Monday, December 30, 2013

The Year in Review Part III: Five Lessons Learned

This is a short one as I spent most of the weekend relaxing, playing with the kid and enjoying my PS4. Here, then, are five little factoids and lessons I learned in 2013:

#5 - The outgoing generation of consoles hung on about a year or two too long

When any serious PC gamer looks at the product of a PS4 or Xbox One, he will notice that the new consoles appear mostly to have caught up with the default expectations of the PC crowd. There are a lot of older gen releases which look great on PC but which are clearly inferior, displaying subpar graphics, framerate or even controls in their console counterparts. I expect a lot of "ultimate edition" ports of older games to appear on the new generation of consoles next year.

Factoid Learned: To console-only gamers this will just look like a stunning improvement, however...because it is! The consoles are once again on equal footing with PC standards, for at least a year or two.

#4 - Gain greater and more optimistic appreciation for tabletop RPG hobby

Just enjoying it, staying away from toxic gaming forum sites, and focusing on the community I've got locally has been one of my great pleasures of 2013. That I can still find time at all to game with the job and family is great enough; the last thing I need is to be letting the often pessimistic, toxic attitude of certain sites online foster pessimism within myself as well.

#3 - Ebooks are here to stay

I only buy gamebooks, artsy tomes and comics in print these days. There's simply nothing a print media book has to offer me anymore that a tablet ereader doesn't do better. Sure, there are still a few quibbles to work out (DRM issues with some books being one, along with the theoretically draconian consumer "ownership" trends set by Amazon) but by and large I can now read any book with a degree of customization and accessibility I could only dream about in decades prior. Lesson learned: not buying any more print books unless they are entirely unavailable in ebook format.

#2 - Addicted to tablets

I linger over their section in the retail stores. I study Ebay and other sites online just to compare deals. I haunt Best Buy and Office Max to see try out their floor room models. This despite the fact that I own a mix of no less than five ereaders and tablets right now, never mind what my wife owns. Lesson Learned: in 2014 I have sworn not to buy any more tablets, unless it's to replace and upgrade an existing one! (so, no lesson learned)

#1 - The open world sandbox games are king

I'm not talking about Minecraft, which is best described as an "open world crafting game." Rather I refer to those titles where you get opportunistic and powerful heroes for whom a grand city (or cities) are their playground of destruction and adventure. If I learned one lesson better than any in 2013 it was just how much more fun it is to play these games with a bit of heart and spunk. I was already addicted to Bethesda and Bioware games....adding Saint's Row III and IV along with Sleeping Dogs, the Assassin's Creed titles and Far Cry 3 into the mix pretty much has made my appetite for open-world sandbox games insatiable.

Factoid Learned: I can still enjoy a good corridor/linear path shooter, and the current big dogs of the genre (CoD, Battlefield, Killzone and Crysis) are certainly entertaining.....but just imagine a CoD-style game in a Far Cry 3 world, or Crysis set in a ravaged New York that offered as many options as Steelport City.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The 2013 Year in Review Part II: Was the DDN Playtest Courting the Wrong Crowd?

I've made an assertion on prior occasions that one of the key factors which I feel will determine whether Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition can make a comeback is if it's presented as OGL (open game license)....specifically, goes back to the 2000-2003 style OGL and SRD setup that 3rd edition spawned, and not the GSL of 4E. When you look at and other online ebook retailers you can still see the fruit of the OGL, rife and pervasive. Not a day doesn't go by that we don't see a new Pathfinder tome, some D20 variant, or OSR module or retroclone being released. Some might argue that this is evidence that the OGL did lasting and permanent harm to the D&D brand by allowing it to fragment (in such a model 4E would just be the nails in the coffin) but I would argue that moving away from the OGL was what really let it out into the wild.

In 2004-2005 we saw the D20 bubble bust, when the glut of D20 based products reached critical mass and store owners couldn't dump their product fast enough. A handful of the most creative and resourceful third party publishers managed to swim when everyone else started sinking, and we know who most of the survivors are today (Green Ronin, Monte Cook, Paizo, Crafty Games and a couple others). The market didn't evaporate wth the arrival of 4E in 2008, however...all it did was spawn new paths or directions by which new 3PP could arrive on the scene, and the GSL was an effective deterrent against keeping with the brand-name D&D; in pharmaceutical terms we suddenly had a spawning of generics in the market: Pathfinder and the OSR movement being the top dogs in this creative venture.

Most people in RPG publishing are in agreement that had 4E stuck with the OGL then it is likely there would have been more buy-in and support from the 3PP. Odds are we'd have at least seen a better effort at adopting (and fixing/appending/expanding the options for) 4E D&D if that had been the case, which would have fed into a possible synergy for the game between it and its potentially expansive 3PP options, allowing the fan base to look to more choices than it actually got in reality.

Of course what did happen instead is someone else (Paizo and the OSR crowd) grabbed the OGL by the horns and kept it alive, with new brands. Pathfinder and its process is obvious, but if you look at the OSR as it's own umbrella brand, under which rests a bunch of little connected and mostly compatible efforts, all also OGL, it's fairly obvious to see where all the creative effort in publishing went...and remained.

So it's with some curiosity that I realize that in 2013, D&D and Wizards of the Coast spent a great deal of time courting the player base that was interested in play testing, but as far as I can tell it did nothing to try and court the interest of the other side of this equation: the 3PP support. Sure, it's easy enough to say that Hasbro's lawyers have WotC on a short leash about this, and I imagine someone at Hasbro must imagine that the OGL had long term damage on their brand and sales (after all, someone buying a 3PP product is not buying a WotC product), but surely they must realize that the problem lies not in ignoring the OGL, but accepting the realities of the Pandora's Box they opened nearly fourteen years ago, right? That the way to grab the audience for D&D and bring them back into the fold is to embrace both the consumers and the creators of content....that the 3PP sales are not something people buy in lieu of official content, but something they get in addition to it. The health of the game will be determined by the ability of its fans to partake in the process, and a structured OGL environment is far and away the most effective legal process I've seen in this hobby by which one can creatively partake of it (and occasionally make money doing so).

I have a mostly complete revision of my Realms of Chirak book sitting around waiting for me to decide what to do with it. I have a Pathfinder-statted version which I use for my own game tables since I formally embraced Pathfinder, and I have a more generic version which might like to nestle in with D&D 5th Edition, if only I knew whether or not it was worth the effort. A year or more before 3rd edition D&D ever arrived on scene WotC was courting interested 3PP with the prospect of having ready-to-go content right out the gate for the new edition, and it was a gamble which paid off in spades. I doubt they will even dare to attempt such this time around, but I can safely say that a failure to embrace the creative content-producers of the hobby is going to backfire on them. In a world where you have Pathfinder and it's full OGL toe to toe against the fresh and somewhat uncertain D&D 5E, supported by an immense volume of old product online but otherwise locked in.....if WotC doesn't see that they're about to find out if the gaming world can handle the equivalent of a PC vs. Mac split......(and yest the Indies are the Linux OS in this analogy)...well, then I just don't know what to say except: Please make it possible to support your game through the release of my own products. I want to be on board with the next D&D, but you guys need to own up to your greatest triumph: the OGL. Without it, I don't see how you can do more than flounder at the edge of the hobby.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Habits of Reading Laid Bare?

