Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Everybody needs to know, IT'S THE YEAR OF THE CAPS

It seems appropriate that after over-ambitiously taking months to (mostly) get around to writing individual reviews of my top 10 games for 2015, I would nearly skip it entirely this time around. So without any ado, my top 10 picks for 2016 in short form.

10. Devil Daggers
Devil Daggers was a tough one to review for its bite-sized brevity. But that’s OK - I enjoyed my (very brief) time with Devil Daggers more than the many hours I spent trying to love could-have-been’s like Civilization VI and Dishonored 2.

9. XCOM 2
I’ve warmed up to this one significantly in the months since they started ironing out its rampant bugs. Yes, it’s more XCOM, but it’s more XCOM and a better helping of it at that.

The Total War that totally got me. Turns out I really am just a sucker for smashing demon hordes as a dwarf lord. Whether it’s that or the streamlined strategy layer, there’s a certain something in the flavor and variety of Total Warhammer’s factions that lured me in in a way the historical entries of the series never quite did. Shame on them for having the guts to charge DLC money for the game’s blood and guts graphical setting.

7. Titanfall 2
I feel a bit bad for Titanfall 2. In a year without Overwatch, this would have been the multiplayer shooter extravaganza. It’s still a thrilling and unique FPS in a year where the genre really made a comeback, and its freerunning, robot-quipping campaign is a blast in its own right.

6. Sorcery!
The same folks at Inkle who gave us last year’s singular 80 Days have managed to take the best of the 80s gamebook genre and turn it into an epic RPG with an old-school sense of danger and a new-school layer of mechanical polish. Sorcery’s ever-unfolding world of weirdness and wonder sets it apart from the increasingly stale “narrative” RPGs of today, which (Witcher 3 notwithstanding) have a tendency to promise player choice and consequence but rarely deliver it on this level.

Oh look, another stylish short-form shooter evoking the thrill of the genre’s bullet hell roots with the style and innovation of a 2016 showstopper. This is the best of them. Play SUPERHOT.

4. Firewatch
A poignant, breathtakingly beautiful story game that has stuck with me over the year even more than I expected it to.

It really was the year of the CAPS LOCK key, wasn’t it? I held off on INSIDE much longer than I should have because at a glance it looked like just another Limbo (which I loved). It kind of is, but it’s such an improvement on its predecessor’s mechanics and such a brilliant piece of world-building that no degree of familiarity is an excuse to pass over this one.

2. Dark Souls 3
There’s not much more to say about this one except that I’m surprised it’s not my #1. It sure was close, but there are four (OK, five) Souls games now and only one Overwatch.

1. Overwatch
Overwatch is what happens when you throw Blizzard science at all the best elements of a genre, polish them to perfection, then layer on top of them a series of innovations so elegant in their simplicity that they set the new standards for multiplayer gaming overnight. Overwatch is more than just Team Fortress 3 or first-person Dota. Overwatch is lightning in a bottle. Overwatch is the future. A vibrant, frenetic, candy-colored future of boundless joy and infinite addiction.

Honorable Mentions:

  • The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine 
    • I’m still playing the third-best RPG of 2015, which also happens to be the second-best RPG of 2016. I just haven’t even finished the Hearts of Stone expansion yet, let alone Blood and Wine. This game’s scale is goddamn ridiculous.
  • Oxenfree
    • A particularly pretty piece of interactive storytelling more than a bit undone by its overwrought ending and underdeveloped characters.
  • Stardew Valley
    • I didn’t play it, but I watched my partner play it. I spent enough years adoring Harvest Moon to recognize very quickly that Stardew Valley is the definitive version of that formula and could only be improved a mobile edition.
  • BioShock 2
    • Obviously this didn't come out last year, but its remaster did, and I finally got around to giving this formerly underappreciated sequel a go (albeit on the non-remastered version). BioShock 2 really is quite good, mechanically perhaps the best of the trilogy. I'm not sure I buy the revisionist hype that it tells a better story than the first or Infinite, but I quite enjoyed a familiar foray back into Rapture nonetheless.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Why You Should Read the Sword of Air (But Think Before You Run It)

Game: Sword of Air
System: Pathfinder/Swords & Wizardry
Publisher: Frog God Games
Author: Bill Webb
Initial Release: 2014

Sword of Air is unfinished. This is partly by design. The back cover will tell you that this hefty Pathfinder/Swords & Wizardry module is a “sandbox campaign in the old-school style that take [sic] your characters from level 1 through level 20.” (Yes, there are a lot of typos and errata - best get that out of the way now.) “Within these pages you will find: the secret of the Sword of Air artifact; a vast and detailed wilderness; a feud between two powerful wizards Kayden and Sorten; both Kayden and Sorten’s domains described in detail; the tomb of famous wizard and court adviser Aka Bakar; the Plane of Shadow; the City of Tsen and its surrounding wastelands; Steve the Cat; and more! Sword of Air,” you see, “is part of the home campaign world of Frog God Game’s Bill Webb and it has been running since 1977.” That last boast should tell you quite a bit.

