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Alex Fell (Rugby, Warwickshire, UK)

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The Orb of Xoriat (Eberron)
The Orb of Xoriat (Eberron)
by Edward Bolme
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: 5.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The orb is OK, 24 Feb 2006
Eberron is a new setting, and will be partly defined by the novels which accompany it. So far, they have been a bit mixed: I had read The City of Towers (a good introduction), The Crimson Talisman (missed the point), Marked or Death (don't get me started!) prior to this one. So I approached this with a certain trepidation.
It is certainly the best written of all of the Eberron novels I've read to date. It also doesn't paint moral issues in back and white, although it isn't terribly morally complex (a nasty artefact needs to be destroyed, and some misguided types want to use it and our hero wants to destroy it). It is action-packed (and quite blood-thirsty on occasion - quite a lot of innocents and relative innocents get wasted in this) and also brings out unarmed combat (the hero is a monk) quite nicely - a change of pace from the usual swords.
It's probably not as iconic in the setting as the City of Towers. But you get to visit Thrane and deal with some Cyran terrorists, and there are a number of scenes set on the lightning rail. And, most importantly, it's entertaining. A good read for a gamer, and a reasonable "in" to Eberron.

The Red Hand of Doom (Dungeons & Dragons Accessories)
The Red Hand of Doom (Dungeons & Dragons Accessories)
by James Jacobs
Edition: Paperback

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A cool super-adventure, 24 Feb 2006
AN IMPORTANT NOTE: I haven't played this adventure, I've just read it, and some things that look good on paper maybe less so in reality.
Notwithstanding, this does look like an excellent adventure for character beginning at lvl 6 or so. It is written by Richard Baker, a TSR and WotC veteran, and James Jacobs, a Dungeon magazine editor and a contributor of many excellent scenarios to that publication. So the pedigree is good.
The basic plot revolves around the machinations of an evil, dragon-worshipping hobgoblin warlord and the army he has massed against the settled lands. The adventure divides down into five main sections: an investigation into what the threat actually entails; a trip to a ruined city to see what the gobbos are doing there; an attempt to disrupt an alliance between the goblin forces and an ancient menace in the scrublands to the south; engaging and (hopefully) disrupting the initial assault by the goblin army upon the main human city in their path; and a final trip to rub out the chief bad guy in his fane of darkness (either as a mopping up operation if things have gone well, or a last desperate attempt to stave off disaster if they haven't).
All in all, fairly standard faire, but executed with considerable aplomb. The encounters are imaginative and memorable, using a different array of classed NPC (mostly hobgoblins, but with some others slung in), dragons (everyone's favourite) and interesting tactical situations. There are also a number of key sections for roleplaying (either to advise the local rulers as to the threat, or in building alliances with other potential helpers) so it's not all hack and slash (a possible fault in the two previous big adventures from WotC, the return to the Temple of Elemental Evil and City of the Spider Queen). And the designers also include a large amount of advice to the DM on how to run the adventure and individual encounters, rather than just slinging you at it and hoping you work out the subtleties yourself.
The book draws to some extent on other supplements, such as the Draconomicon and Heroes of Battle, but everything you need is in the adventure itself. It tends not to rely on big dungeons (apparently a conscious decision by the designers) but instead the individual sites and sections are fairly bite-sized - a strength as I sometimes find that a big single dungeon can become a slog, and may disrupt the flow of the essential plot. And, as a final comment, it is probably one of the most beautifully illustrated WotC products for ages - very few, if any, duff pictures (OK, some of the dragons may be a bit big compared with the written descriptions, but who wants pictures of titchy dragons anyway?).
All in all, a good adventure that draws creatively on developments in the game and upon the experience garnered from adventure design in Dungeon magazine. Even if you can't use it all, it has lots to recommend as sections can easily be extracted and used. Enjoy.

