Thursday, January 1, 2015

Tommy's Top Six of 2014 and Birthday Blog Giveaway

It's that time of year, in which I look back on the games I reviewed and played over the last year, and I pick out the six that were, in my opinion, head and shoulders above the rest, and worthy of your dollars.

The rules, as arbitrarily decided by me: 1) Only one product per publisher. 2) My primary exposure to the product has to have been between December 1st of last year through November 30th of this year, regardless of publication date. I don't watch my TV shows on the same day, or even week, that they air and I don't always buy and/or read books immediately upon release. 3) I can't have any involvement in the production of the book.

I have done this four times before:

Tommy's Top Six of 2010
Tommy's Top Six of 2011
Tommy's Top Six of 2012
Tommy's Top Six of 2013

This year, I have even put my money where my mouth is and purchased physical copies of all six books on my list.

Spoiler Warning: These are my Top Six.
Here they are, in alphabetical order, with six reasons why I selected each:


ACCURSED (Melor Via)

1) It tackles "Monsters as Heroes" better than any Savage Worlds book that comes to mind, providing an excellent selection of monster archetypes from Dhampir to Mummies to Revenants to Shades. Most of your major "classic" monsters are represented here.

2) Thanks to a broad selection of Edges and Hindrances, it is easy to customize within each Witchbreed, so not all Vargr are the same, for instance. One player's Golem may be a genius trapped in an artificial body while the other may be a rampaging brute.

3) Accepting or Defying a character's Witchmark has a marked effect on the character, supported by the game mechanics. Will you sacrifice your humanity for more power, even if for the greater good? Or will you reject it, shedding power for your soul?

4)  It's not just Savage Worlds, it's a great stretching of the Savage Worlds system to accommodate the premise without overly bloating it or breaking it.

5) Each  of the main villains, The Witches, are interesting enough and powerful enough to base a whole campaign around if you so chose, and they provide direction and color to the bestiary. It's a bit like a combination between the Dark Lords of Ravenloft and the Night Kings of Midnight combined in a Savage blender.

6) The print book is gorgeous, with each of the Witchbreed and the Witches just popping off the page and the artwork evoking a Gothic Action atmosphere that sells the game's core premise.

DUNGEONS & DRAGON FIFTH EDITION PLAYER'S HANDBOOK (Wizards of the Coast)

1) Fast character creation with fun customization options at each class that are (typically) made after
you have a couple of sessions under you, but don't have an arduous list of prerequisites.

2) Alignment is still present as a guide, but Good and Evil are no longer tangible, detectable concepts, meaning that there is now room for nuanced characterization.

3) A reduced emphasis on modifiers, streamlining the game engine greatly, with Advantage and Disadvantage handling most of the +/- modifiers of the past.

4) Not a lot of deep, hidden maths that threaten to break if you turn the wrong dial or flip the wrong switch. The developers strongly encourage "winging it", "rulings" and "what feels right at your table".

5) The D&D DNA is still so prevalent that I have managed to work in material from Labyrinth Lord and 2nd Edition with minimal effort.

6) Because I have been running it the last few months and have been having an absolute blast. More fun than I expected, honestly, given past D&D experiences. As the tagline on my blog says: The Proof is in the Fun.

EAST TEXAS UNIVERSITY (Pinnacle Entertainment Group)

1) While it is Savage Worlds, and the core system is very much intact, it bends the system to fit the setting rather than bending the setting to fit the system, as evidenced by a number of school-based mechanics, including how you spend your free time each semester, and studying for finals.

2) ETU's authors knew what the book was: A redneck Buffy. It balances horror with an East Texas sensibility, with creatures like Hogzilla and the Skunk Ape. The premise is so strong and interesting that it's penciled in as our next campaign after we finish our D&D game.

3) Lots of pre-existing support in the form of the Pinebox, Texas adventures from 12 to Midnight, which can be incorporated into your East Texas University pretty easily.

4) Magic is scary and dangerous and anyone who finds a ritual can attempt to cast it...a departure for Savage Worlds rules, and spot on perfect for a horror setting like that.

5) Ooodles of random tables....even a random party generator for when you just absolutely need to generate for a fraternity shindig.

6) I make a background appearance in the Plot Point Campaign book (Degrees of Horror)! (Or a character bearing my name does, anyway.)

FIASCO (Bully Pulpit Games)

1. Non-gamer appeal. This is the only game that my wife played with my gaming group this year, and
she had as much fun as the rest of us did.

2. Oodles and oodles of free support. Seriously...the main book itself isn't usually very expensive, and there are dozens of free playbooks to go along with it.

