Sep 26, 2016

Rogue Trader: What to buy?

I'm now into my third year of running a Rogue Trader campaign, and since I did a similar post for the Lord of the Rings card game, I realized I haven't posted anything about the various supplements Fantasy Flight Games sells - for the moment - for it. Here's my thoughts on what to buy and what to skip.

Definitely recommended:

Stars of Inequity

Unless you're running a really weird campaign where your players never visit an unexplored star system, I'd say this is the best single expansion in the whole game. The book is divided into four sections. The first gives you tools for randomly generating entire star systems from scratch, and it's actually quite good. It produces way too many habitable planets for my taste, and can be somewhat labor-intensive, but it's absolutely perfect for when you have no idea where to start. The second part is called Planetside Adventures, and is absolutely excellent. I don't think I've ever used the encounter tables straight up, but rather I've been inspired by them and lifted several mechanics from them and used them succesfully. There's also a treasure generator which lets you quickly create some very neat loot for your players. The third section details colony operations, and needed quite a bit of errata to fix, but still provides players with a way of generating profit factor in a way that's much more tangible than the infuriatingly vague "endeavours", and is a perfect hook for new adventures. Finally, the section with Koronus expanse fluff is mercifully short.

In my opinion, the slightly bizarrely named Stars of Inequity is the best value for money in Rogue Trader. To me at least, exploring uncharted star systems, lost colonies and what have you is the very essence of Rogue Trader, and the colony rules give you a living, breathing profit-generating empire to look after. If you only get one expansion, I would make it this one.

Buy this because: The various tables and generators will make your life so much easier.

Battlefleet Koronus

Sticking with value for money, Battlefleet Koronus is probably the second-best expansion you can get. For what it's worth, I like the space combat rules in Rogue Trader, as long as they're used like tabletop rules, not like a boardgame. Battlefleet Koronus expands those rules with torpedoes and attack craft, both of which I think are good additions. My players have been torpedoed a couple of times, and they haven't liked it! There are also lots of new ship hulls and components, and a craftsmanship system for the latter. There are also stats and rules for Ork, Eldar and Chaos ships, which give your players more interesting enemies to encounter, and are a good reference point for creating your own NPC starships. If your game involves starship combat at all, I think you'll find Battlefleet Koronus is worth buying.

Buy this because: New ship hulls and components, but especially torpedo and attack craft rules make space combat so much more interesting.

The Navis Primer

Given how important the Warp is to the Warhammer 40,000 universe, the warp travel rules in the core book are disappointingly thin. The Navis Primer gives you some more detailed guidelines for navigating the warp, and also a bunch of new navigator and astropath powers. There are also some alternate career ranks, of which Awakened Psyker is undoubtedly the most interesting. This is another supplement which I wish would have had more useful content; there's a whole load of stuff on the different navigator houses of the Koronus Expanse, which is completely uninteresting if your campaign isn't set there. Still, if your campaign has any psykers in it, you'll probably want to get this. If anyone's interested in playing a rogue psyker, then this is a must-have for the Awakened Psyker alternate career rank and the Renegade psychic powers. After all, as long as the Inquisition doesn't notice...

Buy this because: The navigation rules, and lots of stuff for astropaths, navigators and, erm, other psykers.

Cautiously recommended:

Into the Storm

Into the Storm is the tabletop equivalent of a videogame that already has "extra" content on the disk when you buy it, but you need to pay for a separate DLC to activate it. The only actually new things here are alternate career ranks, Ork and Kroot player characters and vehicle rules; everything else just expands what was already in the core book. It also doesn't help that this is the most expensive supplement. Simply put, nothing in Into the Storm is particularly essential or even all that interesting. It only adds quantity. The only area where this is worth really bothering with is character creation. There's a whole host of new background options, including a whole new lineage row for the origin path. This wrecks the elegant simplicity of the core origin path system, but many of the options do provide useful and thematic additions to character creation. Having said that, I'm still not sure the whole is worth the price.

Buy this if: You want more character creation options. The other stuff's not really worth it.

