Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Happy Birthday, Dad - An Archetype for All Flesh Must Be Eaten

I wrote this about five years ago and posted it on the Eden Studios Message Boards. It was very well received at the time, but honestly, it's a horrible archetype. Archetypes should be defined by a few stark characteristics and then built from there...this is really more of a full-fledged character, because it is basically my Dad.

Happy birthday, Dad.

(Meant to be used with All Flesh Must Be Eaten by Eden Studios)
Name: Reserve Deputy
Character Type: Survivor

Strength: 3 Intelligence: 3
Dexterity: 2 Perception: 4
Constitution: 3 Willpower: 5

Life Points: 49
Endurance Points: 38
Speed: 10
Essence Pool: 20

Attractiveness +1
Charisma +2
Contacts: Widespread, small favors +3
Hard to Kill +5
Nerves of Steel (3)
Situational Awareness (2)

Impaired Sense: Eyesight (-2)
Honorable (-1)
Resources: Hurting (-2)
Bad Luck: Lv 1 (-3)
Obsession: Burying his family (-2)

Brawling 3
Cheating 1
Dodge 1
Driving (Car) 3
Driving (Truck) 4
First Aid 1
Guns (Pistol) 4
Guns (Rifle) 3
Guns (Shotgun) 2
Humanities (Law) 1
Intimidation 3
Mechanic 5
Notice 3
Questioning 2
Research/Investigation 2
Streetwise 3

Glock 9mm, badge, handcuffs, police flashlight, patrol car, pocket knife, two massive rings of keys (half of which no longer go to anything), vehicle radio, extensive tool sets.

No rest for the wicked, I guess.  I busted my ass for years as a mechanic, turning wrenches to make it for my family.  I was a damn good one…only reasons I didn’t make any more money was because I don’t like to take people for a ride, and I have a tendency to wind up getting’ hurt a lot more than most.  I probably shoulda died more times than I can count.  I’ve broken so many bones that I’ve lost count.  See this limp?  Got a rod in my leg when I broke my femur while workin’ on a big rig.  Slowed me down for about a month.  I went back to work in a wheel chair, then on crutches, until I could make it out to my shop on a crutch.  I don’t let things slow me down.  I always said I’d take care of my family, and one way or another, I was gonna take care of my family.

I got electrocuted about five years back, put me outta work again.  That rod in my leg helped shoot the electricity right through my foot.  Docs said I was lucky to be alive, much less able to ever walk again.  I walked into my house the next night.  I don’t let things slow me down.

Two years ago I decided I’d try to do some real good in the community and I became a reserve deputy for the county Sheriff’s department.  It was hard getting used to the schooling, but it paid off.  ‘Course, that’s when my wife of thirty years died.  At fifty years old, just got my commission card from the county, my kids grown up and my wife gone.  I tried to go back to work, twistin’ wrenches while fightin’ with the deputies at the Sheriff’s office…lazy pieces of shit that didn’t wanna do anything.  It was a hard adjustment.

But not as hard as this.

I wouldn’t have believed it was zombies, except I went to my son’s apartment and saw her trying to get in the door.  Most of her friends and even her family wouldn’t have recognized her, but there was no way I couldn’t.  The woman I married.  The woman I promised to take care of.  Standing in front of me again.

I froze, and it was a mistake.  I started crying and she she came over…I thought to hold me.  She leaned in to kiss me and the most god-awful smell came over me.  Snapped me back to reality, but she had already bitten into my neck.  I knocked her off and I ran.  Managed to stop the bleeding, thanks to some friends of mine.  It was real touch and go, and if I wasn’t so damned stubborn, I probably would have died and became one of them.  But I don’t let things slow me down.

That was six months ago.

My commission card don’t mean shit right now, but that’s okay.  Someone’s still gotta serve and protect.   My youngest son’s the only family I’ve got left.  The rest of them are shambling around somewhere, including her. Well, I always said I’d take care of my family.

One way or another, I’m gonna take care of my family.

“I’m getting too old for this shit.”

Monday, August 29, 2011

Tommy's Take on Absolution

This was originally written during my short stint at Imagine Daily...I don't believe it ever saw the light of day there, but it was written over a year ago. Enjoy.

     Maybe it's just me, but it sure seems like Christos Gage is a bit underrated.  I've been enjoying his works for a few years now, especially his Thunderbolts one shots and his amazing Captain America/Iron Man one shot during Marvel's Civil War event a few years ago, in which Gage wrote arguably the only comic that laid out both Cap's and Iron Man's arguments convincingly.  So when I saw that Christos Gage created a new series through Avatar, I pounced on it.
Absolution is a whole lot like “The Green Lantern meets Dexter”.  More accurately: “The Green Lantern IS Dexter”.  The world of Absolution is one with superheroes and villains, it's just that the heroes are all law enforcement officers and not just vigilantes.  Their identities known by the authorities they serve, they are the “Top Cops”.  Absolution stars John Dusk, a powerful super with energy manipulation powers who has experienced eight years of atrocities followed by the perpetrators getting early releases, walking on technicalities and so on...until one day Dusk just snaps.  He doesn't go on a rampage, Punisher style or all starts simply enough by letting a very bad man bleed to death.  From that point on, John Dusk is on a slippery slope.  For the first time in his career, he knows that the guy he just took down won't ever hurt another person again.
Vigilantes are nothing new in comic books.  There's a whole era devoted to vigilantes, the “Iron Age” where most of the heroes carried big guns and ended their problems permanently.  The story has been done and been parodied and rehashed.  With Absolution, Gage isn't just retelling the Punisher here.  John Dusk is a human being with amazing powers constantly put into horrible situations.  He's not Superman or Spider-Man: He HAS a breaking point.  As Dusk continues his covert actions, the tension grows as his girlfriend, an unpowered police detective, begins seeking this serial killer stalking the scum on the streets.
Through it all, we're inside Dusk's head as he rationalizes everything he does, deals with the suspicions surrounding his actions and the twists and turns in the development of the story.  We're right there as Dusk sees the lines he's crossing, as he tries to stop, and as he realizes he can't.  Gage never glorifies the violence, even though there is a lot of it (a very graphic title, very much for mature readers), and towards the third act of the story, Dusk's crusade winds up having very tragic consequences.  The final two issues see Dusk seeking his absolution for his actions, and end in such a way as to definitely set up a sequel, which Gage has confirmed is coming next year.
Absolution is an impressive out in the vigilante genre that'll likely appeal to anyone who's ever watched the news and been disgusted to see criminals walking free or turned out too early, or readers who like anti-heroes who still have a sense of humanity to them.  Filled with a compelling cast of characters, Absolution never forgets the humanity at the core of it's story.  The biggest downside is that occasionally, just occasionally, the art (by Robert Viacava) feels a little stiff, but it's not enough to detract from the story.  Not for the faint of heart or easily offended, it is a very graphic series, with violence, nudity and swearing that toes the line but never quite crosses into the completely gratuitous realm.  Absolution is now available in Trade Paperback and Hardcover.  Very highly recommended.  One of my favorite reads so far this year.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Tommy's Take on Death By A Thousand Papercuts

Death By A Thousand Paper cuts is a new indy comic by Andrew P. Anderson up on Kickstarter, and it is certainly a timely affair.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Set in the aftermath of the fall of the United States, the US has split into the North and South once more, now known as Free America and the Border States, respectively. Alaska and Hawaii have also become their own nations, and America's enemies are moving in to pick off what is left of this country.

The first issue (four are planned, to be collected in a graphic novel) provides a narrative overview of the fall of America, and follows three story threads, one set in the Border States, one in Free America and one in Afghanistan.

While the narrative casts no specific blame on a given ideology or political party, the narrative does veer closer to the Right than the Left, though it does fall closer to a "Libertarian" mindset than a "Republican" one.

The art uses very broad, "widescreen" panels for much of the book, which makes for an odd fit considering there's not a lot of action in the book. The lettering is an interesting red and white on black mix, with emphasised words in bright red.

WHAT WORKS: The premise is very interesting, and it is nice to see a political story in a comic book from something other than a Leftist take.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: The story is a very slow starter, and none of the characters are very well developed. Now, it may turn out that the overall story is so big that none of the characters need a ton of characterization, and if so, that's fine (and entirely possible). The art is neither exciting, nor is it expressive enough to make the people come alive. The lettering is, at points, incredibly confusing, with conversations not flowing from character to character due to the placement of word balloons. Some nitpick details also bother me, such as the assassination of the President in 2011 pretty clearly NOT being the current President (which only bothers me given how it is otherwise grounded in reality).

CONCLUSION: With the "widescreen" approach to the story telling, it just didn't feel like issue one had time to do anything more than set up the basics...serving more as a prologue than an Act One. That said, I'm curious to see where the story goes, as an American. Is it ultimately an uplifting tale of America pulling itself back together in light of great adversity? Or the second "Fall of Rome"? Big, political tales seem to be a risky proposition in comics, but I wish them luck, even if I see flaws in the execution.

