Wednesday, February 1, 2017

RIP Joe Dever






This actually happened about two months ago, but I'm still kind of trying to deal with the news. Joe Dever, creator of the Lone Wolf fantasy RPG series, has left us. It's always hard to lose someone whose work you admire, but Joe Dever wasn't just a favorite author, he's always been one of my heroes.

The series is one of the more well-known examples of the interactive book craze of the 1980's, as well as one of the more involved with it basically being a solitaire role-playing game where you managed the hero's inventory, statistics and rolled dice to fight enemies and escape danger.

It wasn't the first series to include that kind of thing; Fighting Fantasy had been out for a little while already when the first book came out, and the Sorcery! mini-series also had Lone Wolf's gimmick of being able to import your character from book to book a little earlier too. The difference was that Lone Wolf had that as a central idea from the beginning: you played a single character across the entire series. As you created your character you selected from a list of special skills to give him, and every time you completed an adventure you got to level up by picking a new one, in addition to being able to carry over your magic weapons and stash of healing potions into the next book.

And with the series developing a well-earned reputation for ball-busting difficulty sometimes, you'd be glad you had them.

But more than just giving you a great feeling of progression, this meant that unlike series such as Fighting Fantasy there was a single cohesive setting and mythology from day one that only got more vivid and immersive the deeper you read into it (remember all those "If you've been to <X Location> in a previous Lone Wolf adventure" moments?). Eventually there were spinoffs too, where you controlled the wizard Grey Star in his quest to save a distant land from evil, and a series of non-interactive novels that covered a lot of the same material as the main series but shifted the perspective from time to time to give other important characters time in the spotlight and let you see things that only got oblique mentions in the interactive books. RPG's, a world book that even taught you the language of some of the monsters...it was truly an empire.

Speaking personally, this massive singular setting was one of the things that really helped me to get interested in reading, and ultimately in writing adventure stories of my own (including an insipid little one-shot). To me the Sommerswerd is still the most badass magical blade of all time, and the Helghast still haunt my dreams.

And it would be heartbreaking enough to lose such an influential creator, but  the Lone Wolf brand had actually started making a comeback in the last few years too. A video game came out that Joe not only wrote but even narrated. A new RPG boxed set too. And saddest of all we finally got The Storms of Chai, book 29 of the main series and the first new book in almost twenty years, but also the first in a planned four-book arc to give the series a proper conclusion. The ideas behind it promised to be pretty epic, with the forces of evil suddenly on the attack everywhere at once, and the best and brightest of Lone Wolf's pupils sent to the far corners of the world to find out why and how to stop them.

What happens next is still unknown. In the meantime, though, I suggest visiting Project Aon, a web archive where all of the major material for the book series and the Grey Star spinoff can be read for free with the original creators' blessing. They've even got the world book and the comic book one-shot. It was a huge part of my development, maybe it can be part of someone else's because of this little article too.

Thank you, Joe. You left a mark on me that will never fade. Truly you will be missed.

For Sommerlund and the Kai!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Villains & Vigilantes - World War II Super Soldiers (Real Review)




World War II seems like an awfully ripe topic for adaptation with Villains & Vigilantes lately. This, the second in a series of such material from Darren Tenor after the “Homefront” collection of mini-adventures, promises four more in the foreword alone, with the author noting it’s something of a personal mission to make a cohesive wartime setting for the game. Hell, Monkey House might not be aiming for the same number of releases, but they promise to match volume with one of the rewards of their recent Kickstarter campaign being a WWII sourcebook running three hundred or more pages (I’ll let you know when and if I get it).

Anyway, while I admit “Homefront” didn’t do a lot to fire my imagination, “World War II Super Soldiers” is a different can of worms.

First thing’s first, which is that the cover artist and the author apparently didn’t coordinate, so the supers depicted on the cover were just a bunch of generic WWII-style heroes complete with names and a basic idea of their powers. Meaning none of them are actually in the book at all. That did bug me, and that’s not the only place this happens. Some characters from included characters’ write-ups don’t show up either, like included character Blut Engel’s buddy Donnerhammer isn’t in the book. Personally I would’ve tried to keep these mentions to the second book as much as possible so all the characters I’m talking about are already out there, but…eh.

