Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them: Bigger Potential Makes for a Bigger Letdown

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them came so close to being a good movie that it hurt. It had so many things going for it, and all they needed to do was just fall into place to tell a story far better than any of the Harry Potters. But alas, it was not meant be! The refusal to take the last necessary steps into awesome territory and a final fifteen minutes that came crashing down around what had been built up, as though to telegraph just how badly I was about to be disappointed, managed to drag the whole thing into the rubbish bin. When I found myself thinking “Oh, my God, a pulpy story in the Harry Potter universe?!” I realized that there was no way I would not be disappointed, and no amount of finger crossing could save me.

Fantastic Beasts has a lot of stuff going for it, especially early on. In fact, up through the scene where they’re at the goblin speakeasy, I’m thinking “Man, this is fantastic!”

To begin with, FB starts essentially the same way as Mo-Sanshon!; an outsider crosses the path of a normal guy and drags him off on a wild adventure. Newt Scamander, a squirrely wizard with a menagerie of monsters enlists the help of the unwitting Jacob Kowalski to help him recover creatures that have escaped. Kowalski is the normal joe, everyman hero like the kind you’d see in the pulps – he was a part of the expeditionary forces in World War One, he’s a blue collar worker, and he has a dream of starting his own business.* Where these two cross paths is in the bank where Kowalski is trying to get a loan to open a bakery; at this point, we don’t know if Scamander is going to be a shifty villain or wild trickster, given the trouble he’s causing, but we know right away that Kowalski is someone we’re going to be rooting for!

Not only does it have the perfect pulp adventure setup, it’s got dames! Tina Goldstein is tough and no nonsense; she takes her job seriously and she’s capable – unfortunately, her compassion (and a bit of temper) had put her in a bad spot with her superiors and it’s shaken her confidence a bit. Her sister Queenie is smart and sexy, a powerful master of domestic arts (I know how this sounds, but watching her make dinner for Kowalski was absolutely one of the best scenes in the whole movie), and devilishly clever, but even though she can read people’s thoughts, she doesn’t resent men for thinking she’s a bombshell. She even falls for the normie every-joe!

The fact that Kowalski holds his own fairly well, a few bumbles aside, and isn’t reduced to a punching bag works out really strongly for a good chunk of the film. Unfortunately, the movie can’t fully embrace the fact that Jacob Kowalski is the real hero of the story. Wizards can do, get into, and get out of just about anything; Kowalski can’t, which is why the stakes for him as a mere mortal who’s won the heart of a gorgeous wizard dame are incredibly high and why he’s the one to root for. Unfortunately, when things reach their head with the uninteresting A-plot-that-feels-like-a-B-plot with whatshisname the evil wizard and the crazy orphan boy, Kowalski never gets his big-damn-hero moment that he desperately needs…that WE desperately need. Frankly, Scamander doesn’t get one either, and the whole unmasking of the bad guy as being some other bad guy felt incredibly anti-climactic. I didn’t care about the kid with the crazy chaotic magic powers or the guy trying to manipulate him; I cared about whether or not Kowalski would be able to break the no-normies-hooking-up-with-wizards taboo and if he’d get that bank loan!

Spoilers! There have been spoilers before, but I’m really going to spoil it now.

Even though the movie was starting to completely fall apart by the big wizard… conversation at the end, I’m thinking “Okay, there’s still a chance… there’s still a chance!” President Wizard Lady says ‘this is a disaster, we can’t wipe the memories of everyone in Manhattan’, and Scamander says ‘lol, yeah we can, cuz this thing I have’. Kowalski has to get wiped. There’s a teary scene as Kowalski steps into the rain where he’ll forget his big adventure and his love with Queenie. While Scamander gets pardoned and is allowed to go off back to England with his monsters and publish his book, the best he gets is an awkward derpy scene with Tina; we needed a moment of ‘Damnit all, New York is the publishing capital of the world, I’ll stay!’ with a big kiss on the docks. The final scene where Kowalski has his bakery with pastries shaped like the half-forgotten monster and a smiling Queenie shows up tries to bring things back around, but it’s nowhere near as good as we’d gotten to see him stand up to the President Wizard and say “I’ll have any dame I want, and I want her, and she wants me, and you wizards be damned if you’re gonna stop us!”