Hosting the Beautiful Brains Chat This Thursday!

Mostly so that Clint and Jodi don't have to close it down while they are at DragonCon this week, I'm stepping in to keep the Beautiful Brains Books & Games chat open!

Come on by and let's talk RPGs...Savage Worlds, Marvel SAGA, Wu Xing, you name it...and I'll hopefully have a couple of details on a couple of blog-specific announcements, too!

Monday, August 22, 2011

In Which I Get Interviewed On A Podcast


A few weeks ago, I sat down with Eloy Lasanta via the magic of Skype and was interviewed for his Rolling 20s podcast. I talked about reviewing, with some chit-chat about my editing work as well, and a plug for my comic work.

If you need something to do for half an hour or so, pop on over and check it out.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Three Page Preview of THE CURSE - from EQUINOX #2

As some of you know, I write comics when I'm not writing RPG reviews or editing. Allow me to offer a three-page teaser of an upcoming story appearing in EQUINOX #2 - THE CURSE OF BABYLON featuring THE CURSE.

I hope you check it out when it is released. It'll be available at in Print on Demand format, as well as digital format at

And stay tuned for news on my upcoming webcomic: HELLRAZER.

Issue 1 of EQUINOX is still available at

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Legendary Contest

Man, I hope Sean Preston doesn't kill me for this.

So I have this PDF copy of Iron Dynasty: Way of the Ronin by Reality Blurs that I can give away, right? It's a pretty awesome martial arts with attitude setting for Savage Worlds. You can read my review here.

So, anyway, I was trying to figure out how I should go about distributing this, and I decided to try another contest, although my last few have had pretty low turnouts.

SO...that is the contest: Submit your Legendary Edges to me, and the one I like best wins this PDF. You can submit up to three entries, and I'll compile ALL the Legendary Edges into a PDF that will be available for public download.

SO, the rules:

1) You may submit up to three (3) Legendary Edges, to tommyb(a)sstelco(dot)com. They do not have to be setting specific (in fact, your chances of success will probably be greater, unless they are just REALLY cool), but they do have to be your original works. Any works found to be copied from existing material will be immediately disqualified.

2) I claim only the right to compile them, with credit given to you, in a PDF available for free, public release. Aside from that, I make no other claim to your intellectual property.

3) All entries must be received by Sunday, September 11th, 2011. A winner will be announced no later than Saturday, September 17th, 2011. The winner will be contacted via e-mail with a download code from DriveThruRPG for the book.

I think that covers everything.

It's a cool book, and I love Legendary Edges, so hit me with your best shot.

Tommy's Take on All For One: Regime Diabolique

And now for a non-Savage Worlds review, and my first meeting with the Ubiquity system: All-For-One: Regime Diabolique by (you guessed it) Triple Ace Games and written by (you guessed it) Paul "Wiggy" Wade-Williams...which I ordered from Beautiful Brains Books & Games. See, there was a theme to this week. Now show up for the chat tonight and talk to Wiggy, as well as Clint and Jodi Black.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: All-For-One is an alternate history/supernatural action game set in 1636 France and revolving around crazy musketeer fun. So, when the new Three Musketeers movie comes out in a few months and people are going "but how do I PLAY that?", this might be the place to look. While there is a TON of support for it, the corebook is standalone, with all the rules needed to play already present. Retail price is $34.99, with the PDF selling for $24.99.

The Ubiquity system is very interesting because it uses whatever dice you have available...and rolling a smaller die isn't any better or worse than rolling a larger die. Essentially, evens on the dice you roll are successes, odds are failures. Odds are the same if you're rolling d4s or d12s, since you're rolling dice pools. There are Ubiquity Device availible for purchase, but I don't know much about them other than they are available for purchase.

The premise is that it is 1636 and France is being horribly corrupted, by demons, witches and sometimes just very crappy people. The PCs are all Musketeers, fighting to save France from the darkness that threatens to envelope it, from the top down.

Character generation is a point buy, beginning with selecting an archetype. It is worth noting that the game does NOT put forth "musketeer" as a limited character type, providing a number of archetypes to choose from, like occultists, doctors or even criminals. Then you have to select a motivation (like Duty, Justice, Greed or Revenge), which allow you to use Style Points when in pursuit of said motivation.

Attributes are rated from 0 to 5, with extreme examples going above that, with dice pools derived from Primary attributes, by doubling the Primary. For instance, Body doubles into your Resistance pool, Dexterity into Balance, Strength into Feats of Strength, Charisma into Influence, Intelligence into Reason and Willpower into Courage.

Secondary attributes are rated from 1 to 10, and include Size, Move, Perception, Initiative, Defense, Stun and Health.

Skills also typically rate from 0 to 10, and include everything from Archery to Con to Fencing to Gunnery to Magick to Warfare. Each skill is linked to an attribute and has specializations (like Streetwise specializing into Haggling).

Talents are not unlike Edges in Savage Worlds parlance, covering a wide range of combat and non-combat aspects, such as Attractive, Calculated Attack (allowing you to use Intelligence as your base attribute for a certain type of attack), Danger Sense, Jack of All Trades (removing unskilled penalties for any general skill), Ricochet Shot and more.

Characters also gain Resources, rated from 0 to 5, and include allies, followers, a refuge and even a membership in a fencing school.

You can also take a single Flaw in order to gain an extra Style point, as well as another point whenever your Flaw comes up in play. They include Physical Flaws (Blind, Glass Jaw), Mental Flaws (Addiction, Overconfident), Social Flaws (Pacifist, Vain) and Miscellaneous Flaws (Danger Magnet, Primitive).

Finally, every character gets a Lackey, which can be most any non-Musketeer, though some samples are provided (as well as a slew of sample characters, like the Aspiring Noble, Man of Faith, Hero in Training and Spy.

Interestingly, the game advocates "taking the average" whenever a task comes up...comparing the difficulty with the average number of successes you are likely to roll (half the dice in the pool) and, if that is enough to succeed, you are assumed to have done so with the "normal" amount of effort. You can use Style Points to gain bonus dice, reduce damage and boost talents, and Style Points are lost at the end of the adventure, so you are expected to use them, not hoard them...and you gain them by doing cool stuff in addition to whenever your Flaws come into play.

The list of combat tactics is remarkably like Savage Worlds, and very fitting for swashbuckler like play, covering such gems as Trips and Disarms, as well as Tricks (like hurling your beer in the opponent's face).

In combat, your Defense rating is a mixture of Size, Body, Dexterity and Armor, and makes up the dice pool that you roll when attacked. Every success that the attack gets over the defense equals a point of damage and can stun you, knock you down or even kill you outright (though that last one is pretty rare).

In addition to the combat rules, there are also Social Dueling rules, which are basically insult contests in which the combatants put their reputations at stake.

Magick (requiring the Magickal Aptitude Talent) is divided into Traditions (Ceremonial, Natural and Theurgy) and Arts (which run the range from Aeromancy to Necromancy to Hydromancy to Pyromancy...fourteen of them in all). Oh, and Alchemy, which is both a Tradition and an Art. If you know more than one Art, you can combine the effects. Magick doesn't have a set spell list...rather, it has a list of modifiers that you use to make your spells, like Range, Duration, Area of Effect and Effects. Eight sample spells are provided so you don't go into spell creation blind. Reminds me of the Cinematic Unisystem magic system, which I was a huge fan of, but somehow looser than that was, if that's possible.

The GM section focuses heavily on both the life of a Musketeer as well as tackling Swashbuckling in general. There is advice for scaling the Action Level up and down, from Gritty Realism (No Style Points), Low Adventure (Style Points are there, just harder to gain and more expensive to use), Swashbuckling Adventure (default), High Adventure (honestly, I couldn't see what was actually supposed to differentiate this from Swashbuckling Adventure) and Legendary (Style Points are way more valuable). You can also alter the Supernatural level, and it does not have to be in relation to the Action Level. This ranges from None to Low (default) to High (which the book notes puts it closer to Buffy territory).

Really, a lot of the setting information in the book is found in the discussion of various organizations, such as the King's Musketeers, the Daughters of Medea (an organization of female assassins) and the Rosicrucians (who have popped up in a few RPGs, most notable to me being Witchcraft). Important NPCs in each group are given stat blocks, as well as generic members. In addition, each has an appropriate Resource listing for your PCs to use (like a Musketeer being a rank 1 Ally or the Vicomte Charolles of the True Knights of Saint Michael is a Patron 3.

A good selection of monsters are provided, such as animated corpses, evil spirits, Incubi and Succubi, vampires and witches. The section even includes a sidebar on using things like crosses and holy water to fend off evil. More mundane stat blocks are provided as well, for thugs, soldiers, peasants and animals. None of the stat blocks are hard to read, and it seems pretty simple to use the ones provided in order to construct your own.

