Review: Keep on the Shadowfell

H1 Keep on the Shadowfell is the preview adventure for Dungeons & Dragons 4E. It was released 18 days before the actual rulebooks, being apparently pushed for the really impatient gamer crowd. Effectively, it was eight days before the rulebooks, since someone on the inside leaked high-quality pdf files of the rulebooks to a torrent site. Personally, I am surprised it took this long.

Me, I’m reviewing this because a friend of mine received a complimentary copy and gave it to me on the condition that I review it here. I would never have paid money for this, since what you get for your €30 is a flimsy cardboard folder (like with The Shattered Gates of Slaughtergarde) with 16-page quickstart rules, an 80-page adventure booklet, and three two-sided poster maps for miniature battles. Two of the poster maps are recycled from the Fantastic Locations packs Dragondown Grotto (Dragondown Grotto/Forest Cliff Lair) and Fields of Ruin (King’s Road/Dungeon of Blood). The booklets are flimsy, printed on cheap paper and have no covers, making them very vulnerable to wear and tear – but then, this is more or less a disposable product anyway, to tide you over until you can get your sweaty hands, dirty with printer ink, on the core books.

The poster maps have been marked for use with D&D, not for Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures. They don’t have starting zones or victory areas marked, and at least one of the new maps is obviously not balanced for the game. They are awfully pretty, though, and I may adapt them for use with something else.

It probably should be mentioned that I playtested this, though you’ll have to take my word for it. No playtester credits on this one. I won’t elaborate on how many of our suggestions made it in. You can probably guess.

I won’t go over the rules here. The quick-start rules are in there, and they’re sufficient to play the module. I’ll tell you what I think about the rules when my Player’s Handbook arrives.

Incidentally, the following review will contain SPOILERS, so don’t read this if you’re planning on playing this. Instead, refer this to your prospective DM and see if he’d run something better.

Down to Business

The adventure comes with five pre-made characters – a dwarf fighter, a halfling rogue, a human wizard, a half-elf cleric of Bahamut (not that your deity choices affect anything in this edition) and a dragonborn paladin. They are unnamed and ungendered, just a collection of stats. They’ve been given advancement schemes up to third level. Funnily enough, only the wizard’s art matches the character. The rest have wrong weapons, with a sword and shield for the axe-wielding dwarf or some sort of huge two-handed weapon for the sword-and-board paladin, and so on.

I think here is the first missed opportunity of the adventure. If I was going to put pre-made characters into an adventure module, I’d give them names, personalities and backgrounds, and a personal stake in the adventure or a reason to be in the area. As it stands, you’ve got a hook tying the party to a side quest and one that could apply to the cleric, but on the whole, the story opportunities here have been missed. Some personality for the PCs would’ve been good, and I would’ve given each of them a personal quest of their own.

The adventure itself begins in medias res, with a fight on the road to Winterhaven. This pretty much sets the stage for the rest of it. It’s one fight after another, with chances for rest and talking to a few villagers in between. It runs on rails, scripted.

The encounter format isn’t bad. You’re given a two-page spread with a tactical map, all relevant monster stats, notes on illumination, possible uses for skills, monster tactics, and all that. It’s pretty good for running tactical combat encounters, which seems to be the only thing there is in this.

There are a few amusing errors here, such as the following. Note also the grammatical error, which is by no means a singular occurrence. There are also a couple of typos and in one case, a reference to the wrong encounter area:

As the adventure begins, the player characters find themselves traveling down a road that hasn’t been maintained in nearly a hundred years ago.

Said road is a clear, 15-foot-wide dirt track that cuts through a forest. It doesn’t have so much as grass growing in the middle. Rather than elaborate, I’m just going to link you to History Channel’s wonderful documentary Life After People that I found on Google Video, and move on. It’s got a lot of material to mine for games.

Also, the road leads to Winterhaven, a village with a population of 977 and seventeen buildings, including the public ones. I’ve discussed this before, and will just note here that it’s glaringly stupid.

Anyway, the party fights, goes on to Winterhaven, is directed by plot imperatives to complete at least one, possibly two side-quests (consisting of going somewhere and killing something) before they tackle the main event, the Keep on the Shadowfell, where there’s the sorriest cult of Orcus I’ve ever seen. Okay, the NPCs are given motivations for why they do this. They’re not particularly plausible ones, but they’re there.

