Sunday, November 11, 2018

Chinese History and Fantasy Sets

Over the past few years, there has been a lot of innovation among the Chinese brick manufacturers. Several of them have moved past making copies and started to make their own designs based on Chinese history and mythology.

These are obviously (English translations of things) intended to appeal to the domestic market; Chinese parents and children want to buy something from their own culture. Lego has never done anything from Chinese history, so that these sets and minifigs make a great addition to my collection. A couple months ago, I went on Aliexpress and ordered some of them.

The best value of my order was Enlighten Series 4 minifigs: a set of eight stock characters from Chinese historical stories, each with a small build. I highly recommend these, and will be getting more of the series, even the ones that have a couple of non-fantasy figures mixed in.

These sets were interestingly nostalgic. They reminded me of the little Castle sets from my childhood with one person and a little build:

This makes sense. The richer parts of China today have average family incomes similar to what Americans and Europeans had in the 80's, so the kinds of toys the children or their parents can afford to buy would be similar. Toy stores sell these Enlighten figures separately in boxes; one of them would be a good random treat for a child.

The Ghost Tribes character set was similar, although the quality was not as good. The clutch and tolerances were a bit worse, and one of them was missing an important part. They were also more of a generic fantasy collection instead of being Chinese-looking. I might still recommend them to people who are just starting out and want to build up a basic supply of minifigs, unless Lego starts making historical sets again.

I was also very happy with the 'Creation of the Gods' Enlighten sets I ordered. Enlighten's quality keeps getting better each year, and the 'Creation of the Gods' sets are the most recently released in their fantasy line.

Evil Queen's Boat:

Xuanwu Scooter:

I recommend browsing the Enlighten storefront fantasy section, which has both their European and Chinese fantasy sets, and trying out something that interests you. There are several $5 sets that give you two or three good figures along with an interesting terrain or monster build. Unfortunately, as with Ninjago and Nexo, there are a lot of techy vehicles as well. I guess the same things that appeal to little children the world over.

For some reason, a lot of the Enlighten stuff is not on their storefront. It does not have their minifig collections, or anything from the 'Legendary Pirates' line like the Crocodile I reviewed earlier. This store has a mix of their older pirate stuff that is basically a copy of Lego designs, and the newer ones that are original designs.

I also tried ordering a 4-pack of minifigs riding brick-built beasts, obviously inspired by World of Warcraft. The designs were very good, and there were a lot of nice unique printed parts, but the low quality means that I can't recommend them. The ball-and-socket joints were a big problem: either so tight that they bent the plastic or so loose that the creature would not stand up. The minis also had a leg attachment system that was very weak. Kazi brand has some work to do before they can catch up with Enlighten.

Another series of note is the Winner brand 'Fantasy Westward journey' line. It was tempting, but I did not get it because it was too specific to Chinese mythology and would not fit as easily in my game, and I was unsure of the brand's quality.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Lego Dice

I have been using Lego dice in my games for years. I keep them in my dice bag with all the others, and we roll them to randomize things and inspire storytelling. They get used every session:

The dice have six faces that can take a 2x2 Lego plate, or a combination of smaller plates. The rubber on the edges makes them bouncy and protects the plates. There is a blank one, with no tiles attached, on the bottom right of the picture above. They came with the discontinued Lego Games sets, and you can customize them by adding whatever tiles you want. Most large collections will have a lot of these blank, stickered, or printed tiles.

I highly recommend buying some and using them, especially if you have interesting printed tiles sitting around. The dice are incredibly cheap on BrickLink. I got 20 of them for less than $5 including shipping, and prices have not changed since, although not many sellers have enough of them to justify the shipping. You may want to combine the order with other parts.

As with everything Lego, the possibilities for custom dice are as endless. For example, you could choose a color or icon to represent each party member, and have a die to roll when you need to select a random person. Here are some of the mainstays of my game:

The Heroica dice (below), used for the results of searching, crafting, and negotiation. Roll it with the d20 skill check. The number represents the number of things you obtained with a successful roll. The other icons may, depending on the situation, represent complications or obstacles that you have to overcome. So if you roll to search a dungeon for clues, the two pips and a skull side represents finding a couple things but also triggering a trap. The gold shield side represents extraordinary success.