 

This movie came SO CLOSE to being what I wanted from a gonzo fantasy movie set in the Roaring 20s New York, and that’s what makes it hurt the worst. Frankly, the characters were far more likable than anyone else in the Potterverse. But one of the major problems the movie had was trying to work in a good versus evil conflict that just wasn’t nearly as interesting as the main good-guys and the host of cool, scary, and cute monsters. If they had completely excised the stupid and inane plot about Grindelwald pretending to be Graves and the kid who’d gone crazy supernova from being forced to hide his magic powers by a crazy magic hating orphanarium marm and just made it about tracking down a bunch of weird monsters that had escaped and undoing the damage they’d done, it would’ve been a much better story, because all of the parts of the movie focusing on the later were absolutely wonderful. Supposedly, there are going to be several more movies about Grindelwald, which sucks, because his storyline was the worst part of the movie that dragged the whole damn thing down. I don’t care about what the wizards do with boring generic evil wizard-guy, I wanted to see Scamander throw his British reserve to the wind and give Goldstein that hero’s kiss she obviously wanted and was literally crying because she knew she would not get.

*:Normal joes tended to be a lot more awesome back then; it’s a law of averages thing.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Normally, I hate those sorts of Eurogames in which there is either extremely limited or virtually no direct player vs. player interaction.  Then why is it that I love Castles of Mad King Ludwig – a game that has no direct and almost no indirect player interaction – and recommend it as a tool in the arsenal of any DM?

Because Castles of Mad King Ludwig is essentially competitive dungeon building – the player who builds the best dungeon wins.

The game is devilishly simple: players take turns being the “master builder”, assigning rooms (which are essentially dungeon geomorphs) a price, then players pay the builder that price and stick the room somewhere on their castle.  There are different rewards for “finishing” rooms (connecting all doors to other rooms or halls) based on the type of the room; points are awarded for connecting certain types of rooms to certain other types of rooms, and various “goals” (cards you can earn by completing one kind of room) give you extra points for fulfilling certain criteria.

I’ve gotten to where I’m pretty good at it; I don’t know that I could say that I have a solid strategy, but avoiding wasting time on hallways and underground rooms (cool as many of them seem) and instead going for goal cards and just all around finishing rooms in ways that earn the most points seems to work.

So, why do I recommend it as a tool for DMs?  Well, remember how I was talking about Thiefy stuff yesterday and how one of the problems a DM faces is having to come up with rich people’s houses to rob when the Thief is all “I want to rob a rich person’s house”?

A DM need only take a handful of pieces from a set of Castles, arrange them semi-slapdash, and in a matter of moments has a mansion micro-dungeon, complete with dimensions to grid.cast2a-1140x891

The Challenge

Circumstances have prevented the Dungeon Crawl Classics group I’m in from having enough folks to run anything, so we’ve been playing various other games during our regularly scheduled nights.  Last time we got together, I decided to bring over “The Challenge”, an obscure card game whose perforated cardstock I’d not even gotten around to separating yet.

the challenge

Hey… hey, wait… spells don’t use the numbered cards, there are no 6s and even Axes only go up to 7!

“The Challenge” is a game of quasi-D&D-like PVP action.  Players take turns having their party members fight it out with weapons and magic until one party is eliminated and the player with the most remaining HP + Magic item value + HP of enemy characters killed is the winner.  Instead of the BS backstabbing and indirect conflict of Munchkin, The Challenge is all about straight head to head combat.  As its name implies, a challenge is issued and characters slug it out until one is killed or both players have exhausted their actions.

Each player starts with 5 characters that can be sorted into one or two ranks.  The races of the character (Orc, Human, Dwarf, Elf, Halfling) aren’t particularly relevant unless you choose to let players pick parties by race rather than randomly to get a more balanced party.  More important are the classes and their abilities.  Each character card has three abilities, meaning those are the cards that can be played when they are in combat: Fighters will have three of the four weapon types, Clerics and Wizards will generally have one weapon and two spells or no weapons & three spells, and Thieves will have two weapons + Backstab.

