All posts by Aaron Marks

Gaming for 15 years and writing about it for nearly ten, I've always had a strong desire to find different and interesting things in the hobby. You can follow me on Twitter at @LevelOneWonk, and read my more personal ramblings at 563rdattempt.wordpress.com.

Meet the Campaign: Straight Paranoia

Paranoia, West End Games’s RPG of comic dystopia, has become a meme in gaming circles, one of the few games with as strong a play identity as D&D itself. Shouts of ‘treason’ and ludicrous extensions of the color-based ranking system help evoke the feel of a Paranoia session, which tends to consist of different uses of the Alpha Complex backdrop as excuses for players to find more and more inventive ways to accuse each other of treason and/or being a communist or mutant, and then kill each other. Neither West End Games nor Mongoose Publishing, the publishers of the most recent edition of Paranoia, ever did anything to dissuade this. That said, the game has been designed to allow for something a tad more sophisticated.

It should go without saying that all text from this point hence is of ULTRAVIOLET clearance! Do not read, under pain of disintegration (or if you want hidden parts of the game to stay a surprise)!

Continue reading Meet the Campaign: Straight Paranoia

Kickstarter Wonk: December, 2018

Happy Hanukkah from Kickstarter Wonk! While it’s early for most people’s holiday season, there is still a dedicated group of designers out bringing their games to life on Kickstarter, waiting for a hearty Chag Sameach from your pledges. This month wasn’t too heavily populated, as is to be expected for the holiday season, but there were still a wide variety of excellent games available. Whether you’re looking for hard sci-fi or mythology or just a quick RPG party game, this month’s crop of games has got you covered.

Continue reading Kickstarter Wonk: December, 2018

Wrath and Glory Review

When Fantasy Flight Games lost the Games Workshop RPG licenses, two properties were left in the lurch. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP) was picked up by Cubicle 7, while Warhammer 40k’s RPG properties were grabbed by Ulisses Spiele, best known in the US for their reboot of TORG. Around the same time that the Fourth Edition of WFRP came out, a new game in the 40k universe was also released. Unlike WFRP 4e, Wrath and Glory steps away from the tried and true d100 system to create a game with 2010s sensibilities that still feels planted in the grim darkness of the future.

Continue reading Wrath and Glory Review

Level One Wonk: Powered by the Apocalypse 201

Way back when, at the genesis of this site, I wrote a “Novice’s Guide to Powered by the Apocalypse”, a Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) 101, if you will. This article covered the basic mechanics and underlying assumptions of games written with the PbtA framework, and covered a few of the more popular games that were out at the time. Now, nearly two years later, PbtA is still growing, and has attracted many players to its fiction-forward, high-stakes style of gameplay. I’ve also run and played more PbtA games myself, and have noticed some really interesting elements that people have trouble engaging, take for granted, or even fight against. This 201 course to PbtA games should provide advice and information about getting the most out of the full range of PbtA games and campaigns.

Continue reading Level One Wonk: Powered by the Apocalypse 201

Adventure Log: Dungeons and Dragons, Part 9

Finally ascending from the mine of fire, stone, and mephits, the adventurers headed north towards the Imperial Shelter. They camped along the road, slept without incident, and made their way back to the river they had originally followed from the coast. The road crossed the river further inland, in an area they had not yet been in before. And as they prepared to cross a flooded causeway to continue on their way, they spotted a giant metal beast, drinking from the river. This bull didn’t eat grass…it was a Gorgon, which subsisted on ground up stones from its petrified prey. It saw the adventurers, and got ready to charge.

Continue reading Adventure Log: Dungeons and Dragons, Part 9

Kickstarter Wonk: November, 2018

Man oh man, talk about a bumper crop this month! Nearly two dozen different Kickstarter campaigns, winnowed down to about 18 new games of note and then down to an even dozen . A top ten couldn’t fit all the games I wanted to write about, and I still cut out some really intriguing stuff. A new edition of Savage Worlds is being funded, and there’s a compilation of great sci-fi microgames called Four Ways to Die in the Future which, though it’s a reprint, is still worth checking out. If you’re looking for new games, though, here are those which I thought are most worth your attention.

Continue reading Kickstarter Wonk: November, 2018

Strands of Fate Review

RPG design innovation is a slow, deliberate affair. For all the games which push the envelope, there are an equal number that go back over existing designs to tweak and adjust them. Even Fate, which represented a significant push on traditional mechanics when it first appeared 15 years ago, isn’t immune from this phenomena. Strands of Fate appeared on the market between when Spirit of the Century came out in 2006 and when Fate’s role as Evil Hat’s flagship was cemented with Fate Core in 2013. At the time, there wasn’t yet a generic version of Fate, and Strands of Fate sought to do that by expanding the mechanics and options available in existing Fate games like Spirit of the Century and Starblazer Adventures. When Fate Core did appear, not only were there now two generic versions of Fate, there were two vastly different versions of Fate.

