Darkwood Adventure Arc #2 - The Tormented and the Twisted

Darkwood Adventure Arc #2 - The Tormented and the Twisted

The massive second installment of the Darkwood Adventure Arc clocks in at 128 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 122 (!!!) pages of content, so let's take a look!

All right, so in case you haven't read my reviews of the first full module and excursion, please wait a second and even if you don't want to play a full sequence of modules, please continue reading, all right?

So, what makes these modules unique? Number one would be aesthetics: A central draw of these modules lies in the aesthetic and the truly fresh feeling that is based on taking aesthetics and tropes of classic Wild West, blending them with a healthy dose of weird fantasy and applying them to a fantasy scenario. Basically, this feels like a medieval Wild West that never was, suffused with a healthy dose of new school game design of the best kind. The mutating, complex disease first introduced in the first Darkwood installment can be found among the supplemental materials; the new magic items sports several full color artworks to represent them. The pdf features new alchemical creations, a stone-forming cleric archetype, a new witch patron with hexes, new spells, two new religions (one of which is all about technology as the thing to worship, basically representing transhumanism blended with magic and the ideology of enlightenment) as well as an update of the town Darkwood, including a bulletin board for the local tavern of sorts, where, rendered in full color, you can read about the prices and local policies. The pdf also has mechanics for intoxication, no less than 3 insanities and a fully rendered gazetteer on the ahsen'i, the local Native American-like ethnicity. We even get a char-sheet!

So yes, regarding bonus material, this leaves nothing to be desired...but you're not here for that, right? You want to know about the module? 
Well, I shall oblige, but in order to properly discuss this, we need to go into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion. Trust me, you do NOT want to SPOIL this one.
Still here? All right! In the aftermath of the unpleasant attack on the locals in the last installment and extensive establishing shots regarding the unique nature and feeling of the setting, we begin with one of several fully rendered introductions. And I mean "fully" - with read-aloud text. Why is this relevant? The saga emulates coalition allegiances with an optional, rather rewarding allegiances system and each of the factions so far introduced gets its own introduction, establishing firmly the respective tropes and methodology of the groups...and boyo, does it do a good job here. While I could talk about magic keelhauling, strange séances and less weird practices for this section, ultimately I couldn't be able to properly capture the sense of immersion this book's prose manages to capture.  Have I btw. mentioned that, in said séance, the smoke forming a message has actually been reproduced as artwork, doubling as a handout? Oh yes, this is the level of care we're dealing with here!

There seems, in any ways, to be some sort of connection between the tainted, aggressive trolls that attacked the town and a mysterious elven explorer called Geneal -and each faction has a very good reason to want to talk to him. Here's the issue, though: The elf's incarcerated in Fetterstone prison, a veritable fortress under the command of duergar bondswarden Hafnir Kreigsbyte.
Yes. This is a prison break/infiltration. The module does take this complex set-up in a manner that I have frankly seen too rarely, so here is the list.
We have extensive notes on the information that can be gathered before.
We have intentionally incomplete, player-friendly maps of the complex.
We actually get different entry vectors, from full Stealth to various means of infiltration. We have stuff that Stealth-less characters can do.
We have a matrix of the key characters among the prison-fortresses guards noting their loyalty and whether they can be bribed and how much it takes to do so!
The prison has prepared alert levels with responses !!
We have a security detail map for the GM, with guards and the routes of the patrols !!!
We actually also have social dynamics among the populace !!!!
In all my years of Shadowrun, Night's Black Agents and similar, more stealth-focused games, I have never seen ANY module do this better. I did not need to do ANYTHING regarding security details, including magics. The level of detail here is absolutely immaculate and blasts everything about of the water.

This is truly glorious...and guess what? It also actually takes the "getting caught"-angle seriously; there is a second chance for the PCs if they screw up (or elect to use that entry vector!) - the PCs may actually be pressganged into a tactical assault upon a caravan with foreign agents in a fully realized encounter, including tactical map. This is simply going above and beyond.

Oh, and the dungeon below the complex is nothing to sneeze at either - with subtle humor (Mr. Pouncy the cat familiar), glimpses of the horrific, challenging traps, magical problems, unique critters...oh, and a truly lethal dungeon self-destruct mechanism that may see the dungeon flood as the PCs are frantically trying to disable the complex mechanism or run from the collapse, adding even more action and excitement to this frankly legendary module!

That's not where the pdf stops, though - the module does have two fully mapped sidetreks - mini-modules that in no way fall behind in detail or atmosphere behind the main meat of the module: We have "The Witching of Stump Hall", where strange occurrences have begun, as fey seemingly invade darkwood and a mastermind weaves the threads of a plan most grim indeed. In the second sidetrek, the PCs will have the opportunity to explore a Ahsen'i bonefield and deal with the deadly challenges lurking there. Yes, mapped as well. And yes, these "sidetreks" can be used as glorious, convention-style scenarios, if you're looking for that.

One final note here - know how the first module introduced written-in background challenges and character-specific sidequests a GM can utilize - basically, when used with pregens or modified by the GM, the pdf has character-specific arcs and quests written as optional components into its very nature, helping the players get more invested in the narrative.

