Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Review of Rite Publishing's Items Evolved: Conflict

Items Evolved: Conflict
Steven D. Russell


In effort to maintain full disclosure, the following review is based upon a complimentary copy of the PDF, however this was unsolicited and with no expectation of favoritism. The following is based upon unbiased opinion and review.

At the low price of $1.99, this 9-page release, third in the Items Evolved series, introduces us to items of conflict, a common theme to Monte Cook's Arcana Evolved, with which it fits nicely. Conflict gives us 13 items that could easily be dropped into an existing Arcana Evolved campaign, either as an interesting, yet simply reward or as an interesting twist, side quest, or sojourn. Whole sidelines could be designed around each item, adding a depth to a planned adventure, enriching the game play for your players with new items.

Each item has the basic information of cost or cost modifiers, body slots, caster level, and so forth, as well as a flavorful description, but we are also presented with a detail object loresight listing, as well as a source for skill-based checks and difficulty class with specific information attached to it, as well. Be it an article of clothing, a weapon, a piece of jewelry, or stones, precious or otherwise.

If you are looking for more items of note and power, so as to inject a bit of flavor into your campaign, then Rite Publishing's Items Evolved: Conflict is an excellent, low-cost PDF of good quality with interesting items. Overall the quality of the layout of the PDF is good, with the need for errata or corrections low, in fact one of the only issues that was noticed was a missing difficulty class number for lore check on the Belt of the Ghi-Nammor Chrysalis, which is probably a 25, anyhow.

All in all, Items Evolved: Conflict adds an enjoyable flavor to any Arcana Evolved campaign, cutting down on the preparation time for the DM/GM with the interesting object loresight provided for each item, plus the author provides us with an insight into the method for generating the loresightings in the design notes on the credit page. It is well worth the modest price of $1.99, which can be found here.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Paizo's doing it again...

...and I'm not talking about convincing me to spend what little mad money I've got left on their awesome products, but I'm talking about Paizo doing another Open Call for writers to work on some of their products. Although not as complex as RPG Superstar, we're still talking about a potentially awesome opportunity for someone who would love to be a freelance RPG designer and developer, if they're not already one.

Now, I'll admit, I'm a big fan of open calls, as two of my three published credits came from open calls, one from Sword & Sorcery Studios and DragonWing Games (actually, it was Bastion Press, before it's IP was moved to DWG), and I feel that they give the fan, as well as semi-profession and even professional writers, a chance to make a break into the role-playing game industry and follow their passion. Wizards of the Coast even did an open call, with their setting search a few years ago, which gave us Keith Baker and his setting of Eberron, a setting that I enjoy, a lot.

Not only is it an opportunity for the winner of open calls, when they are in a contest form, but there is opportunity for those who participate, if they catch the right person's eye during the contest. It is an excellent way to make a good impression on people in the industry, as they will attach your name to good work, or if you do it badly, well, then there is that bad impression, but the risk is well worth the reward.

So, I wish those of you who look into this open call, or other open calls, all the luck in the world, however I cannot, in good faith, wish that you win, since odds are I'm competing against you. Enjoy yourself, though, and see you on the other side.

Monday, November 10, 2008

D&D Insider - The Character Builder Beta

Okay, first off, as a slight caveat, I know that the Character Builder is in Beta, as well as what it means for software to still be in beta. I've worked in the customer service and information technology industry for over a decade, be it as a customer service technician, corporate help desk, or field services, so I'm familiar with the concept of  beta and its expectations.

Now, with that said, the only real displeasure I found with the D&D Insider Character Builder was the installer, as it was not that user friendly and had a major hanging point with the confirmation of the web install of Microsoft .Net's 3.5 SP 1. It'd just get to the end of what should be a normal install point and hang, seemingly forever, before giving up and telling you that your net connection was the issue. But, after a quick run to Microsoft's .Net website, as well as a download, I just re-installed the Service Pack and all was well.

But, it really shouldn't be that hard, the install package for software is the one thing that a company should always have down pat, since it is one of the more memorable parts of the software experience, when things go wrong, and heavily effects a customer's view of the software, right or wrong. While the Character Builder is a beta software, it is a beta that people are technically paying for, at least with respect for D&D Insider subscribers, so you'd expect the installer to be a bit more tight than it is. However, glitches are to be expected in a beta and, hopefully, Wizards of the Coast are paying attention to this and it'll be fixed, or tightened up, down the line.

We shall see, but now onto the more pleasurable aspect of  this beta, the usage of the Character Builder.

Overall, I'm really enjoying the Character Builder, as it does what it is expected to do and it does it quite well, almost seamlessly. While there are some layout issues with the window, such as it not working well with small displays on laptops that are a bit older and running at a modest desktop size, even on a more modern laptop (convertible to a tablet), the Bug Report link, from the bottom left, is a bit out of sight. But, as said, it is a beta, so these things, more than the installer issue, are expected and should be understandable, so long as they're fixed.

