Showing posts with label review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label review. Show all posts

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Review: Blueholme Journeymanne and Prentice Rules

It's been a year of Basic-era games for me and I want to talk about one of my newest favorites today.

Earlier this week I talked about the new D&D 5 Essentials Kit, I wanted to have another look at my own roots, the D&D Holmes Basic Set.  The Holmes set is one of the few versions of the D&D games you can't get from DriveThruRPG.  You can, however, get the Blueholme game from Michael Thomas and Dreamscape Design.


Blueholme comes in two different versions, the introductory Prentice Rules, and the full Journeymanne Rules. I will cover both here.  In this case, I am reviewing both the print books from Lulu and the PDF versions from DriveThruRPG.

Blueholme Journeymanne Rules
118 pages, full-color covers, b/w interiors. $9.99.

Blueholme is a retro-clone / what-if of the first Basic Set edited by John Eric Holmes.  Sometimes called "Blue Box Basic" or "Blue Book Basic".   At 118 pages it is a complete game.  If that sounds light, then you are right!  Blueholme is a "rules" light old-school game much in the same way that Holmes was.  Don't let it's light-weight dissuade you.  This is a feature, not a bug.
On the surface, the Blueholme Journeymanne Rules (BJR) looks like any other retro-clone in the OSR.  Once you dig into it you will see the differences are from the source materials.

Foreward.  We start with a foreward (not forward) from Chris Holmes, the son of John Eric Holmes and the reason why there was a Holmes Basic set to begin with.  It gives these rules a bit of gravitas if you ask me.

Part 1: Introduction covers what you should expect to see in this book and the general tone of the book. Like everything else it is short, sweet and to the point.

Part 2: Characters deals with character creation.  All game developers should have a look at these first two pages to see how the economy of words pays off.  In the first two pages, we cover all the steps in creation.  Rolling stats (3d6 in order), choosing a species (I prefer this over "race"), class, and everything else.  The six ability scores are covered and what they do.  SURPRISE they do much less here than in other OSR games.  Essentially these are the means to get a bonus when leveling.  Eg. Strength provides no bonuses in combat. Constitution does aid in hp it points, Intelligence still helps in learning languages. But that is about it really.  Only Dexterity helps to hit and then only + or - 1. Dexterity is central to combat, but more on that later.
For species, there is nothing specific listed outside of humans.  For anything else have a look in the Monster section and pick something! Want an elf, dwarf or orc? Go ahead! Goblin? Yes! Dragon? sure, work it out with your GM. Black Pudding? Sure...work it out with your GM.
It is very much the way the original D&D and Holmes D&D games worked.
Classes are the basic four; Cleric, Fighter, Magic-user, and Thief.  Fighters do not get more attacks as they level up, but can cause more damage.  There are rules on Combination Classes or what we also call Multiclassing.  If your base creature type has more HD then there is a table of adjustments.
Alignment is broken down to just five, Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, True Neutral, Chaotic Evil and Lawful Evil.
Coin and Equipment is next. Note that all weapons do 1d6 points of damage per hit as per the OD&D and Holmes BD&D rules.

Part 3: Spells covers all the spells that can be cast by Clerics (1 to 7 spell level) and Magic-Users (1 to 9 spell levels). These are not huge lists and some spells are different than other books representations of them.  Make sure you read before you assume a spell does what you think it does.

Part 4: Adventures covers just that, what the characters do and where they do it. This section is very reminiscent of the similar sections in both Holmes and Moldvay Basic.  The breadth of the information is wide, but the depth is low since it depends on the Game Master to make calls on what is happening in certain situations.

Part 5: Encounters would be called Combat in other books, but the name change fits.  We start with lots of tables of monster encounters at various levels and various locales. Combat, damage, and healing are also covered.  The initiative is determined by Dexterity score. If there is a tie then a 1d6 is rolled with highest going first. AC is descending with an AC of 9 meaning unarmored.
We get tables of attack matrices and saving throws too.

Part 6: Creatures deals with all the creatures you can encounter as friend or foes.  There are plenty here and brevity is the key.  For example, Demon gets a single entry and some tables to determine what it looks like. You can also choose your character specifies from these entries.  All the usual suspects are here. I in particular like the "pumpkin-headed" bugbear; a nod to the OD&D rules. There are a lot of Lovecraftian monsters here as well. They are the ones credited for creating the vast "Underground" where the adventurers find their fortunes. There are also plenty of "Appendix N" style creatures like intelligent apes and monsters out of Pellucidar and of course dragons and dinosaurs and undead.

Part 7: Treasure has both individual and hoard types with plenty of magic, and cursed items.

Part 8: Campaigns is a guide for Game Masters.
We end with a character sheet and a solid index.
The PDF is bookmarked, but the Table of Contents and Index are not hyperlinked (minor thing really).

The book is well laid out and easy to read. The art is all new and works fantastic with the book. Solid old-school feel to it., if slightly better than what we actually had back then.  It reminded me more of Moldvay era art than Holmes, but that is fine really.



Blueholme Prentice Rules
63 pages, mono-color covers, b/w interiors. Pay What You Want.

The Blueholme Prentice Rules came out first as a preview of the Journeymanne rules.
These rules cover the basic rules as the Journeymanne rules, save only to level 3.  In this respect it is actually closer to the Holmes set than the maine (manne?) rules.

In character creation, the choices of Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling are given. The same basic four classes of Cleric, Fighter, Magic-user, and Thief are here.

From here the Prentice rules parallel the Journeymanne rules, there is just less of them.  This is a truly Basic set of rules with everything to get you started for the price of dice.

The Prentice Rules has the same cover art, albeit in a monochrome format (not unlike Holmes) and features Public Domain art inside from Henry J. Ford. Now personally I LOVE the art. These old images from old fairy tales really sets the mood for me and gives this game a different feel.

Bluehlome Prentice Rules are a perfect solution for someone wanting to get into an Old School game and does not know where to start or what to do, and maybe not spend a lot of money upfront.  For a PWYW PDF and print copies under $6, it has replaced Basic Fantasy as my OSR game of choice to hand out to people I want to introduce to old-school play.

Additionally, there are some full-color character sheets and an introductory adventure.

Blueholme is a great addition to the vast and growing library of OSR games.  It might be one of my favorites, to be honest.

