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Tyranny of Dragons and Princes of the Apocalypse Review


Fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons might be the best ever, but the release schedule is molasses slow. That’s on purpose: fans have said they want it that way to give them time to develop their own campaigns.

What’s out so far, though is epic in scope. There’s the two-volume Tyranny of Dragons comprised of Hoard of the Dragon Queen followed by Rise of Tiamat. Now we’ve got Princes of the Apocalypse. Both are full campaigns, starting at level one and going up to fifteen.

The similarities end there, however. In fact, these two adventures are fine examples of the two main, contrasting, approaches to adventure building.

Tyranny of Dragons represents the classic way of doing things. It herds the players through a series of linked locations as they battle the latest machinations of the Cult of the Dragon in the Forgotten Realms.

There’s plenty of variety on offer. Some are classic dungeon crawls, others outdoor adventures. There are encounters based on pure role-playing and some that are little more than sequences of battles. The quality of individual chapters varies. But they all link together into a grand narrative, an epic sweep that groups are likely to remember for years to come.

Although lacking a bit in imagination, it should be a great starting point for new groups. It covers a lot of the arch-typical encounter types and monsters that make D&D so beloved. There’s lots of tips for the Dungeon Master including some “do this” or “read this” box-outs that might irritate more experienced players.

Against this, however, is the difficulty curve. It ramps up sharply after the opening chapters. Right until it gets to the point where the books end up advising the DM to be unafraid to kill players, since they ought to have access to Raise Dead spells.

Whatever magic they’ve got, frequent player death isn’t something to be aiming for. On the flip side, you could always start this after running the Ruins of Phandelver from the starter set. The players would go in at fifth level, and you could tweak some early encounters. But the challenge level should feel less intimidating.

It’s also fond of railroading the players. Not in the awful way that the Dragonlance adventures did, but the more common “go here next because it’s the plot”. I imagine most groups, and especially new groups, will do just that without prompting. For those that don’t, there’s enough background information here for a good GM to wing it. Neophytes may find these departures a struggle.

The adventure got a lot of criticism from seasoned gamers because of the railroads. Mostly, this is unfair. It’s supposed to be suitable for players new to the game, where nudging players along a fixed path is a bonus rather than a boon. And besides, it’s hard to write such a vast narrative sweep without keeping players on the rails a bit. That’s the way campaign-level modules have always worked.

The alternative, a more free form romp through a detailed area with some sort of event timetable, is great in smaller adventures. But on the campaign scale, it’d be a nightmare to organise, right?

Well, here’s your chance to find out. Because that’s pretty much what Princes of the Apocalypse is.


Indeed, it’s so fragmentary that it’s worthy a look even if you’ve no intention of running the campaign. Almost all of its dungeons, towns and scripted encounters could be split out and dropped in to another campaign. They’re detailed and self-contained enough to survive the transition.

The adventure claims to have taken inspiration from the classic Temple of Elemental Evil campaign from first edition. In truth, the only relationship is the nature of the villains the players will be up against. And the adventure is all the better for it.

The bulk of the book describes a series of locales in intricate detail. There’s the towns and wilderness of the area where the plot is due to unfold. There are lots and lots of dungeons, filled with a staggering array of different traps and monsters. At times it feels like the designers were trying to cram the whole Monster Manual in here.

This material is bookended with a description of the plot, and a chapter full of encounters for an enterprising DM to slot in anywhere for a change of pace. There’s a neat gimmick to ensure the unfolding events keep pace with the players. Each “boss” they encounter has a several slightly different setups, which increase in difficulty depending on how many other big bads have already fallen.

There’s almost nothing not to love about this. It’s bold, imaginative, unusual and well designed yet retains a solid grasp of what makes D&D the classic it is. The one problem is, as you might expect, that it’s challenging to run well. The DM must digest this material in full if she’s to avoid having to constantly reference the book, and to make the most of the opportunities offered by the modular structure.

So, two adventures, two different approaches to adventure design. The first not entirely deserving of the criticism it got, the second perhaps not quite deserving of the level of praise it got. You pays your money, and takes your choice. But with the dearth of published material for the game, Princes of the Apocalypse has to be the better pick. It’ll be more use for those trying to write and run their own campaigns. And as a standalone book, rather than a pair, it’s a darn sight cheaper too.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Review


I’ve never been to rural Wisconsin. But now I feel like I have, thanks to The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.

I’ve walked through gently shaded autumnal woods, watching rags of mist gathering on distant peaks. Wandered across a dam, marvelling at the sun reflected on the lake beneath and pools of recent rainwater on the pavement. Climbed a hill amongst ancient, mossy boulders with grass waving around me, just to see the view at the top.

