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“Hot Guys Making Out” Review

Last year, I was walking by my friendly local gaming store and stopped to look at the window display. The proprietor of the shop often positions new releases in the window where you can see them from the street. On this particular day, a obviously homemade booklet was given a prominent position. The booklet has the intriguing title, “Hot Guys Making Out.” Looking closer, I saw it was written by Ben Lehman. I’ve been a fan of Ben’s games since reading Polaris. His game mechanics are clean and he writes in an engaging literary style. I was sure I’d be entertained by whatever was inside. HGMO

“Hot Guys Making Out” is a role-playing game that recreates the stories of yaoi manga, a homoerotic sub-genre. Interestingly enough, the audience is primarily female in Japan. The game is set against the backdrop of the Spanish civil war. Players have the choice of taking on the roles of Gonsalvo, the decisive nobleman, Honore, an introspective orphan under his care, Maria, the maid, or Olivier, the butler. Gonsalvo and Honere are the main characters while Maria and Olivier are supporting characters. The story revolves around the Threat, an event that comes between the protagonists. The Threat puts a strain on the main characters relationship, but should eventually bring it into focus. The game is played with a deck of playing cards. The Aces drive the threat forward and different face cards allow characters to activate special moves.

“Hot Guys Making Out” does well in the niche of short format romance games. I never thought the subject matter was a gaming itch I would want to scratch, but it was fun. If your gaming group likes playing many different games, a one shot of this game will definitely leave an impression. It all depends on your gaming group though.

I recently was given a review electronic copy of the full version of the game. There are quite a few differences between the preview and final editions though none involving game play. If you have the preview edition, your essentially have the full game. The final edition does add quite a bit in terms of layout and presentation. The most noticeable difference is a full color cover and black and white interior art. The cover art is evocative. It should be easier to find on my bookshelf once I pick up a physical copy. The rules are also much better organized. The sections seem to flow much better. The game steps and actions are broken down and explained much better for someone new to gaming altogether. The book also contains a few pages on creating your own characters and hacking the system to tell romantic stories in other settings. There really isn’t anything in the game design that forces you to tell love stories though.

My one minor quibble with the game still stands. The book never says to shuffle jokers into the deck when you start the game. I think most people’s default mode is to not shuffle jokers into a deck unless the rules call for it. The first time we played, we had to restart when the player of Olivier realized he couldn’t perform his support action without a joker.

My friends still laugh about the first game of “Hot Guys Making Out” we played. We had just finished a large game of Fiasco and people were starting to leave, but four of us weren’t ready to go. I had just the thing – a copy of “Hot Guys Making Out” in my backpack. My buddy Chris was pretty uncomfortable with the concept of the game. He looked really nervous and kept protesting, “I dunno, guys. This seems pretty weird.” No one was willing to let him off the hook though. I grabbed Gonsalvo, Nick jumped on Honore, Damon fingered Olivier’s character sheet, and Chris snatched Maria ostensibly because she was the character with the least chance of having a homosexual encounter. We played the default Threat: “Maria is jealous of Gonsalvo.” Maria started the game with an ace and made Gonsalvo look foolish in front of Honore. Oliver took the bags while Honore took Gonsalvo on a tour of the grounds. Eventually, the nobleman and his ward ended up inside, warming themselves by the fire and flirting. Chris had managed to draw every ace in the deck within 3 rounds. Now, Maria was ready to sabotage Gonsalvo’s chances with Honore. Maria snuck behind Gonsalvo and pulled his pants down to his ankles revealing Gonsalvo had a vagina. He was a she! Honore promptly lost all interest. The entire game only lasted 15 minutes.

Even if you already own the preview edition, you should buy this book. The rules are better organized. There’s a surprising amount of depth in this little game.

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Annotated A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords

TITLE

A3 – Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords

AUTHORS

Allen Hammack

SYNOPSIS

After interrupting the slavers’ operation in the Drachensbrag Hills in A2: Secret of the Slaver’s Stockade, the adventurers have tracked the slavers back to their hidden city beyond the mountains. They must infiltrate the city and take down the slave lords.

PLOT

Head of the Snake – Some organization is causing problems for the locals. The players must track the bad guys back to the source and eliminate the threat.

SETTING

A system of caves that lead to a lake in a volcanic crater that hides the slaver’s island. The remainder of the adventure takes place in and below the island city of Suderham.

MONSTERS

In the salt caves, the primary opponents are gnolls. The city is filled with human slavers and many of the encounters are random making the number difficult to calculate. After the adventure moves to the sewers, the monsters vary wildly.

piercer (30), gnoll (28), bugbear (8), slave lord (5), minotaur lizards (4), ogre (4), wight (4), giant rat (3), leucrotta (2), giant spider (2), gelatinous cube (2), giant constrictor snake (2), leprechaun (1), hyenadon (1), storoper (1), rust monster (1), illusionist (1), flesh golem (1), killer mimic (1), hell hound (1), minotaur (1), shambling mound (1)

NOTABLE NPCS

Wimpell Frump (p 6), a “lackluster illusionist” hired by the slave lords to protect the entrance to their hidden city. He has used an illusion to disguise himself as Yeenoghu and bend the gnolls in the area to his will.

Feelta (p 19), a eye-patched buccaneer and leader of the slave lords.

Ajakstu (p 19), a slave lord and magic user with power magic items. He has been spying on the adventurers with his crystal ball so the slave lords are fully aware of their approach.

Nerelas (p 19), a slave lord and assassin with a penchant for back stabbing with the help of a potion of invisibility.

Brother Milerjoi (p 20), monk from the Scarlet Brotherhood.

Mordrammo (p 20), chief priest of the Temple of the Earth Dragon.

NOTES

The adventure plays out across 3 locations; salt caves, a hidden city and the sewers beneath the city.

CAVES OF DRACHENSGRAB

Following the maps discovered in A2: Secret of the Slaver’s Stockade, the adventurers trek to the Drachensgrab Mountains in pursuit of the slave lords. They discover a salt cave that leads to the secret city.