You can find Dreamscape Design on the web at:

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

D&D Essentials Kit: Unboxing and Review

Today I want to spend some time with the new D&D Essentials Kit.  I had held off buying this when it first came out.  It was only available at Target stores and it is designed to get people up and going in the D&D 5 game that does not have prior experience with D&D.  That is not me. Plus buying one means that someone new might not get a copy.  But I kept hearing really good things about it and the sales I have heard are really good.  So I opted to pick up a copy now.

Since I prefer to buy my game materials from my favorite local game store, I will pick up another one when they are released to games stores in September.  I am likely going to donate that copy to my kid's local high school gaming club.  It will be well recieved I am sure.

So for $25 what does the Essentials Kit have and what can you do with it?  According to the back of the box we have:
  • 64 Page Rulebook
  • Dragon of Icespire Peak Adventure
  • Double-sided poster map
  • DM's screen
  • 6 blank character sheets
  • 11 polyhedral dice
  • 81 cards describing magic-items, NPC and conditions
  • Access codes for D&D Beyond


Opening up the box we see:


The adventure has a familiar feel of all the D&D 5 books.


Cards.



The map of the Sword Coast.


The DM's screen.  It is similar to the DM's screen sold separately, but this is made of thinner material.


Character sheets. These are thicker paper than photocopier paper.


The rulebook covers nearly everything characters will need for levels 1 to 6.



And dice. 1d4, 4d6s, 1d8, 1d10, 1d%, 1d12 and 2d20s.

The Essentials Kit covers a bunch of material and it is a fantastic introduction to the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition game.  The rules are clear, cover all the necessary topics and items.

The Essentials Kit is designed to work with the Starter Kit, but in truth I felt the Essentials can stand on it's own.


Certainly together they make for a complete game.  The Starter Set has more monsters and another adventure. 

I think that there was a missed opportunity here to call these the Basic and Expert sets.



The easy comparison here is to the various Basic Sets we have gotten over the years for D&D.



One of the complaints of the Starter Set was the lack of character creation rules. There were some other complaints that I felt were overblown. But let's look at this new box and ask the basic question "can I run a D&D game with just this box?"

The answer is yes, of course you can.  But are the elements here? Certainly.
I went through my Holmes and Moldvay Basic sets (Metzer is similar enough to Moldvay for this) and picked out rules sections to see what they have and how the Essentials compares.

This is what I came up with:

Item/Rule/Topic D&D 5e Essentials Holmes Basic Moldvay Basic
Character Creation Yes Yes Yes
Ability Generation 4d6, drop lowest or array 3d6 3d6
Character Races Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Human Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Human Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Human
Character Classes Bard, Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, Wizard Cleric, Fighter, Magic-user, Thief Cleric, Fighter, Magic-user, Thief
and Race-as-class
Levels 1 to 6 1 to 3 1 to 3
Spells Yes (Bard, Cleric & Wizard) Yes (Cleric & Magic-user) Yes (Cleric & Magic-user)
Equipment Yes Yes Yes
Combat Yes Yes Yes
Monsters Yes, in included adventure Yes Yes
Magic Items Yes Yes Yes
DM's Section Yes, in included adventure Yes Yes
Running Adventures Yes Yes Yes
Sample Adventure No (but includes a full adventure) Yes Yes
Full Adventure Dragon of Icespire Peak B1 Search of the Unknown B2 Keep on the Borderlands
Character Sheets Yes No No* (but a page you can copy)
Dice Yes (11) No (Chits) Yes (6)

All three sets align well in terms of what you have.  You can start a character, choose one of four races and one of five classes and take them from 1st to 6th level with this box. And with this box there are already blank character sheets.

Like the boxes of old, save for my Holmes set made during the Great Dice Drought, all have dice.  All have included adventures and all have character creation rules.
Will Dragon of Icespire Peak go down in history like Keep on the Borderlands?  No. But it is still a very fine adventure.

The weak point of this boxed set as a complete game are the lack of a huge variety of Monsters.  Holmes featured 58 monsters.  Moldvay had over 70, more with variants and sub-types. Essentials has 33.  Still, a good amount and all three sets cover the same ones.  I don't see this as an issue since monsters can be downloaded from the SRD or the online Basic Game.  The Starter Kit also has Monsters as well.

So. The new Essentials Kit is a great starting place for people wanting to learn D&D 5 and have never played D&D before.  It is also good for anyone new to D&D 5 but has played other games in the past; though I would direct those folks to the Player's Handbook.

At 25 bucks the entry price is low enough for a casual gamer. 

The woman at the register at Target asked me if the game was for me or my kids.  I admitted it was for me, but my kids play.  She was telling me how popular the set has been and it was flying off the shelves.  I told her I knew, since this was the fourth Target I had been at in the Chicago'burbs looking for it.  She said her son had asked for it and she got it for him.  Now he and all his friends play at her house.  Cheaper than a video game and she knew where they were and what they were doing to whole time.

I think. No. I KNOW that Wizards of the Coast did the right thing putting this in Target stores.  If this gets the word out more about our hobby, then fantastic.

My next plan is to do some sample characters.  I have a new Bard, Cleric or Druid, and a Fighter I want to try out using just this box and do the same characters with the new Pathfinder.  Could be fun to see which character creation process "feels" the best.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Review: Castles & Crusades Codex Classicum

The Castles & Crusades Codecies series are great books to add some flavor and history to your game.  While overtly for the Castles & Crusades game they can be used by nearly any game.  I reviewed the Codex Celtarum a while back and I loved it. So I picked up all the others.
Since I am currently on a big Greek Mythology kick, let's have a look at Castles & Crusades Codex Classicum.

Castles & Crusades Codex Classicum
For this book, I am reviewing the PDF only since that is what I have at hand at the moment.
The PDF is 146 pages with color covers and black & white interiors.  The art is up to the high standards you should expect from Troll Lords with plenty of evocative art from Peter Bradley.   Like the other books in this series, this one was written by Brian Young, who has the educational background to tackle these books.
Brian introduces us to the material with an apology that this book could have been twice as large and not cover everything.  Indeed, the book's scope is ambitious with what we normally consider Classical Mythology; the stories of the Greeks and the Romans with some Etruscans thrown in for good measure.  Ambitious indeed.

Note: There are a couple of errors in the hyperlinked table of contents in the PDF, but nothing that keeps anyone from enjoying the book.

