Pathfinder RPG Advanced Player’s Guide

26 10 2010

OMG. It may be old news but I love the APG.
For me, the old Paizo quality is there to start with. The number of pages, the quality of the artwork, the fact that they’ve listened to the fans. They all say Paizo to me in a way that other RPG companies don’t. Am I biased because of the system? Actually no. I was never a huge fan of 3.5 (don’t get me started on the attack of opportunity rule, let alone grapple). No, it’s the quality of the product and the enthusiasm of the publishers and fans – no, it’s the partnership of Paizo and players that hooked me.
Not every offering has been awesome. I’ve bought most titles since the core rulebook came out. The wins have certainly outweighed the losses.
What appeals to me about this book is in many ways that it isn’t complete fantasy. OK, I’d better explain that one. What I mean is that they haven’t introduced six weird races. Rather, they have given ways to make humans, dwarves and the like unique. Now, you don’t just have six races that aren’t really distinguishable. Now you can flavour your gnome in so many ways.
The classes we’ve seen before to be fair, but the variants on the core classes are another welcome way of differentiating your standard fighter without having to create a whole new class that becomes an oddity.
The feats are a welcome addition – and you’d expect new spells and equipment to be fair.
The prestige classes build on what I’ve already said. Good without being weird.
The new rules I’ve yet to form a strong opinion on, but at least we’ve not been overwhelmed with optional additions.
I think you’ll love this if you like the core game and want more of the same.
You’ll find it wanting if, in my opinion, you want radical new things, like weird and wonderful races, classes and rules.
It won’t take a genius to work out which side of the fence I sit on.


The Kobold Guide to Games Design – Volume I: Adventures (A Review)

12 01 2010

I start this review feeling something of a fraud. I mean, who am I to review something written by Wolfgang Baur, Keith Baker, Ed Greenwood, and Nicolas Logue. So I have chastised myself and instead present this as an overview of the product.

It’ll just be an overview with my opinions sprinkled liberally.

The PDF copy of the document runs to 90 pages – including covers etc. Much bigger books I can review quite quickly – with a basic outline of the content, some specific examples and a summary of the plusses and minuses.

The KGGD, due to its structure and variety of content, makes that format redundant. So I will devise a different review format for this product.

To start with, the title is quite self-evident. It is a guide to designing role-playing games. I would suggest the advice is as applicable to entire system design as it is to campaigns and adventures.

Where it might leave some readers behind are the pages devoted to selling the said output. Some of it can be useful e.g. marketing (as you should consider what your players want) but aspects like making a pitch can be glossed over by most that would look to buy this book.

I’ll digress for a second. Is this a book? I bought it as a PDF and it runs to less than 100 pages, but I’m not sure what to refer to the title as. Kobold call it an, “88-page collection of essays.” It is certainly a publication and I’ll continue to call it a book – but you see my dilemma.

So the title works for those wishing to become freelancers (indeed every aspiring writer/designer should have a copy) and those wishing to improve their homebrew efforts. Plus, I’d add it would help if you wanted to write articles for publication on the subject.

It’s written by people who know what they’re talking about and the style and ease of reading reflects their professionalism.

I could summarise the content thus:

  • Marketing (who is the audience and making a pitch to sell your offering)
  • Design tips
  • How to be a better writer
  • Writing style (pacing etc.)
  • World-building
  • Games genres (good advice on a variety here)
  • And then some more.

See how it’s a challenge to review quickly? To consider the topics covered in the publication, I offer the following (and these are my headings, not theirs):

  • How to get the most information with the fewest words
  • Making fantasy realistic
  • World-building and settings and bringing it to life
  • Games aren’t books (the differences in writing styles)
  • Pacing
  • Cliffhangers
  • How and why to raise the stakes
  • Misdirection
  • Structuring your story
  • Subplots
  • Genres (city adventures, Arabian, hardboiled, underdark)

As I write this, it is starting to look more like a list than a review – and that is the fault of the publication! It is so varied (despite keeping to the same topic) and in-depth that it defies a quick line on each section.