There’s a fair bit of mentioning guys who aren’t actually written up, unfortunately, as the characters who are included are, not too surprisingly, divided up according to what country they’re loyal to. In describing what each’s general attitude toward superhumans in its military was (Canada's was to brand a lot of theirs into those scantily-clad ladies painted on bombers) and how invested each country was in creating its own, it lists off some of the most prominent ones, and a lot of them don’t actually follow with their character sheets. Presumably these going to appear in the next WWII roster book this one already announces. Between this and the serialized adventure packed in with “Villains Unleashed,” seems like they’re really trying to incentivize their wares lately.

But are the characters themselves good, that’s what you really want to know. In general I’d say yes, though it doesn’t have any I think I’d use as ongoing campaign features even if I ever did run a WWII setting.

I think my favorites out of all the characters in the book were probably Gypsy Queen and Professor Grimm, both spellcasters, and while they certainly had some interesting assortments available to them I found myself most appreciating the outlooks and the possibilities to play them off the PC’s. Gypsy Queen for instance is a good person working for Italy during wartime, but is loyal to her country without necessarily being loyal to its government. Grimm is a century-old sorcerer and mystical mastermind, but the type to manipulate others to carry out his grand designs and probably gate out if a bunch of PC’s tried to corner him into a fight.
  
The level of detail on the spells used by those characters really shows the care put into them (I liked how Gypsy can magically paint her weapons to make them more damaging), as well as skills on the ninja-type character, Yami. That such detail has to be created to represent skills honestly makes me wonder, though, if it might not be time to overhaul the rules FGU hasn’t really touched in over 30 years.

Other particularly interesting characters from the line-up include the Outsider, a high-tech soldier from a dystopian future sent to alter a disaster but doesn’t realize he’s not on his own Earth anymore. Lightning Rod is likewise displaced from his true time, but was the big winner on a superhero reality show and longs to get back, even if his actual powers aren’t that unique. R, the robot who’s the only survivor of a survey ship and who’s now a double agent for Soviet subversives against their own country. Robyn and the Hoods, the female bandit who robs from the rich and gives to the poor, but in a society where the authorities aren’t all a bunch of corrupt brigands and it’s not as clean-cut as she’d like to think.

Sadly the book does fall prey to some of the worn out stereotypes of the era and the various countries. If you were wondering if one of Germany’s supers would be a Valkyrie, give yourself a cookie. If you thought there’d be members of the Communist party who used a hammer and sickle as weapons and one who controlled ice (especially connected to Siberia), a Japanese samurai warrior and a German powerhouse called Ubermensch, well…at least there’s nobody based on origami or geishas. Yet.

Although I did get the feeling that the reason there’s no water-controlled named Tsunami is the fact that the setting already has two… (“Enter the Dragon’s Claw: Honor” and “Into the Sub-Realm”)

Another thing I wish the book might’ve done better was being more consistent when it referred to stuff in other modules. Sometimes it mentions where you can find somebody specific like Master Zero from “Most Wanted #3” in referring to a phenomenon where certain characters got their powers, or how exactly a character from the Zodiac got their enchanted gauntlets. Other times it makes mention of characters and settings but you really need to be familiar with the other products to catch them.

For instance, the listing of prominent American superhumans includes Captain Crisis, Lady Liberty and Mr. America, who are already written up in published material. It does not throw in a parenthetical comment telling you to look in “Vigilantes International” for their sheets, though. Likewise there’s nothing about how German villain The Stuka is presumably the one written up in “Super-Crooks and Criminals” (which came out in frigging 1986). In Professor Grimm’s background it mentions worlds with magical inhabitants like Vine and Razer. Vine I’m pretty sure is referring to the alternate world from “The Pentacle Plot,” but I’d have to go reading through my other sourcebooks looking specifically for the name to know what the hell Razer is. Supposing it ain’t from something Mr. Tennor’s planning to release but hasn’t yet.

