Model Review: 1:288 (6mm) Eastern Express Antonov AN-71 “Madcap” AWACS

The EE Antonov AN-71 is a fun, quick little build that will look fine as a gaming piece. Probably not the best overall choice for a “serious” micro-mini modeler, who will be screaming and flinging it out the window within minutes. 1:288/6mm scale makes it compatible with quite a few wargames, including Micro Armor, Fistful of TOWs, Battletech, and Robotech RPG Tactics. The limited historical deployment of this particular aircraft will hurt its utility for historical gamers, but other models in the series would likely serve them much better.
For Robotech Tactics modelers, the AN-71 is also an excellent base for an alternate version of the ES-11D “Cat’s Eye” recon – one of the guys on the Robotech Tactics Facebook group did up a conversion you can see here if you’re a group member.

First off – a little history. In 1984-ish, the Antonov company put together a bid for a new AWACS version of the AN-72 light transport airframe (NATO callsign “COALER”). It was intended to vector in ground-attack forces at the tactical level (taking the load off of the larger “MAINSTAY” and “MOSS”, which were busy handling strategic responses and combat air patrol), while taking advantage of the AN-72 airframe’s ability to make use of short, poor-quality runways and improvised airfields. While loosely equivalent to the role of an E2-C Hawkeye in USN service, the AN-71 was supposed to be a land-based design (the naval role was supposed to be taken by the Yakolev YAK-44, which never surfaced).  NATO assigned the bird the reporting name “MADCAP” after its first flight in 1985. Unfortunately, the USSR only ever made three AN-71 airframes before the economic collapses of 1986-88 killed the program. One of those three prototypes was shipped off to the Ukraine for their new Air and Space museum while they were in the process of seceding from the SSSR, which is why this particular model was originally Ukraininan.The Eastern Express company put out a series of models based on the Museum’s holdings, all nominally in 1:288 scale. Toko seems to have put out a version of the series as well, and you can find a box in the US from Imex (I got mine on the ‘bay for $4, so always check your supplier..)

The AN-71 herself is pretty unique – a STOL design that uses engine exhaust to increase lift over the wings. Unfortunately this design, while efficient, tends to be damned noisy for the poor saps inside the cargo bay, but hey. Whatcha gonna do? *(cancel it if you’re Boeing, of course. Keep using it for fifty-plus years if you’re a Russkie..)

Surviving AN-71 on display in the Ukraine

The Good: Simple, clean instructions. Good decals, although I have no need for them. Generally decent fit and polish on the kit.
The Bad: Lots and lots of flash on frame “A”. It cleaned up well after a quick pass with an emery board. Some gates on detail elements distorted the radome and tail. Shallow detail cuts had to be sharpened.
The Ugly: Does not include any parts to make closed landing gear bays. The engine mounting surfaces were poorly-designed, and the wing overall required a lot of work to mount.
Full model build/review under the cut. My apologies for the poor quality of a couple of the images -I plead being sick as hell and having a shit phone.


Making 28mm Asphalt Roads [Modern/Post-Apoc]

Following on from a post over at Tabletop-Terrain about making roads with self-adhesive floor-tiles, I swung by the Home Depot (gotta love that 10% veteran’s discount) and picked up a sample of this shit – TrafficMaster “light brown travertine” SA vinyl. Given that it’s running less than $1/square foot, and each square foot makes two 12″x6″ road sections, this is going to be a about half the price of my previous favorite option – Ikea “Avskild” cork placemats.

Before I break down the advantages of each, I figured I’d put up a quick shot to show you the texture of the vinyl tiles versus the cork.
• Ikea Cork sheeting, painted as concrete (from the Airbase Toblerone project).
As you can see, it’s got a pretty fine texture, even on the smaller bunker. Good for concrete, but it’s not really my favorite on the asphalt front. The surface tearing is nice and chunky, and the edges wear pretty well.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any pics of the commissioned road set I did a few years ago, but we’ll go over my experience with them below.

•Trafficmaster tile, inked and uncut (I just slapped some India ink on with a wet rag and took a photo here without cleaning the tile first: the pale spots appear to be greasy areas from previous handling..).

img_20161030_151202_887Here we’ve got a much more irregular surface, and it’s already very reminiscent of weathered asphalt even with the pale spots and brown undertone. It is, however, a thin sheet of plastic – less than .25mm – laid over a ~1.5mm rubber sheet. That may make larger areas of surface damage look less realistic unless I cut out the undersurface and hammer the surface plastic down into the “damage” pattern, or fill them with basing ballast.

So, what’s my take so far?

Cork sheeting

Advantages –
Realistic surface damage (for both asphalt and concrete). It’s easy to sink in some paper clip wire to simulate rebar on a broken section, or a small piece of low-gauge copper cable/plastic pipe for other conduits, which dresses up the edges nicely.

Multi-purpose. Crumbled scrap bits make great rubble. You can face a chunk of foamcore or stiff card with the cork and get a plastered concrete surface in minutes – one that’s also easy to trash and make look good.

Super-easy to work. Cutting, fitting, and weathering the cork bits for both of the pieces in the pic above took me about two minutes.

Cheap. Granted, both of the materials have that going for them, but it bears repeating; this stuff costs about 75c/ft^2.  In other formats, unfortunately, that’s not so true – a straight-up roll of cork from a craft or art store can be more along the lines of $5/ft^2.  And there’s a certain amount of wasted material because of the rounded edges of the Ikea stuff and the weird size.

Disadvantages –
Poor surface sealing coupled with moisture sensitivity. You have to paint PVA or another sealant onto cork, or it has a nasty tendency to swell. That flakes off paint. It also behaves oddly when painted unless you seal it – soaking in some colors, repelling others, and generally being a pain in the ass. Plus, again, it can swell or crumble without sealant while you’re painting it, screwing up your effects or damaging the piece.

Fragility – the same thing that makes it easy to work makes it hard to store. Cork works best as a facing on top of another material, like heavy card or styrofoam. In storage, dropping or bumping the container can shatter off a large chunk of cork, and the pieces frotting against each other in the box will not just wear the paint but tear chunks out. That means you need padded storage and rigid containment, which reduces the amount of stuff you can store in a given space. With roads it’s less of a problem – you can wrap them in cheap felt and glue a sheet of craft foam to the edges of the box – but storing a large building is a >massive< pain in the ass

It just doesn’t look like asphalt at larger scales. With a good paintjob, you can pass it off pretty well at 6-10mm, and I’ve seen some guys make 15mm look decent, but at 28+ it looks like shit unless you work it as concrete. How many cities or highways do you know of that use concrete for the roads? Yeah. It’s fine for sidewalks and warehouse floors, but not roads.

Vinyl Tile

Advantages –
Tough as hell. I did a few experiments with a painted chunk, slapping it edge-on against a desk and flapping the piece back and forth. Paint held well, and even the section I stripped the vinyl from seemed to be doing okay. Unfortunately, rubbing the painted sides together did do some paint damage, so I’ll still need surface protection, but rubbing gently with stiff, sealed card didn’t do too much damage. I think I may be able to get away with just peeling and sticking the flooring sheets onto posterboard and using that as layer protection; for more on that, see “conclusions” below.

Great surface texture. I mean, look at that pic again. That’s literally a thirty-second swipe of india ink – not a damn lick of paint – and it already looks like a road.