The Vanishing is a beautiful game. Even on my limited hardware it evoked landscapes of such painful realism that I wanted to reach through the screen and touch it. It uses that reality to make you ask questions. Where, exactly, is this place? Why is it such a state of disrepair? And, most of all, where the hell is everybody?

And it’s a good job that the title is so full of achingly lovely vistas. You’re going to be spending a lot of time wandering about, looking at them while wondering what on earth you’re supposed to do next.

From the opening message, which proclaims the game a “narrative experience that does not hold your hand”, it’s obvious that Ethan Carter belongs the genre commonly derided as “walking simulators”. But its ambitions are much bolder. Unsatisfied with the weak game elements that characterised story driven masterpieces like Dear Esther and Gone Home, it seeks to challenge you. To make you think not just about the story and characters, but about puzzles too.

You play a detective, seeking to solve the titular mystery. But not any old detective. Not when you’re saddled with a name like Paul Prospero. This detective is psychic, and can use his powers to piece together the past once he’s gathered enough clues from a crime scene.

Vanishing Ethan Carter – CrowsYou uncover secrets by stumbling on top of them, whereupon they’re labelled and can be clicked on. Sometimes the interaction picks the item up, sometimes it’s just to examine the object. To say much more would be giving spoilers. Because when the game says it doesn’t hold your hand, it means it. There’s no tutorial, no hints, nothing except you, your mouse and a keen sense of experimentation.


That, right there, is the big problem with Ethan Carter. In its determination to be hands-off and let the story be the guide, it can leave you lost, forlorn and frustrated. Without clues you often have blunder about, struggling to find an important click point that you missed. In one instance I ended up traversing the entire length of the game world because I’d failed to properly explore a patch of forest a little off the beaten track. There were no hints I needed to look there, just the game stubbornly refusing to let me progress until I had.

Once you’ve got to grips with the way the game wants to be played, things become more interesting. The puzzles are not especially difficult, but they’re more of a challenge than Gone Home’s simple “find key, open lock” formula. And while there’s a central method to Paul’s psychic sleuthing, the game does try to mix things up a bit beyond just making you look for hidden objects. There’s even one section where you have to be on your guard against a stealthy, scary enemy.

Vanishing Ethan Carter – ValleyAt the start, the plot suffers from the same lack of focus as the puzzles. Again, lacking preamble, there are no initial plot hooks to pull you forward. But as you start to piece together the events leading up to Carter’s disappearance, the tone of the game becomes much darker. With pieces of the mystery slotting into place, it’s clear that the whole puzzle is going to be showing some very grim vistas indeed. The sense of gathering momentum is palpable, and propelled me on over the final hurdles of frustration the game placed in my path.

When you’re done, it’s a game that lingers. The sense of place is conjures is so solid that recalling some of its scenes begins to feel like memories from an eerie walk in isolated countryside. It’s worth wandering around again, because there are little flourishes of meaning in the landscape you’ll only spot once you know the whole story. And, like all well-worked narratives there are layers of meaning and symbolism that are best appreciated from a distance.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a bold, but not entirely successful, experiment in narrative-driven gaming. Its desire to marry visual and narrative aesthetics with more traditional puzzling is noble. But in pursuit of the laudable goal of trying to keep the player immersed in the atmosphere, it sometimes leaves them floundering instead. That balance something worth striving towards, a fusion which some game, someday will perfect. Ethan Carter is not that game. One day, however, I’m sure we’ll look back on it as an essential stone on the path to story-game nirvana.

This review originally appeared on The Average Gamer. Reproduced with kind permission.

Get British!


As the token Brit on NHS, it’s obviously my remit to drink copious quantities of tea, discuss the vagaries of the weather and get typecast in Hollywood movies as the villain. However I also take it upon myself to bring you occasional snippets of news from the UK games industry.

Here’s the latest: a kickstarter for a new British game, made in Britain starring British people and full of typical self-deprecating British humour. It’s a point and click adventure entitled Her Majesty’s SPIFFING and you can back it at the usual place. Take a look, have a think about it. We’ve fallen a long way since the 8-bit glory days, and frankly, we could do with the business.

Gone Home Review


You arrive at the doorstep of a mansion. Your parents recently moved there with your kid sister but you are seeing it for the first time because you have just arrived from your backpack trip across Europe. It’s dark, stormy, and the place looks like it’s been ripped out of a King novel (one of the good ones). No one is home. The lights flicker. The TV is on but it’s just white noise. You enter the house looking for signs of your family.