Probably the most entertaining part of all is the detailed support organizations included for a lot of the characters. Like wife of Golden Eagle and surrogate mother of Kid Kestrel (and real soon-to-be mother to Golden Eagle’s kid, not that she’s told him so he won’t think about leaving the front lines). All the details on the dystopian future Outsider comes from and the line of robots he employs as personal bodyguards were great, and a ripe setting for a campaign all by itself.

Carmine’s Concubine’s and the Hoods were pretty cool, basically being like the listing of minions like say, Od’s Avant Guards from “Most Wanted #1” but going a step beyond to give their names and a basic idea of their place in each operation and a brief idea of how they played off each other. I enjoy the classic stuff, but going that extra mile here was definitely a good inclusion.

One of the included supers being a Valkyrie means there’s also a rundown of Valhalla works, since that’s the place where Valkyrie take fallen soldiers to fight for eternity. While it explains exactly how the compulsion to battle there works in game terms, it says nothing in particular about the Norse gods or why exactly Valkyrie collect dead soldiers and bring them to this place that mystically enables them to fight forever (Valkyrie actually select the greatest warriors from battles and bring them to Valhalla so the gods will have an army of the greatest warriors who ever lived when a war that spreads across all creation comes, and they fight constantly to keep their skills sharp). Then again I suppose most people who know what Valhalla is already know what Ragnarok is too.

All this, along with a big collection of counters of various soldiers, adds up to a pretty pleasing package. Really my biggest complaint is how the references to other material were kind of spotty, but all in all, this is one worth having.


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Villains and Vigilantes - Villains Unleashed




Sometimes it’s hard to find something to say about a roster book for an RPG other “worth it” or “not worth it”. This time I can safely start with “they were really trying something different with this one”.

Main thing setting it apart is instead of just a block of bare third-person narration giving you each character’s background, it’s presented as the findings of a reporter writing a book about our nation’s supervillains. Mainly it’s to leave some villains who are particularly mysterious so you’ll have a complete character sheet ready for you, but the details of where the villain comes from and how they act are for you to decide as best suits your campaign.  Plus with this approach there’d be an actual reason if the profile were to find it necessary to say, mention that a curvaceous female badass was in her underwear.

Besides the collection of loose villains the book also has a pair of “themed” villain teams. The first is based on colors, and while I think that’s an interesting idea, the members don’t actually stick to any particular scheme too hard, either having power effects of the relevant color, or for a couple just wearing a costume that’s the right color. Like Big Blue, whose power is being a super-strong colossus but that’s it, and Viridian who’s a mage but who it doesn’t even say anything about her magic have green special effects. It’s mostly typical stuff like astral projection, telepathy and precognition, too.

Which isn’t to say Spectrum isn’t a fun villain group and one I wouldn’t mind using on a semi-regular basis if I ever played the game again. My favorite’s the leader, Red Tide, whose power is red tide. You’d expect the red guy to be an angry powerhouse, and that was pretty original. I also like Indiglow, who even if he has kind of a dumb name is an evil second-story-man version of Green Lantern which is pretty cool. Respect also for having the first lesbian couple I’m aware of in an indie superhero RPG. Overall Spectrum is a fun group I recommend.

The other team is the Malevolents, and while they’re a decent villain group, “themed?” There’s Greyhawk who’s basically an evil Hawkman down to the mask, superhuman eyesight and archaic weapon of choice, Cerberus the wolf-guy who can sprout another two heads and breathe fire, typical giant strong guy Slab, vibration-emitting Pulsator and luck-manipulator Miss Fortune. They’ve got an interesting mixture of powers and I could definitely see using them a time or two in a campaign. But the only theme I see is them all meeting in jail and deciding to team up when they got out.