I’ll focus here on the GM that wants to build better adventures, and as I usually do, I’ll pick some sections at random to show you what to expect.

Section 4 is entitled Fantasy Realism and starts:

“I hate the common critique of fantasy adventures and settings that they are “not realistic enough.” At the same time, I totally understand. The critique is not about realism. It is about depth and plausibility. A realistic setting does not have wizards, 20-pound battleaxes, or half-naked Amazon elves. Or giants, dragons, or beholders. Or anything fun, really.”

And it is the writing style as much as the content that makes this publication work. It reads like a learned favourite uncle (Uncle Wolfgang in this case) has sat you down and spun you some home truths about writing fantasy adventures.

The language is accessible and flows smoothly. The down-side is that you have to read it – it is difficult to dip in for a line or two.

It is the ongoing theme that imparts the knowledge, not half a dozen words written in bold.

If I leap to section 11 City Adventures, the second paragraph reads:

“I always enjoy the subcategory called “city adventures” because they break the established rules of the D&D combat arena. Unlike dungeons and other secluded locations, city adventures are constantly interrupted by the presence of bystanders and busybodies, by the forces of the law, and by villains hiding among the innocent. They can be wildly unpredictable.”

I’ll close my excerpts by moving to section 15 Inspiration and Discipline in Design (aka Fire and Sword). In keeping with my approach, I’ll print the opening paragraph:

“To be a successful game designer, you need all the tools of the trade: wordcraft, imagination, mathematics, and discipline both in mechanics and in daily writing. To get started, you need the spark of inspiration that gets your query approved by an editor (for periodicals) or that gets your pitch accepted by a publisher.”

I would add that spark is just as necessary to get your gaming group fired up by your suggestion for a new campaign or game world.

Buy this if:

  • You are at all serious about writing professionally
  • You blog, write for fanzines etc. and want to improve your output
  • You are serious as a GM and want to be the best you can
  • You are prepared to sit down and read 100 pages of text
  • You can review advice and fit it to your own situation (i.e. the excerpt above about the spark)

Don’t buy it if:

  • You simply want some campaign ideas
  • You like lists and step by step guides
  • You can’t see the bigger picture 

Finally, I’d like to say I do recommend this publication. I recommend it to anyone who wants to be a better GM. And anyone who doesn’t want to be a better GM – your players don’t deserve you.

I am reminded of a trainer I met when I took over an HR function many years ago. I asked him what his aspirations were. Asking for my job had come top of the list to date.

He said he wanted to be the best trainer there was. I dismissed him as lacking ambition.

Yet, he was as ambitious as they come – and I learned that over the next few years. He really did want to be the best trainer IN THE WORLD.

He was relentless and looked to improve every aspect of his work. He was good to begin with and could have coasted and still performed. But he was driven to be better.

Unless you’re driven to be better, this book could just collect dust on your shelf (or virtual cobwebs on your hard-drive).

Next time, I’ll review Volume 2 that covers How to Pitch, Playtest & Publish. It is more focused on the writer that wants to be published but still includes enough for the cover price for GMs to purchase (but I’m getting ahead of myself).

In response to a comment, you can find the title if you go to:

You can see both their standard offerings e.g. Kobold Quarterly magazine as well as The Kobold Guide to Games Design. Just use the search facility.

Every fantasy GM should own a copy of…

5 01 2010

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer.

This is not your average sourcebook and as a work of historic non-fiction, I can imagine many would be put off by its serious nature.  But don’t let the subject matter put you off.

Its sub-title is ‘A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century.’  It’s apt as the book is written as if it’s a travel guide rather than a history book.

Imagine the past was a foreign country – and you needed to buy a guidebook.  This would be the one you’d pick.  Of course, this is only of use if you GM in fantasy settings, but if you do, come up with a good reason why you wouldn’t buy a copy.