Most of this is, strictly speaking, true. And it’s exciting stuff, albeit a little misleading. Sword of Air is not, in itself, a campaign. It would barely even qualify as a campaign setting by most standards. It provides virtually nothing in the way of gazetteer or background content, with a few partial exceptions like the historical notes before the chapter on the Tomb of Aka Bakar. It assumes that the DM is either intimately familiar with the Lost Lands setting - the home of the Necromancer and Frog God Games line of products, described piecemeal in other works - or willing to create a world of her own wholesale. Sword of Air is also not a collection of modules republished with a unifying plot hook in the guise of a campaign, like so many other Frog God products tend to be (no shade thrown on these; I tend to love them).

No, Sword of Air will provide you with next to nothing in the way of campaign materials. It won’t even provide you with descriptions for many of its major locales. A detailed map will give you vital locations like the City of Freegate directly next to where it intends some major action to take place, but it will tell you nothing about Freegate, leaving it to the DM to provide the local care and color. It will haphazardly throw out references to fantastical locations like the Wizard’s Wall and hint cryptically at their wondrous back-stories (in the form of what are often rather tone-deaf allusions to Bill Webb’s own home campaign anecdotes and in-jokes), but it will tell the DM little else of use about those places beyond their names - often not even so much as a location on the otherwise richly detailed map. Sword of Air is honest about this within its introductory chapter, at least, if not its back cover and sales description. Webb goes on at length about his “monkey and the engineer” theory of design without ever quite making sense of the metaphor, but he does at least admit there - albeit to folks that have already purchased the book - that he has no intention of providing a campaign module but rather a loose collection of tools from which a DM might build a grand campaign.

And finally we hit on the truth of what Sword of Air is: not a sandbox (or, if it is, a grossly incomplete one  with misleading maps), not a campaign module, not even a campaign setting. Sword of Air is, in fact, a loose box of badly organized tools from which a dedicated DM and group of players might one day build something great. But my god, what a beautiful set of tools of those are.

The finest among these tools are Sword of Air’s set pieces, and golly are they masterful set pieces. The book offers in its first chapter and scattered throughout some snippets of character and plot hooks to use to tie these set pieces into your campaign’s larger story, and if you can be arsed to put in the effort you will be richly rewarded for having included them. Foremost among these are the two enormous towers owned by the archwizards Kayden and Sorten respectively, filled with all the wonders and weirdness your inner 12-year-old would want to find in the lairs of a master necromancer and conjurer. These, depending on the players’ allegiances and inclinations, may serve either as fantastical “towns” and bases of operation or as extraordinarily complex and coherent dungeons. Webb provides detail not only as to the stats of the denizens of these towers but as to their daily schedules, likely locations, relationships, and strokes of their broader lives. There are endless goodies to play with here, and a party visiting either of these towers, should they survive entry, will likely find themselves with days’ worth of things to do.

Sword of Air also includes no fewer than two massive megadungeons - each with a deceptively devious “introductory” dungeon hiding the much deadlier and more expansive structures below. I won’t say much about these for the sake of brevity beyond that, like most of Frog God’s megadungeons, they are top-notch old-school dives filled with tricks, traps, and secrets elaborate enough to put most “classic” D&D dungeons to shame. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better balance of tough but fair environmental puzzles (more Zelda than Zork), fascinating enemies, and coherent monster ecology filled with more interesting denizens, though a few of the overused favorites do make appearances.

The rest of the module is a collection of hex crawls and mostly exotic locales. The hex crawls set in the “normal” parts of Akados, the continent of the material plane on which Sword of Air mostly takes place, are fairly tepid. Most of the encounters here are overly familiar, the sort of goofy Gygaxian fare already overrepresented in hundreds of modules from the 70s and 80s. NPCs with jokey meta names, former real-world player characters with trollish personalities - the presence of a feuding family of hick dragons literally called the Hatfields and McCoys is at such a tonal dissonance with the more coherent locations of the game as to be baffling, though it does speak to the organic history of the campaign as Webb’s own evolving homebrew from childhood on over the years. But if you find the notion of meeting up with a line of Joe Platemails the Third and Fourth - a whack-whack-whacky paladin from Webb’s original player group with a penchant for stupidity and indestructibility (“Intelligence and Wisdom were his dump stats,” you see) - to be an enticing proposition, maybe you’ll get more out of these zany “random” encounters than I did.

