Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Trouble at Durbenford (initial scratchings...)

Trouble at Durbenford is a large d20 adventure from Necromancer Games, meant for levels 8th to 14th.

Durbenford has a fairly complex background/plot. It seems that when the world was young, it was ruled by this titan named Rynas. Apparently the Greek mythos sort of Titan, sort of god-like. Anyway, the evil people of the world didn't like this titan, so they ended up fighting him, led by an Ogre who had Orcus's sword. The battle was sort of a draw, with everyone getting killed and the sword lost, or at least, out of the hands of the evil guys, and into that of the good guys, the Celestials.

Rather than taking this super-evil artifact someplace and hide it, it seems the Celestials simply decided to leave it where it was, in the mountains near Durbenford, and put guards on it for the rest of eternity. But fairly wussy guards.

This artifact provides about half the plot for Trouble With Durbenford. The other half (or more like 3/4s) revolves an indisdious plot by an evil (is there any other kind?) Druid to drug people. It seems this drug makes people work harder.

Durbenford gets about 20 pages devoted to itself. Though not explaining why it's called "Durbenford", since while there are "Durbens" (that's the name of the ruling family), it seems to be nowhere near a "ford" or even a river.

You get a very basic map (very computer looking, with cookie cutter buildings) a few prominent NPCs, and keyed locations for their houses. A few other locations are mentioned - a brothel, an inn, and a shop.

The Adventure:

Anyway, the adventure basically consists of 4 parts: Retrieve the evil artifact; Discover the evil Druid making the drug and kill him; Fight the gang distributing the drug; Defeat the evil villain behind both plots. The last two sort of run together a bit.

Before the first part, though there's a handful of sort of mini-adventures. One is solving the problems of 2 local farmers. The most detailed involves an evil, almost Cthulhu style cult, and a raid on its stronghold. Another deals with an imprisoned, hidden, sleeping Chimera that may or may not get released depending on the PCs actions (or inaction). I would have liked more of these, and less of the main quest.

The retrieval of the evil artifact consists of 3 dungeon levels and not quite 30 pages, so this section is perhaps comparable to the standard 32 page dungeon crawl module in length. It's sort of a weird place, because you have all these evil critters and Celestials living there. The Celestials to guard the evil artifact to keep evil critters from getting it, and the evil critters are just sort of chillin' (I actually have no idea why they are there, other than simply squatting).

One level has a puzzle which really reminds me of something from a computer game. They have to find the 3 parts of the magical phrase, and then say it in the correct order. But if they say it in the wrong order, it disappears form their memory, and they have to go back and read each phrase again. Although this is unlikely (since the phrase only makes sense one way), this is potentially something that would really annoying players.

Once they get the evil artifact, the PCs are supposed to hand it over to an NPC (one they haven't actually met). Many players would find this somewhat troubling, I mean, why should they turn over an incredibly evil artifact to someone they don't know, and thus could in fact be evil himself. But that gets put on the backburner, as the PCs are then expected to go fight the drug problem.

Once they off the Druid, they presumably go after the group behind. This involves raiding their base in town, then moving on to their secret hideout behind a waterfall.

Lastly, you get some apendices.

The most notable is one on new monsters, and monsters that have been updated to 3.5 from 3.0 from the Tome of Horrors. Nothing terribly exciting. Nilbogs (which I really hate), some daemons and demodands (blah), the vegepygmies (whee!).

Also one on magic items. I liked one of the new magic items, and instant mansion. Sort of like the instant fortress, but it's an instant hovel. But inside the hovel is really a mansion, thanks to the power of extradimensional magic.

The book's layout is okay, but nothing special. All the stats are in an appendix in back, but instead of directing you to an exact page number, it just says something like, "See the appendix". Never mind the appendix is 25 pages of wall to wall statblocks and thus not exactly easy to find the monster or NPC in question. The proofreading is good - I noticed a couple of typos and editing gaffes, one fairly major one which gives the sentence the opposite meaning, but other than that, not too bad.

The book features some artwork by Brian Leblanc, who is in my opinion, the best artist working in d20 these days, if not RPGs in general. I love his stuff. It's not entirely his work, I guess his stuff is about 1/3, but the rest of the interior stuff is quite good.