Stupid NPCs are a recurring theme in the module. One of the side quests is about an archaeological dig, where the PCs must go and investigate. The dig leader is a bad guy, who has a kidnap victim hidden away. Instead of even trying to glibly persuade the PCs, an obviously well-equipped and dangerous group, into believing that everything is alright and there’s nothing to see here, he will attack immediately when the PCs are in range or suspect something.

The Shadowfell portion of the adventure manages to hit most bases for bad adventure design. It’s overly long, with a total of 19 combat encounters, most of them repetitive. You will also end up fighting rats. Twice. Fatigue hits about halfway through, when you’re mowing down yet another band of goblins or horde of zombies. A lot of these are just filler, stuff for the PCs to kill so they can get to level three in time to face Kalarel (or Kaulruel, as the module also refers to him), the Big Bad Evil Cliché.

Tactics are given for the monsters in the context of their own encounter areas, but there’s little on what they do if they manage to flee and alert the others. In one area, it’s specifically noted that monsters will not venture out of their area to help their comrades, trusting them to be able to overcome whatever it is they’re fighting.

Then there’s the room with the obviously trapped statues. There’s Splug, an obvious attempt to artificially recreate the popularity of Meepo from The Sunless Citadel (a much better adventure). There’s a place where you can get infinite mook skeletons to fight and kill for experience points.

In the end, you face Kalarel, a high-priest of Orcus, and his merry band of undead. He’s trying to open up a portal to the realm of Orcus. Interestingly, there’s an instant kill condition related to the portal. There are streams of flowing blood, a 20-foot statue of Orcus, braziers, the whole shebang. Very Temple of Doom, except not as cool. The fight against Kalarel, unfortunately, reminds me of a boss fight in Scholomance, with his conditional teleporting and variety of powers ranging from healing minions to debuffs.

Meh.

In closing, H1 Keep on the Shadowfell is an uninspired, overly long and badly edited adventure. The plot is nonexistent, the combat encounters get repetitive, and on the whole, it’s poorly thought out. The production values are low and the price is too high. Something good could maybe be extracted from it, but there’s no point since it’s easier to just construct a better adventure from scratch. With the rulebooks so close, there’s really no reason for anyone but a diehard collector to pick this up.

Pathfinder and Some Ephemera

Just a quick post to end the weekend, before I zip off to Jyväskylä for the entrance exams.

Firstly, Pathfinder RPG’s last Alpha release became available during the week. Finally, we have all the core classes, and we can start fiddling with the full rules while waiting for the Beta rules in August.

Incidentally, Monte Cook, one of the head designers of Dungeons & Dragons 3E has joined the Pathfinder team as a rules consultant. It’s an interesting development, considering the man has, by his own words, been on his way out of the industry for quite a while now. It’s like Rolling Stones and the farewell tours. I’m not complaining, though. If there’s someone who knows the nuts and bolts of the D&D system, it’s him.

Another member of the Pathfinder team, Nicolas Logue, appears to have kicked off a side project called Sinister Adventures, and will be producing mega adventures that are compatible with multiple game systems. The systems seem to be d20 and its derivatives, mainly. The first one, Razor Coast, should hit in June.

Logue, by my reckoning, is one of the best adventure writers out there at the moment. Considering he’s organising the Pathfinder Society campaign, keeps producing material for Dungeon, writes Pathfinder Chronicles, and manages to keep up a level of quality that I can only envy, I suspect he’s actually either several very gifted (and possible disturbed, considering the stuff that’s in The Hook Mountain Massacre) people, or he doesn’t sleep.

Speaking of Pathfinder Society, its main competitor, the Living Forgotten Realms, isn’t DOA after all, and WotC will be participating in GenCon Indy.

In topics closer to home, I recently became involved in working on a collection of articles about roleplaying games called Efemeros, fashioned after the Push collections. I’m one of the peer reviewers. This kind of stuff is usually a bit out of my area of interest, but I was asked and it is shaping up to be quite interesting and even useful. It’ll be available in Finnish and released… well, when it’s ready. Pre-orders may be placed at the Efemeros site.

Right. Now, back to practicing the International Phonetic Alphabet by writing out the D&D feat list…

Argumentum ad fireballum

User Note: Okay, since they’re taking moderator action about this link post over on RPG.net, I thought a quick warning might be in place. When using this, don’t be “a butt about it”, as it was expressed. Also, what people seem to have forgotten in the intervening four years is that this was written because there was an adventure module with a town with 900 inhabitants and about 20 houses and some people thought that not only did it work fine, but that people who disagreed were committing a moral wrong. This has dick to do with your fighters vs. wizards debate, which was boring even when it was a new topic and has since become something so enormous in its tediousness that astronauts orbiting the earth catch glimpses of it and fall asleep.

