Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook – A book that teaches gamemastering

Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook, West End Games, 1993.

The Star Wars Roleplaying Game by West End Games was first released in 1987, four years after Return of the Jedi had been in theaters. It got a second edition in 1992, which this time also included a Gamemaster Handbook that was released in 1993. This was 14 years after the first Dungeon Master’s Guide for AD&D 1st edition, and 2 years after the 2nd edition DMG. At the same time, Shadowrun had  been around for four years, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay for seven, and Call of Cthulhu for twelve, so it really wasn’t entering into any completely unknown territory.

While I can’t really say anything about the later games, I am quite familiar with all the Dungeon Master’s Guides other than 4th edition, as well as the GM sections for a dozen or so retroclones based on B/X and AD&D 1st ed. But when I managed to get my hands on the Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook and read it, I discovered something that seemed amazing:

The Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook tells you how to be a Gamemaster!

“Well, duh!” you say? “That’s obviously what a gamemaster book is for.” Well, it should be obvious, but when you look at what passes as Dungeon Master’s Guides in D&D, it really isn’t. In the many editions I had both on the internet and with the players of my D&D 5th edition campaign (most of who have much more experience with it than I do), people regularly bring up how 5th edition is really unclear on how you’re supposed to actually run the game because it seems to assume that you run narrative-driven campaigns but all it’s rules are for dungeon crawling. Particularly older GMs express that the 5th edition DMG fails to even mention such basic things like how you make a map for a dungeon and fill it with content.

But this isn’t really a new thing. Since the very beginning, D&D has always assumed that GMs already know anything there is to preparing adventures and running the game, and all the GM content in the books consists of optional mechanics, lists to roll for randomly generated content, and magic items. What are you supposed to do with those to run an enjoyable game for new players? “Well, it’s obvious. Isn’t it.” But no, it isn’t.

The Star Wars Gamemaster Handbook is the complete opposite. It’s 126 pages and except for the example adventure that makes up the last 21 pages, there is a grand total of two stat blocks! Both as examples for the section that guides you through the process of creating named NPCs and translating them into game terms. Which don’t even take up one page in the twelve page chapter dedicated to this topic.

  • Chapter 1: Beginning Adventures, 10 pages, gives an overview of the process of coming up with adventure ideas and turning them into playable content that has some narrative structure to it.
  • Chapter 2: The Star Wars Adventure, 11 pages, expands on the previous chapter and goes into more detail about making full use of the unique setting and capturing the tone, pacing, and dynamics of Star Wars in a game.
  • Chapter 3: Setting, 11 pages, has great advice on using places and characters from the movies or creating your own material, with a focus on explaining what kind of elements you actually need to prepare, what is irrelevant, and the reason for it.
  • Chapter 4: Gamemaster Character, 12 pages, is all about thinking of NPCs as people first, and imagining them in ways that are memorable and makes them relevant to the events of the adventures and campaigns as individuals, and how to use them during actual play. Creating stat blocks for them is only a minor subject at the end of the chapter.
  • Chapter 5: Encounters, 13 pages, deals with encounters primarily as social interactions and what purpose individual encounters could serve to further the development of the narrative. There are a few sections on selecting the right amounts of hostiles for encounters that could turn violent, but it manages to do so without using any tables or stats.
  • Chapter 6: Equipment and Artifacts, 11 pages, is all about gear and related stuff, but doesn’t include any stats for specific items. It’s a chapter about resources that can be made available to PCs and NPCs and how they can drive the developing narrative of adventures as they unfold.
  • Chapter 7: Props, 7 pages, is about handouts and maps and the like.
  • Chapter 8: Improvisation, 8 pages, explains in simple and easy to understandable terms the concepts of prepared improvisation, or the art of equipping yourself with the tools you’re likely going to need to quickly address completely unplanned situations on the fly.
  • Chapter 9: Campaigns, 9 pages, lays out some basic ideas of running games for a long time through multiple adventures, in many ways approaching it from a perspective of sandboxing.
  • Chapter 10: Adventure “Tales of the Smoking Blaster”, 17 pages, is a simple adventure consisting of four episodes that shows how all the principles from the rest of the book could look like in practice.

