New Releases: Harlem Unbound, Sins of the Past Revisited

Today I take a quick look at a couple of new releases in two different genres: horror and superheroes. Both can be used to expand an existing campaign or as the backbone for a whole new campaign. These will be overviews, not full-fledged reviews since I have not had a chance to run either campaign.

Harlem Unbound

Cover of Harlem Unbound

If you want Cthulhu Mythos horror that flips the standard Lovecraftian view of minorities on its head, putting them in the roles of heroes who must struggle against cosmic horrors while also fighting for a chance at equality, this is the sourcebook for you.

Harlem Unbound is a 274-page sourcebook for Cthulhu Mythos role-play written by Chris Spivey and published by Darker Hue Studios, which provides setting history, locations, characters, adventures, and game-master advice for the Harlem neighbourhood of New York City during the 1920s, the era known as the Harlem Renaissance.

System-wise, elements are detailed for play with both Call of Cthulhu 7th Ed. (Chaosium) and the GUMSHOE system (Pelgrane Press). In fact, you can play it as a GUMSHOE standalone, it contains the necessary rules; or you could play it with a GUMSHOE game such as Trail of Cthulhu, Fear Itself, The Yellow King, or The Esoterrorists.

However, the materials offered in Harlem Unbound are rich and well-formulated so that in my opinion, there should be little trouble adapting them to another system of your choice. Mechanics are the least of your worries—doing the material justice in play is the GM and players’ true challenge. This is exactly the game supplement you need to run adventures in the vein of The Ballad of Black Tom (Victor LaValle) or Lovecraft Country: A Novel (Matt Ruff).

The art is of course strongly influenced by luminaries of the Harlem Artists Guild and precursors. Some of it is not my cup of tea (the gorier images), but it is nevertheless well done. I am particularly fond of artist Nino Malong’s contributions.

If you missed the Kickstarter funding campaign, you can still pre-order Harlem Unbound on Backerkit.

Sins of the Past, Revisited

Sins of the Past Revisited - coverThe original Sins of the Past adventure, published back in 2010, is one of the best scenarios ever written for the superhero game ICONS. Since its release, however, the system has undergone a revision and expansion published as the Assembled Edition in 2014.

Sins of the Past, Revisited is a 52-page adventure written by Theron Bretz, illustrated by Dan Houser—the same team that created the original edition—and published by Ad Infinitum Adventures for ICONS Superpowered Roleplaying: The Assembled Edition.

It does not only update the mechanical bits to reflect the most recent version of the game; it offers new material, game-master advice, and notes on the playtest games. There is more art and new maps, everything a GM needs to run exciting scenes of superheroic action.

To top it off, if you prefer to run ICONS using the original rules, this comes with the 2010 version of the adventure for free. This means you can enjoy the new materials without major system adjustments.

The adventure connects modern-day superheroes (and villains) with those of the Golden Age. I think the adventure might have the most impact if its chapters were introduced one at a time over the course of a long-running campaign, when some of the GM characters have become familiar figures of the game setting. This could create fantastic buy-in for the players, inviting their characters to shoulder a legacy.

You can get the PDF on DriveThruRPG, and I understand that the print version will be available soon.

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What makes a good horror RPG?

FearJeremy Kostiew asked on Google+:

What makes a good horror RPG? Rather, what has made a good horror RPG?

Was it atmosphere? Something about the mechanics? Hammer Horror soundtrack? Creepy GM? Haunted playspace? […]

I posted my answer there but it go so long, I realized I should turn it into a blog post! This also gives me a chance to provide links.

I’m not a fan of horror in general because it rarely reaches me. In movies in particular, it usually pairs violence and gore with repetition and cliche. For me, well-done horror is something like Identity (2003) or even some of the better X Files episodes: a lot of atmosphere, and threats that are not just about brutality and death.

