The Deal With All the Reviews

So, What’s the Deal With All the Reviews?
Some of you know I haven’t been well for some time and the reviews have been my way of testing myself to see if I was ready to get back to work (as well as a way of procrastinating from that work) and a way of providing the site with some content and driving some traffic to it. Then I got asked to do a review or two on top of that and so here we are now. If you want me to review something, here’s how it works…Send me the material in PDF or hardcopy form, establish contact via this site or whatever other means you have for getting hold of me if you’re going to send hardcopy though. I will review it.

If you wish to republish my reviews elsewhere the condition is that you provide a link back to my site, or run an advert for some of my products (on whichever sales site point you prefer to connect to.

This will not be becoming a general review site, but to make sure I have interesting things up here at least every other day I’ll probably have some more reviews, and cartoons, RPG design theory, anecdotes and anything else I can think of to keep things nice and interesting.


Review: Colonial Gothic

Alright, I think I’m biased in this review. I’m not nationalistic by any stretch of the imagination but I am British, I am a rationalist, I studied history and I am someone who dislikes history being made into myth when it is a matter of record. On all three strokes Colonial Gothic apparently could not help but piss me off to the point I was grinding my teeth while reading it. Putting atheism in the same category (called faith) as other beliefs was just the icing on the cake.
Colonial Gothic is a game of occult mystery and darkness set during the American Revolution, I shall try to contain myself from dispelling too many myths about that time or the nature of the revolt, or what the British actually did/were doing and why but even without that making my forehead vein throb this seems, to me, to be a peculiar time period to place such a game in, when there are more pressing matters for both the British forces and the rebels.


Historical roleplaying seems to be having a bit of a vogue at the moment, mostly with Flying Mice but Rogue Games here seem to have fastened onto it with this game, though it has stepped outside of the historical box by incorporating the supernatural, but hasn’t taken the real time and energy to place that supernatural element into a context within the game. Despite the extensive bibliography listed – including books on the magic and witchcraft somewhat believed in in the period – I didn’t see any evidence of this research in the actual system.While the guide to the time period and the early colonies is a useful resource the system isn’t particularly inspiring and has much that is unnecessary twiddling, perhaps this book should be considered in the same manner as many GURPS supplements – great source material, not a great game system (for many of us… I know you GURPS fans have guns and grudges, if YOU like it, fine).


There isn’t much and what there is is mostly period clip art which, while somewhat evocative, doesn’t really show up the occult/mystery side of the game and makes it, instead, seem very dry and dull. There are strips of artwork top and bottom of the page and the single column layout leaves quite a bit of white space left and right as well, meaning the book seems a bit thin on actual content for what it is, though it does make it easier to read.

Largely straightforward and matter of fact the writing is quite dry and dull, especially without really decent artwork to inspire you where the text, perhaps, might not. Much of it is simply laying out the situation as it was historically which is fair enough but there’s a failure to really engage you with the occult side of the setting, even through the sample adventures which you would think, typically, would give you more of a handle on how the game is supposed to be played.  That itself is another issue, where you’re being told how the game should be played – explicitly – in one of the earlier chapters it somehow both failed to furnish me with that information effectively, and annoyed me at the same time by saying that there was a way you had to do it, rather than a suggested way. By this point I was already in a bad mood with the game however, which may have affected my judgement, when it got to the treatment of the Native Americans and I found it to largely be a case of Noble Savage mythmaking the book was only saved from being flung violently across the room by the fact it was a PDF on my computer.

Not a great deal to say here. The background is the American Revolutionary War against the British, from an unashamedly American viewpoint but intermingled with largely unexplained and extraneous occult circumstances and situations with some suggestion that the Masons be involved in some fashion.
If the occult side of the equation was better thought out, if the magic and animism systems bore closer relation to the beliefs of the time this would be a vastly better game, despite the reservations I have about using this period for such a game, its just missing that vital element.

The rules, called 12 degrees, use two d12s – when two d10s would have worked just as well. Perhaps somebody has some particular sympathy for the d12 and its under-representation, who knows? Anyway, you roll the 2d12 and attempt to get under a modified target number to get a success. Doubles at the extreme ends are botches or critical successes. Combat uses hit points and, really, there’s nothing new or innovative or noteworthy here, its a deeply average system that covers all the bases but doesn’t really fit itself to the period or the theme.


  • Good historical source material.


  • Weak and undeveloped concept.
  • Deeply average system.
  • Boring to read and look at.

Style: 2
Substance: 3
Overall: 2.5

Review: Terran Trade Authority RPG

Like many children born in the 70s, and before, I grew up around a lot of hard science fiction, much of it in the form of small paperback novels with semi-abstract and eye-catching covers, either in the shops or as ‘legacy books’ from parents, uncles and cheaply bought in charity shops. In younger days I might conflate similar books into one sort of science-fiction ‘metaverse’ where these things all happened side by side and, apparently, a similar sort of idea struck Stewart Cowley towards the end of the 70s and recycling the artwork of those covers, commissioning new ones and stringing the whole lot together in art books with a solid vision of the future the TTA universe was born. A future history compelling in its authority and its consistency.
I always wanted to play around in the TTA universe, but my attempts were all ship combat games – mostly derived from Full Thrust. This book delivers a roleplaying background of future history that I think is, perhaps, second only to Traveller, if less flexible.


This is a pretty hefty book at over 400 pages and the hardcopy only seems to be available, in softback, from Amazon rather than any other method. A big part of that size is down to single column, large font text, imitating the original books in format but in terms of presenting RPG information it can’t help but feel wasteful, even if the price isn’t too high. The RPG is packed with information combining the RPG information with most of the information from Local Space 2200AD and Spacecraft 2100 to 2200, though those (non RPG books) do contain a modicum of extra information.The game uses Morrigan Press’ Omni System, which uses a single d20 roll to resolve… just about everything and is a generic system also used, in subtly different form, in their other games.


The artwork in the book will, mostly, be familiar to anyone who knows the TTA books but they should notice something a little bit.. different about it. The original scenes and ships are recreated but they are recreated using computer modelling and raytracing techniques. While this does look good in and of itself it seems strange to have copied the original books but not to have used the original art. Perhaps there were licensing issues or problems with the artist’s estates or something, but you would think that slavishly copying the original works would have thrown up the same problem. Either way its good to see the old images, even in new form, but I think something is lost in the transferral to digital media – and note that I’m not against computer graphics in any way, shape or form.
There are three styles of artwork spread throughout the book. Firstly the ships – renders approximating the original artwork. Secondly the sketch-style naturalist illustrations of the three races – human, alphan and proximan. Thirdly the equipment sketches, which look a bit more like CAD images. Each works but as a mix the book just doesn’t seem to come together stylistically.

