Review : Starcluster

By Clash Bowley et al, Flying Mice, $7 PDF

Starcluster is a PDF download from Flying Mice LLC and available at rpgnow.com. It comes as 8 different files, each focusing on an aspect of the game. It's not made obvious which file to start with, though "playing the game" seemed like a good place to begin.

The layout is basic, some documents are single column, some double. The text feels dense, something not helped by the lack of space between paragraphs in some of the files. The layout across the PDFs is inconsistent too, which doesn't help the game feel unified. The organisation seems somewhat random in places as well, I couldn't work out why details on spaceport types were tagged onto the playing the game PDF. Illustrations are a scattered throughout and are serviceable, but not inspiring. The cover art is the best, and has a slightly abstracted feel.

There's a basic intro, but other than that Starcluster pretty much throws you in at the deep end with rules, so unless you've played an RPG before you will end up lost. Of course selling from RPGNow, there's little chance any purchaser will not have played before, but I wouldn't give this PDF to a new-to-gaming player, it makes a few too many assumptions for that. There's no real GM or player advice beyond how to build a character and the core mechanics.

Character creation is a random/careers hybrid, and based on a career path in a similar way to Traveller. You get to choose your schooling and career, and can enter any that you meet the requirements for. Every two years of charatcer life you can roll to see if you're character is promoted. Every 4 years, starting at age 34, there's a chance that your stats will start to drop due to ageing.

The basic rules are, fortunately, pretty simple. It's percentile skills with modifiers. Stats exist, and add to 5% to relevant skills for each point over 7 (and base stats start at between 2-12 randomly rolled). Not exactly revolutionary, but it works, I suppose. Combat is based on a minute long round divided up into 120 initiatives. Characters can act on their initiative roll, and if they are particularly badass get extra actions 10 initiatives later. Combat is notably more likely to end up with one side unconscious rather than dead, which may not appeal to everybody, but according to the book will help GMs who want to run "you get knocked out and captured" plots.

There are rules for space battles between starships too, these seem to turn most battles into slogging matches as each ship tries to disable its opponents shields first and then start knocking out essential systems. More Star Trek than Star Wars.

Starcluster likes its tables. There's a table of weapons, tables of skills, tables of professions, tables of equipment and weapons, tables of times it takes to get from A to B. You get the picture. If you don't like referencing tables in character creation and play, then Starcluster will not be for you.

Starcluster has a vague setting. It's space, there are some alien races (mostly based on humans seeded across the galaxy by mysterious aliens), there's a confederacy of species, and they trade. There's an interdicted world called Jalan where there have Psionics. It needs more of a setting I think, something to differentiate it from the other - similar - Sci-Fi RPGs. More precisely I came away unsure of what it was characters should be doing. In this regard Starcluster, like many Sci-Fi games, is a victim of the openness of the setting. You can do anything, so what do you do? There are a number of supplements available, so hopefully these solve this issue, but you may have to fork out more cash for them.

Overall: Starcluster is a blast from the past. It reminds me of the RPGs of yesteryear. Most specifically, Traveller. Things like random stat generation, chart heavy rules and tech levels that give it that feel. Really, it doesn't seem to do that much more than any other SF roleplaying game. It isn't bad at what it does, but its inconsistent layout and organisation don't help it. It really needs the touch of an editor who wasn't immersed in the products creation, and some more consistent design. So, promising, but I'd wait for a 2nd edition...

**Note:**A newer, single PDF version, with rules clarifications is now available.

Review : Heartquest: Diceless

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.

Review : D20 Mecha Compendium

By Dream Pod 9,

The D20 Mecha Compendium is a book of big robots, mechs, and similar creations for use in D20 games. Produced by Dreampod 9, who has a long history of providing quality mecha related products, the book is 160 pages of stats and background material. The layout is excellent, as I've come to expect from DP9, with plenty of manga style illustrations (though some are skimmed from earlier products).

The book is split into four chapters, the first covers the basics of mecha in D20. The other three cover settings and stats for fantasy, modern, or futuristic games. Each of the setting sections includes a brief overview of a setting, followed by some stat blocks for the mecha in question. There's also advice on customizing the ideas to your own setting, and using them outside the genre suggested.

The first chapter skims through the way mecha work, and lets us know that full details are available in the Guardians of Order product D20 Mecha. That said, enough rules are given that you can run a basic mecha campaign with just this book, you just have a limited number of vehicle modifications. Since the book is based solely around pre-designed systems, I don't see this as a particular issue, but you will probably need the other book to create your own machines of doom.