WHAT WORKS: I dig the magick system, as I already have a fondness for that type of "construct your spell" system, and a very good amount of game information is provided. I had no prior experience with Ubiquity, but it feels familiar enough to systems I have had experience with that it doesn't seem like it would be hard to pick up at all. As with Hellfrost, Triple Ace Games has a TON of support for the setting in the form of adventures and microsupplements. The concept is just cool...I like fighting monsters in more than just a "kill 'em all and take their stuff" capacity, and the whole "Everyone's a Musketeer" thing helps you bypass that "why are your characters on the same side, again?" thing that comes up in some games.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: Given the setting, as I'm not even a remedial student of French history, a closer look at the setting would have been great. I mean, there's enough there to run with, but it's kinda spread around from the beginning of the book to the end. Also, you can never go wrong with including an adventure generator...just saying.

CONCLUSION: I'm way more enthusiastic about Savage Worlds stuff, so if I had to pick a Triple Ace franchise and run with it, it would certainly be Hellfrost. That said, Ubiquity seems like a really easy system to pick up, which is always a plus. I actually like the Magick system better than I do Savage Worlds powers. It wouldn't take much encouragement to get me digging into the microsupplements, especially stuff like Guide to Expanded Characters and Creatures of Sin. If you don't mind learning a new system and the idea of Three Musketeers vs Demons, Vampires and Witches appeals to you, then I heartily give this a strong recommendation.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tommy's Take on Hellfrost Gazetteer

REMINDER: Hellfrost author Paul "Wiggy" Wade-Williams will be in the Beautiful Brains chatroom Thursday, 8pm Central time.

With two down, let's dive into the third of the Hellfrost "core": The Hellfrost Gazetteer.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: The PDF (which I am using) of the Hellfrost Gazetteer normally sells for $19.99, and the print version for $34.99. Again, it has the same gorgeous production values and is layed for printer friendly printing.

While it assumes you have at least the Player's Guide and the Savage Worlds rules, the Gazetteer takes a virtually system-neutral approach, providing only background information for the lands of Rassilon. There are no NPC stats here, or monsters, or Edges and Hindrances...nothing but "flavor".

The various lands of Rassilon are broken down in alphabetical order, with a census like breakdown starting off each section and then getting into proper text of each location, such as explaining how every settlement in the Crystalflow Confederacy maintains its own army, but the settlements are sworn to defend one another in the event of an attack.

Every land that has any kind of organization has a current events section which is dotted with plot seeds that a GM can expand into full adventures, and there are places which are purely "hunt-survive-kill", like the Frozen Forest (plagued by ice mummies and frost wights) and the Hellfrost (in which orcs and frost giants are the least of your concerns).

The Gazetteer takes the approach of giving you enough information to take a location and run with it, without painstakingly detailing every nook, cranny and aspect. Several locations only take up a single page, while some take up three or four. They were careful to ensure that each entry started on a new page for better organization.

In addition to the spotlights on the regions, several villainous organizations are detailed, like the Ashen Veil, who worship liches hoping to escape death and the Puppeteers, psionic manipulators who are playing a game that only they are aware of. The Guardians of the Wild are essentially eco-terrorists and the Sisters of Mercy are a seemingly benevolent organization being manipulated towards very dark ends. Each entry has a "Typical Members" section that usually refers back to the appropriate statblock in the Hellfrost Bestiary.

A two-page map of Rassilon is included as well.

WHAT WORKS: The writing takes care not linger too long on any one place and painstakingly drive it into the ground. There are some great plot seeds if Hellfrost isn't hampered with a metaplot (I haven't read any of the adventures yet, and there is no plot point campaign). This book runs fairly light on the art, which means there's a lot of setting material inside the pages.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: I like extra crunchy bits, so I'm not quite as "Wowed" with the Gazetteer as I am the Player's Guide and the Bestiary, but that's just me. I caught an odd typo or two, like "Grey" and "Gray" being used for the same location within a sentence of each other.

CONCLUSION: While Hellfrost has a very central premise, the Gazetteer does a really nice job of establishing that the evil in the realm is not monolithic, meaning that there is more to do than just fight one bad guy and his minions. The Gazetteer gives you enough information to run with most places that might interest you, and they have a ton of microsupplements to "zoom in" on a given location if that interests you. In fact, if the setting only had the three books I just reviewed, it would still be a strong, fleshed out setting...but Triple Ace Games has released an amazing amount of support for it since its release. For me, I would place it near Midnight and Ravenloft among RPG fantasy settings (and I mean that as an extreme compliment). If, like me, you're a Savage who passed over Hellfrost in the past, you should probably rectify that.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tommy's Take on Hellfrost Bestiary

REMINDER: Hellfrost author Paul "Wiggy" Wade-Williams will be in the Beautiful Brains chatroom Thursday, 8pm Central time.

I'm one of "those" guys: Monster books are a pretty easy sell for me. I still have my AD&D2e monster books and several d20 era books for the express purpose of inspiration and re-statting...even picked up a couple of Pathfinder books for this reason. So...Hellfrost Bestiary? Let's do it.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: The Hellfrost Bestiary assumes that you'll at least be using the Hellfrost Player's Guide and the Savage Worlds rulebook. The PDF (which is what I will be reviewing) is normally priced at $19.99, and the print version is $34.99. Again, a little more than I prefer to pay for PDFs, but still well within reason for print.

The PDF is 132 pages and layered for easy printing. Much like the Player's Guide, it is a gorgeous book. The Bestiary introduces four new Monstrous Abilities (Demon, Plant, Susceptibility and Resistance) and also includes rules for generating Relics, which are the Hellfrost equivalent of magic items...and when I mean magic items, I mean "+1 daggers" not "Hand of Vecna", low magic setting, definitely.

The bestiary covers pretty much the gamut of what you should need for most of your Hellfrost games, from basic animals (bears, wolves, etc...including how to hunt for them and the "food" value of them) and a slew of archetypes (like the Road Wardens, or several varieties of elves).

The entries are arranged alphabetically, with larger headings featuring sub-headings (like the Assassin heading featuring a regular assassin and a master assassin and so on).

Obviously, given the setting, there is a lot of focus on ice/snow/frost-based monsters, like the cryosphinx, but the bestiary is far from a one-trick pony: There are creepy, psionic Puppeteers and their spider-like Dominators, the Red Mist that drives people to violence, six different types of dragons (Forest, Hellfrost, Marsh, Storm, Sun and Undead), each with their own age chart reminiscent of D&D's take on dragons.

Black Knights remind me a little bit of Death Knights, and the mysterious Grey Riders (which appeared around the time the Siphoning began) are reminiscent of Ring Wraiths. Orcs alone have 13 templates to draw from, from Chieftains to Berserks to Engineers and so on...PLUS there are nine sample tribes, each with slight mechanical differences, to further modify them.

It's not all just monsters, animals and templates...traps and hazards are included as well (like the mechanical effects of cold snaps, quicksand, freezing rain and even creepier stuff like leech snow, which sucks the heat out of travelers that cross over it, and brings them back as Hellfrost Vampires if they die).

WHAT WORKS: As good of a setting bestiary as I have ever seen. The art is a mix of great color pieces and well-done pencil sketches, a combination that probably works better than it should. Some of the entries, like Assassins, have unique abilities that serve as a helpful reminder that not all adversaries need to come off a shopping list of powers and abilities. If you don't mind the over abundance cold-related enemies, many of these entries can be used in any Savage Worlds fantasy game with a little re-skinning.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: Really just an odd bit or two...for instance, there's an agile, undead creature that can only be killed by being grappled...but there's never a reason given as to WHY a grapple does automatic damage to it. There's still that whole "three book buy-in", but looking at the sheer amount of information crammed into the first two thus far, I'm starting to see why it had to happen that way.

CONCLUSION: You might be happy with the Orc entry from the Savage Worlds rulebook. I love "Orc" being divided into 13 specialized archetypes, then further modified by the nine different tribes. It's just how I'm wired. The Hellfrost Bestiary takes the awesome of Savage Worlds and gives me that extra bit of mechanical goodness I love, rather than giving me a dozen entries and advice on just re-skinning orcs every time I want something mean and humanoid. Great product that makes me really want to run Hellfrost (I have a love-HATE relationship with wintery in, I think winter is pretty much hell, but I love it from a setting/storytelling standpoint). Highly recommended even if you're just a Savage GM with the extra money to spare and stumped on monsters.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Tommy's Take on the Hellfrost Player's Guide

Welcome to the first in a three-part series of reviews covering the Hellfrost setting for Savage Worlds...and then, this Thursday at 8pm Central time, pop over to Beautiful Brains Books and Games and chat with Hellfrost writer Paul "Wiggy" Wade-Williams.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: The Hellfrost Player's Guide is a dark fantasy setting by Triple Ace Games that requires the Savage Worlds rules (written for Explorer's Edition, but Deluxe will certainly still work), and also relies heavily on the Hellfrost Bestiary and Gazetteer for maximum effect. The PDF is $19.99 (admittedly a bit more than I like to pay for PDFs), although the print version is a very reasonable $29.99.