Atmosphere: I’ve been in a few successful horror role-playing games, and many unsuccessful ones. The best I played was a campaign based on Clint Krause’s Roanoke game (Clint Krause Games 2006, out of print). My husband Edmund was the game-master and ran it at our local game club; we had a large ensemble cast that could change from week to week based on attendance, and a group of players known for their banter and kibitzing (including me), so horror was a challenge. Edmund payed a lot of attention to atmosphere. He talked to us beforehand about the genre, and asked us to play only if we were willing to get in the spirit, not goof around; the mood of the game was described as Brotherhood of the Wolf meets Lost. He had a soundtrack, sound effects, props, low lighting, etc. I posted detailed actual play reports on RPG.net, where you can get a better sense of how the game felt.

Tension, Transparency, and Temptation: It’s useful to have some sort of mechanic to keep track of and ratchet up the suspense. Examples include the Humanity/Taint/Corruption tracks in a number of horror games, which generally apply to individual characters; or the countdown clocks in Apocalypse World (lumpley games 2010). It’s most effective if the players see their fate coming incrementally closer, and if they have an incentive to court danger.  Roanoke uses the Doom pool, which allows players to gain a maximum success on a die roll at the cost of adding one Doom point to the pool that will determine the endgame phase of the campaign: Heroic Escape, Tragic Escape, Heroic Death, or Terrible Death.

Threats: Successful threats may vary from person to person. If you’re not familiar with the “passions” as used in Unknown Armies (Atlas Games, any edition), you should go take a look, I think they provide a good model. Basically, every character’s personality in UA is defined by three passions: a rage passion (what will unfailingly get under their skin); a noble passion (even a monster may love animals); and a fear passion, which is codified into five categories (violence, helplessness, isolation, the Unnatural, and the Self.) Reading about the types of fears can help a GM think of more varied threats, and identify ones more likely to get a response from the characters and players at the table. In Roanoke, each player has to pick a fear as one of their character’s traits, so they’re directly telling the GM how to draw them in.

Misinformation: A lot of the mood and tension rely on the characters’ imperfect understanding of what is going on. In our Roanoke game, the GM used the Bag o’ Rumours: he wrote little snippets of rumours and had us draw them in secret at the beginning of a game session, as something only that player’s character would know. Some were true, some were false, but most were a little bit of each. They worked very well to sow doubt, provide foreshadowing, and serve as bargaining chips (“I know a secret!”)

Clickable relationship map, Roanoke
Clickable relationship map, Roanoke

Tangled Relationships: A lot of the player buy-in, the spread of uncertainty, and the ratcheting up of suspense comes from or is greatly enhanced by a web of relationships — positive and negative — between the cast of characters. Even if the game is planned as a one-off, I recommend taking the time to establish some allies and antagonists among player characters as well as with primary NPCs.

Boundaries: Because horror gaming relies so much on (A) playing with our darkest fears and (B) shared mood, it’s prudent to have some way of controlling content so that the players will have fun even as the characters are being put through the wringer. In Roanoke we used what we called a Veto card (that was before we had heard the expression “X Card“). Each player got a card they could flash when they felt someone was bringing in elements inappropriate to the setting or the group. It didn’t matter whether it was for mood, story, or personal reasons, it was non-negotiable (although it was okay to ask questions to clarify the scope of the veto.)

RPG a Day: Scary tales

roanoke20. Favourite horror RPG

I’m not a big fan of the horror genre in literature, movies, or games.  But I love Clint Krause’s Roanoke, which uses the very simple Wushu system. I have fond memories of the series my husband ran for our gaming club some years ago, and the great atmosphere it had.

(By the way, sneaky of Dave Chapman to pick the 125th anniversary of Lovecraft’s birth for the horror theme day.)

#RPGaDay2015

Playtest Report: Monster of the Week

Monster of the Week coverI’ve talked a few times about the role-playing game Apocalypse World (Lumpley Games, 2010), especially here and here. This month, I get to playtest Generic Games’ hack of the AW system, Monster of the Week, in its most recent version. It’s a short turnaround playtest effort organized by Generic Games’ partner in the U.S., Evil Hat Productions; my understanding is that this new edition will be a chance to release a high-quality print version in the U.S. at reasonable cost, rather than have the choice between good printing but expensive shipping costs from New Zealand, or more affordable but lower quality print-on-demand copies from Lulu.It’s also a chance for author Michael Sands to fine-tune his game.

