Reviews: A Bunch of Fives

Posted: 13 March 2013 in Reviews
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There are a range of things lurking on my hard drive which I haven’t reviewed in depth, and probably never will; they tend to be the ones that don’t inspire me, which is why the detailed reviews are skewed to high ratings.

However, I feel I ought to mention them in some way, so here are a few capsule reviews for you.

THE DYING EARTH RPG

A fine effort, this, from Pelgrane Press. Clearly a labour of love by authors steeped in Vancian lore, and one of the few RPGs where simply reading it made me laugh out loud.

Rules: Point-buy character creation, although you can get more points by rolling dice for some things. Advancement is by skills and advantages rather than class-and-level; interestingly, how well the player entertains the rest of the group counts for more than how successful the character is – the Dying Earth is a place where failure is to be embraced, if you can fail in an amusing manner. Skill checks use 1d6; the character’s skill level is essentially how many times he can reroll that single die, and judging by the examples of play, you’re going to be re-rolling a lot. The primary focus of the game is on persuasion, rather than combat.

Setting: The Dying Earth of Jack Vance’s novels; The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga and Rhialto the Marvellous. If you haven’t read those, go and do so immediately. This is where Vancian magic came from, for a start. It differs from your standard fantasy world in several ways; first, the characters are all pretty much the same – they’re all verbose swindlers focussed entirely on their own petty interests. Second, the Vancian hero would much rather humiliate a foe than kill him. Third, the characters fail consistently on a grand scale.

The Good: The thing I like best about DERPG is the Vancian style adopted for the writing; this is a deliberate stylistic choice, as the polysyallabic language of the stories is at the core of their appeal. You have to admire a game whose key element is called The Over-Arching Rule of Efficacious Blandishment.

The Bad: This wouldn’t work for my group, or myself, because we like a game that is faster-moving and more combat-oriented. If you fancy your chances as Cugel the Clever, though, give it a try.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5.

HAEL

Those nice people at Storyweaver sent me an electronic copy of this Savage Worlds setting as a thank-you for my input to the High-Space beta test. (Thanks, guys! You rock!) Now, I don’t expect to use it, because a world where the orcs won and humans are degenerate survivors huddled in wasteland ruins just isn’t my cup of tea. If it’s yours, and you’re happy with almost all PCs being orcs, take a look.

Rules: Savage Worlds.

Setting: High fantasy, but long after the orcs and gnolls conquered mankind and its allies, and shortly after offworld factions exported their war to it.

The Good: As in Storyweaver’s later High-Space, character rank is used to limit what PCs can acquire – you can interpret this as military rank, influence, or whatever, but a Legendary PC is much more likely to get, and keep, a magic sword than a Novice. The new power of Power Sorcery, only used in duels between sorcerors to determine status. Quick play sheets for edges, hindrances, setting. Detailed writeups of the key NPC movers and shakers on Hael. The gnollish culture. Several skeleton starting adventures – I find that more useful than a single more detailed scenario.

The Bad: New calendar – I don’t like these myself, since my group and I don’t immerse ourselves in settings to that level; if I say today is Soroci, Dom: 834/131, I’ll get blank looks and a pause in the action while I explain. Advanced alien races invading the planet – that’s just not my cup of tea, which is why I’ve never played Evernight.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5.

LUFTWAFFE 1946

This is a rarity in this age of free quickstart and test drive downloads, a game I wish I hadn’t bought. It’s an RPG implementation of a comic book series, which is essentially about hot chicks flying those weird aircraft that the Luftwaffe experimented with towards the end of World War II. I haven’t read the comics; maybe I would think better of it if I had. I have been fascinated by German aeronautical inventiveness in the mid-1940s for a long time, and got the game due to my curiosity about how things like the Sanger-Bredt Antipodal Bomber might have been used had the war extended by a few years.

Rules: Point-buy character creation; doing something requires the PC to roll 3d6, add his attribute and skill scores, and beat a target number.

Setting: An alternate history of our world, in which the Third Reich is still alive and kicking long after the Second World War should have ended.

The Good: It has some nice comic-book pictures of aeroplanes in it.

The Bad: Overly-complex rules system. Uninspiring layout and example scenario.

Overall Rating: 1 out of 5.