The layout is rather pedestrian but does recall the original books, I just don’t think it is a particularly good use of space and the use of the large font makes the book seem drastically over bloated, even on PDF.

Like the original books there is no actual ‘fiction’ present in TTA. Everything is instead told in a matter-of-fact historical or scientific manner so that, even though it is make believe, you never get anything like ‘Mack tightened his hand on the control rod and sighted up the proximan raider…’ the closest you get are in character accounts or reports written by fictional people. There is no fiction in-the-moment. This helps make the background feel much more ‘real’ and solid and can make for an easier – if somewhat dry – read since personal taste in fiction doesn’t come into it so much. Everything is well explained in a clear and straightforward manner and the larger text does actually help with this as your eye does wander as much as it might in denser text.

The background of the game is a universe at the beginning of the expansion of man – and other similar races – into the galaxy. Relatively few planets and stars have been mapped and explored, even fewer colonies begun, but already there has been one interstellar war and numerous strange anomalies have been found out in the galaxy, not least of all the apparent common heritage between the humans, alphans and proximans. The three intelligent species intermingling so far

The game picks up at the end of the proximan war, some years after, though terrorism and disruption, along with piracy, discontented nationalists and corporate interests and other factors all contribute to making an interesting game world with many opportunities to play in. You could, very easily, set the game earlier, before or during the proximan war with no problems whatsoever, though the book is lacking the development of the game world onwards into the later books like Great Space Battles – which I actually preferred.

The humans are pretty much as per humans today, though the world has changed a great deal. There’s one world government and trade from the mother world is overseen by one overarching body, the Terran Trade Authority, and I can hear all manner of people shrieking in political terror already at the very idea. Not to worry, there are rebels, secessionists and terrorists who have reacted in much the same way, despite the necessity of a united world in interstellar society, so you could play one of those if you find the politics presented not to your taste.

The background has been tweaked from what it once was, nobody really foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union back then and so a great many future histories sort of fell over once the USSR broke up and the Berlin wall came down. While there are still potential problems with the new timeline it does feel much more realistic and up to date than the old background – not that that necessarily matters in fantasy games.

The alphans are arch-rationalist, elf-like, semi-tribal and poly androgynous humanoids. Apparently every worst nightmare of the American bible belt flung together in a single species but I think they are quite well designed and while I’m not a fan of humanoid aliens the alphan society seems well thought out and alien enough to be a source of rich RP possibility, as well as giving bishounen yaoi anime fans something to play and coo over.

The proximans, by contrast are a matriarchal and quite conservative society, despite their inbuilt gender switching and acceptance of genetic modification, and they also harbour deep religious convictions and beliefs that put them in natural conflict and contrast with the alphans. The proximans, from a tide-locked planet – are far more satisfyingly alien, at least in appearance, while their societal ideas and religious notions are depressingly familiar.

While no particular hook is set out it is my feeling that characters are best played as TTA or TDA (defence) agents operating between the three planets and their colonies as this would give the broadest scope for play.

The rules are the Omni system which is basically a d20 roll against a set range of results, with the roll modified by a variety of factors to give a different degree of success from an abject failure to a stunning success. Character creation is a simple business of applying templates over a basic, modified, racial starting point and doesn’t take long at all, as well as giving you a hook on your character’s past.

Combat wise most things are pretty simple, two knocks against the game – in my opinion – are, however, the use of hit points (too abstract for me) and the set damage level of weapons which through the system can only do half, full or double damage which just doesn’t seem granular enough for me in terms of differing results. Far too predictable.

Space ships are treated pretty much the same as characters, which is – in my opinion – a good way to do space opera but not necessarily so good here with a more hard SF game, particularly since there isn’t a hugely broad swathe of ships on offer. The book advertises more ship information and add ons at the website but apart from a character sheet and some old news there really isn’t much there.


  • Nostalgia a go-go.
  • Simple to understand system.
  • Very complete book.


  • Not widely available.
  • Artistic reinvention of the wheel.
  • No clear adventurer concepts (relatively incompatibility of races)

Style: 3
Substance: 4
Overall: 3.5


Review: Qin – Warring States

Qin is to China’s mythological history what Legend of the Five Rings is to Japan’s. While there are superficial and stylistic similarities between the two games and they share the same broad appeal the similarities in no way mean they’re the same any more than the broad similarities between Japan and China themselves mean they’re in any way the same country.
Qin takes a more historical approach – though don’t worry, there are monsters and magic – and has a much more egalitarian and open society structure (considering the source material) than Legend of the Five Rings. Being a peasant or bandit is a much more viable option in Qin and while the social order is divinely mandated and enforced – particularly for women – the period of the setting is chaotic enough and in enough upheaval that this is no longer an issue.

Qin is published by a French company, 7th Circle, and has been taken on (in the ‘seven’ theme) for publication in English by Cubicle 7 Entertainment. The line is planned to be finite and the translation from the French appears, so far, to have been done much better than in many other cases. Cubicle 7 are yet to release any of the supplements yet, however, so it remains to be seen if the quality of translation and presentation will continue with the next releases, I’m confident it will.

This review is based on the colour PDF, though I have held and thumbed through the physical edition.


Qin is a hefty 275 page, hardback book with a leather-effect glossed and embossed cover. Another example of a swing back towards graphical imagery rather than pictures on gaming book covers. The interior is colour, but for the most part this is a parchment and brush-painted effect, with a few clearer illustrations here and there for effect. The game is complete in one volume and the system loose enough that you could expand the options available yourself with little effort, though the supplementary material will still be welcome when it arrives.The game is set during the ‘warring states’ period of Chinese history after the fall of the previous Imperial family but before the establishment of the Qin dynasty.

Players take the role of heroes in these hard times where rival kingdoms are vying for territory and the throne and the most obviously available roles would be those of a kingdom’s secret service, or of wandering heroes (or villains) taking advantage of or trying to compensate for the chaos of the period.

