Oh DriveThruRPG, what has become of you? Are you no better than any given app store? Than Steam?
I use DriveThruRPG for a lot of my RPG purchases because who has physical space anymore? Most Kickstarter RPGs I fund redeem their PDFs through DriveThru, as do the Bundle of Holding deals which I love so much. There’s a lot of good out there. Then things come along like the GM’s Day Sale and remind you exactly what most of the content actually is.
Skimming through the first 20 pages, sorted by quality, I barely reached the letter ‘C’ and yet I found maybe a dozen RPGs, most of which I already owned. If you add supplements for other games (mainly Pathfinder, D&D 3.5 and OSR systems) then it covered a good amount more. The majority seem to fall into the camps of: lists of 100 random things, clipart, maps, descriptions of things you can use and 3d poser images with nudity warnings. There are filtered only for the five star items. A lot have one or two five star ratings, but it’s been difficult to actually find anything good with this. Is it people gaming the system? Is it weirdly admirable that people on an RPG sale site are ‘gaming the system’? I have no idea, but it’s intrigued me.
The thing is, some of these can be interesting and/or useful. I’ve had a few of these appear in charity bundles DriveThruRPG do, alongside about 2-3 really good RPGs, a half dozen smaller ones, a bunch of Pathfinder/Savage Worlds adventures and such. There are things I’ve cannibalised from lists and adventures. Maps I’ve bastardised in the terrible scribbles I draw for my group. The clipart and the potentially nudey ‘character portraits’ I have had no real use for. The same with cut-outs for buildings.
I’ve decided, possibly after going mad skimming the top end of these 33,537 items, I’ll play a little Russian Roulette with my wallet and my eyes. I’m going to set myself some limits in doing this, because there was an image file of a blue-haired girl REDUCED down to £7.85. I’ll spend no more than £3 per item. If I already have the product then I’ll skip over it. There are generally 50 products per page and 105 pages of five star items, so I’ll use those. I’m using Rolz.org to make these custom dice.
As a quick note, I did see Cryptomancer and Dead of Night in the ‘almost five star’ level as I overshot when I was looking for the last of the five-star pages. Maybe that’s where it’s at for quality products as both are great RPGs. Anyway, I’ve delayed enough, so let’s dive in!
Book of All Flesh
Who is it by? Eden Studios and a whole group of authors
How much is it? £2.80
How big is it? 320 pages
What is it? From a time before The Walking Dead and even the Dawn of the Dead remake, before zombie fatigue set in, this is a short story anthology for All Flesh Must Be Eaten. I think this was one of maybe two of the books in this series I didn’t get. These are pretty rough, with a lot of elements people have got out of their system since 2001 or learnt to be better with. Aspects would be a B plot in Walking Dead, some literally have. There are some good names like Robin Laws here and I like Eden Studios as a company, so it’s odd seeing something so dated and with a few editing flaws in it. Necrophilia, rape gangs, zombie kids, a zombie as a circus attraction, it’s all kind of done already.
Would I recommend it? No. It just made me sad. All Flesh was an okay idea but the system didn’t really do anything with zombie horror. This collection is pretty much the same but with fiction. Any other RPG fiction anthology I’ve read such as the Star*Drive one, Orpheus or any of the modern World of Darkness ones would be better.
Intrepid Expeditions: The Island of Life
Who is it by? Necromancers of the Northwest
How much is it? £2.80
How big is it? 66 pages split between a main book (51 pages) and a player book (15 pages)
What is it? This book looks at a strange tropical island with healing properties. I like a good tropical island setting and this one looks kind of interesting. There are a lot of strange effects for any kind of healing magic, also a lot of animals. It seems to be, “What if Lost had sentient horses?” (apart from the one black horse who may have just been a spiritual representative of Kate’s father… don’t test my Lost knowledge). There’s also a village filled with animals and a weird wizard in a tower. There are a few low level threats in the back which like almost all the pictures in the rest of the book are illustrated by Can Stock Photo Inc. Maybe I’m spoilt by Dungeon World’s “starters” but I would like a list of hooks or potential methods of using it, at least more than the half dozen paragraphs at the start of the book. The player book redeems it a little with rumours, although the GM would need to seek out bits of corresponding information scattered through their book. There’s a prestige class for people who came back to life on the island.