The PDF is a gorgeous full color affair that is layered, allowing for printer-friendly printing, as well as being fully searchable and bookmarked.

The setting is Rassilon, a fantasy realm in which the good peoples have just won a 500 year war against the frozen forces of the North, only to discover that their world is still suffering the very harsh, wintery effects...and that, as of 30 years ago, magic has begun to fail as well.

Hellfrost does follow the standard Savage Worlds template of beginning with a character creation chapter that lays out examples of common character types in the world, before launching into detailed changes to character creation. Races include Engros (which mechanically make one think of Halflings/Hobbits, though the flavor text describes them as nomads), Frost Dwarves, Frostborn (which are frosty off-shoots of any race, and no one knows why they have suddenly began forming), Hearth Elves (kinda like wood elves), Humans (divided into four cultures) and Taiga Elves.

A slew of new Edges and Hindrances are provided, such as Cold Blooded (meaning you can't handle the cold well...obvious problem for this setting) and Magic Forbiddance, which means you have been cut off from magic altogether.

Some of the nicer Edges include Blood and Guts (which can reduce penalties in Mass Combat scenarios as the hero is used to facing overwhelming odds) and Favored Foe, which provides bonuses against a chosen enemy type. Additionally, characters can become Disciples of each of the Gods, taking an Edge that provides a bonus specifically geared to that God's profile. Perhaps my favorite is Tactician...the character makes a Knowledge (Battle) roll to attempt to score extra initiative cards...that he can then hand out to allies in place of the card they get normally. Frankly, that's awesome, and I would have given it to my Fearless Leader I wrote up a while back if I owned this book then.

Characters also have a Glory rating, which is a reflection of their deeds. This can have neat effects, like gaining the Followers Edge well before Legendary rank, or becoming immortalized in song, which carries its own in-game effects. You can also have negative Glory, which can spawn enemies for the character or even make them wanted outlaws.

Hellfrost ditches Power Points and casters can cast spells as often as they choose to risk it...the risk (with Arcane magic, anyway) including The Siphoning (which can cause Backlash and drain your magical powers) as well as the Hellfrost effect, which diminishes the effectiveness of fire magic.

24 deities are provided, complete with Holy Days, signature powers, you name well as room for you to add minor deities as you see fit to fill out the Pantheon...and there is a VERY Norse bent to the mythology (including Hela appearing outright, while Thor and Loki are a little more subtle).

An extensive spell list is also provided, replacing the one from the rulebook (as any relevant ones from the rulebook appear in this book) and a slew of new ones (like Enhance Undead and Gravespeak). A two page summary table wraps up the section for easy reference.

The Life in Rassilon chapter provides an overview of the basics of the world, including trade customs, funeral rituals, and general description of the land, presumably expanded upon in the Gazetteer. There are a number of factions the characters can join, like the Grey Legion mercenary company, the Lorekeepers, the Roadwardens and the Hearth Knights.

At the back of the book, one can find the setting rules, including rules for temperature (since freezing cold can be a very big problem), and other winter-related effects (like snow blindness).

WHAT WORKS: Um, most everything. Gorgeous book, very affordable print price, a ton of great examples as to how to tweak Savage Worlds to fit a setting without mangling the core of the system, the well-done Glory rules and a couple of Edges that I'm already planning on swiping for other games (how you doin', Tactician?).

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: While we get a basic overview of the land, we don't get even a few monsters, so you either buy the Bestiary, play with the selection in the corebook or use entirely humanoid antagonists (nothing wrong with that last one, mind you). While it's not unheard of for Savage Settings to extend past one book, fact is that most of them are usually playable either alone or with the rulebook, and Hellfrost really feels like it does need at LEAST the Bestiary to get the most from it.

CONCLUSION: Wiggy knows his Savage Worlds, there is absolutely no doubt. I am ashamed that it took me this long to pick up the Hellfrost Player's Guide. Even if I never run the setting, there's a ton of mineable material and system tweaks to apply to other SW games, easily. The product reminded me a lot of cracking into new AD&D settings back in the day, and I mean that as a compliment. There's a reason Hellfrost is so well regarded, clearly. One of the best third party, check of the best Savage Worlds products I've read, despite the  near-mandatory three-book buy-in. Up next: The Hellfrost Bestiary.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Tommy's Take on Horror Show

Bedrock Games has put out a couple of games that I have been really impressed with, Crime Network and Terror Network...but when they announced their new horror game, Horror Show, I admit to being skeptical as to how the Network system would transfer to the horror genre.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: First off, I love the cover. It is my favorite cover for a Bedrock Games product by far. Currently available in PDF for $9.99, Horror Show is a standalone game based off of the Network Game system, which I have detailed in my Crime Network and Terror Network reviews.

To that end, I will be talking more about the modifications to the system, rather than rehashing the entire system, but the basic mechanics are a d10 based dice pool, where you roll 1 to 6d10 versus a target number and either fail, succeed or succeed spectacularly (by rolling a 10).

While the previous Network Games used three character types, Horror Show has six types: Soldier/Cop (emphasis on Combat skills), Athlete (emphasis on Physical skills), Leader (emphasis on Mental skills), Bookworm (emphasis on Knowledge skills), Scientist/Tech Expert (emphasis on Specialist skills) and Survivors (emphasis on Defense skills). Helpfully, the book provides examples of the Roles from various horror films (like Ash from Evil Dead as a Survivor and Jack Torrance from The Shining as a Bookworm). From there, you select an Occupation, which gives you a free Skill rank and Acquaintance, and there are over 30 Occupations to choose from, such as Police Officer, Assassin, Musician and Writer.

Shortcomings, from Crime Network, are also present here, such as Reckless Driver (a penalty on your Vehicle Skill Rolls), Luddite (penalty on Computer Skill Rolls) and the very genre appropriate Cursed. An optional rule exists for Motivations, which provide a bonus die when using skills in direct pursuit of the motivation.

Karma is used to get favors from Acquaintances, which work a lot like Connections from the other Network games, coming in Support and Information classifications and divided into Community, Scholarly, Authority, Industry and Unsavory.

The Skill List remains LARGELY the same, although the Vehicles group is condensced down into the Vehicle skill under the Physical group, and a few others are changed around (like Bully replacing Persuasion).

The game also adds the Horror Roll, where a monster trying to frighten you rolls its Horror rating against your Resolve defense. On a Success, you are frightened and lose one action. A Total Success means you are Horrified and lose two...and two or more Total Successes equals Phobia.

The Features chapter is an extensive examination of the genre (and various subgenres) of cinematic horror and how to apply them to the game, as well as vary the approach between a "story based" feature structure, an open exploration structure, etc. Definitely one of the best GM sections I've read in recent memory. Almost all of it is system neutral until the end of the chapter, where some optional rules are provided to tweak the system a bit (like restricting certain skills, for instance).

Five sample features are also provided to get you started or provide inspiration.

Bedrock Games didn't just provide a number of monsters, like vampires, zombies, werewolves, ghosts, atomic bugs, serial killers (undead and living) and more, they also provided an extensive set of monster powers in order to tweak the existing monsters or make new ones from scratch. Body Powers include things like Claws, Deadly Claws (like claws, but deadlier), Mimic, Night Eyes and Spikes. Mind Powers include Fly, Create (basic objects), Create II (living things of low intelligence), Create III (intelligent living things), Mind Read, Telekinesis, Teleport and more. Spirit Powers include Dream Master, Trap Soul, Dream Walk, Summon and more. In addition, a series of curses are provided, as well as Monster Defenses, which include Come Back From The Grave, Super Tough and Perfect Reflection (reflecting attacks back on the opponent). Finally, guidelines for Weaknesses and Dark Objects (the Hellraiser Puzzle Box is specifically cited here).

WHAT WORKS: A tested system that has depth without being too crunchy, combined with an obvious passion and knowledge of the genre. The book really shines with the Monster sections, where they provide both a number of ready made monsters as well as powers and guidelines to build your own from scratch. And yes, if you choose, you can use the Monster Powers section to make characters with special powers (like the psychic chick from Friday the 13th Part VII) or even play the game as a straight up Monsters game. Oh, and I love that cover so much.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: None of the provided Features did much for me, but they don't take up much room anyway. There are still a few places where they probably carried over a bit TOO much information from the previous Network system games, but that's a maybe.