The cover is sort of eh. Not great, but not bad. (Why they never get Brian Leblanc to do the cover, I dunno. Almost all the covers of Necromancer Games stuff is unremarkable)

I would have liked to have seen portraits of more of the NPCs. Or at least, portraits near the writeups of the NPCs. In some cases, the NPCs don't have much in the way of physical description (for instance, one key NPC is described as "a slender half-orc of unremarkable features"), so a picture to show the players would have been nice. Otherwise I pretty much have to pull an actor or actresses name randomly to describe them. "He looks like Fess Parker".

Final Thoughts:

I have to say, I really didn't like this product much. It wasn't terrible, but it wasn't all that good, either. I was expecting a product of the same quality as the previous site based adventures from Necromancer, like The Grey Citadel or the Vault of Larin Karr, and it's simply not.

My trouble with Durbenford is essentially fourfold. First off, it's not particularly generic, and thus I am unable to fit it into my campaign world. I wish the back of the book blurb told more about the actual plot, so I wouldn't have bought it.

Call me crazy, but I don't think "generic" adventures should involve a large kingdom and the politics of it's ruler, including lots of interaction with him. Generic adventures should focus on a much smaller scale, because the smaller, the easier it is to fit in. If you need kingdoms with troubled rulers and rampaging armies and complicated mythologies, then you aren't really generic anymore.

Secondly, it's way too linear. If not a railroad, maybe a slot car. I mean, other than a couple of small side quests at the beginning, there's basically only one route through the module. Based on my past experiences with large Necromancer Games modules, this is unusual - most of them were site based, and the parties could generally either wander around, or if there was a plotline they must follow, it was somewhat non-linear. They could do a few things in any order, then go to the showdown.

In this, they have to do x, then y, then z. This would have made a decent computer RPG scenario, but as a pen & paper one, it's not to my taste, nor my players. Especially as it's for fairly high levels, players expect their PCs to be more active as opposed to reactive.

Thirdly, I would have liked Durbenford to have been fleshed out more. I mean, 11 keyed locations in a city? Most of which are homes? Guess who is going to have to flesh out the city - the DM, ie, me. A random chart doesn't really cut it. I realize that this would have taken space from something else, but why not rip out the useless mythology that no one can possibly use? (Since Necromancer Games hasn't released their own setting yet).

Forthly, there's a lot of little nitpicky stuff that doesn't make sense to me. For instance, why would Celestials (or a plucky group of clerics) put a horribly pervasive artifact near a large town or pristine forest, full of cute and fuzzy animals. Why not, say, in the middle of nowhere? A desert, a great big mountain (ie, the Himalaya sort), an uncharted island. Or why not ask the Celestials nicely to take it out in space someplace. The possibilities are endless, just about, given how big the D&D universe is.

The whole drug plot doesn't make much sense. If you simply want harder workers, just use real zombies with the animate dead spell. It also says the drug is only used in out of the way small villages in hamlets (which is itself pointless, since they wouldn't really produce much in the way of goods to begin with), but the only village in the game that uses is, happens to be on the only navigable river in the area, and gets a lot of ship and barge traffic. Wouldn't they notice that the villagers are basically drugged to their eyeballs? Based on some of my experiences in college, this is actually something people do notice and comment on.

So, both plot points are basically unbelievable. Plus there is minor stuff, for instance, there's a group of "Mire Rangers" who do nothing but guard this swamp which is ruled by a vampire Druid. Which is somewhat dubious to begin with, since why should they? (They aren't even good alignment). But they actually happen to be more powerful than the vampire Druid they are guarding. They are 14th level (and there are 3 of them) and the Vampire Druid has a challenge rating of 13. Now admittedly, it wouldn't be an easy fight, but if they teamed up with someone, mostly a cleric, it wouldn't be that tough. And did I mention they ride giant bears? (Swamp bears, apparently.)

Plus, at the conclusion, the PCs are supposed to use incriminating documents they find proving the King was behind the whole drug scheme (or at least approved of it) to force him to abdicate in favor of his non-evil son. But, why on earth would a king do that? Why wouldn't he just simply order the PCs to be seized and imprisoned? I mean, an evil king has an evil scheme. How shocking! That's what evil kings do. In a monarchy, a king is basically answerable to no one - if he really pisses people off, his nobles will revolt, or maybe the people. (Plus, as Dan Rather discovered, supposedly incriminating documents are very easy to fake.)