The sheets are a better shape and size than the Ikea mats I’ve been using, which means there’s less waste. Basically with cork I got two 6″x16″ chunks of straight road, or two 12″x8″ sections. Lots of room for a shoulder, but the roads also wound up looking unrealistically wide compared to 1:43 or 1:48 cars (let alone the figs). Of course, I could trim off that extra couple inches on each side and use to make sidewalks and curbs or building parts, which was pretty cool. With the vinyl I get four 6″x12″ straights, nearly quadrupling the yield per dollar spent.

On that note, the sheets are even cheaper than cork, especially in bulk; I can get ten 1’x2′ sheets for under twenty bucks. So for the same $20 I can get either ten sections of road with sidewalks/shoulders, plus 2 intersections per road section I drop, or forty sections without sidewalks. Sections that require less reinforcement and storage area.

Properly painted, it also looks like facing stones. With a little work, it’d be great for adding a “sandstone” texture to the lower floors of Foamcore ruins, which means I still have an outlet for scraps. Cork does have an advantage, though, in that crumbled bits of cork will look great just tossed on a rubble pile, where this will require trimmed and (roughly) squared sections of the scrap rather than “whatever’s left”

Disadvantages –
Heavier, by a substantial margin. Each sheet weighs about half again as much as one of the placemats, making it harder to transport on foot/bus.

Harder to weather and simulate surface damage – as I mentioned above, just picking the surface off reveals a chunk of rubber, which has a terrible texture. So you have to backfill the holes with basing ballast, or find some other way of getting an interesting texture instead of smooth cuts. That adds working time as well, which seems to be compensating for not needing to seal each individual piece.

Harder to work – This shit is dulling the HELL out of my boxcutter, and straight-up snapped a #11 Exacto blade within 5 cuts. It’s also tearing the shit out of my leatherworking swivel knife, which is why the boxcutter is getting an outing. I also can’t slap it up on the deck of my paper-cutter to just slice off straight sections, which means breaking out the rulers, square, and compass.

Floppy – A disadvantage both share, but the higher weight of the sheeting makes it more noticeable. I’m gonna need to give these a stiffer backing to keep the paint on, even if it held reasonably well in the basic tests.

Surprise contestant:
EVA (Craft) Foam
Easy to work, soft, multi-purpose.

Poor surface texture, floppy, fragile, and more expensive than either. Worse, it’s sensitive to heat and to spraypaint, so it’ll need sealing.

ConclusionsI’ll definitely keep using cork for my own street/postapoc projects, but I’m about to add a lot more vinyl to my toolbox. Given the properties of both, I’m thinking of using an 8″ wide strip of black posterboard, with the vinyl laid on top (using its own adhesive) as a road bed and either cork sidewalks or ballast to simulate gravel shoulders. I could also take strips of foamcore and cut out roadbeds from the center ( just leaving the bottom layer of card), and mark up curbs/sidewalks onto the raised edge sections. The foamcore method is almost certainly going to be the way to go if I’m making bridges/overpasses, unless I can convince that guy in the Makerspace to let me use his laser cutter on some MDF or hork up for the Hirst Arts bridge mold..

Robotech RPG Tactics, Wave I – Part III (It’s Destroid Time, With Your Friend, the Defender)

Finally, we get into the home stretch of my Wave I reviews. The Destroids are the models I bought the most of, for various battletech reasons.

Edit: Palladium Books has released updated assembly instructions for the Defender (and other units), which you can find on DrivethruRPG (here) for free.
Previous Posts: Part I, Part II
Next Posts:
I started a great photo-set with my sprues of Defenders months ago. I just burned out on dealing with the damned things when I started my first Phalanx. Wound up throwing the entire mess of Destroids into a box for a couple of months in sheer frustration. To be frank, I was getting pissed just looking at the models. That’s a very bad place to be as a reviewer, and a worse one as a hobbyist. So, yeah.

That’s really about half the review right there.
Generally speaking, the Destroid models are more poseable than the Valkyries or Glaug. There’s also no less Procrustean modeling, so you aren’t specifically forced to keep half the weapons in a fixed position. The joint layout makes magnetizing the arms and weapons very easy, which means you can even repose during a game if you want.
Unfortunately, they’ve also got insanely high part counts, with unsightly seams everywhere on most of the models. And, though the feet on the Defender, Tomahawk, and Phalanx are essentially identical, each sprue uses a slightly different and incompatible connection method for the ankle joint, reducing your posing options.

We’ll start off with the Defenders, because I actually have a full photoshoot prepped and ready to go (and I don’t want to keep this series on hold for the week (good Lord I was naive there) or more that prepping the other three will take)



Defender Sprue obverse

Click to embiggen for assembly notes

Reverse of sprue, showing arm keying.

Reverse of sprue, showing arm keying.

Three of the four legs are missing at least one detail. Only one is complete. In addition, two of the legs have gates on top of surface detail. You’d think, with the amount of copy-pasting going on elsewhere, that the legs would at least be identical..

Note that the leg on the right has only two strips, while the left side has four. Another is completely missing this detail, and a third has it damaged by a gate AND is missing the vent details on the side

Note that the leg on the right has only two strips, while the left side has four.
Another is completely missing this detail, and a third has it damaged by a gate AND is missing the vent details on the side

The body is a five-part model. It has several ugly, prominent seams that must be cleaned or filled, and leave noticeable gaps in the finished model. The searchlights on my models were also miscast, with mold lines and underflow on all four side torsos.

Gapping in the torso, hips, and arms

Gapping in the torso, hips, and arms. Torso searchlight miscasts.

The guns have extremely thin barrels, making extracting them without damage very difficult. Cut the bases of the gun first with clippers, then slowly cut off the barrels with a very sharp knife or saw. Preferably, add some padding behind them.
The connecting peg on the hips is wider than the hole in the torso, and must be carefully filed down to allow the model to mate properly.
The hip joint mounts on the legs force them into very specific angles, but can be easily (if carefully) modified to allow other positions.
There is no mounting point for a Command Destroid modification on the Defender, and the only position in which it “fits” interferes with both the arm placement and the radar sail. I have a functioning conversion that involves cutting down the piece into three parts and re-mounting them in the radar sail area.

Conversion prep instructions and diagram

Conversion prep instructions and diagram

Once the parts are cut, you can mount the search radar on the side of one of the ammo bins, or up over the shoulder/gun area. I cut off the top of the right-hand bin and hard-mounted it to the torso, however, and I think it came out pretty well.
Flip around the comms package, and cut it to fit the normal radar sail mount. It won’t take too much effort, and it looks pretty good up there.

The finished product

The finished product

Good Points:
The hard, flexible plastic makes the slender guns and radar blade surprisingly resilient once they’re off the sprue. The Defender’s posing is much more flexible than most of the other models in the line. There are points of articulation at the arms, legs, radar, and torso angle – all tweakable with minimum effort.

Number of Components

Twenty. Body is six parts alone, the legs and arms are three each, and the hips are two-parters.

Assembly Time:
Prep cutting took 15 minutes, not counting the time required to pin and re-glue an o.7mm gun barrel. Torso and hips took about 8 minutes to green-stuff and align, including filing and prefits. Overall, the two models took about 40 minutes to assemble, plus 8 hours of Green Stuff drying time. With a sharp, very slender pair of diagonal cutters the pair would probably take ~30 minutes.