Heroes of Horror (Dungeons and Dragons) (Dungeons & Dragons)
Heroes of Horror (Dungeons and Dragons) (Dungeons & Dragons)
by Ari Marmell
Edition: Hardcover

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A game of two halves, 19 Feb 2006
This book is slightly strange, and divides very clearly into two sections. The first couple of chapters are very much about how to set up a "horror" campaign. Its emphasis is very much on atmospherics, and how it is important to set up the premise of the campaign early on and ensure that the players are willing to co-operate. It talks about moral relativism, provides a mechanic for developing insanity and moral depravity, an amended Fear mechanic more in keeping with a horror setting, and it examines in detail what "horror" might mean and how to evoke it. It also suggests how a horror campaign might develop, and how to design horrific scenarios (some examples are a bit nasty, so I would give this a PG or 12A rating if it was me, though it's not explicit on the cover). As such, this bit really concentrates on mood, setting and so on, and de-emphasises rules. I thought this section (probably about half or three-fifths of the book) was absolutely excellent.
And then, with a loud grinding of gears as we change pace, you get the second part of the book: new character classes, prestige classes, spells, feats, monsters. All the usual stuff you expect from a WotC supplement. It's not that it is bad, but as the first section doesn't even really mention rules that much and concentrates much more on the "art" rather than the "science" of the DM's craft (yep, it's really for DM's this book, like Heroes of Battle) it felt like a bit of a contradiction of the book's ethos to shovel this lot in. I hate to say it, but it looks a bit like filler (very little of it strictly has relevance to a horror setting) and so I was disappointed with this section.
Nevertheless, I'm giving this four stars because I thought the first section was excellent. And there's nothing much wrong with the second section - it just feels like it was parachuted in from another volume. Ah well, caveat emptor.

The Crimson Talisman (Eberron - The  War-Torn)
The Crimson Talisman (Eberron - The War-Torn)
by Adrian Cole
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Something missing, 19 Feb 2006
There is something missing with this particular novel. It is set in Eberron, the new gameworld from Wizards of the Coast. A a gamer, I have an appreciation of Eberron and what it is trying to be, namely a noirish setting for pulp action heroics. And while this book is sort of competent, if a bit dull, it's main failing is to evoke Eberron very effectively.
Firstly, the dialogue is rendered in a fairly stilted "fantasy-speak" rather than current idiomatic English. That rather fails to evoke anything much noirish (think Maltese Falcon or something Chandler-esque, and you will see why this rings false).
Secondly, it isn't very action packed - where there are action scenes, they are glossed over very fast and without detail. So our hero is menaced by undead hordes, and in a sentence or two said hordes are dispatched "with a few nimble sword thrusts" (that's not a quote, but you get the picture).
On the plus side, it details Karrnath (a little), Valenar (a little) and Aerenal (a bit more), with a few other places in between. And it is readable and diverting if you have a few hours and like the setting.
But you kind of get the feeling the author doesn't quite "get" Eberron as a setting. So not a very impressive rating for this one.

Mastering Value at Risk: A Step-by-Step Guide to Understanding and Applying VAR (The Mastering Series)
Mastering Value at Risk: A Step-by-Step Guide to Understanding and Applying VAR (The Mastering Series)
by Cormac. Butler
Edition: Paperback
Price: 42.25

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A non-techie's perspective, 16 July 2005
I am not a risk specialist, I'm an internal auditor. As such, I was looking for a book that would give me a good overall perspective on VaR and what sort of risk issues I should be aware of. This book suits that purpose down to the ground.
It basically sets out how VaR is calculated, but in a highly accessible way (I've got a slightly dodgy A level in maths, and I could follow it) so that a non-statistician can cope. There is enough detail to be useful, but not so much that it doesn't make sense to the non-specialist. And it's written in plain English too, rather than a rather stilted management/risk-speak like some books. It also sets out the weaknesses of the different approaches (also invaluable to me as an auditor).
I am sure that there are plenty of better books if you want to plunge into the minutiae of the subject. But if you want to grasp the key issues, this is the best I have found so far.

Heroes of Battle: The Battlefield Handbook (Dungeons & Dragons Supplement)
Heroes of Battle: The Battlefield Handbook (Dungeons & Dragons Supplement)
by David Noonan
Edition: Hardcover