Like the popular AW hack Monsterhearts, Monster of the Week is meant to emulate urban horror series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Supernatural, The X Files, The Dresden Files, or Twenty Palaces. However, where Monsterhearts focuses on the teen angst aspects, MotW places the emphasis on action drama. This is much more to my taste, I like Scooby-Doo stuff for grown-ups.

The game provides a re-write and re-skin of the AW moves, completely different playbooks, a richer History phase that solidly ties the player characters (“Hunters”), and a new stat called Luck that provides resilience but also moves Hunters gradually towards the ultimate fate. Experience is changed from the first edition; while it originally followed the AW model with experience gained for using stats highlighted by other players each episode, it’s now earned for every failed roll instead like in Dungeon World (Sage Kobold Productions, 2012), an approach I like much better. Instead of your character growing for acting out other people’s choices, you now have an incentive to accept failure, which is very true to genre and easier to track.

Another change is that the GM (“Keeper”) uses “mysteries” instead of fronts to create the opposition. They’re mysteries in the most basic sense that they start with something unknown with an agenda, not in the sense of necessitating involved investigative skills like an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Each mystery includes at least one monster, one or more minions, some bystanders, and some locations. A starter mystery is provided, and Generic Games & Evil Hat Productions requested it be playtested, along with the Keeper advice for how to set up a first session. The mystery is called “Dream Away the Time” and is set in the cute New England town of Handfast. This review will contain spoilers, so I’ll place the rest after the cut.

[SPOILERS BELOW.] Continue reading “Playtest Report: Monster of the Week”

Spoiler-Filled Review and Musings: True Detective

I repeat: lots of SPOILERS here but I’ll place them after the cut.

"Time Is A Flat Circle," illustration by Ibrahim Moustapha, 2014Edmund and I just finished the first season of Cary Joji Fukunaga and Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective; we’d saved it all because we had been told by friends that it was very good but the pace was slow. Since I end up having a hard time remembering who was what and what went on when this sort of show is stretched over many weeks, I wanted to watch it all over the course of a few nights.

I liked the visuals, the non-linear story-telling, the foreshadowing, the casting, the soundtrack, the editing, and the attention to detail. I always have a measure of trouble understanding some of the dialogue when thick Southern accents and mumbling are involved, but it wasn’t too bad.

I appreciated the references and influences in both the writing and the cinematography. I found it interesting that the show has sparked a good number of high-quality fan art homages, from classic illustration to tongue-in-cheek mash-ups.

On the down side, as with most shows of this type and especially on HBO, it fails to do more than squeak a pass on the Bechdel test when two little girls chatter to one another in one episode. There are relatively few female characters (except as dead bodies), and they are not all that important to the plot; they are there to cast light on the two male protagonists’ mindsets. And being an HBO series, there is plenty of gratuitous female nudity and sex workers.

That’s it for the non-spoiler section. Continue reading “Spoiler-Filled Review and Musings: True Detective”

Mini-Review: Knights of Badassdom

Knights of Badassdom movie posterOn Thursday night we attended a showing of Knights of Badassdom organized by the Ace of Geeks podcast. They sold out the projection room they had secure at the AMC Van Ness 14 theatre, 152 tickets all sold to complete geeks like us. The audience brought costumes, props, and Monty Python references; it made Rocky Horror Picture Show events look a little staid.

It was a treat for all of us, I think, to see a gamer movie with real actors — unless you count Mazes and Monsters, which after all did have Tom Hanks. The four Knights of Badassdom are Tyrion Lannister, River Tam, the guy from True Blood, and the guy from Treme.  No, wait, sorry—now that I have access to IMDb to compensate for my woeful memory for names, let’s try that again:

  • Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent, Death at a Funeral, Game of Thrones) as Hung;
  • Summer Glau (Firefly, Serenity, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Arrow) as Gwen;
  • Steve Zahn (Treme, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dallas Buyers’ Club) as Eric; and
  • Ryan Kwanten (True Blood, Summerland) as Joe.
  • Also notable was Jimmi Simpson (House of Cards, Psych, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) who played the game-master, Ronnie Kwok.