The Koronus Bestiary

The Koronus Bestiary starts with a relatively uninspired Monster Manual lite of vaguely scifiy monsters, but the meat and potatoes here are the rules for Orks and Eldar, and the xenos generators. Whether to buy this or not really comes down to what kind of campaign you intend to run. If you're hell-bent on coming up with fairly detailed rules for a whole menagerie of xenos species, then this book is what you need. Similarly, if you absolutely have to know whether Warp Spiders or Striking Scorpions have a higher Weapon Skill, that's in here too. So basically if personal combat with aliens is going to be a big part of your campaign, then you'll want this. I'm actually pretty sure I could have done without it.

Buy this if: You want to create a whole bunch of alien species, and/or you want detailed rules for Orks and Eldar.

Hostile Acquisitions

While Hostile Acquisitions seems like a very promising expansion, it's unfortunately very heavy on mediocre Koronus Expanse fluff and light on useful gaming material. There's the usual smattering of equipment, but the only content worth noting are the alternate career ranks and the Nemesis system. The latter gives you an origin path of sorts for NPC villains, and can be used to personalize the bad guys. The alternate career ranks cover a variety of character types in, shall we say, some of the grey areas of Imperial law, like Cold Trade Broker and Manhunter, or well beyond it, like Reaver, Arch-Heretek and even Secessionist. If the alternate career ranks are something your players would be interested in, they're really the only reason to dish out money for this.

Buy this if: You want some of the alternate career ranks, or are really, really, really into fairly pedestrian fluff about the Koronus underworld. In either case, you'll probably feel a little disappointed.

The Soul Reaver

Most of the Soul Reaver is devoted to an adventure in which the players try to raid a Dark Eldar city. It didn't really appeal to me, but I didn't group this with the other adventure supplements because of the rules for Dark Eldar characters. There's a whole career path for Kabalite Warriors, and since there bizarrely isn't an Eldar Corsair player class anywhere, one could be improvised based on this. There's also Dark Eldar ships, weapons and whatnot, so if that appeals to you, then this is the supplement for you.

Buy this if: You want rules for the Dark Eldar, or someone wants to play an Eldar character.

Not recommended:

Game Master's Kit

Twenty bucks for a cardboard screen and a useless little pamphlet? Not worth it.

Faith and Coin

As a theologian, I was very disappointed in Faith and Coin. It contains practically no useful rules or mechanics; just a smattering of random artifacts and a whole bunch of uninteresting fluff about the Koronus Expanse. If, for some reason, you absolutely have your heart set on running a religion-focused campaign in the Koronus Expanse, you'll still be disappointed.

I also skipped all the campaign supplements like Lure of the Expanse and so forth. This is mostly because of a personal preference against running ready-made adventures, but also because frankly, I didn't think the adventures in the Rogue Trader products I do own were very good. The Koronus Expanse never struck me as particularly interesting, and to me, half the fun of running a game in the Warhammer 40,000 universe is the freedom of creating your own setting. So since I wasn't interested in these products, I don't have an informed opinion on them.


Finally, don't forget that if (when!) your player characters' corruption point totals start climbing, consider investing in a copy of Black Crusade.

Sep 19, 2016

LotR LCG: What to buy?

We've been playing the Lord of the Rings living card game for a little over a year now, and over that time, we've managed to infect our passion for it to a couple of other people as well. This has led to the subject of what to buy coming up. There are already quite a few expansions, after all! The best single resource for figuring out what to get is still the New Player Buying Guide at Tales from the Cards, and we have no notions of supplanting it. But since we've been asked, here are our thoughts on how to get started collecting the Lord of the Rings LCG.


First of all, we want to briefly go through the various kinds of expansions. We're going to be talking about deluxe expansions, adventure packs and saga expansions, since those are the ones that contain player cards, i.e. cards for your deck. There are also standalone scenarios and Nightmare decks, which we won't get into here.

Deluxe expansions come with two heroes, a pile of player cards and three quests. They're completely independent products; you never need anything except the core game to get everything out of a deluxe expansion. Adventure packs all contain a single quest, one hero and about ten different player cards. Adventure packs come in cycles of six packs; for example, the Redhorn Gate adventure pack is part of the Dwarrowdelf cycle. Each adventure pack cycle is associated with a deluxe expansion, meaning that in order to play the quest, you need both the adventure pack and the associated deluxe expansion. The Dwarrowdelf cycle is associated with the Khazad-dûm deluxe expansion, so to play that quest, you need to own both the Redhorn Gate adventure pack and the Khazad-dûm deluxe expansion. The first six adventure packs ever released, the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle, are associated with the core set, so all you need to play those is the basic game box.