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There’s something that has been bugging me for a while. Years, even.

On the various forums, channels, newsgroups, mailing lists and blogs of the internet, where the majority of our hobby discussions take place, every now and then, the topic of realism in games pops up. Often it is in criticism of a poorly researched or written game product, such as WotC’s “points of light” idea for D&D 4E, or one of White Wolf’s repeated, grievous errors about European culture and geography in their World of Darkness games. There are also times when some young hopeful seeks aid in crafting a realistic game world.

There’s nearly always someone who thinks himself witty and blurts out a specious little gem along the lines of “there’s no point to be worried about realism in a game where there is magic”. There are variations, but that’s what it always boils down to. Add condescension for flavour.

In fact, this is pretty much inevitable if the conversation drags out long enough. I therefore present Särkijärvi’s Law, in echo of Godwin’s Law: As a discussion about realism in a fantasy setting grows longer, the probability of someone claiming the irrelevance of realism in the presence of magic approaches one.

It’s an argument that’s been made for years and possibly predates roleplaying games themselves. Personally, I don’t even remember when I first heard it myself, but it wasn’t anytime during this millennium. 4th Edition apologists seem to have taken a real shine to it. And it’s always struck me as an incredibly stupid thing to say.

In fact, it is. There’s even a fancy Latin term for it, non sequitur. It’s an argument where the conclusion does not logically follow from its premise – generally, any logical fallacy. I dub this specific logical fallacy argumentum ad fireballum, after its most common form: “There’s no point in arguing for realism when there are wizards lobbing fireballs.”

The thing is… the mere fact that someone thought to make whatever comment that provoked this vacuous statement proves it wrong. Telling them they’re somehow wrong to do so is rude, and doing it with an argument that even a child can perceive as unreasonable makes you look like a moron, and a lazy moron at that. Don’t do it, people. It grieves me that I must state this obvious fact, but merely because something is not relevant in your game does not make it true in everyone else’s.

Argumentum ad fireballum is also usually utilised as a generalised, sweeping statement, making it also false in the context of the whatever setting it is applied to. Lately, it’s often been about peasants who manage to thrive while lacking both sufficient housing and the means to sustain themselves, or about merchants who are said to regularly visit settlements separated by miles and miles of untamed and monster-haunted wilderness. (My pet theory is that they drive the DM’s Fiat and the monsters can’t catch them.) Somehow, people seem to be under the impression that the fact wizards can throw fireballs make this reasonable. While my examples here are setting-based, it also applies to the unrealistic limitations created by inflexible rules systems, and their ilk.

See, this stuff matters. All fantasy must be grounded in reality, lest it become absurd and irrelevant and lose all resonance. Normal people need to eat. To eat, they must have food. For them to have food, it must be produced somewhere. Food production takes a certain amount of space and work. If neither are available on location, production must take place elsewhere and the food be transported to where the people are. This needs to happen regularly, which in turn requires stable trade routes. Accepting that a person can use some bat guano and a few mystical words to create a fiery explosion does not change any of these, though other specific magical effects may. A magical Horn of Plenty or a Decanter of Endless Water solves many issues, trade routes may pass through magical gates to bypass the monster-haunted wilderness, and so on. However, these exceptions and deviations from normal reality must be spelled out. It’s also a bonus if they don’t sound like you just made it up on the spot when the player asks you “But what are they eating?”

Of course, in a high-fantasy setting, it may be expected that magic affects some aspects of life in the world in drastic ways. It is still magic, though, and can usually be handwaved. The D&D setting of Eberron is a good example of how a setting can be done if one wishes to focus on this.

In the Dungeon Master’s Guide for the third edition of D&D, on page 129 of the 3.5 edition, it reads:

The most important purpose of a campaign is to make the players feel their characters live in a real world. This appearance of realism, also called verisimilitude, is important because it allows the players to stop feeling like they’re playing a game and start feeling more like they’re playing roles. When immersed in their roles, they are more likely to react to evil Lord Erimbar than they are to you playing Lord Erimbar.

It matters. Even in Dungeons & Dragons. Don’t even get me started on Hârn, a setting whose fans I expect would be livid and reach for the nearest blunt instrument when presented with argumentum ad fireballum.

