Michael Hopcroft et al, Seraphim Gaurd, $8 PDF
I thought I'd seen every possible genre of RPG. Then I was asked to review Heartquest: Diceless. Heartquest is set in the world of Shoujo Manga. That's Japanese girl's comics. Now to me this seems like a bit of a niche market. More to the point I can't see it appealing as a genre to the average gamer. However, as a game that tries to broaden the scope of the RPG medium, Heartquest certainly should be applauded. I have a problem with reviewing Heartquest though, it's not the game, it's the image of a bearded overweight gamer geek pretending to be a Japanese schoolgirl, and somehow it isn't a pleasant one.
Anyway that aside, Heartquest: Diceless is the diceless version of Seraphim Guard's previous Fudge-based Heartquest product. It uses the Active Exploits system from Politically Incorrect Games. The system is pretty good as far as diceless ones go, similar to Nobilis in some ways, in that you have certain abilities (Fitness, Awareness, Creativity, and Reasoning) that define what you can do, and other stats and skills that can be spent boost your ability when you really need to succeed. This works well enough, and avoids the need for too many arbitrary GM decisions. If you want you can pretty much guarantee success when it matters to your character, at a cost of possible failure later. So nice and flexible really. It's slightly marred by constantly using special symbols for things rather than giving them names. You may find yourself wondering what that little bomb symbol means. These rules are free to download, so check them out at PIGames for more detail
So what do you get in the Heartquest setting PDF? Well production wise it's a nice layout, and the text is in an easy to read prose style. Illustrations are all very Manga, with some being slightly better than others. They give a solid feel for the setting though, and you can't ask for more than that. The PDF weighs in at 84 pages.
Early chapters deal with character creation specific to Heartquest, basic roleplaying information, and a discussion of what Shoujo Manga is. Character creation is nice and simple, with minimal difficulty in creating the right kind of character. There's lots of traits and skills listed, though these occasionally fall into the trap of not actually telling you how they affect things at a system level. For example, the serious illness gimmick says that you may hurt yourself if over exerted, but doesn't tell you how this might be decided or implemented. There's a short section on designing powers for the more super-normal campaign types. While it's useful as far as it goes, I would have preferred more sample powers.
Next we get an overview of the different sub-genres the game is aimed at (Teen Romance, Magic Girl, Historical Romance and Out of This World). Teen romance is soap opera style romantic stories, magic girl is heroines with supernatural weirdness, historic romance is self explanatory, and out of this world is Manga space opera romance. Well enough explained that I, as somebody who doesn't know the genre, could grasp the concepts.
One notable problem with the book is that there's not really enough advice on how to encourage the style of story that Heartquest wants to create. Sure there's talk of teen romance in Japan from an information point of view, but there's little practical advice on how to deal with it in play. There's plenty of setting examples and general GM advice, but the text rarely comes out and says "this is how you achieve this". An experienced GM could probably work this out from implication, but romance is difficult to get right in an RPG, and I expected more from a product that focuses on it. I suspect a newbie GM or one coming from a Dungeoneering background, might find it hard to get their head around things.
That said, the sample settings are comprehensive, and give a good idea of what each of the different styles of game can look like, and are filled with copious sample characters. These should easily inspire suitably minded players. We have Sendai Academy, a school based teen drama with plenty of angst. There's also Ghost Tamer Myaki, a heroine fighting the demon king, with a cute ghost dog sidekick. Finally there is Steel Heidi, an American written roleplaying setting about a Japanese Manga set in medieval Germany. It works better than it sounds, and has some of the better illustrations. It's a courtly intrigue with swashbuckling highlights, and is probably the setting existing gamers would be more drawn to.
The final chapter is a comprehensive list of things to watch and read for inspiration. I found myself recognising some of these, so maybe the genre isn't as niche as I thought.
Overall: Heartquest won't appeal to everyone, but it does what it does quite well. If you're interested in Manga, or fancy trying your hand at a game that isn't death and mayhem, then you might want to check it out.