29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Seriously crunchy, 16 July 2005
This book is so crunchy it should have a crisp, honeycomb centre and be sold by Cadburys. If you are looking for flavour or colour on how elves tie up their hair while going to war, forget it. This book is a DMs manual on how to design a campaign (or parts thereof) around a militaristic setting. And what's wrong with that?
Chapter 1 introduces the ideas of what the shape of a "war" campaign might be like, and how normal aspects of a campaign (like handing out treasure) might need to be changed. Chapter 2 is about how to design "war" adventures using a flow chart system, how to quickly design an army, battlefields and their associated hazards. It also introduces the victory point system, whereby the characters can influence the outcome of the battle (as much as the DM allows, anyway) through their own actions. These two chapters are the best, setting out the most thoughful and novel parts of the book.
Chapter 3 digs a bit deeper, setting out possible battlefield encounters and possible units that could be met. Chapter 4 contains a large number of specific rules for the battlefield, where the might differ from standard rules. For example, it has stuff on siege engines, massed archery (a la Agincourt), leader "auras" which allow leaders to give allies bonuses in certain circumstances, and rules for decorations and rewards. The fifth and sixth chapters have rules for characters, setting out new uses for skills, new feats and prestige classes, "teamwork" benefits which allow a practiced team to carry out specific manoeuvres that may give then certain bonuses or abilities (like Evasion, for example), new spells and magic items. Finally, it also has an appendix, detailing different armies and their organisation.
As stated above, this is a fairly rules heavy book. It's also not very "in character", as it deals explicity with the nitty-gritty of designing and balancing encounters, adventures and campaigns and as such addresses the DM directly. It is entirely generic, so its not world-specific.
Personally, I think its very good. There is lots in here that a DM can take away even if warfare is not going to be a big deal in the campaign. And if you do want to set a campaign around characters fighting a war, I would say its invaluable.

Marked for Death (The Last Mark)
Marked for Death (The Last Mark)
by Matt Forbeck
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: 5.99

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A bit naff, 10 July 2005
I personally feel I'm being pretty generous in giving this three stars. The reviewer who gave it five must have suspended his critical faculties somewhat (or not read anything else much).
On the down side, the book is not very well written in terms of style. It's not awful, but it's not especially vivid either. Some of the descriptive sections are a bit lame, and the characterisation is not great either. But the biggest sin is how it relies on the characters being really, really stupid. They get into trouble, then they get out again, then in, then out, then.... All due to their own incompetence, most of the time.
Specific examples: the vampire baddie at one point says something like "I didn't live to be 100 by being stupid", and then proceeds to act like a complete idiot all the way through, getting virtually all his forces wasted by a bunch of villagers with pitchforks. It's almost a relief when he finally gets put to rest halfway through. And the Knights of the Silver Flame are so stupid you almost want to slap them - and keep doing it until they stop moving. How they actually managed to make it as far as the Mournland at all is a mystery. And can't anyone keep hold of that child for more than five minutes without her being carried off, usually by the (nasty, but also nice really - please, spare me) changeling.
In short, the plot is just stupid, with people making mistakes which are just so avoidable, you end up losing any sympathy or respect for them. If the writing (and plot development, and characterisation, and description) were masterly, you could just about tolerate it. But the protagonists are so amateurish it makes you wonder how they actually survived long enough to actually be in the book at the beginning.
But.... on the plus side, it is page-turning. While thinking "Jeez...." while reading it, I did actually finish it in a few hours, and it was enjoyable in a trashy sort of way. And it does introduce the Mournland in a big way (although it seems about as deadly as a trip across Dartmoor, rather than the blasted wasteland of horror you might have expected - so, you can't drink the water: I've been on French campsites like that and survived) and the warforged are also big in it. And the fight scenes are good (especially in the arena of the warforged - by the way, the reason they ended up there is because they blundered in like morons, but hey). In short, it's pretty undemanding entertainment. Plus the series holds out some hope of interraction with the Blood of Vol cult and maybe Vol herself.
So, if Mr Forbeck could maybe try a little harder on the next volumes, maybe there would be something worth reading.

Champions of Ruin (Forgotten Realms)
Champions of Ruin (Forgotten Realms)
by Jeff Crook
Edition: Hardcover