There's a very interesting article at the New York Times about a new focus on start-up companies looking to offer monthly subscription services for books, in which the reading habits of the audience are tracked in detail.

I'm not entirely sure how this process would work, at least to garner meaningful data; I've sometimes had to set down my ebook on a given page to take care of business, only to come back some time later; do they have a way of gauging when you're simply fascinated by that chapter, or can they tell when you've been indisposed to handle other business?

Some of the article's data points are interesting, and reflective of the real problem the article touches on at the very end: the fact that tracking such data is going to create a problem for the creative process, when authors start looking for that smoking Chekov's Gun that will insure the readers keep pouring in and reading their book, will it lead to a stiffling of creativity? A sqluelching of risk-taking? Will authors motivated by the urge to get good metrics back from the readership start avoiding ideas which they might otherwise of entertained in exchange for the quick and easy buck?

In fairness, the authors who will use this and react to their audience are the sort who are on Smashwords cranking out the latest erotic not-Anita-Blake vampire porn novel, probably...or the latest zombie apocalypse novel, because after all we clearly don't have enough of those. I suspect that genuinely good authors, or at least those who are pursuing their own vision of their work, are going to avoid this service like the plague, or at best take a callous and morbid interest in it.

Worst case: a good author gets discouraged from even bothering after finding out that his audience only finished his books 4% of the time, and that 90% of them spend too much time lingering on the alien sex scene.

My personal preference is to avoid these services. They will only lead to more of the same (Publishers: this is not something all readers want, believe it or not), will make me self-conscious of my reading habits, and frankly I would personally like to put as many marketing gurus out of business as possible, or at least keep my money from getting into their pockets whenever I possibly can!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Camazotz's 2013 Year in Review Part I: Transitions

2013 was a year of transitions, some forced and others a bit more natural. What follows is the Death Bat's perspective on the things that made 2013 a "year of transition" if not change....

As always my perspectives are tinged with the discoloration of heavy bias! You have been warned. I'll do one or two a day until the year's end....

The D&D Next Playtest

The Dungeons & Dragons playtest pushed through to the point where it looks like a game worth playing, then went offline as the game prepared for final release.

The Good: Yes, D&D will be returning, and soon I hope to have a game system which will let me take Pathfinder, 1E, 2E, Labyrinth Lord and B/X modules and run them all under the same umbrella of a modern system with classic sensibilities, with minimal fuss. As of the last playtest package it looked like this goal was well on the way to success.

The Bad: WotC still needs to earn back the trust of its estranged fans. Not even releasing all editions in premium collector's editions, including OD&D, is enough for some people to erase the bad taste of prior gaffs. Nerd rage is a hard thing to quell, apparently.

The Console Generation Gave Birth to a Litter

The Good: not just gave birth, it like took fertility pills. Look around; there's the Ouya (fair disclosure: I got one yesterday), the Android or Apple marketplace for whatever's in your pocket at the moment, the Xbox One, the PS4, the Nvidia Shield, Wii U, Wii Mini, 2DS, PS Vita, Steam.....there's a mess of both instant gratification and cheap entertainment options stacked right next to premium hardcore experience out there for gaming right now. From a consumer perspective it's win-win. I literally could stop buying games today and would likely still have enough game content to keep me covered until my child was in college. Cripes!

The Bad: but this is also the year many console manufacturers tried to push the envelope. Microsoft either came out early on as severely anti-consumer or just plain misguided in an effort to set trends against the very concept of consoles as they have existed to date. Sony capitalized on this by touting the PS4 as more feature friendly, but it's a weird world we live in where the key selling point of a system is that it promises not to mistreat you (too) badly. Freemium games are now dominant, leaving us in a weird world where there are tons of games out there which espouse free content but cleverly find ways to manipulate the audience into paying dramatically more than they ever would have for a straight purchase. The audience, crazier than ever, willingly partakes of this process involving "free accounts and whales" in the marketing vernacular, while griping incessantly at the injustice of it all. We've all demonstrated that not even sapient intelligence can evade the Skinner Box.

This is the Year I Realized We can now Watch, Do and Play Anything on Anything, Just About

The Good: At some point this year I realized that my son is now growing up in a world where he can play, stream or otherwise access almost anything from any device in the house or in hand, so long as he has a working wifi connection. Also, its starting to get weird when a device doesn't let you engage with a proper capacitative screen. I look suspiciously at my TV and desktop monitor, wondering how much longer I must wait before I can at last simply point to what I want done. For my son, touch screens are just the way of life, and the fact the 55 inch TV is the only thing in his life that doesn't react to touch is a mystery to him.

The Bad: This means I get to be that dad who talks about how when I was his age, I had to deal with crappy commercial-full TV on a low res color screen that was bigger than a freight box while listening to a hand-me-down 8-Track tape player, and how in my day they didn't have touchscreens, tablets were only on Star Trek, and 95% of gaming culture consisted entirely of men; the prospect of a girlfriend or spouse who looked disdainfully upon your interest in comics, games and computers was a given.

Yay! I'm one of those guys!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Batman: Arkham Origins - A True Bat Fan's Game

It could be just me, but as #3 in a trilogy of titles that do a fantastic job of encapsulating the Batman genre in a sandbox Arkham environment, I really get the sense that Arkham Origins hit it on the nose better than the other two games did. The presentation, the lead-in, the lack of any overly contrived reasons for why criminals roam the streets and make constant mayhem. Sorry, I am still having a hard time buying whatever passed for an explanation on the whole Arkham City detention walls dealie...even in the DC Universe's particularly turgid and wackiest moments the idea of walling off an entire section of a major metropolitan downtown area just seems....crazy extreme, even for a universe where no one can figure out Bruce Wayne is Batman.

Okay, despite all that, I think the plot of Arkham Origins has a strong "classic Batman" vibe going for it. This isn't a review really, since I've only begun playing the game, but more of an assertion that it has the right feel, the right mesh of exotic and previously underplayed villains (Deathstroke, Deadshot, Copperhead and more), and an excellent pacing. The plot is simple: mad crime lord Black Mask has it out for Batman, who is yet new to this city; it's a "Batman Year One" setting and we're only now about to see a Commissioner Gordon get promoted. Black Mask, in the midst of his reign of terror on the city, has hired eight deadly assassins to dispatch the Bat. Naturally somewhere in the midst of all this the Joker shows up, and things really take off then.

Anyway, more discussion soon I am sure as I play more...this game definitely grabbed me in a way Arkham City didn't, probably because everything so far feels like a plot and style ripped from a very well done Batman comic. For now, here's my tentative glowing thumbs up to the PC version of the first few hours of Arkham Origins.

Not sure how much blogging I'll get in this week, what with Xmas and all that.....but we shall see!
Copperhead - now a lady
Black Mask

Friday, December 20, 2013

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Officially Announced for Summer 2014

Here's the official news release, confirming what most people who've been to this rodeo before already figured:

December 19, 2013 – Renton, WA – Wizards of the Coast today announced that the highly-anticipated new rules system for Dungeons & Dragons will release in summer 2014.  After nearly two years of an open public playtest and more than 175,000 playtest participants, the rules are complete. Players will be immersed in rich storytelling experiences across multiple gaming platforms as they face off against the most fearsome monster of all time.