It’s difficult to talk about Gone Home without venturing into spoiler territory. The game, if you insist on calling it that, is all about the story. There are no controls to speak of, no inventory to rifle through, no health meters, no reflexes are required, your amazing hand eye coordination is meaningless, and there is nary a weapon in sight.

Ah, so it’s an adventure game!

No, it isn’t.

There is no “adventure” here, either; at least not in the typical way we tend to view adventure games. There are no “puzzles” to solve, no riddles to think your way through and no dialogue options from which to choose. If you thought a game like The Waking Dead was devoid of actual game mechanics then Gone Home will feel like a school project.

But that’s part of what makes the “game” work. In Gone Home you are merely along for the ride; a passenger on a ghost train that only reveals itself as you muddle your way through a seemingly abandoned mansion one room at a time.

Is that enough? Is sitting down in front of your PC for two hours (literally) and piecing together an interesting story worth your $20? We like to debate the merits of “value” of a game when discussing its critique and while I still strongly believe that price has no place in the evaluation process of a game, (then again neither do stars, ratings, or any other ridiculous measuring stick) but in this specific case you need to at least know what you are getting into.

Gone Home is short – two hours short, but that’s somewhat irrelevant. More than that, the writers know you are playing a videogame where you are wandering alone inside in a spooky abandoned mansion that looks like it should be a terrifying place to wander around alone – it plays on that emotion at every possible turn. And this is where it’s difficult to really talk about Gone Home without giving anything away, and I do think you should play the game, which is really all a “used to be game critic” can offer, right? I’m glad I played it, but I’m not nearly as happy that I spent $20 to do so.

That said, the writers and designers of this game deserve great praise for their ability to tell an engaging story via spoken dialogue (journal entries), sound effects and music, Post-It notes, and by strategically placing mundane objects around the house that help you slowly piece together what happened to the family that lives there. It’s an amazing achievement that the writers can tell such an emotional story via post cards, letters, and travel brochures. As far as pure storytelling is concerned Gone Home is equal to and in most cases is far superior to anything you see in today’s so-called blockbuster videogames. Of course since the game is all about the narrative – it better be damn good or it simply won’t work.

But I can’t help but feel a little manipulated by Gone Home. Not because of its length or its lack of any real gameplay, but because it knows…the game knows I play videogames and it knows it IS a videogame and it takes that fact that uses it against me; when you strip that away you are left with a sad, emotional and ultimately wonderfully told story trapped inside a mediocre game.

Mage Knight: The Lost Legion Review

Mage Knight Lost Legion figures and box

Mage Knight Goldyx felt old and tired. He’d been to Atlantea several times, with comrades and without, but the effort of preparation, the length of the journey and the interminable waiting around for other Mage Knights once there had dulled his taste for adventure. Now he preferred to spend his days playing his magical game-tablet while toasting his feet before a fire.

One day, there was a knock on the door. Unused to company, and with legs stiff from long hours of inactivity, Goldyx irritably called for the visitor to enter. He was unsurprised to see Wolfhawk, newest of his order and about to set forth on her first Atlantean expedition.

Silently he gestured for her to sit on his magnificent copy of the Mage Knight’s collected law and lore, bound in dragon leather, embossed in gold and wrapped about with intricately wrought bronze clasps. Three feet thick and solid as a rock, he now used it for nothing more than a visitors chair.

She took off her full-face helmet and exhaled a sigh of relief. “Gets hot in there” she complained.

Goldyx nodded. “And yet it seems that the armourers have seen fit to leave all the vital organs in your midriff totally exposed” he observed.

“Yes” replied Wolfhawk, frowning slightly. “They said they had nothing else that fitted. But Tovak always seems to walk out with a full suit.”

Goldyx silently recalled that all the minions in the armourer’s department were men and rolled his eyes. “You’ve come for advice, then?” he rumbled. “It’s been a long time since I went to Atlantea.”

“Yes” replied Wolfhawk. “Things have changed, Goldyx, since you last went. Some new and powerful foe of legend, one General Volkare, has returned and is battling the mage knights.. We’ve explored much in the meantime and found new sites, new monsters, followers and treasure too. Atlantea is a much more varied place than it once was.”

Goldyx made the sort of acidly dismissive noise that only a dragon-kin can. “But” he said, gesturing vaguely toward the colossal book on which Wolfhawk perched uncomfortably, “no doubt our lords and masters have added to the law and lore that govern our conduct to cover these new situations?”

