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For today’s entry into the Blog Carnival, I’m going to review a series of new products from Moebius Adventures – one free, and two at the low, low price of $1 (US) that collectively offer a trio of locations to drop into your campaigns.

The candy bar of RPG Supplements

Tiny PDF game supplements are the candy bars of RPG supplements – cheap to buy, consume ’til there’s nothing left, and discard when you’re done. They are also often lacking in substance, just like candy bars, with content missing that has to be written in by the GM before they can be used. You can’t apply the same standards to judging them as you would to something costing $5, $10, or $20+.

But, like the real-world range of candy bars, there is a lot of variety out there. In addition to unadulterated confectionary, you also have your health food bars, and a few products that explore a middle ground, and a whole bunch of products that claim to stand astride both camps. As always, value comes down to the actual content on offer.

The One Spot series: What are they?

The One Spot series is a collection of three (so far) system-neutral locations for RPGs. Each location gets its own 2-page PDF supplement. The front page is information that will be readily accessible by the PCs, so it doesn’t matter too much if it’s visible; the second page is DM’s info, to be shared out in the course of play and only when the GM thinks it appropriate.

Sidebar Disclaimer: Who are Moebius Adventures?
Before I go much farther, I should tell you about the publisher, Moebius Adventures.

MA were started in the Mid-90s by Brian Fitzpatrick and his buddy Sean Bindel. Sean was killed in an auto accident in 2000, but Fitz is carrying on alone to complete various projects the pair had started as a lasting memorial. (This appeals greatly to me as a sentimentalist, and regardless of the verdict below, I wish him every success in the endeavor).

Fitz is also well known as a writer/reviewer at Game Knight Reviews and a long-time supporter of Campaign Mastery and myself. Although we have never met in person (Colorado is a long way from Sydney!), I also consider him a buddy.

The review copies were provided free.

I’ve tried not to let any of that sway me while writing these reviews, but you have been warned. Hopefully Fitz will still be talking to me after reading these reviews!

The three locations currently on offer are:

  • One Spot #0: “Hand’s Goods” - Hand’s Goods is a mixed business/pawn shop specializing in (used) general produce and refurbished knickknacks, operated (and probably owned) by Taylor Hand, an ex-thief who was caught once too often.
  • One Spot #1: “The Painted Man” - The Painted Man is a hole-in-the-wall tavern with a colorful, ever-changing clientele.
  • One Spot #2: “Angar’s Magic Shoppe” - The Magic Shoppe offers “Tomes and Trinkets”. Nothing gets sold without a thorough investigation by the owner, Angar Bossz. In particular, it focuses on tomes, toys, and interesting illusory items.

Let’s take a closer look at each:

The Content Of One Spot #0

For a small PDF, there’s an awful lot of content delivered. In fact, there’s so much that it’s spilling over into a ribbon running around the frame of the second page.

On the front page, you get:

  • An exterior description detailing access to the store;
  • A first impression / initial encounter with the proprietor;
  • A description of the proprietor, Taylor Hand;
  • A picture of said proprietor;
  • A general description of the interior and the ‘shopping experience’, with some general impressions of the merchandise on offer;
  • The prospects for employment in the store; and
  • An image of the entranceway/exterior of the store.

On the second page, you get:

  • A map of the store;
  • An introduction the location;
  • A history/backstory for the proprietor;
  • Commodity availability, pricing, and handling instructions for the GM;
  • Ten encounters that might take place within Hand’s Goods; and
  • A set of nested tables describing 12 general encounter hooks for when those ten are used up. This is the content wrapping around the rest.
Yes, but tell me about the content

It’s all well-written, as you would expect from an author of Fitz’ experience. The front page is presented in a two-column format to give emphasis to the artwork, while the GM’s section is in three columns, making it easy to read each paragraph as a self-contained whole.

I would quite happily expect to be able to drop “Hand’s Goods” into any RPG campaign, with no prep whatsoever. Though you could spend some time generating a list of exactly what’s for sale at the current time, for the most part there will be better things to spend your time on.