Now we wait, and see how it all goes down...

I will make the following predictions:

1. It will sell well, but...

2. It will not reunite the severely fragmented base.

3. It will not kill Pathfinder, and at best may push Pathfinder back to #2 on ICv2's sales lists.

4. It will be a great deal of fun to play for those who give it a chance and figure out what they actually did with the system, especially old fans of AD&D 2nd edition like myself, matter how much we love 2E, can never go back, because as great as it was 2E is still a hot mess.

5. The real strength of 5E will be that fans of Pathfinder and other D&D-likes can actually buy the support modules and settings, using them "as-is" in their own preferred ruleset.

6. 4E fans will stew in anger and a true Swords & Wizardry for the 4E set will arise sometime further down the road.

Friday Blog - PS4 one week in

Just a short update for we've had the PS4 one week now, and I have a few observations:

Five Good Games: unless you're into sports or legos, neither of which appeal in my household (yet; Marcus is just learning about real, physical legos right now so give him a couple more years and I'm sure video game legos won't be far behind) it means my wife and I collectively have snagged Call of duty: Ghosts, Need for Speed Rivals, Battlefield 4, Injustice: Gods Among Us, and (despite having it on PC) Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.

I couldn't resist playing some ACIV on getting it, and it turns out the purchase was worth it (fair disclosure: I used Gamestop credit so it didn't really cost me anything, although the Season Pass did). The PS4 version runs better and looks nicer than the one I have on the PC....a sad sign my PC, at three years old, is getting long in the tooth.

I played just far enough into ACIV to have a double-take moment followed by the usual "....oh, I better finished the other games soon so I know what major plot bit they were just refering to...." moments.

Netflix on PS4 is Testy: what is up with Netflix? It randomly freezes the whole system, gets testy when you do things like pause, and also corrupts any background loading you've got going on. We're still using the PS3 for Netflix right now, the PS4 version of the app can't be trusted.

Handy Reboot Tip: if your PS4 has frozen you can reboot it by placing your finger over the whole "start" strip and don't move even if you think hell just froze over. It will eventually reboot, I promise. (About 20-30 seconds, IRL)

Couch Co-Op: My wife and I have ascertained that if you want local multiplayer, Call of Duty Ghosts is a solid win, with multiple split-screen modes to keep us going, despite the fact that Battlefield 4 is technically the superior shooter experience....we both want to play Battlefield 4, but it won't let us play together, so CoD: Ghosts gets more of our time, and we take turns on Battlefield 4 otherwise.

Aside from CoD: Ghosts Injustice has some fun beat-em-up multiplayer, but I suck horribly at these fighting games, so its more fun to let my wife play while I watch the unlocked story scenes. Rumor is the game Knack is good for co-op couch gaming but neither of us found the cutesy platformer genre that Knack comes from to be interesting.

Touchy Feely Console: The PS4 turns on by swiping it's on-spot, which is not an obvious place unless you read the manual. You can also eject discs this way. For some reason it does not let you just turn the console on from the controller like the PS3 did (though you can turn it off that way). It also seems to get uppity in it's power-saver mode, so I've been keeping it in hard-off mode when I shut it down.

Beyond this point....I have to say we're both happy to have the PS4 now. I still have PS3 games to finish...and I shall....but the potential of the new system is obvious, and I expect it will only be a matter of time before the Xbox 360 is retired, and the PS3 will probably hold us over for another year before I finish all the backlogged titles I have on it, too. By then, the new gen consoles should have a decent array of titles to keep us from even wanting to look back.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Review: Pathfinder Campaign Setting - Distant Worlds

Continuing my review of Pathfinder books....since there appear to be about a million of them out there and hardly any reviews....I offer up another favorite of mine, Distant Worlds. This setting book focuses on the universe of Golarion, specifically the solar system and its inhabited worlds, as well as the means by which Golarion's extraterrestrial denizens and adventurers traverse the stellar expanse.

One could look at Distant Worlds as Pathfinder's dabbling in the world of Spelljammer, but that's not entirely accurate. Golarion's thematically aimed at the old pulps of the 30's, and unlike Spelljammer, which was built on a premise of "what if everything both quasi-scientific, mythic and fanciful that anyone, including the ancient Greeks such as Ptolemy, though about the way the universe worked was true?" The Pathfinder/Golarion take is more along the lines of, "What is the universe functions a bit more like an Edgar Rice Burrough's conception of space?" instead.

Most of the book is about the solar system of Golarion, with a breakdown and gazetteer of each solar body, including the sun itself, as well as other notable bodies such as Aballon, Verces, Eox, Apostae and more. The local planets of the Golarion solar system are all briefly presented with enough adventure hooks and detail to make for some compelling adventure ideas. You may have a hard time (as I do) figuring out how to easily extrapolate without porting the entire solar system over, or just giving up and running a campaign of world-exploration "as is." At the end of this section is a couple pages on other worlds, which is loaded with brief plot seeds and ideas.

The second chapter is Stellar Adventures, a short section (too short) on how to travel the stellar expanse, and some useful spells, ideas and environmental rules (i.e. vacuum), for traveling in space. This section needed about a dozen more pages, in my opinion, but what is here can serve as a useful springboard to crafting your own adventures. What is missing is actual statistics for stellar ships and different ways to model them in game rules.

Last is the chapter on Aliens, which features a short overview of beasts in the Bestiaries that might be found in the outlined setting of the sourcebook, along with new monsters, including the mechanoid-like Aballonians, gassy-world Brethedan, giant-floating-brain Contemplative of Ashok, dragonkin (looking a lot like actual dragons with a more humanoid gait), the Oma (space whales), and my favorites: the shobhad, four-armed giants (yes, yes) with dusky blue skin and lighting rifles who have an earned reputation for ferocity in battle.

For a Pathfinder fan who uses Golarion, and who has an interest in taking a campaign into space, this book is essential. If you're like me, and don't use Golarion but love the concept, this book offers roughly 13 pages of universal content and a lengthy section on Golarion's solar system that is worth reading for ideas, but works best when used as-is, in my opinion, perhaps as a location for your adventurers to traverse. It is not too difficult to lift the entire solar system and drop it in your own campaign, replacing Golarion's spot in the universe with your own world, if you so desire.

GMs looking for a campaign setting to use with a different game system will find that this book is largely system neutral, and can be readily utilized for campaigns in any other of the grand meta-family of D&D and it's relatives, clones and descendants.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Alluria Publishing's Cerulean Seas and More

Some part of me suspects that D&D 5th Edition may not be as universally accepted or desirable as I'd like it to be. Why do I suspect this? I keep buying Pathfinder books, for one!

Specifically, I've been buying lots of Alluria Publishing's books, which include Cerulean Seas Campaign Setting, a gorgeous book that I've had for a few months now and will properly review soon. It also has four supplements out, two of which I already snagged: Waves of Thought and Indigo Ice, along with the new Azure Abyss and Beasts of the Boundless Blue. Collectively these books amount to an immense amount of material for running a campaign set entirely on...and specifically under the ocean. Cool stuff.

Aside from that I also ordered their Bestiary of the Bizarre and Remarkable Races Compendium. I own the individual PDFs of the original Pathfinder (and 4E) Remarkable Races series, and there were a lot of weird and interesting exotic races; those who have Advanced Races Guide for Pathfinder would find the selection in Remarkable Races to be complementary, with no overlap, and plenty of weird options--want to play an ooze race? Here's your chance!

