Looking for a dark fantasy D&D module to slot into your early campaign, or just as a fun one-off? The Curse of Sapphire Lake is part of the Critical Hits series, each module of which is designed for a single evening’s play. I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy (full disclosure: the author, Neal Litherland, contributes to this blog) and thoroughly enjoyed my night GMing this spooky tale. Here’s why I think it’s worth your time and money, presented with minimal spoilers.
1) As Dark As You Like
While the tale presented here falls within the genre of dark fantasy, I found it profoundly simple to include levity at several points throughout. One can certainly keep the tone foreboding should one wish, but should the party be in the mood for laughs, there’s plenty of opportunity here. The party is investigating disappearances in a northern viking-esque town, and its leaders are desperate to solve the issue swiftly to keep the population growing. This desperation, and the cast of colorful characters, can lend themselves to keeping things light; perhaps the town leader drops the macho act when he’s alone with the PCs and begs them for help. Maybe the self-styled witch who advises the town leader joins the party and regards the situation with a bit of humor. Whatever the case, the module allows for the GM to turn the levity down and bring the spookiness back whenever they so choose. This way, the flavors of the evening never feel too vanilla.
2) Crafty References
Cinephiles and even casual horror fans will pick up on some sly references in this story. My players picked up on them, and instead of tipping them off to the direction of the narrative, they simply added to the fun with unexpected twists and turns. We had a blast exploring the town and meeting NPCs, even if I took a few liberties with some of them. The tale doesn’t feel tropey at all; even though most horror themes have been done to death, this module stayed fresh throughout. It manages to walk the tightrope that any referential material must, and does so deftly. I cannot say more without spoiling the fun. Suffice it to say your players will have a good time interacting with both adversaries and locals, and the story beats will keep everyone pushing ahead.
3) Room To Improvise
The most important part of any module for me is the capacity for a GM to get off track and not be too lost. My players are like many others: they love to stop the plot train, hop off, and sightsee. Luckily, the module is written to accommodate such scenarios, and I found it simple to throw in my own details and even new NPCs to add to the story without deviating from the main thrust of the narrative. The adversaries are balanced well, and even with my terribly unlucky rolls, I was able to keep the story on track and provide an interesting challenge for the players, with minimal GM fiat. The players enjoyed their stay in the town, had fun with the combat, and I never felt like I needed to run back to the module text and retcon anything to salvage a situation. As a fun aside, let me mention that certain 1st level spells are far more powerful than they appear, and provide a challenge instead for the GM to overcome them!
4) Fun Factor
If it isn’t already apparent, we all had a blast playing this one-shot. As it is built for a small group of 1st level characters, the threat of danger was real and palpable, which allowed me to easily play up the darker aspects of the story. Then came the nervous jokes, and the party was quickly off to the races. What made this transition even easier was the inclusion of a “Reasons Why You’re Here” section. There are four great examples as to why a PC might be going to town, and I assigned them to players based on their characters (with the players’ input, of course). This gave each PC not only a backstory, but a real presence in the narrative. As an example, one of our players wanted to clear the town of misfortune because they had already purchased a home there. This ended up becoming a major plot point, because the character absolutely ran with this idea, and kept accusing the town leader of scamming him. I made his house the “flipper” house, where new arrivals would move in, then flee or simply disappear. Everyone really enjoyed diving into that aspect of the narrative, and it all sprang from the character’s motivation. Settling into roleplaying a one-off has never been easier, and I commend the creators for this inclusion.
Overall, my group, which included one new player to 5e D&D, had a ton of fun with this one. As a side benefit, I'll mention also that it includes awesome artwork and a map of the area. Really high quality stuff, and the layout is great. I especially recommend it to horror film enthusiasts, or to those who like a little darkness in their fantasy tale. Take a look, you won’t be disappointed!
David Horwitz is the Blog Manager ‘round these parts and a freelance writer/editor with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, or just want to chat about gaming, contact him at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com/contact.
Picture Reference: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/275191/Critical-Hits-The-Curse-of-Sapphire-Lake-5E?affiliate_id=657321
Editor’s Note: What’s the gift that keeps on giving? Patreon subscriptions! It’s like buying a game system or supplement for a friend. Sure, they’re going to love it, but you’ll get some joy out of it too. Check out our Patreon and give a little, get a little.
Starting out in roleplaying games is more than buying the stuff and jumping in. Getting a group together is hard enough for some people, and then the extra monetary cost of buying minis, rulebooks, supplements and any extra bits and pieces for a game. Not everyone has enough surplus cash to throw at the hobby, so for those who don't want to break the bank to test the waters, here are eight free roleplaying games for you to check out. I mean why not, they’re free.