I was not familiar with Joe Lynch, who directed, or with first-time screenwriters Kevin Dreyfuss and Matt Wall. Clearly, though, they knew they Live-Action Role-Playing. Except for the superior quality of the props and costumes, the setting felt quite familiar. The story revolves around LARPers who accidentally summon a real demon, which then proceeds to attack unsuspecting participants in the weekend-long LARP. When the authorities fail to respond, a few brave/weirdo LARPers decide to meet the menace with steel. Hilarity ensues.

I remember that while the movie was being filmed a few years ago, some people in the gamer and LARPer community fretted that this would in fact be another Mazes and Monsters or a Revenge of the Nerds, making the hobby look stupid. I thought that Knights of Badassdom did a good job of making gentle fun of the hobby’s quirks while still making it look cool. The general footage of actual LARPer extras and staged battles looks, well, badass.

When we get to the real monsters, they’re mean and horrible and we wince because they kill some of our favourite geeks. The special effects are no more sterling than one would expect, but they get the job done competently. It’s a horror comedy, and as the lady behind us put it at the end, “The ratio of murder to LARPing was a little high.” The music is good, and the mock-documentary feel of the connecting scenes is well used to make us chuckle without diminishing the main characters.

Everybody seemed to have a good time, and I was certainly happy I’d decided to attend. As I told my husband, “The part that would be hardest to understand for some people is that no one here was perplexed by any of this,” be it LARP protocol, references to John Dee, or death metal. It made perfect sense to us — and from what I see of the few reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, to no one else. Highly recommended for gamers.

Some Links:

Board Games and Movie: I’m Bad

LotR card game: the Spirit deck, with heroes Eowyn of Rohan, Dunhere, and Eleanor.
LotR card game: the Spirit deck, with heroes Eowyn of Rohan, Dunhere, and Eleanor.

I had a packed to-do list for the weekend that included tax filing, layout work for the Dragonflight game convention, course work for online classes, editing the War of Ashes RPG draft in response to reviewers’ and playtesters’ comments, posting my notes on the playtest of Do: Fate of the Flying Temple, responding to other mail, taking care of bills,  plus social commitments for both Saturday and Sunday which I had backed out of at the last minute.

But after a long work week with rough commute hours (two to two and a half hours each way), I felt I had to have a day off. I decided to re-accept the Saturday social, which turned out to be two board games and a movie. I had my first encounter with Fantasy Flight Games’ Lord of the Rings “Living Card Game,” we played another session of the old warhorse Arkham Horror, and we re-watched Galaxy Quest.

Lord of the Rings Card Game: Three players with decks built on Leadership, Lore, and Spirit respectively, tackling the introductory scenario. I was surprised at how easy it was to learn to play after the initial explanation of the rules had bewildered me.

Arkham Horror: All-female roster, all starting in the North End.
Arkham Horror: All-female roster, all starting in the North End.

Arkham Horror: Three players, using the “King in Yellow” expansion. We managed to hold four gate trophies (six, actually) and seal five gates with Elder signs on the very turn when the Doom Track would fill up and Hastur was going to show up. We also kept the terror level to 0 most of the game, 1 point on the final turn; and we cleaned up most of the monsters. This is the game where I’ve felt most confident we were ahead throughout, thanks to some excellent luck in drawing our characters’ random equipment at the start.

The four characters (we had a dummy hand) were coincidentally all female: Zoey Samaras, Wendy Adams, Lola Hayes and Agnes Baker. Zoey started with a randomly drawn Elder sign; Wendy also starts with one by default plus she drew a Press Pass card that allowed her to double up on clue tokens; and Zoey started with two perfect items: a magical weapon and a Healing Stone, both of which saw much use.

On the one hand, I will pay for this; on the other hand, I would have paid if I had tried to work through the weekend and keep going through the week, so I ended up picking the more fun option. Oh, also: we won both games.