Chapter 1 covers the actual history of the Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans...or as much as can be done in 20 or so pages.  There are actual history and mythical histories.  The myth in this section and book takes heavily, as can be expected, from Hesiod's Theogony.  It's like being back in Freshman Classics all over again!  The section, for its brevity, is well thought out and hits on the big pictures and themes.  I suppose if you want more you can always read Theogony yourself.  In fact, do that, anyone that is a gamer should have a basic understanding of the Classical Myths.

Chapter 2 details the all-important geography of the area.  Why "all-important"? Because the Greeks and the later Romans were products of their environments; their history, religions and myths were influenced by their geography to an extreme extent.  From the Greek city-states of early antiquity, to rise of the power Athens and Macedonia and in the literal center of it all, the Mediterranean Sea.
Again, this chapter is a quick overview, but a better one than I have seen in other game books.
This chapter also covers mythical locations (but not the mythical worlds just yet).  Remember to the Greeks these places were places just as real as everything else.  One could, if they so desired, walk to the underworld. That is if they knew the way.
This chapter also introduces the Explorer/Adventurer class.  Something that feels right at home in the world of the Greeks or the worlds of Gygax.  Some should convert this to another system and see how it plays out.

Chapter 3 features the monsters and beasts of the Classical World.  There are a lot of old favorites here and well as new representations of other favorites.  Of course, this is one of my favorite chapters.  Greek myth got me into D&D via the Monster Manual and there are a lot of monsters here that get right in the 1979 nostalgia.  My only disappointment here is that is no art of any of the monsters. I know we all know what most of these creatures look like, but I still feel a little cheated in not getting enough Peter Bradley art.

Chapter 4 is my favorite.  Monsters got me into D&D and RPGs, but it was magic that kept me coming back. Chapter 4 features Greek and Roman sorcery and magic including necromancy and prophecy.   Even the most casual reader of the classic myths should know how important Oracles are to the tale.  From Jason to Perseus to the tragedy of Oedipus, Oracles move the story forward. Here we get our next class, the Oracle (with notes on how these mouthpieces of the gods work in the other Codies).  Unlike the Pathfinder Oracle, this one is not a spellcaster but a reader of omens. It also requires a fairly experienced player to play to make proper use of it.
Also featured here is the Nekuomantis, or the classical Greek necromancer.  In many ways, this is the true necromancer before RPGs got ahold of the archetype.  These characters speak to the dead to learn secrets and the future.

Chapter 5 deals with the Gods and Titans and other immortal creatures.  It is fairly comprehensive compared to all other game books and very helpful in populating the ranks of the Immortals.

Chapter 6 focuses more on the humans and mortals of the world.  The heroes and their issues.  The basics of the Greek and Roman armies are also covered.  This chapter also introduces the Gladiator class.

All in all a great overview but also leaving me with the desire for some more.  Still I rather enjoyed it and can see a lot of uses for it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Review & PWWO: Maximum Mayhem Adventures

Mark Taormino of Maximum Mayhem Dungeons is in the final week of his latest creation, Maximum Mayhem Dungeons #6: Moving Maze of the Mad Master.

I thought today might be a great time to discuss his previous adventures.


#1 Hanging Coffins of the Vampire Queen
This adventure, written by Mark Taormino might be an homage to the first Palace of the Vampire Queen adventure, but it is more likely an homage to those meat-grinder, total-party kill, fun-house dungeons of the late 70s early 80s. There is a basic plot here, enough to get you in the door and moving along, but really this adventure is about killing things and avoiding getting killed. Example, in one of the first encounters you have to run a gauntlet and get past a bunch of fire giants and their hell hound pets. This is "room 1". It is downhill from there. It has demons and other vampires in the wander monster table. Liches, demons, succubi, greater devils, nearly 50 vampires in total, tons of other monsters and of course the Queen herself, Lady Neeblack.

This is not an adventure to challenge the resolve of hardy role-players. This is an adventure to survive and leave a trail of bodies behind you. It is old-school, but old-school through the eyes of 40-somethings looking back on their times as teens.
The adventure itself has a great lead-in to get you interested, but that is just the carrot on a stick, most people buying and playing this module are going to want to jump right in. Another example (this is not a spoiler), you are captured by Lady Neeblack and told you have to run through her crypts for her amusement. The conceit is the characters will feel coerced into doing this, so they slide down a passage to the previously mentioned Fire Giants. In truth, my players wanted to jump in like they were doing a dive at the pool.

Though to claim people will play this for nostalgia reasons is completely unfair. Mark did a great job of this. The rooms are detailed and what detail! There are interesting encounters and Lady Neeblack herself should really move up the ranks as one of the more memorable NPCs ever. In fact I am hoping that she comes back for a sequel sometime soon. Just like a good Hammer villain she should find ways to come back from the dead. Mark Taormino, this needs to happen.
The text of the book is big, easy to read and despite the "old school" claims still has boxed text to read (screw you Grognards! I still like boxed text even when I don't use it.) Each room is unique and feels like it belongs. Plus the "Hanging Coffins" themselves are the coolest idea in vampire graves since the Lost Boys.
The proof of any adventure is not in the reading but in the playing. So I played it. It rocked.

Now the game is designed for OSRIC but can played with 1st or 2nd Ed AD&D. I played it with 5th Edition D&D. I just replaced the monsters and made a character sheet for Lady Neeblack. I ran the same group of people that I had taken through the original Palace of the Vampire Queen and we all treated it as an unofficial sequel. I worked out well enough. We all had fun, but if this module reads as a deathtrap on paper it's a killer in the playing. So make of that what you like.
Personally I would love to run it again using AD&D1

#2 Secret Machines of the Star Spawn
Let's play a game of what if. What if the Expedition to the Barrier Peaks had been written in the 80s instead of the 70s? What if there were influences of Star Wars, Buck Rogers, 50s sci-fi movies and just a little dash of 70s Blaxploitation?
You might get something like The Secret Machines of the Star Spawn, but it would not be as good as the module Mark Taormino wrote. The module follows a similar flow of the other Maximum Mayhem Dungeons; something weird is happening, there are rumors, a long history of strangeness and a thin excuse to go adventuring. What they PCs will uncover is...well I don't want to spoil it. It's no shock that this adventure will feature a downed starship and some lasers. But it doesn't end there. In truth there is a lot to really, really like about this adventure. In a different setting, the monsters would be scary ass deadly and really, really awesome. Also there is so many references to pop culture, espeically sci-fi and 80s pop culture, that it would be pointless to address them all. The rock band KILL was one of my favorites. Designed for OSRIC, I played bits and pieces of this using D&D5. Though it would work just as well with AD&D1, Castles & Crusades or any other OGL based clone game. The one issue I have with it (and very minor) is that players that didn't grow up in the 70s and 80s would not get all the jokes. I ran Hanging Coffins for my kids and they loved it, but some of the jokes fell flat on them here. No surprise they have no context for them. I thought they were hilarious to be honest. Loved the Pinball Wizard! If I were to run this again I would either merge it with a little bit of Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and run a huge Star Spawn mega-adventure. Or I'd run it as is with some disposable characters and guys that grew up in the 80s too.

