From Empire of Imagination author Michael Witwer, joined by Kyle Newman, Playing at the World‘s Jon Peterson, and Michael’s brother Sam, Art & Arcana is a very comprehensive look at the visual history of Dungeons and Dragons. Starting from the beginnings of the original game and going up through the current 5th edition, this book is absolutely crammed full of artwork! The accompanying text is not too bad a read, though the text size was a tad small for me. Also, I did appreciate the slight ribbing at the 3rd, 3.5, and 4th edition rules and the exaggerated artwork that came along with it (seriously, I CANNOT stand Wayne Reynold’s artwork!), but glad it wasn’t too overbearing. I bet there’s plenty of artwork you’ve never seen before, and it was nice to re-visit some of my favorite pieces from David Trampier, Erol Otus, and Jeff Easley!
One of Goblinoid Games’ recent releases, Apes Victorious, arrived with very little if any hinting or fanfare. As a one-man operation (although now often with additional writing by Tim Snider and even material from original Starships and Spacemen author Leonard H. Kanterman) Dan Proctor rarely promotes/updates his work on the now-bare GG website, let alone the blog and near-dead forums. Once the shining star of the OSR, so many others have risen in popularity and taken over where the founding OSR authors began. Is it worth taking a look or even purchasing this recent Goblinoid Games RPG, especially something in as niche in genre as intelligent apes?
In contrast to all previous releases, the first thing I immediately noticed about Apes Victorious is that it’s set in 6″x9″ rather than U.S. letter-sized. Moving to this size (and 1 column) will certainly make this easier to read on a tablet, though it does of course bump up the page-count.
Like most other recent GG releases this game is exclusively illustrated by Mark Allen; thankfully I haven’t tired of his work and think it works perfectly, though I would still love to see stuff from Peter Mullen and/or other (perhaps even new!) artists as well. I know artwork isn’t cheap; perhaps Dan and Mark have a great deal worked out, who knows. Sadly this is somewhat addressed in the game’s forward, where Dan notes this is the first game to come after Steve Zeiser’s death, and that he would have otherwise contributed artwork.
The title and header font is unique, if also a tad hard to read at a brief glance. The rest is the traditional B/X Souvenir, which is fine if a tad boring at this point. Tables are fairly easy to read, although they utilize a multiple-row highlighting/shading which still throws me off.
Apes Victorious is a post-apocalyptic game. But unlike Mutant Future and so many other similar games in that genre, it doesn’t focus too much on radiation and doesn’t mention mutations, etc. A third world war devastated the planet and brought in a nuclear winter. The end of that winter brought about many changes, both to the planet itself and its inhabitants.
Humans were split at the onset of the nuclear winter: those who remained on the surface, and those who retreated underground and were safe within their constructed homes and shelters. These latter human evolved differently than their primal cousins, advancing in technology and even developing PSI powers. Meanwhile apes, gorillas, orangutans, etc. also evolved and have gained intelligence as they built their own settlements and societies, coming into conflict with both human groups.
Of course the planet has changed as well, much of it either still radiated from the nuclear winter or left as barren desert. Only small areas have regained plants and foliage, but where there is more water and plant life has seen animals and other features return in both familiar and unexpected ways.
The rest of the game’s introduction goes over RPG basics such as die rolls and terms used. Of course in this game the person running things is called Ape Master; ugh I’ll just stick to Gamemaster, thanks!
The basic Abilities (I still tend to call them Attributes) are the same as in other OSR games, with the addition of Psionic Potential (PSI). So far it seems pretty simple, then I look at the Ability dodifiers table; it’s not just the standard one column of -3 to +3 or such; there are five different columns/categories of modifiers for the range of Ability scores! Whyyyyyy?! At first I thought it negated the need for saving throws, but I looked ahead and nope those are still in the game. So that’s another table I’ve gotta bookmark and/or put on a GM screen to remember…
Apes Victorious has seven classes: Astronaut, Bonobo Agent (total nitpick but this should have been page-breaked), Chimpanzee Scholar, Gorilla Soldier, Humanoid, Orangutan Politician, and Underdweller. Like other OSR games there’s a Ability requirement for each class, as well as a 1E-like Ability adjustment. All but one class (Astronaut) also have a maximum level. After getting used to BRP RPGs and Stars Without Number Revised, it’s almost comical to see the tens if not hundreds of thousands of experience points needed to advance in levels.
Money and coins are expressed as simian copper, simian silver, and simian gold. Can you hear me roll my eyes? Just keep it copper pieces, etc. jeeeez. Of course if you’re an Astronaut you’ll have some equipment to start out with. Among the equipment available to purchase are guns, but personally I would exclude those kind of weapons, as they would likely have been used up, destroyed, etc. in a nuclear winter and associated “fallout” (not the literal nuclear kind).
The PSI system seems pretty simple to run, but I personally wouldn’t use this in my game. At just 5 pages, this chapter might seem more like an afterthought or little add-on than an integral part of the rules/game.
Similar to any other OSR game, this chapter covers the rules to run the game, including combat. None of this section is new or different if you’re familiar with those kind of games.