Here are the deluxe expansions and their associated adventure pack cycles:

Core set - Shadows of Mirkwood cycle
(The Hunt for Gollum, Conflict at the Carrock, A Journey to Rhosgobel, The Hills of Emyn Muil, The Dead Marshes, Return to Mirkwood)

Khazad-dûm - Dwarrowdelf cycle
(The Redhorn Gate, Road to Rivendell, The Watcher in the Water, The Long Dark, Foundations of Stone, Shadow and Flame)

Heirs of Númenor - Against the Shadow cycle
(The Steward's Fear, The Drúadan Forest, Encounter at Amon Din, Assault on Osgiliath, The Blood of Gondor, The Morgul Vale)

Voice of Isengard - Ring-maker cycle
(The Dunland Trap, The Three Trials, Trouble in Tharbad, The Nin-in-Eilph, Celebrimbor's Secret, The Antlered Crown)

The Lost Realm - Angmar Awakens cycle
(The Wastes of Eriador, Escape from Mount Gram, Across the Ettenmoors, The Treachery of Rhudaur, The Battle of Carn Dûm, The Dread Realm)

The Grey Havens - The Dream-chaser cycle
(Flight of the Storm-caller, The Thing in the Depths, Temple of the Deceived, more upcoming)

The Sands of Harad (upcoming) - Haradrim cycle (upcoming)

So at the time of this writing, there are five complete cycles, one about halfway through, and a seventh coming up. Then there are the saga expansions. Each contains a variable number of heroes, a bunch of player cards, and three quests. The first two saga expansions are Over Hill and Under Hill, and On the Doorstep: they take you through the story of the Hobbit. They're followed by the five Lord of the Rings saga expansions: The Black Riders, The Road Darkens, The Treason of Saruman, The Land of Shadow and The Flame of the West, with the sixth and last saga expansion presumably coming out next year. Each saga expansion can be played on its own, but since they basically form an ongoing plot, it makes sense to play through them in order.

So there: now that you've bought the Core Set, you only have 45 different expansions to choose from! If this all seems a bit bewildering, just remember the basic structure: deluxe expansions, adventure pack cycles, saga expansions.


If you don't have any particularly strong notions of what to buy first, in our opinion, you can't go very far wrong by starting with the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle. In other words, if the very first thing you buy is The Hunt for Gollum, you've gotten off to a good start. The Shadows quests are good fun, with the possible exception of The Dead Marshes, they introduce you to different kinds of quests, and each adventure pack comes with some useful player cards that are easy to master and incorporate into your deck. As you play through the Mirkwood cycle, you'll probably also start to develop some notions of what kind of deck you want to start building, and/or what kind of quests you like, and this can guide your further purchases.

A lot of people online will recommend that you buy everything in the order it was originally released, and that's not a bad idea. There are also some other priorities you can have, though. One is theme; after all, this isn't just some generic fantasy world, but Tolkien's Middle-earth! Do the Mines of Moria call to you? Then get Khazad-dûm. If the high seas are more your thing, The Grey Havens. If you really liked the Hobbit, Over Hill and Under Hill is a great expansion; if you're more into the Lord of the Rings, go on straight to The Black Riders. The release order is an easy guideline to follow, but there's no reason you couldn't start somewhere completely different. In fact, it might make for some really interesting decks!

Another possible priority could well be deckbuilding, especially if you've got other people to play with. If, for instance, you want to build a Hobbit deck, the place to start is most definitely The Black Riders. The Lost Realm will get a Dúnedain deck going, while either Voice of Isengard or Treason of Saruman are great choices for a Rohan deck. If playing with someone else's deck or messing around with the core set left you with a definite notion of what kind of deck you're interested in, then go on and build one!

You can use the various card databases to figure out which player cards you want and how to get them. CardgameDB has a very good search function, the only problem being that it still can't handle side quests. Hall of Beorn can, and also has a more comprehensive library of encounter cards. If you're just interested in the player cards, you can simply buy whichever expansions have what you want without worrying about adventure pack cycles or sagas or whatever. For example, an unnamed contributor to this blog decided they liked Beorn, and figured that Honour Guard is a pretty handy ally for him to have around. Therefore, their very first purchases after the core set were Over Hill and Under Hill, and The Wastes of Eriador, because why not?