Vigilante One, reporting for duty!

Vigilante One, reporting for duty!

Lusus Naturae (Review, LotFP)

Three years ago today, I opened this nerdy little candy stand, averaging a post every five days. Cool.
Let’s celebrate by getting into Lusus Naturae, the first explicit (and boy is it..) Lamentations of the Flame Princess “monster manual”. It’s written by Rafael Chandler, best known in my circles for the Teratic Tome (a universal monster book that just leans heavily on LotFP). It’s serviceably, and occasionally beautifully, illustrated by Gennifer Bone. You can find the pdf here (link) for fifteen bucks. Print version’s expected soonish, but it needs to get shipped from Finland.

So, first, some pontificating, so you know where I’m coming from.
I define “Horror” as “The fear of impending, but uncertain violation”. The violation can be of your body, mind, or assumptions about the structure of the world (psyche?). The uncertainty isn’t just if it will happen, but also when, how, and in what manner. An important part of horror is that you feel, on some level, deprived of agency – usually by biological reactions or simply the apparent futility of action. To defeat it, you must reassert your ability not just to act, but act meaningfully.
Roleplaying games are celebrations of agency; therefore, you’ve got to balance seeming helplessness with the possibility of success. Mystery helps (adding uncertainty), as does things that screw with the rules of the game (see: assumptions about the structure of the world). Players should know that the characters can die, or be horribly affected. On the other hand, only shitty authors coughFatalcough see “violation” and think “RAPE ALL DAY EVERYDAY”. Parasites, mutation, loss of control over personal space, having secrets wrested from you.. all are unpleasant and (properly played) horrifying outcomes.
Lusus Naturae is one of the better horror gaming aids I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t need a Sanity mechanic to make the players start screaming and setting each other on fire..

What it ain’t: This isn’t meant to be “all the monsters” for a campaign. It’s not really a source for wandering monsters, either – though a couple things would certainly be appropriate.
What it does: Adds/adapts a treasure system to Lamentations. Contains an assortment of horrifying, modular mini-Mythosoi with accompanying additions to to your campaign world. Fucks with players.

What’s it about?
Lusus Naturae is basically a dozen metal album covers made into a book. There are some truly Lovecraftian enemies that will alter your campaign world if they show up. The treasure and magic items are highly-portable, and several are quite interesting. You can use at least a couple things in the book at almost any level of play, and you can challenge a low-level party without instantly reducing them to a fine red mist (the main problem with the critters from the MMII, the Fiend Folio, and the assorted “Deities” books in 1e).
It’s also deliberately, sometimes extremely, offensive – and on pretty much every possible level. There was shit in there that skeeved me out, and I used to work as a search engine tester. Many things in the book alter or rewrite the rules; you have to pay attention while using it.

What’s new about it?:
There are several innovations I like, and some I’ve already incorporated into my own campaign. Specifically, several of the summoned monsters have ill omens or Harbingers associated with their appearance. I’m adding them onto the “Omens” section of my random encounter tables.
I’ve also spoken about Death Curses and Desecration penalties elsewhere. I think they’re an excellent, thematic way of adding a little unpredictability to the game. I’ll post more on my current mechanics later. That said, Chandler has expanded on the classic idea to include boons/banes/weird magical things that happen to the person who strikes a killing blow against some of the monsters. These range from small mechanical bonuses or maluses, to extremely specific magical abilities or information and tools. Not every monster has them, but they have an appropriate fairy-tale feel to them.

Overall Rating: 8.5/10
If you’re into horror, the book is almost certainly worth it. If you or your players are easily squicked, or you demand “SUPER SRS, ALL THE TIME” games, it’s not for you. It’s not quite as pretty as the usual Lamentations release, but it’s just as usable as any other.

Detailed breakdown after the jump.

Review: Robotech RPG Tactics, Wave 1 Part I (Compatibility, Scaling)

This is the first post in a multi-part series
#2: Valks and Zentradi
#3: The Destroid Defender

So, I’ve mentioned my kickstarting in the past. The Robotech RPG Tactics (neé Robotech Tactics..) kickstarter was one of my first. I’ve been following this glorious clusterfuck since it was a guy on BlogSpot with a dream and a good sculpting hand. Well, a year and a half after funding (and almost three years since it’s inception) I have my models. Was it worth the wait?
The Short version:
The Good: Holy shit the detail on the models. Extra Valkyrie parts galore. A well-polished book with a tight and portable rules system I’ve already been hacking for a few months.
The Bad: The model sprues are un-labeled, and there are warped parts and missing assembly information. The partially-incomplete rulebook makes it difficult to build a force without shuffling through a massive brick of differently-sized cards, and several rules are ambiguous.
The Ugly: Deliberately bad poseability. Poorly thought-out gates on the sprues damage detail on some models, and require extremely careful prep work. Then there’s Palladium Books’ behavior.

This is the first part of a series; a quick preview, concerned with model scaling – since its the question I get most often, from every quarter. I’m also writing specific reviews of the rules and the model components; this will include build-ups of the Wave I mecha models, and a discussion of the quality and fit issues – of which I’m sure you’ve already heard.

The question everyone wants to know:
What’s that? “Doc, will the models work in [the major mecha game..]?”
Yes and no, it depends on what you want out of them. First:

The Bugs:
A properly built-up Super VF-1A or -1S will definitely pass as a PHX-1 or a Pixie LAM. Modding an extra gun-pod will make you a PHX-3-series, though it will require green-stuffing. A straight-up VF-1A or -1S without the FAST-pack will make a pretty good PHX-1K.  Based on the scale shots I’ve seen so far, Crusaders shouldn’t be an issue either once the Armored Valkyrie boxes come out sometime next year.
What they won’t do is get you the shorty Bugs – Wasps, Valkyries, or Stingers.

Family Tree

Clockwise from the top: Unseen Pewter CRD-3R, WizKids PHX-5L, 3e Plastic WSP-1A, 3e Plastic STG-3R, 3e Plastic PHX-1, and a RRPGT VF-1J in the center.

Hark - A Grognard

Gervalk VF-1J, with a dismasted Pixie. Arms taken from the Battloid-mode sprue. The pegs are mounted in different areas on each model, but can be used in either mode with a bit of time and green stuff.

The Heavies: (What everyone wanted anyway)
In general, the Destroids are more compact and detailed than the Unseen metals, and much better than the plastics. While mine are still on the sprues, CampaignAnon from /btg/ was kind enough to give me permission to post these pictures of his initial work. Phalanx and Spartan photos to follow once I’ve had the time for a build-up. I also have a lead Unseen Longbow coming in in a few weeks, which will help comparisons considerably. Notably, the Spartan box includes the parts necessary to make an ARC-3K (the variant with a pair of Large Lasers), while the Phalanx box has both the standard “Barrel” arms and the nuclear “Derringer” arms seen in the last few episodes of Macross/Robotech, perfect for representing an Arrow IV system – or Thunderbolts.