From there the collection of “loose” villains run the scale from good to lame as, they often do, but I think in this case it’s more of the good than the bad, partly because of the book’s idea of a framing device allowing the GM to just pick up a villain with some interesting powers and make them their own. I really liked Killshot’s build as a mysterious assassin, and Freeze-R-Burn with his mixture of powers if not exactly his name. Glamazon was cool if only because there really need to be more tough women in superhero stuff than She-Hulk and Wonder Woman. Quarry’s an okay super-tough rockbeast, but I think I’ll always prefer Terra-Rizer from “Super-Crooks and Criminals” as my rage-filled rock monster of choice, with his power to sorta-kinda turn invisible among other rocks and how different power attacks do different things to his durability.

Zeitgeist, the ghost burglar, was another especially nice idea. I also liked the Power Pirate, who as his name implies can temporarily steal the PC’s powers, though as-written I’m worried that outside of a string of critical hits the effects would be too short-lived to have much of a point besides beating the players down with their own attacks. Surely we can do better than that. Loonatics Unleashed did better than that.

I don’t really care how much of a badass he is, though (and he is that), I don’t think I’d ever be able to have my players fight a villain named Evil Jim with a straight face. It's nice the authors included how much EXP each villain's worth on their character sheet, though. Saves time for sure.

And there’s a couple new powers packed in the book too, although they seemed mostly to be a way of making invulnerability and force fields less impregnable.

Of course, “Villains Unleashed” tries to be more than just a source of ready-made villains by also having the first in a three-part adventure, to try to entice you to buy the next product with the next mini-adventure in it. But frankly, based on the first part whether I buy it or not’s probably going to depend a lot more on the book it’s packed in with.

This one evidently centers around a new Shadowy Evil Organization named Triskelion. Guess I’ll put that up on the shelf with Intercrime, TOTEM, The Dragon’s Claw, TIC-TAC-TOE, VILE, and Shadow of the recently released “Clockworks”. With all due respect to the author, their most distinctive feature is being made up of three main branches, three leaders. Not terribly distinctive.

The encounters are certainly solid enough on their own and if you buy this book, by all means you should run them. But they’re generic robberies, and deliberately so, with the authors saying to the GM, “We want your fingerprints all over it” and for you to be the one who comes up with the payoff for the theme running between what’s stolen in the pregen encounters. Yeah, the GM should definitely be prepared to do that, but they also split this adventure up over three books trying to make it more likely I’d buy all three books. I’m not saying I won’t, not at all, I’m saying it could’ve been incentivized better. If I decide to run a premade adventure I should definitely be prepared to personalize it some. But I should probably also not need to and be able to just run it right out of the box, at least if it's something I'm paying money for, and especially if it's supposed to make it more likely for me to buy the next two books in a series. The author can't possibly account for everything in every stranger's game, but why the villains are stealing what they're stealing is something I do expect them to tell me.

And it’s very serious about playing the adventure out as an ongoing campaign, reminding the GM to dole out experience after every encounter by mentioning it again after the description for every encounter. Even the encounter where the entire thing is the players literally magically being gifted with all known information about Triskelion. I’m sorry authors, I really am, but no. A wizard hands them a written history, practically a textbook deus ex machina; that’s not worth experience points, no matter how well the players turn in their roles, and could set a really bad precedent. If you guys think fighting NPC good guys shouldn’t be worth EXP, neither should that.

If you enjoy V&V, buy this book. But buy it for the premade villains.


Monday, December 21, 2015

Teenagers From Outer Space: TFOS Does Winterfest!




First off, no relation to the Mystery Science Theater 3000 subject of the same name. Although that was certainly goofy enough to be right at home in this game.


Without going into too much detail, as I’m pondering a rundown of the game itself sometime, once upon a time a designer at R. Talsorian Games found out about a really funny sci-fi/school comedy anime called Urusei Yatsura and evidently thought it would be a great basis for a role-playing game. And thus was born Teenagers From Outer Space, where creatures from across the cosmos have decided to enroll their kids in human schools and expose them to such radical ideas as individuality and capitalism. The players control these star spawn, or the lucky kids who’ve been put in charge of helping them get acclimated to life as an Earthling teenager. And hijinks, as they say, ensue.

