read-throughs. I’ve focused on the main kiths, Arts and some setting updates. I’d like to give more attention to the Hsien updates and other details as well in the future. Still, here is what I found.

Art and Design

A lot of classic Changeling the Dreaming art is carried over, and there are some new pieces. I thought that the new art for the clans in V20 was lacking, and I think that the new art for Changeling often falls flat, especially for the kithain. (For a tutorial in how to do new art for a OWoD line, I recommend M20).

The book is well laid-out and easy to read, and the table of contents has a few, but not enough, links in the PDF version. I prefer M20’s PDF, where all of the page numbers in the table of contents are links – in C20, only the chapter titles are links, which makes navigation a bit more cumbersome than it needs to be.

The Good

Birthrights and Frailties for each Kith are updated, and I like almost all of the updates. No big changes have been made, but they have been cleaned up overall. There are now no Chimerical-only attribute bonuses, which is something that I actually thought made sense for the Sidhe and Trolls, though I might be in the minority there. You can still create a troll with a Strength of 8 (max out Strength on a Grump Troll, add Strength of Atlas merit), but it is all mundane, meaning your Troll is far stronger than the strongest human ever to live. Similar with a side with an Appearance of 7 – so I guess people just collapse screaming in ecstasy in the street wherever you go? I preferred Chimercal attributes that you could manifest by Calling on the Wyrd in 2nd – the sudden reveal was made all the more significant. In actually running Changeling, I would keep those attribute bonuses Chimerical I think.

Arts have also been cleaned up. There was talk, when the rules discussion started on the Onyx Path forums, of eliminating Realms, which I would have preferred; in C20 Realms remain, but it is possible to spend a point of Glamour to cheat and use a Realm you don’t actually have, which is a big bonus to the way the system works. Realms are an element that adds constraints that sometimes drive creativity, but can also easily drive players crazy as they find out their character can’t do what they assumed she could do with her Arts. It’s an annoying element that isn’t present in any of the other supernaturals’ abilities. But the fix of being able to just spend Glamour to affect an Art you don’t have is a step in the right direction.

There is a much better crafting system, which makes up for Infusion being removed from the game. It now makes more sense, how one would create Chimerical objects in-game, something that was profoundly missing in 2nd. Now any Changelings can create Chimerical objects, Nockers are just a bit better at it.

And many things are now under one roof. Gathered up are all the added noble houses, and there are a few new ‘standard’ kith added to the lineup (Clurichauns, Piskies and Selkies) from splatbooks, and they streamlined the Hsien and added them as well. Elements of various metaplots have been brought into C20 together, and I’m not sure they all fit together, but that isn’t a big concern for me.

I like that they kept Naming, though I miss Dreamcraft. The new Contracts Art feels like it was borrowed from Changeling the Lost, but with good effect. It lets you do things that fae are supposed to be able to do, in my view. I think it could have used another pass in development, but, again, house rules.

There are also four new seasonal Arts, clearly drawn from Changeling the Lost, and I like the addition. Autumn, Spring, Summer and Winter each bring different things to Changeling. (As an aside, I personally think the sweet spot for Changeling is somewhere between Dreaming and Lost, but that’s me) Each seasonal Art expands on the idea for that season well, though again, I think they could have used another once-over in development.

The Not-So-Good

Already mentioned, the setting remains US-centric. Understandable, but not good. I mean, it isn’t America of Darkness. Also already mentioned, I don’t like that the Chimerical attribute bonuses are now just attribute bonuses. I get why they did it, but I could see that easily causing problems. I mentioned the poor art for many of the kithain.  The general rule that Changeling abilities are more costly, and have fewer dice, and are less powerful than the abilities of other supernaturals remains true.