A4. Hyenadon Feeding Time (p 4) – Gnolls throw bloody meat at the players to get the hyenadon, giant dog-like creatures, to attack. If I was a player, I’d throw the meat back at the gnolls.

A5. The Curtain of Blue Fire (p 4) – A magical blue barrier bisects a room filled with an enormous pool of white goo (no bukake jokes please). The barrier causes electrical damage, but the goo insulates against the effect. One can swim under the surface of the goo to avoid the magic barrier. The goo can also be breathed like air. If an adventurer decides to sink to the bottom of the pool and walk across to the other side of the room, they will walk into an invisible sword known as the Sword of Lyons. The sword is a pretty amazing sword. The blade is invisible. Then the sword is sheathed, the wearer is invisible. Once the sword is drawn, the invisibility ends. It seems like every room has some sort of easter egg in 1st Edition Dungeons & Dragons. I wonder how many people in the history of running this module actually stumbled upon this sword without any prior knowledge.

A7. The Storoper (p5) – A statue in the room is actually a stone roper or “storoper.” This version of the roper can turn party members against each other. I like that this creature is totally unique to this adventure.

A9. The Throne Room (p 6) – This is a very entertaining encounter that matches the scene in Erol Otus’s excellent back cover art. Wimpell Frump the illusionist, disguised as Yeenoghu foul god of gnolls, sits upon a magic thrones that power his illusions. The party is attacked by an ankylosaurus and a great number of gnolls and ghouls. The illusions hide the real threat; a rust monster. Frump’s real gnoll guards hide behind pillars taking pot shots at the distracted party. The illusionist has strategically positioned himself behind a glass wall that stops arrows and normal missile attacks. Frump flees into a secret passage if the battle turns sour for him. The throne contains a hidden cache containing a key to the secret door and a map to the secret city of Suderham.

THE HIDDEN CITY OF SUDERHAM

The isle of the slavers, also known as the Aerie, is situated in the middle of a lake hidden in a volcanic crater. On the island, an extinct volcanic peak called Mount Flamenblut rises over the hidden city of Suderham. The author warns the DM to restrict the players movement to Suderham. The rest of the island is explored in the next module, A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords.

• The introductory text (p 8) does a good job of setting up a ticking time-bomb scenario. The party captures some aristocrats, ties them up and steals their papers. Their fine robes fit over the adventurers armor. Entering the town as dusk gives the players extra cover. They need to find the entrance to the subterranean passages beneath the city before dawn.

• The cryptic clues that are supposed to lead the players to the Sign of the Rose house of ill repute are opaque. At location B29, the sage will give the players a book entitled The Illumination of the Rose for 100gp. The sage offers no further explanation. The stable boy in B44 if offered 50gp will whisper, “There is a secret passage! It is in the rows of rouge!” I just gave you more fucking gold pieces than most people make in a year. Do you think you can you be a little more specific?

• The city overall is poorly designed. Of the 68 locations in the city, 28 are literally closed. Several others have nothing useful or notable within. Half the buildings on the map are closed! Why bother with numbering and listing a description?

B13. House of Ill Repute: Sign of the Rose (p 11) – The secret passage leading to the catacombs is located in oddball brothel. While the cathouse next door is packed to the rafters with townsfolk and merriment, the Rose has no patrons whatsoever. Do the locals know something? Maybe all the girls have incurable VD. The entrance to the undercity is via a trapdoor hidden under a bed in an empty room. The stable boy should have said, “Seek ye the saddest room in the lonliest whorehouse.” And for 50gp, he should be waiting in the room ready to toss the barbarian’s salad and open the trap door with his teeth.

B19. Denhow’s Pub ‘n’ Grub (p 12) – Ayares the Cutpurse is a horrible pickpocket. He attempts to pick a players pockets and fails. If the adventurers give him a hard time, his brigand friends at the the bar back him up. Great way to add conflict to the story. The adventurers are trying to remain low key. Is it in their best interest to start up a brawl?

THE CATACOMBS

Two equally difficult to locate passages lead the adventurers to the catacombs. The party confronts a cavalcade of classic monsters before squaring off with the slave lords.

• This section is referred to as both sewers and catacombs. There seems to be no unifying theme to the creatures in this section. The author’s sense of ecology in the Caves of Drachensgrab is totally abandoned in this section, but there are some interesting situations.

C3. The Killer Mimic’s Lair (p 16) – The mimic traps the characters with some sort of sticky trap, forms its tendrils and starts bludgeoning its victim. What can I say? I’m a sucker for mimics.

C5. Minotaur Menace (p 17) – The minotaur encounter takes over several rooms. I like the idea of a single monster fight taking place spread out across multiple rooms.

C6. Cunning Gelatinous Cubes (p 18) – The only thing I love more than one gelantinous cube is two gelatinous cubes. A pit trap causes adventurers to fall on top of a gelatinous cube. Once kill the cube is killed, there are some shiny magic items in the bottom of the pit, including an ioun stone. While the party is divying up the spoils, another gelatinous cube jumps into the pit from above.

C9. Council Chamber of the Slave Lords (p 19) – The final battle of the module takes place in this chamber. In tournament play or at the DM’s discretion, the writer’s intent is that the players are sandbagged to leading the story into the next module, A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords. The slave lords show up again in the next adventure.

Please add your own comments on the module below. Memorable moment’s from actual games would be great too. Hopefully, these annotations will become a resource for future game designers’ study.

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Annotated A2: Secret of the Slaver’s Stockade

TITLE

A2 – Secret of the Slaver’s Stockade

AUTHORS

Harold Johnson with Tom Moldvay

SYNOPSIS

After defeating the slavers in Highport (A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity), the adventurers discover a map of the slave route. The trail leads to a stockade where the adventurers uncover an extensive hidden slave operation within a ruined hilltop fort.

PLOT

Head of the Snake – Some organization is causing problems for the locals. The players must track the bad guys back to the source and eliminate the threat.

SETTING

A ruined hill fort and the dungeon complex below.