To be fair, none of the things I’ve read in this book are seemed in any way new to me. I knew all of this before, and it doesn’t go very deeply into detail. But it took me 20 years to learn these things on my own and soaking up the wisdom of several dozens old-hand D&D GMs. And here it is, black and white on paper, spelled out in simple terms that are very much accessible to people completely new to RPGs, in a 27 year old book!

Now I am not a dungeon crawling GM. I am not a tactical fantasy wargame GM either. And there are different goals and requirements for different types of campaigns. But I feel that this is hands down the best GM book I’ve ever come across. It even beats Kevin Crawford’s Red Tide and Spears of the Dawn. They are very impressive books in their own right and do a great job at explaining the practices of sandbox settings in a D&D context. But they also fail to mention most of the information that is in the Gamemaster Handbook, like how you run NPCs as people and set up encounters to be interesting and memorable, apparently assuming that these things are obvious and already known. Like all other D&D books on gamemastering.

I think for most people reading this, there won’t be much new or particularly enlightening in this book either. But I think when any of us are asked by people who are new to RPGs (or maybe not) and first want to try their hand at being GMs but have no idea where to start, I think this book is still very much worth a huge recommendation. Not just for Star Wars, but for all RPGs in general. All the things that are laid out in this book would be really useful to know even when you want to run an OD&D dungeon crawl.

This book is fantastic, because it’s the only GM book I know that really teaches you how to be a GM instead of telling you about additional mechanics not included in the main rulebook. If my favorite RPG posters all got together to put together a guidebook on how to actually run games in basic and easy to understand terms, I don’t think I’d expect anything to be in it that isn’t already in the Gamemaster Handbook for the Star Wars Roleplaying Game 2nd edition from 1993.

My thoughts on Crypts & Things

Just a couple of days ago I got very excited about finally being able to get a look at Crypts & Things, which I’ve often seen praised as a fantastic Sword & Sorcery take on OSR games.

190299

But I have to admit that very quickly after starting to read, my enthusiasm for it went down very fast. Crypts & Things is not a bad game and it’s certainly more Sword & Sorcery than other OSR games, even more than Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea. But my feelings on it are that it’s not a particularly impressive game and that it follows a concept of Sword & Sorcery that is exclusively Conan and Conan-clones, which is perhaps the dominating view among OSR players.

At ita base, Crypts & Things is Swords & Wizardry with a couple of variant rules and new mechanics. I’m very unimpressed with S&W to begin with and pretty much all the shortcomings I see in it apply to C&T as well. There are however a couple of nee ideas that I quite like. In C&T, bonuses for high ability scores are the same as usual, but penalties for low scores never get greater than -1.
The effect is almost the same of rolling 2d6+6, which I wrote about last month. This makes characters that are good at many things, but not really bad at anything, which fits Sword & Sorcery very well.

C&T has its own classes, of which the Fighter,Sorcerer, and Thief are pretty much as usual. Fighters get access to various weapon skills as they advance but the bonuses are so small that it just seems to add complexity for no real benefit. What I quite like however is that the thief’s skills are not exclusive to thieves. All characters can make a skill check based on their character level, but each class gets a +3 bonus to activities that fit their archetype. The barbarian is a new fourth class that turned out not to be another berserker as you usually see in D&D, but actually a lighter warrior with better wilderness skills. Filling the very same role as my Scout class for LotFP. Of course, I consider this a goo idea as well.

There are also five special classes including an elementalist but also lizardman and serpentman characters which can be used as NPCs or might be allowed for players in some campaigns.

Next there’s 11 pages of tables to create randomly generated character backstories.I’ve never been a fan of any such things.

A big difference to S&W is the spell list for sorcerers which consists mostly of magic-user spells and a few cleric healing spell. It’s still the regular D&D spells,which I find particularly unsuited for Sword & Sorcery. These spells are in three groups and classed as white gray,or black magic. They function very much the same but casting a white magic spells alerts demons that are close by and black magic spells can increase a character’s corruption. Interesting idea for a new mechanic, but I think this is an area where C&T falls flat to me.