Would I recommend it? Yes-ish. It’s an interesting setting for a one-off. I may use some of it for Dungeon World. There’s no map or anything beyond stock images which is a shame visually. I like the idea though and with some work it’s fine for the price.
Roll: Page 84, Item 24 – This was “Stock Art – Sacred Forest” at £3.90, so its nearest in-budget neighbour was…
Stock Art Characters 1
Who is it by? Space Pirate Games
How much is it? £2.80, Jesus the things I do for a joke
How big is it? A one-page PDF, a PNG, PSD, JPG and TIF
What is it? Basically it’s an image of a fantasy sorceress. The file even says’ sorceress.zip when you download it. This is one image of a human woman with bulky-legged trousers which run pretty low at the front and a crop top making a kind of diamond shape of flesh. She’s got her hands up in the air with what I thought at first was a basketball or possibly a magic spell of some kind. There’s a kind of tearing around her edges in most of these files which makes it look like a photoshop autoselect tool grabbed it and left parts of her arm behind. I always thought these clipart things would be multiple images, or high-definition images. The PSD file is less bad at this, but still pretty rough.
Would I recommend it? No. I have rarely wasted £2.80 in this bad a manner.
Mind’s Eye Theatre Journal #8
Who is it by? White Wolf, huh. I loved these guys when I was growing up. I never saw any of their LARP things, though.
How much is it? £2.68
How big is it? 82
What is it? This is the last journal in the series, as White Wolf finally pulled the trigger on the numerous apocalypses which had been long-foretold in each of their games. It opens with people’s emailed lamentations about the series going away and celebrations of what it meant to them. This feels a lot more community-led than anything in the tabletop line which stuck very on brand with its references. There’s talk of munchkins, references to Narnia, Monty Python quotes and luckily a few of the gothier, more ‘arty’ elements more familiar in WoD. There’s an article about quitting groups which has some very hit and miss advice. There’s an article on dealing with massive LARPS, something I dread the idea of. There’s a bit about the feeling of certain WoD-related things to remind people how to play the experiences in the game. I’m pretty sure there are similar-ish things in normal WoD books, too. There’s some fiction which I was always a sucker for in WoD, advice on playing antagonists, a list of LARP events in the US and contact details for LARPs being run elsewhere in the world. Finally there are some observations about the hobby including a few bits which back up my not overly positive attitude towards WoD LARPs and typical gaming group issues.
Would I recommend it? This is very ‘inside baseball’ not only for the old WoD but also for the LARP scene. Maybe if you were studying it or missing those days then it would work for you.
One Sheet – Song of the Siren (Fate Core)
Who is it by? Atomic Overmind Press
How much is it? 71p
How big is it? 2 pages
What is it? This is actually for a Fate Core campaign setting called The Day After Ragnarok. It can be used anywhere and may have to be cannibalised by me or any kind of modern monster hunting game. Something’s been sinking ships and it turns out to be bloodthirsty manatees with mind control powers. Let me say that again, these manatees have mind control powers. They are the titular sirens. This being Fate, the description of the manatees also capitalises any plot relevant points as Aspects which can be tagged once they’re discovered. There are a couple of scenes and location changes, including a villain who undergoes a horrendous transformation part way through the story.
Would I recommend it? Yeah. It’s less than a pound and would make for a fun one-shot. It might be useful as an outlandish Monster of the Week or Supernatural RPG session, maybe even something X-Filesy. It could go into the realm of a more bonkers spy game like Agency or Spycraft if you run it the way I do.