The cover is a wonderful bit of simplistic and eye-catching design with the matt/gloss contrast along with the embossing doing wonders for the already competent execution. The interior art is evocative, with much of it in the ‘scrappy’ style of a calligraphic brush, accompanied by a few stand-out pieces of more visible, more clear, more linear art where needed. My only complaint, with both the PDF and the hardcopy, would be that the darkness of the background combined with the indistinct nature of most of the images makes reading either a bit of a hard slog as the images can come through a little muddy and there’s not quite enough contrast between the text and the page.

The layout is good, the chapters reasonably well divided but there is a lot of information to convey to the reader in terms of history, politics, background and the general social setting, let alone the rules (which are mercifully fairly simple) but a good balance appears to have been struck so that the information gets conveyed without being too jumbled up. Section headings are in a slightly difficult to read brush stroke styled font which, combined with the dimness of the pages can make reading a little tricky.

The fiction is, largely, short and to the point and focussed on helping lay out the setting and role/capabilities of the heroes. The bulk of the writing is explanatory text about the myths, history, legends, social mores, societal changes, religions and other aspects of the world including, in the GM section, the powers behind the various intrigues and supernatural forces at work in the shadows. This is, for the most part, fairly matter-of-fact but in places displays a little of the poetry and cadence of translated Chinese epics which, to me, demonstrates the quality of the translation and the love of the creators for their subject matter.

The game rules are described more than adequately and I had no problem understanding the application of them from the descriptions given, which is a welcome break from the situation with other French game translations!

The background is an historical one, the era of The Warring States with particular focus on the rise of the Qin Kingdom which was later to become the Qin Dynasty. The main thrust of the game seems to take the assumption that characters will be operating for the ascendant Qin Kingdom, perhaps as part of their secret service (which would allow for many peculiar mixes of characters). Qin is just beginning its inexorable rise and the other kingdoms are set in opposition to it – as well as each other – iron is a relatively new technology as is properly organised cavalry and the Chinese Empire is surrounded by barbarians, who can also threaten this fractious and fractured land.

That’s the historical context, but Qin is also a game of mythological heroes and supernatural epics. Hungry ghosts and other foul spirits also wander the land and even darker things may also dwell in the ruined countryside, waiting to drag a poor unfortunate down into one of the many Chinese hells. Magic and the secret knowledge of the Tao can empower characters as much as their skills with a sword or their fists.

While the game draws heavily from the Wuxia films the context of the game and the nature of the magic and powers is a little more down to earth than one might expect from such an influence. You won’t find powers on the scale of, say, Exalted here but you will find arrows snatched out of the air and other acts at a lower end of the scale.

The comparisons with Legend of the Five Rings cannot help but be made, however I described things at the beginning and this is definitely the game for the Sinophile equivalent of the Japanophile L5R fan.

The basic rule is simple, two ten-sided dice are rolled, one designated the Yin dice, one designated the Yang dice. The lowest dice is taken away from the highest and this score is combined with your attribute (taken from the Chinese elements) and your skill to result in a final score. If it beats a target number you succeed, though some long term tasks may require several rolls to be made until enough are accumulated to succeed. Zero on the dice is counted as a zero, not a ten, and matched pairs show Yin/Yang balance which can give you some form of advantage – unless they are both zero.

For combat things flow pretty normally, skill level determines how many actions you can take in a turn (in sub-phases called exchanges), initiative is rolled and combat checks are opposed or static target numbers, much as one would expect. There are rules for ‘mooks’ as easier-to-defeat enemies and unlike many games with special powers the combat moves, Tao and magic seem to interoperate cleanly and without raising too many questions and problems, at least at first and second read through.

Character creation is a fairly easy point based system, though the use of the elements as statistics can be confusing for a while. Compared to many games characters can seem a little two dimensional, the amount of skill and attribute points and the relative range of values available does not make characters stand out too much, at least to start with, and there is impetus and bonus within the game for actually pursuing being average in terms of statistics which, to me, doesn’t seem to encourage stand out and individual characters.


  • Good presentation.
  • Packed with information.
  • Exciting and engaging setting.



  • Dark pages.
  • Lack of martial arts depth may disappoint.
  • Statistics can be confusing.


Style: 5
Substance: 4
Overall: 4.5

Review: Cadwallon

If I were a young teenage girl and Cadwallon were an up and coming boyband dancer my knickers would be moist. ‘But mum! He’s soooo dreamy!’ would be my cry, his posters would be on my wall and I would be writing ‘Tonya
♥ Cadwallon’ all over my schoolbooks. I would be writing stories on the fan appreciation forum about how the band members were ALL going to marry me and we are going to live on a yacht together until THE END OF TIME ITSELF.But I’m not. I’m a thirty-and-change year old misogynistic bastard and I’m past the point where I can be solely influenced by how pretty something is, its about the music damn it! Cadwallon is a very, very pretty thing – which was enough to persuade me to buy it – but it is a shallow beast, and horribly confusing to read and, I should point out in large angry letters.

It has no index.

I should also be clear that the edition I’m reviewing is one of the earlier printings and I’m assured, by people who care, that the translation was cleaned up in later editions. Let us hope so, for all our sakes.

Sweet, merciful fate this is a gorgeous book. It DRIPS design from every page, it looks like an art book, it feels like an art book, it  even smells like an art book, it reeks of glorious, artistic Frenchness from every page and it presents two things I really, really like – urban fantasy and great design. I should love this thing, I really should.Cadwallon sells itself as a ‘tactical role playing game’ and it sits, uncomfortably and mystifyingly, somewhere between D&D and one of Games Workshop’s skirmish games  like Mordheim or Necromunda. It never quite explains what tactical roleplaying is exactly and it comes across in the reading as either a dumbed down D&D where the board becomes necessary or a brightened up skirmish game where you actually roleplay. It is stuck between dimensions, neither one thing nor the other but given the D&D miniatures and the popularity of Clix this new middle ground seems to have become a fighting area for many of the companies so there must be something in it.