#3 Villains of the Undercity
What if the Keep on the Borderlands was destroyed and then humans came in and built a new keep on top of the ruins. Let's also say the caves of Chaos have been cleared, but not all the monsters were killed. Where did they go? What did they do? Now invite the Slave Lords from the A series over. You would get Villains of the Undercity! This adventure is an ode and homage to the great dungeon crawls of the day. While this adventure fits the gonzo style of the other Maximum Mayhem Dungeons this one can also be played straight. Well...sorta. There is a crazy Halfling Illusionist Assassin, but that is for the players to figure out.
With this adventure, anyone that has ever been inside a classic dungeon will find something to love. There are lots of deadly traps, monsters and puzzles to figure out. Of course plenty of treasure too. This adventure is also the one that I can see fitting into a larger campaign, even with adventures from other publishers. I was mentally placing it in Greyhawk or even Dolmvay. Just really a lot of fun.
Like the B and A series it takes so much nostalgia from, this is an introductory module.  But just because it says character levels 1-3 it is still expecting some experienced players or very experienced players with somewhat fuzzy memories!  Like the MM modules, this one is action and combat. Yes, there are some puzzles to solve and everything is deadly.

#4 Vault of the Dwarven King
Another what if scenario for you.  What if the dwarves of Moria were completely crazy for Indiana Jones?  Well, you might get something like Vault of the Dwarven King.  There is the aforementioned vault, part of a vast underground dwarven city.  There is a giant monster that's on fire.  There are also mine-cars, goblin moonshiners, blue trolls and dwarf tossing.
There is a thin coating of silliness over a really fun and REALLY deadly adventure here. All to reclaim the lost dwarven artifact, the Fireheart.  But does it belong to the dwarves or the goblins?  Will you even live long enough to find out?
Like the adventures that came before it, it is an unapologetic romp down memory lane.  This adventure though, maybe more so than any of the others might be more accessible to anyone that didn't grow up in the 80s.  The biggest nostalgia pull is, of course, the Lord of the Rings movies, in particular, Fellowship of the Ring, but that is only one (though very loud) note.  There is enough going on here to keep every player on their toes and their characters running.   This one is also the most classically "fantasy" than the others which also draw on sci-fi, horror and crazy humor.

#5 Palace of the Dragon's Princess
Palace of the Dragon's Princess might be my second favorite adventure in this whole series right after Hanging Coffins.  The premise is very similar to the classic Palace of the Silver Princess.   In this case, the Princess is trapped by a green dragon and you must go rescue her.  Sound easy?  You obviously have not paid any attention to the other four adventures in this series.
This one has a lot of background information, more so than the others.  We know a lot more about Princess Francessca than we do about Lady Neeblack the Vampire Queen (Could Lady Neeblack be Princess Francessa's dead mother??!!?).  There is a knight, a dragon and Torgo. Yup, a nice riff on MST3k with Torgo and the Master.  But is the princess REALLY in danger?  That will be up to the Gamemaster to decide.  There is a lot going on here and because of the backstory a lot more that a crafty DM can add.  I am a touch disappointed there were no three-headed creatures like the Ubues, but that is fine. They were silly enough then.
Like the Vault of the Dwarven King this one is more classically fantasy and it is also one best ones in the series to "run straight".  Meaning you could strip out some of the silliness and have a pretty deadly, serious adventure if you wanted.
In any case, this is one is a lot of fun and a worthy addition to the line of Maximum Mayhem Dungeons.

So check out Maximum Mayhem Dungeons #6: Moving Maze of the Mad Master.  It looks like "Willy Wonka in Hell" so you know it will be fun.

Plays Well With Others
The Maximum Mayhem Adventures are designed with 1st Edition/OSRIC in mind.  But If you organize them in level like this.


I can't help but notice a solid campaign of levels 1 to 14.
Just like B/X D&D.


With some tweaks, mostly to the monsters and alignment, you could have a solid set of adventures for the B/X line of D&D.  Sure they are a bit tough and have some out-there elements, but nothing that B/X couldn't deal with with the right DM.

I have not tried this yet.  I have played these adventures using D&D 5th edition, but I can't see why it would not work.


Plus the boxes look nice together.
Isn't this how we all played back then anyway?  Mixing our AD&D and BD&D all the time.  I think I first went through the A-Series using the Expert set anyway.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Review: B/X Essentials

To celebrate 40 years of playing D&D I am doing a year-long celebration I am calling Back to Basic.  While I got my start on Holmes Basic, it is the Moldvay Basic and Cook/Marsh Expert that really lit my fires.

It should be no surprise then that I am a big fan of Gavin Norman's B/X Essentials (soon to become Old School Essentials) line. 


Gavin has been producing some great content for a while now via his Necrotic Gnome label. His Theorems & Thaumaturgy and Complete Vivimancer are among my favorite Old-School books.

His Kickstarter for Old School Essentials is funded and going into its last days now.  While this is going on you can still get copies of B/X Essentials.

For these reviews, I am using both the PDF and Print versions of these books.