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no grievous glitches. Layout adheres to a gorgeous, two-column full-color standard with a ton of original full-color artwork of excellent quality. The pdf also features a ton of full-color cartography - with glorious full-color tactical maps, player-handout maps and nothing to be desired. Glorious. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with detailed, nested bookmarks and the pdf is layered, allowing full customization of GM labels. The pdf actually comes with a second pdf optimized for the use with mobile devices. I loved this book so much, I actually got the print version - and seriously, that's the one I'd go for.

Lars Lundberg & Nick Johnson's second installment of the Darkwood Adventure Arc is PHENOMENAL. This breathes a unique cultural flair that is inspired and unique in the truest sense of the word and must be called out as nothing less than the masterclass of adventure design. I have NEVER seen any prison-break/infiltration-scenario done even half as well as this one: It has EVERYTHING - from the absolutely glorious entry-vectors to the copious, well-written read-aloud texts to the trouble-solving options, supplemental material, builds, modules and production values, this module blows 99.9% of Pathfinder modules out of the water and leaves them in shreds. How this works for the more than fair price-point is frankly beyond me; this module has a spot of honor on my shelf, surpasses its already excellent predecessors and can be considered to e an example of the very finest of virtues that contemporary adventure design has to offer.

It's been a while since we had a module by SagaRPG and I don't know whether the arc will be completed, but even as a stand-alone, this has all the virtues and unique power it requires. Even as a stand-alone module, this is frankly one of the very most awesome pieces of content you can find and I'd frankly eat ramen for a month to support a kickstarter to keep this series going - that's how much I love it. I have frankly failed this series and should have highlighted this module so much sooner - not only on behalf of the team that crafted this masterpiece, but on behalf of you, my readers, for not pointing out the level of awesomeness this offers sooner. So yes, even though this was released sooner, I only covered, ran and enjoyed it recently - so this does get a final verdict of 5 stars, seal of approval and is a candidate for my Top Ten of this year. I love it that much. So please, do check out this absolutely legendary module. I am positive you will not regret it and if you do hate it, drop me a line and I'll see that I can make it up to you - that's how much I adore this module! Must Own. Get it!

You can get this glorious module here on OBS! 

Endzeitgeist out.


Seven Sinful Tales

Seven Sinful Tales

This adventure clocks in at 106 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2.5 pages of ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 100.5 pages of content, so let's take a look!

Wait, before we do - in case you are not familiar with 4 Dollar Dungeons: The philosophy of these modules is that you get all the relevant rules-information inside: A Total of 31 pages thus provide animal tricks, spell reference, feat reference, bestiary reference and item references for your perusal. All artwork herein is collected in a total of 7 pages that you can print out, cut up and use as handouts. It should also be noted that no less than 18 high-res jpegs for use with online gaming (or as handouts) are provided; and yes, these include player-friendly iterations.

The pdf also has a great summary of encounters, with associated creatures involved and loot to be gained, including items, total GP values tallied for you and scaling advice. Set in the county of Surrey, weather and travelling distances by foot, horse or coach are similarly collected in one handy table. We also don't just get one paltry random monster encounter table: Based on the specific region, each and every one of the 8 tables provides sensible creatures for the respective environments. Oh, have I mentioned the 9 (!!!) fully statted settlements, all with statblocks and descriptions? The modules released by 4 Dollar Dungeons do their utmost to make running them as easy and comfortable as possible for the GM.

Okay, this is indeed as far as I can get without going into SPOILER-territory. Potential players who want to play this module (Hint: You do!) should jump to the conclusion right now.
All right, only GMs left around here? Outside of the circle of Ravenstone in the kingdom of the Bretagne, there lies a circle of stone; a place of legend, where power is supposed to gather, but no one knows for what purpose - not even the wizard Humphrey and his devilish companion Beauregard, who are living nearby. As such places are wont to, it has become a kind of meeting spot to get away, drink and have a good time for the local populace. The circle's supposed power is lending an air of mystique and danger to the environment that most of us will relate to; abandoned factories, rail-yards, playground, special spots in the forest - we all had a spot like that in our childhood.
Anyways, one dingy night in autumn, a group of 7 13-year-olds actually manages to activate the circle - but no creature from the stars manifests; no demon invasion begins - instead, a motley crew of adventurers, picked from their own iteration of reality, is picked and unceremoniously dumped inside the circle: Yes, that would be the PCs, who have just been summoned forth and now look into the awed faces of the following:

Deako, a pale-feathered, nervous tengu; Adriana, a platinum blonde girl in a fine dress and her similarly immaculately dressed cousin Augustus; Paulina, a light-haired and somewhat plain but pretty gnomish girl; Bairn, an honest and polite young man with good looks; Tilvern, timid and dark-haired and somewhat small for his age and Holly, a bright light-haired girl with a wide smile...perhaps a tad bit too wide. The children, though, are confused - Augustus conducted the summons and knows that the book he took it from was...well. Rubbish. The kids, spooked and with obligations in the morn, will undoubtedly leave an array of confused PCs with a distinctly unhelpful book, as school's in the morning. Humphrey and Beauregard, both surprisingly amicable for their vast power (and...well, Beauregard being a devil), have a thesis that the circle granted a wish unconsciously thought by all of the children - and thus, the only way home for the PCs would be to fulfill the wishes of the kids. Each of the respective sub-chapters of the module, just fyi, lists the dramatis personae in a handy list in the beginning, allowing for easy juggling of the casts of characters, should the PCs oscillate between adventures/get stuck.