The greatest similarity to a preceding product would probably be to Warhammer Quest or Advanced Heroquest, only with a much more open and interesting game world and slightly more deep rules.
Oh, my, I’m drooling. This this is gorgeous. Rackham have always been known for their gorgeous artwork and wonderful miniatures and this is no exception. In a perfect world I’d have chucked out their miniatures photos and just had the whole thing illustrated but since they’re concentrating on the minis-play side of the game I suppose that’s too much to ask for, still, there’s enough wonderful artwork in here, including correct use of Gary Chalk (so important and so nostalgic) to overcome that simple reservation. This thing is a gorgeous object, maybe slightly over designed on every page, but it works, so I’m not going to knock it. You get a real feel for the city and its inhabitants and the dark renaissance type of world that Cadwallon resides in. Comparisons with Warhammer or Iron Kingdoms/Warmachine are almost inevitable but it is slightly lighter and slightly less gonzo than Warhammer, with a more surreal weirdness then Warhammer’s ‘Look! Tentacles!’ approach and a more magically oriented approach than Iron Kingdom’s brutalist steampunk. It is its own thing.

The writing… well… um… what can one say really? Like many things of foreign beauty you want to get to know them more intimately but there’s this damn language barrier. I mean, they try to talk to you in your language as best they can from their phrasebook but while ‘Would you like to come back to my place, bouncy, bouncy?’ sounds promising, you doubt they mean it.
The Mechanical Dream RPG had the same problem, gorgeous, weird, but could you make head nor tail of the Franglais (like Engrish, but with French) when it was important? Could you buggery! I mean, you can just about muddle through the city background and the establishment of the factions and free companies but when it comes down to explaining anything technical you’re jiggered. Which you shouldn’t be really, its a fairly simple d6 dicepool system with an interesting action/reaction/initiative mechanic and something about ‘attitudes’ which I haven’t quite been able to decipher in a year of reading the book on and off, but somehow the poor translation renders the applications of this simple enough system all but impenetrable.

I am assured that the translation efforts have improved massively, but I have to rate the book I have and this, is painful.

Cadwallon is a Free City, once cursed and left to stand and rot it was occupied and cleansed by a ragtag group of mercenaries and pirates who then settled there, claiming it for their own and attracting mobs and mobs of other disenchanted adventurers, thieves, pirates, mercenaries and other ne’er-do-wells to settle there. It reminds me of a combination of Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris and China Mieville’s New Crobuzon in terms of both background and fantastical weirdness, even though Cadwallon opts for the usual fantasy races it does manage to lend them their own, weird spin, which makes them a lot more interesting than elves and dwarves normally are.

The city is still packed with mysteries, horrors and weirdness for its free companies to investigate and deal with (and this is the default role that the players take, a sort of fantasy version of SLA Industry’s Operatives) as well as, potentially, to hire on for outside forces in the conflicts and wars going on around Cadwallon as part of the Ragnarok (the apocalyptic war raging elsewhere in the gameworld). Beyond that there is still intrigue and conflict between the various groups that have divided up the city and plenty to deal with there, along with outside enemies.

I love settings like this, urban fantasy, plenty of plot hooks and story potential, but in terms of this book I’m considering the background as part of the style, not part of the substance because I think the substance of the game, the rules and their application, deserves a proper, solid and individual critique.

On the face of it the rules of Cadwallon are simple. You roll a number of dice equal to your skill grade, keep the highest and add your attribute bonus. Attributes range from 1-6, though they can go higher in some circumstances, skills range from 1-5. Attributes – or ‘Attitudes’ are a little unusual, Pugnacity, Sleight, Style, Opportunism, Subtlety and Discipline, rather than what you might usually suspect but it all seems to hang together well enough with the theme of the game. Combat is fairly quick and simple and has a death/spiral health level thing going on and character creation is basically constructed using a series of templates, races/trades/distinctive features. Those familiar with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay will see more similarities here though it is simplified (in execution if not in explanation).

The combat section is entirely concerned with board based combat and while there’s a mention of being able to use the game as a full on, proper RPG there’s precious little support for that idea here.

To be perfectly honest, someone really needs to do an online WFRP conversion of Cadwallon, that would be perfect and you could enjoy the world and its contents with a more competent and better explained game system because working out Cadwallon is a lot more trouble than it’s worth.


  • Mind blowingly gorgeous
  • Compelling and wonderful world
  • Worth what you pay for it


  • Appallingly bad translation
  • When they say Tactical RPG what they really mean is TACTICAL rpg
  • No, frigging, index.

Style: 5
Substance: 2
Overall: 3.5

Review: Exalted 2nd Edition

From first edition Vampire through to about a year or so before the end of the Old World of Darkness line I was a bit of a White Wolf fanboy. Not a drooling fanboy, they still did things that annoyed me, but by and large I agreed with their design philosophy and found that their games appealed to my style of play and the sort of games I wanted to run. With their cackhanded interference in their LARP society (not that it could have made things much worse than they already were) and their wrap up of the oWOD I fell out of love with them for the most part and aside from the occasional bit of curiosity I haven’t really followed their games.Except for Exalted.

I like Exalted, I have a weak spot for Exalted and even though attempts to play it has all ended in world class levels of failure I still bought the books because there was a charming level of full-on gonzoness about them (the antithesis of White Wolf’s other lines) and their system and company attitude weren’t quite as obnoxious as Palladium’s. Thus I ended up with copies of all the main Exalted books and a couple of extras here and there that I thought seemed actually useful or needed.

Exalted definitely had problems though, and so I picked up the second edition mostly on a whim (a local book store was closing and it was cheap) to see if things had been tidied up and improved.

Exalted remains the big beast of a game it always was and the Solar exalted book (the main rulebook) has to both present the Solar Exalted in all their glory AND to introduce the world, the antagonists and so forth. The later books for the other Exalted types (the sort of superheroes of the game world) have an advantage in that they don’t need to do this, so the main book has, I think, suffered in both editions from having to cram a lot in to a little space – and yet still remain pretty much incomplete.

The book is hardback, full colour, glossy paged and you feel like you’re pretty much getting your money’s worth for the cash. The book covers the history of the world, combat (in full) the powers of the Solar Exalted, magic, a scattering of antagonists and the basic set up of how things are, but it is scant on gameplay details concerning the other Exalted types and the other enemies the heroes will face, giving barebones info on a lot of the world and that which is in it, thereby necessitating heavy supplementation.

The artwork in the second edition is a step up from previous editions, even the scratchy, weird-looking angular artist (whose name escapes me at the moment) is cleaned up in this addition and coloured, marking a vast improvement. Somehow, at least to my eye, it seems to have shifted somewhat from a more Japanese-styled anime look to a more Chinese influenced look – more Weapon of the Gods than Robotech.