But that’s only scratching the surface of what it has to offer.

A trio of campaigns?

There are two paragraphs in the GMs section that really enticed me. The first covers Taylor Hand’s relations with the local constabulary and thieves’ guild, with both of whom Hand manages to maintain a cooperative co-existence. Hand’s Goods is a place where these worlds intersect. The other local authority that gets mentioned is the local mage’s guild, who Hand keeps on-side without seemingly receiving much (beyond cash) in return.

Those two paragraphs immediately suggested three complete mini-campaign ideas to me.

  • Campaign One: The first idea was for Hand to be framed for some serious crime (or possibly even be guilty of something that goes too far), or simply need to travel to somewhere distant ‘for his health’. Rather than selling the store, he hires the PCs to run it on his behalf while he goes into hiding. This means that instead of getting to change Hand’s policies, the PCs simply have to implement them, maintaining the fragile peaceful relations Hand has established between the authorities and the local Thieves’ Guild in the face of their growing suspicion that he is their man, and also maintaining his good relations with the great and powerful of the local region.
  • Campaign Two: The 2nd idea is for the PCs to be members of the local constabulary maintaining a sometimes-friendly sometimes-adversarial relationship with Hand. Every time they think they have the goods on him, he is able to offer information on a more serious crime, or call in a favor from someone else he has helped to get the charges dropped. From time to time, he may even offer a free tip to the PCs just to keep them on-side or mend fences. This is essentially a police-procedural campaign with Hand as a recurring NPC.
  • Campaign Three: The final idea was for Hand to come into possession of something that he tries to sell to the local Mage’s Guild, as is his usual practice, but which lands him in the eye of a tempest of circumstances. Someone else wants the item for themselves, and the people it was stolen from want it back, and the whole thing is part of some bigger plot against the established authorities. This could either stand alone or be tied into idea one as the dénouement of that campaign.
The Biggest Overall Flaw

For my money (all $0 of it, since this is a free supplement), the biggest flaw in this offering is that it is just a little too compressed and compacted. It would have been better expanded to three pages in size – half a page for the map, which is just a little too small to be completely clear and self-explanatory, especially without a key. The extra space could have been used to lay out the “spillover” content in more user-friendly fashion, and to expand the Important NPCs section: a regular seller, specific contacts in the constabulary, thieves’ guild, and mage’s guild, someone powerful who owes Hand a favor or vice-versa.

But really, this is nitpicking.

One Spot #1 in review

So here’s what you get when you plunk down your $1 for a copy of One Spot #1, The Painted Man, taken directly from the RPG Now product description:

  • An introduction, location description, tavern map, and image of the tavern sign.
  • A bit of background on the Painted Man himself, his mannerisms, and a picture.
  • Descriptions for the other NPCs involved in operating the tavern, from the bubbly barmaid to the secretive owner.
  • A suggestion of what items might currently be on the menu and on tap.
  • A list (10 items) of potential facts and rumors to kick things off.
  • A list of hooks (4 tables of hints) for how one or more of the PCs may have interacted with the tavern before.
Inns, Bars, & Taverns are always useful

The first thing I have to say is that inns, bars, and taverns are ubiquitous locations within RPGs, regardless of genre. You can never have too many of them written up, ready to drop into a campaign.

Lots of them out there

This ubiquity means that there are lots of them out there. Most city sourcebooks and game settings will have details of several for you to draw on, not to mention all the ones that have appeared in game modules over the years.

The extra necessary mile

The combination means that to offer value for money, an inn, tavern, or bar has to go an extra mile, offer something the others don’t, in order to stand out from the crowd. In this case, that extra comes in the form of the backstory of the proprietor and his relationship with the secretive owner. Rife with potential interest, an entire campaign could be built around that relationship. I would actually tie that campaign into Campaign Two from Hand’s Goods above, giving me a second location and source of adventures to draw on, adding some depth and variety to the mix, and offering the potential of cross-fertilization of ideas between the two.

