Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Song of the Blade (almost final) (And damn, Blogger is faster)

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 main 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. While the classes are different, they can be quickly converted, or used as is, since the stat blocks provide most of the relevent info on abilities.

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. This bit is pretty much just a dungeon crawl (and a relatively short one).

The second part (the module is divided into three parts) is where it starts to differ from the typical D&D type scenario. It deals with the revelation that there is an evil cult who worships these mysterious ancient 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.

It's actually sort of a two part showdown. They have to storm one stronghold (of sorts) then discover the real villain, and then go storm the real stronghold.

I really like the final showdown. If the players are smart, they should be able to handle it okay, but if they rush into it blindly, they will get killed. In a way it reminds me of how combat in Guild Wars (or perhaps any online RPG), where you have to sort of pull groups of critters away from each other, to take them on a few at a time. And beyond that, the major villains have a surprise up their sleeves (or should I say heads, though they don't know that), which is gruesome but good.

Since I don't own Iron Heroes, I can't vouch that the stats are correct. But the editor is apparently a staff reviewer for a certain site who happens to have a reputation for knowing d20 like , er, well, someone who knows d20 really really well, producing reivews that contain huge lists of stat mistakes. So any stat errors are likely printing errors.

Also, presumably an Iron Heroes standard thing, is listings of possible "stunts" that PCs can do in various combat locations. Swing off of rafters, jump on tables, that sort of thing. Again, I don't know how they work, but there's a large number of them listed, at least in the major combats.

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 bird prints in the snow. But many seem to like it. The art is okay, some of it is a bit amateurish looking, but others are excellent.

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.

Of course, conversely, by not including any information about the town itself, the adventure itself is longer. Just a guesstimate, but I would say it would take about 6 game sessions of 3-4 hours each to play. (about 1 1/2 for the first part, 2 1/2 for the 2nd, 2 for the third), which is about on par with a 96 page module. On the other hand, once the module is run, it's pretty much no further use, unlike a module with a developed town.

So this is perhaps a preference issue. I fall on the side of having a fully developed (or at least somewhat developed) town.

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 (or worse yet, a Robert Jordan series) is just silly.

Iron Heroes is designed for action, and Song of the Blade delivers plenty of it. But perhaps at the expense of role-playing. B+

* It's actually apparently by Mike Mearls, not Monte Cook, but presumably Monte Cook's name on a product sells better than Mr. Mearls. Which really shouldn't be the case, as Mr. Mearls is generally considered to be one of the top d20 designers around, but I guess it's like how Quentin Tarentino gets his name on movies from Asia he had nothing to do with. At least Mr. Mearls doesn't have to direct Jean-Claude Van Damme movies (or write RPGs based on them).

Monday, September 19, 2005

The Book of Templates, Deluxe Edition

One of the bigger innovations of 3rd edition D&D over it's predecessors, was the concept of "templates". Templates are something that can be applied to an existing monster (or NPC, really) to "tweak" them. Variations of monsters had existed, but there was never any real standard procedure.

As you can probably guess from the name, "The Book of Templates, Deluxe" is an entire book of templates. The Deluxe indicates that this is the latest version of a product that has evolved over the course of the last few years.

The book starts off with a nice, if chart filled, chapter on modifying (and creating) monsters in terms of d20 stats. Apparently there are actually proper rules for doing so, rather than just making them up willy-nilly. (Guess which one I do...)

The later chapters are all devoted to templates, with each chapter being devoted to a "theme" that the template turns a critter into, or variants of those sorts of critters. Aberrations, Animals & Vermin, Augmentations, Construct, Deminuations, Dragons, Elementals, Metatemplates, Oozes, Outsiders, Plants, and Undead. It sort of jumps around in theme.

These chapters pretty much follow a pattern of presenting a template, then giving an example of that template applied to a critter. (This style follows the templates in the Monster Manual, actually). Some of the chapters have 6-7, while others only have a couple, and one, Plant, only has a single template (sure to disappoint vegans everywhere).

Books like this, which are basically just a collection of things, are tricky to review. I'm not going to list each template, obviously, I'm just going to cover what I thought were the highlights and mention what each chapter is like.