Solo play is also great fun, and an excellent way to get a perspective on deckbuilding. So another thing you could prioritize is getting the best quests. This is going to be a matter of finding out what you like, but for our money, the best deluxe expansions in this respect are Khazad-dûm and The Grey Havens. Both of them also have some excellent associated adventure packs, like The Watcher in the Water and Flight of the Storm-caller. The first four quests of the Mirkwood cycle are also all pretty good, as are the first two quests in Over Hill and Under Hill. But this is very much a question of taste!


So there are several ways to go about this, and no one true answer. What we did was a combination of all of these: we bought much of the early stuff more or less in release order, but since we both wanted more allies for our decks, we skipped ahead to some expansions that had player cards we liked. We've also not been playing through the quests in any particularly rigorous order; we went from the Mirkwood cycle to Khazad-dûm and the Dwarrowdelf quests, and then straight to The Grey Havens when it came out. It's been fun!

The one piece of advice I would give is that while it's possible, buy either the current deluxe expansion or the next one as it comes out. There's a little community active around the game, and it's fun to get in on the action when it's happening. Right now, for example, you can read the previews for The Sands of Harad and the first adventure pack in the Haradrim cycle, keep your eyes peeled for more news, and follow the Upcoming page for when the new stuff will come out. You can also read the forums, where someone will tell you that this latest AP cycle is a horrible crime against Tolkien and they're never buying anything again, sphere bleed is ruining the game, and also that they're really excited about the new player side quest, and why isn't there a card for Thranduil yet. In all seriousness, it's fun to get in on the excitement of the new stuff, so I do very much recommend that. Personally, I'm really looking forward to the Sands of Harad.

If you have no particular player card desires, we'd strongly recommend starting with either Over Hill and Under Hill, Khazad-dûm or The Grey Havens, because we think those are the best boxes. They all have some quality player cards, and very good quests that aren't overwhelmingly difficult for new players. If you get Khazad-dûm, The Watcher in the Water is one of the best quests in the game; if you choose the Grey Havens, get Flight of the Stormcaller as well. The Hunt for Gollum is also a pretty good scenario to get started with, as is Conflict at the Carrock. On the other hand, if you want a strong deck in one box, get the Black Riders because you're playing hobbits. Our various expansion reviews and other posts on the game can be found here.

All in all, then, our suggestion is to figure out what you like, and go get that. If you're stumped, release order is never a bad idea, but feel free to mix it up as much as you like. Above all: have fun!

Sep 12, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 24: A Conspiracy Unmasked

'Now we had better get home ourselves,' said Merry.

The chapter starts with the hobbits and their basket of mushrooms taking the ferry across the Brandywine river. As Merry punts them through the gradually lifting evening mist, we're given our first taste of Tolkien's metaphorical river crossings:

Sam was the only member of the party who had not been over the river before. He had a strange feeling as the slow gurgling stream slipped by: his old life lay behind in the mists, dark adventure lay in front. He scratched his head, and for a moment had a passing wish that Mr. Frodo could have gone on living quietly at Bag End.

This is the first of what will be many symbolic river-crossings in the Lord of the Rings. Here it follows a brief description of Buckland, the easternmost part of the Shire that the hobbits are now entering, and underlines the way in which Hobbiton and their previous lives in it are falling behind.

The mood of the opening paragraphs is relaxed, even idyllic: a quiet river crossing on a dark night, the lights of Brandy Hall peeping through the mist ahead. However, as the hobbits reach the eastern shore, Sam looks back and sees a Black Rider searching the western landing. Merry now gets his first look at Frodo's pursuers, and the four hobbits flee quickly down the lane. Yes, in other words, it's the old horror movie trick where just when you think you've gotten away, the monster shows up again, but it works quite well here as a sudden reminder that the danger isn't past, and also as a way of bringing Merry into the loop, so to speak.