Still, one thing I liked was how the author generally took into consideration that the PCs would have access to spells like speak with the dead and raise dead, telling details that dead NPCs would tell about and whether or not an NPC that dies would choose to come back from the dead or not (and in many cases, if so, giving stats for them).

My first thought was to give it a C-. But the more I thought about it, the more and more I went from "eh" to "wow, I really hate this". Some parts are salvageable, but not that much.

Legends of the Samurai

Legends of the Samurai is the second in the "Legends" product line from RPGObjects, which is meant to be historical and/or mythological roleplaying. That is, not just regular history, but history based on legends and mythology, too, so there's magic and such. It's regular d20, but not D&D, it has all new character classes and a new magic system. Somewhere between D&D and d20 Modern in terms of "realism".

As you might guess from the name, Legends of the Samurai is about Japan, specifically the medieval period. This is the first pdf of 3, covering characters (mostly martial ones, but not limited to them), the 2nd is apparently on magic, and the third is the campaign book. Much like Legends of Excalibur, all 3 will apparently be combined into a hardcover book later on (around Gen Con?).

My knowledge of Japan is pretty much limited to video games, movies, and So Taguchi. While probably half the DVDs I own are Japanese in origin, they are pretty much Kaiju movies (ie, Godzilla, Gamera, or my favorite, Mothra). So this is going to be a relatively short review, since I don't know much about the subject material.

The first chapter is on "Bloodline" which is more or less the characters status in society or caste. This pretty much works like a race in d20, that is, gives starting bonuses or penalties, including to ability scores. There's Outcast, Merchant, Noble, Warrior, Farmer, Monastic, and Artisan.

Instead of alignment, characters have "Honor", which is pretty much like the system from Legends of Excalibur, that is, a rating from 100 to 0, the higher the more honorable. A character does honorable things it goes up, dishonorable ones it goes down.

There are 8 core classes in this PDF, most of whose names I cannot even begin to pronounce. (I once tried to learn Japanese, but it went very badly...).

There's a Ninja, of course. But unlike many ninjas, this is a fairly mundane and thus probably very realistic one - no flipping out and it doesn't have to be a mammal, either. A Samurai and a Ronin. A class for a thief (which I can't begin to spell), as well as artisan and ascetic. Seems to cover most bases (magical classes are covered in the 2nd product in the line).

There's a lot of new feats. Including many new martial arts feats, presumably similar to the ones from the RPGObjects martial arts products. Too many to count easily, probably 50-60 of them. There are so many because many of the classes require the character to pick a combat style. This style (which can either be armed or unarmed) then determines what sort of bonus feats the character can take. Pretty neat, though I wonder if the classes actually get enough bonus feats to take full advantage of this. They seem to only get about 6-7 total by 20th level.

Again, much like the classes, the feats are fairly mundane. No Wire-Fu sort of combat. There is Sumo, though, which is quite possibly the complete opposite of that.

Lots of new weapons and armor is introduced. Pretty much a whole new listing, since the regular D&D ones aren't apropriate.

The art is fantastic. Remember the art in the old first edition Oriental Adventures book for AD&D? Well, it's like that, style wise. Eerie just how close it is. Since RPGOBjects is firstly a PDF company, the PDF takes advantage of most the frills the format offers, bookmarks and such.

To me, it seems like an excellent product. While I cannot personally vouch that it's completely true to the source material (since I'm not very familiar with it), based on the author's track record, I'm sure it is. So, if you are interested in a game set in this general era, then give this a look.

(This review probably does not convey the enthusiam the product deserves. Whilst trying to write this review, I watched "House of Flying Daggers" and while that was Chinese, not Japanese, it pretty much sucked out any interest I might have had in medieval asian roleplaying. Though the colors were very pretty.)

Juiced (Xbox)

I first bought Juiced for the PC, and liked it a lot, but my computer couldn't quite handle it. So I bought it for the Xbox, which I really should have done in the first place. This is a revised and expanded version of my review of the PC version, similar but longer and somewhat different.

