RPGs Off My Shelf – September

Well, its official, “Off My Shelf” is now a series- at least, if you count two issues as a “series.” This week I want to get into a topic near and dear to a lot of roleplayers out there, D2. The D2 engine, highlighted in Dungeons and Dragons 3/3.5 edition has been nothing short of a movement. Good or ill, a lot of the rpg content produced in the last 4 years or so are lumped into two broad groups; D2 and non-D2. While I know there are a lot of people that really resent D2 for either poor mechanics or adopting a Microsoft type of business model, the simple fact to me is that a lot of quality rpg content would never have seen print if not for D2. Admittedly, it takes a little bit of work to make it through the D2 signal to noise ratio- but the gems, when you find them, are very worth it. So, this month’s review article is all about those rpg diamonds in the D2 rough.

Because D2 lends itself to fantasy settings, expect to see a focus on fantasy this time around. While D2 does have some nice entries in the non-fantasy genre, it is the fantasy settings that really stand out in terms of D2 quality.

My biases up front; I like deep settings with lots of supplements. I am a collector more than I am a player (much to my chagrin), so rpgs with lots of high quality books are more of an asset to me than single “core” books. Right or wrong, I see lots of supplements as a sign of a healthy line. And with lots of supplements come lots and lots of ideas, most of which, I assume, help flesh out the world. I also like settings that twist standard assumptions into new ways. As you can tell from my July article (Sci-Fi Settings) I not only dig in-depth settings but also setting innovation and quality production values.

(A bit of a disclaimer: due to the open gaming nature of D2 this article looks at D2 and OGL products together as one family)

So, knowing all that, here are this month’s rankings.

My Top Five D2 settings.

Honorable mention:

Iron Kingdoms (Privateer Press)- While a great game, I helped write parts of the setting and so I remove it from contention.

Oathbound; Domains of the Forge – A setting specifically designed to handle characters from various worlds. A bit like Planescpae meets Fraggle Rock meets the Running Man (no joke). There are a lot of goofy elements and some occasional bad editing gaffes that keep it just off my top 5.

Eberron (WotC)- nifty setting that still needs more definition before I can rank. The core book is great, but the quality of the supplements has yet to be decided.

Warcraft (Sword and Sorcery)- a quality translation of the wonderful CRPG. The key to this line is that the supplements are getting better (not worse as is the norm) as the line continues.

5. Forgotten Realms (WotC). This is the quintessential D2 kitchen-sink game. It has taken me a number of years to come around to really enjoying Forgotten Realms. Originally I played in Ansalon (Dragonlance) and for a long time Forgotten realms lacked the luster of Dragonlance. However, with D2 and the reproduction of Forgotten Realms as the flagship setting of Wizards of the Coast, I ended up buying the core book and have never regretted the purchase. 3/3.5E Forgotten Realms has some absolutely spectacular plot elements highlighted by a series of books that are, arguably, the highest quality rpg products on the market. In all honesty, the 3E Forgotten Realms books are beautiful and the art is extremely evocative.

While kitchen-sink setting are usually not my preferred settings, 3E Forgotten realms does everything just right to get me to really want to play in Faerun. The introduction of the Shades (elite Shadow corrupted humans) and the Kir-Lanan (anti-divine gargoyles) were two small additions that really caught my attention. The fleshing out of the Thayans to more than simple evil magic users has also helped make Faerun a much more interesting and compelling setting. All told, there is a lot of interesting plotlines presented in the core 3E Forgotten realms book- so much so and of such a quality that I can overlook all the craziness thrown in to really focus on the interesting aspects.

4. Conan (Mongoose Publishing). Who doesn’t dig Conan? This is a largely faithful translation of the original Robert Howard stories into the D2 mechanic. Usually, I am very skeptical of Mongoose. They really seem to rush their products and end up with some inferior products. Case in point, is the first edition of Conan (Hyborean edition). Riddled with errata, the game was seriously hampered in playability. However, Mongoose immediately made good on their promise to remedy the situation and, in time, released a new edition (Atlantean edition) with cleaned up rules and text. All that said, Conan D2 is a nifty setting.

There are some fundamental changes to the D2 mechanic as presented in the PHB, but still, Conan D2 is at its heart, a 3E game. Conan takes sword and sorcery, distills it down into its core elements and then rebuilds according to Howard’s compelling setting. It is a world of Barbarian kings, eldritch and sometimes uncontrollable magic, and of adventure. There is a rawness to Conan that is reflected very well in the D2 game that I really enjoy. Strikes against Conan are the original problems with errata as well as it being a licensed setting- in the end, while it is a worthy addition to the Conan body of work- my preferences lean towards original settings.

3. Scarred Lands (Sword and Sorcery Games). This is a very compelling setting that a lot of people have missed. The body of work so far is impressive, and while some of the books could do with a re-write (rather than a simple edit) the vast majority of what is out there for Scarred Lands is really interesting and fun. The Scarred Lands take some of the best parts of the Forgotten Realms, like the conflict between the Gods, and really highlights those elements. Scarred Lands as a setting, is interesting because of the way it was created. Rather than trying to force an existing idea of a setting into the D2 mould (such as with Conan) the designers looked at the core mechanics of 3E and designed a world that helped make sense of those mechanics. Thus, alignment makes a lot of sense in Scarred Lands. Similarly, the various classes each fit very nicely into the Scarred Lands setting- something that just about every other setting fails to do. Druids, Paladins and Monks, normally an afterthought in D2 settings, each play integral roles in the Scarred Lands. I really like the integration of the classes.