Here we get a quite-small selection of creatures and opponents to use in the game. All but one stat-block is single-column (the other 2-column presumably to fit the artwork on the same page) and shows the same/normal stats as in any other OSR game (with the addition of PSI). A note at the end states that additional creatures can be brought in from any other Goblinoid Game product (there is a conversion section near the end of the book).
As the chapter name is self-explanatory, it covers ape governance, religion, science, and technology. This chapter will of course be more useful to those whose games will give most (if not all) attention to an ape-centered game, whereas my game would feature very little of this. It also assumes a caste system, with orangutans and bonobos rule over chimpanzees (still considered intelligent) and gorillas (presumed to be all brute strength and very little intelligent). While there may be a biological basis to some of those assumptions, I would again ignore most of that. What if I did want to play an intelligent gorilla?
Should 3 pages even be considered a separate chapter? Anyways, here we learn a little more about the humans that survived the nuclear winter underground as well as some example technologies that might be found/utilized by them.
The Ape Master
The last “actual” chapter of game rules, it’s also the most useful. It covers many things including running a game with a 1970s view, adventure themes and locations, ruins and artifacts that can be found there (including 2 very useful tables of random objects as well as random book subjects), along with tables for male and female ape names. The chapter concludes with an example outdoor/wilderness map.
Escape Ape Planet
Something I REALLY wish other Goblinoid Game products included, this is an introductory adventure. This is a nice small, quick adventure that can absolutely help out new players (and new GMs as well!) get a feel for what kind of game is possible with these rules.
The book ends with a Conversion chapter (covering Labyrinth Lord, Mutant Future, and Starships & Spacemen 2E), a character sheet (very plain and symbols are a tad annoying for double-digit numbers), and the OGL license. I must commend Dan for making the large majority of the book Open Content, including the example outdoor/wilderness map as well as the adventure!
This was a tough game to review. I’m a huge fan of Goblinoid Games; I still consider Labyrinth Lord the ground-breaking and pinnacle OSR game. I really like Tim Snider’s continued involvement; his material for Mutant Future and Cryptworld have been great and I think he helps encourage Dan to develop more material, as busy as he is in other aspects of his life. In this game I like the new 6″x9″ single-column layout, and Mark Allen’s artwork continues to be a perfect fit, as much as I miss Steve Zeiser and would love to see more varied material from others. The rule-set is pretty close to other OSR games, with a few little changes that I personally think are more annoying than innovative. I would need to have the right group to run and/or play this, and perhaps I need to brush up on my movies in this genre to generate a little more understanding and excitement.
Nevertheless, I’m glad to see new games from Goblinoid Games, and I do like seeing those that cover other genres besides the standard fantasy and sci-fi, and not just simply retroclones. I look forward to seeing what else comes down the pipeline!
Three years ago I (briefly) reviewed the Blueholme Prentice Rules, a retroclone of the Holmes D&D Basic game. Since that time Michael Thomas worked on expanding his game to cover additional levels, and now the Journeymanne rules have been released. While I did help proof-read this game, it’s been quite awhile since I’ve looked at it, so I’ll be looking at this with fairly fresh eyes.
First thing of course is the cover, with artwork by Jean-Francois Beaulieu, is fantastic. I do think the title could be a bit larger, but overall this is one of my favorite OSR covers. Flipping through the book, the first thing that stands out to me is the plain San-serif font. I’m not a fan of it (even 1E’s San-serif font was far cleaner), and it’s blocky and pixelated. The headers and sub-headers should have been different fonts, and there’s not much spacing. I’m also not a fan of the tables; they should have alternating colors or such to make them easier to read, and they blend in to the surrounding text too easily.
But in contrast to all of that, it’s easy to see that the artwork Kickstarter paid off enormously! Instead of the sparse wood-block style of the Prentice rules, here we have a wide variety of artists on display. There’s very few images that fall short or look out of place, and several are among my favorite OSR/RPG pieces I’ve ever seen!
Like pretty much any OSR RPG this game opens with a (rather short) story, and then goes over what each chapter covers. I do like how there’s a section for what “level” means in certain contexts, as at least for this game there are 5 different uses/meanings for that word. Very confusing for those new to these kind of games! Next is a short section on rounding and multiplying, which as far as I know is unique to this OSR RPG; the multiplying part was confusing to me and took a number of reads, but hopefully that’s just me! Finally are notes on winners and losers, and how the rules should be read/applied; these two sections make excellent points and I commend Michael for including them.
Alright, time to dive in and create a Blueholme character! Coming from any other OSR RPG you’ll likely won’t see anything really different, but one thing I noticed immediately is there’s no section of races (termed species here) to choose from. Instead, Blueholme follows Mythras and the like by stating that almost any creature could be played as a character, as long as it fits the game desired by the referee and other players (also, on page 11 is a class hit dice adjustment table depending on the creature chosen).
We have the 4 traditional classes, and unlike Labyrinth Lord the cleric does NOT get a spell at first level, which was the norm for B/X D&D. Where Blueholme does follow Labyrinth Lord is the amount of XP needed to reach a level, as it ends with 1 rather than 0. Interestingly, there’s one place where Blueholme follows Basic Fantasy RPG: thief skills, as they all use d100 rather than the traditional d6 for hear noise. I personally prefer this, or using 2d6 like in Sine Nomine’s games. In other words, consistency.