There have been a number of street racing games in the last year or so. Street Racing Syndicate, Need For Speed Underground 2, Top Gear RPM Tuning, Midnight Club 3. And now comes Juiced from THQ, though it was originally going to be released before any of those titles were, but it's publisher, Acclaim, went out of business. THQ bought the rights and decided to put it out about a year later, albeit with some enhancements. Was it worth the wait? Yes and no. The game is fun, but lacks many of the feature in the many street racing games released in the past year.


Gameplay is basically calender based. That is, there's a calender with a list of events on them in which you can race. Or, and this is the key to the game, you can host your own racing event, setting the race type, type of competitors (both class and specific, like what country and what manufacturer), how many laps, etc.

Once you go to an event, you can either race yourself (or enter a crew member of yours) or simply watch the race and bet on which car you think will win.

There are 3 main types of races - point to point, circuit (ie, laps), and spring (basically drag racing). There are a lot of tracks in the game, each set in an area "owned" by a given crew (I think 4 circuit, 2-3 point to point, 1 sprint). You apparently own an oval race track and can hold races there, but you have to earn the right to hold events at other crew's tracks, and even attend races they are holding on their own tracks.

Each race is one of 8 different classes, based on horsepower. Class 8 is 100-199 hp, Class 7 is 200-299 hp, and so on, until Class 1 which is 800 hp and up. This pretty much ensures very close races, though it does seem to bias the game towards smaller cars.

Racing itself is pretty fun. While not completely realistic, it's very much towards the realistic end of the spectrum than arcade. You will need to brake before going around turns.

There is damage, but it's largely cosmetic (though the cosmetic damage is nicely detailed, and you do run the risk of losing your nitrous when damaged enough). However, you really do need to avoid hitting other cars, because you will lose reputation if you do so. So while you can hug the rails a bit, you do have to be careful not to hit anyone.

The AI is okay for the most part, but occasionally baffling. It's tricky to judge the AI in Juiced because it really is trying to simulate intelligence - each AI driver is rated for their driving skills and "composure", the tendency to make mistakes when they are pressured. Sometimes they try to avoid you, sometimes they spin you out.

As near as I can tell, the AI is not rubberband, that is, it doesn't slow down or speed up based on how well or how poorly you do. But as mentioned, they do seem to spin you out, which can result in losing a race.

The game is actually somewhat hard at first. You generally only win money if you win the race or come in second, and you will almost always have to pay to repair your car afterwards.

I've played a lot of racing games, and I was struggling to break even until I learned the trick to make easy money - hold a Class 1 sprint race and bet all your money on the Viper (which will almost always win since it's much faster than its opponent, the Corvette).

Sprint racing in this is somewhat similar to that of other games (most notably Need for Speed: Underground), in that you have to shift manually. But what sets it apart is that you race in heats of 3. Each heat you have a different starting position. Even though most sprint tracks are just straight ahead (a few curve a little) and have no obstacles (unlike the NFS:U series, where you have to dodge things like trains), this provides fairness. That is, if you screw up or have the AI run into you, but have the better car, you can probably still win the event.

Crew racing is basically the big innovation that Juiced offers. These are team races, where groups of 2 or 3 crew members race against other crews. Basically, while you race (or while you simply watch, the AI can race instead of you as well), you can set how agressively they drive - Low, Medium, or High. While you can simply leave it on high for sprint races, in longer ones you have to actively manage the aggression settings, as leaving it on "High" will cause the AI to eventually lose it (they do this gradually, they start to sort of wobble, and eventually they spin out) and "Low" is simply too slow to win. So you have to actively manage the race. At least, doing so makes your crew more likely to win.

This is a neat idea, and works pretty well in a race itself, but the crew bit is implemented a bit too simply, I think. First off, drivers only have 2 skills - composure and driving skill. Driving skill is self explanatory, but composure indicates how well they can handle the pressure of being tailgated by other drivers before slipping up. These skills improve fairly rapidly, too. Something like the Drivatar system from Forza Motorsport would have been better, where the AI is rated at types of driving maneuvers.