A directional dice, with tiles for the four directions, and two faces with arrows. A face with two arrows pointing the same direction calls for a reroll and double distance, A face with two arrows pointing different directions can call for two adding two rolls, or it can represent "you got lost and/or spun around".

A dice for the six elements of earth, air, fire water, light, and dark

A dice for the six common D&D attack energies of fire, cold, lightning, radiant, acid, and thunder.

A dice with the terrain types/locations of forest, mountain, ocean, desert, wildspace, and underdark.

Two different dice with six icons that represent concepts like wealth, rage, stealth, magic, healing, etc. Used for determining the properties of situations, people, or items.

These dice, singly or in combination, are a great way to determine what happens when players create or investigate something unexpected. I'll have the player roll a couple dice, and usually the results give inspiration to help me come up with the thing that happens next.

Plot Hook Die

The die in the bottom left is a Lego piece that came with a few Adventurers sets from 2003. I use it as the 'Plot Hook Die' in my games. Whenever a player rolls a downtime skill check they are proficient in, they can replace their proficiency bonus with a roll of  the plot hook die. The numbers add to the result, but if the hook comes up, it means that their roll, good or bad, causes a significant change in the plot, or at least causes something interesting or unusual to happen.

A Plot Hook accompanying a low roll means that the skill check revealed or created an emergency that will have to be dealt with immediately, while high numbers represent uncovering fantastic opportunities that will give great payouts if the party pursues them. A medium roll means uncovering an interesting side-quest opportunity that will probably be more lucrative than a standard mission. In all cases, I encourage the players to tell the story about what happened.

For example, someone rolled the Plot Hook Die on a routine diplomatic mission to open trade relations with a city of minotaurs in the Underdark. The result was a 1 and the plot hook. The player decided that this meant that the minotaurs had been taken over by a hostile invading force of drow. Dealing with this drow invasion and its side effects ended up taking up the next year of the campaign.

The decision of whether or not to roll the Plot Hook Die added a great dimension to the game. If players felt that the game was already complicated enough, they avoided it. If they wanted to shake things up, they chose to roll it. It, like the other Lego dice, has been a great addition to my dice bag, and I would not want to run a game without it.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Set Recommendations: Summer 2018

As always, sets are sorted in roughly descending order of how much I recommend them, and selected for variety and versatility. I am tailoring the recommendations to people with a relatively small collection, for example people who started by just using Lego minifigs for the PCs and are thinking about adding Lego monsters and terrain for a reasonable price. If you have an extensive collection, then you probably know what you want to get already.

Edit: Added a couple sets that were released in August.

New Sets

Mythical Creatures

The dragon is the star of this $15 3-in-1 set, which can be rebuilt into a fire giant and a colossal spider. It is obviously an update of the Red Creatures set I recommended in 2015, which was selling for twice as much on the secondary market. The newer set is even better, taking advantage of new parts. Highly recommended. If you only get one Lego set to play fantasy RPGs with (after acquiring the PC figs), get this one. Like many sets, Amazon has it for 20% off, or $12.

 World Fun and Ocean's Bottom sets:

The 'basic pile of bricks' sets have gotten much better for Lego's 60th anniversary. They finally added minifigs, tools, and lots of good accessories. These two sets are perfect for a fantasy game. They are my new recommendation on the Starter Guide, but they are also a good deal for expanding existing collections.

Throne Room Showdown. I always like the little sets that have small modular terrain pieces. They are cheap, good for establishing a scene, and can easily be stored and transported. With five minis and a lot of nice accessories, this is a great value for $20.

Tree House Treasures is this summer's 3-in-1 Creator building location. All three builds are very good for a game, and the process of building them is a good way to learn how to make a variety of Lego terrain. Everyone who runs a fantasy RPG with Lego needs to know how to make a big brick-built skull:

Master Falls is an excellent rendition of a classic adventure location: a rope bridge over a water-filled ravine leading to a castle or dungeon entrance. Unlike most Ninjago locations, this one would not look out of place in a 'traditional' European or generic fantasy setting. With its three minifigs plus skeleton, including the always-useful old sage and four-armed monster, it is a good value for $30.