The Shortcomings

Unfortunately, in addition to the same overcrowding described previously, that backstory is slightly vague and contradictory – or, at the very least, missing some key details. In particular, the relationship between The Painted Man and the Owner changes midway through the second paragraph of the “Important NPCs” section. There’s nothing there that can’t be resolved with some additional backstory and editorial tweaking – mostly changing the word “owes” to the past tense and filling in the blank spot in the evolution of the relationship that this change implies (I’m being deliberately vague to avoid giving secrets to any player who reads this). At least there’s a key with the map, this time.

So there is more prep work needed before this supplement can be used. Once that prep is performed, though – and it should only be the work of a few minutes – I would be comfortable dropping this location into a campaign as a one-off.

Still more prep work is needed to flesh out the history and activities of the owner before this could be used as a recurring location, though much of that can be done in the course of prepping subsequent adventures.

And, once again, there’s material that could have been included to fill out the empty space if this were three pages instead of two: one or two regular customers, a couple of contacts, and the material that I’ve suggested the GM needs to generate, described above.

Some perspective

On the other hand, how much do you really expect for just a buck? There’s a bucketload of potential in the location waiting to be tapped, and the work that needs doing is quick and not all that difficult. It could also be argued that its absence creates a broader contact patch in which to interface this product with an existing campaign. Its value-for-money quotient remains very high, more than enough to justify the price of the product. I’ve spent more for supplements that have delivered a lot less.

One Spot #2 in review

Like One Spot #1, this product will set you back a buck. For that investment, according to the DrivethruRPG product page, you get:

  • An introduction, location description, bookstore map, and image of the sign on the window.
  • A bit of background on Angar Bossz himself, his mannerisms, and a picture.
  • Descriptions for the other NPCs involved in operating the store, including his assistant Radu and the store cat Iago.
  • A suggestion of how Angar operates, what he can offer, and how he deals with customers.
  • A list (16 items) of strange books and items Angar may have in stock.
  • A list of hooks (4 tables of hints) for how one or more of the PCs may have interacted with the bookstore before.
Magic Shops in general

The very concept of a Magic Shop is less universal than the ubiquitous inn or second-hand goods shop. I rarely employ them in my campaigns, because the economics don’t make a lot of sense to me:

  • Sales will be infrequent, though they will generate a lot of revenue when they happen. The number of customers who can afford multi-thousand-plus gold-piece items will be few.
  • Costs are high if offering new items for sale. They will still be high, if not quite so ruinous, if the store deals predominantly in used merchandise.
  • That means that the owner will have unrealistically-vast sums tied up in inventory.
  • Shoplifting of even a single item can wipe out a decade’s profits.
  • To buy items, the owner will need to have vast sums of ready cash on the premises. A minimum of 100,000gp in D&D terms.
  • That demands a high level of security, and that’s a heavy overhead on top of the operating costs.
  • Players expect no hidden surprises in their purchases. That takes away one of the GMs adventure-generation options.

There aren’t many such establishments on offer, though the occasional supplement will include one. The key to how well such a location works for me is how well it answers these problems. I’ve never seen one that does the job satisfactorily without capping the value of the items on sale to one or two thousand GPs – and 300% markup over list price.

Bad Associations

On top of all that, I have a number of bad associations from past gaming with such locations. In particular, they seem to be a favorite of munchkins and Monty Haul campaigns. I once saw a game in which a magic shop was just inside the door into the Dungeon, so that loot brought out could be exchanged without the bother of hauling it back to town – because the GM had found that to be inconvenient when he was a player.

So I openly admit that I’m prejudiced against Magic Shops in general. It’s not like Harry Potter, where magic items are relatively cheap, commonplace, and relatively low-powered; in most FRP campaigns, they are very expensive, and that doesn’t make sense unless they are also rare, and both of those argue against the practicality of the Magic Shop as a concept.

How does “Angar’s” stand up?