The aforementioned exotic locales, however, are much stronger hex crawl material. Sword of Air’s chapter on the Plane of Shadow aka the Shadowfell is the stuff of nightmares, a terrifyingly alien place into which I cannot wait to throw a woefully unprepared player party. Filled with light-devouring monsters, doomed and half-crazed wanderers, twisted human revenants right out of Silent Hill (or more recently Stranger Things), and a literal river to Hell, this is the vision of a journey to the planar embodiment of darkness with the imagination and horror that were so sorely lacking in TSR and WotC’s takes on the subject. The Wasteland of Tsen, too - a fantasy Fallout zone with mutation-inducing radioactive air and lethal lead mines - is a consistently surprising and harrowing sojourn away from the ordinary, and an excellent taste of that desolate Slumbering Tsar flavor for those without the stomach to play a whole campaign in that kind of setting.

I mentioned Sword of Air has organization issues. Holy hell does it. There’s little consistency to any of the chapters’ layouts. Maps are scattered piecemeal everywhere; the hexes are particularly egregious. Critical character details and hooks are similarly offered in bites and chunks at near random for the DM to scrounge together, sometimes hundreds and hundreds of pages apart (and unbolded) for the same character. There are frequent contradictions. Being a Frog God product, this lengthy and disorganized volume has, of course, no index of names or terms (though it does thankfully have an appendix that includes player maps).

It’s worth mentioning that the Sword of Air has a weird obsession with males. As in, 90% or more of its named inhabitants are men (nearly all, if you believe the art, are white), all the non-deific characters of note are men, and it’s hard to say why that is in a game system that mechanically represents the sexes as equal and usually strives to make its fantasy world a varied and interesting place to be. This is easily fixed - my Sorten, for instance, is a woman, because who the hell needs another white bearded wizard anyway - but it’s strange, is all. The average gaming group is enough of a homogenous sausagefest without the fantasy denizens being this one-note as well. The less said about the one female plot-critical character having been horrifically raped to death by a demon to set the events of the book in motion, the better.

The art, all in full color, is occasionally solid but frequently iffy. At the risk of being brutal, much of the coloration looks like some aspiring Deviantartist’s first foray into Adobe Illustrator. 90s-esque Photoshop filters and presets (lens flare! bevel and emboss!) are rampant. The character illustrations of both wizard towers in particular are a little embarrassing and would likely kill the mood if shown to players. Simple black-and-white cartoons in the style of old-school module sketches would’ve been preferable here to attempting to ape the more elaborate Wizards of the Coast productions. The monsters are for the most part much better, and at least the cover is evocative. I don’t mean to sound too harsh here, because the vast majority of published RPG material is seriously lacking in the artistic department, and at least Sword of Air makes an effort to include a lot of it.

So yes, the module has its problems, chief of all that it’s not what it claims to be, and conversely that it could have been so much more. As a campaign setting, collection of characters, or coherent world, Sword of Air leaves much to be desired. Bill Webb’s “magnum opus” it is not, nor should it be as his work ever continues to improve with the years - the best of which, I think, are yet to come.
 But as a loosely bound, occasionally brilliant set of tools and materials to spark a DM’s imagination and from which to build something greater, Sword of Air has worth in spades. My initial frustrations with the product never disappeared completely, but at this point I have no regrets about picking up this flawed gem of a sourcebook, and would recommend others with the patience to look past its faults to do the same.

Liked it.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Dungeon Divin' Done Right

Game: The Lost City of Barakus
System: d20/Pathfinder/Swords & Wizardry
Publisher: Necromancer Games and Frog God Games
Authors: W.D.B. Kenower and Bill Webb
Initial Release: November 1, 2003

Frog God Games, publisher of Swords & Wizardry and successor company to the late great d20 publisher Necromancer Games, produce a diverse range of products that nonetheless share a very particular flavor. With few exceptions, they take place in a high-magic, vaguely medieval fantasy world reminiscent of Greyhawk or Blackmoor - i.e., vanilla D&D - but wherein all of civilization is a thin veneer on a decaying world beneath which malignant gods, forgotten horrors, and eldritch abominations constantly threaten to corrupt and devour all that lives. In other words, it’s more Howard and Lovecraft than Faerun and Forgotten Realms. This gels well with Frog God’s old-school, high-stakes philosophy that players should feel free to explore wherever they wish, but that poking around in deep dark places is substantially more likely to see them murdered than doing the murdering.

The Lost City of Barakus, a Necromancer d20 module republished by Frog God for Pathfinder and Swords & Wizardry with fresh layouts, content, and errata, is perhaps the perfect embodiment of that philosophy.  One part city sandbox, one part wilderness hex crawl, and one part megadungeon, Lost City is all parts danger and excitement. The 176-page module (PF version) comes recommended for character levels 1-5, but there’s more than enough content here to keep them busy well beyond that. My own players didn’t wrap up the bulk of it until level 7, and there are still plenty of secrets they haven’t uncovered - and yet may, since the module’s flagship city of Endhome has become a major hub for their high-level adventures. 