B/X Essentials is a redesign of the classic "Basic/Expert" rules using OGC sources.  The books are all digest-sized, 6" x 9" format.  All of the books feature fantastic full-color covers from artist Andrew Walter and color accented interiors; limited to mostly pale green.
A moment about these covers.  They remind me of a surreal 70s version of Lord of the Rings meets Elric; easily some of my most favorite covers of in all of the Old-School movement.
All the books are extremely modular. This was a design goal by Norman and it pays off.  Everything is easy to find.  Sections usually take up a page or multiple full pages. If you were so inclined you could cut up your books (!) or print out the PDFs and reorganize them as you see fit. Really at this point, the only thing that could make these books easier to use is having all the content in a spiral-bound volume so it can lay flat at your table.

B/X Essentials: Core Rules
The Core Rules weighs in at 34 pages and gets to the very heart of the B/X Essentials line.  The essential Essentials as it were. It covers Ability scores in general, sequences of play and all the basic rules needed.  Combat is covered separately. Magic also gets a bit of coverage here in general terms and including how spells can be researched and magic items made. 
The rules have been "cleaned up" from their obvious predecessors.   Focus is on readability and playability here.  In fact all the entries under the basic rules are alphabetical, so finding something say like Movement, is easy.  In the original rules it took a bit of digging to actually figure out how much a character moves.  This was vastly improved in later editions of the game, but here it is very succinctly spelled out. Other rules are equally made clear.
Since the "Basic" and "Expert" rules are combined here there is an economy of word usage here.  As much as I love my Basic and Expert games, sometimes you need to consult both books when a situation comes up.

B/X Essentials: Classes and Equipment
The Classes and Equipment book comes in at 44 pages.  It begins naturally enough with character creation.  Some details, such as Ability scores, are detailed here, but also give a call back to the Core Rules book.  Still, though everything is here to make a character.  For practice, I made a 7th level Cleric just using this book. It went extremely fast and very little need to flip pages back and forth.  I just needed to use the Spells book to pick out spells.
The modular design of the B/XE system extends to this book as well. Each class begins on an even-numbered page and extends to the next odd-numbered page.  You can then hold the book flat, put it up two-pages at a time on your screen,  and read everything you need in a glance.   I really appreciate this level of attention paid.  Many books do not do this and in fact, look like they were just run off on Word's PDF converter.  There is more attention put into the layout here than in most products and to me, that is what sets this above the others.
The classes represented here are the 7 classics; Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User, Thief and the three demi-humans, Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling.  True to B/X these are "race as class" classes.
Equipment, money and of course weapons are covered in the next half of the book.

B/X Essentials: Cleric and Magic-User Spells
Cleric and Magic-User Spells would have been my favorite book if B/XE had come out in the 80s.  Right now it also has my favorite cover from the entire series. Seriously, I love it.
The book itself has 34 pages and covers all the Cleric and Magic-User/Elf spells in the game.
All the usual suspects are here.  Again when making my recent Cleric I used this book. 
The modularity again is a huge boon for this book and game.  Adding a new class, like the proposed Druid and Illusionists? Add a new book easy! 

B/X Essentials: Adventures and Treasures
At 48 pages this is one of the two larger books in the series. This book deals with adventuring and what sort of things you can find on those adventures. So there are traps, monster tables, and all the treasure types and magical treasure.
Again we see where combining the Basic and Expert rules gives you a much better idea of what is going on in these "dungeons".
This is also my second favorite cover of the line. 

B/X Essentials: Monsters
Ah, now this is a book I would have loved back in 81.  Also coming in at 48 pages this book is about monsters and nothing else.
Stat blocks are concise and there is none of the bloat in the descriptions that appear in later editions (ok to be fair that bloat was demanded by players).   The book is fantastic with my only reservation in I wish it had been illustrated more.  But even that is fine.
I can easily see a "Monsters 2" and "Monsters 3" sometime in the future for this line.

In truth, I can't say enough good about this.   Is it 100% brand new material?  No, but that was also never the design goal.  The books do exactly what they say they are going to do.  If I were starting with a new group using B/X-flavor D&D I would be hard-pressed to come up with a reason NOT to use these books.

B/X Essentials: Demihumans of Dolmenwood
This free product is only 8 pages long and is only in PDF. It is the only genre and world-specific book in the line covering the Dolmenwood, the shared setting used by Necrotic Gnome.   This book includes two new races, the Fairy Elf and the Woodgrue, both fairy races of the Dolmenwood.  There is also a listing of some Fae lords and ladies.



A Bit about OSE
Old School Essentials expands on these rules and reorganizes them some more.  There is a Basic Rules that takes place of the Core book and then a Genre book that covers classes and other "D&D" like topics.  I imagine that different genre books will have other rules and classes.

Old-School Essentials: Basic Rules
This free 56-page book covers all the basics of the OSE line.  Picking it up you can see the stylistic changes from B/XE to OSE.  Also this book covers just about everything you need to play right now.  It includes the four human classes, some rules, some spells, some monsters, and treasure.  Enough to give you a taste of what OSE will be like.
It has the same modular design as B/XE so finding things is simple, leaving more time for play.
There is no interior art in this free version, but that hardly detracts from it.

I am really looking forward to seeing OSE out.  But until then I am going to enjoy playing with B/XE!

Monday, May 6, 2019

Monstrous Monday: Review Monsters of Mayhem #1

This has been sitting on my desk forever begging me to review.  Today seems like a good day for it.

Review: Monsters of Mayhem #1
Monsters of Mayhem #1 is the latest monster tome from the Mad Wizard himself, Mark Taormino.  Mark has made a good name for himself in the Old School D&D scene producing some top rated gonzo adventures.  So it should only seem natural that he would turn his attention to making an equally gonzo and fun monster book.  Which is exactly what he did.
Monsters of Mayhem is 36 pages of monsters for old school games using OSRIC, coughAD&Dcough.
I am reviewing both the physical book and the PDF.
The book is black & white with color covers and "blue map" inside covers.  There are 48 monsters here, most illustrated.
The monsters themselves are all fun and all of them are very deadly, or at least they could be in the hands of a sadist DM.
Many have appeared in his adventures, but there are some new faces here as well.  Also many will invoke a feeling of nostalgia for anyone that played AD&D back int he 80s.  Some are fun, like "The Little Green Bastards" (aliens), some are nostalgic like the "Astral Drifter" and "Star Spawn", and others are just plain disgusting (in a great way) like the "Block of Hungry Flesh".  Others still are very deadly like the infamous "Vampire Lich".
Our cover girl is a Demonia Gigantica which was one of the very first monsters I used from this book.