This game does have alignment, and I’m likely to use it as in other games, i.e. not at all. Finally this chapter ends with equipment and transportation. What I noticed immediately was that there’s no damage listings for the weapons; flipping ahead to page 56 shows that all weapons deal 1d6. Huh; I know variable damage was an optional rule in many older D&D editions, but I’m so used to it now that it throws me off when I don’t see it, and I really do prefer variable damage, even so far as different damage vs. Large creatures.
This is a standard section comparable to other OSR RPGs. I only bothered to write this short section to again commend the variety and amount of artwork this game has, it’s spectacular!
Here we start to get into the meat of the game. I like that it denotes three different types of locales: the realm, wilderness, and underworld. Next it goes over time and turns, rounds, etc. For whatever strange reason in this game there is both the normal turn (10 minutes) as well as a combat turn (100 seconds?!), accounting for 10 10-second turns.
The rest of the chapter covers travel and obstacles in the underworld and wilderness, and then life in the realm and related construction costs, retainers and hirelings, etc. I do think this chapter is far better organized than most other OSR games, as it includes the city/realm portion in the player-facing sections/rules rather than split off to near the end of the book.
This chapter starts off with some handy encounter tables, including variable chances in certain types of terrain. There are also encounters for while in the realm, and even broken down by class of the adversary. This is something I haven’t seen in any other OSR game, and it’s a potentially interesting variant.
This game does have the rule for reactions, which many other games either have as an option or not at all. I think it’s a handy rule to use, as it can be a little more realistic as well as potentially avoiding a combat encounter that could kill one or more PCs. Like Blueholme Prentice and Holmes D&D this game uses Dexterity to determine initiative rather than a random die roll. While it’s one less thing to worry about, I prefer to add a little variety with the die roll, and still use DEX bonuses/penalties to modify it. As this game uses descending armor class, we can’t forget those attack tables/matrices! While I prefer ascending armor class, I have no problem with descending either.
This chapter ends with two short (I mean really short, like a half-page each) combat examples and the saving throw tables.
The first page of this chapter goes over using creatures as PCs; there’s a lot that may have to be adjusted. While most if not all of it makes sense to me, it is gonna slow down character generation, so be sure to have a session 0 for your game to get through all of it!
One little thing that I don’t like is that there’s no spacing between a creature’s name and its stat-block; it’s right below it. The stat-blocks are pretty much the same as any other OSR game, but it’s odd that the XP line is in the middle rather than at the end.
Like the Spells chapter this one also as a good amount of great artwork! Unfortunately before I know it I’m at the end of the chapter. While I haven’t counted out how many entries there are compared to other OSR games, there’s no doubt this is one of the shortest ones I’ve seen. Some of that is due to some of the entries being combined, such as the lycanthropes. But that also means a very shortened description block that doesn’t give any details to the different variants (not that I want a half to whole page on each, but I mean really). I’m sure if I went through and compared I’d find several of my favorites missing.
In this game treasure is noted by a number from 1 to 20, rather than roman numerals in Labyrinth Lord and letters in Basic Fantasy RPG. I’m not picky on any system, although Labyrinth Lord’s bugs me for some reason. ANYWAYS, the table is otherwise the same, with certain categories having a percentage chance. Looking at the individual tables, it sure seems like this game has more than its fair share of treasure, possibly as much as in Iron Falcon. This chapter ends with a note on creating magical items, which is something that although in pretty much every OSR game I just don’t agree with. Magical items should be left mysterious, unknown, and beyond even the most powerful character’s capabilities of creating.
Finally is the obligatory chapter with advice for the GM, which I find is a bit lacking in most OSR games. Whether it’s because they’re strictly following the spartan pre-1E D&D games, relying on additional supplements, etc. to fill that role, or they just blindly shrug with the usual “just use your imagination kid!” attitude, I just think pretty much all OSR games could fill in far more detail.
Does this game do that? Well almost a page goes over designing an adventure, while almost two pages covers designing the underworld (i.e. the dungeon layout). The next page or so covers the wilderness and realm, and that’s definitely not enough material and detail. The final two pages gives some generic GM advice and optional rules.
Overall this chapter is painfully short, as this games has chosen to follow the other OSR games and blindly copy their predecessors rather than make an effort to add on even just a little bit more of what we’ve learned through time, experience, and trial-and-error.
With all of that being said, do I recommend this game if I had read it on its own and no other OSR games, and then compared to what must be dozens of other retroclones and such now available? There’s a unique feel and aspect to this game, being one of the rare few (or perhaps the only) games to model itself after the Holmes D&D game. Of course for this expanded game Michael had to postulate what Holmes would have included and written, but I can’t fault that any more than those who have tried to make a “AD&D 2E if Gygax had sole control” game.
If Holmes D&D has a special place in your gamer heart, then you’ll definitely want to check this game out. Going simply by look/design/layout, it’s a bit on the plain side, but with a generous amount of artwork that mostly leans on the fantastic side. It may not have been a pioneer like many of the other OSR games, but I think it can more than hold its own beside them.