Infusion and Dreamcraft both get the boot, among the Arts. Dragon’s Ire is now an Art, and it looks like it would not be a great choice since other arts help you in combat. I prefer the Dragon’s Ire as an ability, since I liked that different kiths got a reduced difficulty to call upon the Ire in different situations. I thought this was a great thematic element – suddenly the boggan is frightening because she is defending her home. Most of the Arts got a once-over at least, and are a bit better balanced with one another, and also stick to their themes more closely (no more using Pyretics to find lost things, that’s Soothsay now).

Unleashing, which is an awesome idea I think, is just not designed well enough. More examples would have been helpful, as there is a lot of hand-waving involved in figuring out what exactly happens. I like the idea of Unleashing – to ‘kick the door open’ to the Dreaming – but the execution isn’t well thought out enough. It’s like a tiny taste of an indie game, where you roll dice to see who narrates the result, and it just doesn’t work as a part of Changeling. Definitely another place where house rules would be required.

The Bad

Bunks that do not take an action are now impossible, which I definitely don’t like. Even the simplest bunks require that a character split their dice-pool for the Art activation roll, Given that Arts are now difficulty 8 base, and that dice-pools will be tiny because of Realms, splitting seems like a non-starter. I see no reason why basic -1 bunks would require one to split their action, and this means that every Changeling fight will be as follows:

Round One: everyone does something silly and waits.

Round Two: the fight actually starts, as everyone’s Art goes off.

Changelings using magical powers would easily be overcome by, say, jock

Combining the fact that Arts require Realms with the fact that no Art can be used spontaneously just feels like a bad relic of the past combined with a nerf. Splitting your first action hardly seems like a viable option, considering how tiny Art dice-pools are to start with – that’s a lot of work to end up rolling 2 or 3 dice at a difficulty of 8 for your magic power.

There are also always issues with the Satyr’s Gift of Pan, and those issues remain. Under their effect, if one fails a difficulty 8 roll (easy to do with low starting Willpower, and Willpower costing twice as much as it does for any other denizens of the World of Darkness), they cannot resit giving in to their secret desires. They just seem to be unable to get away from consent issues with Satyrs, and I can think of plenty of players who would make this until an un-fun evening.


If you loved Changeling the Dreaming 2nd edition, you’ll also love C20. If you actually played 2nd, you will have plenty of house rules to make the game work, and house rules will still be required for C20, though perhaps fewer of them. You’ll need to figure out what to do with Unleashing, and what it means to have a Strength of 8 or an Appearance of 7 in the mundane world – or house rule those things.

In the end, I love Changeling the Dreaming, and C20 doesn’t change that. I would still play it. Reading through the book still gives me ideas for stories. C20 brings things that were scattered across a couple dozen splatbooks into one tome, and updates some of the metaplot to 2015 or so. On the other hand, I think that someone who already has those splatbooks, and already has some house rules, and could maybe add Unleashing into their game…I’m not sure that person needs to buy C20 at all.

Gary Gygax’s Lejendary Adventures

I recently ordered a copy of the fantasy RPG that Gary Gygax designed and published after Dangerous Journeys: Mythus was killed by TSR. DJ:M was my very first RPG, which is unusual I think, and maybe it’s given me an extra dose of nostalgia when I read about what he worked on after he left TSR and Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve written a bit about DJ:M before on this blog, a few years ago now, and I might write more sometime in the future, but this post is all Lejendary Adventures.

LA was published in 1999, when I was neck-deep in Vampire: the Masquerade Revised Edition, and when 3rd Edition D&D was deep in development but not yet released. It was published through Hekaforge Productions (a call-back to the magic system in DJ:M) and, even though it came from The Man Himself, the game never caught on. Lejendary Adventures is now published through Troll Lord Games, and according to Wikipedia there are even more adventure scenarios coming for the game. It looks like there were a couple dozen books and adventures put out for LA in all, but as someone who has been gaming since 1991 or so I hadn’t even heard of the game until recently.