Similarly, the choice of your crew members is very simple - there isn't any. You are apparently stuck with Vito, Chief, and Amber. Which kind of makes having a "Crew Concept" difficult. For instance, say I wanted to make a crew called "The Village People". Chief might fit in, but Amber and Vito really wouldn't (well, maybe if he wore a leather jacket & pants).

All the AI portraits in the game are pretty bad looking, basically what computer rendered people looked like about 10 years ago. The sims from the original Sims look more realistic than these people, much less the ones from the Sims 2.


Car modification is solid, but not particularly deep.

As mentioned, cars are divided into 8 different classes, based on horsepower. So you want to sort of max out the horsepower in a given class.

Each car generally has 4 different upgrades in a few basic areas: intake, tires, turbo, exhaust, suspension, nitrous. The first level is unlocked from the start, but the 2nd and third get unlocked by using that car model in a race. Just racing it unlocks the part. The 4th level of upgrade is special, "Prototype" and has to be won in a special race which happens a couple times a month.

Body part upgrades basically work the same. But generally at start, only the stock parts are available, racing the car model will unlock an additional option each time it is raced. At least for bumpers and hoods and sideskirts, different wheels and neons are all unlocked at start. Most the cars have 3 different hoods, bumpers, and side skirts, but a few only have one or no options at all (mostly the older cars). Somewhat bizzarely, for the '67 Mustang, you are forced between the slats on the back window and a spoiler.

You can either fiddle with permutations of the various parts on your own, or you can take the car to a tuning shop, where they will automatically figure out which combination of parts will give you the best results in each class. This saves a lot of time, and is useful, since you will likely have a lot of cars for the crew races. (Something like this is really needed in Gran Turismo, where it can take 5 minutes to mod a car with all the best parts, as opposed to 10 seconds here)

There are basically 2 neat features to visually modifying your car. First off, the decals of the upgrades you use are automatically applied to your car. Like if you use Nos, Bridgestone Tires, AEP brakes, etc, their sticker goes in a certain spot in your car. Kinda neat, though you can toggle this off if you don't like it (you can also adjust the color).

Also very cool, it's got the most detailed paint system I've seen. Rather than a limited number of preset colors, you can pretty much pick any out of a huge palette (based on RGB values). Then, you can pick the "metallic" color (sort of the shiny color), and on top of that, the "pearlescent" color (sort of a different color at a different angle). You can come up with some really cool looking paintjobs.

There's only a limited number of decals (or vinyls), none of them all that attractive. So, overall, if you are mostly interested in customizing cars, then Juiced really isn't the game for you.

As far as "tuning" goes, that is, tweaking the settings of the car's various parts, well, there's not much to be done. Pretty much just lower the car and slightly adjust the transmission. The latter is just a slider, with one end being "Top Speed" and the other "Acceleration". So very basic indeed.

It's also very hard to find out much about the car in terms of stats. There's very little feedback on how fast the car is in the game, or how it handles. Basically just the option to put it on a dynometer, which will give you the top speed, but that figure is really only reachable in ideal conditions. If you want to figure out 0-400, or 0-60 times, then you are pretty much out of luck.

The car list in the game is pretty good. Probably one of the best mixes I've seen in a game. Most games either favor certain regions, but this has cars from almost everywhere - Europe, US, Japan, Australia. The only real exception is the apparently lack of Hyundais (from Korea). And missing is the new Mustang, but that is perhaps explained by the original release date for this game (last summer, before that car came out). Only one Skyline, too, which is a plus in my book.

On the other hand, while the mix is nice for the most part, it's lacking at the top end. There's really nothing that can compete with the Viper. Because the car classes in the game are grouped by horsepower, the Viper is generally put in the same class as the various Muscle Cars. But the Muscle Cars are much heavier, and thus much more tricky to handle.

And older cars are simply geared differently - back then, you were lucky if you had 4 gears, and so even though they have lots of horsepower, they only top out at 130-150, compared to the Viper's 6 gears and top speed of 230-250. Most games sort of gloss over this, but to it's credit, Juiced doesn't. But it also doesn't provide a solution, like say Forza, which lets you install a new transmission in the muscle car with gearing to go faster. So while they are in the game, the older cars are basically useless. Races can be restricted by make or country of origin - they should have added an age restriction as well.