MONSTERS

The fort is primarily populated by hobgoblins. The dungeon level tips the monster count scale toward goblins.

hobgoblin (208), goblin (143), caveling (62), giant rat (29), gnoll (28), horse (25), orc (25), dog (20), worg (18), wolf (17), bugbear (12), kobold (10), boar (9), stag (8), ogre (7), ape (7), boggle (6), ghoul (6), oxen (6), half-orc (5), werewolf (5), bear (4), wereboar (4), ogre mage (4), giant centipede (4), hill giant (3), griffon (3), wight (3), viper (3), elf (3), haunt (2), giant spider (2), owlbear (2), cave spider (2), anhkheg (1), madman (1), cloaker (1), halfling (1), badger (1), medusa (1), cave beetle (1), cave lizard (1), minotaur (1)

NOTABLE NPCS

This module features a fair number of NPCs. The most important characters are listed first, followed by a few less significant characters that I thought were entertaining.

Markessa (p 27), “a small female elf with ivory white skin, golden hair and an evil slant to her amber eyes.” Markessa is the leader of the Slave Lord’s operation in this area. She carries out vile experiments on slaves in her mad quest to create the “perfect slave.”

Gulyet (p 21), a goblin witchdoctor and apprentice to Markessa. Gulyet wears a special whistle that can be used to sound an alarm or summon a large white wolf.

Blackthorn (p 30), the captain of the guard and treasurer. Blackthorn outwardly appears as a tall, gaunt human, but is actually a polymorphed ogre mage. Blackthorn detests Markessa and her cruel experiments, but needs a good excuse to remove her as leader of the profitable slaving operation. Blackthorn will work with the players if he can convince them to do his dirty work, but will betray them as soon as they adventurers have dealt with Markessa.

Icar (p 19), the fort commander, second in command to Markessa. Icar is a 7 foot tall, black human adorned in black platemail and a helm with no eye holes. Blind from birth, Icar learned at a monastery to use his others senses to compensate. Icar’s chosen blade is a two-handed sword called “Death’s Master”.

Executioner (p 18), an ogre second in command to Icar the fort commander. The ogre is dressed in black chainmail and wears and black executioner’s hood. Executioner wields a special bastard sword with curved hooks at the cross guard which he uses to disarm his opponents.

Estelrath Tancred (p 18), a slave merchant waiting on a shipment. Markessa created his caveling guards, Cari and Filch. The pair were once elves, but bear little resemblance to their old forms. Cari has large hands and a tail with a stinger. Filch has a prehensile tail and likes to attack by jumping on a victim’s back, wrapping its legs around it and stabbing with two daggers; one gripped in its hands and one in its tail.

Lady Morwin Elissar (p 5), escaped slave. She pretends to be a “lady of quality”, but is actually low born. “She tends to be hysterical when threatened (50% chance of crying out and perhaps fainting), which will alert guards to the party’s whereabouts.” Stupid women always fainting and stuff. I think it has something to do with their baby-making parts.

Mouth (p 31), a dull-witted caveling that is the result of Markessa’s experimentation. Mouth got his nickname because “he remembers the tongue of the outside world.” Mouth has no legs, but has learned to walk swiftly on his hands. Mouth warns the other cavelings when intruders are around by making hooting sounds.

NOTES

• The detail of every room is exquisite, especially on the upper fort level. The level of detail would not be useful on the fly while running a game, but I found the details memorable enough that the read-alone text reminded me of the information I had read earlier.

• The fort level has an interesting map layout. After passing the front wall, the second section is broken in a east and west wing. The third section winds unnaturally forcing the players into a strange, spiraling linear path.

• The sounds of crickets are referred to repeatedly in the opening. It adds great color. I liked how the crickets stop chirping when the anhkheg is about to strike. I need to use something like this in one of my adventures.

• There so much alarm sounding that its often not clear who is alerted by an alarm or why after the first time an alarm is sounded that the entire complex isn’t called to arms. I think for this sort of stealth-based style of play, there needs to be specifically alert areas defined. If an alarm is sounded, creatures from these rooms answer the call.

• Several maps can be found that lead the players to the next adventure (A3: Assault of the Aerie of the Slave Lords) ensuring the players get a clue before they complete the adventure.

1c. Gatehouse Inner Room (p 6) – The cat knocks a crate onto the floor alerting a guard. God damn, cats! They’re all the same.

2e. East Guard Post (p 7) – The opening takes a trippy turn pretty quickly when the “song of the crickets take on the din of a distant battle”. Pretty cool – albeit bizarre – idea.

9a. Gatehouse Wall Walks (p 10) – Boggles are chained to the gatehouse wall as watch dogs. They can see invisible creatures and will wail if they see any intruders. A few pages later a hobgoblin guard has boggle on a leash. This created vivid imagery for me. Like! +1

15. The Empty Room (p 10) – In the long history of empty rooms, this is one of the best. When the players enter the room, the see a ghostly figure and hear moaning. The ghost is actually a billowy curtain and the moans are the wind in the chimney.

16. Madman’s Lair (p 12-13) – An escaped slave, tortured to the point of madness by the slavers, has taken over this area of the fort. The madman has driven off the hobgoblins with traps and gimmicks that have convinced the hobgoblins the area is haunted. The entire madman section is amazing. He’s the John Rambo of squatters. His weapon of choice is the noose which he drops down on the neck’s of the unsuspecting. This is a perfect sub-plot.

25. Room of Slaves (p 16) – A roomful of slaves being made docile by a cloaker. The original cloaker has some interesting powers. It can disguise itself as a normal cloak. It has multiple eyes on its back and a mace tail. It emits different subsonic moans that can cause fear and incapacitate. It can also manipulate shadows to throw in an enemies face and create mirror images of itself. The cloaker is also known as a “Tenebra Complexor” which means something like “shadow embracer” in Latin.

33. Servant’s Quarters (p 18) – Goblins and kobolds are drinking beer and betting on a match between fight between a halfling armed with a table leg and a badger. I hope it’s not a honey badger because honey badger don’t give a shit.