One of the most striking things about LA is how much effort Gygax seems to have put into coming up with new words for familiar RPG terms. Your character is your Avatar – the bard is a Jongleur. I can see what he was getting at, but the overall effect is to just make the game a bit harder to understand. For a popular game, it is possible to change some of the terminology and have an impact, but for what is ultimately a fringe game in a fringe hobby, it seems like the wrong move to demand that potential players learn an entirely new lexicon to replace PC, NPC, GM and other familiar terms.

As I think about it, this was also very much the case with DJ:M. I suppose I accept it more from DJ:M because that game is also presenting a new sort of setting – a planetary fantasy alternate history that takes into account the various major cultures we know from actual history. But that game also had things like K/S Areas, STEEP, and Heka, so there’s that. I think that should be added to the game elements we can describe as Gygaxian, actually – neologisms that aren’t necessary, at least not in my own view. And I wonder if these neologisms had an effect on the success of his games?

Dungeons & Dragons introduced many new terms into our language, of course, but it gets to do that because it was the first RPG to make an impact on the larger culture. After that point, though, do we really need to rename the terms in our niche hobby? I don’t think so. Or, at least, no reason to do so needlessly, when a commonly used term already exists for exactly the thing you’re describing.

Lejendary Adventures clearly presents itself as a simplified, pared-down RPG, and at first it seems like it might be just that. There are only three main Attributes: Health, Precision and Speed. This leads to some odd things, such as Sorcery being linked to Speed and Alchemy to Health, and I can only think that a different short list could have been developed. If every ability has to be linked to one of those three attributes, it’s going to result in some strange combinations.

Along with those attributes are a long list of Abilities – basically skills, many of which have names that are slightly different from the norm in fantasy RPGs, and which don’t really fit with each other – a pet peeve of mine. It bothers me when the names of a list of skills come from different parts of speech, and this is very common in RPGs because it is very hard to avoid. Even games like FATE Core do this – I roll to Fight! Now I roll to…Physique? And I roll to Rapport next. And so on. English is clunky this way, and it is challenging to come up with one-word names for various kinds of skills that are all similar parts of speech. But not impossible, and I think that LA misses the mark here more than necessary.

It quickly becomes clear that character creation is very complicated, and entirely driven by exceptions and special rules. You choose your Abilities, and then those abilities modify your Health, Precision and Speed. Then you also rank your Abilities, and multiply the totals by different percentages based on how you prioritize them. And on and on. These Abilities end up defining your character, giving the sense that LA is a skills-based game, but every time you choose an Ability, you have to revise your character sheet. (This seems like a game that screams for a digital character builder, or at least a very complicated Excel spreadsheet).

A character also has an Order, like Jongleur or Mage, that functions like class does in other fantasy games, and having specific levels of specific Abilities is what lets you rise in your Order’s rank. This is a bit like Elder Scrolls, for example, where leveling up is based on increasing your skills in play rather than the other way around. In D&D, you get experience points to level up which then increases your abilities. I will say this – the system where skill increase leads to level increase is more rational, and also allows for incremental improvement between levels.

Overall, I don’t know what to do with Lejendary Adventures because I’ve never actually played it. If I get the opportunity I definitely will, though I doubt that opportunity will come up – and if I ran LA myself, lacking the oral tradition element that I think is key to learning almost all RPGs, I would undoubtedly just run it like a similar game and not provide an experience that was, in a word, Lejendary.

GASPCon – Pittsburgh 2011

I’m wirting this sitting in the hotel room I’m sharing with Pete Figtree at GASPCon in Pittsburgh.  So far, it’s been awesome.  I’ve already had a chance to play Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition as well as Kenneth Hite’s Bookhounds of London playset for Fiasco.  Later that night, I got a chance to play Dread, and then the next day, I got a chance to play both Summoner Wars and then Ganakagok.  I just want to briefly give my impressions of each.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition

I haven’t played any other edition of WFRPG, nor have I ever played any of the minis games, the Warhammer 40k RPGs, or the MMO.  Warhammer is not in my geek curriculum vitae, as it were.  That being said, while working at Gamescape North I did get a chance to go through the WFRPG box when it arrived in the store and I loved the design of the game.  I love the custom dice (like Descent, but with a bit more depth and complexity) and I love the card that players can slot tactics into so that other player-characters can use them.