Not well, but no worse than most other examples of this type of location, in that not one of these concerns is addressed. In fact, just the opposite – the proprietor prefers to keep his purchases and sales activities as separate transactions rather than bartering exchanges of goods. And he looks far too much like a middle-aged Harry Potter in the illustration – the whole thing screams “cutesy”. He’s also far too helpful/useful to the PCs.

On top of that, it suffers from the same problems as the other offerings in the series. In particular, the map is so small that the key is barely legible, and it would be difficult to design a layout with worse security.

None of that matters if you’re GMing for children, and I would happily use the location as written if that were the case.

Salvaging Something

That’s not to say there’s nothing worthwhile. With a little tweaking, the proprietor could become one of those NPCs around which an entire campaign could be framed, someone who starts out as the PCs friend, becomes their employer in order to achieve his own goals, and then emerges as the ultimate villain of the campaign.

If you start with the premise that the layout is so poor for securing the goods that it’s an open invitation to shoplifters, and that this is by deliberate intent on the part of the owner, you could generate a quite interesting adventure from the raw materials here. Especially if this is happening despite the uneconomic nature of the business in general. Ladies and Gentlemen, start your conspiracy theories now.

The real treasure here is the list of current wares. These are interesting and creative, though I would want to adjust some of them before turning them loose in my campaign, in particular the Mirrored Box of Davos. The ability to hide “anything” from the view of “anyone” except the owner of the Box seems way too powerful to me, taken at face value. But most are far better than this example, and these are worth the $1 price-tag on their own. Anything else of value that can be extracted from the supplement is gravy.

The extra necessary mile

The shame of it all is that this offering has so much missed potential. Make the proprietor more sinister and more learned when it comes to illusions, without much change to the superficial personality. Replace the image, which is inappropriate to most fantasy campaigns. Give him some source of funds that he can exploit to keep the shop in operation despite turning a constant loss on every transaction, justifying that with his darker purpose (conquest?) using the Codex he seeks. Apply some magic to deal with the security problems and make the location more wondrous, such as shelves which are all-but invisible except directly in front of a customer, so that the proprietor can see any attempt to steal from him. Employ another clever deception to protect his liquidity – maybe that’s what the cat really is? And enlarge the map. Those sex steps are all that would have been needed to make this an absolutely killer product.

The conceptual problems I raised are not insuperable, but the solutions demand a little more creativity than usual, and this is one occasion when the extra necessary mile is a journey on which the supplement does not set forth.

Some perspective

Having criticized it mercilessly, I have to reiterate that I think this supplement worth the asking price even though it fails to achieve the stated objective of the One Spot series, of being locations ready to drop into any campaign.

And you might not have the same obsession with plausibility that I do, or the same negative associations; you might have no conceptual problems with dropping a magic shop into your campaign.

An Alternative Application

Of course, all these problems go away if we’re talking about an industrial civilization. Recasting the Magic Shop into a high-tech context solves all the problems. You can even still have Angar searching for a spiritual relic, if you want, minimizing the necessary changes. The overly-helpful and altogether too cute graphic remain, of course; but the major problems will have been solved.

Which shows, of course, that there’s nothing wrong with the execution, just a problem with the underlying assumptions.

Overall verdict

So, to sum up:

Content Quality

This varies from average to excellent, and there’s enough of that excellence in each of the offerings to justify the price tag.

Production Quality

I’d really like to have seen these done in a three-page layout, with a little extra content and a little more white space, and most especially, slightly bigger and more legible maps.

Conclusions

If I didn’t know about the excellence of the ideas in the “current wares” I probably wouldn’t have bought the second of these supplements if I came across it while browsing, but would have taken a chance on “The Painted Man”. But the real prize, and the standard-setter for the series, is the free product, “Hand’s Goods”. With that as the baseline, I would have been happily minded to buy the others in the series, and slightly disappointed that the others didn’t quite achieve the same luminescent standard. As a set, they are nevertheless more than good enough to convince me to await eagerly the next in the series, whatever – or should that be “wherever”? – it might be.

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