So, you draw a fist full of cards from the Melee and Mystic Action decks.  The Melee Action deck is mostly full of weapon cards, Daggers, Staffs, Axes, Bows, and Swords, but also has a few “Parry” and “Dodge” cards.  The Mystic Actions deck has spells, equipable magic items, some special thief actions (Spy and Hide in Shadow), and some general defensive items/actions.  These cards can be played based on what abilities are listed on the character card.  If you have a fist-full of Axes, chances are, you don’t want to attack with a wizard that turn, but if you’ve got that shiny human paladin, you’re good to go.

One of the neat aspects is the “ranks”; most characters can only attack one rank away (i.e. a fighter on the first rank can only challenge a fighter on another player’s first rank), but characters with bows can attack two ranks away, wizards can attack any rank(or two ranks, I forget), and if you play a “hide in shadows” card on a thief, they exist in special thiefspace and cannot be attacked but can attack either rank (though doing so will cause them to leave thiefspace).  Once we actually figured out how the thief worked, we realized they were pretty badass.  Since hide in shadows can be played as a response, it meant that they could attack with impunity so long as you had an extra hide in shadows card.

We had a lot of fun with it, but we will definitely need to create our own set of explicit rules and clarifications.  For one thing, the rules pertaining to cards were neither entirely on the card nor in the rules’ description of the card, so you had to read both the card and the rules to figure out how something worked, and even then it could be vague.  Dispel Magic was a point of contention because it was so varied in what it did: on a defensive turn, Dispel Magic could be played to neutralize a negative effect, such as Hold Person, on your own party, but on an attack turn, it could be used to destroy an enemy’s magic item (initiating a challenge against that character), remove a Charm Person (initiating and then instantly ending the challenge if the dispel resolves and you regain control of your character), or counter a spell targeting your caster.  The jury is still out as to whether it can negate an Orb of Protection (because Orb of Protection is party-wide and normally targeting an enchantment/equipment initiates a challenge against whomever is enchanted/equipped), but we agreed that it could not negate the Shield Wall action.  And here is where things are confusing: there are things which are actions which common sense tells you is an item.  Healing Potion is not an item; it’s an action that can be played in response to taking damage or to remove accumulated damage.  Similarly, an Orb of Protection is a “Special Defensive Action” which can only be played during a defensive turn.  Note that the categorization of Mystic Action Cards is listed not on the cards themselves, but in the manual’s description of each card.

This is a game that if you have the patience to figure it out and don’t mind having to piece together your own errata will make a great addition to your gaming parties.  It would feel right at home among something like Bang! or King of Tokyo for folks who like their party games a bit more cut-throat but don’t like the more passive aggressive styles of play.  Though the box’s disclaimer “Warning: Don’t Play This Game With Your Friends” is silly and childish, it could just as well read “Warning: Don’t Play This Game With Eurogamers.”  The only way you’re going to win at this is to be unafraid to throw an axe in someone’s face.  Just make sure you’ve feigned with a Sword-3 or something to draw out that Parry before you drop the Axe-7 on them.

I found this game cheap several years ago and regret waiting so long to play it.  Old as it is, this one is still going for under $20 in a lot of places, and I highly recommend it.

pic575798

From Boardgame Geeks; not my copy.

Short Reviews – The Horse Lord, Lisa Tuttle

Lisa Tuttle’s short horror story The Horse Lord appears, like everything I’ve done a Short Review of so far, in the June 1977 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.  It maybe bears mentioning that the “Short” in “Short Review” refers to the length of the subject matter rather than the review itself.  I retcon this claim to be true.

I love Lovecraft’s weird fiction. Not just his mythos stuff, but his ‘weird New England’ stuff, where the oldness of the land and the mystery about what took place where nothing but oral traditions passed down the stories of spirits that inhabit the land. A lot of writers try to emulate Lovecraft by simply throwing together a monster with an unpronounceable name, toss in the boilerplate about “unknowable horror” and “unspeakable cosmic” whatnot, but those folks are missing the real magic. Lisa Tuttle does not. She understands how to weave a story of suspense and terror.

First, you establish a sense of dread with tone and setting. Then, you provide the underlying justification for that feeling of dread by providing just enough background to confirm in the reader’s mind that something terrible is going to happen and hint at the possible nature of that something. You let the dread build, raising the blade of the guillotine, until the very end when you let the rope go. This is what Lisa Tuttle does in the Horse Lord with enough skill and nuance that one can’t say that she’s emulating Lovecraft’s weird horror but rather she is improving upon it.