The scenario was pretty straightforward – a group of Dwarves are going to Blackfire Pass to recover an artifact and find out what happened to their brother.  I played a Trollslayer and had fun splitting foes in half with one shot and wringing blood and ale from my beard.


Kenneth Hite being awesome aside, Fiasco was a lot of fun, but I can see how it could be a lot more fun.  My group was good people, but three of us had never played Fiasco, and two of the players were clearly having trouble with framing scenes and reacting to things and knowing what it is they were supposed to do when confronted with a challenge.  These are new skills for most gamers, though, so no worries.  I got to play Aleister Crowley, and I ended up trying to make amends for all the terrible things I’d done by feeding myself to a huge demonic cat-beast.


The triumph of Dread, in this session, was that even though our GM wasn’t doing a very good job, there were still plenty of moments of tension at the table.  (Granted, it was a very late game, and maybe he was just off his mojo, who knows?)  This would never have been the case with another system, period, and I really see the strength of the simple but brilliant insight of using Jenga as a resolution system for a horror rpg.  It definitely made me hesitant about doing anything risky, and at one point I was very tempted to push the tower over and sacrifice my character to save another character’s life.  At that point, though, it looked like we were going to make it out of the scenario alive – and we did.

Summoner Wars

I never got into Magic or any other CCGs or TCGs.  I feel like, with a lot of them, there are so many sets and so much complexity that the game becomes a race to see who can find the most rules exploits.  This appeals to some people but not really to me.  I did enjoy Summoner Wars very much, though.  I like that the decks are pretty simple, and that they are pre-built.  I played the Cave Goblin army, and the tactic was simple enough – summon out zero-cost fighters and slingers, swarm my opponent, and use event cards to let them gang up on single units.  I’m sure that the game is less fun when you aren’t beating the crap out of Pete Figtree, but still, a cool game.


Ganakagok is one of my new favorite games.  The Game Chef event that gave rise to Polaris, Ganakagok and Mountain Witch must have been some kind of celestial event that rent the world open and let creativity pour out into game designers.  Or something.  Pretty much everything about Ganakagok is fantastic, but I’ll try to keep it to just 3 things I’ll mention.

1. I love a game where we end up with some kind of game-artifact that we made.  It’s a reason I loved the Heroes of Karia Vitalus campaign so much – we ended up with literally hundreds of little short stories from that one.  In Ganakagok, you end the game with a psycho-socio-mythical map of both your village and the outside world, and on those maps are written all of the major relationships and the major elements of the story you just told.

2. The resolution system leaves a lot of hard choices open.  You work to move dice around a continuum between Good Medicine and Bad Medicine and at the same time try to win narration rights.  You tap things in the world and aspects of your character that are involved in the conflict to move dice.  You can gain Good Medicine but lose narration rights, or you can take Bad Medicine but keep rights, and so on.  Whoever is at a disadvantage during the dice-moving portion has the advantage of going last in the conflict.  Very, very cool, and far deeper than any resolution system I’ve seen in any other game (including very deep ones like Dogs in the Vineyard or WFRPG).

3. All of the players are pushed to collaborate and tell stories and bring the important things in the setting into play, but there is still someone pushing back as hard as he can.  A lot of endings are possible – things can go well or poorly for each individual character, for the village, and for the world – any combination.  Your character can win but the village can lose.  The village can lose, but the world can flourish.  Etc.

I will have to think long and hard about whether Ganakagok supplants Mouse Guard as the best game out there, in my view at least.

Review: How We Came to Live Here

With apologies to Brennan Taylor – this is far later than I’d originally hoped.