Gravestones volume 1
Who is it by? Trooper X
How much is it? 14p
How big is it? 18 pages
What is it? This is a ‘zine’ for the Trick or Treat Role-Playing game which is a game I’ve never heard of. I thought that would be fine as I can take horror elements and use them in World of Darkness or Dead of Night. Then I saw the blood spatter over most of the pages. The darkness of the red makes the text the other side of it pretty much unreadable. There’s an iffy bit of fiction about a Navy expedition, ending in a monster’s appearance and a link to the rest of the story on Amazon. There’s a shrunken head which can be used as an artifact in games. Then there’s a plot hook about a Halloween party gone awry when neighbourhood kids stash something from the local graveyard nearby. There are stats for the monster and a night watchmen which has the kind of poor art skills I would add to a project like this.
Would I recommend it? No. I’m hoping this is early work for the creator, they can probably do better over time.
CRUSH the REBELLION
Who is it by? DDE Adventures
How much is it? 55p
How big is it? 42 pages
What is it? It’s a PbtA game! It’s a PbtA game! What luck, I love those! Also it’s GMless, which is interesting. Everyone works for a cruel and horrible Emperor (e.g. Palpatine for the God-Emperor from 40k). You’re all given a task to do by a mission leader, but also have other agendas encouraging your actions. There are cards to deal out roles, specialities and secret agendas, so there’s no duplication. There’s even an action to Face the Emperor, when you have to deal with his disappointment.
Would I recommend it? Yeah, especially for 55p. It feels like if you ever wanted a more complex Dark Heresy game with more political higher ups, or a great Star Wars Empire game.
Roll: Page 30, Item 8 – This was a DRAGONLOCK interlocking terrain thing which was thankfully too pricy. Rerolled into…
Dungeon & Castle Map Sample Collection
Who is it by? Stainless Steel Dragon
How much is it? 54p
How big is it? 20 pages
What is it? This is a sampler of six maps from several map products which states in the first sentence that it’s ‘free’. The normal price is 76p. They’re gridless and made in the late 80’s which shows. The maps are all pixellated with several clipart-looking icons. There’s no context for numbered entries on the maps as that’s in the main product. Map one is a network of caves either top down or from the side, this looks like the digestive organs of a monster but could see use. There’s Lake Town which is a much more formally-laid out Keep on the Borderlands-looking place which somehow has its own dragon. The Pirate’s Lair in a small cove actually looks really nice (in its own pixelly-way) and might fit 7th Sea. Fire Mountain Stronghold looks a bit too busy, but could work in a D&D or Dungeon World game. It has a ‘doomed volcano’, tons of barracks, markets and siege equipment. The Maze of Madness is terrible, looking like a map from one of those old text-based D&D video games. Finally the Tomb of the Ten Kings (also Kinds elsewhere) has statues each with a few rooms also filled with statues in. I assume it’s filled with traps and while the idea’s good, the layout isn’t. Oh, the cover to all of this is a photo of a blonde woman dressed basically as Red Sonja, I assume she’s in one of the keyed entries I don’t have reference for, otherwise they totally wouldn’t have put her on the cover. The back of the PDF has an advert for more ‘poster-sized JPGs’ of women dressed in fantasy, sci-fi or superhero attire.
Would I recommend it? If you need maps like these you can probably Google and get similar results. They’re okay but not maps I would lay on the table, or a cover I would show anyone.
Roll: Page 59, Item 21
Medieval Village (with music) – from the RPG & TableTop Audio Experts
Who is it by? Ambient Environment
How much is it? 83p
How big is it? Ten minutes
What is it? This is an audio track to play in the background of a fantasy game, maybe during a calm bit of time. It sounds like a slightly more active version of the incidental music in the Baldur’s Gate video game series. I like to have background music in my RPGs, if it fits the mood of the game. This would work well there. The music is a little loud, but you can get it without that, too. The music is okay and thankfully not Greensleeves, but it feels like it might draw focus when you want this in the background.
Would I recommend it? If you have need for audio tracks in a fantasy village and can’t find an equivalent track on YouTube.