CONCLUSION: Yeah, I doubted the guys that made me like both a mob-based RPG and a terrorist/Homeland Defense based RPG. I'll learn someday. Probably the biggest problem the book faces is that most groups probably have a go-to game for horror at this point, be it GURPS Horror, All Flesh Must Be Eaten (which is easy to mod for non-zombie horror with the genrebooks out at this point), new World of Darkness or what-have-you...and there's probably not anything in this book that just SCREAMS "ditch your go-to game in favor of Horror Show", other than being written with few, if any, assumptions in mind. For my part, even if I never actually use this to run a game with, I have little doubt that I'll constantly pull it up for inspiration when running horror games. Did I mention I really love the cover? Very strong recommendation if you like horror RPGs, and one of the strongest releases by Bedrock Games to date, in my opinion.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Tommy's Take on the Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game

In light of the recent news that Margaret Weis Productions has just secured the Marvel RPG license, I thought I would re-post my review of the Marvel SAGA RPG from over four years it is my favorite Supers RPG ever released, and quite possibly my favorite RPG ever released (running nose to nose with Savage Worlds).

Originally posted on in May 2007...enjoy!

The Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game (hereafter referred to as Marvel SAGA) was released by TSR in 1998 after their card-based fantasy venture Dragonlance: The Fifth Age was put on the market. Someone inside TSR was playing with the card-based system and decided "Hey, this would make a GREAT supers game!" and with a little modification, it did!

Marvel SAGA's (so named because its powered by the SAGA game system, which I will explain in further detail below)core rules were released in a boxed set containing a 208 page rulebook, a 64 page Roster Book and 96 playing cards.

The Box

The box is a handsome piece featuring art by Carlos Pacheco and showing Spider-Man, Captain America, Wolverine, Storm, Iron Man, Silver Surfer, Thor and The Human Torch all rushing into action together. The cover flap opens, and we see what appears to be a pair of Celestial hands holding Rogue, Thing, Human Torch, Iron Man and Wolverine in one hand and The Grim Reaper, Magneto, Ultron, Sabretooth, The Super-Skrull and Dr. Doom in the other. The box opens at the top, with the contents inside. The box holds everything comfortably, until you crack into the Fate which point having 96 loose cards floating around seems kind of troublesome.

All in all, a nice piece of presentation, evocative (especially the front cover piece) of Marvel's primary art style at the time.

The Fate Deck

The core of the SAGA game engine is the Fate Deck, a 96 card deck divided into five suits, each color-coded and represented by an iconic character: Strength (Hulk/Green), Agility (Spider-Man/Red), Intellect (Mr. Fantastic/Blue), Willpower (Dr. Strange/Purple) and Doom (Dr. Doom/Black). The first four suits sync up with the four Ability Scores used to define every character in the game. The last suit is the hand of fate working against the heroes in the game.

Each card features a Marvel character prominently displayed in the center, with their name beneath them (for those who don't know what Werewolf by Night looks like). In the upper left corner is a box featuring the suit's iconic character, a number from 1-10 (the cards are weighted toward middle numbers, so you're more likely to draw a 5 than you are a 1 or a 9, for instance) and an "aura", represented both by color (white, red or black) and a plus, dot or minus sign. The upper-right corner features a Dramatic Event that the Narrator can use to spur new developments from round to round and a Calling underneath it, which is meant to be keyed both to the Dramatic Event and the character displayed on the card. Finally, down the right and left hand sides are numbers, so the cards can be used to track things like the health of minions or villains as well as things like bomb timers.

The card art is culled from Marvel's depository of art, and ranges from amazing, iconic pictures (Spider-Man swinging through the air) to questionable (there are much better Sabretooth pictures out there). Heroes populate the first four suits, with villains appearing on the Doom suit.

TSR also released four promotional cards around the game's release, and I was lucky enough to get my hands on them. They are Ghost Rider, Lockheed, Deadpool and The Impossible Man, each representing one of the four main suits and each numbered 5 so as not to skew the deck balance.

The cards are a wonderful prop, but are also probably the biggest reason this game never quite caught on. A diceless RPG can be a hard sell, especially when you're stacking a licensed property on top of it, and Marvel SAGA never seemed to catch fire. Building a fanbase for an out of print game can be hard enough, but when you tack on the requirements of an out of print 96-piece prop, you nearly hit a brick wall.

The Game Book

The core rules are contained in this 208 page volume, featuring the cover art from the box adorning this volume as well.

A standard Foreword trying to hype you up for the game appears, followed by the Table of Contents.

Chapter One is The Marvel Experience, telling you what's in the box, a bit about SAGA game system and a roleplaying example (not a gameplay example, oddly...but actually a roleplaying example, the example with actual gameplay comes later) featuring Cyclops, Rogue and Wolverine interacting until a Sentinel attacks.

Chapter Two is Marvel Heroes, which breaks down how to read a Hero Sheet and what each section means, using Nightcrawler as an example. It does a nice job here, showing you what's on his sheet as well as explaining *why* it's on his sheet. In order, it breaks down his Name, Image, Abilities (Strength, Agility, Intellect, Willpower), Edge and Hand Size (this is both his experience level and his health score), Skills, Powers and Equipment, Calling (why he does what he does), Hindrances, Personality and History. A very helpful piece for understanding the sheet.

Chapter Three is Action, and details the core mechanic of the game, which is decide what you want to do, the narrator decides what action ability that goes off of as well as the difficulty level, you select a card from your hand and add it to the action ability. Simple as that.

The elegance comes in with the other pieces of the core engine. If the card you play is of the same suit as the action ability, then you trump, which means you get to flip over the top card from the Fate Deck and add that to your action score. If that card happens to also be of the same suit, then you can add THAT to your action score as well. Keep doing this until you draw a card that isn't of the same suit. In instances in which you want to hold back, you can "pull your punch" and refuse a trump.

Your Hand Size will generally range from 3 to 5 cards depending on your characters experience level ,though there are some exceptions, such as completely normal "baseline" humans that would only have 2 cards, extremely experience people with 6 and cosmic beings with 7 cards. Your Hand Size is determined by your Edge score, which is 2 points lower than your Hand Size (Edge of 1, Hand Size of 3, for instance). That Edge does for you is allows you to play multiple cards from your hand for a single action. Any cards in your hand that are equal to, or less than, your Edge score can be used to increase your action score, until you play a card that's higher than your Edge.

Example: Spider-Man is trying to get Dr. Octopus to attack him in a blind rage before Octopus has a chance to activate a bomb that will unleash the inhabitants of Ravencroft Asylum. Spider-Man positions himself next to an electrical box and begins to taunt Dr. Octopus, which is a Willpower action. He looks at his hand he has the 3 of Strength, 4 and 5 of Agility, 1 of Intellect and 4 of Willpower. He could play the 4 of Willpower and trump, but he really needs Octopus to not push that button, so he uses his Edge to play the 1 of Intellect and 3 of Strength before he plays the 4 of Willpower. He trumps and gets the 7 of Intellect, all of which combines with his Willpower of 10 for a total score of 25! Since Spider-Man is also skilled at taunting, Dr. Octopus gets pushed over the edge and attacks! Of course, if Spider-Man does move, he's in all kinds of trouble...but he does still have two Agility cards, and he gets to redraw the three cards he just played...

Sidebars in this chapter cover Skills (which lower a related action by 4 difficulty points), World-Class Skills (which allow you to automatically trump as long as you play anything except a Doom card), Pushing to the Limit (straining your character to achieve greater than average results) and the difference between using Powers and Power Stunts (the base function of a power is easier to perform than a Power Stunt is).

The chapter provides a checklist of the steps needed in an action, and then a gameplay example featuring Nick Fury being ambushed by Hydra agents.

After that simplified example, the chapter moves into Opposed actions, which tells you how to factor in opposition from the opponents, both from their abilities and from the Narrator's card, a card that is flipped over from the Fate Deck every exchange that you add to the difficulty of all actions.

Example: The 6 of Doom is the Narrator card in the above example. In order to drive Dr. Octopus into attacking him, Spider-Man must attempt an average Willpower(opposed by Willpower) action. The difficulty for the that is 8, plus Dr. Octopus' Willpower of 4, plus the Narrator Card of 6, for a total of 18. Spider-Man still ticks Doc Ock off.

A sidebar here details The Doom Bank, where all those cards with Doom's face on them go when played. See, Doom cards are bad, and when you play them, The Narrator gets to use them against you later.

Example: In the above example, Spider-Man has successfully distracted Dr. Octopus. However, The Narrator has a 6 of Doom and a 4 of Doom in his Doom bank, and he decides to play them, bringing the difficulty up from 18 to 28! Dr. Octopus sneers at Spider-Man, pushes the trigger on the bomb, and unleashes Ravencroft's inmates!

A section follows on Hero vs Hero play, for when two players just HAVE to play the classic "misunderstanding" angle, as well as how to read the Auras of the cards. This is something I don't like about the system, as the Aura on the Narrator card can change from exchange to exchange, which is fine for some effects, but they made powers like Body Transformation dependent on Aura readings, and I don't recall many instances of Colossus' power just "wearing off" in the middle of a fight.