Corruption is a cool concept in Sword & Sorcery, but in C&T it simply accumulates unti the character gets a mutation that seems mostly cosmetic. Kt feels overly bare bones to me.

Same thing with Sanity. You get insanity points as the game progresses and once you got too many the character goes mad and is out of the game.

Then there is also Luck, which is basically a regular action point mechanic with not much else to it from what I can see from my brief reading.

These are all concepts that are implicitly present in much Sword & Sorcery (particularly the hammy Clonan type) and that could be quite interesting to have in the game, but the mechanics presented here all strike me as very bare bones, bland, and also somewhat boring. I know I am a very tough customer when it comes to variant mechanics for simple games, but neither of these three makes me want to see it in action. I applaude the intend, but the execution isn’t doing anything for me.

All in all, Crypts & Things strikes me as a game that should work well and that I would play without complaints if invited to it, but I don’t really see anything in it that would make me want to run it instead of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. You can see that it’s made for Sword & Sorcery, but doesn’t seem to be any more suited for it than any other generic OSR game.

Reading through Cook Expert (1981)

D&D Expert

This one is blue. Interesting cover, but not nearly as cool as the Basic Set. It’s okay, but nothing too impressive.

In the original Box Set, this book came bundled with the module X1: Isle of Dread, also written by Cook, and which is probably one of the most highly regarded adventures ever made. I might perhaps cover this after the Expert Set is done. (Because it is indeed very good, but also very unlike any other modern modules.)

The first page is a number of tables from the Basic Set, like the Ability Score modifiers, missile weapon ranges, and all the Encumbrance rules. The idea here seems to be that you have any tables you might need too look up during a game in a single book. Very thoughtful.

Part 1: Introduction

Obviously, this is an expansion to the Basic Set and assumes that you know how Basic works. The idea of reassembling the two books into one is mentioned again, but without printing all 128 pages (which I won’t) it’s hard to get an impression of how good that would actually look.

The Expert Set has rules for letting characters advance to 14th level, and includes new spells, magic items, monsters, and treasures for such higher level adventures. (Or lower levels when you go to dungeons.) There is also a big deal being made from going beyond dungeon adventures into wilderness adventures. “In expanding the campaign, the DM will create whole nations and cultures, giving the characters a history and background. Adventurers can even shape the hisoty of their world as they become more powerful.” We’re going to see how well the book delivers on this lofty promise later on.

At higher levels, players also may build strongholds for their characters and then become lords of their own territories.

A few new terms are introduced as well: A wilderness is any area that is outdoors. When characters reach 9th level, they have achieved name level, as by then a magic-user is called a “wizard” and a fighter a “Lord”, and their title won’t be changing any more after that. (At the lower levels, every class level comes with a fancy sounding title that doesn’t actually mean anything.) When characters build their own fortified base, it is called a castle when build by fighters, clerics, or wizards, a hideout when build by thieves, and a stronghold when build by demhumans.

A new concept introduced here are reversed spells, which allows spellcasters to cast their spells for the opposite effect they usually know. There is also magical research, which allows spellcasters to invent new spells and make magic items. “Many details of magical research are left the DM.” Interesting they already felt the need to mention that here in the introduction of the book.

There’s a historically very interesting paragraph on the second page of the introduction. At least if you have an interest in early D&D and the nerdiest aspects of OSR.

Most important, the characters in the wilderness campaign do not exist in a vacuum. The DM should have events going on elsewhere that may affect (or be affected by) the actions of the players. There may be any number of “plots” going on at once, and the DM should try to involve each player in some chain of events. These should develop logically from the actions of those involved. It is important not to force the action to a pre-determined conclusion. The plot lines can always be adjusted for the actions of the players.

This could very well be argued to be official definition of what is now usually called Sandbox campaigns. You could write small books about this quote alone. (And I am pretty sure someone did.) I won’t go into that here in great detail as there is plenty of more immediate stuff, but it’s interesting to see that Cook was stressing some points about open world campaigns that are still the source of great debate 35 years later.