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Why?, 24 Jun 2005
Well, when I saw this was coming out I was tempted not to buy it. I thought to myself, "What is this going to say that Lords of Darkness hasn't already said in a fairly definitive way?" Then I thought, "Well, the WotC stuff coming out has been pretty good lately, so give it a whirl." So I bought it. My first thought was the better one.
For any Forgotten Realms aficionado looking for 3E info on "evil", go to Lords of Darkness. OK, it's not 3.5 compliant, but that doesn't really matter as the interesting stuff is the text (evil organisations and so on) not the stats. Champions of Ruin doesn't really bring anything much more to the party that is terribly useful.
The main gimmick with CoR is that it suggests how to run an "evil" campaign: i.e. the PCs are evil and out to get the good guys. This is hardly a purely FR concern: you could run an evil campaign in virtually any gameworld. In a sense, this is my beef with this book: it probably would have been a lot better if they had made it "generic", as opposed to FR specific. Then they could have made it more of a sourcebook for designing evil campaigns, how evil might work in opposition to good and how evil characters could work in concert with each other, plus different orgnisations showing different evil motivations, and so on. Instead, it falls between two stools, and has to add something to the FR universe which has basically already been said by Lords of Darkness.
The book has the following chapters: an intro on "what is evil?" (i.e. what motivates evil characters to be evil); a races section with two new races (the krinth, a sort of darkness creature bred by the shades, and the extaminar, a "half-yuan ti" with much more limited powers; both are ECL +0, and neither especially compelling) and a monster level progression for the draegloth; a "tools of evil" section with new feats, spells and magic items; prestige classes; evil organisations (this is either something of a rehash from Lords of Darkness, or covers some rather obscure organisations you can either take or leave); evil places (shrines, nodes [the new favorite, along with touchstone sites, to pad out books] and the like); sample evil NPCs (not un-fun, though hardly amazing); and "champions of evil" (some epic level evil nasties).
A few words on the above. The tools of evil section isn't bad. Some of the feats are quite good (including some new vile feats, and initiate feats for some deities not covered in the Players Guide to Faerun). Also, some of the new spells are fun, and it gives some epic level spells too. The prestige classes are hardly core, tying in with some pretty obscure organisations and not really adding much that others couldn't (like the Justice of Weald and Woe, a very long title for an elven bow expert that works for the elven supremacists of the Eldreth Veluuthra and could easily be ignored in favour of the arcane archer). And the epic level champions of evil are a fun read (some are pretty gross, like the Elf Eater) but how many of us actually run epic level adventures?
Overall, the book seems to lack a coherent message about what it is actually trying to do. Frankly, it has its moments. But if you own Lords of Darkness, you don't need this. And if you don't own Lords of Darkness, buy that instead of this.
It's a shame. I thought WotC had given up putting out sloppy knock-off cash-ins like this. Well, I was wrong.

Lords of Madness: The Book of Aberrations (Dungeons and Dragons v3.5 Supplement) (Dungeons & Dragons)
Lords of Madness: The Book of Aberrations (Dungeons and Dragons v3.5 Supplement) (Dungeons & Dragons)
by Richard Baker
Edition: Hardcover

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Genius born of insanity, 6 Jun 2005
Lords of Madness is the continuation of the series that also includes Draconomicon and Libris Mortis - highly illustrated books focussing on specific monster types, aberrations in the case of LoM.
One obvious point with focussing on aberrations is, well, they don't really have a unified theme like dragons and undead do. LoM has risen to this challenge by setting out in the book individual, self-contained chapters on each of the main aberration types: aboleths, mind-flayers, neogi, beholders, grell and a new type, the "wearers of flesh". There is also a chapter with Monster Manual-style descriptions for more aberration types (including more beholderkin, ithillidae and so on) and a final chapter, setting out stuff for "aberration hunters", i.e. stuff on killing aberrations, with items, feats and prestige classes.
I have to say, this really is a good book. Because they have gone for the individual chapters, there is lots of very good information in bite-sized chunks, redolent with adventure ideas and general nastiness for ruining your players' day (as with all of these books, they are mainly aimed at DMs) without it being buried and a little hard to find in the more "normally" formatted books. There is a very high "evil chuckle" factor for each of these, and it's also quite a good read. Obviously, there are some less iconic monsters included (I like the grell, but I was surprised that they got a [good] chapter of their own) but on the whole the suspects you would expect to see are there. There are guidelines on advancing the beasties too, with some monster prestige classes or class advancement options and monster feats, so you can tailor your aberrations to the party. And each chapter has an adventure site (or more than one in some instances) thrown in.
The first chapter, which I initally didn't bother to read, also has some interesting nuggets. In particular, it suggests how to design a "horrific" campaign instead of a heroic campaign. A heroic campaign is the "standard" design with ELs roughly equal to the party's level. A horrific campaign turns this on its head: the first encounters are way in excess (by +3 to 5) of the level of the party to shock the players out of their complacency (the actual characters might not survive). Subsequent encounters are more in line with the characters' level, as they gradually uncover the hideous conspiracy to drag us all into otherworldly madness, and then the final encounter is also deadly (EL +5 or so) to emphasise the terrible danger of the threat. This is suggested as a model to shake up the players a bit and make the aberrations involved more terrible and memorable. However, as a concept it works equally well with other monsters, like intelligent undead (a cabal of vampires for example).
I was sceptical of the "new" aberration (the above-mentioned wearers of flesh) but they are a pretty good addition (and really unpleasant, like perambulating intestines - urgh!) with good possibilities. They also have the benefit of being new, so your players won't actually know what to expect, and so could be a very memorably surprise. And, as they are sort of "body-snatcher" style monsters, they could form the basis of a really good campaign with a mystery and/or horror basis.
The monsters chapter is OK, although not all of the monsters are that compelling. And likewise, the aberration hunters chapter is OK, but nothing special (and most of the prestige classes are a bit samey - quite a few knightly orders bent on slaying aberratons). These two final chapters are a bit flabby, particularly in comparison with what came before.
Nevertheless, this is a great book. First chapters: five stars easily, slightly let down by the later ones.

