It's been about six months since we took the pen and paper gaming industry's temperature. There have been some important product releases since November, many of them well worth looking at. Steve Jackson Games continues to release books for its Fourth Edition of GURPS, and Wizards of the Coast works to expand the appeal of both the core Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) setting and the Eberron campaign world. Read on for some highlights from the world of tabletop gaming.Spell Compendium
Matthew Sernett, Jeff Grubb, Mike McArtor
Wizards of the Coast
$39.95, 288 pages
A purely functional book for D&D, the Spell Compendium is exactly as the title implies: a text collecting spells. As an 'options' book for players, it's hard to argue with the punch of the content. The book does exactly one thing. Spells from such disparate sources as the Complete series of books, the Wizards of the Coast website, and Dragon Magazine were compiled to provide an interesting, fresh set of magical effects for spellcasting characters. The book focuses solely on providing additional spells; My players objected to the title of 'compendium' considering the absence of the spells from the Player's Handbook (PHB). Unfortunately the search for novelty results in what you'd expect from a product like this: extremely variable. While some entries make you wonder why they weren't in the PHB, there are also many confusing or unbalanced ideas. At forty dollars retail it's hard to recommend a product that has such inconsistency in the content. If only on the basis of player/Game Master (GM) arguments, there's a lot of opportunity for frustration as a result of this book. This is definitely a title you can take a pass on unless you only play spellcasters and have a GM who is willing to negotiate with you.
Races of the Dragon
Gwendolyn F.M. Kestrel, Jennifer Clarke Wilkes,Kolja Raven Liquette
Wizards of the Coast
$29.95, 160 pages
The Races series attempts to fill the same niche with player species as the Complete series does with player classes. Each book concentrates on familiar races, gives new background for enthusiastic players, and offers up one or two new races suitable for character creation. Races of the Dragon is somewhat unique, in that it focuses solely on new races for players tired of the standard set. Specifically, it details the Dragonborne, Spellscale, and Kobold races as options for D&D characters. The Dragonborne are a race created, not birthed, a proud warrior race touched by the dragon god Bahamut. Spellscales are vainglorious sorcerers, an impish people with an ingrained sense of style. Kobolds are, of course, the diminutive reptilian race usually slaughtered in large numbers by early-level adventurers. Of the races discussed in the book, the Kobold information is far and away the most interesting to me. An often overlooked race, the simple creatures receive a good deal of fleshing out. As a member of a non-standard party or a quirky addition to your typical humanoid group the Kobold seems to have a lot of potential in this book. The other two races strike me as simple cosmetics: Dragonborne are statistically just magical orcs (though the concept of your character being reborn is an interesting one), and Spellscales feel like elves with shiny skin. The book also touches on half-dragons and dragonblooded creatures, and provides the usual assortment of feats, prestige classes, and spells (my favorite: Gnome Blight). As one of the iconic elements of fantasy, I can understand that there are some folks who just have to play dragons, and they'll find a lot to like here. Similarly if you're looking to complete your collection of the Races books, Races of the Dragon meets the standard set by the other titles in the series. Dungeon Masters (DMs) and non-dracophile players can safely pass; this one's pure candy.
Magic of Eberron
Bruce R. Cordell, Stephen Schubert, Chris Thomasson
Wizards of the Coast
$29.95, 160 pages
Keith Baker's Eberron setting has taken on a life of its own since it launched almost exactly two years ago. The background for Dungeons and Dragons Online, the pulp/noir/fantasy mashup is now Wizards of the Coast's premier product series. Magic of Eberron does a fantastic job of getting across core elements of the setting, elements that have been so far unclear or under-explained. With only two years of development behind it, there is still a lot about the continent of Khorvaire that's not nailed down. For example, creating magical items with Dragonshards is thoroughly covered. Dragonshards power many of the vaguely technology-inspired elements of the setting, and this fundamental flavour element speaks volumes about the world at large. Nightmarish Daelkyr magic, dragon magic, and grafting magic is also explored. Each of these elements not only adds rules grit to the setting, but explains and expands the background presented in the main campaign sourcebook.The tome also manages to balance the fine line between DM and Player content; background information is mixed well with feats, prestige classes, and spells. The Eberron preoccupation with 'places' also works well here, offering up barely sketched out dungeons to add information by example. This is definitely one of the most interesting and informative Eberron resources that has been released to date. Players and Dungeon Masters who are working with this setting should at least take a look. It may not fit your campaign's playstyle, but there is sure to be something here that will spark ideas for later.