As I plan to do real reviews for all these soon, I just want to take a moment now to point out a few important facts about these books as well as the rpgnow/drivethrurpg print on demand features:

1. Always order the color premium option. The standard color option is washed out on what looks like newsprint. Unless you're nostalgic for comic-print quality from the seventies, this is not a good option. Alluria's books are only available in premium, which is a damned good thing for reason #1...

2. Alluria is one of the few 3PP publishers of Pathfinder content and a POD option that have decent to high quality art throughout the entire book, with decent interior graphics. About the only negative I can say is some of their tomes have background coloring/graphics that might annoy some (though the entire Cerulean Seas setting avoid this while still looking gorgeous) but they are bar none the best looking non-Paizo tomes on the market.

Here's some example art from the covers that I could dig up online. Note that the interiors are just as good looking, with very, very few "flubs." Most 3PP art content, in my experience, is subpar on average, but Alluria's Cerulean Seas series is just gorgeous:

Monday, December 16, 2013

Blood & Smoke: The Strix Chronicles

It's out in PDF now, and a print+PDF version shall arrive shortly. Apparently I'm a bit out of touch with what's going on in the World of Darkness, not without cause....they've moved entirely to a PDF+POD based rleease format through Onebookshelf, and are also dabbling in licensing and Kickstarters, so if you're not a hardcore fan it can be a bit hard to follow. Still, I've always had a fondness for Vampire, and it's various incarnations, even if I could never quite fit in with the core audience. Here's the text from the release page:

The new Chronicle Core book for Vampire: The Requiem.

Tonight, you become one of the Kindred, the beautiful and the damned who hide behind our ordinary world. Driven by a hunger like fire, you will struggle to maintain your humanity while immersed in a vicious society of monsters.
But the sharks you swim with aren’t the only ones out there. Your Kindred are the smart, sexy vampires of pop culture, but you are haunted by the Strix -- the grisly, demon-possessed corpses of folklore. They slaughtered the Night-Senate of Rome, drowned the tombs of the Princes of Alexandria, and warred with the Plague Lords of Transylvania.
Tonight, they’re loose on the streets of your city. Time for the sinners to become the saints, and the hunters to become the prey.
Blood and Smoke: The Strix Chronicle contains:
  • A complete guide to playing a vampire in the World of Darkness. No other rulebooks are required, and the rules are fully compatible with The God-Machine Chronicle.
  • Reimagined clans, covenants, and supernatural powers to create your perfect monster... and her friends and foes.
  • A first-ever look at vampire domains around the world, from Tokyo to Berlin.
  • Twenty unique Strix, as well as complete rules for building your own.

Color me sounds like an entirely new setting, if not a reboot. I like this concept of "new shiny vampires" vs. old world nasty vampires.

Review: Pathfinder Chronicles - Heart of the Jungle

This is an easy review for me because I've used this book extensively over the last three years. Heart of the Jungle was one of the earliest Pathfinder RPG releases after the Core Book came out, and focused on two elements: adventuring in the Jungle wilderness and the region Mwangi in Golarion. As with most Chronicles books, the content here is going to be about as useful as you are willing to make of it, with a mix of general content that can be applied to any game mixed with campaign-specific content that you can cut and paste from or just mine for ideas; the most use will be gained from a GM who needs lots of rules and setting material, and uses Golarion, of course.

Luckily, Mwangi is very much designed to be an archetypal Jungle Land, a quasi not-Africa designed in the vein of many campaign settings from the old 2E era of AD&D, in which thematics and setting were designed to evoke the sense of a certain style, region, culture or genre without having to rewrite the whole game to accommodate the exotic feel.

The first chapter looks at Life in Mwangi, with some useful general content that anyone can take advantage of. A discussion of natural hazards, plant life, useful diseases and infections and other dangers (from insects swarms and weather to quicksand and humidity) are all useful to any jungle campaign you might want to run. The material is not so rooted in Golarion that it would be at all problematic lifting this content for your own campaign.

Denizens of the Expanse continues this chapter with a more Golarion-specific discussion of the many monstrous, demihumand and human races of the region. It's worth reading and you could easily lift some ideas for your own setting here without much difficulty. Not sure what your jungle elves would look like? Borrow a few ideas on this elven culture descended from a great ancient kingdom now lost in the untracked wilderness. About the only problem with this section right now is it includes no ideas for additional races and monsters after 2010.

This chapter wraps up on a section about village life and religion in the region. There's barely anything on village life outside of basic organizational stuff; no one who wrote this book went and did any extensive research on any period of any particular African culture from which to model Mwangi civilizations, best as I can tell. Likewise, the religion section is really just a way to frame the ur-patheon of Golarion in the context of local belief systems and rituals. It includes no folklore or mythology specific to or derived from traditional African belief systems.

The next chapter is Mwangi Campaigns. This section is where you're going to find the largest volume of Golarion-specific content, but the first few pages are useful for any GM interested in ways to setup of a Jungle-exploration themed campaign. The subsequent material is actually well worth reading through for ideas you can mine, or lift whole cloth and drop into your own jungle settings; little here is so specific to one setting that you couldn't extrapolate easily enough. Note also that there are plenty of useful maps of the wilderness and cities in this world.

Lost Kingdoms is up next, a section on the ancient ruins and lost history of Mwangi. Like the previous section with its focus on the modern settlements and cultures of the region, Lost Kingdoms provides plenty of interesting details from which you could readily cut-and-paste to your own game, or borrow from as you see fit.

The book wraps up with a smattering of monsters and some useful encounter tables. Here we have the high girallon (anghazani), botfly swarm, giant botfly, hippopotamus and tobongo (Mwangi treant). A nice smattering of extra monsters.

Overall this book is a must-have for GMs using Golarion as a setting and an interest in running a jungle campaign. If you want some content for jungle adventures but don't use Golarion, then you'll get about 26 pages of material which you can use as presented, and an additional 38 pages of interesting setting material that is fairly easy to lift and plant in your own games, or borrow ideas from. For me, it was essential to a series of jungle-traversing campaigns I ran in 2010 and 2011, and a book I keep on hand to this day because of it's overall usefulness.

Because most of the general content in this book contains Pathfinder rules and terminology, some of the content of this book would require conversion for use with a non-Pathfinder ruleset. The setting material is universal, however, and could serve as a springboard for any D&D-like. Note, however, that for OSR games we have Spears of the Dawn, which I would recommend to old school gamers over Heart of the Jungle as a more useful resource overall.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Third Sundering Module in PDF only???

Dungeon's Master talks about it, that the Scourge of the Sword Coast module will be the February kick-off for D&D Encounters and apparently will be in PDF only (no link provided to the source, though he may be referring to this release notice). If this is PDF only....and it's the official third module in line for the Sundering series that started with Murder in Baldur's Gate....then I am concerned that WotC is about to make yet another silly mistake in it's attempt to bring D&D back into relevancy.

The idea of a PDF-only release for the only current lineup of D&D modules prior to 5E's arrival seems weird to me, especially when you already released the first two modules in print. The likelihood it will be priced reasonably is also in question; $35 for a print book was acceptable if pushing it slightly given that these weren't even hardcover books. If this module goes for more than $12 in PDF I will be interested to see if that many people are really desperate for new official D&D content to cough up.