For now, though, Merry rides ahead to prepare Frodo's new digs for their arrival. Said digs are a small hobbit-house in Crickhollow, an out-of-the-way corner of Buckland a couple of miles from the ferry. Merry and Fatty Bolger have been busy furnishing the house to look as much like Bag End as possible, and Frodo, beset by the thought that he has to leave soon, is forced to pretend he's very happy with it. Frodo and company bathe, and Pippin sings a bath-song. I seem to recall there's a bit in Tolkien's Letters, which I couldn't find again just now, where someone reading the Lord of the Rings prior to publication had complained about too much hobbit-stuff, and I imagine this must be where that would happen. Luckily, though, things move on quickly through a supper of mushrooms to the centerpiece of the chapter: Frodo's dramatic revelation to his friends.

As Frodo fumbles his way toward his undoubtedly grand speech, Merry undercuts him by stating outright that they all know he's leaving. Frodo is shocked, and Pippin rubs salt in the wound:

"Dear old Frodo!" said Pippin. "Did you really think you had thrown dust in all our eyes? You have not been nearly careful or clever enough for that! You have obviously been planning to go and saying farewell to all your old haunts since April. We have constantly heard you muttering: "Shall I ever look down into that valley again, I wonder", and things like that. And pretending that you had come to the end of your money, and actually selling your beloved Bag End to those Sackville-Bagginses!"

Frodo is then thoroughly dumbfounded by the revelation that his friends know about the Ring. The source of the information, in a way, is the Sackville-Bagginses: Merry had once happened to see Bilbo use the Ring to hide from them in plain sight. Merry had concealed himself more conventionally, and spotted Bilbo's reappearance and the Ring.

I want to pause here for a moment to emphasize the fact that a crucial plot point of the early part of the Lord of the Rings is premised on the fact that the Sackville-Bagginses are such awful people that their fellow hobbits will literally hide in hedges and bushes if they see them coming down the road.

Merry's inquisitiveness, however, only got the conspirators started. Most of what they know comes from their chief undercover informant: Sam. As Frodo wavers between feeling betrayed and being touched by his friends' concern, Sam reminds him that both Gandalf and Gildor did tell him to not go alone, and eventually Frodo is won over. There's an impromptu celebration and a song, and then the hobbits get down to practicalities. Fredegar "Fatty" Bolger will stay behind to keep the house and maintain the illusion that Frodo is staying there for as long as possible, while the four others set off for Rivendell. There's a disagreement over how to get there, though. Frodo thinks the only option is to avoid the main road and head out through the Old Forest, an idea supported by Merry and strongly opposed by Fredegar, who's horrified by the very idea. Since he's staying behind, though, his opposition loses out, and the four hobbits decide to hit the woods the very next morning. The chapter closes on Frodo dreaming of a tower overlooking the sea.


This, then, is our last chapter in the Shire. I know there are people who can't stand hobbits, and it's easy to see where they're coming from: at worst, they're insufferably cutesy with their little songs and folksy ways. As the awful prologue demonstrates, Tolkien had a particular love for the minutiae of hobbit lives that doesn't exactly translate into gripping prose. At the same time, though, it's impossible to ignore the ways in which the Shire is also a meditation on parochial small-mindedness, provincialism and even xenophobia, unless you're wearing the kind of blinkers far too many Tolkien critics seem to find necessary. Because he also includes this side of the Shire, and after the way in which the story alienates both Frodo and the reader from it, it's quite clear to me that Tolkien never intended the Shire to be a pure utopia. Because I think that authorial intent in general can go take a hike, and furthermore having never been much of a fan of the rural idylls in the first place, I've always seen the Shire less as a paradise to be protected and more as a place to escape from. Personally, I'd take a tenement in Minas Tirith over a hobbit-hole any day of the week, no matter how pleasant the pastures or clouded the hills. Et in Arcadia blecch.

Hobbit bath-songs notwithstanding, this is a pretty efficient transition chapter, taking us over the symbolic river to a momentary haven, where the adventure can pause for a moment so we can work out some tensions and get our bearings. This is a pattern that will repeat itself. I like the way in which the dramatic revelation of Frodo's imminent departure is built up and then immediately subverted by letting us know that Merry and Pippin know exactly what he's going to say. On the whole, there's a nice feeling of camaraderie and detetmination that closes out the Shire chapters of the first book on a positive note. Next time, the hobbits tackle their first Forest.