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Weird Discoveries is a collection of ten “Instant Adventures” for Numenera. The concept behind these instant adventures is basically what I talked about in Opening Your Gaming Table. I’ll let Monte Cook explain:Numenera: Weird Discoveries - Monte Cook

It’s Friday night. Your friends have gathered at your house. Someone asks, “What should we do tonight?” One person suggests watching a movie, but everyone else is in the mood for a game. You’ve got lots of board games, and that seems like the obvious solution, because they don’t take any more time to prepare than it takes to set up the board and the pieces.

Those of us who love roleplaying games have encountered this situation a thousand times. We’d love to suggest an RPG for the evening, but everyone knows you can’t just spontaneously play a roleplaying game, right? The game master has to prepare a scenario, the players need to create characters, and all this takes a lot of time and thought.

Cook’s solution to this problem is to create one-shot scenarios in a custom format that makes it possible for the GM to run a four hour session after quickly skimming 4-6 pages of information.

This basically boils down into three parts:

First, a two page description of the scenario’s background and initial hook.

Second, a two page spread that generally looks something like this

Weird Discoveries - Two Page Spread

and which contains the entire scenario. (This two page spread is the only thing you’ll need to look at while running the adventure.)

Third, an additional two pages of additional details that you can use to flesh out the scenario. (These pages are optional. If you don’t have time to read them, the evocative details they provide can easily be replaced by material improvised by the GM.)

The basic idea is that these scenarios give Numenera the same commitment profile as a board game: You pull out the rulebooks and dice. You quickly explain the rules. You hand out pregen characters to the players. And while they’re looking over their character sheets, you spend two or three minutes quickly reviewing a scenario.

Then you play for three or four hours and… that’s it. No prior prep commitment. No long-term commitment from the players. Just pick it up and play it.


First, there’s the weird decision to kick off this book of stand-alone one-shots with two linked scenarios where one is clearly the sequel of the other. (The first scenario is “gaining access to the pyramid” and the second is “exploring the pyramid”.) This isn’t the end of the world and if those had been given at the end of the book as a sort of variant on the form, it probably would have been fine. But one of these scenarios is actually used as the free promo for the book, and I actually held off buying it for awhile because it appeared that the book wasn’t actually delivering on its promise.

Another bit of wonkiness comes from the way that Cook tries to streamline the presentation of the scenarios through the use of Keys. Each Key is some essential element of the scenario which could potentially be found in several different locations within the scenario. Each key is given a symbol, which is then used to indicate the locations where that key can be found.

For example, in a mystery scenario a Key might be:

Evidence that Supect A is innocent.

And that Key might be indicated by a little blue triangle. Then you look at the two page spread and you might see an NPC marked with a blue triangle, and their description will include:

If Bob is the KEY, then if the PCs really grill him, he’ll eventually admit that he saw Suspect A on the opposite side of town at the time of the murder.

In general, you’ll see two or three different places in the scenario where that little blue triangle shows up. That basically mirrors the redundancy suggested by the Three Clue Rule and it makes a lot of sense. And highlighting those essential bits with a visual cue in the form of the Key symbol also makes sense, because it flags the importance of including that bit for the GM.

A couple things mess this up, however: First, the table that tells you what each symbol means ISN’T located on the two page spread. So the simple elegance of the two-page spread is marred because you keep flipping back to that essential information.

Second, the “if” nature of the Keys tends to make it much more difficult to run the scenarios cleanly. The intention seems to be that the GM should control the pacing of when these keys are triggered, but in practice trying to keep track of the locations where a particular key is available (and whether or not this might be the last opportunity for it) requires a totality of understanding for the scenario which stands in sharp contrast with the goal of being able to run it off-the-cuff. (For off-the-cuff stuff, I generally want to be able to focus on the content directly in front of my nose without having to think about distant portions of the scenario.)

In general, you can probably just ignore the “if” portion of the text and run most of the scenarios with the Keys present in all of their potential locations. There are a handful of scenarios, however, where you can’t do this. (For example, a “missing piece” of a machine which can be in several different locations and actually be completely different things.)

In any case, these scenarios would be better if the keys were simply hardcoded. And I’d recommend altering them in whatever manner necessary to make that true before running them.


The other thing that doesn’t quite work are, unfortunately, the two-page spreads themselves. These take two forms.

First, there are flowcharts which show how the PCs can move from one scene to another. (Go to the home of the murder suspect and find a clue that points to where the murder suspect is.) These mostly work fine, although there are a few scenarios with mysterious extra arrows that don’t actually represent any tangible information. (The intention with some of these seems to be “the PCs are done here and can now go follow a lead from another location”, but that’s ideographically confusing because the arrow implies that there is a lead here that should take you there.)

Second, and unfortunately more prevalent, are the spreads based around maps surrounded by blobs of text that have arrows pointing to various sections of the map.