Usage of the character builder is quite impressive, as it walks through a standard character build, step by step, including options from releases outside of the initial core, such as Dragon content and the Forgotten Realms. Also, there is the ability to select a portrait for your character from a minor list of art from the core books, but there is the obvious fact that you could add your own images to the gallery, too. One of the biggest "It" factors for me, though, is the finished product of character building, the character sheet.

With the Character Builder, not only do you get a filled our, detailed, and useful character sheet, but it also includes your power cards in what is quite obviously a print out that promotes cutouts. While the install had some issues, the usage of the application, thus far, is going quite smoothly, doesn't seem to have any math issues (that I've noticed, yet), and produces something that a lot of folk have wanted since the release of 4e, which is detailed, printable power cards.

If you're someone who is sitting on the fence, with respect to buying D&D Insider, the Character Builder beta is a good selling point, currently, and would easily be worth a monthly subscription to check it out, if not a full year. One good thing to think of, too, when it comes to the DDI, is that the subscription pays for further development and features. Now, all WotC needs to do, is tighten up that install so that folks don't have to need customer service and tech support without even getting the software installed.

Friday, November 7, 2008

D&D Insider - First Blush

Recently I was gifted with a D&D Insider account, as I had moved to an area where I am having trouble finding a group of players and the gifter knew I was into role-playing games, especially D&D, so the offer was presented and I was not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. It is interesting how things came together, my being asked to help form a group and that they would like to play 4e D&D, all of which led me to decide to make my first world creation effort since my entry in the D&D Setting Search that Keith Baker won with Eberron.

Like many of you, I had heard about the Digital Initiative back when 4th Edition was announced, as well as experienced the wide variety of marketing that let up to D&D Insider being released as a work in progress. I saw the rise and fall of Gleemax and some of the struggling points of the D&D Insider's suite of offerings, but all of that said, I cannot say that I am not pleased with what I have seen, thus far.

For what amounts to just under five bucks a month, if you pay the full year in advance, you get access to a digital version of Dungeon and Dragon magazine, which is cool, although I still miss the feeling of the pages under my fingers. Access to the D&D Compendium, which at first glance is a player's dream, let alone a dungeon master's, with a burgeoning bounty at your fingertips. Plus, there are the ever useful monster and encounter builders, as well as the ability score generator, all of which can make a DM's life much quicker and easier, not to mention empowers their ability to adjust things on the fly.

For years I have wanted something that would enhance my DM screen, that extra "umph", so to speak, and a laptop as provided it to some degree. Prior to the release of D&D Insider, Microsoft OneNote was the one tool, on a laptop, that I felt added to my gaming experience, be it as a player and/or a DM, but I think that D&D Insider is jockeying for position.

Sure, it is not yet complete, as we are still missing the character builder and visualizer, as well as the dungeon generator and digital game table, but those are still going to be there, just not yet. Instead, they are offering access to what they have now, which will then fuel the continued development, similar to what Blizzard, or other MMO houses, do with their fees. We pay monthly fees for game play, those fees go into the upkeep and development of the game.

Although I feel we have only seen the glimmer of what D&D Insider has to offer, I am more hopeful now than I was previously, with respect to what that potential offering will be. Technology is expanding, computers, be it laptops, tablets, or desktops, are growing more common at the game table, be it as a DM aide or a player aide, be it for campaign notes or a gaming soundtrack, and I think that this offering from Wizards of the Coast has the real potential to enhance the game in very positive ways for a long time to come.

Sure, 4th Edition D&D is different than what we have been use to before, not to mention that there are folks out there who will keep 3.5e alive (such as Paizo), but that does not mean that the industry cannot, should not, survive the splitting of the d20 fanbase. In fact, if D&D Insider is a look at what may potentially come from this schism, then perhaps the fracturing of the fans is a good thing.

If the usefulness of an unfinished product like D&D Insider is a sign of what the next few years are going to be like then I am all for it, since it will enhance my 4e experience and play, for what amounts to a few dollars a month, less than I pay for an MMO or magazine subscription and way, way less than my subscriptions to the variety of offerings from Paizo. 

I say this, if you play 4th Edition D&D and enjoy it, yet would like a few more options, a few more utilities, especially the ability to quickly search for any entry containing the word "drow" or "goblin", then D&D Insider is worth a look, if not for the D&D Compendium alone. Buying a one year subscription is cheap, while a quarterly subscription is a little bit more expensive, and the monthly just a little bit more. But, regardless of if it is $4.95 a month or $7.95 a month, DDI is worth the month, now. Imagine what it will be like once they have finished it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Homebrew Campaigns

Although there have been plenty of industry created campaigns, usually attached to a specific setting, if the ability to add up all the campaign settings that exist, from the past, to today, and into the future, I have a feeling that the homebrew campaigns will far outnumber those made by the industry. Notice that I said industry made, not professionally made, because while many homebrews are made by amateur developers and designers, much of their work happens to be as good as if it were made by folks in the industry. Also, some of the most famous settings came from someone's table, first, before it came from the industry.