The idea of publishing PDF only also flies in the face of the current dominant competition: Pathfinder offers all its books in both print and PDF format, which is honestly the best way to do it (imo). You can pick and choose your medium, or mix and match as needed.

Another thing: someone tell me what game store is going to want to keep supporting D&D Encounters if the only way to get the module to run games is to bypass the retail store entirely? Where's the product on the shelf that's going to help generate sales for the game store? I see no incentive here to get stores to participate in this event.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Console Shelf Got Very Crowded Last Night

My wife took it upon herself to buy us (and by us I mean me) a Playstation 4 for Xmas. And because neither she nor I can resist giving out gifts to each other two second after we get them, I got it last night. I reciprocated with a Deadpool Omnibus Vol. I (she's a big Deadpool fan) but it felt a kilter. Might need to find some more lewt for her....!

So yeah, despite not planning to get a PS4 I now have one. Which means this is all I have to blog about today. But a few observations for those interested:

1. I received Killzone: Shadow Fall and Need for Speed Rivals with the PS4. Both decent games. It's impossible not to notice that they are suddenly in 1080p. It's hard to believe it took us this long to get a console that displays games natively in 1080p.

2. The selection of free to play titles on the PS4 is modest but important: Killzone: Retribution, DC Universe Online, Warframe and a few others (such as Contrast and Resogun as PSNetwork freebies) are vital downloads, since outside of this there's a pretty skimpy lineup of launch titles. Also, near as I can tell no one is making splitscreen co-op anymore, which is a damned shame.

3. If you were not a fan of the old Playstation interface you might like the new one. It had a few quirks, but once I got used to it I find its pretty easy. A bit odd how one closes out a game or app, though.

4. A weird negative: don't try to watch Netflix on the PS4 while downloading games. It does not like this, and will make you sorry by corrupting the download files.

5. I think this has been fairly well established, but in case you didn't know, the new generation of consoles are not backwards compatible. So....don't chuck your old PS3 anytime soon. Unless you're completely done with it, the PS3 may still have some life left in it. For me, I've still got a couple dozen games I'd like to finish on the old machine.

On Need for Speed: Rivals....this is a pretty addictive game. Damned addictive. Despite there not being a way to pause while actually rolling around the tracks, primarily because this is a sort of "racing MMO lite," if you need to pause you just go into safe drive mode or quit out to your garage screen. This may cost you winnings....assuming you don't suck like I do....but it's not nearly as problematic so far as some gaming outlets might have suggested. Beyond that, the pick-up-and-go multiplayer racers vs. cops is very addictive for those who are into racing games.

As for Killzone: Shadow Fall the game looks very nice, and starts off promising. It's got a very comfortable interface and the gameplay feels very right. I like the drone you acquire. The forests you stalk through are very impressive. It bodes well for what we can see on these machines in the future. Note that you do not need to have played the prior Killzone titles to enjoy this one, as the story takes place decades after the end of Killzone 3.

Beyond all that, the new PS4 game controller is extremely nice, and I like it much, much more than the older sixaxis controller for the PS3 and prior versions. The revamped controller was long overdue but well worth the wait. So far the only oddity about it is the placement of options button....for me, anyway.

So....more later on the PS4! I'll try to do proper reviews of the aforementioned titles, and also plan to snag Call of Duty Ghosts and Battlefield 4, too. I already have Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag for the PC, so that will have to sit out, I suppose. I do have CoD:Ghosts on Steam wife would kinda like to play it as well, preferably in splitscreen mode....which I've heard this one might actually support (internet rumors are hazy on this though...)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Spell Points in Pathfinder

A couple years ago when Pathfinder was still young and new, I worked up a campaign setting called Enzada, the core theme of which was "nonwestern societies are dominant, and there are thousands of gods/pantheons." Since then it's evolved a great deal and I have run no less than four large campaigns and several small campaigns to's made a nice home on my shelf in the campaign section.

Once core conceit of the setting was a spell point mechanic, which I am reprinting here for those interested in how I do it. The principles work great with any edition of D&D, and I used this spell point system extensively back in my 2E AD&D days too.

The Pathfinder Enzada Campaign Spell Point System

   Magic users of Enzada do not memorize and then release spells; they cast them from engrained Patterns in memory, and kept safely in spell books. As such, all spell casters of the world can spontaneously cast any spells they have learned, provided they have the magic for it.

   Characters must keep track of spell points for orisons (and cantrips if necessary), standard spells, bonus spells (such as for domains) and spells for classes. Within a range, they gain spell points equal to the level of the spell they would normally memorize, plus bonus points by intelligence or their dominant trait. For example, a character who can memorize 4 1st level spells and 2 2nd level spells would have 8 spell points.

   Spells cost a number of points equal to the level of the spell being cast. So a 1st level spell costs 1 point, and a 9th level spell costs 9 points. Material components are still needed if required.

   Spell points are recovered at the rate of 1 point per 10 minutes of rest, or are fully recovered after a full night’s sleep. Morning rituals of preparation and renewal are required for vows, to study and aid in imagining the words, mandalas and gestures which activate the Patterns to cast spells, usually no more than one hour in length to do so. A spell caster who does not spend one hour a day refreshing his talents suffers a cumulative -10% spell failure chance per day.

Spell Points earned by Spell System
Main Attribute:    12-13: 1, 14-15: 3, 16-17: 6, 18-19: 10, 20-21: 14, 22-23: 19, 24-25: 25, 26-27: 32, 28-29: 40, 30-31: 49 

Spell Point Conversion for Classes
You gain spell points equal to slots times level. So a Level 1 spell slot grants 1 spell point, while a level 4 spell slot grants 4 spell points and so forth.

Cost of Spells in Points by Level:
Spells have a cost equal to the actual level of the spell.                      

Orisons and Cantrips

   Orisons and cantrips are cast with their own special spell point reserve equal to the number of orison spells normally memorized. These are kept separate from normal spell points, although one orison point is worth one quarter of a normal spell point, and a GM may allow conversion between the two if desired. Under this mechanic, all orison/cantrip points are replenished with a short (ten minute) rest.

Spells with Other Uses

   If you have spells from a domain or other source that allow X number of uses per day, you can optionally convert those number of uses to spell points by multiplying the total by spell level. I personally do not allow such conversion, keeping those special exception spells as they are, however.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Idea: Aging Heroes and Campaigns that Span Decades

It's been a hellish month for work so I'm not caught up...or even ahead, really...on my posting, so this one may be short and sweet. As I've been thoroughly immersed in the Assassin's Creed series, it's been interesting playing through the Second game and its two sequels (Brotherhood and Revelations, the "trilogy within a trilogy" if you will) focusing on Ezio Auditore de Firenze, the assassin who inherits the legacy of his father at a young age and goes on to become the Mentor of an order he founds to defeat the machinations of the Borgia (the greatest villains Italy ever put forth) and ultimately seek out his destiny in Constantinople. It's a fascinating journey, because with each new game you see an additional slice of Ezio's life, a progression from young tough at age 16, hitting on the ladies and generally up to no a twenty-something roving young adventurer-assassin, to the man who eventually conquers Roma and ultimately the wizened sage of the order, looking for lost relics and lore of his ancestor in the Ottoman Empire.