Left: RRPGT models. Right: Metal Unseen. Images by CampaignAnon

Left: RRPGT models. Right: Metal Unseen. Images by CampaignAnon

The Glaug is far too large for Z-scale. I’d call it a trifle small for N-scale, if WizKids had ever actually attempted anything like a consistent scale in their efforts. It almost fits in with that weird half-scale the HQ Loki and Thor from the 25th anniversary box had, but even then is in its own little niche. The Glaug sprue also contains a Quel-Regult (a scout/EWACS variant of the standard Battlepod) and a Quel-Gulnau (salvage/recovery unit), which means that the boxed set will be pointless for a BT player unless you want an N-Scale Ostscout for some reason.


The Breakdown
If you’re primarily interested in buying the models to represent otherwise un-obtainable units, the Destroid and Super Valkyrie “add-on” packs will likely be your best bet. The current MSRP is $33/box for either a box with 2 Defenders and 2 Tomahawks, or a box of 2 Spartans and 2 Phalanxes.
This is about half the price of the 3e Plastic Unseen on auction sites, and the added detail and friendlier material make them very much worth it – especially for the Phalanx/Longbow (which is very hard to find, and never saw a plastic release) and the Rifleman/Defender (the Plastech model is especially ugly and intractable). Before you cough up, however, I recommend reading the modelling review. These are still, effectively, 1:144 models shrunk to 1:285 scale, and require a great deal of effort and build time.

Legal note: all images and trademarks not owned by me are used without permission, for the Fair Use purposes of review and discussion. No challenge is intended by their use. I neither represent nor have personal ties to Harmony Gold, Palladium Books, FASA, or Catalyst Games, nor any other interested party. I am not a party to FASA vs. Harmony Gold. Thank you for your time.

LotFP Crowdfunding Review #4: “Forgive Us”

As promised, here’s the full review for Kelvin Green’s adventure Forgive Us. Since this is one I’ve actually played, I’m going to include commentary from my players as well as my own; since I had to adapt it directly to my campaign, I’ll also add in notes on the conversions and the tools I used. This will be relatively spoiler-free: if you want more details, check the session reports (here and here). Note that I haven’t run the secondary adventures yet.

The full module is available here.

Overall Rating: 8/10
In essence, this is a One-Page Dungeon (or rather, a series of them) writ large, by a master of the form. Mr. Green’s expertise shines through in the tight and easy-reading/playing prose. On the opposite side of that equation, some elements (mostly information about secondary NPCs and magic items) were neglected in that focus on clarity and simplicity. There are a few minor playability issues; a map error, a mystery with one vague clue which can stone-wall the party. The flavor and mood, however, more than make up for them.
The main adventure in Forgive Us (formerly Horror Among Thieves) is fun, fast, and brutal. The location is flavorful, with an evocative and consistent theme. The treasures are engaging, the traps make sense, and the final moments will likely make your players brown their collective trou.
On that note, my parties are careful and heavily-armed – but this is a seriously threatening adventure. If you run it as-written, it will definitely give a 4th-level party a hard run for their money – as long as you can keep the PCs from leaving the location. Fortunately, it’s almost certainly going to pull them in tight until they hit the bitter end.

But don’t just take my word for it, listen to my players:
(The Doctor): “That.. was the most Metal game of D&D I’ve ever played”, “Silver makes a man rich. Nice furniture makes him feel wealthy.”, “At first, when I found out what that d20 was for, I was miffed I hadn’t rolled a second. About 30 seconds later, I was really glad”.
(The Archaeologist): “The details were wonderfully consistent.. and the maps were just detailed enough but not too detailed”
(The Fighter): “Murderous”.
(The hireling Henchman): “I got class levels!”

The next two adventures are shorter (or much longer, depending on how the PCs react). Both can be used to great effect when the party returns to one of their old haunts. Indeed, it seems almost like both were written for a DM who’s saying, “Well, they’ve gone back to that first town from 3 levels ago.. now what?”
In Heaven, Everything is Fine is well-suited as a hex-crawl element or special encounter; a contained area with a simple but cleverly-disguised problem the PCs can fix. To use it, however, you will need either to generate a large number of NPCs, or cannibalize an existing “village” adventure or NPC portfolio supplement. It has a fantastically set-up series of Weird encounters that should keep your players skittish but interested.
Death and Taxes is more of an encounter or political scheme than an “adventure” per se. It resolves an NPC’s story arc and adds a Nemesis to the party’s roster of enemies. Treasure per se is limited, but the loot is excellent. To engage the PCs, it depends entirely on the players’ fondness for an NPC (which it kills off-screen). It’s not exactly an appropriate module to run early on, or for the seriously hacky-slashy crowd.

All three adventures also contain many nods to Hammer Horror or its descendents, and a few tributes to other classic films or roleplaying products.

Detailed breakdown under the jump.


Review: Lamentations of the Gingerbread Princess (LotFP Crowdfunding products #3)

Purchase link – PDF onry.

Overall: 7/10
A quote from one of the item descriptions  sums up this module’s theme nicely:

“There are so very many sparkles, and it is pink. It has tassels. Really this is just the most obnoxious looking sparkly [thing] you can picture a 6 year old ballerina wanting… [it] require[s] uttering black tongues of ancient days. This would be more imposing if all the dots and umlauts were not drawn as little pink hearts.”

Lamentations of the Gingerbread Princess is kind of ugly and a little unpleasant to read – but short, tight, and mechanically solid. Inside you’ll find a Gonzo fairy-tale hellscape tailor-made to fuck with your players for a few days. It’s also usable as a Hallowe’en-themed short-shot, or a tournament module. Is it too gonzo? Without getting into Big Spoilers, if you’d seriously consider running a module with a My Little Pony character as a BBEG, your campaign can handle it.

He will fuck you up

He will fuck you up

Value? If you like to occasionally feed the /b/tard in you and/or screw with your players, it’s definitely worth it. Otherwise.. well, it runs under $5 US, and it’s a remarkably unsettling little piece of work. What have you got to lose?

Review: Tales of the Scarecrow (LoTFP Crowdfunding products #2)

I’ve been sitting on this for a while, hoping to run the modules first. Sadly, my ad at the LGS isn’t getting the response I’d hoped for (I.E., “any”), and most of the modules are inappropriate for what I’m about to do to my campaign characters.

Tales of the Scarecrow: (link to goes to the store page)
Cover painting (clean) on Jason Rainville’s blog
Overall: 9/10 if you’re looking for a one-night-stand or a drop-in location. It’s a little short for making into a full-on tentpole location; on the other hand, it could be a hilarious part of, say, a wizard’s demesne. It does start to break down after about level 5-7 but is otherwise level-insensitive.  Since it’s so short, this will also be a short-form review.

This is, basically, a single overworld hex in 8 pages.  It’s cheap, good-looking, and the work of about thirty seconds to add to your campaign. Well, as long as you’re lacking in wizards, and/or yours doesn’t know Fly. Granted, it’s only going to last you a night, but  – like most of Jim’s work – there’s campaign-screwing repurcussions. If you don’t like having your party Mage accidentally starting the Apocalypse with a game of Chinese Whispers, it’s probably not for you. There’s also a humorous contest that makes the players work their asses off to screw each other over – but potentially offers an escape route..