Thus, the trail should bring them to the nearby town Fordguild - all children attend the same school, while Adriana attends a "Special" school; with scaling successes, the PCs can do some leg-work - and it is here that the module becomes pretty free-form, for the sequence in which the respective tasks are tackled is all up to them - for all intents and purposes, the module acts as the adventure-equivalent of a short story anthology. As such tales are wont, there are leitmotifs here, though: Number one can be easily extrapolated from the title - each of the tales deals with one of the 7 deadly sins. Unlike what you may think, the kids are not the correlation with the respective sins; rather, it's the parents.

It takes a special type of person (i.e. slightly insane, a bit narcissistic and inured to violence) to take up the mantle of the adventurer and as such, it should be not too surprising that beings who wield the power cosmic, cut humanoids to ribbons and make powerful enemies can make for rather problematic parents. Each of the kids has her/his own issues with parents, issues the PCs can help resolve. This whole component can be downplayed by the GM and taken to instead focus on a number of smaller quests, but the roleplaying herein can be rather cathartic, if you do opt to properly depict all of this. My own childhood wasn't perfect, to say the least and I know that a lot of the anger, resentment and frustration I had was resolved by roleplaying; it can provide an angle towards a form of peace, an acceptance of unchangeable facts by resolving the challenges at least within the framework of our favorite make-belief game. Even as an adult, witnessing the like can hit close to home, yes; but it also represents a chance. At least I know the like worked well for me and a couple of my friends.

So, let us begin: 8 weeks ago, the brother of Deako the tengu kid, was tragically killed by a hippopotamus. The unfortunate Seako had been previously injured on a hunting trip with his samurai dad and was subsequently struck down by a single bite. This death has put a serious strain on his parent's relationship and they ever since refuse to communicate or speak to each other, as the edicts of the two lawful good samurai emphasize personal glory for the father, protecting communities for the mother. Deako has formulated a plan to reunite his parents - he wishes to present the head of the troll that almost finished his brother and indirectly did, to his father; to his mother, he plans to bestow the teeth of the hippocampus that slew his brother. Unfortunately, he can't do it alone and needs the PCs to do just that - and thus, the two beings need to be killed...but what happens thereafter is in the hands of the GM.

Adriana's issue is rather different - she is supposed to be subjected to a arranged marriage she doesn't want. Adriana comes from a well-off stock of humans haunted by tragedy - she has lost her father (and more!) to something truly sinister: A blood hag has been using her family as her breeding project for generations and Adriana is pretty close to what she wants...but not perfect. It is hence she has arranged this horrific marriage, keeps Adriana sheltered and locked up...and in fact, has replaced Adriana's mother a long time ago, raising her perfect little angel for the most horrific of purposes. So while the tengu's tale was pretty straightforward, this is one complex little investigation...and a word of warning: the blood hag is BRUTAL. If your players suck at piercing the clues (which, in some cases, drip with a subdued, delightful humor) together, be very careful here...or not. The module does mention the power of the adversary here, so yeah. While the death of the blood hag deprives Ariana of her mother, her further fate isn't actually that grim and the elimination of this horrid thing does cancel the marriage...and fulfill her wish.

Augustus is rich enough to buy anything he wants...but unfortunately for him, money can never buy happiness. Raul and Dahlia, his parents, are unfortunately addicts - the decadent nobles visit a place called "The Hungry Caterpillar" on a daily basis and are disinterested and spaced out; in a secret basement, a rather nasty druid commands a variant basidrond with hallucinogenic spores and makes a pretty dime of those looking for far-out-experiences; in order to fulfill Augustus' wish, the PCs will have to infiltrate the high-class establishment and eliminate the drug-producing creature.

Paulina's dad was a famous "archaeologist" - complete with fedora and whip. Always not the best of fathers, one day, he simply did not return from his quest after the fables Shagreen, which he successfully tracked to the pyramid of Balzac. Paulina's wish is to recover the Shagreen and thus fulfill her dad's final quest and place the artifact in a shrine dedicated to him. The theme here being greed, much like the previous adventures, there are subtle tests associated with the respective sin written into the module itself: Greedy PCs may suffer consequences here...something to bear in mind and perhaps a wake-up call to "not become like Paulina's dad." On a formal level, the tales features a cool and pretty easy puzzle with glyph-plates and a hint...and here, just fyi, greed can kill the PCs hardcore. Being destroyed by a stone golem is the least of their issues, for if the PCs were greedy when securing supplies and interacting with the locals on the journey, they may find themselves sans camels or supplies...but a sphinx can show up, providing yet another well-crafted and simple little puzzle of logic to pose for the group and test their spirit.

