And I'm Still Writing "2004" On My Columns
This is traditionally the "catch up on cool 2004 products we didn't get time for in their correct year" column, and who am I to monkey with tradition? Even if it's just my tradition. Especially if it's just my tradition. Herewith, then, a tour through some worlds of wonder, last year style. Also speaking of traditions, my traditional love of Ravenloft and Western RPGs gets a quick look-in this column, too. Nothing but traditions, here in 2005.
The Red and the White
Fantasy Flight Games launched Greg Benage and Rob Vaughn's Fireborn in August as their marquee RPG release of the year with the Fireborn Player's Handbook (208-page black-and-white (16 pages in color) hardcover, $29.95), but didn't get around to giving us the Fireborn Gamemaster's Handbook (208-page black-and-white (16 pages in color) hardcover, $29.95) until November. In August, I decided not to review the Player's Handbook until I'd seen the Gamemaster's Handbook, feeling that the game was incomplete in only one book. I still believe that, with the caveat that it turns out you can play Fireborn just dandy with only the Player's Handbook. You just can't run it without the other; which is a slight obstacle, one would think.
What you're running is a bold high-concept game of dragons reincarnated in a modern London to which magic has begun to return. Each player has a modern human Scion and a mythic-age Dragon character; the characters have interestingly specific delimiters, natures, and powers based on dragon's cultural heritage (defined as a sire, a la Vampiric antediluvians). The stats are the four elements; the "Dynamic d6" engine combines standard "roll stat dice and count successes" with a nice resource-management bit. If you've maxed out your Air (intellect) dice trying to decipher an ancient scroll, you can move dice equal to your Knowledge skill to swell your pool -- as long as you take those dice from another element, too. Perhaps studying that scroll makes you tired, so you've lost dice from Water (stamina). This looks like a great little mechanicDuring the game, the players will switch from modern London (relatively well laid out, given space constraints) to the mythic era (which strokes a nice postmodern Hyborian jones) for "flashback" scenes to provide clues in a more compelling way than "oh, yeah, your former dragon self loved that dagger." This back-and-forth dynamic is at GM fiat, but makes Fireborn rather more than the Scion of the ancient fallen sire Nephilim. (As does, to be fair, the focus on one sort of mystical hoo-hah, dragons.) Between that and the neat trick with the engine, you'll find two books' worth of fun, at least, in Fireborn.
Once Upon All Time
First off, and up front: the new GURPS Fantasy (240-page full-color hardcover, $34.95) has little or nothing in common with the earlier iterations of that title; the "house fantasy setting," Yrth, which dominated previous editions, doesn't even merit an index entry. (It will get its own dedicated sourcebook, GURPS Banestorm, for those of you who might miss it.) This GURPS Fantasy is a thoroughgoing genre book for fantasy gaming, covering everything from Narnia to Nehwon to Numenor to Nottingham. Basically, if there's no guns in the setting, you can model it here -- even if your fireballs are essentially "guns you don't have to clean." Origins-Award-winning author William H. ("Wild Bill") Stoddard takes his hard-headed scientific mindset (so visible in his GURPS Steampunk of fond memory) and blends it with a vast knowledge of the fantasy genre from anime to epic poetry. Stoddard is a major Tolkien-geek (and it shows) but makes room for low fantasy, swords and sorcery, and good old dungeon crawling, too. The only major absence is "urban fantasy" of the Charles de Lint ilk, which might well have overbalanced the book. (Full disclosure: I have a "playtest" credit in the book. This essentially means that I helped a bit with the bibliography, and reassured Bill that the Aztecs actually did eat people. I didn't write a line of the main text.)
As it is, Stoddard lays out the mechanics and decisions of the "conventional fantasy" setting and gives sound advice for using them to custom-craft the fantasy world you want, whether it be Earth or Erewhon. Take magic: Stoddard lays out some various flavors of magic (with copious examples from history and literature), offers expansions on and variants of the conventional GURPS magic system, and plenty of flash and flavor for either. Throughout, Stoddard applies the influence of magic (both general and specific) to things like crop yields (are our faux Middle Ages too prosperous now?), warfare (why build castles if any army has a wizard for a howitzer?) and monarchy (if the True King really does heal the land, that cuts down on impostors) while giving ways to preserve feudalism, stone walls, and evil usurpers for those who like the flavor. It's all worked together fabulously. Another example: evil fish-men communicate like octopi by changing their skin color -- this means their magic resembles tattoo magic, for which Stoddard has thoughtfully provided rules. This tour de force ends up with a sample setting grossly under-utilized in RPGs, the Roman Empire with magic and monsters in it. "Roma Arcana" plays to GURPS' strengths while giving old-school hack-and-slashers plenty to stab. As I said last column when awarding this book the coveted Out of the Box Award for Best Supplement of 2004: the only serious criticism of GURPS Fantasy is "it's not long enough."