The very deserving 2010 Ennie nominee for Best Writing, and the game that I personally voted for in that category, is How We Came to Live Here by Brennan Taylor through Galileo Games.  Here’s the blurb that goes with the game:

“The People have emerged into a strange new world, a world ruled by monsters. They must carve a place for themselves in this hostile place. Tell the tales of mythic heroes facing the threat of terrible monsters from outside, while at the same time finding their way within the strict rules and expectations of their family and their village.

HOW WE CAME TO LIVE HERE is a story-telling game which evokes the myths and legends of the Native American people. Within the game, characters must navigate their own ambitions and desires, the conflicting demands of their fellow villagers, and the ever-present threat of monsters and natural disasters from outside: Your own ambition could lead you down a path of corruption.”

First of all, I like what HWCTLH attempts to do, which is to set what is essentially a fantasy game in something other than pseudo-Europe.  As I said, Brennan Taylor was very much deserving of his Ennie nod for Best Writing on this game, which is lucky, because for the most part, when I buy cool indie games, it is with the understanding that I may never get the chance to play them.  The writing style isn’t flashy or over-eloquent, it is simply direct and appropriate to the game.  I don’t personally know a great deal about Native American mythology and culture, but what the game text does very well is to evoke a way of viewing the world, from the use of names on up, that is very different from modern America.

As with last time, I want to point out three things about the book that I thought were great, and then at the end point out any weaknesses that I thought I saw.  Because I am a gamer and a writer, I am going to talk about aspects of the game I like as well as aspects of the way the book is written that I like.

Opening Fiction
Lots of roleplaying games begin with a bit of fiction – White Wolf is kind of famous for this, but many games do it, and almost universally this is a poor use of space in the book.  Game fiction is nowhere near at the level that basic genre fiction is most of the time – it is at best a step up from read-aloud box-text in your average adventure module.  This is likely because the skills required to write an engaging instruction manual (which is a lot of what games are) and the skills required to write an engaging story are similar but distinct.  It’s definite possible to be good at one and not the other.

HWCTLH begins with the mythic story, briefly told, of the first four worlds.  the game is about stories told in the Fifth World, after all, so one immediately wonders – what came before?  I don’t know a lot about Native American mythology, but I have read some myths and stories and poems in translation, where the particularities of syntax are retained, and I think that Taylor does a good job of emulating this.

To make a ‘story’ short; I actually read this game’s opening story, and I’m glad I did.  I can’t remember, as i sit here, the last time I could honestly say that.  It gives important information and begins to set the tone for the reset of the book and for other stories players will tell in the Fifth World.

