Complete Adventurer

This is another Dungeons and Dragons book, containing new classes, prestige classes, feats, skills, equipment, and spells. The book is aimed at characters who have lots of skills, so primarily rogues, with a few sidelights on rangers, bards, and, slightly oddly, druids. It does its job well.

The scout, which is a base class, is essentially what the ranger should have been; a wilderness-oriented version of the rogue. It would make much more sense for the scout to be in the Player’s Handbook and the ranger to be in this one, but that’s not the way the game developed historically. The scout also looks to be well-designed; it does, at least, look like an appealing class to me.

Among the prestige classes, the tempest, which makes two-weapon fighting a wholly viable option, and the daggerspell mage and shaper stood out for me. The latter two classes are based around spellcasters who fight with two daggers, and seem to do a good job of making an interesting and stylish concept viable in mechanical terms.

The other sections might not have grabbed me, but there’s plenty of solid material there, and I can see the feats, items, and spells getting plenty of use in games. In fact, some of the spells looked like they could be very useful to certain sorts of characters, but I would need to think rather harder than I plan to in the immediate future to work out exactly what their impact would be.

Reading this book, however, confirmed my opinion of D&D, as stated before. It’s just not quite what I want out of an RPG. Close, but not quite there. I really am going to have to write my own.

I Was Right

A while ago, when writing about the Conan book I had read, I said “Oh my god, it’s Dungeons and Dragons.”

A week ago, Wired had an article about Gary Gygax, which included the sentence: “[Gygax] was a fan of the Conan the Barbarian books by Robert E. Howard and wanted to try to capture that sort of swashbuckling action in a war game.”

I also said “D&D is often described as “Tolkienesque”, but the basic narrative structure is not very much like Tokien at all.” The Wired article continues: “Interestingly, he loathed the major fantasy touchstone of the time, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. It was so dull. I mean, there was no action in it,” Gygax says. “I’d like to throttle Frodo.””

So yes, I’m just gloating about being perceptive. Mind you, I write these games for a living; I’d really better be perceptive about them.

Spell Compendium

Spell Compendium is a book for D&D 3.5. It does what it says on the cover: it’s a big collection of spells, from lots of previous D&D books, revised and updated to deal with problems found after publication. There are a lot of interesting ideas in it.

A couple of things struck me. The first, entirely internal to the game, was that druids got a fair number of useful attack spells at the same level as wizards and sorcerers. However, druids also get better attacks, better saves, better hit dice, and cool powers; their spells should be consistently weaker than those of wizards and sorcerers, or the game is unbalanced. This is most likely something that will be fully addressed in D&D 4; it would be rather difficult to do it retroactively for third edition.

The other is more general. D&D is very good at what it does. What it does is also pretty close to something I’m interested in seeing done, and done well. I really like a number of D&D settings, for example, and there are many things about the rules that I also like. However, it just misses being what I would really like to see, and does so on a fundamental level. I occasionally toy with revising the rules (with the Open Game License, you can do that for D&D 3), but the number of revisions it would need builds up and up, and I realise that I would be better off just writing another game. Of course, if I do that, I have to make it very different from D&D, or why bother?

So, D&D is rather irritating. It’s very close to something I would like to play, but not quite there. It’s close enough that I keep going back to it and fiddling with it, but far enough away that the fiddling never quite works. I have no doubt that I’ll continue fiddling with it for quite some time. After all, I enjoy myself while I’m doing that.

Oh yes, this book. If you want a big book of spells for D&D 3.5, this is the book for you. As far as I could tell, it does that job well.

Gary Gygax RIP

Gary Gygax has died.

Whether you know who he was depends on whether you’re a roleplayer. For everyone else: he’s one of the two people who created roleplaying games. Along with Dave Arneson, he wrote Dungeons and Dragons, back in 1974. He has, therefore, had more influence on my life, indirectly, than almost anyone else; not only was he responsible for the hobby I spent much of my youth on, he was also responsible for the industry in which I built a career.

I didn’t know him personally at all, but this is still a very sad event for me.

Changeling: The Lost

Changeling was the 2007 game for White Wolf’s World of Darkness. It was, I gather, a rather larger hit than the publishers expected, which is always nice when it happens. This is a contrast to their last attempt at Changelings. Changeling: The Dreaming could be (slightly unfairly) described as “hippies fight librarians”. Changeling: The Lost is, rather, “abuse survivors try to rebuild some kind of life”. Rather darker, and much more effective as a game.