Sadly while the game’s fondly remembered by the people who did get to experience it, it evidently didn’t find a lot of support from the game-buying public. I own six products with this game’s name on them and as far as I know that’s it. Three are versions of the core rules, two are premade adventures and one’s a mall for the players to hang out at. Heh, malls. Remember those?

One of those premade adventures is the subject of this particular review, but pays homage to its animated roots by eschewing the long and intricate plot of the only other premade adventure, “The Field Trip,” and instead being a loose outline of short, humorous episodes to keep things fast and fun. They also packed in a list of new powers characters can have, like being stretchy or literally being so cool your character can deflect an attack by making a (hard) saving throw.

As the name indicates the meat of the series of little episodes laid out in the book revolve around the winter festivities of the characters’ school (Or perhaps the very, very basic premade school that comes with the booklet. I’m not sure if it’s embarrassing or not that the school outline that came with “Bad Medicine for Dr. Drugs” was more detailed. And that was a serious anti-drug tale that still thought a good name for a street gang was "The Monkey Thugs"). These include the big dance, electing the WinterFest king and queen, an extremely cheap and dangerous carnival, a planetary invasion by three races of evil, uncool aliens at the exact same time, and of course saving Santa Claus from corporate mercenaries.

Yes, really.


Of course the GM’s expected to fill in an awful lot of blanks to keep things as crazy as possible, so the scenarios in this module require a certain kind of person to run them. But then, TFOS requires a certain kind of player to begin with. The main focus of the scenarios is on winning a popularity contest against a pair of jerky but good-looking cool kids (aren't they all?), something the players can’t do with brute force even if the game makes it easy for players to equip themselves with silly futuristic weapons. Hell, it’s easy for the unwashed masses to resort to violence; if they were smart and sophisticated enough to try something else they wouldn’t be the unwashed masses.


On that note, though, I’d say that while the final scenario where the players help save Santa is practically required, it’s also a disappointment. While in the hands of a good GM it’ll still end up being plenty silly, it’s also just your typical “blow up the bad guys” thing from any old RPG. Besides the holiday theme it’s not connected to the previous plot ideas and just kind of pops in like a poorly-integrated boss fight. There aren’t even circumstances that have them meeting up with Santa who’s already in trouble: the kids just hear about commandos attacking the workshop on the news and, presumably, pile into their flying saucers to go to Saint Nick’s rescue. Suppose those zappy guns it’s so easy for the players to get had to figure in somewhere.

I guess I'm just down on heavy combat in a game that tries to be as cartoony as possible, and the penalty for losing all your hit points is missing your next turn, and then getting them all back after that. Sounds to me like the combat monsters can stay home.

It’s a little interesting to note the game getting a little more blatant about its anime roots, even if some of it’s stuff the players aren’t really meant to see. One of the aliens the players have to save Christmas from during the three-way invasion are the Robotoids from planet Voltron, and considering whose work inspired this game in the first place, I highly doubt it’s a coincidence that one of the stimuli the new power list uses as an example of what can set off an “out of control power” is being hit with cold water. Not when switching genders is already a power in the game.

And look at those cute Totoros you can win for your lady! Or whatever’s appropriate on the planet you’re from.

All in all, aside from the combat-centric scenarios, this is a pretty good module.The winter festivities are a great setup for plenty of teen-related chaos, the new powers and devices described in the book are cool and a lot more original than the ones in the book as they weren't filling most of it out by copying and pasting from UY's major alien characters.

But if there’s one thing that’s a shame about this book, I’d actually say it’s the humorous insert art, since nobody’s meant to read the booklet except the GM. As bare-bones as it is to leave most of the content up to the person running the game who actually knows his players and their quirks. So, here’s a few more examples of the goofy pictures in this booklet, along with a little sample of the mayhem waiting to be unleashed.







Happy holidays!