Knights of the Dinner Table #5
Who is it by? Kenzer & Company
How much is it? £2.24
How big is it? 36 pages
What is it? Knights of the Dinner Table is a comic I’m 90% sure is still going to this day. I bought it from issue 33 onwards for several years. As my group were mainly doing more traditional games like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the West End Games Star Wars and Deadlands, this was very fitting for us. We even did the parody of AD&D they released called Hackmaster. The comedy in this tends to be the role-playing group with their varied tics; the perpectually-defeated BA Felton, the murderous Bob & Dave, the rules lawyer Brian and the GM’s cousin Sara who kept trying to get the game back on track. I played with all of these people back in the day. The comic became a magazine and was as expensive as the collected editions, so I dropped it with the intent of only getting the collections. Then my gaming group and the culture moved on, so I left it behind.
Issue five shows the group going to play ‘Spacehack’, with some GM ignorance about hydrogen and Brian’s rules-lawyering making a stupidly-powerful character. Then they play Risk with a couple of modifiers which would later be kind of replicated in Risk 2210. It escalates and ends the way most Risk games do. There are some Hackmaster-themed strips about cursed dice-rolls, overpowered starting characters and working out which of your hands to cut off in order to fit an artifact on the stump. Filling in the rest of the space are a list of ways to be annoying at the game table, some reviews and inexplicably a list of the blackboard entries from the opening credits of several Simpsons episodes.
Would I recommend it? This is an okay issue, I’d probably recommend the first volume and then later ones than this, when the comic was in its’ stride but without the level of continuity which bogged the stories down later on. As a curio of a past time, it’s okay. I kind of wish there were some ‘best of’ collections or large anthologies of the old strips rather than the smaller three-issue ones.
And finally one one-star reviewed-item, randomly picked from the three pages of one-star items, just to see the difference in quality. At least half of the items out of the 33,537 ones here have 0 stars, but some could be good products that never got reviewed. These are products where people specifically rated them with one star.
Who is it by? Lee’s Lists
How much is it? 56p
How big is it? 3 pages
What is it? I am so pleased I got one of the Lee’s Lists games. Each one had the same pitch but with a couple of keywords changed. “Got 99 problems? Make sure that coming up with a Riddle for tonight’s game isn’t one! 100 Baffling Riddles is a finely crafted list of mostly historically accurate and verisimilitudinous riddles collected by our semi-professional button clickers. Perfect for snap decisions when you need to give your players a riddle, possibly from a crazy person!” Every single pitch for their tons of projects had this spiel but with the subject of the list and the semi-professional part changed. The best of these is “6000 Starship Malfunctions is a finely crafted list of mostly historically accurate and verisimilitudinous captain’s logs collected by our semi-professional starfleet ensigns.” The idea of historically accurate starship malfunctions had me cracking up for way longer than it should have.
These three pages are incomprehensible. It’s kind of amazing. I looked at a couple at random and thought, “These really are baffling.” Then I realised the answers made literally no sense. Unlike the other Lee’s List entries which give you examples of three entries in the product synopsis, this gives you nothing and with good reason. The product, looking back at it, says, “Warning: These riddles make no sense”. It’s true. Maybe they were randomly generated, maybe they have use in some role-playing game but I would feel like a complete heel if I gave the riddle:
“What kind of pet but never walks?”
And expected “A candle!” as the answer.
Would I recommend it? No, never. This is pure madness and not even the fun kind.
I buy physical and digital RPG books. Sometimes both for the same game, because I’m a crazy person. That’s generally for known hits in my group like 7th Sea and Blades in the Dark, or prospective hits like Masks. I’m not saying give up on digital downloads. Maybe be selective or get your information about games from elsewhere before going in. Thanks to Kickstarter, Bundle of Holding and podcasts like The Gauntlet I’ve lived in a walled garden of RPG quality. There are a couple of resources which may see use here, but a lot which is going in the recycle bin. I guess whenever you’ve got thirty three thousand RPG products, this kind of thing is going to happen. As I said at the start, this is very much the App Store and Steam in terms of quality control. It’s possible to lose some quality like CRUSH the REBELLION and Song of the Siren in amongst all of the clipart and list files. Maybe more reviews of good and bad products may help. I admit I’ve started my part in this by rating the above products accordingly. The GM’s Day Sale continues to 13th March. God help us all.