Aberrations are great for creating monsters for a horror-tinged game. These are basically normal critters with some sort of horrible mutation or alteration done to them.

The Construct template I liked the most was the "Skinrug". Basically it's something like an animated bear skin rug, but can be anything, not just a bear. There's also a template to make a mechanical version of any monster. Like that mechanical own from Clash of the Titans. And a few others.

Metatemplates deal mostly with creating "half" creatures. First some rules on how to create them in general, then some some specific examples of some.

One of the examples is the half-vampire, or "Dhampire". While not bad, it doesn't really fit either the traditional "Dhampir" (the name of the offsrping of a vampire) or the most famous one, "Blade" (who really isn't the kid of one, but close).

Outsiders are not so out in this; they get the biggest section of the book, with 14 templates. Some are quite useful, like the "Immortal", which is like a chosen one of a Deity. Some seem a bit silly, like the "Apocalyptic", which lets you create one of the pets of the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in case you needed to know the stats for Famine's pet pot bellied pig. (The example is actually "Kurnus, Hound of the End Time". ). Still, I think it could be tweaked a bit to make a pasable Kaiju.

The two I find really useful myself in this chapter are the templates "Fallen" and "Redeemed". As you might guess from their names, "Fallen" is a template that can be applied to a good outsider who has fallen from grace. Not necessarily bad, but no longer good. Similarly, "Redeemed" is a template that an evil outsider can earn by redeeming themselves.

The plants chapter is rather small, basically one template. As I really started digging into this book about a week ago, I came down with some sort of nasty flu virus, and I was slightly delirious. I kept thinking "Why on earth is there only one plant template and no variants? Think of all the ways you can make plants into monsters. Maneating plants, ninja eggplants, and the dreaded showtune singing plant. But then when I got well, I realized, duh, there aren't really any stats for normal versions of trees or plants.

Anyway, the plant related template in this is "Plant form". Basically you apply it to any monster, and instead of a monster, it's a plant shaped like that monster.

The Undead section is probably the most intersting for me, as I like vampires, and they present some interesting takes on them, the "Fleshbound Vampire". Not as powerful as the D&D vampire, and is possibly more suited for the player, too.

Beyond that is a neat template for creating animated Dinosaurs (or other fossils).

While I think the chapter subject changes rather haphazzardly (for instance, why not put the chapters on improving or reducing monsters next to each other, since they are complementary subjects), the layout of the book is quite nice. Very easy to read, and since the side margin has the chapter name in nice big letters (which I think all RPG books over 64 pages should do), it's very easy to find what you are looking for.

The book suggests that rather than simply name a creature you modify by it's original name plus the name of the the template, you create a whole new name, and itself uses that naming convention. Which caused me some confusion while flipping through the book at random. For instance, the miniature template's example is "Thunderhead dwarf". At first glance I thought this was a mistake, that "Thunderhead" was a template applied to "Dwarf", but there was no "Thunderhead" in the book. But upon close inspection, I saw that it was the miniature template applied to the Storm Giant. Not a problem if you read the book sequentially, but for monster books that is not often the case, so it would have been nice for them to have put the template name and the original monster name after the "new" name in paratheses (or some note of the origins of the monster). That's probably my only quibble with the book.

Well, also one thing - this book uses level adjustments for most of the templates. Basically a level adjustment is a way to supposedly balance a race that is more powerful than a human, by basically having that race cost more "levels". That is, a character with a race/template level adjustment of +3 would be considered a 4th level character when that character has a class level of 1. (Ie, a 1st Level character of that race would be considered equal to a 4th level human).

I am not a big fan of those, the way they are written, because they tend to make characters die rather easily. Characters with level adjustments get shortchanged on hit dice, which is extremely problematic in my experience, at least at low levels, where having 25% of the hit points of all the other characters is not a good thing...

The way to solve this is to have racial levels. As far as I know, this was first done in the Second World Sourcebook (and actually before that, in the Creature Crucible series for Basic D&D), but also some later books. Basically they break down the powers of a race into different levels, and also give out hit dice, so characters of powerful races can be less powerful, and have to earn their way up.

While it would have been asking a lot for that to be in this book for every template, some discussion of it would have been nice, and how to design racial classes like that.