In the sleepy village called hook, charming Bairn's father Nik is well-known: The charming, silver-tongued bard just can't keep it in his pants. The beginning of this section focuses on finding out what has happened to Bairn's dad - and the PCs will have to follow the trail of broken hearts Nik has left...with, at least partially rather funny results - from a dryad to a centaur, an ogress (!!), a cecaelia (!!!) and finally a HARPY. Well, what's left - for Nik has been taken prisoner by a medusa, who has petrified the harpy. The medusa's living on an island with constantly shifting mists (concealment and total concealment by roll included - very cool...I'll use that table a LOT beyond this module!) and she is not particularly on good terms with Nick - when he tried to abandon her for a kitsune, she proceeded to petrify and...use him, I guess. While this whole section is, theme-wise, pretty adult, it is kept mostly PG 13 and can easily be stripped of the slightly raunchy bits...or they can be emphasized for adult groups that don't have an issue with a bit more graphic themes. Also: The characteristic foot notes in 4$D's are a highlight here and actually made me laugh once.

Tilvern, timid and a bit of a runt...is actually the son of a paladin, noble Sir Reginald. And he has a serious issue: There is an uneasy truce between the giants of the Plantagenet mountains and the humanoids of Surrey; Sir Reginald's former commander perished due to his own stupidity in an unnecessary, boredom-bred skirmish right in front of Sir Reginald...who has sneaked off to ask the giant king for a fair duel against the giant that killed his commander sans breaking the truce. Tilvern, understandably, doesn't want the duel to commence and his dad to die due to his stupid pride. Unfortunately, Sir Reginald has rolled the maximum pertaining his stubbornness and even the best laid of arguments won't dissuade him; in order to fulfill Tilvern's wish, the duel must be thwarted for once and for all and either giant or paladin must die. In both cases, hostilities may erupt once again in the future and the question is, whether anyone has learned anything here...apart from the players, PCs and Tilvern, that is.

The final tale is perhaps the most creative of the bunch: Holly Willoughsby is a kind and nice girl, vivacious and friendly, in spite of coming from a wealthy family. In a seething satire, her dad, Elder, can't seem to be bothered to do anything, but thanks to his sorcerous talents, he could...well, just animate his dead family members and have them do all the chores. Holly is somewhat horrified by this, but it's the reality of her life and her father, thankfully, doesn't seem to mind adventurers poking around as long as they don't cause too big of a mess. Holly is frightened. Recently, spiders have begun swarming in her room and she wants to move back there - exploring the fully mapped and detailed manor, the PCs will be able to deduce that there is more wrong than just the problem with the spiders - and indeed, both an invisible friend (attic whisperer) and a friggin' deathweb must be defeated to provide some sort of help here. Still, so surreal and suffused with dark humor, this did remind me more than just a bit of good ole' Shirley Jackson's blend of the macabre and dark humor.

Having finished the wishes of the children, the PCs may now finally return home - and the default here is a slightly comedic feel-good ending I appreciate, considering the subject matter. But I'll get back to that below in the...

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no serious glitches or typos. Layout adheres to 4 Dollar Dungeon's two-column standard with a mix of original b/w and full-color artwork. The cartography and numerous handouts contained are absolutely awesome and the high-res maps and player-friendly versions leave nothing to be desired. The pdf comes in two versions, one optimized for the US letterpack paper standard and one for the European A4-standard - kudos!!

Richard Develyn is a living, breathing one-man-refutation of the notion that mainstream RPGs like Pathfinder cannot be creative, cannot be art. If anything, this module truly cements his status as an artist and auteur; as someone who brings a whole new level to the game and steps up what to expect. With the exception of his first module, which is "only" good, every subsequent module he releases has made the Top Ten of the respective year. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. Every single module does something truly unique; something creative and smart; he switches styles like a chameleon, writing horror with the same ease as sword and sorcery-esque fantasy, southern gothic or a thoroughly fresh take on the tired, but beloved Ravenloft-aesthetic. Beyond switching genres with ease, a subtle and profound distinctly English humor suffuses his works, making them an actual joy to read. Oh, and there would be the fact that his craft, nay, art, cannot be mistaken for that of another author - there is a distinct voice; a levity tinted slightly by the macabre that is utterly unique. Oh, and the modules leave nothing to be desired regarding running them. I have never, very wished for better organization in them, never had an issue running them from paper after the obligatory first reading.

And he does that not for the bucks. 4 friggin' dollars is a huge steal for such a module. I can rattle of more than 100 modules that cost at least 5 times as much and feel like the phoned-in paint-by-numbers designs of amateur hacks in comparison.

Why am I talking so much about the totality of his work so far? Because even in this extremely impressive canon of works, Seven Sinful tales stands out. What would be an array of bland sidequests in the hands of a lesser author has more heart and soul in the introduction or one of its mini-adventures than most 100-plus-page epics ever achieve. This module has comedy, tragedy, investigation, wilderness survival, smart puzzles, a ton of social challenges and roleplaiyng opportunities, gorgeous adversaries, interesting terrain. It has, in short, everything.

That alone would make it already a must buy module. It's more than that.

I mentioned this before, but this module's subject matter pertaining no-good parents and their very mortal shortcomings can hit close to home for some of us; but the depictions are not mean-spirited. This is not grimdark and neither is it a feel-good fairy-tale, though it can be tweaked in either way. This is an allegory. There is a saying that the parents are gods to the kids and that sooner or later, their mortal shortcomings will result in disappointment, disillusion, rage...and so on. I can relate. I've been there. The problems the kids face herein are significant and every person who wished for superheroes to take them away, to resolve the issues they face will relate to this module's stories at one point or another. The ultimate moral here, is that external persons can help resolve issues and that asking for help in dire circumstances may be required...but also that even a successful intervention does not necessarily fix everything. If your players are good roleplayers, this module can actually provide a catharsis for those of us who suffered from less than perfect parents; it can help mitigate the issues kids can have with their parents and their shortcomings, for even in the most comedic of the stories, the respective parent is not beyond redemption, the future not necessarily bleak, even in the case of the kid left orphaned. There is always light. The world always goes on.