1) A+ Fantasy
A+ Fantasy has an attribute system very similar to classic RPGs but different enough to make it its own. Instead of rolling up numbers for your usual six attributes, A+ Fantasy has four to which you assign a grade, which range from A+ to D- and affect dice rolls. Modifiers are different than the norm, as to succeed you must roll two d6 and get at least one six, and the modifier adds to this. The ruleset is very easy to understand and is laid out in a great way, at least in my opinion, I read through the full rules in just over 30 minutes while sitting in a waiting room. This is definitely worth checking out if you are thinking of diving into D&D.
2) Magic and Steel
This game has more reading to it than A+ Fantasy but has a fairly well developed system, based off of old style D&D with a few modern twists to keep it interesting. The character creation seems solid and is simple enough for a new player to get to grips with and complex enough for a seasoned vet to get in there and create more interesting characters. The rule book screams fan made and admits as much in the introduction, but if you like old school fantasy this is a game for you.
3) D100 Dungeon
D100 Dungeon intrigued me to no ends, I read the description and thought, how can I be both GM and player? The answer is I can’t, but D100 Dungeon can be the GM so I can be the player. Tailored so that you are not pitted against your friends this game provides everything you need to run solo. You print out your map sheets and character sheet and read through the rules, which really are quite easy to understand. It took me a couple of days to get through them but when I did I was eager to get going, to play all you need is the roll tables in the back, the print outs and if you didn’t already guess the dice type, some D100. I haven’t got round to playing this yet but it’s definitely on my todo list.
4) GURPS Lite
A great system used in various games and inspiration to even more, it has been used in tabletop games and video games such as the first Fallout games and even adapted for the later ones. The lite version of the system is free, however, and gives a good taste of how the full system works with all the key points laid out. Choose some buffs for your character and combine them with some flaws... it contains everything you need to create a GURPS game. The only downside is that I found it rather wordy so be prepared to read.
5) The Very Important Task
I loved this game as soon as I read the rule sheet. Yes a single sheet. In The Very Important Task everyone plays and GM’s another player’s game, taking it in turns, which simulate one month at your job. Each player tries to complete a task given to them by their manager (another player) as well as completing the very important task for their overall career, to win you simply must complete the very important task, gain executive level in your job or be the last employee standing (or sitting if its an office job). It’s not a long game but can fill an evening and helps introduce some key elements of roleplay as the managers are encouraged to go to the extremes when forging the personalities.
6) The Great Long Dark
Anyone looking to get into horror RPGs should consider this their first step. A quick game aimed at small groups, the rulebook has beautifully haunting artwork which helps set the scene. You take the role of both a child travelling to a place of mystery and despair, also as a parent escaping to a better place. Play takes shape in the form of five acts, the first two acts have you play two cards and roleplay the results, after which you answer a question of your choosing from a list from your character's point of view. No dice rolling but plenty of atmosphere and personal connections to help you come back for another helping.
7) Ghosts of NPCs Passed
Aimed at groups who are currently running a campaign, this game is a nice distraction for change of pace or can even just be implemented into a session to aid the players. It allows a GM to call forth the spirit of any NPC the players may have decapitated too early or a poor passerby who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Upon summoning a spirit the players go round one by one adding to a backstory for that NPC, ending on the second wave round the group with his last day and finally his demise at the hands of player X who plays the murderous warlock in the group. This game could also be used to emphasise how one player seems all too happy to help NPCs shuffle of the mortal coil.
8) To The Temple Of Doom!!!
A really nice little game, this easy to understand rule set has a revolving GM and a shared goal. Each player creates an archaeologist to play, assigning five stat points over three skills and then creates an artifact, ventures into the temple and takes it in turns to create a chamber within the temple. You then throw in some puzzles, bad guys and traps for the team to overcome. At the end is a big showdown against a vast evil trying to destroy the world. Death isn’t the end in this game either as anyone who falls prey to the traps of the chambers can either be possessed and show up to aid the evil or die and become the GM for the final encounter.
No matter which, if any of these you try out i’m sure you will have lots of fun and hopefully will inspire you to play other great roleplaying games out there. To compile this list I read through around 15 titles including some fan made RPGs from the likes of Inception and even the Metal Gear universe, but for the sake of the editors I chose the non fandom games, though they were really good systems and well worth checking out. Although the rules are free you will need dice and a way to print some items out in most of these but compared to a full price system the cost is much more affordable and accessible.
Ross Reid is a lover of all things tabletop, he recently hosted a gaming marathon for charity lasting 24 hours over three days, he is currently working on getting the rest of his family into roleplaying games so he no longer needs to leave the house to get his gaming fix.