Four Colors of Magic
And speaking of tremendous, literate works that help define the genre, Dean Shomshak deserves great credit for The Ultimate Mystic (229-page black-and-white softcover, $24.99). This Hero System supplement seems like a "character guide" -- how to build Drs. Fate or Strange -- and it is that, but only for about 50 pages. What it actually is, is a guide to adding the mystical, the magical, to any game from Sumer to SF. This doesn't just mean magic, although Shomshak gives eleven different styles of magic more or less based on real-world occultism from Hermeticism to Voodoo to Taoist theurgy, all researched to the point of arcane nitpickery indeed. (He also gives a quick look into Ditko-style "Silver Circles of Selestar" thaumaturgy.) There's also guides for building planes and dimensions and heavens and hells -- a whole mystic universe -- and for integrating the mystical with law, society, and so forth. The overview is so good that the shortage of real stat-laden crunch only hits you on a second reading.
Shomshak's The Mystic World (157-page black-and-white softcover, $26.99) and Arcane Adversaries (123-page black-and-white softcover, $24.99) go some way to fill that void, presenting the "official" mystical background of the Champions universe, and the bad guys therein. (I should note that The Ultimate Mystic and The Mystic World are expanded, updated halves of Shomshak's old Ultimate Super Mage PDF. I think the upgrade is well worth it, myself, but then I got it for free.) Herein are plenty of wonderful thaumaturgical spells, a fully worked example of a multi-planar cosmos (including, huzzah, references to that proto-Kirby William Blake of all people), and the updated versions of such nefarious types as Tyrannon and Skarn the Shaper (both in The Mystic World) and of the Lovecraftian Kings of Edom and the nebbishy Tobias "the Toad" Vandaleur (both in Arcane Adversaries). The ultimate arcane adversaries, DEMON, get a thoroughgoing revamp (heh) in DEMON: Servants of Darkness (160-page black-and-white softcover, $24.99), a triumph in its own right by Allen Thomas. Tied far more firmly into some Bad Evil Mojo Indeed, DEMON is now more dangerous than VIPER, and Thomas' book makes the vile cult more organic even while it emphasizes the modular, protean nature of the individual Demonhames. No longer the "Diet Pepsi of Evil," DEMON comes into its own in a book that incidentally serves as a prime example of how to work an eldritch conspiracy into a game world. Even if you already have GURPS Cabal, he said, clearing his throat nervously.
Black And White And Red All Over
I loved William Connors' original attempt to re-graft Ravenloft onto the original "Gothic Earth" but felt that it didn't quite seal the deal and make the most of its potential. The new incarnation of D&D; 3.5-friendly Masque of the Red Death (287-page black-and-white hardcover, $34.99), developed by Jackie Cassada and Nicky Rea, lives up to that ambiguous standard. It does an excellent job of even-further weakening and evil-ing magic in the 1890s, and the character classes are fine in their way (the "Lycanthrope Hunter" prestige class comes close to inspired), and there's the mandatory "what is the Victorian era" chapters, but it doesn't convince me to move a game from the wonderful Ravenloft universe to the "Gothic Earth". And if it doesn't convince me to do it, what hope does it have for anyone else? More specific weaknesses include pusillanimous firearm rules (a climb-down even from Connors' original) and a terrible decision to abstract the map on the endpapers rather than reprint any one of a zillion genuine maps of 1890 Earth or even the world map that came with the original TSR boxed set. That can stand in for a myriad of venial sins; the reluctance to simply embrace the setting as fully as the authors of any normal RPG fantasy setting would becomes this book's great weakness. It's still well worth getting, if you already plan to expand your Ravenloft campaign into "Gothic Earth" -- but it won't make the case for empire by itself, which is a shame.
Once More Upon A Time In The West
Neatly sliding thus from magic to the 19th century, we reach Sidewinder: Recoiled (295-page black-and-white softcover, $34.95, or $16.50 in PDF format), Bradley Hindman, Geoff Spakes, and Christopher Warner have done a pretty great job tuning the original Sidewinder: Wild West Adventure to a d20 Modern framework. In the process, they streamlined and simplified much that was hinky about the original, wisely adapting d20 Modern conventions in most places. This book contains most of the d20 Modern SRD, recast for Western skills, feats, classes, and so forth; it adds some 25 new feats and 19 "advanced" classes from Bounty Hunter to Wrangler. They kept the deadliness of firearms, the Bat Masterton flavor text, and the attention to gun makes; they lost the excellent Dodge City writeup and the sample adventure. On the balance, this remains the best d20 Western RPG around; it's good that Green Ronin has brought it under their "Mythic Vistas" wing for maximum exposure to hard-core d20 fans.
Later, That Same Year
The next column is either another roundup of the usual suspects, new arrivals, and Bigass Game Review lifers, or the DunDraCon 2005 Con Report, depending on exactly how my February shakes out. We'll have the one, then the other, though; you can count on that as you can count on little else in this life. Count to fourteen or so, and click back and see where we are then.