36. Cook’s Quarters (p 19) – The bedroom is a mess but apparently empty. The half-orc cook is hiding under the bed with a dagger waiting to stab anyone who looks under the bed. This is completely true. My cousin’s friend told me last year at the Winter Festival, a half-orc was hiding under wagons and cutting people’s ankles and stealing their presents. All I’m saying is LOOK under your wagon before you get in.

2. Entry Hall (p 21) Giant magnet trap pulls metal weapons and armor against the wall.

5. Storeroom (p 22) – Another brilliant empty room. Faint hissing sounds turn out to be 2 inch long cockroaches.

13. Alchemist’s secret storeroom (p 25) – A gas trap causes everyone to hallucinate that the person who triggered the trap is an efreet wielding a flaming sword. The effects wears off after about as many rounds as it takes for the party to grind their former teammate into hamburger meat. Lulz.

16. Beehives (p 25-26) Bee keeping… in a dungeon. Scoff! Indeed.

The Caves (p 31-32) – “The Caves” section is a great side trek. The caves are home to a society of escaped caveling, the mutated byproducts of Markessa’s experiments. Every caveling is afflicted with a madness that determines their place in society. For example. homicidal maniacs move to the Hunter’s camp. If the players are non-threatening, the caveling may befriend them, then soon after attempt to surgically alter them into caveling. Communicating with caveling is difficult since they are all insane and speak only in grunts and shrieks.

28s. Slave Cells (p 33) – “Three men and a woman. The woman is desperate to survive and return home and is prepared to do whatever is necessary to reach that goal.” I’m starting to think Harold Johnson was just Moldvay’s joke pen name. Harry Johnson? Nevermind.

30a. Markessa’s Double’s Chambers (p 33) – Markessa has created a brain-washed body double through magical experimentation. There is a chance the double will resist her programming which is to lead the adventurers into a trap.

31. Bodyguard’s Exercise Room (p 33-34)- The elf bodyguard is the product of another of Markessa’s experiments. She reshaped a puny, ugly elf into a svelt fighting machine and trained it to love her. Unfortunately, the bodyguard fell in love with Markessa’s double instead. No expense has been spared in outfitting the bodyguard with the training equipment he needs, including “a goose down matress for exercise sessions with Markessa.” Sadly, the bodyguard can only stare wistfully into the middle distance thinking of Markessa’s exact duplicate while banging the gorgeous slave lord. The heart wants what the heart wants.

Please add your own comments on the module below. Memorable moment’s from actual games would be great too. Hopefully, these annotations will become a resource for future game designers’ study.

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Annotated A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity

TITLE

A1 – Slave Pits of the Undercity

AUTHORS

David Cook

SYNOPSIS

Sea-faring slavers are ravaging coastal towns and villages. The slavers are using Highport as a base of operations. The adventurers must stop them.
An escaped slave has given information on a ruined temple entrance on the outskirts of the city.

PLOT

Head of the Snake – Some organization is causing problems for the locals. The players must track the bad guys back to the source and eliminate the threat.

SETTING

A ruined temple compound and the sewers beneath it.

MONSTERS

The predominant monster in this module is the orc. The number of encounters involving dopplegangers borders on the ridiculous; to the point that I was surprised one of the dopplegangers wasn’t actually a doppleganger in disguise.

orc (159), giant ant (38), half-orc (34), aspis (22), ghoul (21), stirge (20), giant rat (20), human (16), zombie (12), skeleton (12), harpy (8), giant weasel (7), doppleganger (6), crocodile (6), ogre (5), basilisk (4), wight (1), sundew (1), green slime (1), gray ooze (1), troll (1)

NOTABLE NPCS

This is a tournament module so the adventure is pretty straight-forward: Kick in the door; Kill everything or avoid the trap; Repeat. Other than a freed slave that may join your team, there is not much non-player characterization.

NOTES

• Random encounter tables include the maximum number of a creature. Unless the party leaves the area, the monsters do not replenish their ranks. For example, on the Wall Encounter Table, a roll of 8 indicates 1-4 harpies. Say you encounter 3 harpies in a random encounter and later you encounter the harpies again. There can only be 1 harpy because the maximum is 4.(pg 2-3).

• As noted above, there is a comically high number of dopplegangers.

• The Temple Chamber encounter (pg 10) is interesting. A evil cleric and her half-orc guards stand before a gigantic statue of a one-eyed orc lofting a a sword above its head. A troll “made tiny by a potion of diminution” is hidden inside a poorbox and springs out after battle ensues. I love these sorts of non-sequiturs in an encounter (as long as they aren’t over done.) They usually make a fight memorable. “And then a miniature troll leaps out of the poorbox, grows to full size in mid-air and claws your back!” “Uh! Ooo-kay.”

• The False Drum (pg 14) is a unique dungeon feature designed apparently to waylay the misophonic and obsessive compulsive. A giant overturned cask makes a a repetitive sound resonate through the sewer whenever a water drop strikes it. If the cask is moved, the sounds stops which alerts intelligent creatures that someone is in the area.

• The Slave Lord’s Den (pg 18) paints a very quirky scene. The Slave Lord decided to situate his office right next to a moat of raw sewage. When intruders arrive, he orders his five trained giant weasels to leap over the sewage moat and attack while his ten orc guards pepper you with crossbow bolts. The Slave Lord then runs behind a crate and drinks a potion of invisibility so he can get in position to back stab. The crates of rations and supplies are for a slave caravan… stored next to an open pit of raw sewage. “Hey Thrask! Does this jerky smell funny to you?”

• Giant weasels and floaters aside, the ending is a let down. Among the Slave Lord’s supplies you discover a map of the slave caravan route that leads you to the next adventure, A2: Secret of the Slaver’s Stockade. Alas, your princess is in another castle.

Please add your own comments on the module below. Memorable moment’s from actual games would be great too. Hopefully, these annotations will become a resource for future game designer’s study.

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Review: Kobold Guide to Game Design Vol. III

I was recently offered a review copy of the “Kobold Guide to Game Design Vol. III: Tools & Techniques”. I’ve been wanting a chance to dig into one of these volumes for awhile but never pulled the trigger on ordering it. I immediately wrote back and downloaded my review copy. I’m glad to say this work is definitely worth the price of admission.