For all that that the titular megadungeon Barakus gets top billing, the Free City of Endhome is every bit as core to the module’s success. Capable of being plopped into any homebrew campaign or used as a springboard for Frog God’s larger Lost Lands campaign setting, Endhome is as richly detailed and interesting a place to explore as any standalone city module this side of Frog God’s own Bard’s Gate. Intrigue abounds in the superficially unassuming city-state, and if your players are anything like mine they will find themselves embroiled in political plots, a temple front hiding a continent-spanning slave ring operation, monstrous sewer infestations, a full-fledged Wizard’s Academy, and a motherfucking vampire mafia family to please all the Masquerade fans in the audience from barely the moment they step foot in Endhome. These obvious major quest hooks are just the beginning. Endhome’s various locales and NPCs are chock full of seeds for stories branching into the surrounding Duskmoon Hills (the aforementioned hex crawl) and other modules in the Lost Lands universe that can easily be substituted for the DM’s homebrew locations of choice. 

Whether you decide to start the players in the relative “safety” of Endhome or use one of the several proffered plot hooks that have them travel there through Duskmoon, the real crazy shit begins outside the city walls. On the tamer end of the spectrum we have delightfully varied random encounter tables, a corrupted forest, and a band of dashing highwaymen clad in green who will happily relieve the party of their wealth to “redistribute” in their own woodland camp. On the more vicious (and shamelessly old school) end we have abandoned wizard towers, desecrated temples to dark deities, a volcano-dwelling red dragon, and, of course, Barakus itself.

Hidden beneath an enormous upper cave system that could itself stand alone as a top-notch D&D introductory dungeon, players could easily miss Barakus entirely if it weren’t right there in the title to pique their curiosity. A little more coherent than your average megadungeon - thanks in part to its epic backstory and an only-somewhat-batshit monster ecology - Barakus will please both the loot-crazed murderhobos and aspiring actors of your party alike. Running five levels deep and change (and featuring a tantalizing thoroughfare to the Underdark and Matt Finch’s Cyclopean Deeps), Barakus is stuffed to the gills with everything you could ever hope to find in the abandoned city of an advanced elder race. Bizarre mechanical contraptions, deadly traps, mysterious magical artifacts, forgotten monstrosities - Barakus has it all in scale. For a “lost” city Barakus seems to be experiencing a surprising population boom. Tribes of goblins, hobgoblins, orcs, roving drow up from the Underdark, and stranger beings all vie for control of the wealth-littered ruins even as they too struggle to survive against the more monstrous denizens, offering ample opportunities for alliances, faction play, and even, in my players’ case, all-out war. 

The cherry on top (or rather the bottom) of it all is the inevitable Big Bad Boss of the joint. This fresh take on an old favorite lies imprisoned in a lair hidden beneath so many secrets and Zelda-style puzzle levels your players may well never encounter it. But if they do, they’d better hope they’re well-prepared. The boss - like the almost equally dangerous thing waiting above his prison - is deadly enough in its default state, but practically a guaranteed total party kill if your players are anything other than the cautiously thoughtful types capable of out-scheming the creature. Not that they’re likely to have made it this far without an eleven-foot-pole mentality in the first place.

I could gush about this module for ages. I could also spend paragraphs ranting about its problems. The black-and-white art ranges from the forgettable to the downright embarrassing, but what do you expect - it’s a d20-era OGL product. Much more critically, the Frog God reprint was a missed opportunity to fix some glaring errors, omissions, and design issues that will frustrate a DM throughout. For all that the book tends to provide exactly the right amounts of world detail, its map, chart, and stat block placements defy all logic, and the lack player-ready room descriptions in the dungeons is a big “fuck you” to any DM wanting to run this without thorough preparation. Some rooms are completely incomprehensible even to the DM without cross-reference to the maps and other levels. The absence of an index in a piece of clockwork this complex is a baffling flaw unfortunately shared with many other Frog God products. For all its qualities, the city of Endhome, as laid out, is borderline unusable without tabs, hand notations, and careful pre-session study if only to correct all the errata Frog God never bothered to fix. You’ll also likely need a magnifying glass just to read the legend on some of the maps.

In spite of all that, I and my players can't stop talking about what an uncommonly great piece of work this book is. It’s rare enough to see a good sandbox that pulls together as a cohesive whole, let alone one that marries so well to a developed, dynamic city setting. The Lost City of Barakus really is the complete package, and would that it were the model for sandbox modules everywhere. 

Loved it!