Continue reading Strands of Fate Review

Table Fiction: High Impact Heroics, the Backstory: Gilbert “CryptoHertz” Philips

Have you been reading the High Impact Heroics Adventure Log? Wonder what got the team together, or why their secret base is under a game store? Well, this story won’t actually answer either of those questions. However, you can get an in-depth look into how Gilbert Philips became CryptoHertz, the Beacon and erstwhile team leader. Confused? So am I, and I wrote the thing! The High Impact Heroics Prologue should give you some background, or if you’re already familiar you can jog your memory with the most recent edition!

Continue reading Table Fiction: High Impact Heroics, the Backstory: Gilbert “CryptoHertz” Philips

The Witcher RPG Review

Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher series was thrust into the spotlight through the work of CD Projekt Red, a Polish game development studio now best known for its games based on the fantasy series. The Witcher RPG, new this year, was the result of an intriguing IP flowchart that connects it to some of the biggest hype in both the video gaming and tabletop gaming space. R. Talsorian Games, publisher of The Witcher RPG, is the company founded by Mike Pondsmith, designer of Cyberpunk 2020. When CD Projekt Red optioned Cyberpunk 2020 for a video game (Cyberpunk 2077), another Talsorian developer, Mike’s son Cody, built out a proposal for a tabletop version of The Witcher and presented it to CD Projekt Red leadership. They accepted, and the resulting game is the one I read and review for you here.

The Witcher RPG is exciting not only because it brings a popular fantasy property onto the gaming table, but also because it is the first original publication out of R. Talsorian in 13 years. As a result, The Witcher RPG is important both because it tells us if the design chops in R. Talsorian are as vital as they were in the 80s and 90s, and it tells us what future games are going to look like. While The Witcher RPG is using the venerable Fuzion ruleset which traces its lineage all the way back to Cyberpunk 2020 itself, a number of updates and design considerations make it clear that even if R. Talsorian and the Pondsmiths like their old-school, they know how to make a game flow and play well.

Overview

The Witcher RPG is a lore-heavy, setting-heavy book on gaming in the world of The Witcher. Fortunately for everyone involved, this doesn’t make it a game about Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher from the books and games, nor does this make it a game where everyone plays Witchers. A number of classes are provided which give a fair breadth of different play styles, including mages and men-at-arms as well as merchants and craftsmen. Witchers are a playable option, but as the NPC stat cards toward the beginning of the book show, not all Witchers are as potent as Geralt. Every race represented in the games and novels are present here, and as befits the culture implied therein, there is a nice expansion of Cyberpunk’s reputation mechanic to include the generally racist attitudes towards elves, dwarves, and witchers.

After race and class there is a lifepath system which at a high level is similar to the one in Cyberpunk. The options have been beefed up quite a bit, though, and also include a lot of neat upbringing detail appropriate to The Continent. If you can’t decide whether your merchant is from Novigrad or Velen, that is baked into the lifepath quite nicely.

Mechanically, the system will be familiar to anyone who’s played Cyberpunk or Mekton: all rolls are a d10 plus stat plus skill. There are still nine stats like in Cyberpunk, though they’ve been changed a bit (Movement Allowance, Attractiveness, Cool, and Tech are gone, replaced by Dexterity, Speed, Will, and Craft). The skill list, in contrast, has contracted dramatically from the Cyberpunk days, which is a good thing. The most significant way that skills have changed is a revision to special abilities. In Cyberpunk 2020, special abilities were skills that only certain classes could get, and generally conferred the equivalent of unique class features. That is still true in The Witcher, but special abilities are no longer mere skills. Now, each class has a special ability which, when advanced, opens up additional abilities which either enhance the core special ability or are new abilities unto themselves. This ends up making the classes feel more like D&D classes in terms of how they’re written, but because of how much disparity there is compared to D&D, I think it works nicely here.

Magic is a broadly spell-based system, with a number of differing types of magical abilities. Mages can cast spells, Witchers can use the relatively simple Signs, and craftsmen can create magical potions. The alchemy system is interesting, using a number of Essences which can be extracted from different items. The crafting system broadly is built up the same way, using a number of ingredients which can be purchased or looted.

Combat is once again lifted from Cyberpunk, with a couple key differences. First, the wound track is gone, replaced with a more basic HP system (though with both wounds and stun damage). Second, a critical wound system akin to that from Warhammer has been added; when you exceed your target’s defense roll by more than 7, you deal a critical wound which confers an extra effect and is more difficult to heal. Beyond those two details, the mechanics will be familiar: opposed rolls for melee, target numbers for ranged, roll a d10. Even SP for armor is still there, and the infamous armor layering rules are still in effect.

The Witcher RPG is clearly an update of an existing system, though the update does many things well. There are also admittedly some missteps where either something really needed to be changed and wasn’t, or one of the new changes didn’t land quite right.