The target audience for this book is primarily aspiring game designers, but most of the material is of interest to gamemasters in general. I’m more of a game design tinkerer than an aspiring game designer, but I found plenty to love in this volume. If you are the type of gamemaster who enjoys the “Design & Development” series of articles in Dragon magazine, you will love this book.

The roster of contributors reads like a who’s who list of gaming rockstars: Wolfgang Baur, Colin McComb, Rob Heinsoo, Ed Greenwood and Monte Cook. Colin McComb’s comparison between tabletop and video game design processes was very enlightening. Rob Heinsoo’s article delves into the story behind the design process of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. I never tire of those stories.

The bulk of the articles are written by Wolfgang Baur. I think most of the insights I received from this volume were while reading his articles. Even when he isn’t trying to impart advice, he ends up shedding useful tips. I almost slapped my forehead when I read, “Yes, usually the deadline is killing me, and I’m fighting very hard to keep everything together, to fill in all the “XX” place markers and all the “TBD” or “NAME HERE” stopgaps that I used earlier as shortcuts.” I can’t count how many times I have stopped in the middle of writing an adventure to come up with perfect name for a location or NPC – and ended up derailing my creativity for the night.

In Chapter 3, there is a great quote: “If something about a design bothers you, figure out why.” Skill challenges in 4th Edition D&D have annoyed me since launch and I finally realized why. The design doesn’t reinforce the right behaviors. To my mind, the design goal of the skill challenge is to encourage creativity and roleplaying. The problem is that the mechanics fail to foster that behavior. Players tend to use the skills with the highest bonuses ad infinitum, hobbling creativity. Well, that’s not exactly true. My wizard is pretty creative trying to come up with reasons he can use his Arcana skill in every situation, but again I don’t think this is the desired behavior. Also, when there is an opportunity to speak with an NPC, I’ve noticed players are more likely to ask to roll a diplomacy check than to strike up a conversation.

Baur’s words doesn’t always hit their mark. Several times, he implores budding designers to beat the reader over head with their NPC and campaign setting descriptions. His goal is probably to draw out more flavor. I like the idea of a super-saturated style, but I don’t think it’s a one size fits all approach to game design. I’ll definitely try to apply the technique and see if it helps me come up with something for the next encounter I write.

Another problem, I had with the volume is I swear I’ve read a few of these articles before, but I don’t know where. I’ve been a subscriber or picked up issues at the game store for a couple years. I’m not sure exactly sure how many of these articles are reprints – Monte Cook’s article was definitely in KQ #12. There is no indication of which articles have been previously published. In the future, it would be great if the publisher included a list of which articles were previously published and where.

While reading the articles in this volume, I had several flashes of insight related to game design and games I have run in the past. You can’t really ask for more than that from a text devoted to game design. It was a great feeling and I ended up plowing through the entire 87 pages in a single sitting. Many times, the book was validating ideas I’ve had about game design for awhile. I highly recommended this book to amateur game designers and hardcore gamemasters alike.

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Review: Dungeon Crawl Classics #50 – Thrones of Punjar

When 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons was about to be released, Wizards of the Coast completely dropped the ball on getting information about the game to third party publishers. The result was a dearth of quality, unofficial supporting material for the new edition at launch. Joseph Goodman of Goodman Games was the only game publisher with the foresight to recognize several things. Wizards of the Coast has a track record of putting out great rule books, but mediocre adventures. Also, due to the aforementioned lack of support and licensing information, no other third party publishers would have products in their development pipelines. Joseph spoke with his attorneys and figured out how to release his products using the existing open gaming licensing until the new third party licensing information was available. This strategic move gave Goodman Games a several month lead over its competitors and gave the gaming public some of the best adventures yet for the fourth edition.

Leveraging the star power of the Dungeon Crawl Classics line of products, Goodman Games launched their 4th edition line of adventures with DCC #53: Sellswords of Punjar under the OGL. They continued operating under this license  through DCC #61: Citadel of the Corruptor with the advice of legal counsel and I suspect some back room chats – are you going to sue me, Hasbro? Goodman then switched to using the released and revised GSL with DCC #62: Shrine of the Fallen Lama.

Of the adventures released thus far by any publisher, DCC #60: Thrones of Punjar by Rick Maffei stands out as one of the best adventure released for D&D 4th edition. Though released last year, I was shocked to not find a single review of this adventure on the internet. Be you a follower of the Old School or the New Generation, every gamemaster owes it to themself to seek out and study this work of art. Maffei fleshes out the interests of several competing factions and weaves them together into a cohesive narrative. If you take the time to read through the adventure module and study the characters motivations, you will be able to extemporaneously move your players through the module regardless of the path they take.

The foundation of any great adventure is to have an interesting and memorable villain. Thrones of Punjar has this in spades. One of the major villains is an albino aboleth called Churlydtyrch. An outcast of abolethic society, Churlydtrych has taken up residence in the sewers of below the Devil’s Thumb district of Punjar. Punjar is a gritty port town in Goodman Game’s campaign world of Aereth, but can easily be recast into any campaign setting. The aboleth has comfortably encircled itself with servitors lured from the city streets above. Churlydtyrch has thrived for some time while operating below the radar, but people have been disappearing and the citizens of the Devil’s Thumb have grown suspicious and fearful.

Several lower noble houses vie for control of  the Devil’s Thumb. House Rohamari has been running a succesful gambling establishment for some time, but House Malhaven recently opened a competing operation that is growing in popularity. House Rohamari’s profits are suffering and they seek to do away with their chief competitor. Beluth of House Rohamari, a cunning, former adventurer, has uncovered the existence of the aboleth and forges an alliance. Beluth agrees to help hide Churlydtyrch and provide new servitors in exchange for use of the aboleth’s thralls. Beluth sets up a secret cult based in a chamber below the House Rohamri casino to recruit unsuspecting victims.

The nobles of Punjar often share the responsibilty of hosting high-ranking visitors of neighboring cities. House Malhaven has been tasked with hosting the daughter of a prominent ambassador named Ardwen Toldara. Beluth sees his opportunity to discredit his enemy. Working through Churlydtyrch, he ambushes and captures Ardwen. The players are tasked with finding Ardwen before his arrival.