It focuses on the sort of information that GMs rather than historians would like to know about.  Stuff like:

  • What can you see?
  • What do you smell?
  • Where do travellers stay?
  • What is there to eat?
  • How do you greet a stranger?
  • How fast can you travel (safely)?

The book has eleven formal chapters:

  • The Landscape
  • The people
  • The medieval character
  • Basic essentials
  • What to wear
  • Travelling
  • Where to stay
  • What to eat and drink
  • Health and hygiene
  • The law
  • What to do

I can only do a review justice  by picking some random samples.  For example, the book opens with a section on cities and towns.  The opening line reads:

‘It is the cathedral that you will see first.’ 

There then follows an explanation of what you see and smell as you approach a typical medieval town.  Did you know the brook you cross before you reach the gatehouse is most likely full of human faeces, rotting meat and broken crockery?

Jumping to ‘What to Wear’ it debunks all of the Hollywood myths about how medieval people actually dress.  ‘In 1300 clothes are straightforward and practical…Then about 1330 things begin to change.  The essential difference lies in the way a sleeve is cut.’

And moving forward to ‘What to Eat and Drink’ we are reminded that people starved to death in this era and that theft in order to avoid death was a likelihood.

‘With the exception of a few high-status, self-indulgent individuals, people do not normally have breakfast.’

Before you write this book off as long on fact and short on usefulness, please be aware that I really did pick those sections at random.

The book isn’t just full of useful facts, it has plot hooks too.  I just turned to page 270 and I see listed, Relics in the Church of Wimborne Minster.   If that doesn’t look like a list of things an evil-doer might steal and the heroes have to recover, I’d like to know what is.  I mean, they even had a part of the thigh from St Agatha and some blood from St Thomas Becket!  Imagine if a mad necromancer was travelling around the churches collecting body parts to one particular saint?

I do see this as a book that will divide GMs.  If you’re into this sort of thing, you can find no better (and easier to read) title.  If this isn’t your bag, I’ll never convince you.

Buy it if:

  • You’re a GM of a fantasy game
  • You are prepared to read the book
  • You want to know what’s authentic – even if you choose to ignore it

Don’t buy it if:

  • You want nothing but quick-dip lists (this book has lots of sentences and paragraphs)
  • Your fantasy setting is not interested in what medieval times were actually like (and there’s nothing wrong with that)

(Has it really been almost a month since my last blog???)

The Tome of Secrets (a review)

1 12 2009

My love of Pathfinder is already documented on these pages.  But that doesn’t mean I will always praise Pathfinder related content – I will always write it as I see it.

I was a little surprised to see a hard copy of The Tome of Secrets in my local store – as I live in England and the nearby stores aren’t exactly RPG-centric.

That said, I saw a copy and immediately grabbed it (without checking the contents). 

My first overall observation is that with the Paizo produced stuff so far, just about anything within their covers is allowable in the game.  OK, I have a house-rule about attacks of opportunity and players have to check with me if they want to take a trait from a supplement or the web-document – but pretty much anything is fair game. 

This is rarely the case with third-party sourcebooks and Adamant Entertainment’s offering is no different.  Having started with something of a negative, I’ll balance that by saying that overall it is worth the purchase price.  Doubly so as you get a free PDF once you have bought it.

The sections are well laid out and cover:

  • Three additional races
  • Eight additional classes
  • Drawbacks
  • Occupations
  • GM Options

Some Specifics

I like the fact that Adamant Entertainment worked with Paizo to ensure that anything that goes in here doesn’t contradict something Paizo will put out later.  So the races and classes and mechanics won’t clash.

The races are…interesting.  Not sure if I’d ever play one but they give a significantly different option to the Paizo core races.  The classes are good too.  One or two appeal (the Spellblade and Warlock in particular) and the rest serve a purpose.

I really like the drawbacks and the fact that a player is allowed a skill bonus to offset taking the  drawback.  Some drawbacks are very specific e.g. Cold Aversion only affects you at certain temperatures and some are generic e.g. Bad Shot means a -2 penalty on all ranged attacks.  As a GM I’d be sure players only took sensible drawbacks.  Taking Cold Aversion for a desert campaign would be vetoed at once!