Some details may not matter much. It’s not important to calculate the exact acreage of the farmland the peasants need to sustain themselves. In fact, getting bogged down by irrelevant details that are unlikely to see play is not a good idea at all. It’s just important it looks like they could do it, and move on. It looks credible to the casual observer, and that is enough. It’s not as though there’s even any extra work involved, if you’re already creating the damn setting anyway.

Things like that are also important because of storytelling reasons. If, for example, you create a plot based around a famine, it’s a lot better if, suddenly, peering at the town map, a player doesn’t ask “But what have they been eating up until now?” Additionally, in a roleplaying game the settings is usually implicitly assumed to be a sandbox – one never knows what turns out to be relevant in the course of the game. It’s better if the entire backdrop doesn’t fall down when someone mistakenly leans against a tree.

I wrote this up to use as a tool for arguments. I am tired of having to reiterate the same self-obvious facts up to three times a day in different places and languages. Having the text available here for easy linking is very useful and cuts down on frustration. I invite everyone who feels they need it to link it freely, and to offer suggestions for improvement upon its form and presentation.

On Setting

This is probably going to be a bit rambling. I’m lightly medicated, heavily caffeinated, and quite drowsy. This has been circling around my noggin for a few days now, and wants out.

Of all the elements of a roleplaying game, I consider setting the most important.

For me, it’s the foremost concern when crafting a new campaign or running a game. The setting must be coherent, consistent, and interesting. It’s also a major concern for me as a player and I sometimes find it difficult to concentrate if our characters, however compelling and deep they be, are adventuring in what amounts to a generic matter painting of a background and two cardboard trees. There must be depth.

I use “setting” in its broadest sense, encompassing the world of the game, its possible metaplot and NPCs.

Rules are completely secondary to this. They’re the mechanical side of the game, the skeletons of the characters and the tool for managing for conflicts and uncertain situations work out. Most of them perform the job well, once they’re learned, and there’s nothing else to it. I like to have a certain level of crunchiness in the numbers and D&D’s character development, practically a mini-game unto itself, is very cool, but these aren’t what I enjoy the most.

Then there’s the plot and story of the game itself, be it from the box or the game master’s brain. The best plots, I feel, spring forth organically from the setting and feel like they belong. For example, in the Principality of Naerie, our module NAE6-05 Sharafon is a veiled political allegory, but it is expertly woven into the warp and weft of the setting and keeps to the regional atmosphere.

As a counterexample, there’s the Forgotten Realms accessory Maztica, which has a very typical conquest of the New World story, where conquistadors led by Captain Cordell from Amn travel across the sea to a new continent filled with almost-Aztecs, whom they proceed to subjugate. The history of Maztica’s conquest wasn’t so much written as copied and pasted from a history book, with Cordell replacing Cortés. There’s even the Noche Triste. While it fits Forgotten Realms’ style as a kitchen sink to have counterparts for Aztecs, as it already does for Scots, Egyptians and most of the different Asian cultures, directly lifting from real-world history does not work (besides being lazy writing) and to have things play out nearly identically (with concessions made for political correctness) disregards the fact that Amn is not 16th-century Spain either politically, militarily, technologically or economically. Also, if one has even a rudimentary understanding of history, it’s very jarring.

It Is… Alive!

I may put an unusual amount of emphasis on the setting it reflects where I come from in terms of gaming history. One of my earliest significant roleplaying game experiences was FaerunMUD (which I spoke about last month), a large community that essentially formed a living world. You played, you logged off, and the rest of the player base would go on playing while you weren’t around. The game didn’t revolve around you, and you were only one of many characters in the world.

The illusion was strengthened by the fact player characters could attain positions of power in the game world. The Open Lord and at least some of the secret ones were all player characters, as was the Lord of Shadowdale. There were Harpers, who either never did jack shit or were seriously good at maintaining secrecy, because I only ever heard that they even existed precisely once, and even that was OOC discussion. Most of the plot content sprung from the actions of player characters. There were GM-run quests as well, but those were rarer.

FaerunMUD taught me that the story revolves around the characters; the world does not. Even in a tabletop campaign, there should be a suggestion of stuff happening in the background and the world moving on. Stuff that affects the PCs in some way, or does not. Local politics, events of the neighbourhood, a faraway war and the ensuing influx of refugees. Not everything has to be about the current plots they are pursuing – but of course, some things may be, even if it is not evident at first glance. Of course, these may also serve as plot hooks for side quests.