Maffei imbues the story with a sense of urgency that propels the player characters forward. The ambassador is rushing toward Punjar while the guards frantically search for his daughter. If the players do not find Ardwen before the evening of the third day, she is slain – a fact that is held back from the players.

The adventure plays out like a mystery novel. Along the way, the players find clues that lead them closer to Ardwen. As the party makes its way through the city, they constantly run into competing interests. A gang of street toughs attempts to hold them up on the docks. A band of doppelganger assassins are hired by Beluth to ambush the heroes launching an interesting battle. The doppelgangers attempt to split the party up and mirror the player appearance to confuse them.

Maffei makes extensive use of scripted events throughout the book. Different events are triggered depending on the previous actions of the players. The story can get slightly confusing, but a flowchart with several branches is given at the end of the book to make it easier. This adventure is squarely in the new school of gaming. The adventure is story-driven, detailed and internally consistent.

While I thoroughly enjoyed reading this module, I can see how some people would object to this type of story-based adventure. What if my players happen to go right to the end of the story and the flowchart says I should kick off a particular event? Don’t feel constricted to slavishly following the flowchart. Maffei devotes several paragraphs to each non-player character’s personality and motivations making it easy to riff the story in any direction your player’s choose to run.

I wholeheartedly recommend Thrones of Punjar. The best complement I can give this book is I actually want to run my players through it in its entirety. When I read a module, I usually rip out a few encounters or ideas and work them into my campaign. After reading Thrones of Punjar, I really want to re-skin and run the entire module from start to finish. The story is well written and the villians are memorable. Every gamemaster should add this new school gem to their bookshelf.

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Review: RPG Atmosphere

RPG Atmosphere is the most intriguing RPG sound utility I have reviewed to date. The program comes with a large number of preconfigured sound scenarios you can drop into your game without having to spend hours preparing. Once you are ready to create your own scenarios, the  interface is easy to understand. RPG Atmosphere also has a number of features not seen in other RPG sound mixers such as integrated music playlists, changing background images, audio recording, evolving soundscapes and a scenario importer/exporter.

Version Reviewed: Beta
Website: http://www.rpgatmosphere.com/
Price: $28.95

Pros

– Large number of preset sound scenarios
– Includes many high quality sound effects
– Unique features

Cons

– Not enough customization
– Keyboard triggers need work
– Some glitches

 

The biggest draw of this program is the large number of preconfigured soundscapes. As gamemasters, we already spend hours preparing for a game. We don’t have a great deal of time to spend collecting sound effects and tinkering with loops. RPG Atmosphere removes much of this headache. Without having to fiddle with any controls, you can bring your game to a country farm, a festive medieval fair, a dragon’s lair or even a large cavern complete with dripping sounds reverberating throughout the chamber. Just launch the program and click one of the 32 included scenarios. You will be able to bring amazing sounds to the table even if you have never used sound in your game before.

Once you have grown tired of the preconfigured sounds, you may want to delve into the interface. You create new scenarios starting in the main window. Save one of the existing scenarios with a new name and start experimenting. There are three types of sounds you can configure: background, random and soundboard.

Background sounds are the foundation of your sound scenario. These sounds play in an endless loop. An example of a background sound would be the sound of rain or the murmur of tavern patrons. Two of the background sound panels, Back1 and back2, are preloaded. You can load any sound loops you desire in the ‘Cust B’ panel. Each background sound has a number of configuration options you can control. Independent volume control is a staple of every sound. The volume range can also be set which lets you set a minimum and maximum volume. The ‘Rate of Change’ slider will let you control the speed at which the volume bounces back and forth within the volume range. There is also a left/right stereo balance that allows you to position sounds in stereo. The sounds default to center balanced playback, but I’ve found alternately adjusting your sounds slightly to the left and right of center really adds depth to the sound scenario.

Sounds on the random panel play at — you guessed it — random intervals over your background. This might be the crack and boom of lightning during a rain storm or a lost sheep bleating in a meadow. Random sounds break up the monotony of your background loops and bring the scene to life. The random panel has four preset panels and one customizable panel. The random sound configuration parameters are limited to volume and pitch. Unfortunately, there are no stereo controls here.

The soundboard is for manually triggering individual sounds. Use this panel when you want to trigger sounds that you do not want to loop, like the clang of a sword when one or your players makes an attack or the beating of wings as a dragon takes flight. The soundboard comes with 4 preconfigured banks: Feet and doors, Monsters, Weapons and Atmospherics. There are an additional two empty banks, but you can make changes to any soundboard bank. The included soundboard sounds cover a wide array of roleplaying situations. Overall, the sounds are of very good quality. I got a kick out of the ominous sounds on the Atmospherics panel. You can also map keys to triggers sounds in this panel though the beta version I reviewed had this feature disabled.

RPG Atmosphere also adds a great deal of features I’ve never seen in other RPG sound mixers. While not completely innovative, my favorite feature is the integrated mp3 player with playlist support. You can create playlists of music to match the action in your game. Most importantly, the player features an independent volume control so you can adjust it on the fly.

Another feature I like is being able to use background images. You can attach an image file to a scenario and it will show up in the background when you play it. You can even configure it to display on a second monitor. I use an LCD projector when running my games so this is a really neat feature.

RPG Atmosphere also allows you to create audio recordings of the output. I can see it being very useful if you wanted to prerecord a soundscape and save it to an mp3 player. Then you can play back great sounding audio without having to haul around a laptop.

The evolve feature is completely unique. It allows you to change the scenario based on a timer. Click the evolve button in the main controller window to enable weather conditions and nighttime transitions. You can configure your scenario to morph over time without any input whatsoever ever.

Finally, there are the sharing features. Vectorsoft Media has gone out of their way to create a community around this application. The RPG Atmosphere forums are a great place to share scenarios that you save with the importer/exporter. I look forward to pulling down some user generated scenarios.