After reviewing Silent Legions, I figured it was due time to review Kevin’s first game (now out in a revised edition) Stars Without Number (hereafter referred to as SWN). Hailed for its simple OSR-based rules and plentiful tables for sector and adventure creation, SWN paved the way for Kevin’s future works, and he brings that additional experience and knowledge back to the revised edition. Just like the original game and Godbound, Kevin offers a free version with most of the game rules and material included, while offering just enough extra items to entice purchasing the deluxe PDF and/or a printed copy. For this review I’ll be covering the free edition.
The first thing that’s really hard to miss is the design and layout, which compared to the first edition’s bare-boned and straight-forward look is miles ahead. It’s sophisticated without being too busy or in your face. Headers (using an interesting font which surprisingly isn’t used for the main title) and tables are all over the place, and it makes this game very easy to both read through as well as reference during play. There’s also a notable increase in both the quantity and the quality in the full-color artwork, and it gives a wonderful atmosphere of a science-fiction game that has aspects of fantasy, cyberpunk, and more mixed in. Just like the rules, it shows that Stars Without Number is a wildly effective set of rules for so many kinds of games.
This chapter begins in a way that all other games should really follow: a quick 1-page introduction followed by a short summary with a numbered/keyed character sheet. In my opinion if your game can’t do this you need to either trim the fat or go back to the drawing board. ANYWAYS, starting off like this gives the reader a little confidence boost, because with the increased page-count it can certainly give the impression of a game that’s difficult to learn and so much to remember. But fear not!
As noted on the checklist, creating a character in SWN involves rolling attributes and its modifiers, choosing a background, choosing skills, choosing a class (not sure why this isn’t earlier), choosing foci, optionally creating an alien/VI/AI/psychic character, and rolling your hit points. Overall, not too painful!
Attributes are rolled 3d6 as standard, and the modifier range is a narrow -2 to +2 range. Skill checks are 2d6 as standard in Kevin’s games. The list of skills is quite short, which I’m glad to see. Here is where I kind of understand why a background is chosen before the class (although I just noticed that the order on the 1-page summary is wrong, as it has choosing a background before skills rather than after); a background is meant to be more what a character did for a job/career before beginning their life of adventure. Depending on the background you choose, you’ll gain a certain skill for free, along with either 2 more skills at random or a set of pre-determined/default skills. This makes sense to me, coming from Mythras, though now I see that the list is correct and in the chapter backgrounds should perhaps come before skills.
Next it’s time to choose a class; there are still three to choose from (Expert, Psychic, and Warrior) along with a new fourth one: Adventurer. This is really a catch-all, and it involves choosing two “partial classes”. Hmmm ok, this is where a class-based game starts to strain. Again, may just be my Mythras/BRP brain at work, but why even have classes at this point, rather than just backgrounds and skills? Next it’s time to choose a Focus. This is an additional perk evidently. Why it has to be separated out from skills I don’t know.
All that’s left is to roll up hit points (which isn’t going to be very high at first level, so no reckless adventuring!), noting your base attack bonus and saving throws (using the 3-branch system like D&D 3.x and DCC) and purchasing equipment. For the latter, there’s an interesting option. While there’s a separate equipment chapter that players can browse through, in this chapter there’s a page of standard equipment packages that players can choose from in exchange for their starting funds. It’s a neat way of quickly finishing up player generation and getting on with things.
The chapter ends with a 2-page quick character generation system, and while it looks handy for quick one-shots like at a convention, I don’t know if it would be utilized that much for at-home games, especially for those who would want to truly create a unique character (at least as far rules-wise as that allows with the small number of classes, backgrounds, and skills).
Hmmm, psionics. Just like cults and magic, I don’t personally foresee using much of this chapter as I would be leaning towards a harder sci-fi kind of game. That being said, there’s quite a bit of variety including biopsionics, metapsionics, precognition, telekinesis, telepathy, and teleportation, so depending on what kind of game you’re looking to run you might want to use one, some, or all of these! Luckily each section is just a couple pages long, so it’s easy to read through and quickly ascertain its possible usage.
Well this is pretty much the meat of the book, explaining how things work. So it should be the largest chapter with lots of tables, etc. right? Nope! Under 15 pages including a 1-page summary at the end, this is another instance where the reader can breathe a sigh of relief. While combat is a couple of pages, it also sits nicely along with saving throws, skill checks, hacking, character advancement, and environmental hazards. Combat is fairly brief but it looks like a fun, simple system (but that doesn’t mean PCs should be eager to get into a fight!). The 1-page summary sheet really does look like it covers everything needed during play, and for a custom SWN screen I don’t think there’s too much else you’d have to add or otherwise change, at least right off the bat.
Equipment and Vehicles
Oh boy, lots of wonderful toys, including cyberware and artifacts! I don’t know what if anything has been included from Kevin’s previous works Polychrome and Relics of the Lost, but I have a feeling those are still relevant and useful if you want even more choices and details. Of course, many of the items are only available at certain Technology Levels and above, so depending on the kind of game you want to run (or at least certain planets visited) you may need to think up some custom equipment.
One section I liked was Lifestyle, Employees, and Services. These are helpful tables to make the GM’s (and players’) life easier for those who will be away from a ship for any length of time. Another section I didn’t know I wanted was Drones. While they’ve certainly become more popular in real life, both for surveillance and recreational flying, they are also popular on many shows and movies, and it was something I never really thought about until reading this section. I am quite pleasantly surprised that sections such as this are included in the free PDF, rather than a paid exclusive!