The best of these are the dungeons, because they at least make sense. But they’re not very good dungeons. One keeps talking about how you can explore beyond the rooms shown on the map… except there are no exits from the rooms on the map. The other is composed of mostly empty rooms. And in both cases, most of the room descriptions don’t match the visual representation of the room that they’re pointing at.

This is because, as far as I can tell, the maps were drawn largely at random and then the various bits of content were “associated” with the maps by drawing arrows that just kind of point at whatever’s convenient. And this is even more apparent when you look at some of the other two-page spreads. For example, consider the spread we looked at before:

Weird Discoveries - Two Page Spread

That’s supposed to be the map of a city. Except it obviously is not. And one of the content bubbles is “three dead bodies lie here”… except the associated arrow points into the middle of a wall. Another content bubble is “monster that’s explicitly moving around in the ruins”, but it has an arrow pointing to a very specific (and obviously completely meaningless) location

Another common technique here is “rough sketch of a wilderness area that’s radically out of scale with random arrows pointing at it”.


Because the scenarios are really good.

They cover a wide variety of nifty ideas backed up with fantastic art that’s designed to be shown to your players as evocative handouts (instead of featuring imaginary PCs doing things).

And despite my quibbles with some of the shortcomings of the presentation, the basic concept of the two-page spread fundamentally works: The maps and arrows don’t make any sense, but the essential content is nonetheless packaged in a format that makes it easy to simply pick up the adventure and run it with no prep time at all.

For my personal use, I’ll be basically ignoring all of the maps and using the content bubbles as either random encounters or logical progressions of an investigation (depending on the exigencies of the scenario). And I’ll take the time to lock down the Keys in a more concrete fashion, but I’m not anticipating that taking any more than 5-10 minutes per scenario, which is not an undue burden.

Ultimately, with ten full adventures, this book is incredibly valuable and I’m going to be getting dozens of hours of play out of it.

The final reason why the book’s shortcomings ultimately don’t matter, however, is because the roleplaying industry desperately needs more books like this: The board game renaissance is palpably demonstrating the power of memetically viral games that can be picked up and played as part of an evening’s entertainment. Games like Mice & Mystics and Mansions of Madness clearly demonstrate that the only reason traditional roleplaying games can’t hop on that bandwagon is because we’ve systematically ghettoized ourselves as an industry and as a hobby by embracing long-term, dedicated play as the only form of play.

With Numenera as its flagship, Monte Cook Games is fighting to change that. And I’m more than happy to help them out. (Particularly since their game is so much damn fun.)

Style: 4
Substance: 4

Author: Monte Cook
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Print Cost: $24.99
PDF Cost: $9.99
Page Count: 96
ISBN: 978-1939979339

The core rulebooks for Fantasy Flight’s iteration of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game are incredibly gorgeous. For several years I would walk past them in game stores, pick them up, and say, “Wow!”

Then I’d look at the price, realize I wasn’t likely to get a Star Wars game together any time in the near future, and then slowly put the book back on the shelf with a lingering pang of regret.

Star Wars: Force and Destiny - Fantasy Flight GamesOver time, though, I started putting the book back faster and faster, and eventually I just stopped picking them up. And that’s largely because I find Fantasy Flight’s packaging of the game absurd.

Back in 2012 when they released the beta version of Star Wars: Edge of Empire for $40 I didn’t have a problem with it: It provided early access to the game. Nobody was being forced to pay for it if they didn’t want to. And it wasn’t the first (nor the last) time that a beta program had a price of admission.

… but then they did it again for Age of Rebellion and for Force and Destiny. And it began to look a lot more like a marketing strategy: By executing a beta-beginning-core triumvirate for three separate games, it looked suspiciously as if Fantasy Flight Games had figured out how to sell the same core rules nine times over.

And there’s really no justification for it. The claim by the game designers that the “core experience” of the Star Wars universe is for Han Solo (Edge of Empire), Princess Leia (Age of Rebellion), and Luke Skywalker (Force and Destiny) to all adventure separately from each other is utterly bizarre.

On top of that, however, there’s the specialized dice. I don’t actually have a problem with a game using a specialized dice set, but these are sold at $15 per set… and in order to get a dice pool large enough that a table of beginning characters can reliably make their checks without having to reroll dice to form a full pool you’ll need three sets. So there’s another $45 you need to spend in order to start playing the game effectively.

Money-grubbing corporations will grub money, right? Fair enough. But I think what I find particularly frustrating is that the Star Wars roleplaying game should be a major point of entry for players new to RPGs. And that’s particularly true right now as Star Wars enters its second renaissance. And instead of opening the door wide to those new players, Fantasy Flight has packaged the game at an exorbitant price point which makes it basically as unattractive as possible.