Some game lines try to accomplish this via metaplots. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. If used in moderation by a smart DM, though, it can be nifty. The alternate history of Godlike, for example, works well for this. The old World of Darkness game line Orpheus was developed entirely around its metaplot as a self-contained thing. The D&D settings of Dragonlance and, especially during Third Edition, Forgotten Realms have what I’d call bad metaplots. They’re intrusive and use a lot of explosives. Cities and nations are destroyed. This is troublesome, because stuff like that doesn’t stay in the background if it’s brought into the game, unless it’s set very far away indeed from whatever is exploding. Dragonlance has turned into essentially four different settings because of the drastic scale of metaplot changes, and the 4th Edition Forgotten Realms will suffer a similar fate.

But I digress. Anyway, FaerunMUD went under, returned as Rauvyon and died again. It happens. I played this and that for a few years and ran, among other things, a short an excessively bloody Forgotten Realms campaign where some 16 characters died. The campaign ended at 6th level. That one mainly taught me that low-level D&D characters are fragile things and fun to break. It is not relevant to the topic at hand.

Then, in 2004, I got into Living Greyhawk. I found… something. It had that certain je ne sais quoi. There was that magical sense of a living, breathing world again. It wasn’t quite like FaerunMUD, but it was close. While characters couldn’t assume political positions in the world – without retiring, that is – the adventure format makes it so that the world itself interacts with the player characters. There are consequences to their actions and there’s a web of interconnected plotlines that player characters have the option to affect.

This works best on the regional and metaregional level, I feel, where there are enough players to make the region really live, but few enough that even one player group’s results can affect outcomes.

Living Greyhawk taught me that the actions of characters must have consequences in the setting. They kill the local sheriff, a new one must be appointed. They wipe out the bandits plaguing the roads and the local general store will lower its prices and have better selection. People express their gratitude for acts of heroism. As an aside, I think Paizo’s Rise of the Runelords adventure path handles this and other things related to immersion in the setting exceptionally well.

It also handled very well the integration of player characters into the setting, with the regional/metaregional/core adventure classifications, the metaorganisations, the favour system and regional feats. There was flavour.

The above, I feel, are the keys to making the world feel real from behind the screen. They’re tricks I should keep in mind better than I have. Living Greyhawk has been doing the job for me for a long time, but it’s ending and soon I have to flex those muscles on my own.

Not Having Your Setting Laughed At 101

Then there are the things to consider when crafting a setting. For a start, it must be interesting and compelling, and there must be potential for adventure. You’d think this was obvious, but then, the new edition of D&D is defaulting to this thing they call Points of Light, which is a limiting and dull concept designed to facilitate single-minded hack and slash with minimal concern for how the world actually works. Fortunately, the examples of how not to do it are fewer than the examples of well-made settings. Indeed, there’s a wealth of finely crafted and interesting settings out there – Forgotten Realms is the quintessential fantasy kitchen sink, Greyhawk is the cradle of D&D, Godlike’s superpowered WW2 is the coolest alternate history I’ve ever read, Rokugan of Legend of the Five Rings is the coolest americanised sorta-Japan ever, Spelljammer has giant space hamsters… the list goes on.

Then there’s consistency and verisimilitude (a fancy word used by Monte Cook in the D&D 3E Dungeon Master’s Guide to denote the aesthetic appearance of realism). While realism, as such, is not required and would be actually inimical to the atmosphere and style of, say, Dungeons & Dragons or Exalted, you still need to consider how the level of technology is maintained and what people eat. Well, unless you’re making a parody. Detail doesn’t need to be excessive here if it’s unnecessary to the plot, but no village flourishes in isolation for long.

Also, it’s really bad to have setting description contradict itself before the game is even out.

As an aside, you could do worse than read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, especially if the intention is to craft a setting for something more realistic. Also, they’re good reads.

There should also be consistency in style and atmosphere of the setting.

Alderac Entertainment Group’s roleplaying game The 7th Sea is notorious for failing spectacularly at both of these. The game itself is fun swashbuckling in the spirit of, but the setting of Theahis an interesting hodgepodge of thinly-veiled references to real-world European nations during different historical periods. You’ve got 18th century France, 17-century Spain, Viking Scandinavia, 16th-century Italy, and a medieval Britain. No particular explanation as to why, and it looks like a terrible patchwork quilt and jars me right out of it.