The Horse Lord takes place in a grim and desolate patch of land in upstate New York where a family has just moved. The protagonist is a fairly recently married woman, Marilyn, who wanted children someday but now suddenly has several: a step-daughter and four recently orphaned nieces & nephews. Unable to afford space for such a brood in New York City, the family moved to an old home that had been in her husband Derek’s family for years relatively unused. After quickly painting Marilyn’s situation, her character and the rural isolation of the bleak homestead and nearby barn (locked and boarded up, naturally), Tuttle gives us our underlying justification: a gruesome and inexplicable unnatural death nearly a century ago. We learn from Derek that his “Old Uncle Martin” had been torn apart and eaten by his own horses in that barn. The land was cursed and local Indian warnings had gone ignored.

The story goes on to juxtapose Marilyn reading and finding out more and more about the supposed “curse”, the local Indians, the grisly death of Uncle Martin (a kind man, who’d been good to his horses), and nightmares about bones being snapped by the giant teeth of angry equines with the children’s eerie determination to fix up the old barn and catch the horse that must certainly be running wild on the property (what else could be making that terrifying screaming sound in the hills at night?). Never has the old adage of “every little girl wants a pony” been so frightening. We know (because it is a horror story) that Marilyn and Derek are doomed, and we slowly learn why and can eventually make some decent guesses as to how, but nothing quite prepares you (except for a spoileriffic review like this!) for that moment when they are eaten alive by their own children.

Lovecraft’s typical protagonist is a boring asexual scholarly type who winds up in some horrible predicament that ends with him going crazy or being torn to pieces. The horror lies primarily in the situation itself with little empathetic fear, as we don’t necessarily relate or connect to the typical Lovecraftian protagonist (though friendless, family-less archivists and librarians might, I don’t know). Tuttle’s hero here is in a Lovecraftian situation, but we can relate to her and her real life fears about safety of her family, fear for her children, fear of failing as a parent in addition to the unknowable horrors. And then to be killed by that which you loved, feared for and wanted so desperately to protect? It is the unheimlich all over the place!

Review – Kagai!

Disclosure: I have previously received a promotional copy of Postmortem Studio’s Project (reviewed here). I purchased a pdf copy of Kagai! to review.  

147596

Kagai! is an over-the-top violent gonzo RPG meant to bring the madcap antics of Japanese extreme monster horror to your gaming table.  And if that’s your sort of thing, this simple system does a pretty good job of it!

One thing I’d like to give particular kudos for is that Kagai! admits right off the bat that it’s a niche product and will probably be played by people who game so doesn’t waste time on a lengthy “What is Role Playing and what are Role Playing Game?” section.  Those have a place, but 99 times out of 100, any independently released game product is going to be purchased by someone with a huge stack of games who knows what RPGs are.

The basic premise of Kagai! involves a post-apocalyptic future in which monsters have overrun the entire world save for an overcrowded self-sustaining city enclave in Japan.  A decadent consumerist culture is forced upon the surviving populace to distract them from the horrors of the outside world.  While the enclave is supposedly “safe”, monsters are still able to get in sometimes and wreak havoc. Players are expected to play as high-school girls who have decided to rebel against the system and take up their own fight against the monsters who are killing their friends and families.  While players may play as male characters, there are heavy restrictions/penalties and should be considered something of an exception.  The in-game rationale for this is the enclave’s population is 95% female; unless they are able to evade service by means of wealth, influence or corruption, all males are pressed into service at age 12 and sent off to the front to keep monsters and demons at bay.  As such, any men left in the city are either horribly and disfiguringly injured, cowards or rich kids whose parents managed to keep them from being conscripted.

It’s good that the conventions of the genre are stated up-front: characters will die and it will be gruesome.  People who like games that mollycoddle their characters (newschool D&D for instance) will suffer the butthurt and will suffer it hard.  That person who threw a fit when their Paladin got its eyes gouged out and arm melted off before being impaled on spikes?  Don’t play this game with that guy.  In fact, just don’t play with that guy.  But really, don’t play this with that guy.