The games do a surprisingly good job of making Ezio look his the first game you see him up to his late thirties. In the second game (Brotherhood) he's in his forties, and by the time of Revelations he's in his fifties and it shows. The young Ezio barely notices when he makes astounding leaps and jumps, but the old man Ezio grunts and bitches with spills he didn't even notice in his youth. It's a really interesting touch.

So this got me to thinking about ways one could structure a campaign around characters over a period of years, rather than the typical passage of time seen in RPGs. I've run linked campaigns that stretch over decades or longer for PCs in the past, but in recent years my campaigns are often year long affairs that cover (in game time) less time than the real life play time takes...on occasion. It would be interesting to consider a narrative arc which encompasses two or more decades of time. This might not have as much impact for a party of elves or other long-lived PCs, but for humans, halfings and such it could pose an interesting challenge.

Not only would a campaign built around a multi-decade long narrative be interesting for its dynamics, a book like Ultimate Campaign might make more sense, providing some unique ways to flesh out lengthy downtime. You could have a campaign that ends with a four story arc involving the liberation of the city from an evil baron...then next session picks up five years later, with the PCs the legitimate saviors of the city, and a "catch up" session to see what everyone did. It might not suit everyone's tastes, and it depends strongly on a measure of GM control over the story process, but if done right I imagine it could be rather compelling.

I imagine another way to approach it would be in full disclosure: let each player know you'll be telling a series of narrative arcs, spaced out X number of years apart....then find some thread that links these periods of time together, and in turn the PCs (but don't tell them what it it is). This way the players have a head's up to think in terms of discrete time blocks for their character's development...and between each time period for the campaign you can include a lengthy catch-up/downtime session to fill in the between-time gaps.

The purpose of such a narrative approach would be one of novelty, and also to look at how the story changes when it is designed to take place of a long period of time....not to mention what the characters would look like. I'll have to consider this approach for my next campaign arc, maybe.

Friday, December 6, 2013

In Defense of Magic World

About two weeks back Erik Tenkar posted a comment from an anonymous contributor who didn't particularly like Magic World. I spent a fair amount of time defending the game in the comments section, primarily because while I have no problem with the idea that someone might dislike it, the blog itself phrased the discussion in terms of whether an anonymous poster's vague opinions constitute grounds for asking if that makes the game a critical failure. I've never been a fan of the Glen Beck method of stirring the pot, but that issue aside Erik invited me to post a rebuttal which he would link back, so here I go. I'm doing this because I really don't happen to feel that Magic World is in any way a failure, or even as problematic as the blog post implied (despite an absence of specific examples, unfortunately, which makes some of the assertions hard to rebut). So...take a look at the original post so you have a frame of reference, and here goes. I'll summarize each set of complaints as they come:

1. There are 30 issues of errata in the book.

Good news is I didn't have to search methodically through the book to find these errors. I've found a couple, during the course of play mostly from my MW campaign earlier in the Summer, but thankfully the author himself (known as Zomben at the site) was gracious enough to locate and post errata for us right here.

So, the poster on TT is correct: from looking at Zomben's list I count roughly 28 errors. However, in looking through these I find that Zomben is being overly charitable in what he considers errata. His first two examples were not unclear to me from the rules as written (about possible opposed characteristic roll increases and major wounds) so I'm guessing someone, somewhere somehow got confused but I don't see how.

The third point of errata is more relevant: a missing pioneer profession. Not a gamebreaker. It goes on like this, and there a number of documented minor changes. The list is shorter than I have seen for most RPGs in the last two decades, though longer than I have seen for a very few specific RPGs over those same years which were given a thorough edit by a well-paid professional. YMMV here, but I have errata lists for other very popular current games that are enormous by comparison, often with game-changing bugs.

Now, it's not much consolation I suppose to those 1st print adopters who are also very pedantic about this, but as anyone who buys from Chaosium knows they are generally very good about correcting this stuff in later printings. Take that as you will. But no errata here is sufficiently egregious that I would feel a need to purchase a replacement edition in order to get the game "working." Contrast with two other examples which are clearly egregious: the Monsters of Legend book from Mongoose which was missing half the monster trait descriptions in its first printing; I never did get an answer from Matt Sprange on his forums about whether future reprints would fix this issue, either....and Mongoose, unlike Chaosium, is notorious for not fixing errata, even long, long after its been caught and the product has been repackaged with plenty of opportunity for corrections (i.e. Pirates of Legend; try to find the damn swashbuckler ability, I dare you). And not to keep picking on Mongoose, but let's try to keep it real here and all remember Mongoose's 1st release of Runequest (what would be MRQ, alias RQ 4). That was a game which I ran one campaign for, and ultimately ended the campaign because the rules as written were pissing me off, badly.

Other examples for contrast and consideration: Tome of Horrors Complete's errata is here. Thirteen pages as the forum posts, though I concede that's not bad for 800 pages. Then there is Runequest 6's errata here. It's got more than MW and doesn't discuss typos. I would strongly defend Runequest 6..even more adamantly than MW....that the typos do not break the game.

2. Copy and Paste Issues.

I haven't been bothered by this, nor was I surprised either, because it was well-established that MW was a revival of older products in a new Elric-free format. Given that the lead-up to this book along with interviews and discussion with the author was very clear on the idea that Magic World was going to be a genericized version of the Elric system, retooled for compatibility with BRP, it could be that for me this was essentially a non-issue to begin with because I knew what I was getting long before it was released.

That said, there is a fair amount of copy/paste/revise going on in the book, and a couple of the identified errata issues stem from this, obviously. However I read through the whole tome, my player group (only one of whom was an old pro at the BRP/RQ system like me) read through it as well and no one was confused by any of the rules. We did find a couple spell descriptions that took people by surprise, or left us with some need to make rules calls...but the feeling was not "this is broken" but rather "this is kind of cool, because the spell seems to let us do X exotic things by virtue of not specifically forbidding it." I'm not sure this is something I will call out as a "Magic World's magic system is so cool" sort of thing (though I do like it, having always liked the original it was based off of from Elric/Stormbringer) so much as a "my players are so used toPathfinder's regimented magic system that the openness of a BRP-based system freaked them out." They are used to a ruleset designed to cap them, not the more open-ended style of magic BRP is known for.

3. Art issues.

This is purely subjective, and I like the old art in this book -much of it evokes a fond sense of nostalgia for me- so it's hard for me to relate, but I will provide a defense on behalf of the anonymous critic in this sense: because this is a mix of old, new and recycled art, it lacks a consistency that we tend to see in a lot of current RPG publications. Runequest 6, for example, relies on the art talent of four artists with a very consistent, complimentary style and for that reason it has a more coherent feel to its style and look. I'm not going to argue that Magic World is not the coolest looking book out there, nor that it is better than average, even. But I will argue that it's functional, looks good, is not in the least bit embarrassing to show off (you won't find this locked in the top shelf of the closet with everything Raggi has ever published, half of White Wolf's backstock and of course Cyberpunk 2030) and the practice of recycling art like this is painfully common in the industry, hardly anything unusual for Chaosium.