I played this module twice and the envy and lust stories may need to be toned down a bit for kids; otherwise, depending on sensitivity, from ages 8 or 10 upwards, this works rather well when used with younger players. (Though they should have some experience with the system - this is not a cakewalk of a module!) Kids in puberty may actually eat this one up. That being said, if you want to emphasize this component, I'd suggest a slightly more somber end: Return the PCs sans a parade of happily ever after families. Then ask the players what *they* think happened thereafter. What the parents and kids have learned, what the consequences of the PC's actions are and how things will turn out. Engage in dialogue. When handled properly, this module can actually defuse issues.

Well, or you can just run this as one awesome blend of all the virtues of old-school and new-school gaming: Internally consistent, with a great and creative story, memorable NPCs, a diverse variety of challenges and all of that sans railroading. To make that abundantly clear: I consider this to be the 4$D-module that had me slightly choke a bit while reading, yes; frankly, it resonated. At the same time, it is, and that should NOT be understated, FUN, as it should be. This is not l'art pour l'art - this may be the first time I've seen a module fully cognizant in its design as a means to teach about our very human shortcomings as both parents and kids within the medium of gaming; all sans a raised finger and jamming morality down our throats; it shows and doesn't tell; it teaches by experience, not by reading a text.

I'm rambling, I know, but I need to drive this home: This module, when taken only on its merits as a module, as nothing more, nothing less, is excellent. But it transcends what I have seen any author do with the medium. It can leave people better persons for having played it. It can actually deliver the eureka effect usually reserved to novels, philosophy and the most inspiring of movies. This is not rated by my scale, it pushes it. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I'm saying that I was pretty skeptical about the premise. It worked out. Perfectly. This module has just raised my expectations, what I thought possible within the means of our medium. This may well be the first module I have read that truly deserves being called valuable from a humanist point of view and in the hands of the right GM, this can resonate more than all the earth-shattering apocalypses and demon-hordes you can possibly dream of.

My one regret here is that I have to operate within the very tight space of the usual rating system, so bear with me for a second: Picture seeing the star-shaped rating section of the online RPG-vendor of your choice. Now picture me teleporting in, slamming a post-it with one extra star right next to the 5 on the screen and vanishing. Every time you look at this module, mysteriously, the damn post-it phases in and tells you that this module is a one-of-a-kind experience that can make you laugh, make you cry, make you love more and become a better person...or just have a really great time. For 4 bucks. THAT is my rating. Post-it-teleport-in-level of ridiculously good and valuable; not only as a module, but for gaming in general. Since the teleport-thing, alas, only works in one's mind and the artifacts of our civilization demand such, my final verdict will be 5 stars + seal of approval...oh, and this is a very hot contender for my number 1 spot of my Top ten of 2016.

Okay, you've read me gush and rave about this for more than 3500 words...so please...go ahead and buy this. We need authors that take chances, that are not content with games as only mindless entertainment, when they could be entertainment that also improves us in the very strictest sense of the philosophical concept of Bildung.

You can get this superb module here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.


There's a "Bring-Endzeitgeist-to-gencon-bundle"!

Dear readers of Lou Agresta's RPGaggression!

This is endzeitgeist, the guy that posts a lot of the reviews you see on this awesome site.

As some of you will know, my financial situation isn't the best - quite frankly, without my patreon, I couldn't do any reviews at all. As in: "I'm working all day to scrape by." The patreon literally keeps the lights on right now.

While my trip to Copenhagen and job application there and at other places (as some of you may know, I've been pretty busy in that regard) *may* remedy that situation, for now, my resources are incredibly stretched; they have been so for quite some time and I'm working hard to change that fact. I don't really talk much about it or advertise much of that aspect of my life since frankly, I'm ashamed of being poor in spite of my qualifications.

Anyways, I am working hard to change that reality, but this post is about something awesome - something that can benefit you:

There's a colossal bundle of AWESOME books gathered together by publishers, authors and friends with one goal: To make it possible for me to actually attend Gencon. The flight is far beyond my capabilities to afford; same goes for the other components associated with attending. It's a long shot, but guess what? You have nothing to lose and the bundle contains some of the most glorious books out there!

AAW Games' "For Rent, Lease & Conquest"; Fro God Games' legendary "Cyclopean Deeps"-saga; Rite Publishing's "Breaking of Forstor Nagar" & "Secrets of the Masquerade Reveler"; Kobold Press' "Courts of the Shadow Fey"; Everyman Gaming's legendary "Ultimate Charisma"; Legendary Games' glorious grimoires and must-own "Mythic Solutions"; Rogue Genius Games' classic make-Bravery-suck-no-more "Bravery Feats" and "Hellfire Magic"; the glorious "Pixies on Parade" by Playground Adventures; LPJ Design's awesome Ultronesque Cyrix - and that's not even close to everything in the bundle! Notice something? These are pretty much crème-de-la-crème of files, the top-tier-OMG-must-have-books.