The Wild West is a unique genre of fiction. It has it’s larger-than-life characters and legends, including encounters with the other world, lawless lands where might makes right, and even tales of lost treasures! This genre has all the trappings that make for fantastic tales of adventure, so with that in mind, let’s take a look at Westbound, the tabletop RPG that blends The American Wild West with Fantasy!
1) Who Made This?
Westbound is produced and published by the Canadian game company Island of Bees, and is currently their only released game. Nevertheless, they’ve put a great amount of effort into designing the game, and it shows: marvelous artwork, handy diagrams and charts, and even layout flourishes that compliment the Wild West theme.
2) What’s The Premise And Setting?
If you’ve somehow managed to avoid watching any of the classic Clint Eastwood movies, or other flicks from the spaghetti-western genre, Westbound harkens to a romanticized era in North American history called “The Western Frontier.” This was an era when settlers from Europe expanding westward from the east coast of North America, into what would become the modern day nations of the United States of America, Canada, and Mexico.
However, Island of Bees punches up the fantastical element. While the Western Frontier is already a very storied body of history full of tall tales and unbelievable legends, Westbound also includes contemporary fantasy tropes. Among them are parallel worlds, magical wands and musical instruments, and the classic fare of races including elves, dwarves, orcs, and goblins.
One thing I find particularly interesting about Westbound is some of the more unusual inclusions. Ogres are included as a playable race, complete with their own variety of magic that revolves around eating themselves stupid. There’s also the inclusion of musical instruments as weapons; they may not physically harm enemies, but they can still cause a great enough amount of distress to rob enemies of the will to fight. (Meaning you can annoy somebody into submission with an accordian.)
3) What Are The Mechanics Like?
Staying true to the western theme, Westbound forgoes using dice in favor of a standard deck of playing cards. (So if your GM or another player really ticks you off, you can switch to everybody’s favorite rage game of 52 Pick Up.) Outside of combat, drawing cards and comparing them to a target number is the method used for resolving checks.
In combat though is where things get interesting. The game changes from simple draw and compare to a meta-game of managing a hand of cards for your offence and defence. The long and short of it is that you can either play cards from your hand to raise your ability to resist damage, play them against opponents to take them out of a fight, or burn through your cards to get to something more useful.
To add an additional layer of strategy, though, each of the above combat actions functions a different way. Cards played to defend must be done in descending order, while cards played to attack must match the traditional sets from poker. (2 of a kind, full house, etc.)
Character creation is composed of picking a Sort, Breed, and Archetype, which are similar to Class, Race, and Background in Dungeons and Dragons. Each one grants a different kinds of abilities, with Sort mostly pertaining to combat, Archetype focusing on social interactions, and Breed granting miscellaneous abilities. Additionally, whenever a character levels up, they pick which of the three aspects they wish to improve, giving some control to the player over what their character shapes into.
4) What Is It Similar To?
As far as game mechanics go, Westbound’s use of a deck of cards is more than just a novelty. It grants some degree of certainty that a character will get an awesome moment, since used cards get discarded. It cuts both ways, though, since even those good draws will be discarded. The only other game I can think of that grants this much certainty over how much a character can truly accomplish is Golden Sky Stories, which completely eschews dice and randomness altogether!
In regards to setting, I’d be inclined to say that Westbound is a graceful advancing of the Dungeons and Dragons time period. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the Western Frontier, there’s still plenty of contemporary fantasy elements to take hold of. This union of Wild West and Fantasy works really well together, because there was still lots of superstition that circulated in the 19th century to weave in magic.
5) Is It Worth Getting Into?
Definitely. If you want to try something new, but don’t want to abandon fantasy, Westbound is a great choice. It offers a unique set of mechanics, and a setting that’s refreshing and familiar all at once. Plus, the artwork is fantastic, and featured in a few sets of special playing card. Useful for if you want to add more flair to your games of Westbound, or if you like the art, but maybe not the game.
While Aaron der Schaedel is definitely enamored with Westbound, his favorite mix of wild west and fantasy remains the video game series Wild ARMs. You can inform Island of Bees of this treachery via Twitter @WestboundGame or tell Aaron his taste in video games is trash @Zamubei
Picture Reference: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/82773185/westbound-revolvers-and-rituals
Character creation can be a truly enjoyable experience if done correctly, or a real chore otherwise. Sometimes this line is a fine one. Hero Builder, a new production by The Table Candle, endeavors to bring full customization to the d20 system experience. Much like Mutants and Masterminds or other similar point-buy systems, this game gives the power to the players in creating every aspect of their characters. Here are three reasons to give it a look.