Wolfhawk nodded miserably. “Yes. I had to learn it all by heart before they would let me out of the academy. Chapters were added to deal with Volkare and some of the new allies and monsters. It took weeks.”

He whistled in sympathy. The lore and law was long enough without new material. “Don’t worry” he strove for words of comfort. “I know you, and your training. You move swiftly, and easily. It’s what you do best. There won’t be so much waiting around for you when you get to Atlantea like there was for me. Your time will come soon.”

Mage Knights need no sleep. They sat and talked long into the night, while the fire burned low in the grate and bathed the room in the dull orange of its dying embers. Wolfhawk shifted uncomfortably, partly due to her makeshift chair, and partly because in spite of the old Draconum’s obvious apathy, she itched with desire to get away on her first adventure.

Mage Knight lost legion in play

On a similar evening, about a month later, Goldyx was roused from his game-tablet by a frantic pounding on his cottage door. Alarmed that someone might damage the woodwork he leapt up from his easy chair and flung the portal open.

There stood Wolfhawk. But not the shy, slight woman he remembered from her last visit. This Wolfhawk was at once battered and bruised yet possessed of an extraordinary power and vitality. She almost pushed past her massive host in her impatience to reach his uncomfortable visitors chair. And then sat upon it with the air of someone who’s become used to sitting on cold, hard stone, if at all.

Startled, Goldyx remained standing at his open door as her tale came tumbling forth, almost as if a dam of silence had been finally breached, unable to contain the force of the story behind it. She told of the new troops of the Orc Khans, from gangs of snivelling goblins that could fell you with multiple weak attacks to massive catapults that hit hard but which could be dodged with movement instead of blocked.

She spoke of finding a horrific golem at the bottom of a dungeon, a fearsome foe that was immune to magic attacks, and yet could fling enormous balls of enchanted fire and ice when roused to fury. And if you could not block these and counter attack in turn, it was almost impossible to kill: missiles were next to useless against it.

The old tricks of combat that Goldyx had taught her that night, seemingly so long ago, were nigh-on useless now, it seemed. Everything needed to be more considered, more cunning. There were so many more options to consider before each action, and yet more things had become uncertain, unpredictable. New plans would have to be made, and some of them would have to deal with building yourself back up after ignominious defeat.

She whispered of new troops, skills and buildings. Of how she had clambered across walls and got lost in labyrinths never before seen or charted. Of how she’d learned from an ancient monk, alone in the library of an isolated monastery, a dreadful ritual of blood that would leave her wounded but with new and undreamed of powers. Of powerful familiars that needed a constant supply of mana to survive, and would otherwise collapse into dust.

But mostly she spoke of Volkare. Mighty, mysterious Volkare. Of how his rampages across Atlantea, either in search of cities to conquer and control before the Mage Knights got there, or in search of the very portal the Knights used to get to the continent, made solo or co-operative missions much more interesting, challenging and exciting. She stated flatly that the extra law and lore she’d had to slave over for so many long, dark nights, was a worthwhile tradeoff for reducing the tedious burden of overseeing a fake Mage Knight to help cover your tracks.

Goldyx looked doubtful. But Wolfhawk would not be swayed from her subject. When she mentioned Volkare a baleful light blazed in the wide, shining eyes beneath the helm. He was a dreadful enemy, surrounded by an army of his own, quite capable of levelling a city. Or an experienced Mage Knight. Each time she had challenged him and failed. In spite of her newfound power and hard-won wisdom about this new and wonderful world of Atlantea, she had failed. And the failure burned in her like a canker.

“Goldyx” she said, breathlessly, “I want to beat him. I need to beat him. And to do it, I must have your help.” She looked at him imploringly.

Goldyx stood a long while, it seemed. He first met Wolfhawks’ beseeching gaze, then turned to look out the open door. Soft hills rolled off into the gathering dusk, a distant one crowned in fire and smoke. Far away on the horizon there was twinkle that might have been the first star, or the gateway to Atlantea. It had been a long, long time.

“No.” He said finally. “No, I will not go with you. Companionship was never my style.”

Wolfhawk looked momentarily furious, then her shoulders slumped in defeat. She stood, and left without another word, visibly trembling with anger and disappointment.

Goldyx closed the door behind her. He would not help her defeat Volkare. The Law and Lore was still a pain in his scaly behind. It still took so much time to prepare, to journey, to explore that he would hate to share the glory. But maybe, just maybe, it was worth all that effort if he could go alongside her, and defeat Volkare first, before she got there.