Occupations considers what your PC did prior to becoming an adventurer.  There are rules on wealth creation, some random tables if you just want to trust chance (and these are grouped by region e.g. rural, marine etc.).  Each background occupation gives specific skills that can give both flavour and some helpful abilities.

The GM section covers a range of topics and the GM can pick’n’mix whatever aspects he wants to add.  So there are sections on the mechanics of a range of aspects, e.g. stunts, morale and enchantment.

My favourite section is all about chases.  With standard movement rates, in the typical game mechanics you either never catch someone or you do.  This depends on your relative movement rate.  One human will never catch another human.  So the mechanics here allow for variety in that scenario – and a whole new aspect of adventuring can begin – the chase.

Next up there are some random generation tables for magical items and some mechanics for modifying standard monsters to create something new for your players.  There is a random adventure generator and finally a section on gunpowder weapons.   

What could be improved

My first observation is the artwork.  None is poor but many artists have contributed and for me at least, I like a high degree of commonality.  So some is OK, some is good but I don’t get the feeling I’m reading from one source – rather a few that have been put together.  But then I’m awkward.

I think that not every page will appeal to every player or GM but then that should not put people off buying it.  There is enough for any group to justify the price – with over 180 pages of information to use.

You’ll like this if:

  • You like Pathfinder and want some extra dimension
  • As a GM you want to try some different mechanics
  • You like the idea of ‘chases’
  • You’d like a way to develop backgrounds for your PCs and NPCs

You won’t like it if:

  • You’re on a limited budget and Paizo produce as much as you can afford each month
  • You want a huge amount of depth on one specific subject – this book offers a lot of different topics
  • You’re of the opinion that if Paizo didn’t want to publish it, you’d rather ignore it

Overall I’d recommend it to anyone who is serious about Pathfinder.  Would I recommend every player had a copy?  Perhaps not but every group should have access to at least one copy.

Mouse Guard – An update

20 11 2009

As I’ve said before, I review them how I see them.  My personal feedback for Mouse Guard when I did my review was mixed and, at the time, I wondered if this was a game thing or a GM thing.  

At couple of people contacted me to suggest it was the GM, and I took that at face value.  Perception can never be ‘wrong.’  Someone’s perception may not be the same as the facts, but it is still how they perceive it and their opinion is just as valid.

I was therefore pleased to hear not one but two interviews with Luke Crane recently and it appears – from my perspective – that I was both right and wrong to blame the GM.

The whole concept of comic book role-playing is close to Luke Crane’s heart (I don’t feel I know him well enough to call him Luke and Mr. Crane sounds too formal).  As is the narrative style and his desire to write ‘different’ role-playing games.

From his words and my limited game-play, I think it takes a particular GM to run a game like Mouse Guard.  Not necessarily a better one, but certainly a different one.  The whole scene framing aspect of the design can lead to a very stop-start game experience if the GM doesn’t handle it correctly.

In one sense, I felt like I was part of a comic strip when I played Mouse Guard.  But each frame felt insular – I did not sense a flow of image to image.  Which is exactly the opposite of the experience that Luke Crane wants the players to achieve.  His passion for playing is palpable.

Would I change my initial review?  No.  Would I give Mouse Guard a second chance as a player?  Perhaps.  Will I buy the book and look to GM myself.  Absolutely. 

The game as described by Luke Crane is the sort of role-playing experience I would like to be part of – and by becoming the GM, at least I can control it.

So when I’ve GMed my first session, I will no doubt give a further review.  At least I’m unlikely to blame the GM next time.

PbP – an update

22 10 2009

As something of an interlude between writing about adventure plotting, I thought I’d give an update on my Play By Post exploits.

I’m involved with three games – all through the Paizo boards.

In the first I joined, I got to roll my own character and I’m playing in the Council of Thieves campaign.  I’m a rogue (and a wannabe assassin) and the game is going well.  The pace of the action means I get to post most days and I feel I’m getting into my character.

