Category Archives: Reviews & First Looks

First Impressions Against The Darkmaster

So I came across Against the Darkmaster this week and it peaked my interest. The game is, according to its website, vsdarkmaster.com a fan developed game derived from the original Iron Crown Enterprises MERP.

So right now the game is in the public play test stage and has a kickstarter planned for next year.

This is just a literal first look as I have not even read the play test document yet.

There are lots of things you want to see if you are looking at something that shares its DNA with Rolemaster and MERP. Open ended rolls are one and they are definitely in here, skills based characters are they are in here, combat tables are here and criticals. All of those you can tick off.

The character creation is a little different to how I remember MERP being. Here you just get some may bonus points to distribute between your stats. This not uncommon in Rolemaster circles as the actual 1-100 stat is never used just the stat bonus. vsDarkmaster has gone down the same route and scrapped the unused 1-100 stat and just kept the stat bonus.

VsDarkmaster has eradicated the work Race from the game and uses Kin in its place. Despite the name change the kins are exactly how I remember the MERP races to be and they have even retained the Background options. If you never played Rolemaster or MERP then you can spend background points to get some form of bonus for your character such as a magic item as starting equipment or extra money or something less tangible like coming from a respected family or a bonus to one of your stats.

Characters each have a culture and these give you a selection of skill ranks that you can spend buying skills. Skills are all grouped into categories and the cultural skill ranks are distributed amongst these categories so you cannot just pile them all into combat or magic!

Character classes or Professions are called Vocations in vsDarkmaster. There are six vocations in this play test version Warrior, Rogue, Strider, Wizard, Animist and Dabbler. the first three have no magic and the last three are all spell casters.

Continue reading First Impressions Against The Darkmaster

First Look: Stellar Adventures

imageI was looking for a simple science fiction roleplaying game on DTRPG when I stumbled upon Stellar Adventures. It especially piqued my interest since one of the authors listed in the credits is none other than Jonathan Hicks aka The Farsight Blogger. Only on a second look I realized that Stellar Adventures is actually a game based on Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2nd Edition, a roleplaying game inspired by the Fighting Fantasy game books of old.

Stellar Adventures itself is a 130-paged PDF containing all the rules you need to run games in basically every scifi setting imaginable. The core rules itself are pretty easy and straightforward. Each time the outcome of an action is uncertain you roll 2d6 and compare the result with your SKILL value. Is it lower or equal than your SKILL, you succeed. Otherwise you fail. Characters can learn special skills, that grant bonuses to their SKILL rolls. There are also talents which grant the characters special abilities beyond mere bonuses.

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All-in-all characters have four characteristics: SKILL, STAMINA (basically hitpoints), LUCK, PSIONICS or TECH. The latter is only used with robot characters and is a measure of the technology used to construct them. It should be obvious that the mechanics are not as deep as in something like Starfinder, but they are perfectly fine for one-shots, online or convention games, or even short campaigns. What really surprised me, is that Stellar Adventures contains basically everything you might need in a SF game: there’s an extensive equipment list, rules for robots, starships, sector and planet creation, rules for designing your own aliens, mutations, cyberware, and much more. It’s not only a simple SF game but actually a complete toolbox. If you wanted to run a game inspired by Star Trek or Traveller, you should have no problems at all. Heck, the warp drive described in the rules is basically the Traveller Jump Drive with serial numbers filed off.

The layout and artwork of Stellar Adventures is definitely old-school. It looks like something from the early 80s, but luckily it’s better organized and better written than a lot of the games from that era.

So should you get a copy of Stellar Adventures? I’d say yes! Aside from its old-fashioned looks it’s a small gem. The simple rules are perfectly suited for online and convention games and on 130 pages you get a toolbox full of material! If you also own the Advanced Fighting Fantasy rules, you can even combine the two since the mechanics are fully compatible.

Stellar Adventures is digitally available from DriveThruRPG and sets you back $14 or your local equivalent. Print copies are also available from local and online stores.

Is reading enough to review?

Michael recently republished his post on review writing. I have come to review writing rather recently, particularly compared to the experienced hands of Michael and Sunglar.

I thought I would share a few thoughts.

Stars Without Number is a game that I know has had very good reviews. I haven’t played it and I haven’t read it. I am not about to review it.

So traditional thinking falls into two camps. Either you read the rules and then try and convey the feel of those rules, probably by comparing it to other popular games and also comment on the quality of the material and art in the final package.

The other camp has you play the game and then describe how the game played.

Part of the problem with the former approach is that a game may look like an ugly duckling but turn out to be a swan or its production values may be terrible but at the table a great game comes out. I am part of an facebook group of RPG writers and many refuse to use page layout tools or art as these increase costs and slow down production times. There is little or no money in RPGs now for indie developers. If GMs expect games to me almost free then you will get what you pay for.

The later approach or actually playing a game is fraught with difficulty. My all time favourite game is Rolemaster and although it is a dangerous combat sort of game combat is the real problem with the system, in my opinion. The game system breaks down when PCs get to about 20th level. Many fantasy games have the stereotype of magic users are really weak at first level but become really powerful at high level. Rolemaster has this model but the ‘really powerful’ end turns out to be ‘really, really powerful so that the GM cannot easily challenge you any more.” So given that ‘design flaw’ can you ever expect a reviewer to  play a game so that his players reach 20th level before he has sufficient material to write an informed review? I think that is a little excessive?

Going back to Star Without Number there was an interesting solution to this balancing act on the TakeOnRules blog (https://takeonrules.com/2018/07/07/lets-read-stars-without-number/) So rather than reading the rulebook and posting a 1000 word review Jeremy Friesen has done a chapter by chapter dissection of the rules. So far he has published eight posts, each dealing with a chapter of the rules. We are looking at something like 8000 words published so far with plenty of examples of how the mechanics work. If the game isn’t for you then you would realise that after a post or two. If it sounds fascinating then you can keep on reading if you haven’t grabbed your own copy already.

I think this works. The game lost me when it was described as build from a foundation of Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons. I have that up decades ago and do not feel the urge to go back there.

Since I have been looking at a wider range of games I have invested hundreds of hours just reading games. Most have never formed the basis of a review. I think it is a case of “If you cannot think of anything good to say then say nothing at all.” Many game have some really merit even if they are not for me. I suspect that SWN is one of those games.

Some games I have read cried out to be played but my players do not feel the same. These I tend to resort to solo rules for. This is a far from perfect solution from a reviewing perspective but at least I can honestly say I have played the game. Reading The Princess Bride left me feeling vaguely dirty and needing a shower. Playing it to test its mechanics revealed its implementation of FUDGE to be very well done. What turned me off was the setting not the game rules. Once I separated these the nature of the game was completely changed. If you like the background to The Princess Bride then the setting would not have turned you off.

So whereas I agree with Michael that there is no perfect way to review a game and reading the rules is not the same as playing and sometimes reading is the only option I would contest that actually there can be other, quite creative, solutions to the whole RPG game reviewing problem.