Unlike some other gaming sound programs, RPG Atmosphere is supported under Windows 7 and Windows Vista. It even runs on 64bit versions of the OS. No Mac or Linux support, but that’s par for the course.

Overall, I love this program. I’m going to start converting my sounds over and use this as my primary sound application, but there are some shortcomings. I’d like to see more customization. Why can’t there be more customizable banks? Is there a technical reason for not being able to adjust the L/R balance of random sounds? The default keyboard triggers are strangely mapped. In the beta version available on the website right now, I believe that control key is still mapped as the ‘next scenario’ shortcut. If you want to put this program in the background, you may run into some frustration if you need to use your control key. The programmer insisted via email he is changing this behavior so it may be fixed by the time this article is published. Lastly, there is some glitchy behavior in the program. Interface options that don’t work and slow redrawing of some control windows. Since this software is still in beta, it’s to be expected.

You can download the application and use it completely free for 21 days. The program is a commercial application and I hope the kinks are worked out before the trial period expires. The price is a little higher than other commercial RPG sound mixers, but I think this program will be worth it once it’s out of beta. I highly recommend grabbing the trial version and trying to use it in your game – even if you’ve never used sound in your game before.

RPG Atmosphere
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Supports 32 and 64bit Windows Operating Systems only.
Programabilitywww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
Offers a large number of sliders and options to control your soundscapes.
Usabilitywww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
Overall, the program is very easy to use. The interface still has a few inconsistencies. The developer is very active so I expect this will change in the near future.
Overallwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
RPG Atmosphere is on the verge of becoming the top dog in the arena of RPG sound mixers. If you are in the market for an easy to use sound mixer with hidden depth, check this one out.
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Review: Softrope

Version Reviewed: Beta V0.2 Release 52
Website: http://softrope.net/
Price: Free

Softrope is yet another sound effects program geared towards use in tabletop roleplaying games. It was first released over seven months ago, but somehow I had not run across it until very recently. When I went to the website, I was impressed by the clean, simple of the look of the interface. A truly versatile program lies behind the unassuming exterior.

Pros

– Clean, button-centric interface
– Usage is very intuitive
– Decent level of programability

Cons

– No volume controls on main screen
– Bugs
– Lack of keyboard triggering

Once configured, Softrope’s layout is fairly intuitive.  The main interface is laid out like a soundboard. Each button is called a scene. A scene is a group of sounds you want to play together. The buttons are large enough to click while you are running a game. One click triggers the scene and a second click disables it. A highlight appears around active scenes so you know which ones are playing at a glance. You can even put a picture on the button. There are a couple knobs in the upper right hand corner that seem to control echo and some other value between 0 and 3000.

Nothing in life is free. While Softrope is freely downloadable, you will end up spending some time tinkering around with the program to figure out how it works. There is no documentation and the mouse over pop ups aren’t always helpful. For example, mousing over the unlabeled echo knob only shows the value.

The Scene Editor is easy to use. Each blue bar is a set of sounds you would like to play. Softrope calls them sound effects. Think of it as a layer. You can add multiple sound effects in a single scene and apply different settings to each one. You can loop and sequentially play sound files. The volume levels can be manipulated on each sound and sound effect so you can really make sure your levels sound okay.

However, not everything is rainbows and leprechauns in the land of Softrope.  There are a few missing features and significant bugs with the beta build I reviewed. The author of the program seems to be very active and communicative with users so I expect these issues will be resolved soon.

The biggest feature missing is a main volume control. When I run a game, I control my music playlists with Windows Media Player and run my sound effects program next to it. Depending on the action in the game, I raise and lower the volume of the music or sound effects. Since there is no master volume slider in Softrope, I have to go into each scene with the Scene Editor to change the scene master slider. This really limits the usefulness of the program.

There seem to be significant bugs in the build I used. If you loop a sound effect and change the random loop time sliders, the scenes work fine. If you save your scene, exit the program and try to load it again, all your loop timers go away. For some reason, my pictures were not loading either. But they did load for a module I created with an earlier version of the software. I’m sure the author will fix these issues, but this defect is bad enough to make the program unusable for all but the simplest purposes.

One nice to have feature would be a way to trigger sounds with the keyboard. Even though the buttons are easy to click and see, the flow of the program requires you to stop and start different scenes if you are trying to play a sequence of scenes that are tied to your narrative. It would be much easier to tap a key on my keyboard. My final issue is with the lack of documentation. The program is mostly straightforward, but there are a few things, like the mysterious knob on the main screen, that have no mouse over hints.

Softrope
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Supports 32 and 64bit Windows Operating Systems only.
Programabilitywww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
Softrope has just enough fiddly knobs to allow the creation of complex sounding audio.
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Softrope's great execution is marred by the lack of a master volume control and major bugs.
Overallwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
I am very excited about this sound mixer and look forward to reviewing future releases. Softrope's look and functionality are wonderful. Unfortunately, the execution is marred by the lack of master volume control and show-stopping bugs.
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Review: SceneSound

Version Reviewed: 1.5 build 1020 32bit
Website:
http://scenesound.cyclobster.com/
Price: Free

I recently became aware of SceneSound when it was a featured on EN World. SceneSound is a new sound effects application specifically built for use in tabletop gaming. I’m always looking for new tools to complement my multimedia-heavy gamemastering style. The website was spartan, but I was intrigued enough by the screenshots to register an account and take this little sound program for a spin.

Pros

- Simple interface
– Scripting interface is easy to understand
– 32bit and 64bit Windows support

Cons

- Short on features
– Inconsistent interface
– No instructions at all

Upon launching SceneSound, I was immediately impressed by the simple interface. There’s no digging through layers of menus and dialogue boxes here. What you see is what you get when you launch the application.

The window is divided into five sections; Library, Environmental FX, Random FX, Sound FX and Scene Scripts. The Library pane allows you to load sound files on your computer. If you are like me, you have probably built up an extensive library of sound effects. The Library section will automatically import all the subdirectories of  any directory you add here. Once added, you can drag and drop sound files onto other panes to quickly load them.