Character generation is the really the meat of this game; the rest of the system is potatoes with some butter and maybe some salt, but character generation is steak with all the trimmings.  While the whole of Kagai! itself could only be lifted from the explicit setting to varying degrees, the character generation system could be used across multiple systems/settings to create characters and a party dynamic.  It’s pretty neat!

Name Generator – It’s a nice idea, but the sort of person playing this can probably come up with 20+ female Japanese names on the fly quicker than I can roll 3d6 6 times and look up base saving throws.

Boys Trauma Table – The setting-based restrictions on male characters actually offers some interesting opportunities for nuanced characters.  It’s a two tiered table where you determine the type and specifics of the various injuries (or class-related reasons) the male character might have that explains why they aren’t off at the front.

Sexuality – Interesting choice to possibly force players out of their norm by having to roll for their characters’ sexuality.  While the probability renders the likelihood of a gender-queer identity higher than we see in the real world, given the setting, I’d actually expect a much higher prevalence of opportunistic bi-sexuality.  I’m reminded a bit of how in the womanless world of Saber Marionette, dudes would rather have robot women than be gay and the one actual gay guy who was in love with the protagonist was seen as kind of an outlier.

Relationships- One of the cool bits that could be borrowed for creating ad hoc party dynamics with slightly more depth than “you all just happen to know each other” is the Best Friend/Don’t Like component. Players roll to see who their best friend is and who they are at odds with.  These will either be other players, an NPC or oneself.  In the last case, friendship with oneself means you’re a loner and disliking oneself would be indicative of a character with depression.  For good measure, disliking the character your best friends with could indicate a fairly troubled relationship (think every anime with the two girls who are always yelling at each other and fighting, then someone tells the main character “They’ve known each other since kindergarten; they’re best friends, but you wouldn’t know it.”)

There are a few other tables which determine a character’s family background (mother, father, family business, siblings) and the character’s motivation.  The character’s main weapon is also randomly selected from a two tiered 2d6 table.  Kagai! features a pretty impressive list of weapons (even if it is missing the Jo), each with unique abilities.

I’m bad at maths, so don’t hold me to this, but for female characters there are roughly 2.4 million background variations this generator can come up with, discounting anything requiring re-rolls and party relationship options.  Yowzah!

The rest of character creation is point-buy stats.  Physical stats are pretty straight-forward, but a novel idea is having the character’s school course load, including elective credits, make up a part of the character’s fundamental knowledge/ability base.  So, going to Gym Class would be akin to investing in a thief’s ‘acrobatics’ skill, only more interesting because it’s actually relevant to the character, story and setting.

Gameplay is simple success-based dice-rolling mechanic similar to what White Wolf uses, only Kagai! uses d6s instead of d10s.  Tasks are on a 5 point scale with difficulty determining the number of successes needed to accomplish tasks.  Players can act cooperatively by pushing and pulling dice to a pool for other players to use later or to hold for following turns with the pools lasting for the duration of a scene.  It took me a minute to wrap my head around how the push/pull worked, but helpful examples of gameplay are included:

“Ami is trying to hotwire a mechanical door. She has Smarts 3 and Design & Technology 3 for a total of six dice. She rolls six dice and gets two successes, a five and a six. The door is a tricky prospect, needing three successes to be opened. Ami carries the five over (pull) and pushes the six into the middle. Nezuko is trying to pry open the door while Ami works on it. She has Power 3, Gym 2 and the pry-bar gives her an extra two dice for a total of 7. She also grabs the pushed dice from the pool – for a total of 8 dice, but still only gets two successes, it’s still not open.”

In combat this translates more to setting up combos against baddies, where extra successes can be carried over or passed to other players.

Unlike a lot of games, including ones with similar systems, Kagai! offers the opportunity to target stat damage instead of HP by doing horrific and disfiguring attacks.  Bonus points for gruesome descriptions.  Of course this works both ways.  And in-line with the genre Kagai! is modeled after, one can get some stats back by means of sewing and supergluing one’s appendages back on and the like.

Monsters are created on point based systems similar to characters, with some examples and suggested lists of how many points different degrees of monsters should have.  The “Monster Machine” section offers a lot of different abilities and attributes beyond simple stats that monsters might have, like being boneless or having acid blood… you could make an incorporeal vampire made of sticky razor blades!