1) Familiar Mechanics
Most players and GMs today are at least somewhat knowledgeable about the d20 system, be it through D&D, Pathfinder, or the countless products released after the system went OGL. While it has a few tweaks here and there, the Hero Builder system is largely the same as other d20 products. The GM (here called the Hero Master) sets a DC for each action and the players roll d20 plus skills and bonuses. It is more akin to Pathfinder or D&D 3.5 than 5th ed. While many may see this as a step backwards, those older editions did allow for more customization and less simplification, something Hero Builder benefits from immensely. The game works best on a grid system; in our test game, players took advantage of the tactical options available to get the best use of their powers and abilities.
2) Unique Abilities
Hero Builder contains a long list of abilities that modify or enhance actions characters can take, much like the proficiencies and feats of the aforementioned d20 games. These come from characters’ Bloodlines (custom races or backgrounds) or are added separately as special abilities of the character. When you create a Bloodline, other characters can be of the same bloodline and attain the same abilities, or generate their own bloodline. This not only helps create important distinctions or commonalities between characters, but also aids in world building. The Hero Master can co-opt the player-created bloodlines into their narrative to customize the game setting and provide touchstones for in-game cultures.
3) Sheer Breadth Of Power
After generating the statistics and special abilities of characters, players then build their powers from the ground up. Powers are categorized by type, and each section describes how to build the power using points assigned at character creation. Powers cost a resource to purchase and a resource to use in game. So a player might make a bruiser who has a bunch of low cost survivability and damage enhancing powers, or another may create a single utility power and one massive damage dealing power, becoming the archetypal glass cannon. Players can create anything in between, adding healing, summoning, warding, or buffing powers to their repertoire. The balance seemed to be without major issue during out playtest, with each character able to perform as intended and to satisfying effect.
Hero Builder does also have a few issues to work through in its current state. The complexity of the character creation process absolutely necessitates a “session 0.” During my second attempt at a playtest, my group sat down to make characters and play, but I had to give up in the middle of character generation because my players were getting too restless. The GM needs to sit down with each player individually to create their characters well in advance of the first session, and as such, the game does not lend itself well to one-shots. With so much time invested in creating unique and intriguing characters, players will be loath to abandon them after a single session, or more likely, loath to put the time in necessary to create them in the first place.
There are other minor issues with the book, including typos and the like, but largely, Hero Builder brings fun customizable high-fantasy flair to the d20 system. The game includes three modes of play: commoner, heroic, and godly, though I highly recommend the latter two. If you’re going to loosen the reigns and let players create their dream hero, give them the points to go wild with it.
Hero Builder is available here!
David Horwitz is a gamer and freelance writer/editor with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, or just want to chat about gaming, contact him at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com/contact.
Picture Reference: https://funnyjunk.com/Hero+builder/bmTzLoz/
HLG Reviews: How To Write Adventure Modules That Don't Suck
Publisher: Goodman Games
System: System Neutral
Editor’s Note: Enjoy reading articles about your favorite hobby and engaging with fellow gamers? We do too, but hosting and producing our site isn’t free. Please consider visiting our Patreon page and supporting us at any amount. We put every dollar back into the site and its production, and your help has allowed us to have certain paid article months for our contributors. Thank you for your continued readership and your support!
-David Horwitz, Blog Manager
Now here’s a book I’d been looking forward to for quite a while. In my short time writing for this site, I’ve made no secret of my esteem for Goodman Games, and that’s due in no small part to their adventure modules. Whether we’re talking about Dungeon Crawl Classics, Age of Cthulhu, or Fifth Edition Fantasy, they’re always packed with inventive new creatures, genre tropes turned on their ears, and just plain off the wall creativity that always shows me a brand new level of what fantasy RPGs can really do. Not to mention they’re a great example of how much potential often gets overlooked and unrealized, buried beneath a mountain of linear thinking and repeated ideas. If I want anyone’s advice on writing adventures, it’s theirs.
HTWAMTDS wasn’t what I thought it would be, not in a bad way, just different. It’s essentially a collection of essays written by some of the most experienced RPG writers in the business, each one ending with an “Encounter” that tries to provide an example of the advice in action. Many of the writers such as Michael Curtis and Brendan LaSalle will need no introduction if you’re familiar with the work Goodman Games offers, and though you won’t find Chris Perkins or Monte Cook here, names like Skip Williams and James M. Ward should prick your ears if you know the history of your hobby. As the word Modules in the title might tip you off, the absolute dead center bullseye of the target audience are aspiring authors interested in designing adventures for publication, but the vast majority is equally valuable for GM’s who just want advice for their home games.
