Monday, July 07, 2008

Review: Adventure Games Journal #1

The last couple posts around here have been a bit of a bummer, so it's obviously time for some unbridled enthusiasm! Adventure Games Journal is the magazine side of industry veteran James Mishler's growing one-man FRP empire, Adventure Games Publications. James comped me a copy of AGJ #1 to review here and I dug it so much I signed on for the long term with a 6 issue/installment subscription. I say "issue/installment" because James is rolling out a modern day version of the Judges Guild campaign installment system. The subscription I paid for is good for 6 issues of AGJ and 6 campaign installments of the Wilderlands of High Adventure. Note that's High Adventure, not High Fantasy. This Wilderlands is a new licensed version of Bob Bledsaw's original, statted up for Castles & Crusades and fleshed out with lots of original material. I can't wait to get my first campaign installment.

But anyway, back to the magazine. Physically, the book is an 8.5" x 11" black & white affair running 48 pages. The cover depicts the Invincible Overlord on his pegasus throne, with two of his trusted aids at his side. I believe this is the first time I've ever seen an illo of that dude. And the weirdo in the robe is creepy-tastic. This piece and all the interior art and cartography are by Peter Bradley and I think his linework is pretty dang good.

James uses the interior covers for fullpage ads for his products. The first interior page is a table of contents and OGL declaration, while the next page is an editorial explaining what the magazine is about. The rest of the mag is chock full of pure gaming goodness, all written by Mr. Mishler. I'll give the rundown article by article.

"The World of the Wilderlands of High Adventure"

This is where James hit one out of the ballpark and got me to pony up for a subscription. In a dozen pages he gives a fabulous overview of the Wilderlands' cosmology and astronomy, thumbnail sketches of each of the 18 regions of the setting, and similar descriptions of the rest of the continent of Rhadamanthia, of which the canonical Wilderlands are but one small part. Each subsection of the article is full of meaty stuff you can spin into adventure fodder, NPC background material, or treasure item histories. But there's not so much there that you can't fill each place full of your own material. In terms of efficient delivery of inspiring setting info, the only two settings I can compare to Mishler's work here are Gygax's Greyhawk and S. John Ross's Uresia. Most settings deliver half this much awesome in twice as many words.

"Hanging Out in the City State: The Invincible Overlord, His Concubines, and his Children"

An article with the word "concubines" in the title had the potential to go south quickly, but Mishler handles this quite well. For those of you who like adventures full of politics and intrigue, this article is your huckleberry. The strange life and times of Hygelak the Dread, Invincible Overlord, his 12.5 concubines, and their children is a situation teeming with plot potential. A braver GM than I could build a great adventure where all the players assume the roles of various concubines during an assassination attempt or somesuch. For less ambitious or crazy GMs, all you need is a way to hook the PCs into the court in order to launch some high stakes fiascos. (PC to party: What didn't I tell you my sister was married to the Overlord? Must have slipped my mind.)

"Knights of the Realm and FEAR"

The first part of this realm is a detailed outline of the institution of knighthood in the City State. Lots of great details here in terms of the probably character levels of various knights, their equipment, their obligations to the Overlord, and their lifestyle. The second half of the article deals with the Fraternity for the Eradication of Armored Riffraff. The organization known as FEAR gets a brief write-up in the old Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets. Their basic deal is that they like to beat up low class PCs running around in platemail. The info Mishler provides here gives some great background to the organization, taking what looked to me like merely an excuse to pimp over the PCs and turning it into an important and relevant social institution. And they know this wicked combat maneuver called Great Plate Crush they can use to pummel the bejesus out of uppity PCs. The article ends with rules for ransoming knights, something D&D has needed for a long time, and brief C&C stats for various forms of plate armor.

"Maze of the Mad Mage"

In my opinion this is the one weak point in the magazine. There's nothing wrong with most of the adventure and the key. In fact, it looks like a fun little dungeon romp in the style of the stuff in the old Dungeoneer magazine. But this dungeon comes with a gimmick and I'm not a big fan of gimmick dungeons. In this case the gimmick is that the dungeon level is chock full of instantaneous undetectable teleporters. It strikes me as the kind of dungeon that could set off riots among the players. And the teleporter key is hard to read in black & white. A full color map would have really helped here. Were I to try to run this thing, I'd probably attack the map with highlighters or colored pencils to make it easier to use. Also, one tiny nitpick is that the dungeon map has no scale marked on it.

"Monsters & Treasures"

I love these sort of meat-&-potatoes type articles. First you get stats for the Orblings, a new class of floating eyeballs with tentacles. I eat that stuff up. Michler notes that the Orblings are based upon the Steelies, an old Paul Jacquays monster from the Dungeoneer, but its not just a redo of an old monster, but an interesting new creature inspired by Jacquays work. Then you get a couple of magic items, the Wand of Witchery and Cauldron of Wisdom. With very little work this stuff should be usable in nearly any old edition of D&D.

"Lost Gods of the Wilderlands"

This one's a nice little 2 page article on Rash'l, God of Tyranny. Page one is devoted to stuff followers need to know and some neat history of the faith. Page two is stats for the dude. Even if you don't regularly feature gods popping up in your campaign, there's plenty of hash to be made out the first page of this article, including some nifty political tie-ins to the City State.

"Lost Lore of the Wilderlands"

Next we get a nifty write-up on the Cozy Cave, a wilderness inn built into a Esgalbar, a secret elven outpost in a big tree, kinda like a Ewok habitation. Esgalbar is jam-packed with dangling adventure hooks and lots of meaty Wilderlands lore. The back cover of the magazine is a map depicting the Wilderlands hex containing both sites. (Map 5, hex 3119 if anyone cares.) My favorite part about this article is the die chart for who else might be at the Cozy Cave when the PCs arrive. Good stuff.

"Rumors Around the Wilderlands"

A page full of adventure ideas in the form of short rumors. Several are specifically for the City State, while others are tied to a specific Wilderlands map. Three of the rumors are for the Southern Reaches (map 18), which will be featured in the first campaign installment.

"Shopping List"

A "coming soon" list mostly for Troll Lords, Goodman Games, and Mishler's own stuff. Out of date at this point.

"Adventure Finder"

Some of you might be familiar with Goodman Games' Adventure Finder for their Dungeon Crawl Classics line. It's basically a big chart that helps you pick the right DCC for your party based upon their level. Mishler provides a similar service but across pretty much all the publishers I care about: Goodman, Green Ronin, Kenzer, Necromancer, Troll Lord, Paizo, and WotC. And seeing as how the sky fell last month, this list is probably about as complete as you're going to get for 3.x. File this one under "Why didn't anyone think of this sooner?"

So that's issue #1 of Adventure Games Journal. Like I said, this thing made me a believer, despite the fairly high prices. The quality is just that damn good. I still work on my personal Cinder setting, but after reading this stuff I dropped the Wilderlands onto my map of the star systems near Cinder. So now the Wilderlands, like Encounter Critical's Mighty Land of Vanth and several other settings, is just one small corner of my overall campaign universe. Did you know that the Kings of Kelnore had starships and once fought a space war with the Beast from Krull? It's true.

One final thing about James's version of the Wilderlands. There's been some confusion in some quarters about his campaign maps. Mishler is not simply producing color versions of the black and white maps that appeared in the Wilderlands boxed set from Necromancer. His maps have more detail. Check out these two samples.


I'm thinking that the old black & white maps might be useful as handouts for the players.