There is a large section of Kagai! dedicated to outlining and describing the city’s locations and amenities so that a GM can make their own maps or just wing it to fit their story.  But what’s impressive is that the descriptions really go into the visceral details, such as sounds, smells and even the taste of the air, stuff that you don’t usually get or expect from most game content that adds a lot to immersion.

One of the few places Kagai! is a bit of a letdown is the Art.  The cover art is great, and the chibi art is pretty good, but the rest of the art, which is made of black and white altered photo cut-ups, while not bad does not really jibe with the expected aesthetic.  It just seems out of place, and I think it detracts from the product a bit.  I don’t think anyone would miss it if it were gone; as Kagai! is a pdf, there’s no need for it as filler, especially since between the cover, the handful of chibis and well-written content the feel is well enough established without having to up the page count.  I know that James Desborough has said he would’ve liked to take things artistically in “a more explicitly sexual and ero-guro” direction, but I think that the more cutesy chibi-horror stuff works really well for it too, especially considering that I could almost (a few explicit illustrations in the cut-up style aside) call Kagai! a mixed company game.  But his game, his call.

One other aesthetic gripe I have: I get the manga stylization on the Char sheet, but a clean sheet would be nice on one’s printer ink supply.  Still, always great to have char sheets that fit on a page.  It’s an especially minor complaint given that you could fit your character’s relevant information onto an index card, so you don’t really NEED to print off a sheet.  But a clean sheet would be nice.

There’s a lot of good here, but unless you know you’re going to be playing this, the price point ($3.99) is just on the cusp of being a little high for the curious. I’d really like to have an appendix of a few pages that reduces character creation to its base tables and a table with weapons; in that form, most of the info you needed to get everyone started on the game could be printed on maybe 3 pages. That said, if a subsequent edition (print?) has more art like Ben Rodriguez’s cover, it would be certainly be worth paying print prices for.  Maybe James could look into it as a joint venture game-system/art portfolio?

All said, there’s a lot worth checking out here if you’re into pooled dice games, anime-esque games, or if you’re just looking for something different to try out.  It’s not for everybody.  But I can honestly say that my biggest complaint is actually not really a complaint but more my saying “If there was enough interest behind this and James had some money, he could make the second edition really shiny and nice.”

Short Reviews – Not With a Bang But a Bleep, Gary Jennings

Another story featured in the July June 1977 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Mixing religious satire with science fiction is always an iffy prospect. There were times I wanted to be annoyed with the out and out silliness of Gary Jennings’ story and his refugee from Mad-Magazine protagonist, but I can’t tell you how many times it made me laugh out loud.

The premise is ridiculous: thought moves faster than the speed of light, so NASA decides to test this by strapping a “SoPrim (Southern Primitive) Protestant” minister to a wall in a rocketship. He accidentally prays them straight past Mars and into heaven.

The narrative is the minister compiling his report on the matter, explaining the full situation to whomever ends up debriefing them. The “Bleep” in the title refers not to any sort of computer or robot but the minister’s penchant to censor the speech of those around him in his official report.
He recalls how he was approached for the mission, the near miss with Mars, going off course and straight into a black hole in the middle of the Horsehead Nebula, and their strange encounter with a multiversal heaven created by a quasi-gnostic God, a tour of which is given by THE Dr. Livingston.

The snark and silliness that would otherwise be insurmountably aggravating had it been poorly executed is forgiven in no small part because of just how funny Jennings’ prose is.

“But the ravens brought Elijah bread and flesh. The Book of Kings says so. That one brought you a matzo and a worm!”
“Well, what other sort of bread would a good Tishbite Jew like Elijah consent to eat? And what other kind of flesh would a raven know?”

and

“Won’t I have Chaplain duties besides?”
“I daresay the rest of the crew will be too busy to require much spiritual counciling. And we know from the Viking robots that you won’t have to baptize or bury any Martians.”

are a couple of my favorites, as well as a series of out-of-context Bible verses used as thought-navigation while the crew scrambles and panics around the protagonist too long to really include in excerpt here. You certainly wouldn’t want your telekinetic navigator meditating on thoughts of “All we like sheep have gone astray” and “These are wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever”.

I’m kind of surprised that Mel Brooks never made an adaptation of this, simply rewriting the minister as a rabbi.  The thing would make a great radio play.