Going in, I wasn’t quite sure how to review this. The value of advice is subjective by its very nature, especially in a field like Game Mastering where everyone formulates their own methods, philosophies, and opinions anyway. Right off the bat, stylistic differences were glaringly apparent even between the individual contributors, wafting from the pages like each chapter’s unique cologne. A lot of the essays are written with an obvious old school gaming mentality in mind, which again, won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with GG’s work. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think there’s quite a lot classic RPGs got right that was unfortunately lost with modern innovation, namely that classic RPGs seemed more focused on facilitating an interactive fantastical adventure, whereas more modern incarnations lean towards the concept of the game being a “game” first and foremost, with a heavier reliance on mechanics and power balance. However, there are some parts of the philosophy I’m not so keen on, such as the story-light approach left over from the White Box days when D&D’s default setting was a hole in the ground filled with orcs and goblins. I got into the hobby to tell interactive stories, and I need a strong narrative to maintain my interest. So when the venerable Jobe Bittman (writer of a litany of Dungeon Crawl Classics material and co-writer of Towers Two for Lamentations of the Flame Princess) extols the virtues of keeping an adventure light on context so the PCs can forge their own narrative out of the elements placed before them, I’m inclined to believe that I wouldn’t enjoy campaigning at his table for an extended length of time.
Some of the contributors give completely different advice for the same issue. Mike Breault (writer and editor at TSR from ‘84 to ‘89) will tell you that the best way to keep players invested in your adventure is to offer them lots of decisions. Speaking from experience, you need to be invested in the first place to care about decisions. On the rare occasion that I get to play a PC in a campaign, if my interest in the adventure starts to wane, (usually because it gets bogged down in repetitive, pointless combat encounters) I honestly couldn’t give a crap if we go left, right, or through the ogre’s butt, I’ll let those who do care make the call and keep a healing spell ready. Stephen Chenault, one half of the duo that created Troll Lord Games (most famous for Castles and Crusades) would suggest that the best way to keep players invested is to introduce conflict to give them something to do. Again, I refer you to pointless, repetitive encounters. If you were to ask me, I would tell you that the best way to keep players invested in your campaign is to give them a reason to care. (Draw on backstories or character motivations, let them build a relationship with an NPC and then put them in peril, give them something to aspire to like a modicum of political power, there’s a million ways to do it but busy work isn’t one of them)
Regardless of stylistic decisions, however, there’s a LOT to love between these pages. It’s easy to pick out the advice that doesn’t work for me only because it stands out so much against a tapestry of extremely insightful and useful direction from veterans RPG writers. This review would be five times as long if I sat here to elucidate everything that does work, but to try to do as much justice to the product as I can, I’ll list a few highlights. Logical First Contact by Timothy Brown is without exaggeration the best advice I’ve seen for creating your own monsters, not because it helps you stat them out, but because it lays out a thought process for figuring out the ecology of these creatures, which in turn informs their unique abilities and functions. The chapter specifies “space aliens” but it works just as well for terrestrial creatures that spring from the Game Master’s imagination. Besides, if you think aliens don’t belong in a fantasy RPG you just aren’t embracing the creative possibilities of The Weird, my friend. Raison D’etre by Christopher Clark lays out one of the most important rules for maintaining player immersion, and Casey Christofferson’s Making A Villain brings forth one of the most fundamental truths that I wish more aspiring storytellers understood: Bad guys don’t see themselves as bad guys, they think their actions are justified. Also, if you are interested in creating modules for publication, Joseph Goodman’s insight into how professional publishers evaluate submissions will send the value of this book into the stratosphere.
As stated, each chapter ends with an “Encounter” that tries to translate the subject of the chapter into practical mechanics in action. Not every single one is usable, some of them don’t even have mechanics, but this is essentially a huge pile of content you can pillage for your home games. With a little elbow grease and some creativity, quite a few of them can be extended into full blown adventures. So now the book of advice from RPG veterans comes stapled to a pile of adventure seeds, monsters, and traps. It’s exceedingly difficult to not find something usable here.
So, do you need this book? Well, no, but what does it mean to need something in this hobby? You could play D&D forever with just the free Basic Rules, right? It would be far better to ask, will this book help you be a better Game Master? Will it help you create better adventures? Almost certainly. If that’s worth the price to you, you won’t be disappointed. Just remember to read with a discerning eye.
Chaz Lebel is a fiction author and member of Caffeinated Conquests, a YouTube channel dedicated to nerd comedy and tabletop gaming. He and his team once produced some promotional videos for High Level Games that they probably wish they could forget. Chaz can be found on Twitter @CafConIsOn
Picture Reference: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1409961192/how-to-write-adventure-modules-that-dont-suck
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games