Since player characters die with considerable frequency and the default assumption is that all new characters are created at 1st level, “As a guideline, not a rule, it is suggested that characters who have a difference in levels of 5 or greater” should not play in the same adventures. The reason for that being that a 1st level character in a 6th level party would not have any realistic chance of surviving anything the party might run into and that a 12th level character in a 6th level party would simply clear out all obstacles by himself, reducing the other characters to supporting spectators. Still, I can imagine a great number of 3rd edition players considering even a 5 level difference an outrage and a travesty.

The suggestion that a 3rd level character and an 8th level character should probably play in different adventures seems strange though. This seems based on the assumption that D&D is played in wargaming clubs where there are plenty of different games run by different groups. However, the Basic Set explicitly mentioned that B/X is meant to make D&D accessible to people beyond this original crowd, so it seems a bit out of place. The obvious alternative solution would be to have new characters created 5 levels below the highest level character in the party.

There’s also a couple of extra notes for people who want to use the Expert Set with the older Holmes Basic rules. I know nothing about that one, but I assume the Expert Set would indeed have everything needed to do that. The only thing it’s really missing are combat rules, monsters, and spells, which the Holmes Basic set most likely already had in a very similar form. Continue reading “Reading through Cook Expert (1981)”

Reading through Moldvay Basic (1981)

Last year I did a forum thread about reading through all of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic/Expert rules for the first time, after having flipped through it briefly and being quite impressed by what I saw. Looking over it again, I think it turned out interesting enough to preserve it here for the future.

D&D Basic

Lets’s do this really thoroughly. Let’s begin with the cover.

First thought: It is red. Though the art is changed in the Mentzer version two years later, the red color is kept, resulting in it being called the Red Box. (As there’s also the original White Box and the Forgotten Realms Grey Box.) It really does stand out. The art is very well done, especially when compared to the cra… less sophisticated art of AD&D 1st edtion. It has a fighter and a mage fighting a dragon in a dungeon. That dragon looks angry, the fighter has his spear raised, and the mage is about to throw her magic missile.There’s also a torch providing dramatic fire and the dragon is standing in water so it splashes around. This kicks ass! This could only be more awesome if the dragon was breathing fire. Also nice to see someone with a spear instead of a boring sword, but that’s just me. The shield is wrong, but whatever. I wouldn’t say I am a fan of the artists personal style, but he really seems to have put a lot of thought into how to make the picture communicate the contents of the book. It’s not just some guys standing around posing for the artist while looking menacingly. It actually tells you what the game is about. And it’s red! You don’t need to know what Dungeons & Dragons is and with this cover you’ve already taken in all the art before you even read the name at the top. It looks a bit unsophisticated compared to modern cover art design, but I think sdjusting for the different styles of different periods, this is probably the best RPG cover I’ve seen so far.

I also like “For 3 or More Adults, Ages 10 and Up”. Nice touch.

Next is the whole table of contents on a single page. Very nice. And then we get the credits OH MY GAAHH…!

dragon

I said the only way the cover could be more cool is if the dragon were breathing fire. This one does! And this wizard is throwing his magic missile and it’s also a dragon! The dude with the bow is about to shot the dragon into the mouth and the dwarf is under the dragon, raising his hammer to smash its knees. And that elf chick blocking the dragons breath with her shield while looking cool? Totally badass. Let me put on the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack before I continue writing this.

Why is this picture here on the credits page? This isn’t really telling us anything or illustrating something that is explained on that page, like most RPG art. It’s simply there to make the page not look as empty. So why not put something there that gets people hyped up for them game after they are already curious from the cover?

curiosity

Okay, let’s get to actually reading the book. It has a short foreword, which I usually don’t read, but since the interest here lies not just in the specific rules of the edition, but how it is related and compares to all the other rules versions, let’s give this a look. There is a bit of nostalgic musing about OD&D (if you can call it that after just 6 years), but Moldvay spells it out specifically that OD&D was written for experienced wargamers. The primary goal of this revision of the rules was to make them accessible to completely new players, who are not familiar with these types of games at all. Many of the changes were made in direct response to letters send by players to TSR with questions about specific elements of the rules. Interestingly, it doesn’t mention the Holmes version that had been released 3 years later. Perhaps he was including it with “the original D&D rules”? As I mentioned before, I don’t know anything about OD&D or Holmes Basic, so I am unable to even guess.