Still, from classes 8 to 5 or so, the mix is fairly good. Some cars are better for short sprints, some are better for long ones, others are better at handling, so better in circuit or point to point races.


The graphics are very good for the most part. The car models are not the most detailed I've seen, but are quite good. They shine a bit, but this actually looks pretty cool.

The tracks are well detailed. The frame rate appears to be 60 fps to my eye. It does seem to drop very occasionally when you go around a corner fast. Unfortunately, there is no hood view, nor is there a rear view mirror, though when an opponent is behind and near, you get an arrow indicating where he is and how far away.

There are numerous lighting effects, that is, lights seem to actually be lighting up the track and car. For the most part this is cool, but in really bright light on a few tracks, this sort of washes out the colors. There is also weather, at least rain. The effects for this are also quite nice, especially the raindrops rolling down the screen, or when you start racing, rolling up (like they would on a windshield).

One very cool thing, is that while you are watching an AI crew member race (ie, not racing yourself), you can use the right stick to swivel the view around.


The car sounds are quite good. Most the cars have a lot of bass in their engine sound, which might not be completely realistic given the number of 4 cylinder cars in the game, but sounds nice.

Your crew talks to you during races, saying things whenever they get in trouble, when they use nitrous, or at various other times. This is neat, but could have used a bit more variety. One driver says "I'm squirting juice!" so often, people walking by might think you are watching a porno movie.

Also, some of your opponents will also talk to you. Things like "Hey, watch out!", and taunting you (or sorts) when you pass them or vice-versa.

For the most part, the voices are well done. I like the voice of Amber, your lone female crew member - she sounds somewhat Australian. Chief sounds like Sylvester Stallone, you expect him to say, "Yo Adrian!". But oddly, Vito, the guy with the Italian name, sounds high pitched and whiny, somewhat reminding me of Speed from Speed Racer.

The opponent voices are also mostly well done. The leader of the crew called "The Vixens" has a very cute voice. The leader of "Tau Omega", which seems to be something of a surfer outfit, has some really great insults (and is the only one in the game that says "Dude", for instance "Could you be any more of a sucker, dude?" upon betting with him). Another one frequently calls you "Little fella", which I find amusing.

The soundtrack is not that great, with the exception of one track - "Finished Symphony" by Hybrid, which is considered something of a trance classic. Someone at Juice Games must like that song, since it's rather old (1999) compared to the rest of them.

But that really doesn't matter, since the game actually supports custom soundtrack, something of a rarity in non-Microsoft racing games. Custom soundtrack support isn't great - you just get to pick one soundtrack (though you can de-select songs within that list) and it picks one at random every time you race or work on a car. But just having custom soundtracks is great.

Final Thoughts:

All in all, it's actually a pretty good game, and actually quite a bit different than its competitors. It also features an excellent car list (perhaps the best I've seen in a game which only 50-60 cars) and nice graphics.

There's a lot of room for improvement, though. While the Crew racing is neat, it's somewhat shallow - you just have a name and 2 skills for each driver. Maybe not a full fledged carpg or something like "The Sims: Juiced", but something more like Forza's drivatar ratings would be nice since your crew drivers will improve to 100% in both skills after only 10-15 races.

And the basic gameplay, while addictive, perhaps needs a bit more depth as well. Free roam through the city would be cool. The class system, while a nice try at balancing races, breaks down with the Viper - it's pretty much the best car of classes 5 through 1, simply because it's geared to go much faster than anything else. Similarly, because of the gearing, most of the old cars are essentially useless in the game.

The car modification could have used a lot more depth. And actually being able to tune the cars would have been nice. And more feedback about their performance would have been very helpful.

If you just want to get 100%, the game will probably only last a week, but it keeps generating new races, so you can presumably play it forever without running out of them. And frankly, the game is fun enough that I can see myself playing it from time to time a year from now.

I gave the PC version of it a 7, but the Xbox version is better, or at least more enjoyable to me, since the control scheme is better, the frame rate better, and custom soundtracks are supported. So it gets an 8, which is probably a bit generous, but eh, there aren't many games I buy twice, either. And it doesn't feature the phrase "Yo, Dawg".

Could blogger be any slower?