In the past few months, I've enjoyed reading through some of the role-playing games displayed at this year's GenCon. During recent visits to game shops and on various message boards, I've heard and seen speculation about a fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, prompted in part by the return of designer Monte Cook to publisher Wizards of the Coast.
I still feel strangely detached from these discussions because I'm not running or buying D&D4e supplements. Even if I'm not a hardcore grognard as some in the old-school Renaissance, I've come to prefer simpler rules, lower-powered scenarios, and heroic role-playing over combat simulation. If D&D5e addresses those preferences as well as some retro-clones do, I might yet return to the popular tabletop fantasy RPG brand.
Fortunately, I lack no support as a Dungeon Master in the meantime, thanks to Paizo's excellent Pathfinder (a.k.a. "D&D3.75") line. Although the rules are still complex, the artwork and prose in each book about the Golarion/Inner Sea setting inspires the imagination. The Ultimate Magic and Ultimate Combat books are no exception, with numerous options for Pathfinder Player Characters of all occupational classes.
I found Ultimate Magic to be slightly more useful and better balanced than Ultimate Combat, partly because the latter introduced classes such as the Gunslinger and Ninja that I would limit in my homebrew game. Between them and the Advanced Player's Guide, any Pathfinder player should have more than enough ways to develop and tweak characters, replacing a veritable pile of D20/Open Game License/D&D3.x splatbooks (many of which I've now sold).
On a related note, I recently got the Tome of Horrors Complete for Pathfinder. I was a big fan of the D20 monster book, which revived several old favorites from previous editions of D&D. It included creatures from old adventure modules and the Fiend Folio, including the gold-eating aurumvorax, the statuesque caryatid column, and the floppy flumph. The new compilation has about 800 pages of monsters, with everything from the mysterious dark creepers to Lucifer himself and numerous animals!
Even though I've tried to limit the number of sentient species in my "Vanished Lands" campaign setting, I and most of my gamers have enjoyed encountering new beasties in the books and scenarios. The Tome of Horrors Complete is a fantastic addition to Pathfinder's Bestiaries I through III.
The Pathfinder: "the Vanished Lands" teleconferencing team is still struggling to get back to its regular Sunday night schedule because we've had difficulty getting quorum because of travel and family obligations. I hope that the eight role-players, scattered across the U.S., will soon be able to resume Skype sessions.
As I've mentioned before, I've considered using FATE 3e Legends of Anglerre for the telecom fantasy game because I think the lighter rules set would be a good fit for that venue. Also from Cubicle 7 is The One Ring, the latest game set in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth.
I was favorably impressed by the production value of The One Ring, which overcame some of my initial misgivings about its limited scope — it's set in the Wilderlands during the Third Age, between the events of The Hobbit and those of The Lord of the Rings. A game with more limited starting options is a good idea for starting players, but then why not outline the character-creation process more clearly?
What if I was relatively new to the hobby and wanted to replicate a member of the horse-riding Rohirrim or an Elf from Lothlorien because I've seen Peter Jackson's popular films? Just as Iron Crown Enterprise's Middle Earth Role-Playing stuck too closely to the complicated RoleMaster system and Decipher's Lord of the Rings RPG relied too heavily on the movies, Cubicle 7 risks confusing fans with its plan to expand its view of that world piecemeal.
That said, I liked The One Ring's character-development mechanics, which encourage altruistic play over the "kill things and take their stuff" mentality that's all too common in D&D and various videogames. This feature is similar to what I enjoyed in Decipher's underrated Lord of the Rings (if slightly less so in Lord of the Rings Online multiplayer computer game).
Speaking of encouraging good role-playing, the Mouse Guard boxed set is a thing of beauty. Based on an award-winning set of comics and a streamlined version of Burning Wheel, this would be the ideal way to get my animal-loving nieces into gaming. I strongly encourage fans of anthropomorphic fantasy, such as GURPS Bunnies & Burrows, Redwall, and Shard, to read the collected comics and buy this game.
The boxed set includes a softcover version of the core rulebook (which I already have in hardback), character record sheets, and rules and adventure supplements. The counters are a bit funny, looking like oversized collectible erasers, but even if I don't get to run Mouse Guard anytime soon, this game will be another rich source for sparking imagination and setting a heroic tone.