He also dedicates a short paragraph to say “In a sense, the D&D game has no rules, only rule suggestions”. He encourages to make changes, “particularly if a new or altered rule will encourage creativity and imagination”. Which certainly is an important thing, especially with games of this period. But I think to completely new players who barely have any understanding of the rules as they are written at this point, this doesn’t really seem like particularly helpful advice. It seems a bit too much “yeah, whatever” to me. A few more sentences on explaining that it’s best to first fully understand the rules and using them for a while before trying to improve them for the personal requirements would have been a good idea. However, since this game is very compact and quite simple to begin with, it seems much less of an issue than with many other, much more complex games. The chance to accidentally cause a chain reaction as whole structures of rules collapse with rules on which they are build being taken away seems quite low here.

In the Aknowledgements, there’s special thanks to Frank Mentzer who helped with organizing the rules. He’s the one who would do the revision of this revision three years later.

Part 1: Introduction

This is two pages of the basic “What’s a Roleplaying Game” stuff. Usually I’d skip this, but here it might be interesting to take a closer look. It already mentions the Expert Set, as the two sets had been developed as a pair. The Basic set is for characters of 1st to 3rd level and deals mostly with dungeon adventures, while the Expert set will cover the 4th to 14th level and have rules for adventures outside the dungeon. It also announces the Companion set with rules for 15th to 36th level, which actually got released only 4 years later, together with a revised Basic and Expert Sets.

It’s recommended to remove the staples and cut the double pages up into single pages and make a ring binder out of them. So in theory you could later do the same with the Expert (and Companion) rules and have all the spells and monster together. For that purpose all the pages are numbered B1, B2, B3, and so on and then you’ll get the pages X1, X2, … from the Expert Set. But I do have my doubts if that actually would lead to a well organized binder, since with several monsters on every page you couldn’t get them all alphabetically. And I believe the Expert set has a few bits of errata but doesn’t duplicate the whole section of rules, just the specific paragraph. If I remember it, I’ll check it after having covered all of the Expert rules.

And here we do have a longer paragraph adressing how to judge whether to change a rule and advising on thinking it through carefully. Very nice.

The section “Definitions of Standard D&D Terms” begins with READ THIS SECTION CAREFULLY. In ALL CAPS and bold. Why no excalmation marks? Though will most of this section is most likely completely obvious to anyone reading it now, it probably was very important at the time of release and the intended audience. It explains not just things like Dungeon Master or Player Character, but also much more basic things like “party”, “dungeon”, “class”, and “adventure”. These are all now very common terms, but they are still technical terms, and not something that could be assumed to be instantly understood.

It also introduces the task of the mapper. The mapper is a player whose job it is to make a map of the dungeon as the party explores it, based on the description by the GM. It explicitly mentions that the map made by the mapper will be inaccurate and get even more so the further the players explore. While the idea of moving around with a shoddy map certainly is a lot of fun, making that damn thing sounds like a huge pain in the ass. It also requires that everything is done on grid paper for the mapper to have any chance of creating something that has passing resemblance to the actual environment, and that path has let us down to tens or hundreds of thousands of very implausible floorplans. In a game that is really just about exploring a dungeon and nothing else, it might have some excuse to exist. But once you start expanding into stories, grid paper maps really become much more of a burden than a useful prop.