Aira & the Song of the Wind Dragon has a nice sky palace and an elemental dragon. Many of this year's Elves sets feature elemental animals that are probably too cute for most games, but this one is a good fit for almost any play group.

Aragog's Lair has a lot of nice things for a game, including terrain, giant spider, and useful minifigs and accessories.

Temple of Resurrection: When you make entire locations out of Lego, instead of just putting dungeon dressing on a grid, it starts to get more expensive. But it can be worth it for the grand showdowns or boss battles. This set is a throne room and dungeon combo that has a lot of potential. If you are getting one of the larger sets, get his one.

Sanctum Sanctorum Showdown is another option for the larger adventure site. The brownstone house fits quite well in a medieval fantasy world with minor adjustments, and you get a lot of interesting accessories as well as a  bigfig that will serve well as a troll or ogre.

Jungle Starter Set.
People have differing opinions on using 'modern' looking minis. I think the torso piece with ropes, carabiner, and tool pouches is perfect for a dungeon-delving adventuring rogue in a world with magic items and masterwork exotic tools. I also think that a scientist with lab coat full of test tubes makes a good NPC. If you and your playgroup agree, then this set is a great value. If not, then you are paying $10 for an alligator, a small terrain piece, and a boat that needs a bit of work to look old-fashioned.

Lance's Hover Jouster is the least-techy of this year's Nexo Knights sets. It has interesting accessories and minifigs, and can be turned into reasonable fantasy terrain or dungeon dressing with a little work and creativity.

Modular Winter Vacation. While not as useful as some previous Creator 3-in-1 sites, it lets you make a rustic hut in the snow that can be a good adventure location. The second build, with the snow monster and the outhouse, is better than the main build.

Still Recommended and in Stores

Most of what I recommended last year has already been retired, in some cases doubling in price on the secondary market.

The Goblin King's Fortress makes a very good plant-infested mystic fae dungeon/castle adventure location.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Medieval Fantasy is Impossible

When I first started using Lego to run RPG's, I carefully sorted out my minifigs based on their suitability for a medieval-era campaign. I pulled aside any heads or torsos with modern features like zippers or sunglasses and kept them out of the PC tackle box. This left me with mostly Castle and Pirate minis, along with a few from Town and Adventurers.

Later, I started to think more deeply about what a world with demigod-power adventurers, reliable magic-users, and ruins from advanced ancient civilizations would actually look like. I eventually realized that non-medieval anachronisms were not only possible, but inevitable. There is no way that a world that operates on the rules presented in fantasy RPG rulebooks would look like medieval Europe, or any other specific historical setting.

Now I will use almost any minifig that shows up in the bulk brick lots I order from It helps that my games have a lot of content inspired by Spelljammer, Planescape and Eberron, but that is probably not necessary. A recent game had a lot of orcs clad in a motley assortment of various armor scraps, and nobody even noticed or cared that one of them was stormtrooper armor.

The rest of this post will not be about Lego, but will instead be an extended discussion about why no fantasy RPG world will ever look and feel like any historical period. Even if the technology level is the same, the shape of society will be radically different.

Military Technology Shapes Society

A fundamental lesson of history is that the structure of society depends on its military technology. The Middle Ages were the way they were because the most powerful force on the battlefield was the mounted knight in armor. Knights were the foundation of military power, which meant that they inevitably accumulated economic and social power as society grew to serve them and their needs. The medieval manor was a self-contained economic engine devoted almost entirely to the creation and maintenance of armored knights. Everything served them. The economy was devoted to giving them horses and armor and fortifications. The culture of the nobles focused on identifying and developing the traits that made men good knights.