Honestly, the cost would have kept me from ever trying the game. But I had a friend who wanted me to run it for them, and they purchased all the books and supplies. So let’s lay the cost aside and talk about the game itself.


In FFG’s Star Wars, your character is defined by their Characteristics and their Skills. In order to resolve an action, you take a number of Ability Dice equal to either your Characteristic or your Skill, whichever is higher. Then you upgrade a number of those Ability Dice to Proficiency Dice equal to either your Characteristic or your Skill, whichever is lower.

Star Wars RPG - Dice Pool(For example, let’s say you’re making a Brawn + Athletics check and you’ve got Brawn 3 and Athletics 2. You’d take three Ability Dice because the higher score is 3. Then you’d upgrade two of those to Proficiency Dice because the lower score is 2. That would give you dice pool of one Ability Die and two Proficiency Dice.)

This basic pool can be then be modified in various ways: The GM can add Difficulty Dice (representing the difficulty of the task), which can be upgraded to Challenge Dice by various horrible circumstances. Particularly notable successes or failures on previous checks might also grant you Boost Dice or Setback Dice, and so forth.

The key point is that all of the dice in these pools are marked with a number of different symbols: Success, Failure, Advantage, Threat, Triumph, and Despair. You roll all the dice, you count up all the symbols and…


 … and that’s when the hoverpads fall off the landspeeder.

After you’ve rolled the dice, you have:

(1) Success vs. Failure (these cancel, multiples successes accumulate but failures don’t)

(2) Advantage vs. Threat (these cancel, multiples of both accumulate)

(3) Triumph vs. Despair (these don’t cancel)

Ignoring quantitative differences, these give you 18 qualitative results:


I’m a huge fan of systems that characterize the quality of success or failure (instead of just treating those as binary qualities). But why do we need to count each tier of dice symbols in a slightly different way? And why do we need three separate tiers of symbols? This system literally generates outcomes like, “Moderate success with something vaguely good, but also something vaguely better than vaguely good, but also something seriously bad in a vague way.”

Okay. So you flip over to the skill guidelines hoping for a little guidance… and that’s when you discover that even the designers have no idea how to use their convoluted dice system.

For example, advantage can’t turn failure into success… unless it’s a Knowledge skill, because then advantage can grant you “minor but possibly relevant information about the subject” even on a failure. (Except… if you’re gaining access to relevant information, that sounds like a success, right?)

Star Wars: Edge of Empire - Fantasy Flight GamesIf you’re making a Computer check, then additional successes reduce the time required to make the check. But if it’s a Stealth check, then you’re going to use advantage to reduce the time required. With Skullduggery you use advantage to gain additional items, but if you’re making a Survival check you’ll use successes to gain those items.

It goes on and on like that.

So you have a system that’s supposedly feeding you “useful” information, but the designers can’t even figure out how to interpret the results consistently despite multiple years of development and nine different products featuring the core mechanics. Why should we believe that this system is going to do anything useful at the table?

Based on my experiences running the game, it doesn’t. A system that says “success-but-complicated” or “success-but-extra-awesome” is giving you valuable guidance in adjudicating the outcome of a check. What FFG’s Star Wars gives you, on the other hand, is a tangled morass.

But maybe I was still missing something. So I talked to people who were playing the game. And what I discovered is that people who were enjoying the system were almost universally not playing it according to the rules.

Many of them weren’t even aware they were doing it. (Subconsciously house ruling away the inconsistencies in how symbols of different tiers are tallied is apparently very common, for example.) It’s as if we were talking about a car, I mentioned the gas pedal, and multiple people talking about how great the car is to drive said, “What’s a gas pedal?”

Even among those who were aware they were changing the game, it would lead to some really weird conversations where I would criticize the dice system; someone would reply to say that they loved it; I would ask what they loved about it; and then they would reply by basically saying, “I love the fact that we changed it!”

Which is, I suppose, the ultimate condemnation of the system.


What about the rest of the system?

Actually, there’s some really interesting stuff in there. The way mooks are handled is really elegant, allowing the GM to rapidly group their actions together (all the mooks using suppressive fire on Star Wars: Age of Rebellion - Fantasy Flight Gamesone guy) or split them apart on the fly (as the mooks pursue PCs who split up while running through the corridors of the Death Star).

Also of note are the starship combat rules, which do a really nice job of creating a simple structure that (a) captures the dynamics of the dogfighting we see in the Star Wars films and (b) allows all of the PCs on a ship to take meaningful actions during the fight.

But there are two problems.

First, you can’t escape the core mechanic. It is, after all, the core mechanic. It touches everything. So, yes, the starship combat system’s mixture of starship maneuvers and starship actions creates what looks likely a really dynamic structure… but the core mechanic you’re rolling multiple times every turn is still a clunky, time-sucking disaster.

Second, the system is frankly riddled with inconsistencies.

