Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday 6 November 2010

Screen Shot II

How do you like your GM Screen?

The GM Screen is a essentially a reference sheet, comprised of several card sheets that fold out and can be stood up to serve another purpose, that is, to hide the GM's notes and dice rolls. On the inside, the side facing the GM are listed all of the tables that the GM might want or need at a glance without the need to have to leaf quickly through the core rulebook. On the outside, facing the players, is either more tables for their benefit or representative artwork for the game itself. This is both the basic function and the basic format of the screen, neither of which has changed very little over the years. Beyond the basic format, much has changed though.

To begin with the general format has gone split, between portrait and landscape formats. The result of the landscape format is a lower screen, and if not a sturdier screen, than at least one that is less prone to being knocked over. Another change has been in the weight of card used to construct the screen. Exile Studios pioneered a new sturdier and durable screen when its printers took two covers from the Hollow Earth Expedition core rule book and literally turned them into the game's screen. This marked a change from the earlier and flimsier screens that had been done in too light a cardstock, and several publishers have followed suit.

Once you have decided upon your screen format, the next question is what you have put with it. Do you include a poster or poster map, such as Margaret Weis Productions included in its screens for the Serenity and BattleStar Galactica Roleplaying Games? Or a reference work like that included with Chessex Games' Sholari Reference Pack for SkyRealms of Jorune or the GM Resource Book for Pelgrane Press' Trail of Cthulhu? Or a scenario such as "A Restoration of Evil" for the Keeper's Screen for Call of Cthulhu from 2000 or the more recent “Descent into Darkness” from the Game Master’s Screen and Adventure for Alderac Entertainment’s Legends of the Five Rings Fourth Edition. In general, the heavier and sturdier the screen, the more likely it is that the screen will be sold unaccompanied, such as those published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment for the Starblazer Adventures: The Rock & Roll Space Opera Adventure Game and Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space RPGs.

So how do I like my GM Screen?

I like my Screen to come with something. Not a poster or poster map, but some form of reference material. Which is why I am fond of both the Sholari Reference Pack for SkyRealms of Jorune and the GM Resource Book for Pelgrane Press' Trail of Cthulhu. Nevertheless, I also like GM Screens when they come with a scenario, which is one reason why I like “Descent into Darkness” from the Game Master’s Screen and Adventure for Legends of the Five Rings Fourth Edition. For the same reason, I like “A Bann Too Many,” the scenario that comes in the Dragon Age Game Master's Kit for Green Ronin Publishing's Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5, which is what I will be reviewing today.

The Game Master’s Screen is a three panel affair in landscape format, on heavy, glossy, heavy cardstock. The outside or players’ side of the Screen shows a small horde ready to attack the player characters. It is a serviceable illustration that hopefully should get the players in the mood. On the reverse side can be found everything that a GM should need including weapons and armour details, Ability Foci and tests, actions, combat, spell casting, and stunts. Perhaps the most interesting addition to the Game Master’s Screen is five pieces of advice for the GM. These are “Focus on the Characters,” “Provoke Tough Moral Choices,” “Paint the World with Five Senses,” “Be Flexible,” and “Be Exciting.” The advice is simple and obvious, but it always bears repeating and having it right in front of the GM’s eye line is as good a place to have it.

The adventure itself, “A Bann Too Many,” can be run as a sequel to “The Dalish Curse,” the scenario to be found in Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5, the core boxed set for the RPG. Not a direct sequel, but rather as the characters’ intended destination when they had the adventure on the way as described in “The Dalish Curse,” designed as it is for first and second level characters. The destination in question is the village of Logerswold, located in the central Ferelden on the edge of the Brecilian Forest. Noted for its logging industry, of late the village and nearby forest have been beset by murderous bandits led by Waldric the Gore-Handed, disrupting both village life and village work. Logersworld’s leader, the little liked Bann Krole has driven some of the bandits off, but not to the satisfaction of the village’s Freeholders, who have elected a new Bann. It is the newly elected Bann Trumhall that has put out the call for aid in dealing with the outlaws, not yet possessing the means to hire his own men to put an end to Waldric the Gore-Handed’s reign of terror.

To be honest, “A Bann Too Many” is one more variation upon the theme of a village in peril. This is not to denigrate such a set up, as it is difficult in this day and age of come up with anything in gaming that is wholly new and original. What matters is how the author develops the story from that set up and what he does to make it interesting for both the GM and his players alike. What Jeff Tidball, the author of “A Bann Too Many” is give advice, add depth, and provide options. Aiding this is the way in which the adventure is organised by encounter type – Exploration Encounter, Combat Encounter, Roleplaying Encounter, and so on. None of these encounter types adhere strictly to type, the author also discussing what might also happen in each encounter. Small details matter here, for example, a treasure hoard is discussed in terms of each item’s former owner rather than just monetary value.

Much of the author’s advice will be familiar to the experienced GM, but to be fair it is aimed at the novice GM, the one coming to the Dragon Age: Origins RPG from the computer game. Nevertheless, it is good advice and worth taking the time to read. The depth comes in the background and the staging, such that barely a single page of this thirty-two page booklet is wasted. The options come in the form of extra subplots that the GM can mix and match to add further depth to the scenario. There are three of these, some of which are more complex than others, and in the hands of the novice GM, running all three could overwhelm the scenario. The situation in the village is perhaps a little complex and the GM needs to read the scenario closely to understand what is going on and get this information across to his players. Of course, the situation in Logerswold being what it is, the heroes will have to brave the depths of the woods to face the enemy, and this is quite a hard fight for any group. Before then, there are opportunities for roleplaying and interaction with the inhabitants of the village, which should be used to encourage novice players while being enjoyed by more experienced players.

Overall, “A Bann Too Many” is an enjoyable adventure that deals with a more mundane danger rather than the darkspawn and the Blight that play such a major role in the setting. It presents an interesting take upon a clichéd set up and adds a twist or two, but does need a little careful handling to get some of the complex relationships in the village across, but the level of detail given here is far from unwelcome.

For the GM of the Dragon Age: Origins RPG, the Dragon Age Game Master's Kit is probably going to be a given purchase. The good news is that he will not be disappointed. The adventure is solid and the screen useful.

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