The other role is the caller, which I think we know simply call the party leader. Every game with more than 3 PCs I’ve seen very quickly developed a party leader, but it was never an official position and there wasn’t any election or appointment. It just worked out that way. Here it is made much more official and exists on the border of ingame and metagame. The players may be debating and talking as much as they want, but it becomes actual ingame action only once the caller tells the GM what they are doing. I’ve never been quite sure what the purpose of this was. Probably might have something to do with groups reportedly being regularly pretty big, and I almost never run games with more than four or five PCs. I also always play only with good personal friends. With a group of mostly strangers for a one-shot game, getting things orderly and civil might be a lot more difficult, and if you then also have 10 players on the table, I can see it being a great reduction of work for the GM if he can have all the kindergardening outsourced to one of the players. For a home game with a few friends, it seems superflous though.

And, I kid you not, a quarter of a page dedicated simply to the many uses of the the word “level”, so that people don’t get too confused by it. Come on, guys! You obviously realized it was a problem! You are directly adressing that problem here. It was 1980, you still had an opportunity to fix this mess and introduce a few more terms to clear up the ambiguity of the language before it becomes standard terminology throughout all RPGs and video games. But no! You just had to keep doing it. At least it doesn’t seem to have caught on to say that monsters have a level. They simply have Hit Dice (or later a Challenge Rating). I think at least in AD&D, there is also a “monster level appropriate for a given dungeon level”, and a dungeon level does not just mean which story of a building it is, but also it’s difficulty level, as it is appropriate for PCs of a given character level. No surprise that this concept has been almost entirely forgotten in modern games.

Next is a simple explaination of dice notation. There’s also a short paragraph on explaining how to read the d4 and how to throw it. Though in my experience, players rolling dice too weakly so that they don’t really roll on the table is a significantly more rare problem than throwing dice with way too much force. Gamer Protip: Buy couches with enough floor clearing to fit a fist under it.

Finally a short paragraph on “How to ‘Win'”. Here we already see the term referee making an appearance. Which in my oppinion is the second worst term to use for a gamemaster after “storyteller” because you can not be an impartial judge if you also play the opposition and have the goal of making the game most fun. But that’s a completely different topic.

Continue reading “Reading through Moldvay Basic (1981)”

A first look at the Fantasy Age Bestiary

The Bestiary for Fantasy Age has been released in pdf now, and it really was about time. When the game came out last year it was the most demanded addition to the rulebook, which only provided ten or so sample creatures to show what their stat blocks look like. Which is really not much as a basis to easily get an introduction in how to effectively make new monsters for your campaign. Now a dedicated monster book has finally arrived.

GRR6004_450_1024x1024The big downside that immediately stands out is that there are only about 60 creatures in the book and the majority of them are pretty generic stuff that you find in every D&D Monster Manual 1. On the other hand, every creature has a full double page of description, which is more than I’ve ever seen in any other monster book. The description consists of a basic summary of the creature, usually a few paragraphs on making special customized versions of them, and three plot hooks as ideas how the creature can be used in play. This is something that I very much approve of. Unfortunately most of the creatures are not really interesting at all and so it all ends up being pretty uninspiring.

In Fantasy Age all the special abilities of a creature are in its stat block and usually it’s not too many of them to get too confusing. Often just four or five, with the creature’s natural armor and the ability to see in the dark being one item each. Most abilities are stunts which the creature can activate when it rolls two same numbers on its attack roll of 3d6 (if I recall correctly). Which in many cases makes a lot more sense than having them be special actions that are done instead of an attack and is one of the big features of the rules system. The downside is that the creatures have almost entirely only abilities for combat. That’s a bit too much needlessly imitating D&D in my opinion.

All in all, the Fantasy Age Bestiary seems like a book that is both necessary and unsatisfying. And like the rulebook itself it seems to be overpriced. There are so much better and bigger monster books out there which are much cheaper or even free and 15€ seems to be really too much. If you’re a huge fan of Fantasy Age and desperately waiting for a monster book to help running your campaign then this book seems like a necessary purchase. But if you’re looking for new monsters and inspirations for any other kind of campaign I very much recommend against it.