For example, combat initiative works in all ways exactly like a competitive check… except for how ties are broken. Why?! Why would you do that?

Another example: The difficulty of a check to heal someone is dependent on how injured they are. Similarly, the difficulty of repairing your ship is dependent on how damaged it is. If you take those rules and you put them on a table, you end up with this:

Star Wars: Force and Destiny - Medicine & Damage Control

Oh! That’s nice! They’ve unified the difficulties so that you can easily memorize and use… Wait a minute.

What the hell?!

I honestly can’t tell if that’s just incredibly sloppy design or if it’s actually a revelation of Machiavellian evil. (I literally keep looking back at the rulebooks because my brain refuses to accept that this is true. But it is.)

The whole game is like this. (We’ve already talked about how the skill guidelines seem to take an almost perverse glee in never doing something the same way twice.) It’s almost as if the designers said, “This system is pretty slick and elegant… let’s go ahead and randomly change half the mechanics for no reason.”


Somewhere inside the nine core rulebooks that FFG has published, I feel like there’s a pretty good Star Wars game screaming to get out. And if you’re the type of roleplayer who’s comfortable just kind of playing vaguely in the vicinity of the actual rules, you might even be able to find it in here occasionally.

But all the clunkiness adds up.

I designed a short little scenario for the game: A few modest combats. A little investigation. Some cool set pieces.

It’s the kind of scenario that, if I was running it in most systems, would take one or two sessions to play through. As we wrapped up our fourth session, we still hadn’t finished it. The mechanics superficially lend themselves to dramatic, swashbuckling action, but the system is so sluggish in pace that even simple combat encounters drag out. The result is that the system takes narrative material and stretches it out until it has long since been drained of interest. It’s bloated, unfocused, and…

Ah. I know what this reminds me of.

FFG’s game is the Special Edition of Star Wars roleplaying games.

Style: 5
Substance: 1

(Substance would be a 2, but you have to buy the game a minimum of three times to get all the rules to play something resembling any of the Star Wars movies. So, weighing its value against the actual price of $180… nah. And that doesn’t even include the dice.)

Author: Jay Little, Sam Stewart, and FFG Development Team
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Cost: $59.95
Page Count: 456
ISBN: 978-1-63344-122-4

Review of Force and Destiny
Force and Destiny: System Cheat Sheet
FFG Star Wars: The Big Fix
Star Wars: Red Peace

This review originally appeared in the December 2000 issue of Games Unplugged.

Orkworld - John WickIn 1997 Legend of the Five Rings, designed by John Wick, won the prestigious Origin Award for Best Roleplaying Game of the Year.

In 1999 7th Sea, designed by John Wick, won the prestigious Origin Award for Best Roleplaying Game of the Year.

In 2000 Orkworld, designed by John Wick, was released at GenCon.

And I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make a really strong case for giving the award to John Wick one more time.

The system itself is nothing which is going to send shockwaves to the foundations of gaming: A simple dice pool system lies at the heart of it, and is spun off with some interesting, and at times highly effective, extrapolations for combat. The resolution mechanic itself is a nice refinement of its predecessors, providing a smooth modeling of skill and ability. The combat system, for its part, maintains a simple flow while keeping in touch with the game’s inherent pace and spirit.

In other words, its well done – but nothing to get excited about. Orkworld’s game system, however, serves merely as the foundation for the material which really makes the game shine: The orks themselves.

Wick refers to his book as an “anthropological study of a race that never existed”. The concept of an “anthropological game” – a game which focuses on the intricacies of an alien culture, revealing its hidden complexities of daily life so that a common roleplayer will become equipped with the tools necessary to step into the shoes of someone truly from another world – is a lofty goal, worthy of commendation merely for the attempt. It’s one thing to say “look at these characters who are not like human beings at all”. It is quite another to show us to how to play one.

Does Wick succeed? Most definitely. In over 250 pages of setting information, the orkish culture is detailed down to the finest points – from religion to food to sex to love to politics to war to mythology to philosophy to magic… It’s all here in sumptuous detail. And Wick’s great talent offers an assurance that every page is kept interesting and entertaining. Instead of bogging you down as you might expect, the wealth of minute detail is carefully chosen and presented so that it is a liberation, not a limitation.

Orkworld is not flawless by any means: There are a number of unfortunate lay-out and typographical errors throughout the book. A couple of the combat rules have minor holes. Although the orks themselves are laid out in wondrous detail, the rest of the World of Ghurtha suffers from a certain scantness of detail.

But putting the nitpicks aside, there is little doubt that you will find your $25 richly rewarded when you finish this book. Indeed, the reading experience itself is worth the cost of admission – and you won’t have even begun to see the dividends which the book will provide to your gaming experience.

Grade: A

Writers: John Wick
Publisher: Wicked Press
Price: $25.00
Page Count: 304
Product Code: WP10001

After the initial appearance of a review, Games Unplugged would run a short recap of the review in subsequent issues.