The style reminds you of the old school, early 80s, style of books.  Save for how over the top everything is it could pass for an 80s book. Well, that and the production values are top-notch.

I high recommend this book.

There is a lot packed into 36 pages here.
For $10.00 you get a lot and will really spice up your game a little.

If you want to pick up a dead-tree version then check out Mark's newest Kickstarter, Maximum Mayhem Dungeons #6: Moving Maze of the Mad Master.


Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Review: Blackest of Deaths Ashcan Version & Kickstarter

Bloat Games has been putting out some quality games for a little bit now and they are certainly the new "It" company in the Old-School scene right now.  Their newest Kickstarter is now up, The Blackest of Deaths - A Dire Old School Fantasy RPG and I have been given access to the "Ashcan" copy of the rules.   Let's have a look and see what this Kickstarter is all about!

There is The Blackest of Deaths - Dire Old School Fantasy RPG - KS Sneak Peek on DriveThru now. It is free so have a look.

The Rules
We are greeted on the very first page with a "Caution" and "YOUR CHARACTERS WILL DIE."  I think that sets the tone for the game quite well.  The aesthetic reminds me of Dungeon Crawl Classics mixed with HackMaster to be honest.   Not my usual vibe, but I like what I am reading so far.
My favorite is the line "yes, this is the type of game your grandparent’s preachers warned them about in the 70s & 80s!"  Ok then!

We start out with what are the two big "rules" of the game;
1. "Rulings vs Rules", there is no rule for everything in that can happen in the game.  The GM is in charge and will make up what they need to make up to keep the game going.
2. The Core Mechanic.  Roll a d20 and d6 at the same time.  If the d6 comes up 1 you get a Hinderance. If it comes up as a 6 then you get a Benefit.  2, 3, 4, or 5 are ignored.  There are also Advantage and Disadvantage rules.

The character Attributes are the same, but instead of a range of 3-18 you just have your pluses or minuses.  Max is 3, the lowest is -2.  You start with 10 hp +/- your Con score.  The only way to get more is via magic!  There is no leveling up! This is you.
To offset this all characters have some Luck points.
Armor and Dex scores don't add to "AC" but reduce damage given.

There are four races, elf, dwarf, goblin and human.  Races can raise or lower your scores.
There are six classes, Assassin, Barbarian, Monster Slayer, Necromancer, Ranger, and Street Rat.
They work as you expect, each one with a specialized purpose.  Monster Slayer has a unique talent for killing a particular monster you choose for example.
There are a limited number of spells (no levels) and most deal with combat.
Equipment and weapons finish off the Player's Section.

The GM's section is the other half of the book.
We go over the basic rules again and discuss some difficulty checks.  This is where the game's "New School" roots show from under their "Old School" dye job!   But in truth, it all works great.

There is a good sized monster section with the monsters in a very distilled format.  Just the essentials.
All the favorites are here and it is easy to see why and how these monsters will mow through most characters.

There is also a good-sized section on treasure and magic items.

The game is fast to pick up and lethal.  It is close to an OSR "Beer and Pretzel" game to be honest.  Great for a single night or weekend or even as a side-quest with a "Magnificent Seven" style adventure.

The Kickstarter
Well, one thing you know.  The rule book is finished and ready to go, it's now all about those stretch goals.  And there is a good set of those!
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ericfrombloatgames/the-blackest-of-deaths-a-dire-old-school-fantasy-r?ref=theotherside

As of this writing, the game is funded (in the first 2 hours!) and they are at the first stretch goal of 20 more monsters.  There are plenty more where that came from too.

Really looking forward to seeing what this game does.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Isaina Lyd’ar for The Witch for Swords & Wizardry White Box

I don't think it is hubris to say I know my witches.

My first knowledge of Thomas Denmark was when I picked up a copy of the absolutely fantastic d20 book "Way of the Witch" by Citizen Games.  His work is featured throughout the book and on the cover. For me, it really helped define the feel of that book and the classes involved.


Since then I have worked with nearly all the authors of that book and Christina Stiles and Megan Robertson joined me on the Strange Brew d20/Pathfinder project which we all felt was the spiritual successor to Way of the Witch.   Sadly Citizen Games was a casualty of the d20 bust.
The text lives on in Strange Brew and the art lives on with Thomas Denmark.

So it was not a big surprise, but a pleasant one all the same, when I saw the art for Isaina Lyd’ar in Beasties II.    In fact, I have seen it before.


I was very, very pleased that Thomas could use his art again in his own products.  It is too good to let lie forgotten in an out of print book.

It is only fitting then that his "magic-user" should really be a witch in the proper sense.  She is 100% Open OGC in Beasties and my The Witch for Swords & Wizardry White Box is as well, so it is a perfect match in my mind.

Isaina Lyd’ar
Human Female
4th level Witch, White Witch Tradition
(or perhaps Sinderan Tradition)

Strength: 11
Dexterity: 13 (+1)
Constitution: 12
Intelligence: 14
Wisdom: 14
Charisma: 18 (+3)

HP: 12
Alignment: Neutral Good
AC: 7 [12] (Leather Armor)
Saves Base: 12
THAC0: 18 [THAC20: 19]

Equipment: girdle of stealth, this confers near invisibility for 3d6 turns. It takes half a day to recharge.

Occult Powers
Familiar: Visions* (instead of a familiar Isaina gets dreams that instruct her on what spells she needs.)
Herbal Healing

Spells 
Cantrips (6): Arcane Mark, Dancing Lights, Knot, Lift, Mend, Object Reading,
First (2): Locate Animal or Plant, Protection from Evil
Second (2): Extra-Sensory Perception, Sleep

Description From Beasties 2:
Isaina has always been an outsider. She would rather talk to animals than humans. When she does make friends she is incredibly loyal and close. She always thinks about how her actions can lead to the greater good, and she believes it is each individuals responsibility to bring more happiness into the world and reduce suffering.

She often has visions and haunting dreams of a coming disaster. She is driven to prevent these from really happening.

She is a bit too enamored with ale, wine, and intoxicants and is occasionally willing to try out new experiences.
Section 15:
The White Witch for Swords & Wizardry White Box. Copyright © 2018, Timothy S. Brannan, Other Side Publishing
Beasties 2, Copyright 2019, Night Owl Workshop

Now that is a cool character.  Can't wait to use her in a game.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Monstrous Monday: Beasties II from Night Owl Workshop

Now I have gone on the record, many, many times, talking about how much I love monster books. My first glimpse into D&D was way back in 1978-79 when I first saw and read the Monster Manual.  Very few books have come close to that feeling of unlimited potential.  So when a new monster book comes out, I have to take a look and usually grab it.