From my point of view the most positive change in the book is the greater use of comic book panels (in two page spreads throughout the book) which I like – as a comic book fan – which tie in with the new Exalted comic book series quite nicely and which serve to set the mood, pace and setting of the world far better than single drawings or screeds of text can.

Finally the artwork in the new edition is much more polished and consistent. There are very few jarring images that make you wonder why the hell they’re in there, and instead far more that make you ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ in appreciation.

There’s not so much of the trademark fluff fiction in Exalted as has previously been the case with White Wolf books, that seems to have been largely replaced with the comic book spreads, thankfully, pictures really do say a thousand words. The rest is a primer on the world, the various forces at work and the history of the setting, bringing it up to the present day. That is all pretty straightforward and on the level and the indexing is good enough to let you find just about anything you do need to reference. I’m very impressed with the much clearer writing in this edition, particular in regards to the various Exalted powers and charms which, while still complicated, are made much clearer this time around.

The background of Exalted is a mash-up of every overblown anime you’ve ever watched, along with Greek myth, Indian mythology, bizarre and paranoid ‘history’ conspiracies, magic, gods and just about anything else you want to throw into the pot. Its like Journey to the West on a potent mix of PCP, acid and crack.

The history runs something like this, in shorthand…

  • Ubergod things called Primordials arise out of nothingness and forge creation out of that chaos. A solid place of reality amongst the swirling chaos – though their creation is constantly confronted by agents of that chaos.
  • Sick and tired of constantly fighting chaos and disorder they bugger off into their own little world for a godly form of self indulgence called the Games of Divinity. To look after the world in their stead they create the gods.
  • The gods take over defending the world and get a bit narked at the Primordials for, basically, jerking off while they take care of reality. Unable to directly rebel against their creators the gods imbue mortals with special powers and these become The Exalted (of the various kinds).
  • The Exalted rise up en masse at the behest of the gods and lay the proverbial smackdown on the Primordials, exiling some, destroying (but not exactly killing) others. In their defeat they lay down a massive curse on the ungrateful sons of bitches who interrupted their deified circle jerk, twisting their virtues, creating an underworld and disrupting the natural process of reincarnation.
  • What could have been a golden age is abused as the Exalted of the various kinds abuse their positions and ultimately betray each other with the highest caste, the Solar Exalted, being wiped out by the combined effort of the others – who settle into an uneasy truce.
  • The Terrestrial Exalted (the lowest caste) empowered by dragons and in cahoots with the Sidereal Exalted (empowered by the stars) settle into a sort of uneasy truce and smack down any reincarnating Solar Exalted before they can get up to mischief.
  • Now the Terrestrial Exalted empire is a house divided and reincarnating Solars are slipping through the net and reaching dangerously god-powered maturity.
  • Let the games begin!


So, you (in the main book at least) take the part of surviving Solar Exalted, hiding out from the fractured Empire and trying to regain the knowledge and artefacts of your past lives and restoring your power (and truth, justice and so forth) to the world around you, even though you’re still cursed and things can get out of hand. Throw in a few Dragonball Z level superpowers and you’re good to go.

Its a sweepingly huge world where just about anything is possible and where games should be write large, city changing, world spanning, roleplaying epics, suitable for widescreen.

Exalted is a rather schizophrenic game, on the one hand all the text, all the background, encourages over the top, frenetic, frenzied and action style combat and involvement but the only rule that really represents and enforces this is a relatively weak stunt bonus that ranges from one to three bonus dice upon your dice pools (which can get so enormous in some instances that this bonus isn’t even worth trying for). While the basic Storyteller system (from which Exalted is based, part old WOD and part new WOD) is, generally speaking, a fairly intuitive and simple system the problem with Exalted (and the old werewolf) is that it superimposes so many special clauses, exceptions and complicated interactions – in the forms of magic and Exalted special abilities – that that simplicity is, essentially, completely buried under clauses and subclauses that begin to resemble d20 Feat interaction or Magic cards more than anything else.

While the new rules have addressed some of these issues – charms etc are much more clearly defined and easier to understand – the base problem remains of the multi-layered complication. For all the talk of story and high action this will inevitably lead to, and appeal to, rules lawyer munchkins which seems, to me, to be the opposite of what the game is trying to achieve.

Combat doesn’t seem to have been simplified or made more straightforward at all. While the tick system would probably work very well in a modern, street level game here it feels extraneous, over complicated and feels like it slows down combat an extra degree. I can’t help but think that a more Feng Shui style approach to the whole thing might have worked better, or  even the HeroQuest conversion of Exalted I saw on the net at some point.

The rules, to me, just don’t seem to go with the setting or to fulfil their stated aim.


  • Wonderfully madcap, gonzo setting with big heroes, writ large.
  • Compatible with 1st Ed material with very little work.
  • Great presentation and art.



  • Rules do not fit the setting.
  • Supplement treadmill.
  • Main book lacks antagonist depth and statistical information.


Style: 4
Substance: 4
Overall: 4

Review: Legend of the Five Rings – Third Edition

I ran a very successful and very fun (if a little unconventional) L5R game across first and second edition, diverging from the official plotline because I allowed the characters in my game to determine the course of some of the events, skipped over the whole d20 version mess and have now picked this version up largely for reasons of nostalgia and curiosity. I do not follow the card game, or the war game and while our campaign (by chance) tied in with some of the events of the ongoing metaplot it was by no means all. Thus some of the updates in 3rd edition came as combinations of delight and shock.

Still, I have very fond memories of the game and this was a great way to catch up.

This is a solid, but slim feeling (for the price) hardback book and forms the corebook of the new edition, back to a single hardcover rather than a player’s guide and GM’s guide seperate as with the last edition. It is thinner than the first edition and, I think, slightly thinner than the second edition corebooks. It is, however, crammed to the fucking gills with information. Somehow they’ve managed to squeeze in most of the additional material from the sourcebooks of the previous editions, give you a comprehensive overview of the history, cover magic, the Shadowlands and everything else all in the one, slimmer, book. All things considered its a pretty damn amazing feat and I was very, very surprised.