Contrast this with ancient Rome or warring-states China. In those places, the most powerful force on the battlefield was a disciplined, professional infantry formation. As a result, their economy and society were organized around maintaining these infantry armies. Things were more centralized and standardized, with large economically integrated empires connected by good roads, and their culture valued discipline, scholarship, and bureaucratic competence much more than 'chivalric virtues' like bravery.

Also contrast the middle ages with what happened after firearms were invented. Before firearms, a mounted knight could defeat an arbitrary number of peasants on the battlefield. After firearms, the number of bodies on the battlefield became much more important. This shifted power away from the aristocracy and toward the people. A revolution by armed commoners became a much more serious threat, and governments responded by giving them more rights and/or inventing new technologies of social control like propaganda and nationalism.

Background: Military Supremacy of Adventurers

This section explains why powerful adventurers make traditional military forces obsolete; skip it if this fact is self-evident to you.

In the world of the fantasy RPG, the most powerful military force is a party of high-level heroes. In most game systems, a group of high-level adventurers with basic tactical skills can easily crush a nonmagical pre-modern army of almost any size. Even if they can't wipe out the opposing force in a single day, they can easily use their superior mobility to retreat, rest, and come back later to finish the job.

The superiority of the adventuring party is even greater when you consider the issues of deployment and force projection. A premodern army will only move 10 to 20 miles a day, and unless they are backed by an empire's worth of supplies and logistical competence, they will strip the land bare like a horde of locusts as they move. By contrast, an adventuring party can use flight, an airship, or magical mounts (or just a teleportation spell) to deploy to where they are needed very quickly and cheaply. This would make them an incredibly valuable military asset even if they were weaker than a large army in open combat.

Furthermore, the logistics of an adventuring party make them even more attractive and useful as a military asset. Unlike every other military force ever, a high-level party requires no supplies at all to function, not even food. (By high levels, any sensible party will have magical means of creating food and ammunition, and repairing their gear.) While they are more effective with a supply of healing potions and other consumable items, this is not at all essential for them to completely dominate other types of military forces. If they are loyal to you, or your cause and values, their incredible power comes with no support cost or logistical demands.

Additionally, the nature of the world makes access to a high-level party essential for basic survival. Even if you are a peaceful country with no intention of going to war or conquering anyone, and/or you have a mundane military sufficient to avoid being attacked or conquered by any of your neighbors, you absolutely must have the ability to contact an adventuring party and hire or persuade them to save you from demons, dragons, vampires and other existential threats that no army can stop.

What the World Will Look Like: Differences

As described above, high-level parties of heroes make conventional military forces almost useless. There is very little reason to drill armies or train knights, or to construct many of the things associated with them. Large standing military forces of any kind will simply not be a feature of society. There will be police, but no army.

There may or may not be any contemporary castle construction. Militarily, there is no point in building castles. Castle walls will not even slow down a mid-level adventuring party, or any other real threat like dragons or demons. However, if the world is infested with dumb wandering monsters, like beasts and zombies, then most towns will be fortified with walls and/or stockades to keep them out.

In a fantasy RPG world, the people with the most power will inevitably be the ones that control or influence the most high-level adventurers. All of the economic, social, political, and religious institutions of society will be devoted to the task of identifying, training, supporting, rewarding, and ensuring the loyalty of people who are or could be part of well-functioning high-level adventuring parties.

As long as adventurers exist at all, (most modules assume they are common enough that people are used to dealing with them) it does not matter how rare adventurers are. Their mere existence is sufficient to warp society around them, and the rarer they are, the more they will be treasured. Here are some specific social features of that world:

There will be as much gender equality as the nature of economic production allows. Female adventurers are just as powerful as male ones, and no society can afford to waste their potential power or do anything to make them upset with the current order. Even if NPCs have human sexual dimorphism, which means that the upper-body strength of male agricultural workers makes them more productive in plow-based agriculture systems, which will inevitably generate some economic inequality, there will be far more social equality than in medieval societies.

There will not be any witch burning. Anyone with magical potential and any ability to function in a team is far too valuable of an asset to damage, and every authority in the land will make this very clear.