Chapter 2 is about mecha in fantasy games. It gives advice on why you might want to use them, and some sample settings. The first setting has the mecha as divine artifacts representing aspects of the primal forces (fire, war and so on), with lesser mecha being craftsman created servants of the divine. Quite fun, though not really enough information to run a campaign in the world. The next setting details golemsuits, mecha created like golems. These are pretty dull really, and have the least inspiring illustrations in the book. The beast lords follow this trend, being animalistic mecha in a fantasy world. The gem of the fantasy chapter are the coalsuits of the Cities and Empire setting, which have a nice steampunk flavour.

In chapter 3 we get modern and alternate history mecha. A chance for DP9 to do D20 stats for their Gear Krieg game. Gear Krieg is a nice pulp-ish setting, and the mechs have a suitably retro feel to them. The setting info is sparse, but enjoyable. In the Phoenix Rising setting that follows we get some Metal Gear Solid style mechs. This is a nice little overview of a slightly into the future world with global corporations and power-suited terrorists. I'd have liked to see more detail on it. Great Machine Decander rounds off the modern settings, and is a modern setting where discoveries of a lost civilization have lead to advances in technology.

The last chapter is about future worlds, and includes the DP9 Jovian Chronicles and Heavy Gear setting, along with a few others. The Terra Nova setting for Heavy Gear gets a solid introduction, and may inspire readers to delve deeper. I've always liked this setting, and the overview gives a good feel for the political climate. The Jovian Chronicles is a solar system based campaign with large flying mecha suits, less gritty than Heavy Gear. The chapter is rounded off by a two earth vs the aliens mecha settings, one of which has a passing similarity to robotech.

Overall: If you want to move your Heavy gear, Grear Krieg or Jovian Chronicles game to D20, then this book has the basics of what you'll need. If you want some stat blocks and pretty mecha pictures for a fantasy or modern game, then it may help too. Unfortunately background information is too sparse for the book to be really useful. More a setting taster book than anything else, I'd have preferred fewer settings with more depth of coverage.

Review : Kayfabe: The Inside Wrestling RPG

By Matt Gwinn, Errant Knight Games, $12 PDF

Kayfabe is the inside wrestling roleplaying game. You might think this would mean it was a game with rules for big brawny men engaged in rigged fights, and to some extent you'd be right, but kayfabe manages to be quite different to what you expect.

Kayfabe is a 80 page PDF from Errant Knight Games (though a printed version is available too), it was written by Matt Gwinn, a man with an obvious enthusiasm for the subject matter. The layout is solid and easy on the eye, it reminds me somewhat of the original Blood Bowl rulebook (minus the orcs). The illustration is all lineart, but of a high quality, and while sparsely used it adds a nice amount of atmosphere. There's the occasional glitch in layout, with columns of text ending prematurely, but these a fortunately not on vital sections. There aren't any PDF bookmarks, but there's a small Index to help locate information.

So what's the game itself like? Rather than take the dull approach of "every player makes a wrestler, and they fight, that's it", Kayfabe is about the wrestling industry, the behind the scenes shenanigans, the unfolding stories, and playing the crowd for all it's worth. Even to somebody like me, with my meagre understanding of wrestling, can easily grasp the premise and roll with it.

The first part of the PDF deals with how to create your charactes. Kayfabe defines the wrestler by four stats(wrestling, work rate, mic skills and clout) and several assets and flaws(which give bonuses/penalties in different situations). Wrestling is the character's athletic ability, work rate is your wrestlers ability to read the crowd's reaction, mic skills is how well you can vocally work the crowd, and clout is how much backstage influence your character has.

A game of Kayfabe is split into three parts. The first is a writers meeting, where players take on the role of the people who write the wrestling's plots. At this stage they come up with the cool story that unfolds through the matches in a series. They also decide which wrestlers from the talent pool (the pool of created characters) are going to be matched against each other. Players get to work out how much of the wrestling show will be given over to matches, interviews, skits and promos. Overseeing all this is the booker (GM), who puts it all together into a summary called a booking sheet.

Next comes the locker-room section, where players get to roleplay the dodgy dealings that go on back-stage of an event. Players now take on the role of the wrestlers and try and influence the booking sheet, to get themselves top billing or better deals. There's plenty of opportunity for nefarious plotting and politics here, adding a nice slant to the game. Clout is the main stat for this section, and clout rolls can be used to get your way, or build up an opponants bad rep.