4. Pixelation and low res issues.

I can see someone getting worked up about this; these things can bug a person on a conscious and unconscious level. The pixelation in some of the art is noticeable to me, but I have to pay close attention or I don't catch it. I will concede this one because it's not honestly a good idea to stick anything in your book that is too low resolution at all, but honestly because of my eyesight issues I think this just doesn't stand out for me like it should.

MW's ancestor

So...that sort of hits the key points in the disgruntled anonymous critic's points of contention. Do these collectively make the book a "critical failure?" For the person who wrote the critique, obviously it did. But the problems with this book are far more subjective than objective: the whole game is here, and it plays very well; I know this from experience, and I am someone who will terminate a campaign midstream if I don't like the way the rules work or are explained. The errata is modest and while issues of errata are pervasive in this hobby that's no good excuse, so the question boils down to what your tolerance level is. My tolerance level is just below "Mongoose Level" but definitely way above "Chaosium first printing" level. I played D&D 4th edition for more than two years...and they had enough errata that I was able to print and bind it all into it's own book. Maybe not a sterling example, but the point I'm getting at is that I was able to read through Magic World and not get confused or tripped up about how to play the game, no single or collective issue of errata or typos causing me to panic in terror that I would be somehow unable to grasp this system or run it properly. And then I went and ran a campaign with it with five players new to BRP and one old pro, and they had a blast...and not one of us got pissed off that the pioneer's skill set was missing, or that elves was misspelled at one point.

Anyway....this reviewer is speaking to people who do find a typo or a missing bit of data or an example where the math is off to be egregious and unforgivable, and he is speaking especially to those who are demanding of the art in their games and feel that the price tag is too much for their entertainment dollars. He's doing a good service for those people, and they know who they are. But he's also objectively holding this game to a higher standard than most RPGs get held up to, period. Perhaps there's a change going on in the industry that may force Chaosium and other older publishers to consider more carefully their approach to art and layout in the future. With the arrival of indie RPGs and the OSR publishing crowd there are many, many examples out there of products carefully nurtured to fruition by those who take the time to make their book as perfect as they can get it before release. If it turns out that Chaosium needs to consider the idea that Magic World actually has to beef up its image to compete with OpenQuest 2 then I can only ever consider that a good thing.

I plan to snag a copy of OQ2 as soon as time and cash permit, and maybe I'll have an opportunity to compare it to MW and RQ6 soon. For me, no matter how much I've enjoyed MW, I'll definitely state that if it turns out there's an equal or better product which gets the job done with that extra little something that makes it that much better than the competition, then that game, whichever it is, should probably win out (or deserve to, anyway). Of course, fans of the BRP/RQ/CoC family of games know the awesome, dirty little secret: it's stupid-easy to utilize material across all of these systems, which all adhere to a fundamental core that does not shift dramatically from one iteration to the next. So an OQ2 powered game which snags the MW magic system and then pits the PCs against monsters from Monsters of Legend II is legitimately do-able with very modest effort on the GM's part. And that is why I like the D100 family of games so much!

I'm looking forward to the next scheduled MW tome...

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Dyverse shows off how Diverse the OSR Blogosphere is

Thanks to Tenkar's Tavern for pointing out this blog. Chris Atkins' Dyvers is, aside from an interesting blog, also providing the most comprehensive directory of active and dark OSR related blogs out there. He even says some nice things about RoC so fair disclosure and all that! If you'd like to expand your range of blog options for gaming online this is a fine resource....I have discovered quite a few blogs I'd never heard of before but wish I had just in the last few dozen minutes' browsing.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Catching up on Pathfinder: a Review of Ultimate Campaign

Realizing my Pathfinder backlog had grown to terrifying proportions, I decided it was time to forge deep into to the miasma of Paizo and Third-Party goodness that festers upon my shelf like a pixie wizard trapped in a troll's nether regions. There's a lot on the shelf...frankly, an enormous number of books that, in the tradition of whatever dominant mass-market D&D-like is in full bloom, populates book shelves across the nation with endless scenarios and splatbooks of incredibly pretty but sometimes dubious usability. Of these books I decided to first delve deep into...Ultimate Campaign.

Ultimate Campaign is a thick book with a lot of systems, ideas and mechanics to try and fill a bewildering variety of gaps in any given campaign. If you utilized every idea in this book then I would predict that your players will dive deep into combat and dungeoneering just to avoid the intensely tedious slog of book-keeping that adventuring downtime could end up taking.

If, however, you take each system in this book as a single enhancer for your campaign and choose only the ones that are likely to benefit your group's play styles then you will find Ultimate Campaign to be most welcoming and useful.

The first range of options provided is the one I immediately warmed up to the quickest: Backgrounds are presented in great detail, a way of creating interesting prehistories for your characters at the start of a campaign, or for any newly introduced character. The system is fairly simple, and can be randomized, answering questions such as the homeland, parents, siblings, and othere details, focusing first by race then later by another set of parameters for class, which expands the background to look at how your character came to be what he is, followed by influential associates, moral relations, the full traits system and much more. It's got a lot of detail but it's all designed to add flavor to your PCs and give both player and GM something to riff off of for new adventures, ideas and hooks that bring the PCs into the story.

Backgrounds like this have appeared in many other games in different forms, from the 3rd edition Campaign Book that was released with D&D 3.0 to the Cyberpunk lifepath generator and beyond, but what Pathfinder offers here works well for 3.75 with custom concepts and ideas for Pathfinder's specific take on classes and races. Take note that this material is all generic, designed for any fantasy campaign; a separate tome was released with Golarion specific content.

With backgrounds behind us we're 73 pages into this book. I give backgrounds a big thumbs up.

Part two is all about Downtime. The last time I can legitimately recall an RPG providing a set of mechanics to figure out what happened to the PCs between adventures was Cities, a supplement originally published by Midkemia Press as a generic sourcebook for RPGs, and later bought out by Chaosium/Avalon Hill and reissued, ultimately, as a sourcebook for Runequest 3 that was also coincidentally fairly usable with any game system.

The downtime mechanics in Ultimate Campaign are nothing like the Cities supplement, which I still use to this day. While Cities focused on personal events, random occurences, and a few modest choices for the players to decide on, the bulk of it was aimed at creating an odd narrative for your players to enjoy, in which they gained some unexpected insight into what their characters are doing in the fantasy world when no one's looking, essentially. You could start the process post-dungeon delve and end up married to a halfling social climber while being hounded by the local thieves guild due to unexpected gambling debts.

Downtime in Ultimate Campaigns has some fun random events, but you have to play this strange property management and investment minigame to get there first. It's very off-putting to me, though I am sure there are gamers out there who would love this thing. If an adventurer decides to spend his wealth acquiring a tavern, for example, I am prone to looking at or inventing a price sheet, building a narrative around it and making the acquisition part of that PC's story over time. Downtime here is about applying build points and designing the structure, managing it like an accountant, real estate agent, broker, or merchant would. It probably rubs me the wrong way because that's something I deal with on a certain level in real life (business management) and I want none of that garbage in my gaming. It's probably nowhere near as bad as I am making it sound....and the events listED later on intrigue me....but if I use this I will need to simplify it and/or make the process more holistic to the roleplay process and less of this whole build point mechanic nonsense.