Scarred Lands as a whole is an interesting place to adventure. A land recently ravaged by a war between the gods and their followers, the world is still trying to recover. This is post-apocalyptic fantasy at its best, where the heroes do what they do because the designers made sure to emphasize that the world really needs heroes. The Scarred Lands is very big (4 full continents and counting) and there is a lot of room for adventuring to be had- certainly a plus for any role-player.

The downsides are few but important. There are a number of edits and errata many of the books need. Similarly, like I mentioned above, a couple of the books are simply not very good and hurt the playability of the setting. Still, the overall quality of the setting outweighs much of these problems (indeed, it is that much fun IMO).

2. Rokugan (Alderac Entertainment). I loved the original Legend of the 5 Rings but really hated the 2nd edition and I stopped paying any attention to the setting as 1st edition was left behind. Then, Rokugan came along as part of the redesigned D2 Oriental Adventures and I was a very happy boy. D2 and Rokugan mesh quite nicely. The new classes all fit the pseudo-Japanese style of Rokugan and I really dig the inclusion of the Courtier as a core class (showcasing that D2 is not only about hack-and-slash). Even more appealing is the Samurai core class, the Daisho ability really makes them the highlight of the setting while not quite overpowering fighters as a useful combat class.

Rokugan is a lot like Japan of the warring states era (Sengokujidai), except in this world, you have magic and the gods playing their role. Populated by a handful of Great Clans under the direction of the Emperor, the world is a constant flow of shifting alliances, border skirmishes and political intrigue. Humans are the primary race, with all other races marginalized. No quick synopsis of Rokugan would be complete without mentioning the Shadowlands – a corrupted land to the southwest where a broken and vengeful god plots his revenge against humanity.

The supplements have all been extremely useful. The “Way of” books have done a nice job of covering the various and disparate aspects of Rokugani society and the “Secrets of X” books did something that the previous Clan books did not- help define the landed regions of Rokugan as well as give a little more definition as to what life in the Clans is like. Overall, Rokugan is a very deep setting, with complex alliances and plotlines that all but scream to be role played. This is a setting where the characters can become bigger than life because the world almost begs them to develop into deadly Ninja, honorable Samurai, crafty Courtiers, and mysterious Gaijin.

Rokugan has some of the most interesting and detailed NPCs around. Where other settings are set around compelling wars, conflicts or regions, it is the personalities behind the NPCs of Rokugan that really give the setting shape. I once heard that the original developer saw the whole plot unfold before his mind’s eye because of his vision of one of the core NPCs, Bayushi Kachiko.

The downside to Rokugan is the same as its biggest asset; the involved world. The body of Rokugan info, from the original 1E and 2E games and from the constantly evolving Collectable Card Game. Simply put, if not played with an eye to consistency, the world can potentially overwhelm the GM or the players. Still, recognizing that the world of Rokugan grows and changes just as the characters do helps put the style of play into context- and if you take the time to get into the world, it ends up being very rewarding.

1. Midnight (Fantasy Flight Games). This setting is head and shoulders above the rest, IMO. I have a penchant for dark and gritty settings, and they do not get any darker or grittier than Midnight. The best description of Midnight is Middle earth if Sauron won. That one line description alone creates all sorts of interesting roleplaying opportunities- add to that a very well thought out world, nifty classes, some fun new mechanics, and you get my favorite D2 setting.

The default playing style is a group of PC freedom fighters- fighting the good fight in an unconventional way against the forces of darkness that seemingly stand on the verge of victory. Everything else aside, the oppressive setting immediately creates some difficult questions- such as where the term freedom fighter vs. terrorist diverges. Also inherent in the setting are questions such as who is an enemy or potential ally and if victory is really an attainable goal against such a powerful evil. All told, it is these difficult and complex questions that really make Midnight shine.

To its credit, Midnight goes beyond these implied questions to help develop the world in a very fascinating way. Even without Izrador (the dark God) and the forces of Shadow, are the conflicts between the various races and cultures. In the core book alone we get a lot of information of the peoples of Midnight, providing a good deal of useful tidbits to help make a number of different types of characters (including, naturally, evil ones). Beyond the core book are a host of solid supplements. One thing that I really like about Midnight is that FFG has focused on creating a regular series of low cost but useful supplements. Most Midnight supplements hover around $16 and focus on things like Midnight specific monsters, magic, locations, and heroes. The art is pretty good throughout the line and very consistent, a big plus in my book. Oh, and one of the supplements is a boxed set- how cool is that?

The new mechanics in Midnight are second to none. Magic is pretty radically changed in the setting, fitting in nicely with the desperate feeling that should be core aspects of any heroic campaign. To help offset the nastiness of the setting, PC heroes have access to “bloodlines,” s sort of destiny mechanic (such as “steelborn” and “beast friend”) that grants bonuses as the character advances. Bloodlines not only help grant useful and setting appropriate bonuses, but also help further define a Player’s character from other characters of the same class. Nifty.

The only issues I have with Midnight are that the bindings of some of the core books were pretty poor. I take good care of my books, but still had to send my copy of the Core book to Fantasy Flight to get a replacement (and like Mongoose, FFG was more than prompt in helping me get a new replacement copy). I also feel that the signature adventure “Crown of Shadow” is pretty weak- especially for a setting that is popping at the seams with great campaign ideas.

All in all though, Fantasy Flight has a winner on their hands. I cannot recommend Midnight highly enough.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to pop over to the forums and voice your opinion.

Thanks, and see you next month.

Chris Gunning

Chris Gunning writes copy for the “one thousand monkeys, one thousand typewriters” website, where they accept open submissions and provide publication resources for artists and writers in the fantasy, science fiction, and role-playing genres. His site can be found at: http://www.1km1kt.net

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