GalaxyQuestCast

Comic Book Art: Ian “I.N.J.” Culbard

Ian Culbard - Bat

Someone started a meme on Facebook:

To help us appreciate comic book art we have this Facebook game. Click “like” and I will will assign you a comic book artist. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know their work; just Google the artist and choose an image of the one you like most, and put it on your timeline with this message. Make comments or just let the art speak for itself.

Steve Dempsey assigned me Ian Culbard. I did not know him, but learned that he’s a British artist and writer who has also worked or been translated in French, and done some cover art for “The New Deadwardians”, a DC title under the Vertigo imprint. His speciality seems to be, wait for it, Edwardian-era literature translated to graphic novel format: Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burrows, etc. He talks about some of his favourites on his blog, Strange Planet Stories. He does pencilling, inking, colour, animation, illustration, and just about everything else.

Style-wise, he favours a “clean line” approach I like, but seems to make his characters a little cartoony for my preference. But then I set these preferences aside for artists that grow on me like Mike Mignola and Kevin O’Neil, so maybe if I could read enough of his books his style would sway me too.

I will leave you with the cover I liked best from his work on The New Deadwardians: the combination of a bloody handprint and a vintage map of London’s Whitechapel district already conveyed its theme very effectively, even before the addition of the bizarre skulls.

Ian Culbard: The New Deadwardians #2 cover

Board Game Day: Eldritch Horror

Eldritch Horror box coverOn Saturday we had some friends over and we tried the recently released board game Eldritch Horror from Fantasy Flight Games. This game is the heir and “streamlined version” of Arkham Horror—also from FFG—which I’ve mentioned a few times here.  Game Informer has an excellent and detailed description of the game, so I’ll give you my own impressions.

The Game

Like its predecessor, the game is about brave investigators shutting down inter-dimensional gates to prevent Elder Gods from erupting into our reality and eating it. It’s a very Lovecraftian setting, except that it’s possible to win. Not easy, mind you, just conceivable enough that it’s worth playing. Instead of concentrating on Arkham and its surroundings, it goes world-wide. The rules feel familiar but you have to build your sense of what is likely to happen in any given location or mission all over again. Continue reading “Board Game Day: Eldritch Horror”

Book Review: “Hillfolk” and “Blood on the Snow”

Hillfolk coverToday I’d like to review Robin D. Laws book Hillfolk and its companion volume Blood on the Snow (Pelgrane Press, 2013).

Disclaimer: This is going to be a backwards review about everything but the core topic! You see, I don’t feel ready to review the game Hillfolk or the DramaSystem rules engine that powers it. I like to base my reviews on sufficient playtesting and so far I’ve only hosted one game. It went very well, but that’s not enough to speak with confidence on it, given that the system is intended to shine in continuing series.

However! This pair of books is an odd one, in many ways unlike your standard role-playing game, and I think it may actually be a good idea to review its other aspects separately. So here you are, this is a book review and not a game review. I’ll give you the latter after more playtesting.

Background

Blood On The Snow coverThis project attracted attention in the fall of 2012 with its Kickstarter crowdfunding. When the Kickstarter phase opened on October 3, Hillfolk was intended to be a small standalone project, described by lead author Robin Laws as “a 128-page book from a team of five people”.  The book was going to be a 6″ x 9″ pocket-format paperback “game of Iron Age conflict” based primarily on narration rules and a token-based economy, the text was complete, many of the illustrations were already prepared, the layout concept was known, and it was a pretty focused project seeking $3,000 to go to production.

Then Kickstarter caught fire, as it sometimes does; the project was funded within a few hours, and Pelgrane Press had to start rolling out stretch goals faster, earlier, and more often than anyone had hoped for.

At the same time, all this interest generated its own buzz; Kickstarter backers were able to look at the draft and many talented people started thinking: “Oh, you could use this system to play ___!” Next thing you know, people were submitting series pitches for games to run with DramaSystem besides Iron Age conflict, while others were sending their thoughts about “hacking” DramaSystem and about best practices to run games. These supplied a stream of stretch goals that really got the crowdfunding going.