The player characters are people who were abducted by the fairies, and then managed to escape. Fairies are not nice, so their experiences in Arcadia were dreadful, and transformed them into something no longer entirely human. What’s worse, in most cases their abductors left fetches behind in their places, so that their family and friends do not even realise that they were gone. They normally find themselves near the place from which they were abducted, as it is their desire for home, family, or a particular person that allows them to get out of Arcadia. However, home is no longer their home, so they have to create a new life.

The background is good, and there are a lot of nice mechanical touches. For example, the supernatural powers of the Changelings are based on contracts made with the world, and each contract has a catch, which allows the Changeling to use it at no cost if she performs some appropriate action. This is a good way to get players to have their characters do suitable things, as well as reinforcing the mood. In all, this is a very good game, with flashes of inspiration setting off the solid work around them.

It seems to be best suited to fairly long, open-ended campaigns, unlike Promethean, which would work best in a chronicle with a fixed goal (becoming human). This is why I’ll probably never play it; I don’t have time for multiple long-term campaigns, and I’d rather play Mage, or Ars Magica. However, if I was playing a WoD chronicle, I’d definitely want to work the Changelings in. The ideas are too good to waste.

The Pure

This is a book for White Wolf’s Werewolf: the Forsaken line, detailing the “bad werewolves” of the setting. Naturally, with it being a horror game, the “good werewolves” are not exactly models of virtue and restraint, but they are supposed to be much more sympathetic than the Pure. The Pure are driven by an unwavering belief in their own virtue, and a genocidal hatred of the Forsaken, the “good werewolves”. They are the religious fanatics, the “master race”, and the merciless hunters of the setting.

The book struck me as a solid, workmanlike performance that covered all the necessary bases. But it didn’t inspire me. This could be just me, of course. There’s a lot of material in it, and plenty of things that could be used in a game to showcase the ways in which the Pure differ from default werewolves, so anyone who found the Pure inspiring, whether as villains or as flawed protagonists, in the core rules would probably find a lot of good stuff here. I never did, and that may well be the problem.

On the up side, there is plenty of material here that I could use if I decided to include the Pure in a game, and it would certainly save me a lot of work; there are sample characters, Rites, Gifts, and fetishes, and discussions of the sorts of things that the Pure get up to. But that extra spark is missing. In the terms I used when marking essays, it’s a solid II:i, but it’s missing that something special needed to make it a first.

Shadows of the UK

This is the World of Darkness sourcebook for the UK. That may, indeed, be fairly obvious from the title, not to mention the cover image, but it still seems like a sensible place to start talking about it. Most of the authors are British, as far as I know, and quite possibly all of them. Certainly, I didn’t spot any gross errors as I was reading through, and quite a few points picked up on things that are of contemporary concern in the UK. (As far as I know from reading the Guardian website from Japan, so I suppose that Americans prepared to do research could have managed it equally well.) The proof that at least some of the authors are genuine Britons is the reference to the Wombles. Mind you, I’m not sure that I could work the Wombles into any variety of horror game.

The book was published as part of the general World of Darkness line, rather than as part of one of the subsidiary game lines. However, it reads as though it was originally written as a Werewolf supplement, and then moved after a policy decision that there would be no more regional sourcebooks for the individual games. There is a lot of emphasis on the werewolves of Britain, with details of packs and fully-statted sample members, and much less on the vampires and mages, although not nothing. There is also some material on other horrific things to be found around the UK, both from old legends and from more recent events.

On the whole, I thought it was well done. However, once again I felt that there was too much emphasis on the created characters, who could fit in, with few changes, anywhere in the world, and not enough emphasis on the background of the UK. More UK legends and haunted places, with suggestions on how to use them in stories, or tie them to different kinds of supernatural creatures, would be more to my taste. As a halfway house, maybe have some supernatural groups tied strongly to local legends, and then sketch how they might also interact with other, slightly more generic groups. This isn’t really a criticism of the authors, because they have done a good job of what they were, doubtless, told to do. It’s not even really a criticism of the editor, because I’m not absolutely sure that my idea would be an improvement. It’s more a general expression of something I think should be tried for a regional book. Until it is tried, we won’t know whether it’s actually better.