It’s got a few minor utility problems; the page with the rapier image on it crashes my e-reader, and the pretty background does make some of the text a little hard to read. Otherwise, this is completely pick-up-and-go. Maps are clear and exactly where they need to be, and the small size makes it instantly accessible. Important NPCs and text are set off clearly with boldface type. The Modularity is perfect, with everything generic enough to not intrude, while keeping enough flavor to let you run the damned thing. On an aesthetic note, the illustrations are very nice – blocky, claustrophobic, and ’30s-silent-horror unpleasant woodcuts. Plant-decorated capitols and a repeating corn-field background tie each page to the theme of the module, and the front cover is an excellent painting by Jason Rainville. The back is a fairly ugly white-on-red affair, but it also has the publishing details somewhere they’re not intruding on actual text, so I’ll take it.

It engages the characters by entrapping them. The Trap itself isn’t bullshit, but it’s the kind you can’t simply defuse and move on from. It offers a simple and highly immoral way to escape – as well as several less-simple, less-compromising, and probably extremely unwise methods. Trying to get out with blunt force is.. inadvisable. Just the way I like ’em. The trap itself is useless against anyone who flies, so keep that in mind.
As far as Treasure – well, there’s plenty for any level of characters. There’s difficult but rewarding stuff, hidden items, treasures that require unpleasant moral choices to find, and at least two things with the potential to make Incredibly Bad Shit happen to your players/world. Or, y’know, nothing at all. Because Magic.

Review: The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions (LotFP)

I recently got my copy of The Seclusium of Orphone* of the Three Visions as part of the reward package from the Lamentations Rules and Magic reprint kickstarter. Now that I’ve got more than a couple hours to rub together, it’s time for that review I’ve been promising..
(*I see what you did there)

You can go here to look at my rating criteria. Remember, these ratings are for my needs and tastes, not necessarily yours, but I try to explain my reasoning as best I can.

Overall: 7/10
Every Wizard’s story is.. Max and Where the Wild Things Are”. – Pg. 20.
This book is a useful and inspiring toolbox, appropriate for virtually any universe with magic innit. Elements of its presentation are gorgeous, the writing is excellent, and the art evocative. The essays within will likely change the way you run your games, and for the better. Poor layout choices and redundant content, however, make it feel rushed; at once padded and incomplete. For something so chart-heavy, there are some basic elements missing that would have been helpful. Still, the framework it provides for both magic and Magi – which are explained just well enough to use without treading on most campaign worlds – is delightful and the book itself quite good for a GM looking to add some proper “fucked-up” to his wizard’s homes.

Make no mistake, this may not be the best of Lamentations’ products, but it’s still well above-average for the industry. I probably wouldn’t have bought the print edition based on my first impressions, but after reading and using it the inspiration value alone is worth the price of admission.

You can pick up the print & pdf here for ~22 Euros, order it from your LGS, or go for just the pdf at just shy of 8 Euros.

Detailed breakdown after the jump.

Review: Better Than Any Man (LotFP)

Before we start, here you’ll find a post listing my criteria for the review.  More Free RPG Day module reviews incoming, but this one I paid for. It’s also the one that, no two ways about it, made the most impact in my FLGS. There’s a more detailed breakdown after the jump, of course.

He's here for your bit- uh, witches


Summary/ Overall impression: 8.5/10
As usual, it’s a B5 saddle-stitched booklet. In what’s rapidly becoming an LotFP tradition (one I like), the covers are detachable and have useful information inside. It clocks in at 96 pages of sandbox adventure, with very little space wasted. Within: Social upheaval, Swedes, Bad People (Note: Largely, not the Swedes!), good art, and very odd wizards/witches.
The crap you hear on the intertubes about how horrid it is? My ass. It just refuses to fade to shadows on the wall for a couple scenes. Unlike most adventures, you’re going to be forced to address the shit you do, and fight, much more intimately than some people are comfortable with. Also, confront the fact that people are dumb, panicky, violent and delusional animals who frequently refuse to act in their own interest.
I’d pay $25 for this (oh wait, I already did, and Jim threw in some more stuff!). That’s ~5 pounds of decent steak or indifferent bacon. With 10,000+ copies out there, it should be easy to find one if you want it.
Edit: The PDF is now available here. You should probably get it.

Bad Resin! No Biscuit!

As you may remember, I’ve been fiddling around with resin casting, working up to sculpting and casting my own wargaming minis. I ran out of the white resin I’d been using previously, and broke out the Smooth-cast 325 I bought a month ago. It’s “clear” and, in theory, tintable, although I haven’t sprung for any of the colors they sell for it.  Allegedly, it’s got the same work and demold time as 300, which I’m now quite comfortable with.
I tried to run up some quick-and-dirty armature casts for the torso and arms of a Destroid Phalanx/Longbow LGB-0W that I’m sculpting.
Short story? It did not go well.

Longer story:

Phoning it in: A review of Pokemon Generation V

So, now that Gen VI has heaved its bulk into view, and as Gen V is winding down, I thought I’d put up some of my thoughts on V.

Things I like:
• The breeding game is very, very well-supported. Dream World abilities add depth, the mechanics changed subtly but in helpful ways, and the addition of the Nursery, Restaurant, and Salon in Black 2 remove a lot of the drudgery, grinding, and shitty roadblocks in the game.
• Other endgame activities are also well-supported. The tournaments in B/W2 featuring the actual top teams from worlds is an especially nice touch, but it’s just nice to have something to do every day other than grind and breed.
• There are more opportunities to earn experience, and faster. The stadia in particular pull thirty levels of grinding down to a 5-minute proposition instead of a friggin’ day.
• Black and White threw out the “old standards” and completely isolated the Unova region. You had to start from scratch and work your way up. Many of the new pokemon were interesting or at least something original, and you had to explore the capabilities and uses of the new type combos and movepools. My favorite part of Black was not having to deal with the cruft from previous games.
• The new movepools were, by and large, interesting and fun to develop.
• The ancillary games and off-cart support provided by TPC – Dream Radar, the Dream World, the new pokedex apps – are excellent. Full stop.

Things that I don’t like:
• You know how they supported the endgame? It seems to have been completely at the expense of standard, one-player gameplay.
Stop holding my fucking hand, handing out all the “prizes” like candy and forcing me into long irritating expositions that literally lead me by the nose into the gyms or the next fight.
Make at least some of the fights an actual challenge, instead of 99% complete walkovers even on a speedrun. Most of the toughest fights in Gen V were ordinary trainers in the Stadia and on the field, and that’s bullshit. I shouldn’t be able to take a flying gym using only a water starter and a bug/grass pokemon that are both 10 levels under the Gym Leader’s… The Elite Four were particularly egregious here; all of their pokes were weak to either Ghost/Dark or Fighting, and you could easily sweep them with 2 Pokemon.
• Sidequests are basically nonexistent.
• Don’t take away my damned pokemon daycare/breeding until the endgame. It’s a useful tool, and one I miss sorely.
• B/W2 dropped the “isolated region” conceit, making the initial playthrough less fun for me.
• You know all those Dream World pokemon? The ones that make breeding more interesting? How about you release them all instead of dicking with us for three years and then, like all the other generations, abandoning support and any remaining un-released promotions and content as soon as the next gen comes out in Japan? (Yes, I’m still sore about HeartGold/SoulSilver and DPP, how could you tell?)
• Like many Japanese game companies TPC are, and continue to be, self-absorbed dicks (can you tell I played FFXI a lot?). If you release a Wi-Fi/Dream World promotion in Japan (I understand leaving the new pokecenter stuff, &c, in JP-land), release something, preferably at the same time, in the States and Europe; guarantee us support for the lifetime of the gen instead of the Generational Death March. For Arceus’ sake, it’s not like you actually have to write new friggin’ code,  all the releases are just sitting there waiting to go. Also, stop making JP-ONRY tournaments and then forcing all the other unwashed regions to compete only in global tourneys.
• Making “sight” count towards pokedex completion. Bear with me here.. because of this, they limited the Gym Leaders and Trainers to only things available to the player up to that point. It seriously diminished both the difficulty and the mystery of the game; fighting things you don’t have and can’t get until after you defeat the boss gives you an idea of their capabilities and a reason to want them.
• Making the game “all new” presented some problems. Many of the “new” pokemon were – just like in Gen II and III and IV – reskinned and slightly retouched versions of previous lines (Look, it’s a Blaziken only slow and a little beefier; a machop, only tragically ugly; a pidgey with better crits; a Muk only ugly as Hell..). Even some of the genuinely new things seemed like they were just trowing type combos at the wall and seeing what stuck (Chandelure stuck. Mmmm, did it stick).
It also prevented the devs from cleaning up real gaps in the Pokedex, which they haven’t touched since Gen III. I understand why they abandoned Jynx while upgrading Magmar and Electabuzz