While the overall presentation is pretty good there is something lacking in this version when it comes to visuals. There are a few standout pieces but when I come away from the book I’m not remembering the iconic pictures of the first or second edition so much. Instead I’m sort of tightening my lips and thinking of the less good art (and less of it) in this edition. The layout itself is nice, the simple, graphic style cover (another re-emerging trend that I like) is striking but it just, somehow, lacks the flair of the earlier editions. If I hadn’t already known Rokugan forward and back I think I would have felt a little more disappointed than I did.

A huge amount has been sacrificed in this edition for the sake of content. There is very little frivolous fiction (a plus for me!) but this has also impacted – it seems – on the art allocation and it feels as though the budget has also been tightened a notch. The writing is dense, which can be intimidating, and it has been ‘crunched’ together somewhat, meaning you flow from information on one clan to another on the same page without necessarily having a really clear distinction where one part ends and another begins.

This does mean you get a hell of a lot of bang for your buck, but it does make it a difficult read and a lot to take in at once, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the setting. Otherwise I have no complaints, clear, explanatory – especially in the rules – but also concise and to the point.

Rokugan is an alternative Japan, attached to land – apparently on the south-east of an alternative Chinese continent, where magic, demons and intrigue intermingle with samurai swordplay, complex oriental manners and courtiers. For me Rokugan is preferable to playing in an historical Japanese setting as, while the complexities to the social order are still there, one can be a bit more forgiving (allowing women to take stronger roles for example).

Rokugan is threatened – to the south – by a despoiled land called The Shadowlands, where evil oni, ogres and dark sorcerors plot the downfall and overthrow of Rokugan. It is threatened to the north by barbarians and internally by blood magicians, secret societies and intrigue and war between the various samurai clans.

You can hop into Rokugan at just about any level – with a bit of tweaking – from bandits and peasants all the way up to imperial court level intrigue. It is focussed, however, on the middle tier. Samurai who belong to clans, operating together at the behest of their lords or the Emperor and forming part of the lower ranks of the ruling caste of the setting.

The timeline has moved on from when I played the game, quite a lot (I believe the Crab clan were just turning traitor just as I stopped paying attention to the metaplot) and so a lot of the new developments listed in the timeline didn’t make a great deal of sense to me, so I’ll reserve comment on that part of the game other than to say that the new edition seems to have restored a sort of open equilibrium, much as existed in the first edition, but has retained a great many of the options that became available through the expansion of the original game.

Nothing drastic has happened to the rules, you still have rings and attributes and skills. To perform a task you roll a number of dice equal to the appropriate stat plus skill (d10s) and keep a certain number of dice. So you might roll six dice, keeping two, keeping the highest and adding them together to try and beat a target number. Rolls of a ten ‘explode’ meaning you get to roll them again and add on.

Characters get access to special clan techniques, spells and combat moves, which helps to individualise them, as do the advantages and disadvantages. There is an an abstracted mass combat system incorporated into the main book which makes staging character-led warfare fun rather than a drag.

While its another dicepool system the roll-and-keep and the exploding dice seem to focus people’s attention on the game pretty well and make rolling the dice unpredictable enough to be exciting. Combine this with ‘raises’ (extra risk for extra effect) and the mechanics fairly naturally lend themselves to skilled characters using a bit of flair and expertise rather than simply hacking away.

I like ’em.


  • Jam packed solid with so much information you’d think the chapters would collapse under their own weight into a form of alphabetical neutronium.
  • Brings you up to speed on the state of the world very well.
  • Brings together options and expansions from years of the game in one place.


  • Artistic presentation not up to par with previous edition.
  • Intimidatingly dense for new players.
  • Anime/Fantasy style approach may annoy genuine Japanophiles.

Style: 3
Substance: 5
Overall: 4

Review: Victoriana 2nd Edition

I write for Victoriana, though I didn’t work on the corebook, just so you know. Though I think I’ve established myself as a fair reviewer of products by now. In fact I’m writing this review when I really should be trying to get back on with some writing for Victoriana. Bad monkey, no biscuit. Anyway… Victoriana is a steampunkish, fantasyish, politically aware RPG of an alternative Victorian setting, the height of the British Empire, seemingly limitless technology, mediums, necromancers, strict class boundaries and – most importantly of all – top hats.
This is the second edition, a revision, update and expansion on the original Fuzion powered edition, this time powered by the proprietary Heresy game engine (part of a welcome return to individual game systems rather than d20isation). The original version was softback, black and white with lower production values. This new version is softback again, but with thicker, glossier paper and much higher production values. As a guide I would have rated the first edition a Style 3, Substance 4, Overall 3.5 game.

The world of Victoriana is a mirror of our own world in 1867 but with some important differences including, but not limited to…

  • Magic
  • Different main religions
  • Standard issue fantasy races
  • Some steampunkish technology
  • The US civil war hasn’t happened yet
  • The Crimean War is still in full flow
  • Russia is ruled by a Czarina and is all but matriarchal

The interplay of all of these makes a multitude of small, but important, differences in the world. The Aluminat Church (the Christianity replacement) for example, is not the worship of a god but rather the worship of the principle of order itself, rather than chaos or entropy and the Aluminat faith is even more militant in its way than Christianity with its prophet, Justas, being more of a fighter than a meek and mild figure.

There were three main criticisms of the original edition of Victoriana, all of which, I think, have been addressed in some manner.

The first was that it was ‘Just Victorian Shadowrun’. That was certainly the impression I got from the first edition, even though it was using Fuzion (which is more closely related to Cyberpunk) there was that sort of distinct impression from the book in both terminology (Victoriana adventurers were called Gutter Runners) and in presentation, up to and including an illustration of a typical Shadowrun party facing off against a Victoriana party. While the terminology etc has not changed too much the extraneous illustrations are now absent and somehow there’s been a shift in the overall presentation that makes the second edition much more its own game.

The second criticism seemed to be against the inherent politics of the game and its setting, which were unashamedly socialist/left wing with much of the thrust of the setting seeming to be decrying the misogyny, racism, classism and other problems of the period. Now, personally I like this in games, even if I don’t agree with the politics being presented it can make for a much more interesting game in much the same way as I can read Peter F Hamilton or Orson Scott Card and find their books and world interesting without having an aneurism (though I can’t manage it with Ayn Rand). Some people, however, seemed to think that the social injustices of the Victorian period weren’t so much a rich vein of adventure potential, but rather left/liberal propaganda.