Recap/Tagline: In 1997, John Wick’s Legend of the Five Rings won the Origin Award for Best Roleplaying Game of the Year. In 1999, John Wick’s 7th Sea won the Origin Award for Best Roleplaying Game of the Year. And with the release of Orkworld at GenCon this year, John Wick has made a strong case for winning the prestigious reward yet a third time.

Orkworld is an “anthropological game” – a game which focuses on the intricacies of an alien culture, revealing its hidden complexities of daily life so that a common roleplayer can truly step into the shoes of someone form another world. This lofty goal is accomplished through a wealth of entertaining detail – ranging from religion to food to sex to love to politics to war to mythology to philosophy to magic and more. All of this is supported by a solid dice pool system, which puts the finishing cap on an inescapable conclusion: You should buy this game.


Tagline: In 32 slim pages Three Days to Kill manages to not only present a really gut-wrenching, fast-paced, creative adventure, but also conjures into existence a highly entertaining, evocative, and believable slice of a fantasy world.

Three Days to KillI’ve spent the better part of the past two weeks reading really bad fantasy modules. It is difficult to describe to you the truly excruciating pain of this experience. Instead, I shall endeavor to demonstrate by way of example:

“The characters are in Boringtown. There is a bar, a temple, and an armory.”

“The characters are in Moronsburg. There is a bar, a temple, and a general store.”

“The characters are in Clicheville. There is a bar, a temple, and a blacksmith. The mayor approaches them….”

“At the bottom of the farmer’s well there is a secret door which has not been opened in centuries. On the other side of the door is a labyrinth containing giant spiders and goblins. Kill them.”

“The abandoned mansion on the top of the hill has become home to a bunch of necromancers and a couple of ghosts. Kill them.”

“The PCs wander around the desert enjoying random encounters until they stumble across a lost pyramid. There they watch two mummies fight over conflicts which existed thousands of years ago (and about which the PCs know nothing). When the fight is over (make sure that the PCs don’t take part in any way) the PCs get to go home.”


Between painfully artificial settings, a mind-numbing lack of originality, and stunningly awful “plots”, these so-called “adventures” have earned their designers an eternity upon the racks of the Nine Circles of Hell.

(On the plus side, I think actually playing through these scenarios counts as a form of penance. The equivalent of saying fifty Hail Mary’s or something of that nature.)

(The funny thing is that you think I’m kidding. Outside of those satiric town names, though, I’m not – these things actually exist. They’re out there and they’re waiting for you. Be afraid. Be very afraid.)

There were days when I felt like giving in to a nascent Oedipal Complex… and by that I mean stabbing my eyes out with pins to take the sight of these monstrosities away from me.

But through the good graces of providence, a copy of John Tynes’ excellent Three Days to Kill fell into my hands, and thus I was saved from a truly horrific fate.


Before we begin:

John Tynes is a roleplaying designer and writer of immense talents: He was one of the founders of Pagan Publishing. He was a co-author of Delta Green. With Greg Stolze he designed the award winning Unknown Armies for Atlas Games. Last year Hogshead Publishing’s New Style line published his amazingly evocative Puppetland and the startlingly innovative Power Kill.

With Three Days to Kill Tynes has taken advantage of WotC’s D20 Trademark License and Open Gaming License (see the Open Gaming Foundation for more details on both of these programs) to produce a module for the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. This is the lead-off product in Atlas Games’ new Penumbra line of products. Over the next few months you can expect to see more support material for D&D3 released through this imprint.

Three Days to Kill is designed for a party of 1st to 3rd level PCs.

And now on with the show:


Warning: This review will contain spoilers for Three Days to Kill. Players who may end up playing in this module are encouraged to stop reading now. Proceed at your own risk.

Three Days to Kill is set in the Deeps, a valley nestled within a mountain range. At the heart of this valley, located on the shores of Shadow Lake, is Deeptown.

And as quickly as that we have come to the first major strength of Three Days to Kill: Deeptown is a generic fantasy city. It has been specifically designed to slip seamlessly into any DM’s campaign world.

The minute you attempt something like this you’ve placed yourself in dangerous territory: If you make the town too specific, then its usefulness as a generic setting is lost. If you make the town too generic, however, you end up with the triteness of “there is a bar, a temple, and a blacksmith”.

Tynes, however, deftly avoids these pitfalls. On the one hand Deeptown is imminently generic – any DM with a mountain range can slap the town into place. On the other hand, Deeptown is also developed very specifically – it exists for a purpose, the people living there have their own character and culture, and the whole place has a dynamic quality which makes it not only a potential setting for Three Days to Kill, but many other adventures. Despite the fact that Deeptown can be placed almost anywhere in the DM’s campaign world, it has been craftily designed so that – no matter what world you place it in – it will seem as if always belonged there.

