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Reviews - Level Up #1
by Andy Vetromile

Level Up #1 coverLevel Up - Issue #1
Published by Goodman Games
Edited by Aeryn "Blackdirge" Rudel
56 page magazine, full-color cover, b & w interior
$1.99 ($4 via subscription with digital copy)

No one has jumped onto the Dungeons & Dragons: Fourth Edition bandwagon with as much zeal as Goodman Games. To wit: they're pretty much the only game in town as far as magazine support goes with their new periodical Level Up.

At Issue
The article spread is precisely what one would expect from a D&D mag: there are pieces on character paths, monsters, DM help and advice, and so on. Level Up is a bit more creative in its execution, though, and has its own way of presenting new material for what could otherwise end up as staid segments. Some of their adventures aren't simply written freeform - instead the company may take a picture out of the vaults and think up a story to go with the action it suggests. Reviews aren't just quick, they're "ultrashort" entries done in a paragraph or two, allowing them to present half a dozen of them. Martial advice is presented through interviews with a captured hobgoblin, and the letters page is an advice column called "Dear Archmage Abby" that answers affairs of the dice as well as the heart.

Level Up's editing is pretty capable, though it seems to vary by article rather than achieve a consistency throughout (it's almost as if the reviews section went to press untouched). The writing is solid for the most part, and few of the articles fall below a certain level of quality. The artwork is high-class and almost uniformly displays talent. Graphic design is just about flawless, being easy on the eyes, and the maps are darn fine additions that disappoint only in that a) they neglect to provide a proper key for the scene, and b) they're magazine size and not something you can whip out onto the game table for the players... though even that may have a workaround. Goodman Games is using this product as a test bed for dual-format releases, offering an electronic version of its magazine when you purchase the physical item at the friendly local game shop.

Some of the high points of the first issue: Jeff LaSala's inaugural entry for "Deities of Aereth", an ongoing examination of various gods for use with Goodman's Dungeon Crawl Classics series, is far and away the best piece in the book. With a mature and sober style he describes the fascinating Gorhan, a god of war with a distinct personality that seems missing from most pantheon descriptions. Colorful and imaginative, it bodes well for future updates. Brendan LaSalle's "Abby" piece doesn't have much space or material to work with, but in the brief territory allotted, his column already shows hints of promise.

Then there are the low points. "Jack's Ultrashort Reviews" is informative insofar as he covers a lot of ground, but the editing and writing cripple the article and the reader doesn't come out the other end much more informed than he was going in. All the overviews are ultimately positive so it's hard to get a read on what a bad product might look like, but a dearth of reviewable material can be an unavoidable problem with a startup venture like Level Up (there's a lot about in-house products from Goodman). "A Picture Tells 1,000 Words" is a good idea, but at the same time it would probably strike a deeper chord if the reader were more familiar with the illustration being reimagined. As it is, the picture could have been drawn for the article instead of the other way around, so it's hard to appreciate the full impact from that perspective. Notwithstanding, it's a quick bit about heroes being hired to watch milady's husband before the lord falls prey to his own transgressions that still manages to offer some good story hooks. And finally, while there's nothing wrong with it, this is the heir apparent for Dragon Magazine so it has to be said: no cartoons.

Other articles in the initial release cover dinosaurs, warrior paths that depend on their weapons, and adding fiendish overlays to game templates, among other things. Issues are set to cost $1.99 each at one's local game shop, though they can still be purchased through Goodman Games (in physical form with the concomitant .pdf) for $4. No mention has been made whether the size will vary by release, but the premiere issue runs 56 pages if that's any kind of benchmark.

The first issue of Level Up offers only a sample of all the materials editor-in-chief Aeryn "Blackdirge" Rudel promises for later in the run - for example, complementary extras that add to or are derived from one of Goodman's other game products are slated to be added in the future - but no one is confirming what kind of assortment one can expect each time. If someone takes a liking to the character-enhancing "PC Pearls", for example, it's unclear whether the devoted reader can count on that being in every issue or if it's a sort of rotating buffet that gives that column a miss once in a while. There's probably enough real estate to include most of the roster each issue if they edit things down, use smaller font, or trim some whitespace efficiently, but the only thing the editor pledges is one of the "Roads to Adventure" series of articles, a one-size-fits-all story useable in any campaign. (This time around it's "The Hill Giant Thane", an excursion that's serviceable for its intended 7th-level audience but is otherwise unremarkable.)

Launching a print periodical in the Digital Age is a risky venture, so what's being brought to bear has to be something special. Level Up has a lot going for it (not least its decidedly affordable price tag) and one issue does not a product define, so if they can work out a few more kinks going forward, they have something on their hands worth 4e fans looking into.

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