Because adventurers can come from any social situation, political organizations will work very hard to ensure that all of their people will have some loyalty to them. There will be as much social and economic equality as the state can afford, and there will not be any groups of oppressed or marginalized people (in the PC races. Races that never or almost never create adventurers could easily end up abused and enslaved.)

Society will heavily encourage people to try their luck at adventuring, and will subsidize any activities that are likely to generate adventurers. If a collection of random village teenagers wants to go exploring the world, the authorities will supply them with training and equipment and aim them at a low-level questing ground. If they die, then the state only lost a few peasants, but if they come back with class levels, the state gained an incredibly valuable military asset.

Groups of low- or mid-level adventurers will be carefully nurtured and supported, especially if they are relatively cohesive. At minimum, there will be a heavily subsidized 'adventurer's guild' that gives them basic supplies and support and information about level-appropriate quests. Anyone who can tolerate the regimentation will be recruited into the military, given an income, rank, and status, and deployed to level-appropriate missions.

The most valuable economic asset is not land or gold or trade goods. It is high-level items. They are incredibly valuable military tools by themselves, and they are also one of the best ways of attracting, paying, and ensuring the loyalty of high-level adventurers. States will care relatively little about controlling land or gold mines or trade routes, but they will care a lot about controlling sources of powerful items, or information about their whereabouts.

If it is possible to create magical items, the entire economy (after the labor and resources required for subsistence) will be devoted to doing so.

Conquering and holding territory is very difficult. Adventuring parties can easily destroy armies of conquest, but it is very difficult for them to hold territory and collect taxes. People are unlikely to fear conquest and invasion (although they might fear evil adventurers demanding exorbitant amounts of protection money, or simply looting things).

Collecting taxes is much less necessary, and much harder to justify. As long as the local leaders have a connection to a reliable adventuring party, there is basically no need to support or train an army.

Similarities to Premodern Societies

However, despite these differences, there will be ways that the world resembles medieval society:

It is likely to be a world of smaller manors and city-states rather than empires or cohesive nations.

The machinery of state is likely to be weak, there will be very little bureaucracy or regimentation.

Travel will be very difficult for ordinary people. Because adventurers do not need roads, they will not be built. This will make the world very fragmented, and people very provincial.

Merchants will be rare, and most social units will be in a subsistence autarky.

Knowledge and scholarship will be rare, aside from things that make adventurers more powerful. Nobody has much incentive or ability to research engineering or agriculture, but they do have an incentive to research magic spells, combat techniques, and locations of ancient items of power.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Dungeon Dressing

The key to sustainably using Lego bricks as terrain in a D&D game is to keep things simple and flexible. Resist the temptation to make grand impressive builds, and do not try to copy all of the beautiful Lego builds you see online. After the dungeon walls, the things that I use most often tend to be simple builds that can be used as 'dungeon dressing' in a lot of situations, like a wall shrine or a pit trap,

a bed, table, chair, and fireplace,

terrain pieces with hidden compartments,

a ladder down to a lower dungeon level, a shelf full of magical items,

a brazier, a throne,

a feast table, a rack of kegs,

a council table,

or just a basic a table and chairs.

Individually, these little builds may seem boring or simple. But when you have tubs full of them,

you can make entire dungeons full of fun and interesting encounters in a hurry.

I often find that the best additions to my dungeon dressing tub are the little terrain pieces with play features from the lower-cost Lego sets. For example, Fire Dragon's Lava Cave has both a sliding-lava-waterfall terrain piece and a terrain piece that transforms a pool from green water to clear water. I removed the latter from its green base and made a dungeon dressing piece that can be put anywhere.

This treasure chest statue on top of a chain-activated trapdoor comes from the Oasis Ambush set from the old Adventurer's line.

Many modern sets have excellent little terrain pieces with well-designed play features. Use them for inspiration, or download the instructions and make copies of them from the pieces in your collection, or just buy them, build them, and keep them in a tub to use for your games.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Nexo Shields

Here's an easy trick to greatly expand the shield options for minis: When you attach a bar plate to the back of a Nexo power shield, you get a lot of interesting pseudo-heraldric shield designs that portray the 'shield strapped to a forearm and held over the chest' look better than the normal shields.