jolsonovalPictured: the third evolution of Jynx.

– but a lot of the other holes have no such excuse. Gen VI is showing some promise here. The new Eveelution suggests that they’re finally rounding out those holes a little (or giving Gym Leaders or the Final Four personal unique pokemon, which I’m also cool with). Whether they’ll patch up some of the other type holes that were ignored in Gen II? Up in the air right now. At least we look to be getting three monotype starters again, which makes my Fire-loving heart go pit-a-pat.

I enjoyed many parts of Gen V, but HG/SS remains the best (if not best-supported) game TPC has put out in a long time. Here’s to seeing Gen VI fix a few of those problems; maybe I can even get my wife to start playing again. She abandoned Gen V in the Cold Storage zone and never looked back, for most of the gameplay-related reasons I outlined in the “what I don’t like” section.

[disclaimer: no challenge to trademarks intended, yada yada, all copyrighted materials presented for educational or review purposes under the doctrine of Fair Use. Copyright trolls can suck it and I live for the day the terms are reduced back to <50 years and required commercial exploitation, leaving you parasites to guzzle frantically at the teat of other people’s work instead of hoarding it. Image of Al Jolson in the public domain.]

An Origin Story

Zenopus asked us to describe our experiences with Holmes Basic.
In 1989, at the age of 8, I played my first game of D&D (whitebox) with my father’s group. It was his goodbye session, as far as I can remember, played before we moved to the sticks. Players included myself, my dad, the son of a local author, my sister’s Godfather, and a future Grand Arch-Druid. I learned many important things (not all bears are talking bears, for example…), lost my first two characters (neither to the aforementioned bear), and had an enormous amount of fun. But this is the tale of my Holmes.

Christmas 1989 (which I still accord the title of Best Christmas Ever), my now 9-year-old self acquired 2 things that would shape me for years to come. One was a boxed set of Squad Leader, lighting off my devotion to hex-and-counter wargames, not to mention wargames design. The other was a second printing of Holmes, with an unexpected bonus: it also had the books from the Mentzer Basic set within. I rapidly settled on Holmes as my primary source, mostly because his set seemed more dedicated to actually playing the game (see: advice on non-human characters, which which I ran rampant for years). Granted, the Mentzer book was destroyed by a cat about 8 months later – whereas I jealously guarded my Holmes until several pages literally crumbled from use in my late teens. I kept the dice for almost a decade before I lost the last, hopelessly-rounded D20 down a drain in Pensacola.

Anyway, that boxed set served me well. Synthesizing those two books made me realize the value of grabbing things I like from multiple game systems; the elipses in both taught me to house-rule and craft my own content. It also taught me to bash together new rules and systems if the rules didn’t give me what I needed. I used it to run everything from Oz to Narnia*, Star Wars to the Three Musketeers. I even used it as the core of a Lego wargame my brothers and I played intermittently for years. My current brand of D&D is built on it; the first question I ask whenever I see a new system or quirk is, “Will what this adds to the game for me or my players be worth the difficulty over just hauling out Holmes?”.
The dungeons were also most useful.
I consider “In Search of the Unknown” to be a vital part of Holmes. It adds important rules; the hireling supplement in the back of B1 is an orphaned part of the rulebook, and I’ve used its distinctions between henchmen and hirelings ever since. I’ve also found that people who cut their teeth on B2 seem to ignore hirelings as a fact of life. Likewise, the example of the drowning rules under the hallway pit trap give an excellent example of ways to create new rules on the fly. In fact, B1 shaped my perception of D&D more than almost any other source. I’ve run that dungeon into the ground (8, 10 times now?) and people still come back for more. It still kills the stupid and unwary, but it’s not deliberately unfair. The traps are tough, but avoidable (especially for a prepared party). The dead party at the entrance makes the newbies’ hair stand on end, and simultaneously searching them makes the players instantly aware (if they have any brains at all) that there are intelligent monsters up ahead.  The treasures are unique and require creative thinking and ingenuity to extract. The rumors are hilarious.

Years later, in Lemoore, I finally replaced my Holmes set after a good bit of dabbling in 1e and 2e AD&D; 3e was about to come out, and the purchase was initially just for nostalgia’s sake.
It’s worth remembering here that I am a Navy man. 2001 marked my first deployment, and my carrying space was obscenely limited. I had to pack the maximum entertainment value into as small a space as possible; though I didn’t know it, my “1-month” shakedown cruise was about to turn into a 10-month parade of bullshit. I’d brought only the 3e core books, Spycraft, and some 40k/Battlefleet Gothic books. I played three campaigns on that boat, but none of them were all that fulfilling, and I found it increasingly annoying that so much of our games depended on leafing through pages of rules rather than just playing the damned game; that replacing a character became a 3-hour+ exercise in tweaking so no-one put in anything “deadly”.
On the next (allegedly 5-month, actually 10-month) cruise I stuffed my Holmes into the briefcase with my 2e PHB and DMG *(I used the 1e MMs almost exclusively with 2e, simply because it had less extraneous text and a lot more information on playing with the monsters..) and BESM, another simple, compact, and flexible game system. Guess which ones I actually ran? After that, I still ran 3e on request, but I gave up on it about 6-7 years ago – about a year before I found the OSR, as luck would have it.

Today, Mr. Holmes’ creation has the honored “right next to my elbow” place on my bookshelf, inside a folder with T1, B1, and B2; it’s next to my Judges’ Guild folders and the LotFP books.

Reviews: My Criteria, & a Template.

After publishing a few reviews, I noticed that I haven’t really explained my basis for my RPG product ratings all that well. Consider this a manifesto and an explanation in equal measure.

I may seem critical in my reviews, but to paraphrase Tolstoy – the Good things are always more limited (and alas, easy to pass over in some cases) than the infinitude of possible errors and minute shades of Bad and/or just Not Good. I go in with teeth bared and blood in my eyes, but I never expect something to be perfect. I expect it to be average.

