Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Spycraft 2.0 (initial scratchings)

One of the first really innovative d20 products was AEG's Spycraft. While not the first d20 game set in the modern era, it was the first that tried to be more than just D&D with modern day characters.

I liked the original Spycraft, but I thought it was fatally flawed, at least for me. Most notably, I thought it focused too much on "Mission Impossible" style espionage; and had too much of a "splatbook" mentality, forcing you to buy lots of additional rules for things that probably should have been in the core book (like guns, classes).

Spycraft 2.0 actually fixes both of these things. While the focus is still largely on espionage (since the name of the game is Spycraft), it's much wider focus. There are now 12 core classes in the book instead of 6, classes for such things as Scientist and the Sleuth. If you read my other review, I gave several examples of archetypes from popular spy movies and pointed out they couldn't be done with the Spycraft 1.0 core book. While not everyone is covered, most are. While many of these classes apparently existed in Spycraft 1.0, they were in various extremely expensive setting books.

Similarly, instead of just having generic guns, Spycraft 2.0 pretty much has all the information the Spycraft 1.0 gun book had. Not just gun descriptions, but special qualities for different weapons. Instead of just taking the gun with the best damage value or ammo capacity, some real decisions have to be made to pick the right gun for the job.

Beyond that, there are numerous other changes. Most notably, Spycraft 2.0 is standalone. No more D&D Player's Handbook needed. Beyond that, the excellent system for vehicle chases has been expanded to pretty much any sort of non-combat contest. There's a whole new way of statting NPCs, which is both quick and lets them be tailored to any level of PC. It's pretty slick, but does do one thing I dislike, having separate stats for NPCs and PCs. (But that's sort of a personal preference, being an NPC myself.) And lots of tweaks, most obviously to the various classes and the skill system.


The original Spycraft had 6 core classes: The Fixer, the Pointman, the Soldier, the Wheelman, the Snoop, and the Faceman. Spycraft 2.0 doubles that number, including most of those (changing the Fixer to "Intruder"), adding the Advocate, the Exporer, the Hacker, the Scout, the Sleuth, and the Scientist.

I had heard they would be chaning the names of one of the classes - I had really hoped it would be the pointman, because in Spycraft, a pointman is not someone who is on point (that would be the Scout), but someone who points at people and makes them work better (basically a "Leader"), but this does correct a misnamed class. A "Fixer" is generally someone who has a lot of shady connections, but the class, now called "The Intruder" is basically a thief.

The Soldier is not necessarily a soldier, but is simply someone who fights. Similarly, the Wheelman might not be a driver of a car, but someone who specializes in driving things, be it a car or a horse or a boat.

The sleuth could be anything from a Sherlock Holmes or Charlie Chan to a member of CSI: Wherever. While not obviously part of the spy genre, it was fairly common for detectives to battle spies, both in WW2 era movies (which resulted in even tackier Charlie Chan movies) and in something like the CSI clone on CBS set in the Navy.)

Some are still missing. The martial artist, for instance. That apparently will show up in the "World on Fire" sourcebook (it's the setting for the Spycraft CCG). And there's no class for an athletic person (like say Vin Diesel in the original XXX), or the singer (like Val Kilmer in Top Secret) and ordinary people are still out of luck. But it's a lot better than Spycraft 1.0.

The GM Advice section is interesting.

One section desbribes various genres that Spycraft is suited for, and then gives examples of how to implement that genre, then lists various inspirations. While I'm not an expert on all the genres, some of the suggestions seem a bit off.

For instance, for the "Pulp" genre, it suggests Chandler and Hammett as inspirations. But just because they wrote in the 20s and 30s, doesn't make them pulp. They were Noir, which is a whole different thing. Much more in common with the "Street" genre. (For instance, one of the plots in "The Big Sleep" is a pornography ring

Games often try to have a coherent style to them, art wise. As near as I can tell, that style for Spycraft 2.0 is "webcomic". Basically, it sort of looks like a normal comic book, only somewhat more cruder, and filled in with color and computery textures.

The art in the game isn't bad, exactly, but just isn't to my taste. I usually don't care if a book has art I dislike, but in this case, it drives me crazy. Specifically, the thumbs. I don't know if it's the style, or if the artists just have trouble with them, but a large percentage of the art in the book has people either missing thumbs, or thumbs that are in the wrong place, or doing things that thumbs don't do, like bending in a certain way. The net result is just creepy. Sort of like watching puppets or Joan Rivers.