So what is Deeptown? Deeptown is a small city located on the shores of Shadow Lake, a way-point on the east-west trade routes that pass through the Deeps. The mountainous terrain of this trade route makes it easy for bandits to prey on caravans, and, in fact, any number of bandit gangs roam the hills. This helps make Deeptown particularly attractive for young adventures and other assorted muscle looking for jobs as guards (or opportunities as thieves, as the case may be).

There are six bandit lords in the area (although, as Tynes points out, “calling them ‘lords’ gives them too much credit, really — they’re just competent thugs”). The two largest groups are controlled by the bandits Modus and Lucien.

Deeptown itself is technically ruled over by the Town Council, but in truth it is the Trade Circle – the local guild of commerce – which rules the city from behind the scenes. In other words, even the law in Deeptown is governed by the corruption of the all-mighty dollar.

This leaves only one major power group left to consider: Religion. In Deeptown the two most significant religious groups are the Holy Order (dedicated to the preservation of life) and the Sect of Sixty (a group of diabolists). (Both of these groups – while having their structure and general role in Deeptown life laid out in the module – are left purposely vague in all the right places to that you can plug in whatever gods you like. For example, the Holy Order might worship Athena and the Sect of Sixty Hades. On the other hand, the Holy Order might revere Adaire, Goddess of Light and Purity; while the Sect of Sixty might practice foul sacrifices to Cthulhu. It’s all up to you.)

Basically the setting information in Three Days to Kill can be summed up like this: A solid, interesting foundation. For a 32 page module a surprising amount of detail is included, giving the setting a life and reality of its own through the expert application of a handful of deft brush strokes – all the while maintaining an openness and flexibility which will make its use simplicity itself.


Modus and Lucien, the two premiere Bandit Lords, have long hoped to turn “legitimate” (within a broad enough definition of that word). They hope to use their strength in order to convince the Trade Circle to ally with them – essentially moving into the protection rackets (expensive Trade Circle permits would be sold, and caravans which purchased them would be spared from the attention of Modus and Lucien). In the interest of seeing this day come to pass, Modus and Lucien agreed to a pact – stating that neither would enter into a deal with the Trade Circle without the other.

Lucien, however, is no longer willing to wait. He has made a secret alliance with the Sect of Sixty. Lucien wants to use the Sect to use their supernatural powers to help him crush Modus, while the Sect wants to use Lucien to help them gain a foothold over the taxation of trade routes (when his day of power comes).

Modus, although hazy on the exact details of the alliance Lucien is planning, knows that his would-be ally is up to something. Of course, he’d prefer it if Lucien was not allowed to be up to anything…

…and that’s where the PCs come in.

One way or another the PCs are attending the Festival of Plenty (a night of debauchery and infamy which is thrown annually in Deeptown by the Sect of Sixty). Several ways of getting them to Deeptown and into the Festival are given, as are a number of ways of having them prove their worth during the course of the festival. One way or another, however, they come to the attention of Modus’ men – at which point they are approached for The Job.

The Job is this: Modus knows that Lucien is meeting with his mysterious allies at a villa north of Deeptown known as Trail’s End. He wants the PCs to crash the party, screw up the meeting, and make Lucien look foolish and unreliable to his would-be supporters. The PCs, of course, will be well paid for their troubles.

So the PCs head north. On the way to Trail’s End they discover signs of orc activity in the region (which is connected to a coming of age rite), but it isn’t until they reach Trail’s End that the adventure really kicks into overdrive: You see, the villa is packed full of Sect cultists and bandits.

And if the PCs rush the front door of the villa, they’re going to be annihilated.

Three Days to Kill is, in fact, a rather ingenious scenario for bringing the gameplay of computer games like Tenchu and Thief: The Dark Project — which emphasize stealth and cunning over brute strength – into the traditional roleplaying realm of D&D. (Tynes actually uses the analogy Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six – but that requires a larger genre shift in my opinion.) The PCs are given weapons, magical items, and a situation which allows them to scout their enemy, plan a strategy, and then carry out a covert operation.

Done right this can be a lot of fun. Done wrong this is going to be nothing more than a hackfest. Either way you should get a good dose of fun before it’s all said and done. Basically its going to play out something like this:

The PCs are going to take out the bandits and the Sect henchman. As they do so, the Sect acolytes are going to fall back to a secluded room inside the villa. In this room is the Bone Mirror – a mystic artifact of great evil which allows them to start gating low-level minions of Hell into the villa.

As the minions of Hell swarm over the villa – and the PCs fight valiantly to reach and shut off the source of the Hellspawn – the remaining bandits will flee… as they do so the orcs (remember them form the trek north?) will come over the top of the hill and charge the villa as well.

Hellspawn on one side. Orcs on the other. Bandits and PCs trapped in the middle. What’s a hero to do?