And yes, when I got back from my trip and saw this, I actually teared up!

So take a look at those gems and the HUGE discounted bundle of awesome material you can get on them here!

If you just want to get me to Gencon and don't care about those awesome books (or already have them), you can actually donate here on OBS via Pay what you want - so yeah, if this works out, I may actually be able to *finally* meet some of you awesome folks in person and roll the bones with you! I'd certainly love to talk shop with you all and talk to you fine folks in person!

Thank you for reading this. And to all the publishers that contributed to the bundle and everything -I'm absolutely blown away. Words fail to properly encapsulate what I'm feeling right now. Roleplayers are simply stellar people. Thank you.

Endzeitgeist out.


The Dracula Dossier: Director's Handbook

The Dracula Dossier: Director's Handbook

This massive hardcover clocks in at 372 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 2 pages of editorial/backer-lists, 4 pages detailed ToC, 1 page inside of back cover, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 362 (!!!) pages of raw content, so let's take a look!

This book was moved up in my review-queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange for a critical, unbiased review.

So, what is this book? Well, first of all, this is the companion tome to the Dracula Unredacted-tome, which is perhaps the most detailed, massive handout ever crafted for a roleplaying game. I'd like to urge you to read my review of this book first before taking a gander at this review here, if only so we're all on the same page. I'll wait here.
*whistles badly*
*tries to look inconspicuous*
Okay, back? I know I'd be a sucky agent. Anyways, this is, in a nut-shell, the Director's book for the campaign. Surprise. If you were btw. thinking how you, as a GM, can keep tabs of the intentional inconsistencies, vaguenesses and hooks contained in the glorious tome called Dracula Unredacted...well, remember me mentioning the numbers in the review of Dracula Unredacted? You have an index of those here, one that supplement the massive index provided for this book and helps you stay one step ahead of the players. Properly depicted workname-lists and checklists further enhance the options of running this campaign.

Still, structure-wise, this book very much differs from the classic mega-adventure/AP/what-have-you-not. Why? Well, this campaign understands itself as an improvisational campaign  -which, I can see, already has some of you roll your eyes. Well, wait a second - basically, this book can be considered to be the single most massively free-form campaign I have ever read...but it doesn't feel like it - at all.

What do I mean by this? Well, the book is meticulously structured. At this point, we are already familiar with the structuring elements of the Conspyramid and Vampyramid  as established structuring elements in Night's Black Agents-games - but the level of detail that has been provided herein is...well, staggering. If you take one of these and the respective levels inside, you'll notice detailed, crunch-supported responses to what is happening. From basic information-gathering to burning agents, the response/assault structure of the adversaries in this book, ultimately, is exceedingly, stunningly detailed and sensible - and yes, the stakes are high. Wait, stakes...good note: The book does offer advice on different playstyles - from stakes to burn and dust and mirror, different takes on the subject matter and advice for thematic modifications can be found in this tome.

Another simple reason why this does not feel like a typical free-form-GM-does-all-the-work-campaign is simply the staggering level of detail that has been provided in order to make running this massive campaign easier on the GM: Over 60 location, over 60 NPCs, almost30 strange objects - basically, even if you are not interested AT ALL in running a Dracula-themed campaign, this still remains a superb toolkit for your perusal.

But all those details don't sound very improvisational, right? Well, here a genius element of this book comes into play. Everything, and I mean friggin' everything, is utterly and completely customizable. The NPCs? They represent, in many cases, archetypes - but they also are characters: The Icelandic Diplomat, for example, is a fully developed character, with quirky mannerisms, history, ideology - true. But there are alternate names and looks, for one. Secondly, the entries focus on different options - generally, you get at least 3 options out of each character depicted - as an innocent, as a member of the conspiracy and as a direct minion of Dracula - and no, these are not the same, but more on that in the SPOILER-section, Similarly, from photos to jeweled daggers or Báthory's journals, the artifacts and objects have multiple iterations - they can be major items, often with rules-relevant repercussions upon being used, less important items, fraudulent -and all has been carefully laid out for the director's perusal.

Players stumble over item xyz too early? Okay, so you change it on the fly to a different iteration of its own, thus retaining control over this part of the campaign. This attention to detail btw. also extends to organizations and locales - from  the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels to the Echipa Mortii or the al-Qaeda in Rûm, the respective organizations can have wildly different roles from campaign to campaign and this vast arsenal of different interpretations, ultimately, also lets you maintain control - and easily switch-bait one iteration into another: "While these guys have been made to look like Dracula's minions, your painstakingly gathered intel now shows..." Similarly, the Rumanian government's branches have undergone a treatment just as detailed - which, alongside the locations themselves, does show one thing: Authors Kenneth Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan are history buffs and not only excel at the research of literature and its conventions as depicted in the Dracula Unredacted book - they also did their research here. Admirably so.