Cyberware is another interesting section, but I don’t know if I would personally use much of it in my sci-fi games. Of course, if I wanted to run something near-future or wanted to go all out Snow Crash, then this section would become quite mandatory. Next are artifacts, and while there are some interesting items I wouldn’t personally include many except as something relevant to an adventure’s central story, and/or perhaps an interesting way to introduce a new NPC or such. Finally are a couple pages for equipment modifications and maintenance. I think this is another neat idea that I’d likely use at least in moderation.
If there was a highlight chapter to really show off this game, I think this might be it! It covers the creation and customization of starships, as well as travel and combat. I can understand having the latter part grouped in this chapter rather than in the Systems chapter, but this is also something you’ll very likely need to add to your reference sheet/screen as well.
First it covers building a starship, including hull types, which will dictate how many and even which fittings, defenses, and weaponry can go with that ship. As you can imagine there’s a lot of different items available here, limited only by hull type and cost. It may seem like a lot to take in, but luckily there’s about 3 pages of example ships at the end of this section.
Next is modifying and tuning starships. This is likely something not done at character/ship creation time but later on in a game. There’s several options for changing the way a ship behaves, performs, and even how it’s maintained. Again, depending on the kind of game you’re wanting to run this may be something neat and the players will want to dive into, or your group may earmark this for later if at all.
Next are a couple of pages each for space travel, sensors and detection, and maintenance and repair. Space travel is the most detailed of these sections, primarily discussing spike drills, a potentially dangerous method for interstellar travel. Luckily a failed roll won’t result in the crew’s death, but it could put them stranded in a dangerous and uncharted territory! Maintenance is something that can’t be easily hand-waved away (I mean you could if you really want to ignore it), as every six months in game time a ship must have maintenance performed or begin accruing penalties on all rolls, ultimately resulting in a stranded ship. That could result in questionable help coming, if any, or perhaps attracting the attention of pirates or other non-friendly travelers.
Lastly, the chapter covers ship combat, combat actions, and crises. Evidently the starship combat has been radically changed for the revised edition, allowing all crew members to participate. Each starship rolls initiative, and on each turn the captain decides the order the various departments (ie each PC) will act; these departments include bridge, gunnery, engineering, comms, and captain. If there aren’t enough PCs for each department, then one or more PCs may have to double up. On each turn each department chooses an action, whether from one specific for that department or choosing from the general actions; some actions require command points, which are generated from certain actions. One interesting thing is that once per round a ship may choose to accept a crisis rather than damage from an enemy hit. There’s a good number of crises to choose from: armor loss, cargo loss, crew lost, engine lock, fuel bleed, haywire systems, hull breach, system damage, target de-calibration, and VIP imperiled.
The History of Space
This chapter goes over the default setting in the game. Like pretty much everything else in the game, this is entirely optional to use in your game, whether in part or whole. It’s not a very long chapter, and the ending timeline is a nice summary that’s easy to learn and reference.
This chapter is the first of three (along with Adventure Creation and Game Master Resources) that makes this game worth having the free PDF at least, even if you never plan to play this game. The fact is there’s so many tables and helpful information to create your own universe, the worlds within it, etc. I find this indispensable, as I need all the help I can get in this genre to create a universe that feels grand, bigger than the players. To me that’s the point of science fiction and space travel!
The largest section is for World Tags. These are brief one- or two-word descriptions that are the defining trait of that world. After this key term and a short summary, each world tag has associated entries for enemies, friends, complications, thing, and places. SWN includes 100 sample world tags, and it’s easy to either customize or create totally new ones for an adventure.
After world tags there are sections for atmosphere, temperature, biosphere, population, tech level, and additional system points of interests.
This is undoubtedly the most useful chapter in the book, and is worth having the free edition of SWN even if only for that. After a long initial section on thinking, planning, creating, and polishing an adventure there are several sections and tables covering a wide range of topics including rewards, problems, people, and places. Following that is 100 adventure seeds. They start out fairly generic and slowly become longer and more specific.
This was a section from the first edition that I had hoped would be significantly re-written and expanded, but that is definitely not the case. Yes there’s some handy charts and tables for creating beasts and aliens, as well as customizing humans, but for me it falls far short for a game that touts to be a deep, compelling sandbox. Even Kevin’s other games, such as Silent Legions, at least had a few examples to help show the reader how the rules worked. In SWN there are NO examples or any pre-generated NPCs or foes! Unbelievable! This chapter does include robot and VIs, and also VI PCs. These are something I would definitely allow in my universe and games. This chapter ends with aliens and alien PC. That’s something I’m not sure I would have in my games, but it’s a possibility.
Groups, empires, and more can all have an impact on a game and on-going campaign. In SWN these are grouped into Factions. These groups will each have 3 attributes (Force, Cunning, and Wealth), Hit Points (this makes no sense to me, why not a morale rating or such?), Assets, and Tags. The actions a faction make are divided up into turns. These normally occur either once a month or after each adventure, i.e. not very often. There’s a lot that factions can be used for, and I can see their utility in a SWN game. However I don’t like many of the terms and related systems that are used, and I think that overall it’s more complicated than it needs to be.