SERENITY RPG

One of my brothers-in-law shares my fondness for Firefly, and got me the Serenity RPG (published by Margaret Weis Productions) for Christmas a few years ago.

Rules: The actual game uses MWP’s house system, the Cortex System, which is somewhat like Savage Worlds; for example, attributes and skills are rated as die types. To do something, a PC rolls his skill and attribute dice, adds them together, and tries to beat a target number. Like the DERPG, Serenity is written in the way that characters in the setting talk, which is to say, like Wild West cowboys.

Setting: The ‘Verse of the Firefly TV show and the spinoff movie Serenity, which is a space western; it’s the 1870s in spaaaace. There are no alien races, only humans; psionics and lasers exist, but are incredibly rare – I think in the official setting there are three (maybe four) psions and one laser pistol. The archetypical characters are drifters, living hand to mouth and regularly crossing the boundaries of both the law and good taste, who probably form the crew of a small starship – almost a perfect set-up for one of my campaigns. The setting assumes that terraforming worlds is easy, but interstellar travel is nigh on impossible, so play is confined to a single star system. It also assumes that at the point when the colonists left Earth, some centuries before play begins, humanity was dominated politically by a Chinese-American alliance. High-tech goodies are limited to the core worlds; away from them, you have only what you can build for yourself, which limits most settlements to 19th-century technology.

The Good: The glossary of Chinese insults and obscenities – one of the coolest things about Firefly is the way the characters pepper their English conversation with snippets of Chinese. The way ships are built in much the same way as characters.

The Bad: I think of the Cortex System as a more complex version of Savage Worlds. I have no idea if the two sets of game developers drew inspiration from each other, or from a common source; there are only so many ways to create a core game mechanic. I don’t like complex rules; I like elegant, simple ones.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5. I could see myself using it as a sourcebook for a Savage Worlds game, but I don’t think I would use the rules.

SIMPLY ROLEPLAYING

This is the RPG version of Compact Combat (tabletop skirmishes) and Budget Battlefield (larger-scale battles) from Microtactix, both of which I also have; my interest in them goes back about a decade, to the point where I was casting around looking for a suitable rules system for all my games – it turned out that this was not that system, but that’s another story.

Rules: Point-buy character creation, advancement based on skills rather than class-and-level. To do something, a PC rolls a target number or less on 2d10; the target number is usually his modified skill level.

Setting: None provided, you have to make up your own or convert one.

The Good: It’s free, so you can’t knock the price. It’s multi-genre, so if you like it, it’s the only game you need to get.

The Bad: Unnecessarily long list of skills – I am not impressed by a game that has dozens of skills, as it suggests an unwholesome complexity. Unnecessarily complex damage charts, relying on rolling dice, looking up weapon stats, then cross-referencing the two on one of a number of damage tables.

Overall Rating: 2 out of 5.

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Comments
  1. finbikkifin says:

    Old Cortex isn’t great, but the later versions are much better. It’s a shame Serenity got the sucky version.

    • andyslack says:

      What would you recommend as the best Cortex version?

      • finbikkifin says:

        If you have any interest at all in Leverage, then Leverage, because it’s the best at heists and grifting. On the other hand, the upcoming Firefly might be more to your taste. It’s still a SW-level crunchy system, though, and you already have one of those which you like more, so there’s probably not that much in it for you, unless you want the Leverage-specific stuff like character roles and flashbacks.

        I’d say it’s a fair bit more elegant than the Serenity version of the system, which really felt like a generic set of rules with SPACEWESTERNandabitofchinese tacked on.

    • raikenclw says:

      “the later versions are much better.” That depends on what you mean by “better.” From what I’ve read, the latter versions offer more detail (Hindrances that can go as low as -12, for example) but that isn’t what the system needs. At least, not for my purposes and probably not for Andy’s, either.

      Mind you, I’ve both played in and run games using Cortex (via Play-by-Post) and I found it servicable enough. And I *did/do* like the way the ship design system treats ships as characters; I’ll use that, if I ever get to run another science fiction game. (I’m currently playing in a weekly Deadlands Reloaded SW game via Skype/Roll20, so I have hope . . .). But since I’ve found Savage Worlds, Cortex – expecially it’s *comparatively* complex damage system – just doesn’t hold up.

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