Shadowrun, Fourth Edition

Shadowrun is a cyberpunk roleplaying game with elves and magic. It’s set in, in this edition, 2070, after magic returned to the world in 2012, awakening dragons, elves, dwarfs, orks, trolls, and magic. The player characters are freelance criminals who do dubious work for corporations. Although, since large corporations are effectively countries, they might better be described as freelance secret agents. The ethical background of the player characters is, to say the least, rather dubious. Despite this, it’s a game that I’ve liked since the first edition, and I have the rule books for all four editions, along with some supplements. I’ve even managed to play it, once, which is more than can be said for a lot of the games I have on my shelves.

Compared to the previous editions, I think that the fourth is an improvement. The rules have been simplified and streamlined, making it look a lot easier to run. At a glance, the general balance of the systems also looks good. By far the largest apparent improvement, however, is the better integration of deckers into the game. Deckers are the characters who deal with computer matrix, and in previous editions they would always have little solo adventures without the other player characters, and then have nothing to do while the others did their thing. That’s bad game design.

The new edition makes use of wireless networking to bring the deckers along, although, as they no longer have cyberdecks, they are now called hackers. Most of the time, a hacker is only partially in the matrix (Shadowrun has called its virtual world the matrix since long before the film came out, but it never seemed to run into a trademark clash), and thus can participate in actions in the real world as well. He can become fully immersed, but this is set up as being something that he does briefly, before rejoining the real world and moving on.

That’s the biggest difference. Shadowrun has a metaplot, which means that the background has moved on since I last looked, but it’s still recognisably the same world. It still feels like Shadowrun, and I still like it. I’m really not at all sure why, though. Some sort of atavism, perhaps, and the same reason that pirates are popular. Shadowrunners are a lot like pirates, after all, in that they kill and steal for a living, but still manage to be somehow heroic. When I played, I think my character was rather less violent than the setting assumed…

Still, it’s well put together, and I like it. Another recommended game.

Ghouls

Ghouls is a book for the World of Darkness, specifically for Vampire: the Requiem. It concerns humans who are given vampire blood to drink. They become addicted to the blood and, fairly quickly, come to regard the vampire supplying it as the most important being in their world. The blood also gives them access to some of the powers of vampires, making them stronger than normal humans, but they do not suffer the limitations; most significantly, they can go out during the day. Thus, they are the perfect servants for vampires, and that is their main role in the game.

This book thus serves two purposes. First, it develops ghouls in more detail as supporting characters, serving the player characters or their opponents. Some ghouls manage to maintain a precarious independence, and they can be allies or antagonists in their own right.

Second, it considers the possibilities of ghouls as player characters. Bound by their addiction and forced adoration for a master who is normally abusive, they are not in a particularly pleasant situation. However, for a series of roleplaying games that are about personal horror, this is not at all inappropriate. Indeed, I think they would make a very good viewpoint for examining the horror of the World of Darkness.

There is, however, a problem. Ghouls are almost all bound to vampires. This deprives them of the freedom to take the initiative in setting up stories and adventures, and this is a significant limit on a roleplaying game. What’s more, it would be unusual for a vampire to have enough ghoul servants to make a viable group, and even if he did, he would be unlikely to use them as a group. Mixed groups pose their own problems. Mixed ghouls and vampires face the problem that ghouls are active in daylight. Mixed ghouls and non-ghouls raise the problem of why the vampire allows the ghoul to associate with the others.

In short, the problem is that, although I can see how to build good stories around a single ghoul, I cannot really see how to work them into a group. The book does do some work towards dealing with this, and, of course, this is not the primary intended use of the material, so this is certainly not a major problem.

On the other side, however, a lot of the detail in the book is unlikely to see much use unless there are ghoul player characters. The information on how different clans and covenants of vampires tend to treat their ghouls is interesting, but player character vampires get to choose their own approaches. Similarly, the detailed rules on character creation are redundant if the ghouls are NPCs, and will thus be created to reach an appropriate power level. The information on ghoul families may be an exception to this; it can be used to create a new and interesting antagonist for a chronicle, or a background for a character who takes on a role other than ghoul.

In sum, this is a good book, with good ideas that make me want to use it. However, I’m not sure just how easy it would be to really use most of the information given here. If it had that extra bit of information, it might be a great book.