Game Master Resources
While not as large a chapter as the Sector and Adventure Creation chapters, this one is still very helpful and will help get an adventure written or at least some notes on paper to wing a game. Among the many sections my favorites are the house rules suggestions and the tables for names, one-roll NPCs and PAtrons, and urban and wilderness encounters. This chapter ends with the character sheet (an interesting landscape-oriented layout, but not happy there’s no sheets for sector creation and such), a small index, and list of Kickstarter backers.
Free or Deluxe Version?
Here’s a list of what additional items are included in the deluxe version, and I’ll give my impression of each one (without being able to look at the deluxe PDF):
- Transhuman tech – this is something that’s piqued my interest thanks to Battlestar Galactica and Eclipse Phase, but without the latter’s sheer bulk of rules. Some may not want any of this in their kind of game, but it’s still a nice addition.
- True AIs – I’m not sure how these would differ from the included VIs.
- Mechs – while I would likely never use this, I can’t deny how cool it would be to have a mech fight! I wish I knew if it uses the same or a similar system to starship combat.
- Heroic PCs – Whether this simply means characters with astronomical hit points, skills, etc. or something more meaningful, I just don’t really see ever using this. I want my characters to be normal, fragile, human.
- Society creation – I’m not sure how much more detailed I want to be beyond what the sector creation and world tags sections offer in the book, but there’s no doubt it could help flesh out a campaign or entire universe if a gaming group wanted to get that detailed.
- Space magic – I really doubt I’d use this, but again it would be intriguing to see what all is actually offered.
So, in summary do I think the deluxe version is worth it, whether just the PDF ($20) alone or also in print (either $60 for standard or $80 for premium)? Well, the deluxe is an extra 50-60 pages, and that’s quite a bit of content. I know I would personally prefer printing the PDF myself, as I’m not a fan of a plain white page and would use a nice off-white paper (that’s also a bit heavier), as well as using comb binding to make it easier to lay flat. If I was going to get a hardback through DTRPG, I’d likely save the $20 and get the standard version.
It’s hard for me to know exactly where to place this game among the other sci-fi RPGs I’ve reviewed, as well as several others I’ve owned and/or read but haven’t reviewed. This game is certainly not the rule-heaviest, but also not the lightest. Despite lighter rules it does come in near the top looking at page-count, although much of it is useful charts, tables, and sub-systems. I do have to concede that despite not liking some of the vocabulary and overall tone of SWN, I can’t deny that it’s one of the better sci-fi RPGs available. Would I run this rather than simply using Mythras, as for example in A Gift For Shamash? That’s hard to say; I’d have to make some rules adjustments anyways, and likely add on quite a bit to fit a non-fantasy game. Overall it may not be as much work as using SWN, but since the basic rules for SWN aren’t that difficult to learn is there a point to NOT using it?
In the end, one of the best selling points for this game, similar to so many other games from Sine Nomine, is its modularity. Whether using the free or deluxe version, the fact is you don’t HAVE to use every single system, rule, etc. for your game. Taking a look at the free PDF, you should be able to get a rough idea of what you’d actually use. Then you have to weigh out if getting the deluxe version is worth the cost.
Unlike the first edition, this revised edition is only available in hardcover in either a standard or premium color version. The latter is priced at $80, which is going to be a tough pill to swallow no matter how good this game is. Is it worth that, even over the $60 cost of the standard version? A lot of people like to calculate an RPG’s value based on the number of hours of gaming and enjoyment you can get out of it, say compared to a video game. Looking at it that way, yes it is more than worth its price. Looking at it on its own, or compared to some other RPGs of similar page-count and amount of artwork, Stars Without Number does look a little pricey. For most printings it’s an easy decision to go with the premium color version, and there’s no doubt this game will look fantastic, but is it worth another $20? Would the standard version look that much worse, especially with the amount of artwork this edition has? Ultimately only you can answer that for yourself. For me, even I do decide to get a printed copy, I will probably get the standard version. But that’s when I know for sure I want Stars Without Number sitting on my shelf with the few other games I’ve kept.
As a huge fan of horror, as well as X-Files, I should have been playing Delta Green since its initial release in 1997. Hell I didn’t even know about the Call of Cthulhu RPG for years after getting into Rifts, D&D, etc. The original release of Delta Green is a sourcebook/supplement to the Call of Cthulhu RPG; it depends on that book for the base rules. This newer release makes Delta Green a stand-alone game. It still shares common or similar rules and systems as Call of Cthulhu and other BRP games, but it does stand alone, and from my reading it seems to be the simplest implementation of those rules, so one point for Delta Green! I must also commend Arc Dream for the gorgeous art and layout, along with a very clear set of readable typefaces.
However, we may need to already take away that point, because Delta Green has gone the way the latest edition of Call of Cthulhu has: increasing the page-count to the point of necessitating 2 separate books. Although in Call of Cthulhu the Keeper Rulebook is all that’s truly needed to play as well as run the game, for Delta Green you may actually need to buy both books. The Agent’s Handbook does cover most game rules including combat and sanity, but there isn’t any information on creating adventures, monsters and other opponents, etc. If you’re just wanting to use older Delta Green material and/or the new adventures being released, or simply your own custom material, the Agent’s Handbook may be sufficient for you. I suppose it wouldn’t be too hard to create custom monsters and opponents, or even borrow some from other BRP games, but having official guidance is what I’d prefer. Do I really mind having to buy another book? Well, in this case I don’t actually. Considering how easy (and fun!) it is to read through the Agent’s Handbook, and its amazing design and layout, I’m happy to spend a little more money to support this game and publisher!