Finally, the players get to control their wrestlers during the show. The most important thing in the matches is Heat. Heat is effectively how much crowd enthusiasm you have generated and your wrestler's reputation too. Since the matches are rigged by the story team, what matters is how much heat you generate for your wrestler during them, rather than any of this winning stuff. You want your wrestler to be more adored by the crowd after the match than before, after all.

Matches are given a time limit in minutes, this is effectively Kayfabe's round, and for every minute one of the players involved describes a move set he is engaging in. After the move set, dice are rolled and the match heat can go up or down. Rolling a 6 is a good result, rolling ones but no sixes is bad, but doesn't mean the move failed, just that you didn't sell it to the crowd. Doing things like risking injury, using a signature move or finisher, increases the dice you roll and therefore your chance of the heat going up. You can also wager match heat, by doing unexpected things to boost the audiences reaction. This carries the risk of the match heat going down by what you wager though.

Kayfabe works by sticking to it's core mechanic, and everything else being a logical extension of it. Dice rolls are simple and elegant(6s are success 1s failures), and the concept of heat really works for the setting. There's a good sized section for the Booker(GM), which provides some useful advice, and an a large amount of rules for creating your groups promotion and promoter.

Are there any problems with Kayfabe? Well, the text can sometimes be confusing, and occasionally uses a term before it has been properly introduced. Obviously it assumes a certain degree of wrestling knowledge too, so non-fans will find it harder going. The text's insistence that the players are "creating their own wrestling promotion", rather than playing a game about it, can get a bit annoying. But these are minor problems when seen with the whole.

Overall: Kayfabe is the kind of game where the raw enthusiasm of the auhor is infectious. The text makes you want to play the game right now. While the subject matter won't be to everybody's tastes, those who like wrestling will be right at home.

Review : octaNe - premium uNleaded

By Jared Sorensen, Memento Mori Theatricks , $10 PDF

What is octaNe? It's a game like no other. No really.

Setting wise it's kinda like Mad Max got kidnapped by a B Movie director and taken to a rock n roll strip club. It's a post apocalyptic world of mutants, road warriors, and kung fu monkeys.

octaNe is a PDF download from Memento Mori Theatricks, the game-design garret of Jared A. Sorensen. If you're dubious as to the value of PDF games, then I definitely suggest it as your first purchase, since there's enough cool stuff in here to make you a convert. Sure there's no artwork, but the ideas alone are worth the cost of entry.

System wise octaNe is simple, yet elegant. At it's core it strips things down to the basic concept: You're playing characters doing cool things, and the rules are there to say who gets to describe what and when. That's about it. Sure there are skills and character types, but the basics of the system boils down to if you roll high, you decide what happens, if you roll low the GM decides. If you want tactics or realism (whatever that means in an RPG), then OctaNe isn't for you. Any fight can be over on a good roll, and players can introduce outlandish story ideas easily, so it won't suit a megalomaniac GM. What it is good for is weird-as-hell player-driven story.

Lots of the attitude and atmosphere comes from the character types: Road Warrior, Death-Rock Siren, Six String Samuri, Capuchin monkey, Smartcar Rustler, Masked Luchador, all weird but cool character concepts. A quick read through and you'll be easily be able to pin down what you want to play, and if by some chance you can't find something, you can invent your own. Then it's a case of picking your styles, of which there are 6 (daring, ingenuity, craft, charm, might and magic) and skills (not rated, you either have them or not). It's important to note that styles aren't stats. They don't measure how good you are at something (you can pretty much decide that yourself), they're more a measure of how likely you character is to act in a certain way. The more your character acts a certain way, the more you get rewarded with plot points, these can be spent to do cool stuff even when you don't have a skill or style that's appropriate.

Setting wise octaNe is full of cool concepts, but it's certainly not an in-depth background. The book is written with broad strokes and leaves you to fill in the blanks. You get a post-apocalypse trash-culture America, where there are mutants, demons, zombies, ninja, giant sloths, and smart cars. Each major area and city of the setting gets a brief overview, plus we get a rundown on typical vehicles, weird inhabitants of the world, and magic traditions. The setting info leaves a lot for you to fill in during play, which is kinda refreshing.

You get plenty of advice on how to run a game in this freewheeling style, from stopping a game from stalling, to four different styles of play ranging from Arthouse (mythic storytelling) to grindhouse (think Russ Meyer). So there's lots of flexibility for style of game within the rules.

All in all octaNe is damned good value and a lot of fun.