RPG Review: Qelong

Qelong is a small sandbox setting written by Kenneth Hite for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Since it’s a short little book, this will also be a somewhat short review. Qelong consists of a river valley on the coast of a fantasy country loosely inspired by Cambodia. Two immortal beings have been fighting over the country for a very long time, and some 20 years ago one of them discarded a broken weapon during a battle and it landed in the headwaters of the Qelong river. Since then it has been leaking a supernatural toxin into the water and into the air, making the calley barely inhabitable. The player characters are intended to mercenaries from a far away land who might be on a mission to remove the weapon from the poisonous swamp or salvage pieces of it for a sorcerer unbothered by its dangers.

117257The book consists basically of three parts: Mechanics, creatures and factions, and locations. The content covers 45 pages plus two simple maps. While it’s certainly compact, I am not a big fan of the organization. There are several important faction in the setting, but half of their description is in the monster section and the other half in the descrption of their base in the locations section. This made it somewhat difficult to get a first bearing and when I tried to read the book simply from front to back, most of the things mentioned in the mechanics section didn’t mean anything to me yet. It’s only once you made it through the whole thing (admitedly not long) that you get the whole picture and what the book provides and what it doesn’t. A general outline that tells me what this sandbox is about right at the front of the book would have been really appreciated.

I am also somewhat under the impression that this was not actually playtested. And that the author is not a veteran GM of this game system. As other reviewers have pointed out before me, the rules for the supernatural poison are much too long and complicated for the minimal payoff they have. There are three full pages on how the toxin works, but in actual play it will come down to the players starting to make occasional saving throws after a few weeks and eventually they will fail one and get a -1 penalty to most of their rolls plus some wild magic effects for spellcasters. Counting the number of days spend breathing the toxic air and how much poisoned food and water has been consumed, and how often each character was injured is just overkill. The other thing that stands out is the abundance of special attack that are basically instant kill. I think the naga should have no problem completely wiping out a full party in a single turn.

But the main issue I have with Qelong is the amount of content. For a hexcrawl (which I assume is meant to be the default use) there is just too little material there. The area is 24×18 hexes, yet there are only ten locations in total. Seven of which are already clearly marked on the player map handout. So not really anything to discover beyond the next hill unless the GM creates it. On the other hand, for a fishtank the factions are all much too one dimensional. It’s not really more than you would find in an old D&D module from the 80s. And what makes the whole thing somewhat annoying is that the content that is actually there could have been fully explained in a lot less space. You get a full page of text that doesn’t really give you any more information than “One 8th level dwarf with ten gnome slaves and a mechanical elephant mining for gems”. You still have to make a map yourself and have to come up with your own ideas for how interactions with the NPC could play out. So I have to wonder, who is this book for? The crunch is too little to be usable out of the box like a D&D module, and the fluff is too light to get stories going. Either way, you’re going to have a lot of work ahead of you to run a Qelong campaign. You can use it as a starting point for your own creative work, but the material that is already present doesn’t really seem that imaginative to me.

Pretty much all the reviews that I had read have greatly praised it as a wonderful Asian fantasy sandbox with great spooky and weird elements, but I am personally not seeing any of that. The Asian elements really only go as far as a few names and terms, with no real references to Southeast Asian cultures. Which I don’t have a problem with. Taking inspirations from other cultures is great, and there is no harm done unless you have an outsider who understands very little of a culture attempting to educate others about its traditions and social meanings. Which Hite really doesn’t do at any point in this book. Nothing objectionable about that. And it’s great when you see a western author create fantasy that isn’t set in faux medieval England. But there also isn’t any ground to praise Qelong for it’s presentation of an Asian fantay setting. It’s a generic fantasy setting with monsoon, lotus, and stupas. I am also not finding anything spooky or weird about it. When it comes to spooky content, Dungeon magazine adventures regularly went a lot further. Now the garuda-lich is a cool idea, I admit that. But the myrmidons, the naga-kin, and the lotus monks are all very much standard fare.

Now is Qelong a bad book? No, I would not say that. It’s reasonably well done and at $7 it’s also reasonably priced. But I am not a fan of it in any way, and neither do I think this is something others should check out. So when it comes to chosing yay or nay, it does come down to nay.