In this short opening chapter we are introduced to what Delta Green is and isn’t. If you’re familiar with Call of Cthulhu, you’ll know what to expect: fighting against insurmountable odds and at the very luckiest may survive the day, with or without your sanity intact. In this game you aren’t a Victorian or 1800s investigator or socialite. In one way or another you work for Delta Green, a government agency that won’t even confirm your existence. You might already work for the government, in the military, or a civilian who was unlucky enough to witness something out of the ordinary. Understand? Good let’s proceed…
Now that you know what you’re in for, it’s time to create your agent. First are your statistics, the same you’ve seen in OSR RPGs and other BRP RPGs. Next are the derived attributes from those attributes. Next you’ll choose your profession; there’s not that many to choose from, but they’re fairly broad in scope, and you can always create one if you wish. Depending on which profession you choose you’ll receive professional skills to go with it. You’ll also choose bonus skill points. Next you’ll choose your bonds, the close meaningful relationships in the agent’s life. The final step is to provide some extra details about your agent; these include name, age, nationality, motivations, possibly a mental disorder, and/or adapted to violence or helplessness.
All in all this is one of the easiest systems for character creation I’ve seen in a BRP RPG, let alone any RPG.
Except for combat and sanity, which follow this chapter in fairly small number of pages each, this chapter is basically the meat of the game (especially as compared to OSR RPGs you shouldn’t be spending too much time in combat, as that’s likely certain death for your agent).
What this game comes down to, just like all BRP RPGs, is the use of skills. In this game your profession granted your agent a set of skills to use, at varying levels of competency. BRP RPGs including Delta Green are a roll-under system; you want to roll as low as possible on d100 to succeed; of course the higher your skill percentage/rating, the easier that is.
First it must be determined if something that your agent needs to do even needs to roll. Perhaps only sufficient time, patience, and/or energy are needed to succeed; other things may require a minimum percentage in a relevant skill to succeed, and if your agent doesn’t meet that then it’s an automatic failure. The game lists 3 criteria for rolling dice for a skill test: when it is difficult, when the situation is unpredictable, and when there are consequences. In some circumstances a specific skill may not be applicable or even required, but one of the agent’s statistics could be used (at x5 its value against d100).
Once an agent has rolled, there are 4 possible outcomes: critical success, success, failure, and fumble. The first two happen when the roll is lower than the skill number/rating, and the latter two for when the roll is higher. The outliers, critical success and fumble, happen when the roll is 01 or 00 respectively, or the roll is matching numbers.
The remaining pages of this chapter deal with time required, opposed rolls, pursuit, and willpower points. Each of these short sections are very easy to learn and logical.
Alright agent, the world is a dangerous place, and confrontations are inevitable. This chapter covers what all you can do, as well as the things you must deal with as a consequence of attacks and any other actions.
First is the concept of turns; each turn is normally a couple of seconds but may be longer, just long enough for everyone to complete an action. What are your agents’ options? You can aim, attack, called shot, disarm, dodge, escape, fight back, move, pin, wait, or anything else that can be done in a turn’s amount of time (so no screwing around).
Attack and defense rolls are both pretty simple and straight-forward. Delta Green introduces the lethality rating for massive weapons in both terms of damage and/or multiple attacks (such as a machine gun). This is an ingenious rule! I believe it is also used for monsters and their more devastating attacks. Next the chapter covers protection, including fragile, exposed, armor, huge, transcendent, and armor-piercing weapons. After that it’s time to go over other threats, including poison and disease, falling, impact, suffocation, fire, and cold. Last but not least is the aftermath of combat.
All in all this is also a fairly short chapter, which each sub-system and rule clearly explained. Each one has its uses and follows a logical order.
As this is a Cthulhu-based game, sanity is an inevitable subject matter, as much to my chagrin. I certainlly understand that the unknown, strange, and horrifying can have varying effects on a person’s mind, but within the scope of a tabletop game I would want them to not take up a large amount of time, rules, and effect on the people playing and running the game.
The chapter starts with describing the SAN value, denoted as two numbers (the amount loss due to a success or failure). Next is a very small section about exploring the loss of sanity; if it’s a small loss, how does that look to the other agents and NPCs? It’s an interesting notion that I’m glad the book included. It also hits upon success, as the event could have been something that any other “normal” person would have certainly taken a toll (the book’s example is when someone is killed by the agent).
Next the game covers threats to SAN, including violence, helplessness, and the unnatural. The biggest sections of this chapter cover insanity and disorders. These can be potentially interesting things to roleplay, but I personally would ultimately limit the influence these have on the game. I don’t want the game to get bogged down, and let’s face it a royally screwed up agent is useless and would either be debriefed and dismissed, imprisoned, or even killed. Finally the chapter ends with sections on permanent insanity, resisting insanity, and recovery.