Races of Eberron (Dungeons and Dragons v3.5 Supplement): A Race Series Supplement (Dungeons & Dragons)
Races of Eberron (Dungeons and Dragons v3.5 Supplement): A Race Series Supplement (Dungeons & Dragons)
by Jesse Decker
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good stuff, 16 May 2005
This is another of the "Races" supplements, dealing specifically with the races in the Eberron setting. As such, it provides details on the warforged, the shifters, the kalashtar and the changelings. It also has a fairly long section on the other "standard" races, and how they might differ in the Eberron setting. There is a lengthy section on character options, with a big range of feats (mostly racial specific) and racial substitution levels for the main four races under consideration. There is (of course) a prestige classes section, and a final couple of chapters on equipment and magic.
Interestingly, this is presented not as an Eberron supplement, but uses the presentation and format of the other "Races" books, so it it doesn't have the look of an Eberron book. This is because it is hoped that, even if you don't want to use Eberron, you might like the races on an individual basis. However, all of the detail mentions the Eberron setting all the way through in very specific terms, so a lot of the impact would be lost if that is not actualy used. Basically, it's an throughgoing Eberron supplement, irrespective of what it says in the introduction. In fact, I would say that this is an absolutely core book for anyone wanting to use Eberron, because it really fleshes out not only the main races in question, but also the setting.
For example, the kalashtar are defined partly by their origins as "merged beings" of humans and creatures from the plane of dreams, and also by their opposition to the Inspired from the continent of Riedra. Consequently, this feeds through into their society and outlook, and for their practical philosophies of life, and so on. This explains part of the what is going in in that corner of Eberron, and provides roleplaying and adventure design hints. Similarly, the changelings are described as having a number of philosophies, for the "seemers" who just want to fit in in a specific role, to the "becomers" who revel in their shapeshifting abilities and have multiple identities, to the "reality seekers" who want to be accepted as changelings in their native form. This gives ideas on how to play a changeling, and on the interesting ramifications on their shapeshifting abilities.
Equally useful is the section on the standard races (some of which are not so standard, like drow and goblinoids) and how they fit in with the other races in Eberron. So there are various types of halfling (urban or Talenta Plains huntsmen) and elves (drow, urban, Aerenal and Valenar) and so on, differing quite markedly from D&D standard. This also fleshes out the setting in a very satisfactory way. The various character options and prestige classes are also good (not all of them concentrate on the four "Eberron" races, but there is lots of material on the standard races too).
A note: the Eberron setting is quite fully integrated with the Expanded Psionics Handbook. As such, some races (especially the kalashtar) don't make a whole lot of sense without it. The kalashtar section of the book basically assumes that you have the EPH, so if you don't you may have to adapt significantly. (However, I would suggest that you should get the EPH anyway, as it is virually a core rulebook anyway, and a very good supplement.)
So I give this a pretty substantial thumbs up. In fact, if you like Eberron, you probably need this book.

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