Sunday, January 6, 2013

Review: Lake Town Book and Loremaster's Screen

I got this product for Christmas and I think I've had enough time to digest everything by now.  You can purchase it here.

Loremaster's Screen
This is the first GM screen that I've ever purchased.  I've seen other screens (the 3rd and 4th edition D&D screens), and from what I can remember they were not as high-quality as this one.  The material is heavy and sturdy, and it folds up really well.  The player side of the screen is a big panorama of Lake-Town with Smaug's ribs sticking out of the water in the background.  Superb artwork, as we've grown to expect from The One Ring.  Unfortunately, I'll most likely use the screen by laying it down, tables-side-up.  We usually play on a carpeted floor and so this will make a great surface to roll dice on.  Besides that, I usually don't feel the need to conceal rolls from my players. 

The tables themselves are a mixed bag; some are so obvious that IMO they didn't merit inclusion (ex. the TN Difficulty Table), but most will be very much appreciated in my group.  The one I like the most is a table of the Adversary Special Abilities.  Knowing I would need these referenced, I'd been using a sheet of notebook paper where I'd hand-copied everything.  Given the legibility of my handwriting, it wasn't a perfect solution.  Glad I can toss that in the recycling now.  I've also had to look up the rest and recovery rules several times in-game, but those are conveniently on the screen now.  The situational tables such as falling and fire damage are great because they don't come up often enough to have memorized, and now they won't need to be looked up.  There are also tables which I don't even remember being in the book, like cursed treasures and general examples of bouts of madness.  A general table on evaluating the outcome of encounters is provided, and it uses the structure found in Tales from Wilderland.

Further page numbers are provided for other important topics that obviously wouldn't fit on a screen (skills, virtues, etc.).  Off the top of my head, about the only thing absent that I would have liked included would be tables on how to spend Experience and Advancement Points.  I suppose those things only need looking up when there's already a break from the narrative anyways, and players are often looking up new virtues or rewards at the same time.  Can't include everything, though, and I think the screen hits the really important tables.  There's 24 tables in all (not including additional page reference tables), so they've clearly squeezed a lot of information onto this screen!

Lake-Town Sourcebook
At 33 pages the book is slim, but it's packed pretty densely with content.  Despite being a stapled softcover, the production value is every bit as high as the core books.  The pages are thick, high-quality glossy paper.  Stats are given for all kinds of generic LM Characters such as town guards, dwarf smiths, raft elves, etc.  These are accompanied by descriptions, and provides a good overview of the types of people you're likely to encounter in Lake-Town.  There's a lot of variety here!

The center pages are a full 2-page map of Lake-Town.  It's an overhead view painting with numbers marking various features, and an inset in the corner provides a more schematic map that shows how the city is divided into its 7 quarters.  There's enough detail that players can get a good sense of what the place looks like, while still showing the whole city and how everything is spatially laid out.

There are several new Fellowship Phase undertakings, and they're more cleverly designed than the somewhat bland options from the core book.  You can go to the Market Pool to pick up high-quality items that give you bonuses to certain skills, you can collect marsh herbs which will benefit you in various ways during the next Adventuring Phase, and you can receive a title of Burgess which gets you a house in the city, and causes your Standing to apply to Esgaroth as well as your home town.  Very neat stuff!

The festival of Dragontide is detailed, as well as its archery contests.  These work much the same as the games from the Crossings of Celduin adventure.  Side bars clarifying the Blighted Places rules, and an optional rule for converting treasure points to coins, are also neat additions.  Finally, new monsters from the Long Marshes are also provided (3 of them, to be precise).

The book also details the new Men of the Lake culture, of course, and personally it's one of my favorites (2nd only to the Woodmen for me).  The cultural blessing lets you earn experience when bad things happen to you (costs Hope), and a new Specialty (Minstrelsy) is present on their list.  Their cultural skills are very well-rounded, with many skills at rank 2, only two skills at rank 1, and no skills at rank 3.  The Lake Men are cosmopolitan, almost jack-of-all-trades, and this leaves a lot of room for customization.  The backgrounds have Heart as their best attribute on average, with Wits as their lowest (but they can get a lot out of using shields, so it should even out).  Endurance and Hope uses the Barding values, and they also use the list of Barding names.

The cultural virtues and rewards are very well-crafted and evocative.  Virtues can improve your skill with a bow (not surprising), gain you a servant, allow you to make a good impression during encounters (increase tolerance), make you better with a shield, and demonstrate your balance thanks to a life on the water.  Personally, my favorites are Shield-Fighting and Water Legs.  The first provides some serious offensive punch (presumably you're shield-bashing), while the latter lets you play around with bonus success dice in interesting ways (such as those from a Battle roll), and will even give you a free one in certain situations.  The rewards are pretty awesome as well, and normally the cultural rewards don't really do much for me.  The armor seems a bit risky (bonus to protection rolls against certain weapons, but penalty against others), but the Keening Bog-stone oozes with flavor and minor magic, and the Serpent Scimitar basically lets you bypass enemy shields.

The book ends with a new pre-gen, Frida, Daughter of Finnulf. 

To be quite frank, the price tag is a little steep, at least coming from the perspective of someone who doesn't normally use GM screens.  That's actually why I waited to see if I got it for Christmas instead of going with the pre-order (ok, so the lack of PDFs is also a strike against the pre-orders now).  That said, what content that's present is genuinely good stuff.  Most groups will spend a lot of time in Lake-Town.  There's probably more dollar-worthy, useable stuff here than in an "X Power" D&D book 5 times its length.  Which is a good way of looking at it.  I'll only ever use 15% of the content of many of the D&D splatbooks I've bought, but I'll use almost 100% of the stuff from the Lake-Town book at some point or another.  And now that I have the LM Screen, even if I lay it flat and don't use it as a proper screen, my games will run more smoothly.

I'd call it a near-must for anyone who finds themselves in the Loremaster's seat, but if you're just a player it's probably only worth it if you're really interested in the Lake Men culture (but it would make a great gift for your LM).  Yes, The One Ring has been beset with delays and legal issues, but if they keep pumping out consistently high-quality products like this one and Tales from Wilderland (coming from someone who doesn't normally purchase published adventures either, lol), then I'll remain a loyal customer.  This stuff is worth the wait.

1 comment:

  1. While I substantially agree with the review, there's one point where I think that the material feel weird (not wrong, mind you) and that's the Rewards for the Lake Men. While the Stone works and the Armor i pretty good, I think that the Scimitar is very out of place. While Lake Town is a merchantile crossroad, having an object from the other side of the Middle Earth feel weird to me. Aside from this I think that not having a special bow for the Lake Men is a bit sad.