While the majority of a Delta Green game should focus on the agents in the field, it can be a nice break and change of pace to have either a short portion or even an entire session focused on the agents’ home lives. With everything an agent has to deal with and confront, along with what’s happened while the agent was away from home (whether the agent is married or seeing someone of course adds more complexities and roleplaying potential), can all weigh on the agents’ mind and affect his or her actions.
First, take stock of what’s changed: bonds damaged or broken, permanent injuries, disorders, and anything relating to work such as resources and contacts. Next, each agent chooses a personal pursuit: fulfill responsibilities, back to nature, establish a new bond, go to therapy, improve a skill or stat, personal motivation, special training, stay on the case, or study the unnatural.
There are two possibilities an agent needs to be prepared for: getting fired (from their day job, not Delta Green) and prosecution. The former may affect some day-to-day things in their duties as a Delta Green agent, but it won’t ultimately hurt them. The latter will take much more luck and good skill rolls to get through, and may still end up paying a fine, spending time in prison, and likely losing their day job.
Equipment & Vehicles
Next it’s time to consider what all the agent will need to complete their mission. In Delta Green items aren’t listed by discrete dollar amounts, but rather by expense categories: incidental, standard, unusual, major, and extreme. Incidental purchases can be made pretty much as-is and will always be considered doable. Anything above that will either be a challenge, extremely limited, or require funding from dubious sources.
One option to obtain equipment is requisition. Of course this is official and therefore will have a paper trail. It is also equipment that must be returned. There is also the operational priority to consider, as well as complications (access, timing and risk, and official review). There are also sections for spending the agents’ own money, using possibly illicit cash, and restricted items (including the possibility of a black market).
OK now it’s onto the equipment. There’s many kinds, including those categorized under weapons, body armor, vehicles, and other gear & services. Each category has a short section with specific rules and information to go with them, followed by the tables of the items with their relevant skill, damage, range, armor piercing, expense, etc. There’s a good selection for each category, but there’s no doubt each game will require the creation of new and custom items. My favorite category is other gear and services, as its examples make me think of things I never would have and/or taken for granted.
This sizable section covers many (if not all) of the agencies of the United States. Your game may make use of few, many, or almost all of these. This chapter is broken down into sections: Law Enforcement (FBI, DEA, ICE, and U.S. Marshals), Defense (Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and SOCOM), Intelligence & Diplomacy (CIA and Department of State), and Public Safety (CDC and EPA). Each section has a good amount of information as well as suggested professions.
This small section goes over a number of unique situations and events the agents are likely to encounter in their adventures. I’m not too sure why it’s at the end of the book as an appendix; I think it could fit just fine in The Game chapter.
One thing I must commend Delta Green on is its very extensive glossary, broken down into xx categories: Equipment, Individuals, (Mis)Information, Locations, Miscellaneous, Operations, Organizations, and Procedures. Even though placed near the end of the book, I would recommend referencing this section quite often while reading anywhere else in the book, as it will no doubt help to fully understand something, especially in the game’s context.
The index is extremely thorough (5 pages, 3 columns!), something that is painfully rare these days.
Look at that list of playtesters and backers, holy shit!
And more holy shit, is that the OGL license I see?! OK before we get too excited, let’s see exactly what’s been marked as Open Content, which is at the end of the OGL license: game mechanics on pages 14–22, 28–36, 42–47, 50–63, 66–75, 78–79, and 84–95. So what all is that exactly? That is the Agents chapter through Professions (14-22), skill descriptions and bonds (28-36), the entire Game chapter (42-47), the entire Combat chapter (50-63), the entire Sanity chapter (66-75), the first 2 pages of the Home chapter (78-79), and the Equipment & Vehicles chapter up until the tables (84-95).
Ok, so while it may seem to not be a huge portion of the game that’s Open Content, it does cover the majority of the rules of the game. I find it odd they left out additional professions, but perhaps they want others to create their own rather than copy theirs. In the Home chapter they left out getting fired and prosecution. I have no idea why they left that out. In the Equipment & Vehicles chapter I imagine they left out the tables for the same reason they left out additional professions: to force others to create their own equipment and vehicles. The rest of the book, primarily the large Federal Agencies chapter, has been left out of the Open Content designation, and I think that’s fine. I don’t think that means you couldn’t include a fictional FBI or special forces in your material, you would just have to come up with your own unique way of how that department works in your adventure, game, etc. I kinda bemoan that the Tradecraft section has been left out, but I can understand it’s a unique section of information and rules for Delta Green.
As I noted in the beginning I really wish I had learned about Delta Green as well as the Call of Cthulhu RPG much earlier in my gaming life. The logical and not-too-complicated rules along with the outstanding settings make these games that I can certainly envision all kinds of fun, terrible, and even haunting situations to put characters into! This latest edition of Delta Green has a very slick rule system, and I must again commend Arc Dream for releasing the rules under the OGL. I certainly intend for this game to remain on my shelf well into the future, sitting beside few other games that also stand the test of time.
Along with the release of the Agent’s Handbook and recently the Handler’s Guide, Arc Dream has already released a large number of adventures. Each has an interesting premise and more great artwork to help sell the mood. I highly recommend checking them out! They have also released the free Need to Know, a quickstart to the game that also includes an adventure.