Of interest to this year’s Hugo readers, the space ship is the Corrigan.  That name keeps coming up EVERYWHERE.

Review: PROJECT

(Full Disclosure: I was provided a free pdf copy for review by PROJECT publisher Postmortem Studios.  I have also donated in the past to a scholarship fund run by James Desborough completely unrelated to this or any other Postmortem Studios game or product.)

Last week, I was given a review copy of PROJECT, a new Open D6 sci-fi/magitek Role Playing Game from Postmortem Studios, to check out, and I’ve got to say that it’s made me want to give the old D6 system another go.

project_front-cover

Intro

In the world of PROJECT, players assume the roles of cybernetically enhanced humans who are part of a crack team of mercenaries whose job is keeping the world safe from the encroachment of fey-like entities whose very existence causes psychic disturbances in the fabric of reality.  On the surface, PROJECT looks something like a supers game, but what you get is more sort of a Ghost in the Shell meets Call of Cthulhu.  There are a lot of places where one could take this, ranging from down the dark gritty cybercthulhu rabbit-hole to all-out wacky gonzo hijinks.

The book opens with a lengthy PROJECT “Employee Manual” which serves as an immersive in-universe guide to what PROJECT is, who the PCs are as members of PROJECT, and a little bit about the world and corporate culture that pervades PROJECT.  I’ve gotten so used to DM-directed content that reading a book that starts out with a player intro to the game and its setting was strangely refreshing.  That said, the player-aimed intro is probably going to be most helpful to a GM who is trying to get a feel for the setting and whatever aesthetic and aspect of the PROJECT world they might want to run with, including setting up a “home base” and a framework of the kinds of missions the group will undertake.

One thing I find particularly interesting is that it includes in-universe “don’t be stupid/don’t be a jackass guidelines”.  While games shouldn’t need them in theory, it’s nice to have a place to point to and be able to address players in character in such a way as to say “quit being a dick”; “Your behavior is in violation of PROJECT ethical and behavioral regulations; as such, continued behavior may result in penalties, docked pay or termination” gives you a nice way to say “seriously, you need to quit being an asshole or I’m going to kill your character”.

The equal opportunities nods might seem a bit silly, but because the setting details on dress codes, gender identities and whatnot are written as an in-universe HR document, it works pretty well.  The implications along with the cyber-tech setting really invites a lot of play into transhumanist themes (cuz seriously, what’s the point of cyborg sci-fi if you’re not going to delve into transhumanism and existentialist themes?)

Setting

A lot of the book is devoted to setting.  Strangely, though, I didn’t really pick up on as much of the setting as I think I should’ve from the “Employee Manual” entry section.  The further along one gets in the materials, the more the sci-fi façade slips and the magicality of the setting starts to emerge.  What seems like a not-long-after-the-end setting turns out to be a so-long-after-the-end-it’s-a-new-beginning setting.  A few hundred years after the end of the world, those who were able to still use the old technology managed to reconsolidate power, and PROJECT is the Knights Templar of this new order.

The specifics of the setting make for interesting reading, and could maybe be used as a plot hook or two, but for the most part, I think a lot can safely be tossed out in favor of “post-post-apocalyptic bad stuff with local flavor be here”.  Fortunately, the game and most of its concepts aren’t inextricable from the specifics of the setting.  As long as you kept the basics intact, you can probably give whatever history you want or need for your game of PROJECT.

The one major gripe I have with the setting details is that for all of the time spent on world-building, PROJECT itself is left fairly vague.  I think a more concise explanation of how PROJECT came to be and how it managed to be the One True Global Power would’ve been nice.  On the other hand, it does give GMs a bit of leeway to come up with their own explanations.

Characters

PROJECT has some pretty sweet classes; there’s really no vanilla or mundane class that would leave someone like they felt stuck playing something that wasn’t fun or interesting.  As much as I love D&D, I’ve seen how being the fighter or the dwarf can be seen as a chore: you have to be the guy who doesn’t have as much cool stuff going on but you’re needed to balance out the party.  That’s definitely not the case for PROJECT.