In the second, I picked up a character that the player stopped running.  It feels a little awkward being the newbie and playing someone I didn’t create.  The GM said I can change when the time is right, but I’m not sure if that’s a good idea.  Should I abandon a character that’s been in the campaign (Shackled City) since the outset just because I’m inflexible?

In the third, I’m running Rise of the Runelords as a GM.  I actually enjoy this the most – putting together maps and the like and the pace is brisk.  It’s overtaken the first game in terms of the number of posts and it’s over a week younger.

Overall I’m enjoying my PbP experience – and lets see how I fare after I experience players not participating or dropping out altogether.

Mouse Guard (a review)

13 10 2009

mouse_guard_rpg_coverMouse Guard is a roleplaying game where players assume the role of mice (no surprise there) from the comic books of the same name. 

The rulebook is lovely and for someone like me that likes to create characters, it was awesome – but more of that later.

The mice in the game are, to all intents and purposes, like humans.  They stand on their hind legs and perform human type activities.  The Guard are the ones that protect the communities from all threats – from crows to weasels.  To conclude the background, it is set in a medieval world but there is no magic – nor do you encounter any humans. 

If you know Burning Wheel, you know Mouse Guard.  If you don’t it doesn’t matter.  The book starts with a background to the world and role-playing in general before moving on to characters.

Character generation was, for me, almost a game in itself.  Unlike many role-playing games where one warrior is much like another, there is no excuse with Mouse Guard to play the same character twice.  But I’m getting ahead of myself gain, character creation doesn’t come just yet.

An interesting aspect of the game is the emphasis on beliefs, goals and instincts.  Your mouse has a code that they must live by, a goal that is set before each adventure and an instinct that your mouse automatically follows.  Experience points in part depend on how well you role-play these.

There is a section on missions (adventures) and here is where my love affair started to wane.  I will say up front that I don’t know how much of my disappointment with playing the game was down to the GM and how much was the rules .  I have spoken to another player who waxed lyrical about the game, so perhaps my experience wasn’t typical.

The role-playing aspect of the game is based upon missions.  For missions read obstacles.  The obstacles are weather, wilderness, animals and other mice.   Typically two of these comprise a mission. 

The way the game runs felt to me more like a board-game than a role-playing game.  The GM takes a turn, and then the players take a turn.  To me this felt wrong.  And the turn options were awkward for me.  More than half the time my turn consisted of offering a bonus to the leader of my group – as did most of the other PCs. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of options available but my experience differed from the theory.  Actions are typically opposed and continue until there is a winner and a loser. 

There are sections on the ‘world,’ other animals and the weather (a significant aspect of this game).

Getting back to characters, one interesting choice the PC has is, how close to natural mice behaviour do you want to be?  Closeness leads to benefits in mouse-type skills – like hiding or foraging.  Going against your nature gives more opportunities for skill progression.

The creation of the character is heavily slanted towards their background.  What your parents’ did for a living for example will enable you to take skill ranks in an associated area.  Characters also have ‘wises’ (areas of knowledge) and traits (special abilities).  Traits, by definition, have a positive and a negative side to them.  Being alert helps spot things but can make you anxious.

The character generation is actually referred to as recruitment.  Depending on your choice of rank and background – your lifepath – your points to allocate to things like skills and resources vary considerably.  Youth has benefits – as does age.  It’s all about the sort of mouse you want to play.

And this links to my second concern.  One mouse is typically the leader of the group and I found I spent a large proportion of my time supporting him – as the leader – rather than developing my own character.

As I’ve said before, I don’t know how much of my misgiving is down to the game and how much is down to the GM.  Will I try it once more?  Yes, but I’ll take some convincing.  That’s not to say this is in any way a poor product. 

 I can see huge appeal to younger players, new to role-playing (plus the fact that death is rare) and to groups wanting something different (and who have an inventive GM).  But I do think this is a Marmite product – people will either love it or hate it.