Know how impressed I was about Dracula Unredacted making use of the Icelandic Jack the Ripper-note? Well guess what? Their meticulously researched take on the locations and organization and history suffuses this book. I feel obliged to explicitly comment on this due to several facts: For one, a large part of Night's Black Agent's appeal lies in the realism of the setting, of it being "our" world. Particularly in research-heavy scenarios with historical figures, there is nothing that demotivates extremely involved players that do research in their spare time more than botching facts, dates, knowing nothing about structure xyz  -it breaks the suspension of disbelief and is highly destructive and unpleasant when encountered. You'll find no such instance herein - the respective locations, with handy maps of both dilapidated oil platforms (that may be prisons or not), cities and castles is precise and steeped deeply in real world lore - both historic and fantastic. Living a short drive away from Munich, I know about quite a few locales; similarly, as someone who had the chance to visit a lot of Rumanian castles, London and Iceland, I can verify that the depiction of these locations is downright uncanny in its presentation. I grossly, grossly underestimated the amount of work the Dracula Dossier would require for a fair assessment - I did research. A lot of it.

And the intriguing component is this: These real-life locations, organizations, etc. - they are fictional...and they are not. While the horrific threat obviously suffuses these places, they also remain grounded in reality - it's almost to the point at which I'd consider this book's depiction of places a form of augmented reality. If history is a grand narrative, a conventionalized consensus, then the accomplishment of this book lies in being almost too feasible, like an unredacted version of the things that could be, were vampires real. I may be too cerebral, I don't know - but to me, this vastly enhanced the overall fear and tension while playing this book - and it enhances the sense of immersion of the players.

More important, should you not care (or care less) about accuracy, will be that, even in this level of detail, the game-play elements are never lost - each entry and locale, everything is simply chockfull with things to do, stability to lose, traps, responses and, ultimately, fun. Have I btw. mentioned that this modularity also extends to the very identity of Dracula and his castle? There are multiple, thoroughly compelling candidates - which you can actually research. Yep. Lunch-break, thinking about the week-end's campaign? Interested in who the hell this one guy was? Research...and bam, you have meta-game and game generate a cohesive whole. Oh, have I mentioned maps for them? There is a second customization option for Dracula I consider very interesting  -but that is, frankly, SPOILER-material and will feature in that section of the review.

But perhaps, just perhaps, all of these tools, all of these details, in spite of the thorough indexing and massive amount of ideas, still feels like it's not enough to you. Perhaps, you want to have a bit more handholding,  a skeleton to put your plot-meat on, if you will? Well, fret notes - beyond the spines depicting how to craft a scenario from Dracula Unredacted annotations, the book also offers alternate ends, campaign frames (think of them as massive templates for the campaign) and an exceedingly-detailed looking glass chapter on Bucharest....but this is where I'm at an end regarding the SPOILER-free territory - I'll now go into the nit and grit of this tome.

Highly classified! Agents reading further will get BURNED and lose all stability! Agents should, at any cost, refrain from reading on and instead jump to the conclusion. Only Directors are classified to read further. CLASSIFIED. SPOILERS ABOUND.

Okay, so you're a director and know how to handle this precarious information. Good. What I intentionally failed to mention above pertains to the nature of Dracula. You may not like the idea of supernatural, classic vampires, satanic adversaries of the like - the full book contains a massive selection of items and story-hooks that are based on a scientific interpretation of vampirism, tying Dracula to tellurgic energies, electromagnetism and thus manages to add a new and evocative potential twist to the subject matter - yes, including potentially an experimental rifle with a LONG recharge duration. More importantly, though, this does allow you to mix and match the classic and the unconventional ideas to create your own, unique take on Dracula and his spawn.

The book also has a vast selection of supernatural threats that brim with creativity and, combined with Drac's stats, make this worth it for the stats alone. But what do we get exactly? Well, beyond the obvious Báthory (who is a capital threat in her own right) to Lilith (an ancient vampire posing as the goddess...) we also cover more exotic characters: - from Abhartach, the blood-drinking dwarf of Irish myth to the Chinese Jin-Gui to Orlok, Jack the Ripper (in a classic, interesting take) and various national vampire programs, we also get some truly exotic beings: Alraune, a plant-like Übermensch-experiment gone rogue or Queen Tera, the supernatural cast of optional characters is glorious. Similarly, EDOM's forces and the cast of the novel and their descendants in different epochs are covered.

EDOM? Yep, for now things get VERY spoilery - basically, the central focus of the campaign can be summed up as that this branch of MI6, which is btw. also the "conspiracy" beyond Dracula's own, seeks to recruit vampires for Britain as super-agents. This nefarious cabal operates in the shadows beyond even mainstream espionage and conspiracies and thus is a lethal foe indeed - and reading the unredacted file...well, puts the agents in danger by this force and Dracula - pincered between two truly lethal forces. More intriguing, by the way - the organization's handlers, potential for double-agents among the player, organization-responses and facilities - all of these  can be found within the superbly detailed pages contained herein. Similarly, the cast of characters of Stoker's novel and their descendants may still be around, may be working for EDOM, Dracula, both or neither - the possibilities, literally, are almost endless and up to the creativity of the director and the responses of the players.

Now I mentioned alternate capstones, right? The expected one, no surprise there, is the showdown with nigh-demi-god Dracula in his own castle. But the alternatives are no less compelling: Whether Dracula's endgame is becoming a god by ferreting out Zalmoxis, hijacking Russia by subduing Vladimir Putin or a showdown in the remote caverns beyond the inhospitable, exceedingly lethal wilderness beyond the Dracula's Mill-water fall or bringing final death at his unique, original tomb - the capstones, once again, can be mixed and matched to suit your individual campaign and resonate with diverse, unique ideas and leitmotifs as well as metaphorical charges. And yes, with ample unique challenges and even new characters, these are no mere sketches - they are distinct and lend a unique flair to the respective finales.