Still, while the politics remains within the game for those who want to pick up on it, the pointed and robust nature of much of it seems to have been blunted and softened a little which should throw a bone to those who were so upset before. Of course, this does remove some impetus from what I took to be the main thrust of the setting (semi rebellious ‘outcasts’ from the class system trying to make the world a better place as best they can) without necessarily replacing it with an obvious hook. Here’s where the merc/criminal hook that IS present in Shadowrun/Cyberpunk might have been more welcome.

Lastly, ironically, there were some accusations of the last edition being racist, since the Zulu Nation (at war with the British in the period) were represented as proud, tribal, warrior… orcs. The implication seeming to be taken that orcs must necessarily be evil, brutal savages and that the setting was equating the brutish, dimwitted, impressively underbite-enhanced orcs with black people in the current world.

This was never truly the case and this has been specifically addressed to leave no doubt.

The artwork and presentation of the new edition is miles ahead of the previous edition. The better parts of the artwork have been kept and several new stand-out pieces commissioned, the border is evocative without being intrusive, the cover – a leatherbound look – fits the overall theme and feel of the book while being simple and striking (Akin in appeal to the original Vampire cover) and the only real complaint I can find to have about the presentation is the ‘telegraph’ style attached notes which are hard to read due to the typeface used. While real Victorian photographs and illustrations are used throughout the book they fell appropriate and not just a cheap clip-art option for filling up space and they do, genuinely, evoke the period of the setting, even with the absence of ogres, halflings and the like.

While there’s a little too much fiction for my personal taste – in terms of length, not actual amount – this doesn’t impinge on your ability to understand the world or to extract the necessary information from the explanatory text. For the most part it is a straightforward explanatory text, detailing the world, making clear the differences and spelling out how everything works. What is lacking, to an extent, is a ‘default mode of play’ though this  is implied in the accompanying sample adventure. While suggestions are made for various campaign ideas (staff of a country house and several others) the implied Gutter Runner/A-Team righters-of-wrongs is not as explicit in the text as it used to be and so one can be left with an impression of ‘cool!’ but ‘what do I do with it?’

As described this is a world much like ours but with a few changes, including fantasy races, magic and some limited steamtech. This is not, truly, a steampunk setting, despite the inclusion of some steampunkish elements, it is really more of an alternative history game and the themes of the game (order versus chaos) along with this element may, perhaps, make it suitable for playing our Moorcockian type stories though there is also ample room – if you tone down the technology – to do Gibson/Sterlingesque Difference Engine or whimsical Alice style fantasy.

The British Empire is the, almost, undisputed great power of the world though the Prussians are up and coming. The clash of magic and technology/faith ended with the Thirty Years War but the aftershocks are felt now in the Crimea where the Russians – and their Wyvern cavalry and magic, face up to the modern allied army with their artillery and rifles. The sheer size and scope of the British holdings at this time give the players plenty of scope to explore – fully 1/5th of the world from India to Canada and Australia and can also allow for a great mix of characters.

To me, despite the slight toning down of the theme, the heart of the game is in the social conflict. This was the time of the Workhouses, Dickensian London and the great failings of philanthropy and industrialisation. The stratified social system, the ‘dark satanic mills’, the sheer desperation of the poor and the gilded cages of the rich all combine, for me, to make the political implications of the setting those of great importance and the best for story hooks.

The Heresy gaming engine is a dicepool system, this time using six-sided dice. Both ones and sixes count as successes but sixes can be rerolled again, adding additional successes until you stop rolling sixes. So far so good, though dice pools can get quite large through circumstances and additions, this remains manageable. The problem, for me, arises in the addition of ‘black dice’. These represent the difficulty of tasks, the adverse conditions that can work against you and they work the same as positive dice, save that they do not re-roll sixes.

Things pretty much roll on in predictable fashion from there, though the combat system is more of a frenzied free-for-all than many strict turn-after-turn combat systems and holding the initiative gives you a considerably bigger advantage compared to the usual state of affairs.

Characters are a combination of statistics and skills, though there isn’t much wiggle room at the lower ‘ranks’ (a sort of halfway house between a strict level system and Savage Worlds’ more broad ranking system) for character individuality this is compensated for via merits and flaws that give you more opportunity to customise.

There are rules for magic and mediumship included in relatively full form in the main book, so the book feels complete in one without the essential need for a ton of supplements, though they would be welcome. The bestiary is small, but enough – I feel – for a game that should mostly concentrate upon the machinations of human/oid enemies.

The Heresy system is no great leap forward in the history of game design but it is a robust enough system that would seem to suit the setting (being primarily made for it) and it works well enough. It is only the large dice pools that present a possible issue and there are ways around this – described within the book.


  • Significant and worthwhile improvement over the first edition.
  • Great presentation.
  • THE Victorian setting game at present.


  • Lacks a strong hook.
  • Not really a steampunk game (your mileage may vary).
  • Fantasy race inclusion is a bit predictable.

Style: 4
Substance: 4
Overall: 4

While Victoriana has, somewhat, moved away from the Steam-Powered Shadowrun feel of the first edition some of that remains. Back in the day I was a Cyberpunk 2013/2020 guy, not a Shadowrun person (Eww, you got elves in my cyberpunk) and while I can be more forgiving in this context I think Victoriana would benefit from a more prominent, but harder and more steampunkish competitor, even if made by the same company, to provide for both tastes and give a friendly rivalry. I would say Etherscope but, for me, it doesn’t quite fit the bill.

Either way, Victoriana is a great game and could easily be adapted to such a setting if that was your taste.

Review: Gothic Society

Some more guys I had the good fortune to meet and chat with at Gencon UK though, to start with I had just thought they were some local goth group trying to recruit members, or a LARP society for White Wolf game (non Camarilla) and not a game at all, so I passed them by before finding out what they were actually about.
Now… I’m probably going to come off sounding like a bit of a mean ol’ cuss through this review but, quite honestly, I like the people involved, I like the game. What Gothic Society is, is a diamond in the rough. An unpolished gem that really just needs a bit of spit and polish and properly cutting to reveal its inner beauty.

Any harsh words that I might have are really in the form of advice and in addressing ways in which this game, and its world, can really shine. I’ll try to be constructive but there are a few things that really do scratch my face, and are relatively unforgivable.