In the first few days, I was mildly interested but not swept off my feet; the Iron Age setting seemed nice, well-written, but it’s not the kind of setting that gets me excited. But the flood of series pitches made the enthusiasm contagious; people whose previous work or blogging I really loved were throwing in sparkling settings like jewels on the river bottom, and I had to dive with the rest of the community.  (No, not lemmings! Bad reader, bad!)

As a result, when the Kickstarter phase ended 2,185 backers had pledged $93,845, or over 3,128 times the original $3,000 goal, and the project had become “two books of twice [the original] size, and a team of approximately eighty contributors”; the books were going to get hardcover and colour interior treatment, and the format had to change from the planned small size to full size because otherwise they would be too thick to handle properly. There was even material leftover that would become monthly series pitches released as PDF by Pelgrane Press, available by subscription.

The Result

So here is what Kickstarter backers got; I don’t want to detail every single option and tchotchke available, but the key points are:

  • For $10, you were able to get the final PDF versions of everything: Hillfolk, Blood on the Snow, and nine months of series pitches.
  • For $41 in the U.S., you got all this plus two hardcover books, shipping cost included. (If you have followed recent conversations on the Kickstarter model’s pitfalls, you know that shipping is a big issue. I’ll leave the discussion of international shipping to more knowledgeable people.)

In this review I want to talk essentially about everything the Kickstarter stretch goals added these books as books, i.e., excluding the other types of rewards like tokens, cards, or music; and also, perhaps strangely, excluding the core game for the reasons stated earlier.

Hillfolk is a 238-page, 8.5″x12″ (22 cm x 30.5 cm) hardcover book with glossy pages and colour illustrations. The first 65 pages are devoted to the system, the next 12 to the original “Hillfolk” Iron Age setting as essentially an extended series pitch, and the rest of the book offers thirty additional settings!

Blood on the Snow is 207-pages long and otherwise presented in the same form. It’s a companion book meant to enrich the reader’s experience with DramaSystem by offering advanced play and game-mastering advice, hacks such as a live-action role-playing (LARP) version, and 33 more series pitches.

I can’t think of any other role-playing product that offers this many alternate settings, or where so much of the material is effectively bonus material.

The Books as Objects

"Did I just get what I wanted?"The two books are hefty but pleasant to the touch. The art varies mostly from good to gorgeous, and even the monochrome art such as the pieces created by Jan Pospisil for the original, smaller-scale project benefits from the rich greys and sepias you can get with full-colour printing.

The covers are a bit too understated for my taste; they feature otherwise very good drawings by Scott Neil but placed in negative  as white images on a muted background, brown for Hillfolk and dark blue for Blood on the Snow. Both drawings show only the Iron Age setting. The books are so understated and give so little hint of what they contain that if I had not followed the Kickstarter, the only reason I would thumb through one at a game store is if I managed to notice Robin Laws’ name in thin font at the top.

The layout also goes for sober, elegant, and muted. It would have been a very good layout if the fonts selected had been at least two points larger. I don’t know if it was originally going to use that font size, or whether the change in book format and addition of so much material made some font reduction necessary, but both the PDF and the print books are terribly difficult for me to read now that I have reached the advanced age of 48. I can’t say for sure but I think it would have been too small for me even before my reading vision started deteriorating. I don’t have that problem with any other game books, but reading those two just kills me. To add insult to injury, the columns of text are narrow, making reading choppy, but the white margins are huge.

In fact, when I really need to study to understand, for example when I read system minutia, I have to rip the text section from the PDF and turn it into .mobi file I can read and zoom as needed on my Kindle. Unfortunately, it’s a huge amount of work to do that, particularly because of the staggered column format that turn text into mad-libs, so it would be a prohibitive effort to do for the whole books and even just for the system sections. Finally, the PDF files are not bookmarked. This is one of the reasons I’m not finished with playtesting DramaSystem: it’s so damn hard to read this.

The forms such as character sheet, list of recurring characters, etc. are usable but uninspired, and not very well sized to handle player handwriting. They remind me of the home-made character sheets we used to hatch on our word processors for White Wolf system hacks 20 years ago.