Heroes of Horror
James Wyatt, Ari Marmell, C.A. Suleiman
Wizards of the Coast
$29.95, 160 pages
Most D&D products focus on the specific: a sourcebook covering a geographical area, a type of magic, a class or race. Heroes of Horror is the second book in a more thematic series that attempts to add a new twist to the standard Dungeons and Dragons game. Horror, and the previous book Heroes of Battle provides rules and guidelines to focus your campaign beyond the traditional fantasy tropes. As you may guess from the title, Heroes of Horror offers ways in which to include elements from the suspenseful and supernatural we normally associate with games like Call of Cthulu. I'm a big Lovecraft fan, and I was skeptical when I cracked the book if such delicate setting elements could be incorporated via a core book. I should have respected Mr. Wyatt's name on the cover more, because Horror is an unmitigated success. The secret to that success is the light touch the authors take with the source material. Instead of attempting to convey the genre in one go, they break the milieu down into digestible chunks. First they explain how to set the stage for a horror-style encounter (one specific fight, or scene). Then, using the language established with the encounter they expand that to an entire adventure. The Lovecraftian use of suspense, of lurid language, and the need to heighten tension over time is explored with ghoulish examples. Then they take the final step and work with the reader to understand what would be involved in a horror campaign. A series of adventures all with a horror theme could take the players into relatively untrod territory in D&D, and the book is a great guide for the journey. They add a mechanic for 'taint', the psychic residue left behind by dealing with the horrific, but that's just crunch thrown in to make sure you feel like you got your money's worth. Definitely not a book for every Dungeon Master, those that are willing to experiment a little with the traditional D&D experience will find a very worthwhile read here. Players need not apply.
GURPS For Dummies
Adam Griffith, Bjoern-Erik Hartsfvang, and Stuart J. Stuple
$13.99, 410 pages
Wiley's series of cheery yellow books continues to expand beyond the borders of technology. This title, along with Dungeons and Dragons for Dummies and Dungeon Master for Dummies seems to represent a new commitment to pen-and-paper gaming. I'm not going to question it, I'm just going to enjoy it. With GURPS for Dummies, there's a lot to enjoy. GURPS stands for Generic Universal RolePlaying System, and is designed with the idea that you can run any kind of game you like using the rules they provide. Anything from fantasy schlock to post-apocalyptic sci-fi to hard-science space adventure can be represented with the system. The downside to the flexibility the system provides is that it's ... a little fussy. GURPS character creation relies on set of advantages and disadvantages, each of which has a point cost or payout. This entry in the Dummies series distills down the complexities into the most basic elements, and then walks the reader through point expenditures step-by-step. Even if used as nothing other than as a first-time player aid, this text is well worth the price of admission. Above and beyond that, they walk through combat, running a GURPS game, and provide some guidance on creating a campaign world suitable for use with the rules set. The combat section is especially brilliant, breaking down options, actions, and skill rolls, and explaining what the best route to finishing a fight is likely to be. My players often joke that no one actually plays GURPS, because the popularity of the system's sourcebook content far outweighs the popularity of the rules-set. Just the same, if you do find yourself looking to get in on a game this is a worthwhile explanatory text for a very ambitious system.
Jon F. Zeigler and James L. Cambias
Steve Jackson Games
$34.95, 240 pages
While it might be that no one plays GURPS, it's easy to understand why the books sell so well. GURPS supplements are works of art in the roleplaying industry. They're well researched texts, something similar to an informational piledriver. I've known grad students in difficult college courses who refer to GURPS books as a way to get a handle on the assigned subject matter. GURPS Space is a new edition of a classic sourcebook for the line, complete with updated scientific information and new rules to match the fourth edition of the rules-set. Quite simply, this book is the finest resource you will find for running a campaign set in space. It covers, exhaustively, every detail you'll need to consider when your players blast off into the black. The granularity of the subject matter begins quite large, expounding on information like methods of propulsion, interstellar organizations, and the theme of your campaign. It then quickly descends into the nooks and crannies of off-planet science, offering up the rules governing a moon's tidal force on a planet ((T = 17.8 million x M X D)/R^3), as well as the proper placement of planetary orbits around a star. The text has random generation rules for everything from individual alien species to entire solar systems, and ties it all together with a great discussion of future societies at the end. They even include guidelines if your players decide to conquer a planet or two, and what that would entail. ('The Cortez Option', as they call it.) Even if you don't play GURPS, it's hard to recommend against this book if you're considering running a game in the briny black. Heck, even if you don't roleplay, there is enough here to keep a space nerd happy for a month's worth of afternoons.
A Player's Guide to Ptolus
Sword and Sorcery
$2.99, 32 pages
Five copies of this small sourcebook showed up in my mailbox last week, a harbinger of the release this August of the massive 600+ page Ptolus setting book from Malhavoc Press, in conjunction with the Sword and Sorcery imprint from White Wolf games. The book being released in August is going to be an enormous campaign setting book thoroughly exploring a single city. The five copies I received in the mail were 'rewards' for preordering the book, intended to be given out to my players to excite their appetite for the setting. I'm a sucker for a setting, so here's one of my cynical player's assessment of the book: "Who know if the final price will be worth it, but the little promo looks good. Admittedly I read it pretty late at night, but I didn't notice anything really worth complaining about. I liked how there's a strong element of evil in the setting, not just 'island of civilization beset by darkness' type stuff." In short, the Player's Guide gives every indication that the larger book will offer up a pretty unique setting. Firearms sit side-by-side with swords in the markets, and the populous is well-informed about the dangers of spellcasting. Minotaurs and cat-people walk the streets without incident (or, at least, little more than subtle glares), and every street in the city will be named and numbered. Here's hoping this year's GenCon will see the release of another really worthwhile campaign setting from Malhavoc.