In the metaplot area, it failed to keep consistent. One moment, you have flashing blades and feats of derring-do and the next, there’s aliens and X-Files, completely changing the tone of the game. It felt tacked-on. While it can work, it should be the focus of a single campaign. Most of the weird material is simply unusable if one wishes to keep to the style.

Small thematic shifts are always appropriate, though. Every fantasy campaign can sustain at least one Halloween horror session, and for Living Greyhawk, there were plans for a big pulpy adventure with a lost island of dinosaurs, and a white man living wild with the apes, with great white (Ahlissan) hunters, and a secret Nazi (Scarlet Brotherhood) in a volcano, where they received orders from Hitler’s (Maranafel Toktot, the Butcher of Scant) brain in a jar. There would be sharks and zombies and a giant ape, too.

Well, I think that is it. I hope someone gets something out of it. I may cover a few settings I think are especially cool, interesting, or otherwise noteworthy in the future, but for now, this will be the last major update until I’ve got my university entrance exams done, which is in early June.

News and Stuff

A lot hasn’t happened in the last week, but there’s been enough, I think, to warrant a post. Firstly, Wizards of the Coast released the names of the playtesters for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. I’m in there, as Jukka Sarkijarvi, since their inferior American keyboards cannot handle the perfection of expression that is my name in its properly spelled form. The rest of my playtest group are there as well; Sampo Haarlaa, Hannu Haavisto, Mikko Laine, Marko Westerlund and Joonas Sahramaa. Thanks, guys. You made tolerable an experience that with a different group could very easily have been completely miserable.

Wizards of the Coast also released a preview of their first 4E module, Keep on the Shadowfell, that proves I was right all along when I called “points of light” a damn stupid setting concept. 977 inhabitants in a village with 17 buildings and about 1/4 square miles of farmland. I feel that to be indicative of the level of thought that went into everything in the new edition that wasn’t rules or marketing.

On a brighter and far more interesting note, Eero Tuovinen of Arkenstone Publishing says he’s releasing his zombie storytelling game Zombies! At the Door! in English for the first time at GenCon Indy. It’s an interesting game. Me and another gamer ran it at the fourth anniversary party of the Espoo Science Fiction and Fantasy Club a couple of weeks ago, with some success. It’s a simple game for beginners and will produce good roleplaying with no preparation whatsoever. I also have reports that indigenous tribes out in Eastern Helsinki that worship it as the image of a deity that will protect them once the zombie apocalypse comes.

I can recommend the game. In addition to being good, it has the novelty value of being packaged in a VCR tape box and including a bright pink d6. It might actually sell pretty well if the general Forgeness of the Forge booth will not scare people away.

Wizards of the Coast (funny how everything seems to come back to them) has yet to announce their participation in the convention, and the event registrations have ended. They’re doing a nice job of shooting themselves, Living Forgotten Realms and GenCon Ltd. in the foot. Either way, if WotC is out, other companies will have more visibility.

One of these other companies is Paizo Publishing. I have no real news about them, but they continue to be really cool, and Pathfinder RPG‘s Beta edition is being released there. Their organised play campaign Pathfinder Society is also kicking off at GenCon Indy.

It’s actually good that it won’t be available at Ropecon a week earlier, since that means we can focus our attention on Living Greyhawk and giving the campaign the send-off it deserves. We’re currently working on six modules for the Principality of Naerie, the last of the campaign. This would be a lot easier if the people who have to sanction the modules, approve the outlines and in some cases even write the damn things weren’t working on getting the Living Forgotten Realms campaign started at the same time.

I wonder if Chris Tulach ever thought that recruiting the Living Greyhawk campaign adminstration into LFR would cripple the last year of Living Greyhawk. The admins had minimal information, by the way, of what they were committing themselves to when they first sent in their applications. Had I known then what I know now – and I’m not even talking of stuff covered by the NDA – I wouldn’t have sent in my application, and I know a few others who feel the same. For the record, I applied for Writing Director of Northern Europe, a position that went to the eminently more qualified Pierre van Rooden.

That’s all for now, folks. I’m going back to watching The West Wing.

Review: Stalker

Well, I didn’t quite break my own deadline with this. I finished reading Stalker, all 242 black-and-white pages of it. No, it’s not a game about spying and harassing young girls.