Beasties II from Night Owl Workshop has something of a pedigree in my mind.  The art and text are from none other than Thomas Denmark.  He is responsible for some of my favorite art during the d20 boom, in particular, Citizen Games' "Way of the Witch".   Plus I LOVED Beasties I so grabbing this was a no brainer for me.

Beasties II is a digest-sized book. 90 pages with black & white art. According to the sales text on DriveThru the book contains:
27 Monsters
8 NPC's
40 Drawings
1 Map
Article on Goblinology

The book follows the same format as Beasties I. Like the first Beasties it certainly punches above its weight class in terms of monsters and content.  All the text and art is by Denmark himself. 

The book is designed for "Original Fantasy Rules" but plenty of conversion notes are given for OSRIC and Basic Fantasy.  There are also some conversion notes for Nite Owl Workshop's other games Colonial Troopers, GuardiansWarriors of the Red PlanetRaiders of the Lost Artifacts and Freebooters.

The definition of "monster" is certainly very old-school too, with some traps, "minor monsters", and NPCs included for good measure. 

But the REAL reason to get this book is goblins.  There are several goblin hybrids; Blorc, Bugbearzerker, Gnomblin, Hoblin, Hoblin (Cruel), Koblin, Zoblin and a whole article on Goblinology or the Ecology of the Goblin.  Frankly, the book is worth it for all of this alone. 
Seriously. If you like goblins then grab this now.

There are also some undead and some really fun fiends.  The Drumph gets a full publication so that is now.  A new aquatic humanoid race is introduced, the Shahatha.  I rather like them to be honest and will be porting them over to my 5e game.

The NPCs are also a lot of fun.  One, Isaina Lyd’ar, reminds me of the work he did for Way of the Witch.  So much so I might convert to a White Box Witch.   She looks like she would be fun to play. Maybe she is a Sinderan Witch tradition.



So a lot of great content for $4.  Plus the entire work is released as "Open" under the OGL so that is a nice touch.

Bookmarks in the PDF would have been nice as well as a PDF clickable table of contents, but that is a minor thing really.

If you love monsters get this book.
If you love goblins you REALLY need to get this book.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Review: Shadowtide: A Blue Rose Novel

Shadowtide: A Blue Rose Novel

The trouble with most "gamer fiction" is you can practically hear the dice being rolled in the background.  Sometimes, and it doesn't matter how compelling the story, you can't bu help see or hear game terms being thrown about.
Thankfully that is NOT the issue here with Shadowtide: A Blue Rose Novel by Joseph D. Carriker, Jr.

Carriker gives us a story we can get into and characters we can care about, that is the job of all good storytellers; whether that medium is a novel, a play or a role-playing game.  In this case, we get a good novel that preserves what we like or want from the RPG but still satisfies as a novel.

The story opens with the disappearance (likely murder) of two envoys from the Sovereign's Finest.  The Sovereign is Queen Jaelin of Aldis and her envoys are tasked with helping out where they can and mostly fighting the forces of evil. The two envoys are tracking down a reported case of Shadow Sorcerery in the Veran Marsh east of Aldis.  Shadow is more than just black magic, it is a taint of the unworldly, of the unnatural.  Contrasts are turned up in Aldis, the evil are very evil and the good...well the good try to be very good, but as this book reminds us even the Envoys of the Queen, the very symbols of good, have to make hard choices.

The story begins with a trio of envoys.  I would say "unlikely" but in truth the envoys are a varied lot. We have Soot who is a Rhy-Crow, or an intelligent crow with the abilities of an Adept. Morjin Brightstar, a lovable rogue and rake who works best alone, but is constantly falling love with whomever he meets.  A note. Morjin is a character who in a lesser hand would have been VERY annoying.  But Carriker invests a lot of attention and dare I say love into Morjin that you feel for the guy.  He is a former Roamer, a nomadic culture similar to the Romany of our world, but he has been exiled from his clan.  So it becomes easy to see how his happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care nature hides a profound sadness of what would be a good heart.  Finally the last of our trio is Ydah (pronounced EE0dah). She is a Night person, or what might pass for a half-orc in other books. She is the fighter to Morjin's lover.  She is also recovering from recent grief and hides her sadness behind a gruff exterior and a desire to beat the living crap out of people. Which she excels at. 

The trio finds themselves in a hidden smuggler's town called Serpent's Haven.  Where basically everyone is a criminal or descended from a criminal of some sort.  Their mission here is to discover what happened to other envoys and figure out what the nature of the Shadow they were looking for.

I don't want to spoil the plot, but suffice to say it involves cults, crazed cultists, a Dark Fiend and the ever-present danger of Shadow to all that are around it, friend and foe alike.

Naturally, comparisons will be made to the Valdemar books by Mercedes Lackey, of which Blue Rose is inspired by, but those comparisons are mainly superficial here.  Sure one can tell a "Valdemar" story with Blue Rose.  One could also tell this story with Blue Rose.  The differences to me lie at the heart of what Shadowtide and Blue Rose are really about.  The characters of both the novel and game try to do Good with a capital G.  But often the only choices they have are goods with a little g.  They can't fix every problem.  The difference I think then between a Blue Rose character and say a D&D character is that it is the good they can't do is what bothers the Blue Rose characters, and this makes them want to do and be better next time.

That is certainly true for our trio of heroes here.  Morjin feels bad about how treats certain people when he knows he has worked towards the greater good.  Ydah feels bad about having to kill (and kill she does) cultists, but she needs to stop an even greater evil. Soot, well Soot has some problems all his own and shows us how dangerous the cult they are dealing with is.

In the end, the characters care about their actions. They care about how others see them as envoys and they care about how others are treated.  They know there is injustice in the world, even Ydah mentions the stares she still gets in "enlightened Aldis", but they are working to make things a little bit better.  Because they care they are not the "murder hobos" of other games or stories and we care more for them as well.