Borg – At first, you look at the Borg class and think fighter/tank, because these guys have been fully cyberized.  While powerful and capable fighters, what you are really getting here is the stealth advantages of being completely dehumanized to the point where your identities are as interchangeable as your parts.  Of course it’s kind of creepy only being able to express oneself using masks…

Empath – The Empath is your planner, coordinator, defensive/offensive psychic, your Jean Grey.  While not quite the pyrotechnician as the Psyker or the Witch, you’ll have plenty of power to mind-fry baddies and make them dance like puppets.

Golem – Golems have been engineered into hulking giants with the strength to tear apart just about anything.  When the psychics and empaths can’t use magic to solve a problem, the Golem is there to punch through.  Part of the safeguards used by PROJECT on Golems is that they’ve been made ‘simple’.

Grunt – At first glance, the Grunt seems like he might be kind of boring compared to the other classes with their wild and over-the-top modifications, but with a plug-n-play interface for a wide range of psy-weapons, the Grunt is probably the most versatile of all the augments.  Plus, being still mostly human, they don’t have quite the range of mental issues that the other augments do.

Medusa – The Medusa are the next step beyond the Borg; rather than having their humanity almost entirely stripped away, the Medusa were never human to begin with.  The disadvantage is that this type is much more likely to become unhinged (“go ‘Frankenstein’” is how the book puts it).  While being close to a straight-fighter type, there’s a lot of versatility in where you can run with the Medusa’s advantages and disadvantages.

Psyker – The Psyker is your Akira-style blow stuff up with your mind class.  Less subtle than the Empaths, Psykers are masters of offensive and defensive telekinesis.  These guys are the bread & butter of a psychic army.

Wytch – At the risk of sounding like Tim Brannan, I totally want to give this class a go.  The Wytches have developed an understanding of the nature of the catastrophe that destroyed earth and the entities that it unleashed to such a degree that their skill in using technology to manipulate and control them is akin to magic.  As a mage class, I’m somewhat reminded of (I think it was) Tales of Vesperia, where magic was actually accessing and rewriting the code of the supercomputer that controlled the world on the fly.  They’re more defense-oriented than the Psyker or Empath and have healing abilities, but they’re also able to summon and bind the various monstrous entities that threaten the world.

One of the running themes across all classes and throughout PROJECT in general is that the psy-tech enhancements are not without their risks and drawbacks, particularly the psychological drawbacks.  All of the classes have various issues with how their modifications affect their psyches, ranging from issues with depression to full blown violent psychosis as a side-effect from dehumanization.  Depending on where you want to go with this, your game can be anywhere from simple over-the-top action to some really introspective stuff looking into what is it to be human.

It’s only a minor complaint, but each “class” gets a description in three different places.  Part of this might just be from my unfamiliarity with the open d6 system and the content folks generally make for it, but think I would’ve preferred a one page matrix of each class’s starting stats in the character creation section to get a better at-a-glance comparative view of the classes.  Also, Kinetic Kineses (Kinetic Telekinesis, for example) seem a bit redundant, but, again, it’s a small complaint.

Art

There’s not a ton of art in the PROJECT book, but what is there is great.  It’s enough to give you a feel of setting and the tone without being a distraction or – worse – trying to distract from a mediocre product.   It’s all line-art, very clean, with limited shading to give it that digital comic feel.  There are only a handful of ‘characters’ featured in the book, and most of them only get a few illustrations each, but even just within those, they all have a lot of personality.

The Wytch looks awesome.

wytch

Conclusion

As I said before, I’m willing to give the D6 system another go to check this out.  It’s an easy to grasp setting and the book offers plenty of adventure hooks.  Someone already familiar with the D6 system could probably pick this up and run it right away.  Fortunately, D6 is simple enough anyone not particularly familiar with it could still probably pick it up and run it after double checking a few things now and again.  It’s a solid product with a lot going for it.  If your group is into weird science, Cthulhu-tech, cyberpunk or the such, there’s a lot to like.  It certainly has more crunch than a micro like Pockets, but if you wanted to play a game with a similar feel that has a bit more teeth to it, PROJECT’s got you covered.

If this had been put out by anyone besides Postmortem Studios, it would not even bear mentioning, but PROJECT is very much a “general audiences” title with nothing salacious about it whatsoever (punk-fairy giving the middle finger aside).  You’d be fine picking this up and running it for anybody.

Once the print edition becomes available, I’ll probably be putting it on my wishlist.  In the meantime, you can download a pdf copy from RPGNow.