But, my focus today, is on the allure of designing your own world, crafting a world within which player characters explore and adventure, a dungeon/game master to narrate, and for evil hordes and righteous armies to march across and do battle while the heroes clandestinely save the day. The idea of all of that occurring withing something created by a fan of the genre, system, or what not, has always impressed me, even if I rarely did it myself. While I am a creative person, I sometimes struggle with motivation, more so because my brain often looks at all that lays ahead, instead of focusing on starting small, thus I handicap myself when it comes to world creation.

Whenever I talk with game developers and designers, with respect to what it takes to design a whole world, I have often been told to start small and work my way outward, as if I was walking the paths of the world its self. It seems almost antithetical, starting on a small level, since you feel like you need to make the world first and then the location, but it's the opposite, so I have been told, so I thought I would give it a try myself.

Recently, after I moved back to Oregon from Idaho, I found myself without a gaming group, but eventually I met game from EN World and we decided to form a group and use 4e as its ruleset, since I had played it before and he was really interested in playing with it. Once I had set my mind to work on designing a campaign to use the 4th Edition of D&D, as well as polled some folks at EN World on advice, I decided to create my own homebrew world, give it a shot and see if the "start small" method worked.

So I started off with a geographic idea in mind, a secluded valley with two major ways into it and a handful of minor ways, with mountains to the southwest, southeast, east, and northeast with some minor and major lakes, nearby but out of side, that feed into a major stream to river tributary system, which made it easy to pick the location of the main village. Plus, it made it easy to fix some locations for the various races, including both kinds of elves, dwarves, dragonborn, and so forth. After awhile I looked at the map, seeing where everything was, and realized that by keeping it small I made for an intimate world that had 30 to 40 miles between one small village and this trading post or that keep, with the larger enclaves of the world known to be hundreds of miles away, and it gave the map this frontier feel that reminded me of Keep on the Borderlands, which was cool.

Plus, it left me with the one thing that I loved the most about Greyhawk, which was all of this territory that was left for the players to discover and illustrate more with their action and adventure, it gave me this world were I felt more in control, for obvious reasons, but also this sense of there being so much more to discover. It was then that it hit me, I was only working in an area of a thousand or so square miles, an area roughly the side of Rhode Island, so of course I felt like there was more to discover, because there was a while world out there to work with and it was all mine.

When I thought about the way I use to try and make worlds, by making all the planets and continents first, I realized that, at least for me, I was making it harder than it needed to be. Sure, there is more out there, everywhere, but why should I focus on their being so much for the players when, at first, I can just give them this hint of flavor and start them out hungry to find more. Cosmopolitan worlds can be fun, with thousands of peoples and cultures mixing together, but, I realized, so can wilderness campaigns of seclusion and remote dangers, too.

But, that's been my experience, what's yours been like?

Character Portraits in Gaming

When I was a boy, way early on in my role-playing odyssey, I'd flip through the pages of those early Dragon magazines and look at the artists' ads where they offered to draw a character portrait for $17, at least that's the one I remember the most, and I'd just wish I could afford one. But, instead, I'd often spend hours at a table drawing a picture of what I felt my character would look like, except my internal vision rarely matched the external one.

To say that my artistic ability left something to be desired is akin to saying that Mountain St. Helen's had a slight geological history. However, it has always felt important to me, as a gamer, to have a solid visual to my character, in addition to whatever narrative that I supplied, and I think a lot of folk felt the same way.

After awhile, it seems, it become common place to say, "Oh, well he/she looks like [INSERT ACTOR]." While the imagery of what was worn, how it was worn, was relegated to narrative, the face and build had more of a real attachment to it, but it was nothing like having that picture and gamers seemed to know that, which has led to a revival of the artist seeking patronage.

Recently I decided that I wanted a picture for a play-by-post character that I've on EN World, the picture is by J. Cayne and I could not be more pleased. Although my character was well described and fleshed out, I knew I wanted to have that portrait, which was well worth the fee of $50. Not only do I have a smaller version for posting, but I've a larger version for printing that is just very well done.

If you check out EN World's Marketplace, specifically the Art Services, you will find others offering their services, so you should be able to find artists that fit what style you're seeking. Also, there are plenty of artists out there who aren't on EN World, such as Sean Kennedy, an old DM of mine, perhaps the best DM I've ever had, who happens to be a phenomenal artist and drew quite a few of my earliest portraits.

Personal gaming illustrations have always been so connected to gaming, so desired, that many younger folk who do fantasy art probably got a start by doing their own portraits and illustrations, which is pretty cool, too, when you think about it. How do you feel about character portraits, are they important to you or could you live without them?

Here is Kael Saern, as visualized by J. Cayne: