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Level Up Magazine Review
Posted By Flames On April 28, 2009 @ 9:01 am In RPGs | 4 Comments
Apparently my way-back machine is set to 1983 because the most recent product that has come across my desk is a magazine review. I thought everyone knew that print media was dead and that gaming magazines were more endangered than Bengal Tiger. Apparently, what we have here is a coelacanth—we all thought it was long extinct, only to have Goodman Games fish this bad boy up from the bottom of the gaming ocean. I think that I have fulfilled my gaming to nature metaphor requirement; let’s move on.
I was very happy to see this publication, as I loved the gaming magazines of the previous two decades. Although Dragon is still around online, there is something viscerally satisfying about holding a magazine in your hand. It is quarterly in its publication, which I imagine is a necessity of the current market trends, but it is available in both print and PDF form. Perhaps more impressive and reassuring to me, was the constant push in the book to go visit your FLGS (Friendly Local Game Store for the non-acronym hip out there), though coupons and special offers. This seems like a natural and very smart marketing angle to create a virtuous circle of support between two groups struggling in the new media of the 21st century, namely local small game shops and companies that rely on printed material to profit.
The magazine comes in a robust 60 pages. That is not as big as their major competitor, but it is very, very, full. The initial editorial lays out all of the article types that the magazine plans to pursue in the coming quarters and every one seems interesting and with a constant mind toward having something for all players. There was always an eye toward having both solid fluff (flavor) and rules (crunch) in each article. More over, a focus on making sure the flavor and crunch aligned. Readers will notice if there is a disconnect and will be turned off by a product that does a bad job of aligning these two very important aspects of game design. That is not the case here.
The articles are similar to classic articles we, as a gaming generation, have all grown up with. There are articles that detail new weapons and talk about the fighters that use them, articles that introduce a new god, his followers and other important doctrines of the faith. In short, once again, Aeryn “Blackdirge” Rudel is walking a fine line between classic nostalgia that invokes feelings in old timers and easy grokkability for newcomers. In this issue, Rudel as the editor, succeeds admirably in this quest.
The first thing you have to judge when looking at any such publication is the cover. Here we have a traditional game magazine cover; a flying female demon with a flaming sword. This is a nod to classic covers and whether liked or not, scantily clad female demons and devils are as much a part of the D&D social subconscious as longswords and d12s.
The interior of the book is in Black & White except for the ads in the PDF copy I was reading for the review. It becomes especially troublesome anytime powers come into the equation. One that 4E has done is separated all of your powers into at-will (green), encounter (red) and daily (black). You don’t realize how much you have come to depend on this simple convention until it is taken away from you. Though the type of power is also clearly printed in the template, it is jarring not to be able to scan the powers at a glance and see what is what, as you are easily able to do in color products. This was a bit of a mystery to me to have a black & white article next to a full color advertisement.
However, the interior art does not suffer at all from being black and white. Most classic D&D art of the 80’s were simple black & white drawings and many of these pictures have the classic feel of 1E and 2E art. The warriors on page 16 are a great example of very clean and modern black and white with a very high pencil shading and gradation that perfectly captures the article. The dinosaurs of the behemoth article are far more 1E in their approach and are reminiscent of the interior art of the Githyanki covered Fiend Folio of old.
The writing of the book was clear and concise. There was no wasted space of any kind and though the book was only 60 pages, they were full of information. The advertising space was kept tasteful and minimized to what was necessary. Given the low cover price of this book of $1.99 when you buy it from your FLGS, it is simply an amazing amount of content for the price.
The writing of the articles in this book is left predominantly to Aeryn “Blackdirge” Rudel, who is also the editor-in-chief. This is not surprising for a 1st issue as Goodman Games most likely did not have the time or wish to dedicate the funds to hiring either a large staff or bringing in a large number of freelancers. Because of this, Rudel is carrying the weight of most of the book on his shoulders and ultimately, whether this issue is good or bad comes down to the strength of his writing and creativity. I think Aeryn can rest easy, this first issue was a success, and the biggest challenge will be to continue this level of quality when the jobs and articles do get parsed out to other writers as the months continue.
A few articles I really like were the “A Picture Tells 1,000 Words” and the “Deities of Aereth.” The 1,000 words article is clever and creative. The basic premise is that they take a simple picture and then write 1,000 word encounter around it. In this article, the encounter presented was short, clear and evocative. The skill challenge at the beginning was clever (though it could have been a slightly higher complexity) and the encounter itself was nicely balanced.
The deities article stood out to me as being a great article that completely details a faith from both a flavor and crunch perspective. Rules wise all the necessities were there, the Channel Divinity feat and the paragon path as well as a relic appropriate for a champion of the gods to carry into battle. This article really wins however on flavor. The description of the holy texts, rituals and worship were top shelf and the “alternate aspects,” describing the name of the deity for other races and cultures gave the religion a very organic and real feeling. An A+ overall on this article, which is the perfect modular piece for DMs everywhere to drop into their own homebrew world.
This is probably the weakest area of the book, and it is still rather strong. This book has A LOT of new content. There is a new weapon, four new paragon paths, 13 new feats and many, many monsters and templates to keep the DM’s repertoire well stocked with unexpected threats. When that much content is generated in such a small space, there are bound to be problems and this is the only semi-weak link in a strong chain.
The new content is flavorfully compelling and but often goes astray in templating. A good example of this is that each of the paragon paths focusing on a weapon (Arbalestier, Crimson Cleaver and Cudgel Thug) and all require Weapon Focus in the requirements for their Paragon Path. This sort of thing would have been fine in 3.X, but you just don’t see it in 4E and here is why: It’s a completely unnecessary restriction for no apparent benefit. If all of the passive abilities and attack powers of the Paragon Path grant benefits when using the appropriate weapon, then it is already obvious that you should be using that weapon when taking this class. Requiring Weapon Focus (a feat which gives me bonus damage and although good, should not be essential for the mastery of a weapon) just puts extra requirements on the path for no reason. What if my human fighter wants to take Weapon Expertise and has a special human fighter feat that also grants a feat bonus to damage? Obviously, I should not take weapon focus, because it will do nothing for me, it is also a feat bonus to damage, but now if I want to take this paragon path, I have to take a worthless feat, or choose to lose the much more flavorful feat that aligns with both my race and class in the name of a completely generic feat.
Other such issues arise in the powers and feats themselves. Stances, such as the Crimson Cleaver, should not be encounter powers, they should be daily. I understand they were aiming at something you could have on all the time, hence the outrageous penalty for some bonus damage, but frankly, no one would use this power. Power Attack is providing you a -2 penalty to hit for a +6 untyped bonus to damage at this same level, compared to the -4/+4 of this “stance.” This would have simply been better with its power level ratcheted up and moved to where it should be in daily. Speaking of daily power levels, most of the daily powers presented in this felt pretty weak and underwhelming. This is not totally the fault of the designers, as many of the daily powers in the Player’s Handbook have a similar feeling. It wasn’t really until Player’s Handbook II that Wizards came to fully realize what using a daily power should mean and that simply adding an extra [W] and a miss line was not going to cut the mustard to make a daily power.
In short, the rules need some help, but this is the most easily addressed shortcoming in writing. If the design itself, the ideas and flavor were bad, then we would have a non-starter. As it is, we have great ideas and clean presentations that just need some small adjustments in future articles with templating and execution.
• Robust and full of both fluff and crunch
• Material easily grokkable and usable in any homebrew game
• Captures the feel of classic gaming magazines of the 80’s while still being modern and easy for newer players to use
• The black and white interior makes powers hard to recognize
• Some templating and power issues in rules design.
Review by Vincent Venturella
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