Chapter Four Clobberin' Time is combat. The first page of the chapter gives you an outline of the steps of a combat exchange. In step one, The Narrator draws his card and reads the aura, with the heroes regaining a card if its positive and the villains regaining 5 health if its negative. He then decides if the Dramatic Event on the card comes into play here, and if so, how. If its the opening exchange, then you check for surprise and we're off.

Step two has declaration of actions, and then the playing of the cards. Sidebars here discuss aiming and distances, which are generalized into Striking, Firing and Visual Distance...Champions, this ain't, but then, it's not trying to be. Another sidebar discusses pile-ons, for when your heroes gangpile Juggernaut and when Hydra gangpiles your brick.

Step three is counteractions, which is generally dodging the attacks by the Narrator-controlled character.

All combat is considered simultaneous, so in Step four damage is inflicted from all successful attacks, generally by taking the action score and any weapon modifiers that may be present, and subtracting the victim's defense (usually Strength, though some powers and body armor come into play). If any damage is left over on an attack to a Hero, they have to discard that many points worth of cards. Any remaining damage on a character is taken from their Health score. Sidebars here detail weapons and armor, and the general bonus a given type bestows.

Step five is the end of the exchange, figuring out whose still standing and who isn’t, who’s running and who’s not. It also features a sidebar regarding serious injuries, cautioning that death should only happen when the Narrator says so, and that it still has a hard time sticking.

A sample exchange featuring Spider-Man vs Electro and Rhino while trying to save J. Jonah Jameson ends the chapter.

Chapter Five is Superheroism, and is mostly a flavor chapter about being a hero, with a “day in the life” being ran through that starts with Atlanteans threatening the city, later involves abduction by Mandarin and ends with the realization that you’ve missed all the plans you’ve made for the day. A sidebar is included for playing villains as opposed to heroes, if your Narrator allows. The chapter then moves into “Contradictions of Heroism”, such as Honesty and Masks, Vigilantism and The Law and, of course, Great Power and Great Responsibility. Sidebars cover Illegal Activity and running trials in the game. The chapter ends with character advancement, another area I’m not a fan of. It all moves off of 1 point response bonuses, either positive or negative, depending on how the adventure went for the heroes. Since you can only ever have one Response Bonus at a time, you’re stuck in the linear, gradual advancement that just doesn’t fit most comic book source material.

Chapter Six is Narration and is the guide to running the game system. It offers guidelines on how to decide what abilities or powers relate to a given action, as well as examples of the various difficulty levels. A sidebar is included that covers Material Strengths for everything from paper to diamond to Silver Surfer’s board.

The next section of this chapter discusses Running a Fight, such as keeping track of all the Narrator ran characters, using tactics appropriate to a villain’s Edge and a sidebar detailing granting new power stunts (a fairly odd place for it, and a symbol of the weird organizational issues this book has). Discussion also follows on handling the party splitting up, especially in a fight.

Events are covered next, including tips on using them to springboard parts of the adventure as well as tips on when to use them. A sidebar is included that offers the helpful advice of using the picture on the Narrator’s card as inspiration for a guest star, such as flipping a card, getting Hulk and deciding that the Jade Giant needs to show up…as friend? Or foe? This section also warns you not to enforce the relationship between Callings and Events.

The next section focuses on adventure design, focusing more on seat-of-the-pants action and dramatic plot twists than carefully constructed scenes. Indeed more advice is given on “feel” than on adventure structure.

A sample adventure is included featuring Mole Man kidnapping the mutant Rictor and using his powers to generate earthquakes in New York City. Its nothing terribly special and doesn’t really even serve as a decent introductory adventure other than giving you some non-threatening mooks to wail on.

The next section is on running supervillains, using their Callings and Edges as a guide for the kinds of plots they are likely to engage in, and the layers of planning they are more apt to go to. A cursory discussion of the need to commit crimes and the use of deathtraps follows, with the bright point being where the authors point out that anyone using something more complicated than a gun doesn’t really want to kill the heroes anyway. Losing Ungracefully offers a game mechanic for ensuring that all non-mook villains stand at least a chance of having a backup plan regardless of what happens. Finally, this section offers the five rules of villain deaths, in case you just watched your players kill off Doctor Doom and aren’t sure how to salvage it. There’s some nice advice in this whole section that can be easily adapted to any supers game.

Running A Series is meant to help you decide the kind of Marvel game you want to indulge in, with some advice on *how* to run the various styles. It assumes nine basic series formats, from Rock-‘em-Sock-‘em to Idealistic to Battle-Scarred to Villainous. The book acknowledges that the system doesn’t do “gritty” very well, but offers no advice on how to fix that.

The last section is on Nonlinear Story Hooks, most of which assume the “story” is more important to you and your players than your heroes. They encourage, if momentarily, the players to take the roles of other characters, be they other heroes or even the villains for a short scene! This section does caution that not every group is going to be happy with these kinds of hooks, and that a refusal to play along with the hook could have disastrous consequences for the game.

Chapter Seven is Adapting a Hero. You may have noticed that I haven’t discussed character generation yet. That is because the default assumption of this game is that you will be playing a Marvel hero that has already been statted out for you. This section still isn’t about character generation per se, it’s about modeling existing characters that haven’t been statted up yet. First up are the incredibly useful benchmark tables for the four Ability scores, ranging from 0 to 30, providing a description as to what that means for each Ability as well as providing examples of who would have that score. They provide the same thing for Edge and Hand Size, as well as pointing out the Health score that a Narrator character has based on their Edge. We move into Ability Codes and Skills, with a list of skills provided in order of their suit, as well as what each Ability Code means, and how many skills it imparts. Wolverine has 4 Agility skills and those an Agility code of A, whereas all of Mr. Fantastic’s skills are Intellect, giving him Ability Codes of X in Strength, Agility and Willpower. The section on Powers and Equipment is less useful, as the Intensity Benchmark chart only provides examples, and knowing that Ant-Man’s insect control falls in the 9-10 range isn’t really useful for modeling anyone but Ant-Man. A powers list is provided, but isn’t broken down by trump suit like the skills list, but just alphabetical order, which is disappointing as the powers section is already in alphabetical order, so a list by trump suit would have been welcome.

Callings finally get discussed in detail here and include the following: Adventurer, Animal Nature, Demolisher, Exemplar, Explorer, Gloryhound, Greed, Guardian, Idealist, Investigator, Majesty, Mentor, Outcast, Peace of Mind, Protector, Repentant, Responsibility of Power, Soldier, Thrill-Seeker, Uncontrolled Power, Vengeance, Vestige of Humanity, World Domination and Youthful Exuberance. A description is provided for each, with examples, and a warning that Demolisher, Greed, Vengeance and World Domination may be inappropriate for heroes. A sidebar in this section discusses changing Callings, which is not meant to be done lightly and is meant to be a major turning point in the character’s life.

The next section is Hindrances, detailing internal obstacles for your heroes to overcome, which are usually represented mechanically by reducing an attribute or attributes to 0 in a given situation (such as exposure to radiation or avoiding surprise attacks) or hindrances like Bruiser which force your hero to use Agility instead of Strength for attacks and can only be taken by a character with a minimum Strength of 11 and a maximum Agility of 4.

Appendix One: Skills is the skill-by-skill breakdown as to what each skill in the game is meant to do. Many skills just provide a reduction in difficulty, but some (like Martial Arts) allow you to use a different Ability Score for an action than the default. Each skill is tied to an Ability Score and uses that suit for trumps.

Appendix Two: Powers is the big power listing, but starts with another discussion on stunts and details power Limits. A list of Power Sources follows, including Mutation and Equipment. Rules are included here for making Equipment, but these are kind of hand-wavy and were later replaced with, in this reviewer’s opinion, much better rules that first appeared in Dragon Magazine and were later reprinted in Reed Richard’s Guide to Everything.

A sidebar included discusses the different trump suits for equipment: Swords use Strength, guns use Agility, powered armor uses Intellect and magic wands use Willpower.

The powers themselves are fairly exhaustive, covering most of what you need to define most Marvel characters. Each power’s listing includes trump suit, exemplars (who uses the power), related powers, then a description of the basic use of the power followed by common stunts and limits unique to the power. A few, such as Chi, have been errataed and still aren’t very user-friendly, while others – like Magic (a common problem area in supers games) – don’t seem to match what the comics show. For instance, a powerful mage can either duplicate physical trump powers or mental trump powers…meaning that Dr. Strange isn’t capable of both Teleportation (Agility) and Illusion (Willpower) though I’m reasonably sure I’ve seen him use both. The game allows you to take powers as stunts of other powers, but doesn’t generally allow you to stunt off of THAT power, something that a case could be made for from the comic books. Also, no effort is in place to balance the powers against each other. Cosmic Energy Control costs the same to purchase as Claws. Only Invulnerability and Immortality have special considerations made for cost, having a set cost of 10 points apiece. The system clearly assumes a certain amount of “play-along” from the players

In Appendix Three: Hero Creation, we FINALLY reach character generation. Yes, they do acknowledge that some people will want to make their own characters, as opposed to existing characters. The character generation is kind of flawed, though, as its semi-random. You draw ten cards and either use those or, depending on the flavor of game the Narrator wants, redraw all 1s, 2s and 3s or all 8s, 9s and 10s. You then assign up to three each to your four Ability scores. The trump suits of the cards dictate ability codes (Doom cards automatically mean a code of X) and, thus, the number of skills per ability you can pick. You can also spend a non-Doom card of 7 or higher at this point to make one skill World-Class.