Call-Out Text and the Soul of Wit
As I said, Brennan Taylor has a more difficult task in writing this game book than is the case with 99% of the gaming books out there.  He is unable to make reference to common tropes.  Because of this, there are points at which the text needs to take an educational term.  In HWCTLH, this accomplished in simple, half-page text boxes on topics like the number four, or people who are transgendered.
What I particularly like is that I’ve read longer descriptions of Elves and Dwarves than the text boxes in HWCTLH – and everyone knows what a damn Dwarf is.  But who knows about the status of transgendered people in the Fifth World?  At 214 pages, HWCTLH is longer than many other indie titles, but the text is relatively large, and the writing is very efficient.
Magic: Bones and Ghosts
Magic systems in games is an ongoing, serious annoyance for me.  Almost without exception, they are terrible.  I realize that in all three of my main comments, I’m comparing HWCTLH with other games.  Even without these comparisons, or my pet peeves that drive them, it is an excellent book.  It’s just that what stands out to me is what Brennan Taylor does well which so many other games do poorly.
In the Fifth World, Kiva societies are something like secret societies, divided by gender, which player-characters can be part of.  The various Kiva societies are based around some kind of secret knowledge or techniques – something like Guilds were in the Middle Ages perhaps.  Two of those societies are focused on men’s magic and women’s magic respectively: the Bone Society and the Ghost society.
The two societies, though one is for men and one is for women, are really very similar in their core description.  Initiates must face the fear of death and must answer questions demonstrating their knowledge of the spirits.  They start off their time as initiates by stealing bones from graves or stealing personal items from potential victims of the harmful magic they can learn to wield.  Both are feared, and if discovered members of these kivas will often be driven out of their village or killed.  All the same, people seek them out because of the power they wield.
I like these descriptions, as emblematic of the many kivas the book describes, because each paragraph implies a story or a focus for a session for a particular character.  From the very beginning  you are taking serious risks, breaking the taboo against touching dead bodies and sneaking into the homes of people you’ve known your whole life.  As you grow in power, you also grow in risk and become more monstrous.
The gender differentiation is even more pronounced when we get to heroic traits and dice-pools.  Men and women have different Skill, Strength, Spirit and Faith traits – they are, as the game is designed, going to be good at different things, or to accomplish their goals in different ways.  Though this is alien to modern sensibilities, it is a great point where the system reinforces the setting.
Sneaky Fourth: Inside and Outside
It is difficult  not to just reiterate the entire book; as I read through it, I find more and more that I like.  One distinct thing that HWCTLH does is to split the job of GM into Inside Player and Outside Player.  During village creation and the creation of the village web (setting-building and creating a web of relationships), the Inside Player and Outside Player are just two more players adding their input.
When scenes are framed, they are either Inside scenes or Outside scenes – referring to the scene involving issues within the village or outside in the wilderness.  The job of the Inside and Outside Players are familiar from other story games, or even from a board game like Descent – to spend their resources and create tension and adversity for the Hero Players.
I like two things about the split in particular: one is that with what are essentially two GMs, the table itself is going to be a reminder of the divide in the game and the society between inside the village and outside the village.  This is perhaps something similar to the effect in Polaris of people taking various roles depending on where they are sitting with regard to the player upon whom play is focusing at the time; or, perhaps, in Wraith: the Oblivion where a Wraith’s Shadow is another player who is there to tempt, convince, cajole and coerce.
I also like that the existence of the Inside Player means there are going to be plenty of scenes where relationships in the village are at risk, rather than rushing off to fight monsters or rival tribes.  There are definitely going to be times when the “Big Bad” is going to be an elder taking another wife, or one kiva society vandalizing another kiva.
A big weakness for me is that my attempts to put together a group to playtest, and then simply to play, How We Came to Live Here were never successful.  This was due to a paucity of players in the area I recently moved to.  This means that my level of expertise on this game is, thus far, having read through it twice, once when it first came out, and once again to refresh my memory on what I wanted to talk about.
If the book has any weakness, it is that the layout, graphic design and so on are simple.  My main concern here would be that this fact might take away from the game itself, or might dissuade people from picking it up.
In my view, as written, this book is worthwhile even if it was handwritten on napkins, or was just a Microsoft Word document.  The book is $10 as a pdf, and it is more than you will get for that amount of money from almost any other game.
4.5 out of 5 stolen human bones

Review: Pathfinder Advanced Player’s Guide

The Pathfinder Advanced Player’s Guide is awesome.  Everything Paizo does seems to be awesome, and this book is no different.  Unlike 4th Edition’s many extra Player’s Handbooks, the Advanced Player’s Guide adds to and expands the Pathfinder system, not just in adding more of the same kinds of options, but opening up all new options as well.

I want to keep these little reviews short and sweet, so I’m not going to go through everything that lies within this wondrous tome.  (Well, figuratively a tome – I got the PDF).  Rather, I would like to point out three things that are particularly good about the book, and also to discuss any flaws that I find in it.  Again, this won’t be a thorough review, more like an impression.

First, the cool:

New Base Class: Alchemist
I really like that Alchemists are one of the new base classes presented by the Pathfinder Advanced Player’s Guide.  They are in some ways the Paizo take on the 3.5 Artificer from the Eberron setting, but their focus is not on crafting magical items, but rather on producing alchemical items.

The most exciting application of this ability is creating grenade-like bombs which Alchemists throw in combat. They are walking with loads of potential chemical energy strapped to their backs and around their waists and in their pockets, and during combat, the Alchemist is mixing volatile chemicals on the fly and tossing them on her foes.  That’s kind of cool.

