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Reviews - Signs & Portents #1
 
by Matthew Pook


Cover of Signs & Portents #1Signs & Portents #1
Published by Mongoose Publishing
Edited by Ian Barstow
Written by August Hahn, Shannon Kalvar, Lizard, Joseph Miller, Jonny Nexus, Wade Nudson, Kenneth C. Shannon III, Matt Sharp and Ian Sturrock
72-page saddle-stitched magazine
$4.95

The appearance and widespread reach of the Internet has gone a long way toward killing off the general gaming magazine, the type of magazine that would cover all types of roleplaying games on a regular basis. These are best typified by the original incarnation of White Dwarf and Imagine, TSR-UK's rival to Dragon, GDW's Challenge and even through one period of its history, Dragon itself. But in these modern times, most if not all magazines have moved in-house and become strictly what are known as "house organs" that cover their publisher's games and only those games. Together, the gaming magazine and its audience has stratified and specialized so that aside from online e-zines such as Steve Jackson Games' Pyramid, there are no longer any general gaming magazines.

The focus for the very latest house organ is the d20 system, and in particular the output of the United Kingdom's most prolific of publishers, Mongoose Publishing. In the two or so years since their founding, they have released some eighty titles, including four roleplaying lines: Sl‡ine: The Roleplaying Game of Celtic Heroes and The Judge Dredd Roleplaying Game, both licensed from the British weekly comic 2000 AD; their own self-developed RPG, Armageddon 2089; and the recently published Babylon 5 Roleplaying Game and Factbook: Signs and Portents. The new magazine is also called Signs & Portents, and is designed to cover all of the publisher's lines and those to come.

The full-color first issue is in places far better laid out than Mongoose's actual books, and while this is an improvement, their lack of layout expertise continues to be their Achilles Heel. Of course, one major selling point is that this issue does come packaged with a copy of The Slayer's Guide to Minotaurs, a slim 24-page entry in the ever-popular monster series. Inside, the magazine's contents are a mixture of articles, previews, columns and a scenario, all devoted to their games.

In place of a news column, there is only coverage of their forthcoming books, two of which are supported by fuller articles or previews. These start with "The Coming of Conan," the first of a series that looks at Mongoose's Conan RPG that will arrive next year and bring the license back to Dungeons & Dragons (or at least the d20 system). Written by the game's author, Ian Sturrock, this is an interesting piece and bodes well for both game and this series of articles. Unfortunately it is let down by an awful printing error that duplicates much of the first page and thus wastes a good quarter of the article. The other preview is for Macho Women With Guns, a somewhat garbled piece that presents a miasma of ideas and the game's history, all to no coherent effect.

Two preview pieces so far, and there are more to come: The first is of The Minbari Federation Fact Book, and includes a new military Prestige Class, the Alyt; details on a roleplaying challenge, the Casteless Character, as a sub-race for the Minbari; more information on Minbar; and the true prize for Babylon 5 fans, stats for the White Star! The next preview, entitled "Secrets of the Written Word," comes from Encyclopaedia Arcane: Tomes and Libraries. Unlike the previous piece, this is far more sombre, bordering on dull, and is likely to dissuade any potential purchaser from doing so. "Combat in Magnamund" is a look at fighting and war in the world of the Lone Wolf solo adventure books, another license which Mongoose is turning into an RPG. This would have been a far more useful piece for a later issue of the magazine, instead giving this space over to describing the setting or at least an introduction to Lone Wolf for the benefit of the uninitiated.

Perhaps the worst, or the least interesting of the contents in Signs & Portents #1, are its two columns. "Tales from Mongoose Hall" is essentially a write-up of how the Mongoose staff tackled The Fiery Trial, the first campaign arc for the Babylon 5 RPG. Reading as a poorly done Knights of the Dinner Table, this does include the occasional snippet of advice for the prospective player, but it is all very obvious stuff. "Jonny Nexus," a column in which the writer is allowed to amble on for a page about something or other, follows this up, but like the Honourable Rowley Birkin, Q.C. of The Fast Show fame, said author might well have been terribly drunk at the time this was written. That isn't an accusation, of course, but rather a suggestion that might have made it more interesting.

There is some decent content in the issue, particularly if you play any of the Babylon 5, Judge Dredd or Armageddon: 2089 RPGs. For Judge Dredd, "Taking The Long Walk" details the Undercity below Mega-City One, which is essentially the concreted over East Coast of the old USA. It is still possible to access this dark expanse, whether officially by those Judges who take the Long Walk after finishing their active service on the streets of Mega-City One, or unofficially by smugglers, mutants and Undercity Dwellers who want to get into Mega-City One on the sly. The article is backed up details of the Undercity Long Walk Judge Prestige Class and a new Prior Life, the Undercity Dweller.

For Armageddon: 2089 there are two articles, one a write-up of "The Nukie Browns," a British mercenary squad that specializes in fast strike missions. (For those not in the know, a "Nukie Brown" is actually a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale.) The article also provides information on the squad's WarMeks, along with a new design, the Medium Comms/Anti-Air WarMek, the Birdshot. The second article is yet another preview, this of Upgrades: Armour, a supplement not to be published by Mongoose, but by Mystic Eye Games.

"Whispers in Darkness" is the only scenario in this issue, and is for the Babylon 5 RPG. Designed for three to five beginning characters, this is set in 2058 during the time when the Raiders proved to be a problem for commerce moving to and from the station. It is a decent adventure and is suitable for the game, but would be difficult to tie into the events depicted in the first campaign book, The Fiery Trial.

The rest of the magazine is not as interesting as this, and really the whole of Signs & Portents feels very flat. It is a worthy attempt at a first issue, but too many preview pieces make it come across as a shallow and superficial affair. There is nothing wrong with a preview or two per issue, but what the magazine should be doing more of is supporting its existing game lines with new material and it only does this to a limited extent -- really only its licensed and own created games and not the general fantasy genre of so many of Mongoose's titles. Thus, with so many games and lines to cover, there are going to be swathes in both this and future issues which are just not going to be of interest to each and every Mongoose fan. Most will have bought this first issue out of curiosity and for the free copy of The Slayer's Guide to Minotaurs, but on the strength of the magazine alone, there isn't a great deal here to bring Mongoose fans back for the next, and almost nothing for the average d20 player. As well as needing to create a hook to bring the purchaser back for issue #2, Mongoose will also need to develop a certain degree of direction and character in order to make Signs & Portents stand out from among its competitors.


 

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