3. The Fiasco Companion broadens the reach of the game by turning it into a tool to work in classrooms or an improv lesson for theatre troupes (which is practically is by default anway).

4. The randomized nature of the set-up even makes each playbook inherently re-playable.

5. The game is designed to be played in just a couple of hours...about the same time the movies it is inspired by run. Perfect for one shots where you could just use a break in the regular routine.

6. The Proof is in the Fun. The actual play linked above may have actually been the single most fun session I had this year. It would be disingenuous of me to not then give this game an absolutely glowing recommendation.

Firefly Roleplaying Game (Margaret Weis Productions)

1. Arguably the most "traditional" iteration of the Cortex Plus game system yet, Firefly applies the narrative mechanics of Cortex Plus to a much more RPG-like Attributes and Skills system for characters.

2. The best episode guide I have ever seen in a licensed RPG book, hands down, as it breaks down each Firefly episode and milks out just how to gain gameable information from each episode, or just how specific situations from an episode (like River taking over Serenity in Objects in Space) are handled in game.

3. Ship creation rules that allow you to create a vessel with some personality, rather than just lifting some stock stats from an appendix in a book. A ship in Firefly should be important. The designers get that and mechanically allow for it.

4. Gorgeous layout and production values that combine screencaps from the show, well placed art and photos from a source that I don't recognize that do a good enough job of filling in the gaps without disrupting the flow of the book.

5. Each region of The 'Verse gets covered in a good amount of detail, including not only naming conventions from each, but a list of character archetypes that are likely to have their origins from there. If one has really only watched the TV show, one could certainly be forgiven for not realizing how much of the 'Verse has been fleshed out.

6. The contents of the book did something for me that the old Serenity Corebook never did: Pique my interest in running a game set in the 'Verse. While it's not currently on my docket (we are in the midst of D&D, with East Texas University in the running for What Comes Next, I would gladly embrace an opportunity to put this to my table).

TIANXIA: BLOOD, SILK & JADE (Vigilance Press)

1. They managed to add a full blown Martial Arts system to Fate that is customizable to your
character and doesn't weigh down the system. It's like Fate kicked you in the face.

2. They have a Lifepath generator, and it's Pay What You Want and it's awesome. I love random tables and I love Lifepath generators.

3. It draws inspiration from the movie The Man With The Iron Fists and the video game Jade Empire among others...and that's just awesome, because I love both of those things dearly.

4. Nice optional tweaks that can move weapons an armor from window dressing on your characters to super important parts of the game, as well as dialing Kung Fu up and down...do you want all combat to be deadly, or do you want each step of Kung Fu mastery to be a noticeable step above those below it? The rules will support where you want to go with it.

5. Pay What You Want Fate Accelerated support is available, if want something a little more free and loose and a little less crunchy.

6. The setting is painted broadly enough that it supports martial arts tournaments, marauding pirates, rampaging barbarians, evil cultists, political intrigue, vampire assassins and more. It's not a full blown kitchen sink setting, but it provides a lot of room for your own interpretation which, combined with being a Fate-based game, can make it much easier for you to fill in your own blanks as needed. There's even a sidebar on playing as animal PCs, for you Kung Fu Panda guys out there.

So those are my Top Six of 2014...now here's the cool part: I started this blog on January 1st, 2010, so it is my blog's birthday...but YOU get the presents! Five of those six publishers have agreed to give those games away to you! From now until 12:01 AM Central Time on January 15th, if you email me at tommybrownell(at)gmail(dot)com with the subject "Tommy's Top Six 2014" (and this is very important: I set up an email filter for these emails...if you don't use those words, that email may will be lost and ignored) with your preference of prize, in order, of the product you would like to win, I will randomly determine the winners on the 15th. Each person selected will win their first available choice (so if you are the third winner, and your first choice was also taken by the first winner, then you get your second choice, and so on), until prizes have been selected! Also: One entry per person. Duplicate entries will be deleted. Let's share the love, ya'll.

And now for the prizes:

- One (1) Accursed Prize Pack, which includes a PDF copy of Accursed as well as the Accursed Player's Guide for the GM to share with his group.
- One (1) set of East Texas University PDFs (East Texas University and Degrees of Horror).
- One (1) PDF copy of Fiasco.
- One (1) Firefly RPG Pack which includes PDFs of the Firefly RPG and the two supplements: Things Don't Go Smooth and Thrillin' Heroics.
- One (1) Tianxia prize package, featuring a PDF copy of Tianxia as well as a print copy of Tianxia.

Good luck to everyone that enters, and thank you again to the generous support of Melor Via, Pinnacle Entertainment, Bully Pulpit Games, Margaret Weis Productions and Vigilance Press!

Happy New Year!

Tommy