I have a lot of these pieces because I bought several Nexo ultimates and battle suit figs on clearance. I bought them for the minis and parts, not realizing at first that the shields could be so useful.

These shields also look good when attached to the back of a character with a neck bracket with back stud:

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Enlighten Bricks: Lord of Sky

'Lord of Sky' was the second set I ordered along with the Blacksmith Shop:

Its package had the same length and width as the blacksmith shop, which allowed for efficient shipping:

Its instruction book has the same page size as the larger sets. This was a pleasant surprise. I am used to Lego sets in the $10-$20 range having small instruction books that inevitably get bent up in the box. It was nice to have a large flat booklet with a smaller set.

The set has two bags, each with one minifig and its mount. The first one is the elf and parts for the hippogriff.

The build was easy and fun. Putting the pieces together felt just like putting Lego pieces together, with the single exception of the trans-yellow disk on the neck, which was a different kind of plastic and hard to connect. It was a better build experience and piece quality than the earlier two Enlighten sets I ordered. This is probably some combination of Enlighten brick quality getting better over time, and the pieces being smaller. Off-brand bricks usually work better when they are smaller, because there is less opportunity for the lower tolerances to make things harder to fit.

The mixel-style ball joints feel very much like the Lego kind, with similar fit and strength. The front legs will sometimes pop out if you try to move them the wrong way, which is partly the result of the design. They chose to mimic the appearance of a deer's front legs instead of maximizing poseability. The back legs feel just like moving around the legs of a dragon from the Elves line.

The click hinges have more variability. Some are a little harder to move, which means that when you try to move the joint and do not hold it right, sometimes a piece will fall off instead of the joint moving. Others move more easily then Lego click hinges. Still, they never had any problem holding complex poses in these models.

Overall the hippogriff is very well-designed and looks great, like a cross between a deer and a giant eagle. There were two little flaws in the design that I needed to fix, however. The wings could not flap down because they collided with the hind legs, but it was an easy adjustment to move them a stud forward where they could flap freely. I also needed to remove one of the back slopes so the rider could sit down:

This was actually a nice bit of nostalgia. When I was younger, Lego sets were less well-designed, so there were obvious fixes that I could make after building them. Now, it is very rare for this to happen, which actually makes them a little less fun.

Bag 2 is the knight and griffin:

This was another good build. As with the hippogriff, the design uses modern building techniques and parts like click hinges, ball joints, rods and clips, and technic axle connections. The only thing that told me that I was not making a Lego-designed creature was the use of a part that Lego does not have: a plate with studs on each side. This part, which Mega Bloks has been using for years, allows you to do things that you cannot with only Lego. I like how Enlighten combines Lego and Mega Bloks parts to make their unique designs.

The griffin head is a unique molded piece that connects with a larger ball joint that is not the same size as the larger Lego ball joints. When I made the Crocodile, I thought this joint was unique to Enlighten, but later I found that Mega Bloks uses that size connection.

The griffin wings are truly impressive. They are made from a thick printed plastic, and are the same size as the wings from the Morro Dragon. I am not used to getting such a large wing or sail piece in a smaller set, but the proportions are actually right for the build.

Despite the overall solidity, there was one important part of the griffin build that suffered from low part quality. The 1x2 brick with technic axle connector did not grip to the axle, which meant that the head popped off very easily. When I replaced this with a Lego brick from my connection, it worked fine. The Enlighten brick will not hold any axle and is only useful for greebling.

Aside from that, I might have been making a very well-designed fan creation with Lego bricks, a few of which were older or somewhat worn out. Of the three Enlighten sets I have tried, this one is definitely the best value and the one I recommend the most. Its minifigures may not be as unique or impressive, but the parts and designs are better. For $12 [Jan 2018 edit: the price has gone up to $16], you will get two fantasy creatures, both of which are as good as the main attraction of a $20 Lego set:

Both models have stood up to at least two evenings of poseing, fiddling, moving around, and otherwise being used as an alternative to a fidget cube while I do other things. I am confident that I can pack them into a bin and take them to games without them falling apart.