The Series Pitches

Let’s look at the bonus content: sixty-four series pitches including the original “Hillfolk” premise, plus nine more through the monthly subscription for a total of 73 game settings. The list of contributors is stunning, it’s like reading the list of cameo appearances in the movies Around the World in 80 Days or Mars Attacks.

What is a series pitch? In general, it’s a summary of the setting, key issues, key characters, etc. to propose a new series, such as television or graphic novel series. In our case, these are pitches for us to use, as the directors and editors of our own “shows”. Each pitch contains ideas of questions to explore in play, ways to ratchet up the stakes and suspense, and suggested names, relationship, and details to make the series come alive.

For me, the series pitches are the delicious chocolate centre of these two books. First, because that is how exactly how I start building a game idea; second, because it doesn’t matter if I end up loving DramaSystem or not: they are entirely usable in any genre-appropriate system of your choice. And third because for me they also spark lots more ideas of setting pitches to create.

I love that every single one of the writers who contributed a pitch is someone whose stuff I have read and loved elsewhere; some are not even primarily known as game authors but in other fiction media like comics (e.g., Gene Ha) or television (John Rogers). Some are directly employed by different publishers and just don’t end up contributing to the same books outside of this. Some are people whose articles, forum contributions and blog posts I’ve just enjoyed reading for years, and it’s my first chance to read their fiction.

Because the premise of DramaSystem is that the players are at the core of the action, the main characters in a continuing dramatic series, each pitch is created with this drama in mind to emulate the flavour of shows and books like Battlestar Galactica, A Game of Thrones, Firefly, NYPD Blues, or Lost. They offer hooks to create interesting characters, whether placed at the centre of power or skulking in the shadows. I love that the settings and genres represented are so varied.

I’m not sure how much the PDF alone will sell for; the books are still offered as a pre-order on Pelgrane Press’ site for the print+PDF bundle at US $30 or £19. But if the PDFs end up reasonably priced, I would recommend them for GMs who have a favourite system (e.g., GURPS, Hero, Fate, Heroquest) but like to try settings. (If it stays at $30 each, I would recommend checking whether you also like the system first.)

The “Masterclass” Advice

While I can’t discuss it in detail until I write my system review, I found the GM advice in both books to be very helpful. In particular, I used the advice on single-play session found in both books and was grateful for it. The hacks seemd full of clever ideas to customize the game to your group’s preferences.

Like the GUMSHOE system I reviewed recently, the core of DramaSystem can also be used as an add-on layer with another game system of your choice; the MasterClass advice provides useful tips, and studying the dramatic versus procedural discussions will be of great interest to GMs who like to run story-based games.

In fact, even if one never plays DramaSystem (which would be a shame but as usual, So many games, so little time…), the concepts discussed, the scene-setting process, the analysis of dramatic exchanges in fiction, etc. are all well-worth reading if you are the kind of gamer who got a lot out of such games as Primetime Adventures, Apocalypse World, The Burning Wheel, or Dust Devils.

If you try DramaSystem and like it, then I would say that for sure Blood on the Snow is going to be a worthwhile companion book for you.

Conclusion

Because I got in during the Kickstarter and got the books and PDF for a really good price, I can say that no matter how often I end up playing DramaSystem, this will have been a worthwhile purchase for me. I know I will use these ideas in my games. But dear Lord, if they ever put out an ebook version for sale at a reasonable price, I’m buying it.

To the 80+ writers, artists, and other contributors to these books: I want to hug you all, you gave us something new and exciting that I didn’t have in other game books.

My recommendation to game publishers for future Kickstarter stretch goals: I would place much more value on ebook format (such as .mobi or .ePub) than on special dice, bonus fiction, or even colour printing.

My recommendation to game publishers for layout: a game book is something that needs to be used quickly and clearly, no one has the time to decipher scribbles in play and if reading it makes one’s eyes water, it should be for the drama and not the font. I don’t care how elegant the layout is, you’re not publishing a coffee table art book.

All in all, very good books but not without peccadilloes.