To repeat what I’ve mentioned here at least a couple of times in the past, it’s a science fiction roleplaying game from Burger Games, and it’s based on the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker has also been a significant inspiration. I have neither read the book nor seen the film, though the novel is about five books deep in my to-read pile and the DVD is in the mail.

The RPG is only available in Finnish. I considered also doing the review in Finnish, but I figured a bilingual blog would be just annoying and confusing to my other reader, who doesn’t understand Finnish.

The Story

For those of you who need brushing up on your Soviet sci-fi, the core of the story is that thirteen years ago, six places in the world were hit by an unexplained phenomenon (often theorised to be a visit by extraterrestrial lifeforms) that twisted the laws of nature and rendered them uninhabitable and very dangerous. In the Zone one might run into, for example, an area where gravity is increased thousandfold, or a region of vacuum with no discernible physical barriers to keep it that way.

However, there are also artifacts, items not of this world that also defy the laws of nature. Some of them are nearly useless toys, such as a needle that creates light patterns in the air, but others have terrible powers, like a lamp that kills anything its green light touches. There’s also an item that’s weightless when touched by a living creature, but weighs many tons when it’s not.

The Institute is an organisation nominally under the UN that controls the six Zones and access to them. It is corrupt, authoritarian, and has guards that shoot first and ask questions later. However, the Zones are large, the budget is limited and there are areas where a group of determined and stealthy people can get through the net of guard towers and patrol routes.

Some of those people are stalkers – criminals who enter the Zone and brave its perils to bring back artifacts for their customers, who themselves are sometimes scientists working for the Institute.

That’s the PCs.

The game’s tone is grim and realistic. It doesn’t happen in a far-off future, it happens in the now. Violence is ugly and painful, poverty is rampant, prejudices and misery are commonplace. Authorities are corrupt. Most people are too preoccupied with survival to worry about morals. Death is inevitable and ever-present.

Of course, the game is mostly set around the Zone, where the proximity of the dangerous region has prompted most people to move away, and where only mutants, refugees, stalkers and other criminals dwell. And the Institute, of course.

The RPG’s default setting is around the French Zone, in Toulouse, but it gives short overviews of the five others – Klamath Falls, USA; Marmont, Canada (the setting of the novel); Derbent, Russia (homage to the movie Stalker); Saysu, China; and Sapporo, Japan.

The Game

One of the things that people have been making noise about in Stalker is the Flow system. It’s a diceless system with a resolution mechanic that relies on the GM grading the player’s roleplaying and his idea, adding possible skill bonuses and then multiplying and comparing to the target number. It’s an interesting system, since it’s diceless while still retaining some crunchiness. It also actively supports roleplaying and gives the player more power to affect the outcome.

Character creation is mechanically simple. You pick ten very broad skills, come up with explanations for how the character has them and then give each of them an associated negative side, something bad from the character’s history. A former policeman may have been fired for taking bribes, or a doctor killed his patient. Something like that. It’s a nifty way to bring depth to the character.

The Book

It’s ironic that the book starts by saying it’s probably not a good first roleplaying game for a newbie, and then in the GM section goes on to give some of the most comprehensive and best all-purpose GM advice I’ve seen in a game book, including some very basic things. The seeming contradiction may be a vestige of the extraordinarily long time the game has been in the works, but I don’t really mind. It’s good advice.

In general, the book is packed tightly with setting, adventure hooks and advice. It’s an advantage of having a light ruleset – more space for the meat of the game. This is the good stuff.

The font used throughout the book is Comic Sans. It’s clean and readable. I showed it to some graphic designers who nearly had an apoplexy. I do not know why, but it may be useful knowledge when dealing with graphic designers.

There’s the occasional typo and grammatical error, but nothing major. The art is black and white, and very dark.

Overall

It’s a good game. Very nifty, with a good, evocative setting and an interesting rules system.

Personally, though, I don’t see myself running this game. Playing, yes, but not running. It’s partly a deep-seated psychological need to have my dice bag with me, and partly because the setting just doesn’t do it for me, that way. It’s interesting to read about and well written, but I don’t get that “wow, I gotta run this right now” feeling I get off games like Godlike and Delta Green (which do set a very high bar, admittedly).

Also, Stalker doesn’t feel like a game you play many campaigns with. You’ve got the Zone and the artifacts and the Institute and the mutants, but you’ll end up retreading the same ground a lot, which demands a great deal from the GM in terms of creativity and work. Especially trips to the Zone could get hard to keep fresh for very long.

It’s a good game, though. I recommend it. Thumbs up.