Smash the Bone Mirror and fight for their lives, of course!

But we’re not done yet!

When the shattered pieces of the Bone Mirror come to rest they begin to bleed. “The blood wells up from the mirror and oozes out of the bones.” At first it merely trickles, but “then the blood comes faster, coating the floor around the shards, and begins to expand rapidly. Tendrils shoot out across the floor and begin running up the walls. As the blood spreads, it transforms the surfaces of the room. The floor bulges, and bones, flesh, and faces to begin to form. The effect spreads rapidly, accompanied by the screams of the damned.” As the process begins to effect the acolytes and orcs who still remain alive, these poor creatures begin to cry out: “He Who Walks is coming! The coming is at hand!”

The shards of the Bone Mirror transform the Trail’s End villa into the Bone Church – an outpost of Hell; a “pulsing, living, screaming conglomeration of bodies”. The PCs and the remnants of their opponents are forced to flee before the birth of this diabolic power.

And thus Three Days to Kill comes to an end: The PCs have, indeed, succeeded at their primary mission (breaking up the alliance between Lucien and the Sect of Sixty) – at least for now – but only by unleashing the seeds of future adventure: The mystery and threat of the Bone Church, the future of the Bandit Lords of the Deeps, the PCs relationship with Lucien and Modus, the evolving politics of Deeptown. Whether you decide to carry these seeds through to new adventures, or merely choose to have the PCs join the next caravan out of the Deeps, is entirely up to you. Three Days to Kill works equally well as a stand-alone adventure or as the germination point of an entire campaign.


Three Days to Kill is one of the best damn modules I’ve ever plunked down my cold, hard cash for. It’s one of those great gaming products that makes you instantly eager to call up your gaming group, roll up some characters, and get down to some serious roleplaying.

In 32 slim pages it manages to not only present a really gut-wrenching, fast-paced, creative adventure, but also conjures into existence a highly entertaining, evocative, and believable slice of a fantasy world.

Three Days to Kill is an exciting product.

And recommendations don’t come much higher than that.

Style: 4
Substance: 5

Author: John Tynes
Company/Publisher: Atlas Games (Penumbra)
Cost: $8.95
Page Count: 32
ISBN: 0-887801-94-4

Originally Posted: 2000/10/29

This represents a major turning point in my life. At this point, as I’d indicated in my review of Tomb of Horrors, I hadn’t played D&D in nearly a decade. 3rd Edition had perked my interest, but I wasn’t really planning to do much of anything with it. Until I picked up Three Days to Kill at GenCon. And, as I said in the review, Three Days to Kill was exciting. It was one of those products that just kind of screams, “Play me!”

So I ended up taking over as GM for what was my regular gaming group at the time. And from that point forward, 3rd Edition would dominate my reviews, my personal gaming, and my freelance writing.

Three Days to Kill generated a lot of buzz when it first came out because it was one of two third party modules available at GenCon when the Player’s Handbook launched. These days it seems to have become something of an unsung classic, though, with fewer people being aware of its existence. I heartily recommend snagging a copy for yourself and running it ASAP.

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.


Heavy Gear - Storyline Book 1: Crisis of FaithTo paraphrase somebody famous, there are two ways to handle a meta-story: The right way and the wrong way.

When handled correctly, a meta-story adds depth and complexity to a roleplaying game. Instead of merely describing a setting as it physically exists at some given point in time, a line of products becomes capable of describing dynamic relationships within the setting as they evolve over time.

When handled incorrectly, a meta-story becomes a marketing gimmick – stringing the customers along from one product to the next, always keeping some essential piece of information just out of reach in the “next release”. Buy Product A, which will only work if you buy Product B, which will only work if you buy Product C… Instead of serving as a spice, the poorly managed meta-story becomes a flaw: Existing customers get frustrated with having to purchase books they don’t want in order to keep up, while new customers get lost in a flurry of books whose interrelationships are murky and unclear.

And then there’s Dream Pod 9’s Heavy Gear: The standard by which all other meta-stories are to be judged. The meta-story of this game is clearly presented, compellingly conceived, and brilliantly executed. No other game has come close.

There are three keys to this success. First, there is the Timewatch system. On the back of every single Heavy Gear product there is a date printed: The date in the game setting which the material in the book describes. This idea is so simple and elegant that it would, literally, cost absolutely nothing for every single producer of roleplaying products to mimic it – and yet the effect it has on the Heavy Gear game line is profound: The Timewatch system strips away an entire level of complexity and potential confusion and resolves it in the easy reference of four digits.