I did mention campaign frames, right? Well, the first of these allows you to run a Mythos-version of the whole campaign, completely compatible with Trail of Cthulhu, including a wide array of potential servants, threats and similar mythos-themed notions - AWESOME...and yes, this means that this should be in the library of any self-respecting ToC-keeper, complete with star-spawn and black monoliths. The second frame would be a stakes-frame, wherein a third faction enters the game - the Fourth Reich. Basically, here we have a less realistic blend of Nazi-super-science, pulpy aesthetics and the Dracula myth - including underground cities, powerful super-Nazi-bosses and the like...and yes, emphasis on the occult or the scientific both are possible in equal measure. Finally, the "Onto the Fourth Generation"-frame takes the generation-spanning plot and begins with 1894, then proceeds to 1940, then 1977 and then to the present day, weaving an epic yarn that begins with players directly involved in the incident that actually generated the Dracula-novel in the first place. These alternatives, obviously, can be extensively scavenged by the director to create a thoroughly unique vision of an individual campaign.

There is one more fact: The Dracula Dossier's Director's Handbook is not simply a free-form espionage campaign. It also has tie-ins. Particularly novice directors that are a bit out of their league with the free-form structure of this campaign will certainly appreciate that the book ties in with the superb Zalozhniy Quartet campaign and, obviously, The EDOM files. Though, unfortunately, I do not own the latter adventure-collection, I have tried the transition from the former to the Dossier and it worked seamlessly, smooth.

It should also be noted that a list of recommend reading has been included for your convenience!

Editing and formatting are top-notch - I only noticed a handful of glitches in a book of this impressive size, making this one of the most refined books you can find. Layout adheres to Pelgrane Press' superb 3-column full-color standard for Night's Black Agents and the book is chockfull with awesome full-color artwork - if there is an NPC, he or she will have a great artwork. Add to that great establishing shots and a high art-density in general and we have a gorgeous book. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks, while the print copy (which you *should* get) is a high-quality hardcover with glossy, thick paper - a  book made to last. My copy also featured a gorgeous cardboard 1-page-sized rendition of the glorious artwork of a potential castle of Dracula.

Kenneth Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, with support from Heather Albano, Paul Baldowski, Kennon Bauman, Walt Ciechenowski, Justin Farquhar, Elsa S. Henry, Carol Johnson, Marissa Kelly, Shoshana Kessock, Shawn Merwin, James Palmer, Nathan Paoletta, Will Plant, Wes Schneider, Christopher Sniezak and Paul Veccione have created a book that can only be described as a master-piece...and then, it still doesn't doe the experience of the Dracula Dossier justice.

If you read my reviews of Esoterrorists, Eyes of the Stone Thief or similar books, you'll notice a tendency: Pelgrane Press is actually becoming rapidly one of my favorite publishers. Much like these absolutely superb tomes, the Dracula Dossier can be considered to be a book that pushes the envelope by means of its depth, customization options and the vast, ridiculous array of unique options herein. Suffused by truly unique ideas and historic accuracy, a humbling amount of unique details and more material than you can shake a stick at, the Dracula Dossier as a whole is an experience that not only ranks among my favorites in my whole reviewer-career, it is also simply superb in just about every way. Its careful research and level of detail, its interaction with Dracula Unredacted - both conspire to basically render this book a nigh unprecedented experience: The fact that Dracula Unredacted generates a real-world experience supported by research undertaken by players enhances the immersion in unprecedented ways. Better yet, this colossal tome's genius organization renders actually running the campaign a feasible task, even for directors that are new to the GUMSHOE-rules-set: The tie-ins with the Zalozhniy Quartet allow for easier, more structured beginnings to get used to the themes of the game, while also planting the seeds for the highly modular campaign-smörgåsbord contained within these pages.

This book cannot only be considered to be excellence in game-design, it is also educational and pretty much the pinnacle of careful, deliberate and capable research. I honestly sat down with my own copy of Dracula and compared texts. I did research...and ended up being more impressed rather than less by the attention to detail and care that went into this book. Note that most texts, whether academic or otherwise, tend to elicit the opposite response from me.

This is, pretty much, a system-seller experience unlike any other you may have encountered during your experiences with investigative RPGs. It's, in one sentence, a milestone for our hobby as a whole. Obviously, my rating cannot be anything but a full 5 stars + seal of approval for this masterpiece. And yes, this is obviously a candidate for my Top Ten of this year; in fact, it is a hot contender for the number 1 spot! Seriously - even if you aren't interested in Night's Black Agent's - at least get the Dracula Unredacted book...though, if my prediction holds up, that book will make you get this Director's Handbook as well. They are simply too good to pass up. And yes, I hope I'll be able to review more of these absolutely superb GUMSHOE-books in the future!

You can get this superb book here on OBS!
A discounted Night's Black Agents starter kit with these legendary books can be found here!
The print of this superb tome can be found on Pelgrane Press' store here!

Endzeitgeist out.