You know, Downtime reminds me of the side quests in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood where you gradually buy up old properties in Rome and renovate them, invest and basically prop the city up on the ill-gotten blood money of the Assassin's secret cabal. Except in the video game it's fun and here it's just god awfully tedious.

We are now passing page 131. I'm going to give a thumbs down to Downtime, with the conditional that I may pillage it for events and ideas on doing this in a more holistic fashion.

Part three is labelled Campaign Systems, and it's all about a metric ton of little add-ons you can plug into your campaign to enhance the experience in ways you may never have realized you didn't care about in the first place...or never knew you couldn't live without. Here are the systems in a quick rundown:

Alignments: this is basically an elaboration on the alignment system, with a focus on how to make incremental changes to alignment over time. If you, like me, have had no problem over time telling someone, "hey it looks like Fred is acting chaotic evil these days, so I think he is now chaotic evil," then this system is going to seem fairly useless to you. If, however, you have always felt uncomfortable with such declarations, wanting to know just what gradient on the axis of chaos and evil you fall along, then you may find this worth your time. I rank this one: Neutral.

Bargaining: If this happens a lot in your campaigns (as it does mine) these short two pages are a nice addition to give you some additional ideas on making the next bargaining session more interesting. Surprise your players with some extra layers of goodness! If your players are decidedly not into lowering costs and improving earnings on stolen loot at the marketplace then this may be less useful to you. Thumbs up to this system for me!

Companions: a long fluff piece on adding life (and also returning to life) companion characters, chiefly eidolons, familiars, animal companions and such. Call me neutral on this, but to someone who is mystified as to how to approach companion creatures to PCs this might be useful.

Contacts: this system reminds me of contacts in Traveller, in that it codifies them and provides some mechanics for what to do with a contact when a player tries to take advantage of it. When your campaign lets these things grow holistically out of play rules such as this may be less useful to you, or provide a modest bit of structure. Still...I like the approach, and it's fairly rules-lite, just offering a bit of structure. So...thumbs up!

Exploration: It's only 6 pages long but damnit, this book should have spent half its content on the subject of exploration. The good news is lots of stuff in the Gamemastery Guide and other tomes lend to the subject of exploration, but Paizo could easily do an "Ultimate Explorers" or "Ultimate Hexcrawl" and they'd get my money.

Exploration provides a suitable framework for those who don't get outside much on how to guage travel times while hiking or riding, a bit about hex mapping, sandbox style campaigning, and randomly generating maps. The thought that they put 6 pages in here on this and did close to 70 pages on that god-awful downtime system (plus see more later) sickens me. A Huge thumbs up to this section with the caveat that most of the book should have been about this stuff.

Honor: a short system for handling honor points if you're into that stuff. I am exceedingly "meh" about it but these systems have their use and this one is easy to add on and use.

Investments: what is it with Paizo's writers and adding financial witchery into their swords & sorcery fantasy game?!?!?! I deal with investment management all the time at work, and I am not so enamoured with the subject that I want to deal with an abstract and painful sub-mechanic in my fantasy games. Huge thumbs down and also not detailed enough for anyone who might actually want this stuff, imo.

Lineage: lots of ideas and fluffy exposition on setting up family lines and histories, compliments the first chapter a bit and has some interesting ideas for those who are into building lengthy family backgrounds for their characters (presumably in campaigns where the GMs flinch and hide crit rolls behind a screen so they don't accidentally kill any of the level 1 characters with seventeen page long family histories). Interesting read though so thumbs up.

Magic Item Creation: I liked this section, as the subject rears its head periodically in my campaigns, and this part provides a lot of useful ideas for expanding on the subject of creating, selling, altering and bartering for magical devices. Thumbs up.

Relationships: this is just some interesting rules-lite ways to add more elaborate PC-NPC relations to your campaign, and had some interesting ideas. Thumbs up.

Reputation and Fame: another point-based system for tracking PC infamy as they advance in level. An easy enough system to use, but pointless in holistic games where this sort of stuff grows organically out of PC actions anyway. I rest neutrally on this. on.

Retirement: a couple pages of discussion on the subject, and while fun reading for a moment it sort of missed a golden opportunity to consider the idea of really integrated retired PCs into the narrative framework of future campaigns as NPC patrons for new adventurers, just to think of one random idea that comes to mind.

Retraining: a few pages, but well worth looking at. In the 3.5 era the Player's Handbook II introduced the idea of retraining as you leveled up, and swapped out certain features for others in a system that made such actions legal instead of a fudge. Here we have a decent system for the same in Pathfinder, even including training time to change things in-game. Cool stuff, and my players will take right to it. Big thumbs up.

Taxation: a couple pages on some interesting ideas on the subject that GMs can torture players with. Modest thumbs up.

Young Adventurers: two pages on playing kids as characters. The core nugget of an entire specialized campaign rests in these two pages, waiting to be exploited, probably in some future Paizo tome if I'm lucky. Thumbs up but not enough to do much with here beyond provide some rules for that special snowflake in your group who has to play the young princess.

So ends the various little systems. We rest now at page 196, facing the largest system in this tome...

Kingdoms and War. This stuff will look familiar to those who played one of the Adventure Paths (name escapes me). Let me get this out of the way: it's got build points, and alignments for your kingdom and locales, event phases and distinct wargame mechanics. It has it's place in the right campaign with the right batch of players, but that is not my group and I definitely lack the temperament for this sort of structured approach. Kingdoms under the control of my players grow organically, out of the dust of a lengthy history of adventures and tales.

Now, in defense of the kingdoms system I could see it working very well with the right group, probably a smaller group, of players who find the idea of true wargaming blending with role playing to be tantalizing. I think I've had a group in the past that could not only handle this approach, but even relish in it. Alas I am still the wrong GM for this sort of thing, but I suppose I could try it if prompted, and the mechanics do look quite sound. The mass combat looks interesting, and I like the concise stat blocks, including the Tarrasque if you want to field a particularly large miniature on the map.

In the end, I will remain cautiously neutral on this system, with the caveat that it ends on page 250 and takes up 52 pages of the book. Not a deal breaker as I see it, unless more than half of the previously described optional systems also sound bad to you, in which case I suggest passing on Ultimate Campaign and looking elsewhere for inspiration.

So for me I found a variety of small systems plus the Backgrounds to be most tantalizing. The warfare and kingdom mechanics look like something I could find use for with the right group, but that group doesn't exist in my current continuum. The downtime mechanics just make me feel tired and deflated. Everything else is of variable interest but only Retraining, and Exploration were absolutely essential to my core needs as a GM and players, so that means that in this tome roughly 100 pages is content I will definitely use, and the rest is either suspect, anathema, or extremely particular to the right conditionals.

So can I recommend Ultimate Campaign? Sure, if you think that it speaks to you with enough of what is offered to enhance your Pathfinder experience. It is decidedly a Pathfinder tome, and while many of these systems can readily be used with any D20 game or D&D-like, the truth is many of those other games work just fine without these mechanics...and to be honest, so does Pathfinder; so I'd have to say that Ultimate Campaign is probably only worth it for the hardcore and those who see pure gold in the Background, Downtime and Kingdom/Warfare systems, which comprise most of this book. Take note that the PDF is only $10, so at that price you may feel that even if only a few of the optional systems on offer are worth considering at that price point they're worth checking out.