Alchemists are also able to create mutagens which they can drink, Dr. Jeckyll style, to modify their abilities in a similar way to how transmutation spells like Fox’s Cunning function.  As an Alchemist advances in level, she gets the chance to make Discoveries, improving her abilities, and there is even the Master Chymist Prestige Class, for those who really want to go over the top with their Jeckyll/Hyde issues.

A little note under an Alchemist’s special abilities – they all receive the Throw Anything ability.  True, an Alchemist is pretty deadly armed with chemical bombs and mutagens, but I picture a fun scene with an Alchemist in a kitchen, hurling steak knives and pots of boiling water at her foes…

New Equipment
New weapons like the boar spear, sword cane, chakram and double crossbow make their debut in this book, as well as a number of new alchemical items and substances, which  makes a lot of sense with the new Alchemist class.  There is also some truly fantastic artwork depicting the various weapons and suits of armor – far more colorful and evocative than I’ve seen in other fantasy armories.

What really struck me, though, were the simple new pieces of adventuring gear.  Some things, like earplugs or a periscope, immediately make me wonder how I could build encounters around their use, or as a player, how I could abuse these things to gain an advantage in the game.  There are also items like the astrolabe, bear trap and compass that simply make sense, and can also be of obvious use to adventuring parties.

For those who are less than honest when they go down to the common room at the end of a hard days’ dungeon-crawling, there are loaded dice and marked cards.  Overall, a lot of new cool stuff for the inevitable d20 shopping sprees at character creation and between adventurers.

New Prestige Class: Mastery Spy
It has always driven me a bit crazy that in almost all d20 systems, and in most gamist-simulationist combat-focused fantasy RPGs I’ve ever seen, there are heaps and piles of weaponry, racks of armor, and hundreds of combat abilities, as well as a plethora of magical spells that are aften solely useful in combat.  If I want to play a socially-focused character, a “face” so to speak, however, I’m just out of luck.  I’m going to wander, forlorn from encounter to encounter, making Diplomacy rolls and hoping that, at best, I might make some NPCs like me a little bit more.

Truly sad.

Enter the Master Spy, requiring a number of social skills at up to 7 ranks as well as the Deceitful and Iron Will Feats.  A Master Spy is going to be more socially powerful than other characters of her level, and will become a master of both disguise and deception, able to hide and even alter her alignment.  This is still a combat game, of course, so the Master Spy also periodically gets a bonus to sneak attack damage, and at higher levels, will get the assassin’s death attack ability as well as the ability to entirely assume another persona at the highest level, allowing her to even fool the most powerful divination spells.

The problem remains that the Master Spy will not be as powerful or effective in combat as probably any other Prestige Class – that’s just a fact of d20 in all of it’s forms.  For a social-focused Rogue, however, or possibly a Bard, the Master Spy is a great choice, and I can see a game being built around an embedded Master Spy and her allies helping her from the outside, acting on the information she gathers.

Sneaky Fourth: Hero Points
Under New Rules, the Pathfinder Advanced Player’s Guide introduces Hero Points.  These are very similar to my house rules of Action Points from the Eberron setting in 3.5.  Essentially, Hero Points give players more options, as well as some control over when things like character death happen.  I like this in particular because it gets rid of the ‘meaningless death’ issue in many fantasy RPGs – where the player fails one roll and her character plummets to her death, or is killed by the save-or-die spell, in a way that doesn’t further the story whatsoever.  Screw that.

A little artistic oversight – the swords on page 261 and 263 are being held in exactly the same way, almost like the artist was using the same sword-holding model for each painting.

Honestly, I am a serious fan of most of what Paizo does, but there aren’t many flaws in this superb book.  Most of the ‘flaws’ I came up with were places where the book didn’t go far enough, or where I wished they had included more of the great stuff they are serving up.


4 out of 5 vials of alchemical mutagen