Edge begins at 1, but for every non-Doom card of 7 or higher that you play, you can raise it by 1. You can pick up to five powers and can assign any number of cards up to a total value of 20 to them, with number of starting power stunts based off of the number of cards of the corresponding suit you’ve assigned to it. You can take limits, up to three per power, but they don’t necessarily help you. In fact, how this works is that for each limit you take, you draw a card off the Fate Deck and, if its of a positive aura, you add it to the power’s intensity. Unfortunately, this means you could well be stuck with a limit for no benefit, something that hasn’t sat well with a few of my players.

Similarly, you can take up to two Hindrances, but your actual benefit from it is dependent upon drawing a positive aura card.

Next, you play a card for you Calling, and if it matches the calling you have selected for your hero, you get a free card to play elsewhere on your character. At the end, you take a look at what you’ve done, make sure it fits, and commit it to paper.

Character creation is my least favorite part of this game. No one has made a character yet for the game that they were happy with without incredibly fudging and rearranging on our part. In fact, most of our characters that we use were created in Marvel Classic/FASERIP and converted to SAGA (which makes little sense, I know, seeing as FASERIP was at least as random). The nicest part of this chapter is a sidebar on building a team, making sure you cover niche protection, compatible motivations and have an actual leader. It only takes up half a page and could easily have been expanded. The chapter ends with the creation of The Hedgehog, a sample character of dubious distinction and Hero Templates, complete with a random name generator.

Appendix Four: Conversions offers tips on using the long-discontinued Marvel Super Dice in the game, as well as guidelines for converting from FASERIP to SAGA. There is also section for using the Toy Biz action figures available at the time as minis for your game.

Finally, the book concludes with an index, making some of the weird organization bearable due to the fact that it actually HAS both a table of contents and an index.

The back cover is a functional Hero sheet, which actually tends to have enough space to list everything your character has.

The Roster Book

The cover of the Roster Books features the inner flap art from the boxed set, featuring the heroes and villains facing off. The book offers up front that its detailing the “classic” Marvel Universe, not the up-to-date (for 1998) Marvel Universe, and includes 34 heroes and 19 villains. Most of the characters are made in accordance with the rules, though a few “unique powers” rear their head, such as Hulk having “Strongest One There Is”, a power that prevents anyone else from gaining a Strength trump against him and Juggernaut has “Unstoppable” which simply states that he cannot be stopped by anything.

The book provides a decent group of characters to get you going, as well as a list of Normal Humans, Humanoid Races and Critters. Finally, a brief history of the Marvel Universe finishes off the book.

The Gameplay

For all the odd quirks and organizational issues, as well as the utter lack of balance, the one thing that sets this game apart for me is simple: I have had more fun running this game than I have any role-playing game I have owned, played or read. Part of it is players, of course. No matter the genre, your players have to be willing to subscribe to the conventions of the genre or the game will fall short.

A good part of it is the fast-moving, over the top gameplay that feels like larger than life superheroics and never gets bogged down with overcalculations of bonuses and penalties and never tells you that a task is impossible, merely improbable.

We converted our Marvel Classic game over to Marvel SAGA and have never looked back, because this game engine has opened us up to some of our best game stories such as the time Mindstorm (the mutant master of Telekinesis and Weather) blew out his Electrical Control in desperation, trumping multiple times until he achieved a total action score of 61, defeating the villains that he dismantled his team and had him outnumbered and leveling Castle Doom (the site of the battle).

In Conclusion

SAGA was dismissed by many as being more of a CCG than an RPG when it was released, but this is no more accurate than calling D&D a craps game. In fact, with the familiar subject matter and helpful gameplay props, complete with color-coding, the game could well have served as a great gateway game for new players. I plan to try this with my wife, in fact, since she has yet to grasp the two prior game systems she has tried in the past.

SAGA definitely isn’t a crunchy game, nor is it tactical in the classical sense of the term. It has one of my favorite game mechanics ever in Edge, the great equalizer that makes Captain America better than most of the powerhouses he associates with by insuring that he rarely fails. However, SAGA could have used a second edition to clean the game up a bit, as the editing was more than a little suspect, though the presence of a useable index helps this out. A few of the powers’ uses are hard to reconcile with the differences between heroes and characters and a well thought-out dice-based variant probably could have helped the game’s longevity.

In the end, I see the game’s flaws but I can’t help but be swayed by one thing: fun. The only gripes about the game I have faced from players came from character creation and not the gameplay itself, which has flowed smoothly from our first adventure to our most recent. As for myself, the utility of the system more than trumps (no pun intended) a few vaguely worded powers. The support that was made available for the game is great, but when it was canceled there were several products in the pipeline such as the Marvel Team-Up Roster Book, The Green Goblin's Guide to Crime and a series of rumored comic-book sized roster/adventure supplements.

The online community for this game is virtually dead, though there is a Yahoo group devoted to the game as well as my own forums, inactive though they may be.

While I am certainly willing to read or even play other supers RPGs, if I had to pick just one then Make Mine Marvel SAGA!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Tommy's Take on The Vessel of Terror

I've been reading a lot of Lovecraft lately, so it was probably a pretty appropriate time to have The Vessel of Terror fall into my lap, as it wears its Lovecraftian influences on its sleeve.


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: The Vessel of Terror is a graphic novel currently slated for an October 2011 release by Markosia Enterprises and will retail for $17.99 in print (judging from the links on the Markosia website, I would guess that digital versions will be coming as well). You can pre-order it at the link at the top of the page. Written by Magnus Aspli with art by Dave Acosta, the graphic novel is primarily in color, with "historical" segments in black and white.

The primary story thread follows the crew of the research vessel Alesia, where they find a bizarre squid-creature in the depths of the ocean and then bizarre behaviors begin to befall the ship. The second story arc is a flashback to The Black Plague around 1349, following the efforts of Dr. Ludwig Virchow as he tries to save his small village from the Plague and begins to sense that there is...something...else out there, in the water.

The writing is good and easy to follow, even in the face of a couple of odd word balloon placements. It is a little stiff throughout the story, more noticeable in the modern day story thread (I think I've just been conditioned to expect dialogue to be stilted in period pieces).

Every character in the back stands out with a unique appearance, so you never have to struggle to figure out which character is which while reading the book. The men are especially distinct from one another...the women, as it often the case, tend to fall a bit more into the realm of "same person, different hairstyle/hair color" (at least in the modern story thread).

The content is very graphic, with some rather gory scenes of murder depicted, as well as some nudity. None of it feels out of place or gratuitous, however.

WHAT WORKS: The story feels very much like a Lovecraftian tale, with mankind helpless in the face of things that it just does not understand (in both time frames). The squid...good grief, the squid. It goes from a "creature we haven't seen before" to "GOOD GOD WHAT IS THAT" by the end...and in true Lovecraftian fashion, we have no idea what it is by the end.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: Probably the only character I developed any kind of investment in was Dr. Virchow, with the fates of the other characters coming like story beats and not something that I "felt"...although, to be honest, I tend to feel the same about the fates of most of the characters in the Lovecraft stories I've read, so maybe that "works" better than I think. There was one scene that broke my suspension of disbelief (based off of the internal logic of the story, entirely), in which a possessed character seemingly takes forever to strike a helpless target in a secluded room, but manages to lash out and attack a third character when they enter the room, and another that seemingly wasn't followed up on (implying that the ship's captain was at greater fault for the events of the book), although that may be chalked up to "hallucination".

CONCLUSION: The Vessel of Terror is definitely a case in which the story is stronger than the characters, but again, there's a reason why people know the names Cthulhu, Hastur and Nyarlathotep rather than many of the hapless souls that lost their lives and minds in his tales. The artist brings some great imagery to life in both eras, and the afterword that explains where the inspiration for the story came from frankly creeped me out. The story itself has a slow first act, but builds to a very appropriate climax that should please genre fans.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Tommy's Take on Wellstone City Encounter Deck, ICONS Hero Pack 2 & 2.5


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: This 8 page PDF is a "random events" chart designed for Wellstone City that can be used with any deck of standard playing cards (which are standard stuff for Savage Worlds). It is notable in part because many of the "randon events" can have HUGE implications on the campaign, like your own faction sending a sniper after you, or your rivals trying to recruit you as a double agent. The events are divided by suit, with a specific event for each card, although Spades/Hearts and Diamonds/Clubs use largely the same events with major/minor tweaks to them.