So.. what do I like in a game?
I like pulp that punches you in the balls and steals your Priceless Artifact for its Nazi Dinosaur employers.
I like Giant Robots that are only as good as their pilots, locked in strife, as Romance and Madness rage in the background.
I like stratified and vicious intrigue in the halls of power, where pulling a weapon means you’ve lost; where carefully-aimed scandal and boardroom sausage-making are the deadliest tools.

More germanely to this blog, I like Weird-ass fantasy.
Oz, Spencer, the fever-dreams of Dunsany and Coleridge, and my own ongoing folklore studies have influenced my tastes more than Tolkien or Lieber. Even Narnia is my kind of Weird, in its own way. Fey monsters with shortcuts to victory if you can only break the Magic that holds them in this world. Beasts that walk like Men (good, bad, hungry.. as long as they aren’t constantly going for “sexy” I’m down).
I like my hideous, twisted Evil beings to cackle madly and ride the Devil in the night. The cold, beautiful evils in the heights to sell their souls for power. The petty Evil of all men to turn away its eyes and damn itself with the easy path. I want the Good of a simple man to cut through it and blaze out over the world, even as his fellows turn, fall, fail, and die facing the corruption of the world. And I want every one of them as a potential player, not just the Heroes.
My games, unfortunately, have often been much more generic :/

I want my players to say, “Fuck you, I’m not going out on a mountain in a snowstorm” not because the cold will kill them, but in fear of the Yuki-onna and the Jotun; they must fear the forest not just for the HD of the monsters within, but for the half-seen things sniffing hungrily at their souls. (Links to follow as I post some of the more fucked-up monsters I’ve come up with in the last year..).
I’ve succeeded there on more than one occasion, up to the point where I had my players in near-hysterical paranoia in a sewer, up against 3HD worth of monsters.

I prefer my magic to be a rare and nifty double-edged blade rather than generic. Check the Archive posts to see what I mean. I like it when players seriously debate selling treasure, when they start keeping track of that sage three towns over who studies Dark Runes and spends his time collecting the inscribed Gem-Idols used by the Melniboniean emperors as currency.
Again, I’ve been dragged too often down the easy path, although keeping a commonplace book to jot down ideas I have, say, on the bus has helped greatly there. Damn you, ADD, I’ve probably lost more gaming material over the last 2 decades than I’ll ever publish.

I want my players to go off the rails, because they were a faint suggestion in the first place: I want them to MAKE a story, not “tell it with me”. I’m a referee, and hopefully always will be, not a Storyteller. I don’t want A Story for them to play out in what I buy. I want the web of relationships within a scenario explained, and hopefully some of the motivations behind them; I can riff off of a motivation a lot easier if I don’t have to infer it from reading the entire damned thing. Also, the players NEED to be able to fail meaningfully without necessarily destroying their entire adventure. I’m a mechanic: single points of failure (SPoF) – areas where failing stops everything cold – have no place in a working system constantly exposed to hostile action.

So here are my categories, along with a quick explanation of their rankings.
Could I use this on its own merits? Is the thing playable out of the box? File Formatting, Maps, and encounters all fold in, as does organization. Hiding critical encounter clues inside a monster stat-block three pages away from the first room they appear in is the tiniest bit counterproductive. If I can’t read your shitty hand-written and scanned prop, I can’t expect my players to do so. Language use is judged here on its function and clarity, not its artistic merits. If your writing is incoherent and ambiguous, I can’t adjucate with it.

1/10: Basically unusable. The file crashes my e-reader, pages are garbled, multiple critical parts of the content are left out. The author’s language leaves my eyes bleeding, or he makes retarded font choices. Also, the book could be severely disorganized, especially in PDF form. I have to generate craploads of content just to play (not to adapt, but to play it as intended). Maps and props are ugly and unpleasant to use (blueprint blues..). The book requires another supplement or secondary book to function (if you need a basic, “core” book you don’t get shafted here. Likewise, I consider the intent of the module: B1 is as much an exercise in learning to place encounters as it is a training module for the characters).
5/10: Readable, workmanlike, and functional. There are some annoyances, perhaps no index or Table of Contents, or page numbers are not marked. Some language errors, but no ambiguity in the actual rules text. Maps and handouts are readable, if occasionally hard to cross-reference.
10/10: Well-laid out. Finding information inside is a pleasure, and the writing is completely error-free. The maps are clear and may even include insets for particularly tricky or annoying bits. Chapters are coherent and arranged in a logical order. Files use hyperlink cross-references, and are well-bookmarked. All of the information I need to pick up and run is inside the covers.

I assume I’ll have to do at least some hacking with anything I buy – swapping out some of the encounters, changing out treasures, adapting backstories, whatever. This is a measure of how much work it will be for me to use it on the table, and how easy it will be for me to drop it in front of my players. Backstory (along with a bit of the encounters) folds into this as well. Canned encounters are a shortcut, but they make returning to the area difficult. You will likely have to excise and replace them if the players leave.

I’ll have to rewrite this completely, spending a week or more, to play with it. It could be impossible to put it into a campaign world other than the “intended” one.
B1 gets a pass on content, for example, as it’s an exercise in teaching a GM to key encounters. Dragonlance.. not so much. It may be awesome, but bludgeoning the “Awesome” into something other than railroad tracks takes an offensive amount of effort.
5/10: Requires some hacking, probably a couple day’s serious work and brainstorming. There are several elements that, even in a book from which I wouldn’t use everything, I want to steal.
10/10: Holy shit, I want to use this right now. Hacking is minimal, or assumed and accommodated in a non-insulting way – preferably with some simple suggestions. Whole chunks of the product can be lifted and dropped, even between genres, and they make me want to.

Weirdness/flavor, modularity, and utility are always in tension – you add detail to increase the flavor, and every one is a potential chain to the creator’s expectations about the game or to his own assumed world. I like Weird, but not everyone does.

Weirdness generally only applies to Fantasy; flavor is for other genres, and covers the amount of story – NOT STORYTELLING – that will help me get my head into the scenario. The baseline on this is pretty conservative – I expect most modules not to be especially Weird, although I judge modules set in a Weird ‘verse like Oz much more harshly if they ain’t. Weird is a measure of how many encounters are ones that screw with the players or their perceptions, and how much of an odd flavor there is to the occupants. Flavor, by comparison, is the amount of self-contained information presented. Mysteries (solved or not – I can run with either. How many of the things described are related to each other, and how intriguing or inspiring are the connections?
Lizardmen “who are at war with the Kobolds”? Bleah.
“Within the cave lies a trapped, transcendental visionary society of gaunt albino lizardmen. They worship the god of Hunger, and make sacrifices by eating and letting their god steal away their sustenance. They snatch eggs from other creatures to give their god the nascent life-energy within. Kobolds are particularly favored, but almost any young creature will do” Oh Hell yes.
Likewise, the ratio of flavorful magic to “yet another +1, ooh, there must be something with non-magic weapon resistance” shit.

1/10: Banal, pulp in the worst sense of the word. All encounters are straight fights, with only tactics to differentiate them. Any magic is taken straight from another product without embellishment, or offers only simple mechanical bonuses.
5/10: There’s the germ of a couple of interesting things, an interestingly odd monster, or a good framework on which to build. Something I see in it immediately inspires me to embellish the module in a creative way.
10/10: Ju-On.