The second key is the strength, clarity, and flexibility of the methodology underlying the Heavy Gear product line. “Clarity” because the purpose and scope of every supplement is clearly communicated to its audience. “Strength” because of the interlocking levels of detail and coverage, combined with strong, continuing support across the board. “Flexibility” because each supplement is truly modular – requiring nothing more than itself and the core rules to be fully useable. The importance of all this cannot be understated: The ability for a newcomer to be able to look at a shelf of products and know exactly what each book covers and which books they should buy, and the ability to buy only those books which contain precisely the information they need, makes Heavy Gear the most accessible and durable line of RPG products on the market.

Heavy Gear - Storyline Book 2: Blood on the WindThis second key leads directly to the concept of the Storyline Book: Instead of spreading the development of the meta-story across a myriad array of unrelated products, Dream Pod 9 has instead concentrated the story into this single set of books. The information to be found here, of course, is supported in other products – but it’s supported in the same way that other game lines support their standard world information. In other words, if you want more information about, for example, the Black Talon program you’d pick up the Black Talon Field Guide. But if you weren’t interested in having detailed coverage of the Talons, then the information found in Return to Cat’s Eye would be more than sufficient to let you know what the major developments with the Talons are. This gives you the ability to follow the meta-story of Heavy Gear without having to buy every Heavy Gear product that the Pod produces (regardless of whether or not you actually want the information found in that product). The Pod will make you want to own the books, but will never require you to own anything more than a tightly controlled set of core resources.

And the third key? Mind-blowing quality. The story being told by Dream Pod 9, the first part of which appears in these three books, is one of the best you’re going to find, in or out of the gaming industry. Intrigue, power, politics, war, love, murder, mayhem. You name it – Heavy Gear’s got it.

This story is so good, it’s worth reading even if you don’t play the game – and it’s accompanied by a visual tour de force that fans of the Pod have come to recognize as par for the course. There is no other company in the industry that can feast your eyes the way the Pod can (supported, as they are, by the astounding talent of Ghislain Barbe) – and all the while doing it with exactly the right balance: The art is always there as a supplement and companion to the writing, never overpowering it or distracting from it.

These books actually are designed to stand on their own. The Heavy Gear universe, and this story, were conceived as a whole. They were not produced, specifically, as a “roleplaying setting” or a “tactical scenario”, but rather as a product which could stand on its own. Its creation was a collaboration, combining not only the written word but also the visual elements of the world as an organic whole. The result is a universe broad in scope and rich in detail, driven by a story which is epic in proportion and gripping in the telling.

Crisis of Faith begins the story in TN 1932, as the world of Terra Nova begins to spin towards global war. Told through the collected notes and intelligence data of Nicosa Renault – a “retired” master spy who still keeps tabs on the powerbrokers of her world – the story of Heavy Gear begins to unfold before you through the thoughts, conversations, video logs, and journals of actual Terranovans. As the book nears its conclusion things begin to spiral hopelessly out of control, ending with a shocking surprise ending.

Heavy Gear - Storyline Book 3: Return to Cat's EyeIf the last six pages of Crisis of Faith hit you with the power of a sledgehammer, then the first two pages of Blood on the Wind will send you reeling across the room… and the thrills are just beginning: The world goes to hell and Dream Pod 9 is taking you along for the ride. If you thought the beginning was surprising, just wait until you see the end: A grand mystery is left unsolved and a new crisis looms on the horizon.

Return to Cat’s Eye brings the first part of the Heavy Gear storyline to a conclusion. The pieces left hanging from the first two books are slowly brought to their resolution, but just as you think you’ve figured out the rules of the game, new players begin to appear… and old players do the totally unexpected.

These books are masterpieces. They make me proud to be a gamer. They are something which I can point to and say: “Why do I roleplay? Because things like this are possible.” You’ll use them. You’ll read them. And then you’ll read them again. They are treasures to own, and joys to appreciate. They are something you simply must not miss.

Style: 5
Substance: 5

Author: Philippe Boulle, Marc-Alexandre Vezina, and Hilary Doda
Company/Publisher: Dream Pod 9
Cost: $19.95 / $17.95 / $17.95
Page Count: 112 / 80 / 80
ISBN: 1-896776-21-3 / 1-896776-27-2 / 1-896776-59-0

Originally Posted: 2000/10/14

When I wrote this review, I had previously written reviews of both Crisis of Faith and Blood on the Wind. I am honestly uncertain at this point whether I had simply forgotten that I had written those review or if (more likely) I decided that a review of Return to Cat’s Eye would have been rather slim by itself and that it would make more sense to look at the collective effect of Heavy Gear‘s “first act” (so to speak) in a single package.

I had originally intended to follow this up with a review of the next trilogy of Storyline Books, but four days after submitting this review to RPGNet (and several days before it was actually published) I received an offer from Dream Pod 9 to revise material from an unpublished supplement I had written for them so that it could be incorporated into the fourth Heavy Gear storyline book. That prompted me to post a rather weird “I’m biased now, but I wasn’t biased when I wrote this” notice shortly after the review went live.

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.



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