The makers of Gothic Society (Twisted Chronicles LLC) are clearly fans of White Wolf’s World of Darkness line, and by World of Darkness I mean the old World of Darkness, not the insipid, weak-arse, bishounen bodysnatcher that has taken its place. The whole game, the language, the word salad gaming terminology, the micro fiction scattered throughout the book, the themes… none of it would be out of place at all in a mid 90’s Vampire: The Masquerade book.

Where I took my frustrations and annoyances with White Wolf and The Camarilla out in Bloodsucker: The Angst, in a comedic and vitriolic way, the Gothic Society crew have, instead, made a sort of ‘alternative’ game, with what probably should have happened with the oWoD line – a post disaster, post Gehenna world where the vampires (vampyres here) rule with an iron fist and remake the world into a stark and horrible dystopia.

And it works. Despite all the flaws and problems such an approach could have the world is compelling, the game system works and really all it needs is a bit of polish to be a really appealing game.

The book is half-page (A5) format, which makes it unusual for a gaming book and helped confuse me into thinking it wasn’t an RPG at all to start with – along with the name. The cover is also a tattoo style graphic, rather than a nice pretty image, something else that fails to draw the eye to the book. The border inside follows the same theme, and looks good, but the selection of interior images ranges from the good-but-inappropriate (stock art mostly) to the awful with only a few pieces that are of professional(ish) quality that seem to be new.

Otherwise the layout is standard two column format and there isn’t a great deal to comment on. It’s simple but it gets the job done. In fact I think it might have been better off without a lot of the art! Preserving that for chapter sections. The game could be vastly improved by some setting images, showing the ruined world, demonstrating the sort of life that is to be had there and even a handful of pieces of this sort would bring the game to life very effectively.

I’ve banged on before about White Wolf’s cardinal sin of hiding important game information in fiction and Gothic Society does the same thing. The fiction is, on the whole, somewhat better than much of that within White Wolf’s books and truly essential information IS laid out more matter of factly in explanatory sections but to get a real feel for the social dynamic of the way the world works you do have to wade into the fiction.

Otherwise the writing is fine, fairly clear and easy enough to get into your skull despite a tendency to use unnecessarily Byzantine gaming terminology.


(Its a big but)

1. There are no page numbers.
2. There is no index.
3. The contents, while useful… well, refer to 1.
4. I make a lot of spelling mistakes, but there are mistakes here that should have turned up in spell check and there are substitution words (waist for waste and so on).
5. THERE IS NO INDEX! (I know, technically, this is the same problem as number 2, but it is such a doozy I felt it was worth mentioning a second time).
6. There’s a failure to use font, or italics, to separate the fiction from the non-fiction.

The background of Gothic Society is very much rooted in a combination of Judeo Christian mythology from origin all the way through to revelations, combined with a liberal sprinkling of conspiracy theory – more so than White Wolf’s Vampire and more consistently (since this is a pure vampire game). If I was feeling mean I’d call it a sort of Vampire ‘Left behind’ but that doesn’t really give the right impression.

Basically… Lucifer is the first vampire who creates a race of progeny through marriage to Lilith. Their children, embodiments of the seven deadly sins, form – along with Lucifer – the heads of the main vampiric houses, one for each sin. This theme works wonderfully and gives a very good hook into the vampiric mythology of the setting as well as setting the tone for the religious nature of many of the book’s themes.

Lucifer rose from slumber after many years and plucked at the strings of his worldwide conspiracy to bring about the fall of man through his human and vampyre agents and through a limited nuclear war, turning the world into a hellish pit where humanity is yoked by the vampires and exists solely as their pawns and food.

As I described before, it is almost how a post-gehenna setting would look for the old World of Darkness.

It works, it appeals, even to someone like me who is a) a radical atheist and b) hates conspiracy theories.

Other aspects and influences upon the background appear to be Blade, Terminator, The Omen and the general culture of tribulationism and paranoid conspiracy theory that seems to prevalent in the US at the moment. I could go into a long essay/lecture here about shaken faith and comparisons between American end-of-the-world fiction since 9/11 and Japanese post-atomic fiction, but I’ll spare you.

This time!

Being the perverse sort of person I am I want to play a rebel in this world, not a vampyre and I was chuffed to see that they made London, England, the heart of the resistance – as well as a huge charnal pit. If I want to do that I’ll have to wait for their Mortal Uprising planned supplement. Since most humans are drudge (blood-enslaved) soldiers, brood mares/studs or snack food playing such a roll appeals to me more than the machiavellian politics and blood war between Lucifer and one of his children (Asmodeus) which is the main thrust of the vampire side of the game.

Gothic Society uses a dicepool system, though it is, in effect, a double dicepool system, which may make it a little unwieldy in certain circumstances. Each roll is assigned a ‘parent’ and a ‘child’, such as an Attribute and a Skill rating. You roll a number of dice equal to the parent on one type of dice (typically a d10) and another set of dice (equal to the child rating – usually a d8) and you take the highest from one roll and the lowest from the other and take the child away from the parent.

EG: Lucius Darkblade, stereotypical vampyre lord extraordinaire, is attempting to dance the hokey-cokey to ingratiate himself with some rebel humans he is supposed to be spying on. He has a parent of 6 (Reflexes) and a child of 3 (Dancing). On his parent roll he gets 4, 9, 1, 8, 10, 1. A high score of 10. On his child roll he gets 4, 1, 5. A low roll of 1. The difference is 9 and so Lucius performs a faultless hokey-cokey, ingratiating himself with the local populace.

Everything else pretty much stems from this in a reasonably predictable manner, failure is when you don’t make the target number, catastrophic failures when you get a negative result, really good successes when you score double the target number and so forth. Combat is a little peculiar and while I thought I understood it when I read through it (set damage for firearms) I can’t really gauge how well it works because I can’t find the health rules again due to the lack of index.

Overall it seems like it would work reasonably well but seems a little biased in favour of success, not that that is necessarily a bad thing.


  • Great game world that recaptures some old WOD enthusiasm and vigour.
  • Consistent setting.
  • Intended good online support (in progress).


  • No, frigging, index or page numbers.
  • Poor presentation.
  • Influences and derivation worn on its sleeve.

Style: 2
Substance: 3
Overall: 2.5

All that I think Gothic Society really needs to garner the attention that it actually deserves is a bit of work, a revised edition, a bit more money spent on artwork, a really good editing sweep and I think they’ll be set. If you wish White Wolf had done things differently and respected their fanbase more, then I think this is still the game for you.