How much do the non-combat obstacles to the players hinder them? Can they be overcome with wit and ingenuity, or only with luck? How interesting are they? Are there rewards, or do the traps just fuck you over? While you might consider rumors to be just Weirdness/Flavor, they allow you to seed out-of-context clues for your players as well as contextual cues. And lie to them, of course, but enough have to be true that the PCs seriously consider every rumor they know.

1/10: No puzzles/traps, all combat. All of the puzzles and traps can be defeated with simple Skill rolls. The players are punished for being sensible when they’re not under time pressure, or a single trap can end the adventure instantly and is unavoidable. Few, if any, secret doors, or multiple secret doors are absolutely required to accomplish the central goal. Secret areas required to advance are hidden in nonsensical parts of the map, and can’t be found by means other than skill rolls or blunt “pass or lose your arm” choices with no clues whatsoever.
5/10: Some bland, some interesting, but the mechanism is sufficiently-explained that a reasonably ingenious character can get through. Most of the traps have at least one indicator to a cautious party, and all the puzzles have a clue available to the PCs in some way.
10/10: The non-combat sections are engaging. Secret doors open options to the party, rather than blocking all progress; when you die to a trap, it’s probably your fault. The party stands a significant chance of losing a resource other than HP or henchmen – like getting their maps fucked up, or risking an anti-magic field to open doors elsewhere, or even losing time. Riddles are always a plus. There are multiple clues to puzzles and traps, and they aren’t always right in front of your nose.
Note: The Tomb of Horrors rates about a 2 on this scale. Most of the traps are bullshit or non-sequitur, you have to progress through a completely linear series of challenges that test your Saving Throws more than your noggin, and the reward is getting boned in the arse (see what I did there?)

Character Engagement:
Your player, standing at metaphorical entrance to your module, will ask himself one question. “Why the fuck am I going in there when I could be getting ale and whores”. Money and power only motivate for so long. Revenge (legitimate revenge, not “haha, I killed your backstory, now go get the guy responsible”) is always good, but hard to integrate into the START of the thing. Treasures of virtue (You saved our children! You have our eternal gratitude! <3) are a great motivation for virtuous characters. But.. well.. yeah. Hen’s teeth. Mystery, especially potentially lethal ones, is always fun.
You have to tread a fine line here; herding PCs is like herding cats. A good module will have fish, wet food, a spot of catnip and a sumbeam at the end, and a fleabath looming behind.

1/10: All rewards are in GP, there is no reason for the characters to adventure other than “we are adventurers”, and nothing encourages them to remain but masochism and the desire to play the game. “So this old guy walks up to you and points you to the Adventurer’s Guild Help Wanted board, and..”. The adventure opens with a 5-page canned sequence and/or a script. Emotions are forced on the characters on a regular basis. Likewise, there may be a “triggered-cutscene” plot which motivates the characters only into jumping the rails.
5/10: Some non-monetary rewards, and if the players leave they might come back instead of moving on. Special encounters inside or outside the adventure area offer a goal with a reward other than “all the cash you can carry”. Even if it’s “you won’t get enslaved/executed”.
10/10: Your players asked to return, and don’t even quote Monty Python for upwards of 30 minutes at a time. You wind up looking at the clock at some point and going “Holy shit, when did that happen?”, and the only place left open for you to eat at is Denny’s.

Treasure Engagement
Bluntly, will the players feel wealthier at the end of the module, or just richer? Are they keeping treasure as savings for an equipment/character upgrade, or because they like it? How much of the non-magic treasure isn’t sacks of coins? Are they likely to use some or all of the treasure as a tool rather than sell it? Are the players going to have to – and choose to – go out of their way to get it out? B1 was always especially strong in this regard, with treasures ranging from old tapestries to a room full of preserved tools and a set of weightlifting gear.

1/10: All coins/generic jewels, all the time. Perhaps the designer of the module offloads all of the treasure generation onto a random table in another product, or leaves all the goodies in the open.
5/10: Several items are unique, and there are at least a few consumable resources for the party.  Jewelry is well-described if present, and there’s at least one themed hoard. The players face a choice of what to bring out, and there’s a reason to take one or more items of lower cash value.
10/10: Supplies and other items are scattered throughout. Some treasures have obscure worth, while others are valuable but bulky and fragile. Players must make (educated?) guesses about what to bring out, and there is a strong flavor to many or most of the items.

This is subjective as all hell, of course. Your mileage will vary, but I will always explain why I like or dislike the aesthetics of a certain product. I tend towards surrealism.. but then my favorite artists range from woodcutters to Japanese pornographers to Pre-Raphaelites, and I can appreciate a well-crafted example of an art style I dislike. Here I judge the beauty of the author’s language and font choices, not their raw utility. The art should reflect on the text – it’s not enough to have a pretty picture, let me see and feel what I’m trying to make my players experience. If that be revulsion, grotesquerie and offense, so the fuck be it, but make me experience something.

1/10: May have no art at all. Comic Sans and Times New Roman throughout. The layout is messy, and its language infelicitous. Words may be used wrongly, or there is a glaringly non-sequitur picture inserted.
5/10: The author clearly put some thought into the layout. What art there is is related to the text, although it may be displaced. The art is decent, if not inspired, or there’s a particularly excellent choice somewhere within. Word choices show the author is aiming for a tone, and most of the sections of the book have consistent style(s).
10/10: Excellent art and language choices. The tone of the work is not only consistent, but evocative; the art not just technically excellent, but inspiring. Tricky or key set-pieces are illustrated, and well. The book looks good on your shelf and in your hands.

An average of the other scores I’ve awarded, and a summary of my opinion.
It doesn’t have to score highly in all categories to get a good rating. One of my favorite gaming books is artistically atrocious and basically unusable as written, but tremendously inspiring and modular. And no, it’s not the 1e AD&D books, although that was a good guess. It’s a “systemless” book, and among the many sections are a compilation of monsters from folklore and medieval bestiaries, and a summary of herb lore and sorcerous devices. The rest of the book is trash, and I have many primary sources to draw from scattered around the house, but it’s lightweight and incredibly useful as a summary if I need something now. The same is true of the Judges’ Guild Ready Ref Sheets. I also have a few supplements for games I don’t even play. They have little to no “utility”, or are atrocities on the engagement front, but the flavor, inspiration, and aesthetic value keep them on my shelf.
Finally, I’m a cheapass. If I say I’m happy I bought something it means I not only consider it above-average, but felt it was worth money I could have spent on, say, steaks.

Review: Bluholme: The Maze of Neuromen

Picked up this module for free from RPGNow; you can get it here. Been flipping through it all day.

The short and vicious:
Gorgeous art, good ideas, inspiring – but many parts seem badly uninspired. You get far more than you pay for. I’m a cheapass and I’d probably drop $15 on a print version.
More after the jump (and, of course, spoilers)

The Hobbit? – A review.

TL:DR – If you’re a parent, don’t bring your kids until you’ve seen it. If you have any literary taste, don’t watch it. If you’re a fan, run.

Now the longer version.

Review: Isle of the Unknown (By Geoff McKinney by way of LotFP)

This will inaugurate my review series. Since I have enough money to buy RPG products again, I suddenly have new books to read, and opinions on them…
On to the product.