The layout of the book is good, but somewhat busy and a bit too "zoomed in", at least in the skills & feats section. The latter is hard to describe, but the effect is like looking at a web page designed for 1024x768 at 640x480. It's readable, but just sort of awkward.

At the end of my Spycraft 1.0 review, I had mentioned there was rumors of 3rd party support for it. Alas, that never materialized. For Spycraft 2.0 I hear the same rumors. Will it finally come to pass? I suspect, no, no they won't, which unfortunately really shoots Spycraft 2.0 in the foot, or a possibly somewhat higher area. Even if companies wanted to do it on the sly, much like support for d20 Future (where publishers have to refer to it as "For Future d20 games" or somesuch, since there is no coverage of d20 Future in the d20 license), AEG completely screwed up Section 15 of the OGL.

Most notably they included a non open product, "Star Wars" in it. It's true they had special permission to use bits from the Star Wars RPG, but that was outside the OGL, a separate agreement with WOTC. They have no right to put it there, and put themselves (and possibly any 3rd party using something from Spycraft 2.0) in the position of possibly having legal trouble with WOTC and Lucasfilm. They did the same thing with 1.0, and no one apparently cared. But you can't count on the apathy of big corporations or George Lucas.

Still, it's an excellent book and a very solid game. Might not be easy for people unfamiliar with d20 to pick up (the skill section will probably blow their mind), but once you know it, it plays quick enough. It's also one heck of a value, especially compared to the original Spycraft. Almost twice the size, a standalone game, and in color, but the price is only $5 more than the original. Amazing.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Song of the Blade (early draft)

Song of the Blade is a beginning adventure from Goodman Games for Monte Cook's Iron Heroes. For those who aren't familiar with it, Iron Heroes is a D&D variant. Basically it's D&D, but with different classes and a magic system. I actually don't have Iron Heroes, but from what I can tell, it seems to place an emphasis on physical combat and swashbuckling as opposed to magic. While it seems to have magic, it's very rare and completely different from the traditional D&D fire & forget system.

That said, there seems to be little that would keep this module from being used for D&D or just about any other d20 game. The man difference in the stats seems to be that in this, armor provides damage reduction, not an improved AC, the same basic tack that Conan and Spycraft (among others) take .

The module itself is also a departure from the typical D&D scenario. It's more dark fantasy, or really, almost a horror scenario. It starts off innocuosly enough. The PCs are asked to investigate the origin of a mysterious artifact. It seems the local mayor of the town the PCs are in (Axenbough it's called) just acquired this mysterious hat from a woodsman, who says he found it in some ruins in the forest. Since the mayor is fond of strange hats, he wants them to investigate the site and see if it has any more. Preumably the PCs agree.

The place the woodsman found it in turns out to be an ancient ruined hillfort. It seems the area used to be inhabited by a race of really evil arachnids. So the PCs presumably explore this ruined fort and find more mysterious objects.

The second part (the module is divided into three parts) deals with the revelation that there is an evil cult who worships these mysterious hat wearers. They first must locate a mysterious NPCs with the improbable name of "Grandmother Hickory" (sounds like a coffee) and win her trust in a somewhat amusing encounter. Then they need to learn more about the cult and the mysterious race they worship.

The last part is basically the big showdown with the evil cult. In true action movie fashion, the bad guys have stolen an npc, and it's up to the PCs to rescue him. And of course, the showdown takes place in a fairly dangerous area.

Physically, it's a somewhat spartan looking book. They tried to mimic the design style of Malhavoc Press, which I personally never cared much for. Too much white space, it's like reading snow. But many seem to like it. The art is okay, some of it is a bit amateurish looking.

It's a pretty good module. I liked how the author tried to avoid railroading the PCs. On the downside, I really thought it should have some details about the village it's set in, Axenbough. Surely the PCs will want to spend some time there, and so the DM will have to do quite a bit of work fleshing it out (which sort of defeats the purpose of a module). Similarly, if the PCs get to know the townies, there should be a small chance of them realizing that perhaps there is a sinister cult amongst them. Especially since around 3% or so of the town seems to be a member.

Also, some of the names are somewhat out of places. I mean, you have 2 NPCs named Jakkel and Hyid. Then there is the name of one NPC, "Sammael", which pretty much is a dead give away that he is notable. In this day and age you can pretty much find an unlimited number of "fantasy" names either on the web or from free programs. Resorting to puns and a major, major, major bad guy from Judeo-Christian theology is just silly.