Enlighten has become a serious competitor to Lego. Their pieces are almost as good, and a lot cheaper. Their instruction books are actually better. They are producing a full range of good original designs. I'll be watching them to see what else they make.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Enlighten Bricks: Blacksmith Shop

Enlighten recently added sets from their War of Glory line to their Amazon store at good prices (just a couple dollars more than the lowest price on ebay or aliexpress). Because I was impressed by an earlier Enlighten purchase, and because this new series is perfect for traditional-fantasy RPGs, I ordered two sets, one of which was the Blacksmith Shop:

The order arrived ten days after I ordered it. Both sets came in a bubble-wrapped package.

As with Lego sets and the crocodile, the set comes in numbered sequential bags:

The first bag has all the minifigs, and the pieces for the rolling driller cart. The minifig hands come separate; you have to put them in the arms. There was a spare of each kind; I got three flesh-colored ones and five yellow ones. This turned out to be necessary, as one of the dwarf hands would not hold accessories.

One of the main things that interested me about this set was getting two dwarves with short moving legs. As far as I can tell, these short legs are unique to War of Glory minis.

The legs, with real Lego legs on the left, and the two dwarves and elf in this set on the right:

The gap between the legs and hip is smaller than it was in the minifigs in the crocodile set. The two dwarf legs in this set are also different, which suggests that the gap is due to some kind of variability and will be different from figure to figure. As before, the gap creates instability, and makes the figures feel less robust than Lego minis. I am more careful when using them, because I do not want to break them.

The dwarf beards did not fit right when I put them on the torso and later added the head. But when I pressed the head into the beard first, it fit snugly, with the printed mustache lining up with the molded beard, and then I could add that assembly to the torso. The beard is difficult to remove from the head; it might become necessary to trim the inside of the beard slightly to fix this.

The gold-horned helmets are painted, very precisely. I had been hoping for something like the viking helmets with attachment holes and separate horn pieces, but these are still very nice. As far as I can tell, they are an original mold. The quality is very good. They come off the head a bit too easily, but I prefer that to the typical off-brand helmets, which stick too tightly on the head.

The white tiger is very nice. The tail, neck, and jaw all move.

The quality is pretty good, but not as good as Lego. The two halves were not fully joined; I had to press them together. It is a bit difficult to place the tiger on a studded baseplate. It is also a bit difficult to place a minifig in the saddle, especially with the wobbly minifig hips making me not want to press them down hard. Also, the saddle, which is a standard Lego horse saddle piece, is a bit too tall for this figure.

Similarly, the other bricks in this set are almost, but not quite, Lego-quality. The only pieces with mold flashing that needed trimming were the control sticks, which would not move fully in their socket until I trimmed off the excess plastic.

There was one exception. The gold cones in the numbered bag would not form a solid connection with the technic axle, which meant that the big gold drill would not stay on. However, the set came with an extra little bag with gold cones that did fit snugly. The company must have realized the problem, and added the better cones to make it work.

Aside from that, there were no surprises or parts that did not fit.

Bags 2 and 3 had the blacksmith shop build. The quality and ease of build were almost like a Lego set. The hood over the furnace collapsed once as I was building it, because the fit was not quite good enough to hold when I pressed down too hard. And the round black piece often comes off the furnace door when I open it, because its one-pin connection is not snug enough.

There was also a pleasant surprise: an extra gray wall piece in bag 2.

After I built the shop, I modified it to be more modular and portable, replaced the anachronistic molten-steel channel with a mill race for an overshot water wheel, and used leftover pieces to make a little dungeon room:

This set is fewer bricks than the crocodile, but it is a better value for running a fantasy RPG. The two flexible dwarf legs are going to see a lot of use. The elf and riding tiger are also perfect for a druid or ranger PC, and the blacksmith shop is an entire adventure site with good interaction, play features, and equipable loot. Even with the lower piece quality, it is a great value for $20 [2018 edit: The price has gone up to $26].