WHAT WORKS: Based off of a playing card deck makes the PDF incredibly simple to use, especially for folks on a printer budget. So many of the events having the ability to turn things on their ear is very much a plus in my book.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: Given how big some of the events can be, and how closely they are mirrored in the Minor/Major scale, drawing once per scene seems excessive, especially when you factor in the "Joker" rule that can put multiple cards in play. I did note a few typos that made it into the final product. The PDF price seems a little high, *but only in relation to other Wellstone City/Silver Gryphon Games products*.

CONCLUSION: Great concept, but then I love random roll/draw charts, and the scale at which this chart works is very nice, with some real game-changing options present, which can lead to a series of double-crosses and and the like. A great idea for a great setting, adding an element of chance that can affect the game in minor ways (finding $20 on the street) to major ways (having the FBI offer you the chance to take down the Russian Mafia from the inside, or the CIA turning on you mid-op with an assassination attempt, for their own reasons). Especially recommended if you feel like your Wellstone City game is lacking a certain spark right now.


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: With the success of the ICONS Hero Pack, it is no real surprise at a Hero Pack 2 came along. All of the art is still provided by Dan Houser, with characters created by ICONS fans, but this one only had 30 slots...which means the PDF is 65 pages, with every character getting a full character sheet and a background "page". Each character also receives a printable standee, so if you like your standees, there's a whole slew of them available for you here.

WHAT WORKS: One of the gripes I had about the first Hero Pack was that many of the characters weren't usable "out of the box", due to Qualities and Challenges not being specified, as well as the characters not having backgrounds...that is a non-issue here. Many of the characters were created by the same people, and have their backstories interwoven with one another. If I had to pick a favorite from this set, it would be Mook, a common thug with Duplication powers who hires himself out as an all-purpose Henchman force.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: Some of the images, names and concepts seem to be an odd fit (Shadowform, the shapeshifter who turns into various tools and wears a green costume comes to mind).

CONCLUSION: From a design standpoint, this is an improvement over Hero Pack 1 in just about every way. The trimming down to 30 characters allows all of the characters room to "breathe", and allowing the artist's work to show off more than the otherwise crowded Hero Pack 1 did, and at $2 less than the first one.


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: For $5, you get six new characters as well as an adventure with map and standees. In addition, Galacticron (who was lurking in Hero Pack 1) is present here, along with a couple of other villainous types specific to the adventure. The adventure itself is a pretty basic affair, with Lady Omega ripped Galacticron across space and into the New Mexico desert, in hopes that he will destroy Earth. The kicker, of course, is that the PCs can't really harm him directly.

WHAT WORKS: I really dig a couple of the new villains, like the tech-stealing Ephemera and Sequence - a villainous powerhouse who has received a serious upgrade. I actually wrote a comic script with villains similar to the "space locusts" that are presented here (although mine were more like cockroaches), so that's rather cool.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: The adventure could have used some editing, and while Lady Omega is TECHNICALLY a fully useable character...she comes across like the barest stereotype of a supervillain. Also, the "useable map" sure looks like it would be DRAMATICALLY off scale for the standees (and that's being generous with the definition of "scale"). I would have liked, say, a page of Lakmar Shock Trooper standees, myself...I mean, if you're going to use them, you're going to want a bunch of them.

CONCLUSION: A good product, with a great example of an adventure where the heroes HAVE to think outside the box, at least with the Galacticron problem. Despite the paper-thin characterization of Lady Omega, she does at least have a cool look and power set, so an enterprising GM can build from there.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Tommy's Take on The Light At The End

It is real easy to have "vampire fatigue" anymore, since they became the "hot ticket" a few years ago...and so it becomes easy to forget why vampires became "cool" in the first place.

I just finished "The Light At The End" (read it on my book), a novel from 1986 about a punk with a chip on his shoulder who gets turned into a vampire by an 800 year old vampire and turned loose in New York City. While it helped to define the "splatterpunk" genre, "The Light At The End" has been far surpassed on the "gore" scale in books, even by author John Skipp himself, but despite the 80s setting, the narrative still holds up well 25 years later...(in fact, the third act hinging on beepers and payphones is the only real reminder that it is definitely set in the pre-cellphone era).

It has been said that the primary antagonist, Rudy Pasko, served as inspiration for Spike from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", and it is REALLY easy to see that, from description to personality and mannerisms.

The cast, even at their worst, are at least stereotypes from horror central casting, and Rudy himself is alternately portrayed as (depending often on the perception of the characters dealing with him) as the alluring Hawt Vampire, a sickening servant of Death itself or a tiny man who suddenly got a lot of power.

The climax is very thematically appropriate and viscerally satisfying, with the tension ratcheted up hour by hour in the third act over the course of one night when the rag-tag group of would-be vampire hunters can't stand back and let a monster like Rudy run wild.

"The Light At The End" quickly shot up the list as perhaps my favorite vampire novel. Highly recommended if you want to remember why vampires were a big deal in the first place and don't mind some mature content.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tommy's Take on Day of Deeds, The Big House and ICONS Hero Pack 1


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Day of Deeds is an adventure module for Mutants & Masterminds 2nd Edition, released by Action Games. It is a very interesting concept, a whole lot of Bad Stuff happens all at once, and the PCs have to try to get to the bottom of it before the city falls completely into chaos. The set-up is right up my alley: For each of the 24 locations, you can randomly roll a victim, an antagonist and a Wildcard situation. The chaos isn't completely random, there is a connection to it all.

WHAT WORKS: Though stats for the antagonists are provided, anyone familiar with their favorite supers system can use Day of Deeds with something other than Mutants & Masterminds. Myself, I would probably feel comfortable enough using it with Marvel SAGA, Marvel FASERIP, BASH Ultimate Edition, Savage Worlds Supers or ICONS. Also, anyone that pays attention too my reviews knows that I love random roll charts.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: The bookend segments are written pretty weakly. Basically, it's an excuse to get to random chaotic action. Really, even at the PDF price of $7.50, it's a tad overpriced for what amounts to a big random encounter generator.

CONCLUSION: I love the concept. However, neither the writing nor the production values fully justify the price tag. I can't comment on the stat blocks in the back as I'm not a Mutants & Masterminds guy, but I can say that if the concept appeals to you, most of the encounters are certainly easy enough to state up in your favorite supers system.


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: The Big House is a generic supplement by Scaldcrow Games that you can use as a superpowered prison for any supers RPG. It is 48 pages and stat-free, although it does have a system of icons to help you gauge how a given NPC should compare to your PCs experience-wise, as well as the level of threat they should pose. Similarly, important skills for each NPC are given on a 1-10 scale that you can use to judge where it would fall in your system of choice. A full map of the prison is included, with staff, security measures and so on, plus a handful of adventure seeds and a big worksheet of the cellblocks so you can track who is locked up where.

WHAT WORKS: I love the system for generically statting up NPCs and such, with a clearly defined scale that you can use to compare to your system of choice. If you're not a map-guy, and I'm not, ready made maps are even better.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: There are a lot of "see page. XXX" placeholders in the version I reviewed, and if you're fairly new to your system of choice, this is going to of limited usefulness to you, as the appropriate scaling may not be readily apparent.

CONCLUSION: Perfect for a GM that knows their system well but doesn't want to put the time in to detail every last aspect of a prison for their setting. I can't call it a must-buy because a) most existing settings already include a super prison and b) it certainly isn't the most helpful for beginning GMs, but it is still a very well-done product.


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: 120 heroes and villains in one PDF, retailing for $9.95. Every character has game stats and art by Dan Houser. This was part of a promotion where people purchased slots for their characters, Mr. Houser drew them in the style associated with the ICONS rulebook and game stats were published for them. In addition, several of the ICONS characters from the corebook are also provided, such as The Whisper, The Hangman, All-Star and All American Girl. A whole slew of standees are also present, which should cover every character in the book as well as some blanks.

WHAT WORKS: If you're a fan of cardboard style standees in your game, having a bunch of new ones to play around with is always fun. Some of Mr. Houser's character designs are really great, providing some very interesting character images.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: Backgrounds are not present for any of the characters. Vital statistics such as height and weight are likely inaccurate as well, as a particular height and weight shows up a LOT (5'6" and 140 lbs) even when it seemingly makes no sense at all in context of the picture . Many of the Aspects are not defined (with only Epithet, Catchphrase, Social, etc.) listed, making the lack of background for several of the characters even worse.

CONCLUSION: While not a bad idea, the execution is flawed. You don't really get 120 ready to use Heroes and Villains, instead getting a few mostly ready to use Heroes and Villains and a bunch of guys you still have to use a little creative work on to make table-ready. While the standees, character images and what you can glean from the concepts aren't bad at all, be warned that this is not an "out of the box" product.