What I liked

To start, mechanically this game kept all the elements of the old system that I really liked. The combat is simple but wicked, lifepath is neat and evocative, and the classes are broad and not all combat-based. Certain design flaws in the Interlock/Fuzion system were addressed directly: advancement is significantly improved from Cyberpunk, both in terms of pace and options. Giving out improvement points isn’t particularly interesting, but that’s true for most games which aren’t called Burning Wheel. Additionally, the change in special abilities not only works better for making classes feel distinct but also moves away from some of the more broken special abilities in Cyberpunk. The addition of a social combat mechanic was needed and deserved. As one final mechanic worth recognition, the two-tiered difficulty system in the bestiary and complementary encounter building advice are excellent. The system is significantly less granular than challenge rating in D&D (nine categories rather than over twenty) but provides much more information thanks to the supporting material.

Beyond the rules, the lore in this book is excellent. Lots of information about the world, characters that people will likely know, and great adventure hooks which are much broader than what is brought to the table by Geralt and his friends. The GM’s section is very good, directly addressing topics like in-game romance and adversarial GMing in a blunt but helpful way. There’s also a section which has an overview of every important decision point in the Witcher video games, something which is invaluable if you or your group have played the games and have their own ‘headcanon’ to account for.

What I didn’t like

The book is not without its hiccups, both in design and formatting. The biggest issue, present throughout the book, is clarity. Every once in a while, this is from the writing…the new special ability tracks, which I greatly enjoy rules-wise, don’t have clear framing mechanics. I had to read the section four different times to figure out what it costs to advance these abilities, and I’m still unsure. More frequently, clarity issues are from implied omissions…things that the writer thought were obvious that the reader will not find obvious. An example of this is the bestiary. Each flavor section of the bestiary has a knowledge check DC in the title. This is a really neat flourish, but…two sentences at the beginning just saying why those DCs are there would have really helped. I did get it from context, but not immediately…and I’ve been gaming for nearly two decades. This also happened with item tables…many column headings needed more explanation as to what they were. The worst offenders, clarity-wise, are the sidebars. Do not put rules in the sidebars which aren’t mentioned elsewhere…just don’t do it. Finding that a rule I needed to know was stuck in a sidebar was profoundly annoying, because if I hadn’t been reading more carefully I would have missed it. And this occurred frequently throughout the book…after reading a section and feeling like I had missed something, I would find it in a sidebar. Leave the sidebars for flavor, suggestions, and tips and tricks…not core rules.

I generally had fewer problems with the actual rules of the game than with the layout, but there were a couple issues I saw. The crafting rules, which by and large are excellent, contain two issues. First, the price of items in the crafting rules and the price of the same item in the earlier inventory section were different. I don’t know if this was an error or if there’s a reason for it, but either way, clarity is needed. Second, and this is more philosophical, the crafting ingredients are lifted from the game very closely. Tracking half a dozen ingredients in a video game is trivial. In a tabletop game…less so. When you consider that every monster is supposed to drop something, it looks like engaging with the crafting system is going to require a lot of bookkeeping. It’s likely that having an ingredient-based treasure system solves more problems than it creates when it comes to power creep, so I will reserve judgment on how playable the crafting system is until I play it. As a final note, while I understand why The Witcher (and Fuzion in general, I believe) abandoned Cyberpunk’s wound track mechanic, I wish they didn’t. Characters are still pretty squishy with their static HP pools, but the stun/shock saves added to the danger of combat in a palpable way. If there was a way to keep that granularity without requiring five or six dice rolls to resolve each hit, I’m sure they would have done it.


The Witcher RPG is both a solid dark fantasy title and a return to form for R. Talsorian after a long hiatus. Grimmer than D&D but likely a bit more magical and fanciful than WFRP, The Witcher should attract fans of the genre, fans of the video games, and fans of R. Talsorian’s earlier work. If you’re looking to run from the Nilfgaardian army or just want to play fantasy Cyberpunk, The Witcher RPG should be where you look.

The Witcher RPG is available from DriveThruRPG. This review was written based on the print version of the game, and doesn’t take into account any errata from more recent PDF iterations.

Adventure Log: Dungeons and Dragons, Part 8

The elementals lay dead after a brutal fight that claimed the lives of half a dozen kobolds. Interpreter Ogro and Commander Snaks had regrouped, seeing who was left in their troop. But the fight was over. Ander and Elliot went over to the forge that the elementals were working, cooling but still hot with elemental fire. Not much of a smith, Ander plunged his sword directly into the hottest part of the fire…and had no sword left to speak of. Elliot, more accomplished at the forge and amused at his comrade’s fumbling, used the cooling embers to reforge the blade, more carefully this time. The new blade held an edge just as well as the old, and seemed to have a mild twinge of elemental magic.

Continue reading Adventure Log: Dungeons and Dragons, Part 8