The Environmental FX pane is where you put your background sounds. Click the circular loop button and your sound will loop endlessly. The Random FX pane will play a single sound at a random interval of all the sounds in the pane. Drag the sounds you want to trigger manually to the Sound FX pane.

If you right-click any sound, you can set a trigger key to make the sound play. It’s useful during the game to be able to just tap a key to play a sound rather than have to make sure you click in the right place. When I run combats, I often have a few sounds mapped to the keyboard, such as the sound of a person screaming or a dragon breathing fire. A well-timed sound effect can add humor or tension to your encounters.

The Scene Script pane is dead simple. For many people,  this is probably a plus. For me, its a bit thin. I like to program my sounds the night before the game and I make heavy use of RPG SoundMixer’s scripting and section features. The scripting interface in SceneSound doesn’t even support all the features in SceneSound, such as enabling and disabling the playing of random sounds. However, if you are building a single scene and have no programming experience, you may be happy with the scripting interface.

For me, the program is too simple. I’m not trying in any way to discourage the author. It’s a great start and a nice price (free), but I want more features and more configurability. One thing I would like to see is a simple way to load and trigger multiple scenes. If you want to create scenes for different encounters, you have to save each scene to a different file and manually load each one when your scene changes. For the harried DM trying to set a mood, this is a bit cumbersome. I’d really like to see a Scenes pane that lets you switch scenes with a click or key.

There are also a few inconsistencies in the interface. In most of the windows, you click the drop-down arrow in each pane to access a menu. The Scene Script pane has an arrow, but it doesn’t appear to do anything. I finally right-clicked the pane and discovered a menu where I could add a new script.

My last gripe is with the lack of documentation. The application is so simple that its use is mostly obvious, but there are a few mysterious buttons.  There is a small icon on each sound that looks a bit like a cell phone. I have to idea what it does. No instructions are included on the site. There’s not even a pop-up when you hover over the “cell phone” to give you an idea of its purpose. It seems like it wouldn’t take long to create decent documentation since the feature set is so small.

SceneSound
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Supports 32 and 64bit Windows Operating Systems only.
Programabilitywww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
Scene Script has a very simplistic scripting interface. I prefer something with more meat but at least it has a scripting interface.
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SceneSound is easy to learn, but at the cost of features.
Overallwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
If you want simple soundscapes and don't mind having to manually open and close your scenes, you will love this program.
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Review: RPG SoundMixer

Version Reviewed: 1.6.10
Website: http://www.rpgsoundmixer.com/
Price: Around $20

RPG SoundMixer is the absolute best sound effect solution for gamemasters on the market today. It has a few warts to be sure, but I live with them because I am unable to find a product that can replace it. Believe me. I have been looking.

Pros

- Advanced scripting features
– Location-based effects
– Great sample sounds can be downloaded from website

Cons

- Limited OS support
– Lack of updates
– No independent control of media and music tracks

The best feature of the program is its scripting capabilities. There is no software out today that can match it. Once you grok the interface, RPG SoundMixer allows you to layer sound in very complex ways. The program is based around binding keys to trigger sound sequences. For example, your party enters a tavern. You tap a couple keys on your laptop and you get a looping low murmuring background noise, sprinkled with random outbursts of laughter, clinking of beer steins and other revelry.

Once you have a grasp of the basic scripting capabilities, the next most useful feature are scenes. You can divide any scene into 8 pieces. Once you start a scene, you can hit the enter key to move forward one section in the scene or the backspace key to move back one section. It does take some work before the game to get your sound effects squared away, but it is worth it.

Let me give you a quick example of a scene in RPG SoundMixer. The first section of your scene consists of the sound of torches burning and little else. Your party is foraying into a dank dungeon. You read your ominous flavor text. Slap that enter key. The sound of booming footsteps fills the chamber. You describe the hideous aberrant troll abomination that has just come into view. Everybody rolls for initiative. Tap the enter key again. RPG SoundMixer moves to the next section where you have a battle scene. The sounds of magic missiles flying, swords clanging and trolls bellowing emanate from your speakers at random.

RPG SoundMixer has a great deal of effects you can apply to your sounds. You can apply stereo effects to any single sound, even with variables. For example, you want to simulate the sound of someone being thrown by the troll. You can apply the sound filter “Left to Right” and the sound will begin in the left speaker and travel to the right speaker as it plays. There are even variable options so you can grab a random sound from a pool of hundreds and have it play randomly from left to right or right to left and it can move quickly or slowly. It’s all left up to the gamemaster’s desires.

My next favorite feature is the location-based effects. Location-based effects are applied to all sounds that are currently playing. They are controlled by the number pad. The effects are called Mountains, Forest, Cave, Underwater, Large hall, Metal room, City, Hangar and Arena. I get the most mileage out of the Cave and Large Hall effects. The Cave effect adds a hollow, echoing quality to all the sounds that are playing in your scene. It really feels like you are in an underground cavern when you hear that water drop plopping into the stream up to your ankles and it echoes across the room.

Another great thing about RPG SoundMixer is there is a demo that lets you check out all these features for yourself. If you end up buying the product, you can do download some great sound libraries for free on the RPG SoundMixer website.

Now for the bad features. It’s Windows only and you must be running Windows XP to use this product. No Vista, no Windows 7. I suspect this is because of the Windows sound API that the programmer uses. Also, the developer advertises free lifetime update, but of course its because they are free to him as well. He rarely if ever updates the product.

Another slightly annoying “feature” of the product is you cannot independently control the effects track and your music track. This is easily worked around. Do not play music in RPG SoundMixer. I load up my sound track playlists in WinAmp or Windows Media Player.

When I originally purchased the product over a year ago, it was going for nearly $40. Now, it us just around $20 USD. I cannot think of a reason not to buy the product at this price. It’s worth every penny.

RPG SoundMixer
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The only operating system supported in Windows XP.
Programabilitywww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
RPG SoundMixer features unparalleled configurability. This is defintely the products strongest point.
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The initial learning curve is a little steep. Once you understand how to configure the product, you will be amazed at what you can do.
Overallwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
This is the best sound product out right now. It's not that expensive. Pick it up.
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