Game: Almanac One
Publisher: Transfinite Publications
Review Dated: 24th, July 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 5/10 [ Perfectly acceptable ]
Total Score: 5
Average Score: 5.00
Almanac One is, as the name suggests, the first Almanac from Transfinite Publications. Pay your money and download this d20 PDF magazine. Yes. Pay money. Almanac only costs a couple of bucks though. It only barely registers on the “need to pay” scale and, in fact, US$3 is less than the minimum purchase at RPGNow. There’s no doubting it; the Almanac is cheap. The catch is that most d20 e-zines are cheaper; they’re free.
The Almanac’s focus is on ideas rather than crunch and numbers. This doesn’t mean that there are no numbers in the PDF; there are stat blocks for NPCs and maintenance costs for exotic mounts in one of the articles. This is good. I’d much rather have the ideas, the inspiration, the important bits than face even more numbers. The immediate danger in that the PDF becomes a sea of text is avoided. There are enough illustrations, fairly decent ones too, in the Almanac to break up blocky text. It’s not perfect, I really don’t like the chunky font used, its too dense for its size. Perhaps a more serious risk is that the writing would be rubbish and boring. Fortunately, the writing quality is good. Transfinite Publications might not be the biggest and most well known publisher out there but the Almanac proves that they can be as professional as the rest. Is it boring? No. But… the theme for this issue is “the dungeon” and this is choice is a mixed blessing. It’s hard to go wrong with the dungeon. Writing for the dungeon at a higher level – that is to say, not pit trap strategies but ways to use the presence of a dungeon-like complex near a town as a campaign piece – the Almanac is better able to appeal to wide scope of gamers. The downside is much very that the Almanac was already in close competition with free web material. The art and science of dungeons in a roleplaying games is extremely well catered for by the freebies and fan sites.
The Almanac gets going with some d20 reviews. It’s an interesting choice. I’d rather have a “real” article, something new, as the introduction to the magazine and not reviews for some fairly old products. That said the reviews are balanced and enjoy the quality of writing found throughout the ezine.
The Depths of the Earth discusses how to design those giant dungeons. We’re encouraged to try dungeon crawling. One of the first things we must decide is which campaign setting to put our dungeon in. In truth I hope no one puts it in that order, the article does even then go on to say the choice of campaign world will effect the surface side encounters. The entry level of the dungeon should be crafted to best suit the PC’s level. At this point we’re not just talking about designing a dungeon, we’re talking about designing a dungeon crawl. There’s a difference. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you’ve been hankering for old style D&D like Greyhawk or are happily settled in newer success stories like Kalamar then this intelligent approach to dungeoneering can only be a good thing.
The Gold Rush looks at the aftermath of the dungeon adventure. Characters return to the village with a load of cash and spend it. Sages are paid to identify magical items. Clerics might get paid or offered donations in exchange for magical healings. As the article puts it, the local innkeeper may end up richer than the mayor. What happens next? Does the town become a city? On the other hand, if you’d been playing in a world where dungeons are part of the geography and towns spring up to support adventurers trying to beat the complex – have the players just put whole families out of work? One of the goals of the article is to let you re-use that old favourite dungeon. Even though The Gold Rush’s focus is on dungeons, its assumptions on playing style walk closer to neutral than The Depths of the Earth.
Levelling Up Your Game promises to make dungeons more exciting, especially if you’re done to death with them. It does this by offering more grit and realism to the environment. It’s dark. There’s nothing to eat. Fireballs will consume lots of precious oxygen. If you’re fighting on slippery moss then you might fall over. Although the articles in the Almanac are written by different authors they all share a similar high-but-fairly-gritty fantasy feel. Your campaign might feature dungeons built under towns just to attract adventurers but that’s no reason not to be realistic. I think this is a good way to deal with high fantasy campaigns, there has to be some sort of check and it helps to keep mechanics like “nightvision” in play even though players are kitted out with magic items galore. That’s my personal view though. I wasn’t so keen on the first article, my tastes find something in this one and since the Almanac is about ideas and observations, rather than numbers, this issue with personal preference is one that will run through out the e-zine.
Lessons from History looks at key events from our history and how they might work in a D&D situation. The Almanac talks about D&D and not just fantasy roleplaying. Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America (although he didn’t really) enjoys the limelight here. It’s a good idea. I’m left to ponder just how the discovery of a giant new continent might affect many games.
Putting the SF in Fantasy just can’t shake the Almanac’s habit of mentioning Greyhawk and Kalamar but does mention Spelljammer and Dragonstar too. This really is a “Does what it says on the tin” article and discusses the whys and hows of sci-fi in fantasy. Why go to the moon? Perhaps the gods are there. Why go see the gods? Well, um, pass. There’s a nice run down of some spells that make for suitable science substitutes. For example, clairvoyance and teleportation could work together as a Star Trek transporter.
Hosting a Campaign Online is, without doubt, the showpiece of the e-zine. It may have little to do with dungeons but it’s just the sort of article that differentiates the Almanac from traditional paper magazines and free e-zines from gamers writing about their hobby as a hobby. Author S. Lyle Raymond may still be writing about his experience with the past time but there’s inherent research in here. Different online tools are discussed, the minimum qualifications of the GM are debated and important Dos and Don’ts are underlined. Hopefully further editions of the Almanac will contain articles like this one (but it’ll take something special to think up suitable topics) and will enable hyperlinking from the PDF.
The extraordinary cavalry in Extraordinary Cavalry aren’t that extraordinary. Spider-eaters, griffons and mammoths are the most exotic of the mounts statted and described by this section. Although the stats are useful (and a rare example of numbers in this e-zine) they’re not really the focus. Here we’re reminded that there are often better, more interesting at least, animals to ride in a fantasy world than the humble horse. There are problems too. The rule of ten is simple; mounts need to eat ten times their weight in a year. This can get expensive and awkward, especially if the exotic animal is a strict carnivore. Could you keep your griffon content?
The e-zine finishes with Lost Alley. It’s a pre-written adventure that sees the PCs dealing with a strange alleyway that only exists for an hour every ten years. It’s a dangerous place to visit lest you wind up getting caught in it but the promise of ancient secrets, languages and cultures is tempting too. I’m not a fan of pre-written adventures but this (ironically) isn’t a linear dungeon crawl and a good example of spooky high fantasy in an urban setting.
The Almanac manages to come up with a score draw. In the GameWyrd marking system you reach the mid-mark by doing what you need to do. The Almanac does that. Products score and loose points as they weigh up particular successes and failures. The Almanac wobbles down and then climbs back up again. There are no bookmarks, it’s easy to print, there should be an on-screen version and printer version, its well written, it’s an old topic, it costs money, there are guest authors and so on. The pros balance the cons. Perhaps the most telling failure in the Almanac is the lack of wow factor, I don’t think I’d be talking to friends about of the articles here. On the other hand, the selling point for the e-zine for me is the vintage feel of a tried and tested fan-zine. I hope to see the Almanac solider on and acquire a touch more sophistication. The key elements for success are already in place and if the magazine can build up a base of regular writers, continue with the original illustrations and keep the focus on intelligent ideas over crunchy dice then the Almanac should build up a core of loyal readers.