The book ends, but room for a sequel is left open. I certainly hope so. The characters are entertaining and the mystery they are delving into is a fascinating one.  Kudos to Carriker for giving us characters whose motivations I believe and whose stories are compelling enough to make me want more.

You can get this book in a lot of places.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Monstrous Monday: Snakes. Why did it have to be Snakes?

A little something different today for MM.  I want to talk about snake people.


Snake people, serpent folk, Ophidians, Yuan-ti whatever you want to call them they have been a staple of fiction and D&D since ... well likely forever.

They were common enough in the pages in the Conan that even as a casual reader of the pulps I had heard about them.  They have had a prominent focus in AD&D with the Yuan-ti; so much so that there are one of the very, very few monsters that are IP and Closed to the OGL.
So yeah, they come with some history.

I think it is also that snakes seem so loathsome to humans.  There is just something "evil" about them in our collective subconscious.   That makes them a great old-school threat.

Review: Serpentine - Oldskull Serpent Folk

Serpentine - Oldskull Serpent Folk from Oldskull, aka Kent David Kelly is a nice RPG for adding and using Serpent Folk, known as Serpentine here, in any old-school like game. The book is 41 pages with cover and OGL statement. Everything is 100% open minus the usual trade dress and some names.  The book is full color, but mostly public domain black and white art.
The purpose of this book is to bring together various mythos and stories together to present a cohesive whole narrative of a primordial race of serpent people.  In this respect, it works rather well.
History and Pre-History of the Serpent Folk. Drawing on the works of Dunsany, Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith Kelley weaves a history (or Hisssstory!) that combines the Hyborian Mythos and the Cthulhu Mythos, with other myths of the world added for good measure.  While overtly for the Oldskull world it can be added and modified as any game master needs.  One of the reasons it works so well here is that Kelley draws on some primordial myths and legends.  The same that influenced the authors of the stories being used.   Quotes from those authors are found throughout this book.
Up next we get a Serpent Folk Truename Generator.  A useful tool to help you name all those NPCs (or even PCs) you plan on using.  This is followed by Description or what your serpent folk looks like.  A section on Ability Minimums, Maximums and Modifiers is next. After that are sections on Behavior, XP modifiers, and views on Alignment.
There is a list of serpent folk deities from other myths.  It is a good list, but I have a few issues with some of the gods on it; for example Brigid. But the vast majority I see why they are there.  Mostly Serpent Folk are going to worship Yig and/or Tsathogga, though Set is a close runner up.
We get into a section now on Class Options for Serpent Folk. Most are going to fall into the various fighter classes and thief-related classes.  Also presented here is the new Soul Slaver class, which combines Cleric, Shaman, and Necromancer all in one serpent-related class.  It's a good class and it adds a lot of flavor to the Serpent Folk.  I might tweak it to be less Necromancer and more Shaman myself, but that is only personal bias, not a shortcoming of the class.  Basically, the class draws on the souls of the deceased to perform magical feats. There are spell lists, mostly from the classical B/X and Advanced sources.    They advance as Magic-Users, but have their own spell progression and, in a nice old-school touch, level titles.
There is also a section on Racial Powers serpent folk get and what kinds of snakes they are likely to summon.  This also included specail attacks and special limitations.
There is a nice section on how Serpent folk get along with Dragons (spoiler, they don't) that really sealed the deal for me.  I have been using various serpent-like races (Yuan-ti, Naga) as the ancient ancestral enemies of the Dragonfolk (Dragonborn) for years.
We end with a recomended reading list.
So for just $3 and a little over 40 pages this book packs a lot in.  There are so many cool ideas it is hard to figure out where I want to start with it.  I think that since Kelley tapped into some primal myths here that all gamers have an idea of these creatures, he just put it down in writing for us.

PWWO: Serpentine in Other Old-School Games

Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea has been my obsession over the last few weeks. Given the background of both AS&SH and Serpentine, it should really be no surprise then that I see the two of them working quite well together.  With the addition of Serpentine you can really "punch up" the stats for Sanke People in AS&SH. Already an interesting monster, now with this addition Snake People go from "just another monster" in the Bestiary section to potential Big Bad material.  Growing cult activity? Serpent People. More dinosaur sightings? Serpent People.  Increased slave trade? Yup. Serpent People.   Plus AS&SH and Oldskull Serpentine draw from exactly the same sources. They just rearrange things in a different order.  Both books feature Yig and owners of one book should find it to be of positive use when used with the other book.

Serpentine features the often used Clark Ashton Smith god, Tsathoggua.  Here he is considered to be a god of the Serpent People. AS&SH has the god Xathoqqua, which is the same god.  There are some differences in how they are portrayed in each book, but gods are supposed to be mutable.  Of course, the best source for Tsathogga (yet another spelling) is from the Frog Gods themselves in their Tome of Horror Complete.  Here he is presented as a demon, but that is perfect for me really. The same book (and the Tome of Horrors 4) have the Inphidians, which are their versions of the Yuan-ti, save Open for the OGL. Speaking of the Frog Gods, in their Monstrosities book feature Ophidians, a name I have also used in the past, as snake men.

The OSR games Blueholme and Adventurer Conqueror King System both have rules within their systems to allow Serpentine player characters. All you need really is the Serpentine book.


Union of the Snake: The Second Campaign

The heroes of the Second Campaign, my D&D 5e nod to old-school gaming, have already had their first encounter with the Yuan-ti.  They have encountered other snake-like creatures and reptiles worshiping snake gods, but everything is about to go into overdrive when they hit their desert-related adventures.

While the campaign is 5e based there is a lot of old-school influences in it.  I plan to take a bunch of the material above, put it in a blender then bury it in a desert for 3,000 years and see what comes up.
For me a lot of it is leading up to the ultimate confrontation with Demogorgon.
Borrowing from Advanced Labyrinth Lord I am using Demogorgon as the cult leader behind the snakes and snake men.  This fits in with my use of the blood apes as one of the three factions the worship Demogorgon; with human cultists and Ophidians/Snake Men/Serpent Folk being the other two.  The campaign will take a solid desert/Egyptian turn here soon.  I just need to figure out the Set-Apep-Yig-Demogorgon connection.

Of course, there will be creepy ass snake-men and cultists. All part of the alchemy of my past. Yes. My influeces for this are an forgotten Dirk Benedict horror movie and Duran Duran.  My game, my weird ass childhood.
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