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.

Review : Red Dwarf The RPG

By Todd Downing, Deep7, £25/$34.95 Print

Three millions years into deep space... It must be about a year since I heard about the plans to do a Red Dwarf RPG. To start with I was dubious, the guys with the license were American, they spelled Kebab as Kebob on their web site. Out of interest I got in contact with them, to get the scoop that became this interview. I was pleasantly surprised. They had a strong idea of what Red Dwarf was about. They wanted to remain true to the show. How cool was that!

A year later, and I've got the book in my hands. It's slimmer than some RPGs, but the production values are very high. A mixture of full colour and 2 colour printing (black and red), it's well layed out and information is well presented. It passes the "decent index" test too, a rare thing in an RPG. There are lots of photos from the series, some of which don't seem to have converted very well to greyscale (only really noticeable on a few of the darker shots). There's also plenty of illustrations. These fit the style of the series surprisingly well, reminding me somewhat of the comic strips in the old Red Dwarf Magazine. The best bits of layout work are the wonderfully produced adverts. Similar to those in the old Starwars and Cyberpunk games, these nicely add atmosphere to the book (the small print of the ouroborous Batteries advert is great).

Writing wise the book is a pleasant read. Some chapters are better than others, but generally the writers do a good job of making roleplaying rules interesting and conveying the humour of the setting. There are occasional hiccups (some pop-culture references you may not get, or lose something in the journey over the atlantic). But then most of this is a problem with any comedy writing, and doesn't spoil the book. it's obvious that the writers payed a lot of attention to how to run a game in a Red Dwarf like universe. Their conclusion (and the best one to make, as far as I can see) was that your game takes place in one of the many alternate universes of the setting, using your characters, and so you should focus on the core concept: Man is alone a godless universe. Hilarity ensues.

There're a good introductory chapter answering the questions: "what is roleplaying?", "what is Red Dwarf?", and so on. Some nice colour text dragged form the series sets the tone well, and the writing style fills you with enthusiasm. There's a glossary (useful so that you know the GM is called the AI etc), and for those of us who are used to RPGs, there's a rules summary. It's around this point I had some nagging doubts about the system, but more on that later. For newbies there's an RPG primer in chapter 2, and it's pretty good.

In chapter 3 we are given rules on how to create characters, starting with some advice on thinking about what you want to play, followed by a series of character types. Here we have a list of the main options for player characters, Humans, Holograms, Evolved Pets (cats, dogs, rabbits, mice and iguanas are given as examples), Mechanoids (Series 4000 or Hudzen 10), GELFs (Genetically Engineered Life forms), Wax Droids (Intelligent wax works) and Simulants (Psychotic military mechanoids). Each type gets a bonus special ability and a particular drawback, as well as particular limits on how high their stats can go.

The actual creation rules are short and summarised on a sidebar. Distribute 20 points between 6 stats and 30 points to skills. You get extra skill points for Liabilities, and you can also buy Assets for points. This is further developed in the next few chapters, which deal with character traits in detail. The six stats are straightforward enough, Agility, Dexterity, Perception, Strength, Intelligence, Willpower. These follow pretty standard RPG lines. The only oddity here is the agility / dexterity split, which seems somewhat stretched (one overall coordination stat might have worked just as well, it's not like this split is obvious in the source material), and the fact that anything social is based off perception. From these stats, we get derived stats: Initiative, Save and Shrug. Both save and shrug, when introduced, seem to have a remarkably similar purpose (helping deal with damage). Finally, there is a stat called Destiny, everybody gets one point. This can be spent for a re-roll, if you do something heroic, you'll get it back and an additional point. I'd have liked to see this stat expanded on. It's one of the few stats that seems to really help with the Red Dwarf, "skin of their teeth", feel. I'd like to have seen it's definition expanded to give reward for comedy moments and keeping to the Red Dwarf feel, which I'll certainly do when running it.

Skills are all attached to a particular attribute, they follow a pretty standard RPG list. Values of 1 in a skill are ranked "loser", 4 "satisfactory", and 7+ "What a guy!". You can take a speciality that gives you +1 to a particular use and -1 to all other uses of the skill, some skills you also have to choose a category for (like Pilot: Transport). The skills are explained in an entertaining manner, and the list covers most of the things you'd expect to see in the RD universe.

The Assets, Liabilities and Behavioral tags follow a GURPS style "points for problems" system. It's here that the system adds in some of the setting colour, and so you get liabilities like Smeghead (+3 points) and Gimboid (+2 points). Behavior tags only give you one point each, and are pretty minor quirks that add character colour. My only problem with this aspect of the system is that it's entirely possible to ignore the liabilities completely. Since part of Red Dwarf's charm is that everybody in the main cast is a loser of some kind, I'd have like to have seen some compulsory points of liabilities, or some such. Another problem is that by taking lots of liabilities, you get to be really skilled or buy lots of assets. This somehow doesn't seem true to the setting, where people like Rimmer have many flaws, and no real skills or assets...

The system is pretty simple, you roll 2D6 and try to get under your stat + skill. If you roll snake eyes you get a critical success, if you roll boxcars you get a critical failure. All action results are narrated by the GM, who can give you modifiers for certain situations. Combat follows the 3 second rounds method (something abstract would work better for a comedy game, in my opinion, no time for cool quips if rounds are 3 seconds). Characters act in order of initiative. There's rules for running, dodging, surprise, targeting areas of the body, damage, wounds, saves, and so on. Again, this is a standard RPG combat system, nothing special, but then nothing seems particularly broken either. My main dislike for the system is that it tries to simulate how the universe works, rather than how the show is written. But this is a personal preference, and probably won't stop most people having fun with the game.

There's an example of play in chapter 7. As an example it works. I suppose. It shows how the skills work, how the AI should do its job, and how players should react. It's not very funny though, and doesn't really inspire me to play the game. That's a problem in any play example.

Practically everything that ever appeared in the Red Dwarf series is detailed in the Equipment and Ships chapters. From Starbug to Psiscan, it's all here. Some nice flavour text, images, and the relevant stats and rules are provided for everything. There's a deckplan of Starbug too. I'm somewhat dubious about lists of gun stats in a Red Dwarf game, they seem out of place somehow. The creatures chapter details all the critters you are likely to encounter. So if you fancy throwing a mutton vindaloo beast, polymorph, or space weevil at your group, then you have everything you need.

The worlds chapter is particularly well written (one of my favourites in the book). It describes most of the worlds visited in the series, but each has a "Worst case scenario" with it, which is ideal for coming up with scenarios to throw at your players. This is a nice touch, and I think the equipment and ships chapters could have benefited from taking a similar approach, as it gets you thinking about how you're actually going to run the game.

Speaking of which, the AI section is well done, and covers handling players and such like, along with some sidebars on optional rules. There's advice on playing the AI like Holly, dealing with causality, encouraging comedy, plus other issues of running a humorous game. There's a tendency to go for the "GM is God" style of roleplaying here, which spoils the chapter slightly. But it's not like this is a unique phenomena in RPGs.

The personalities chapter covers everybody you might want to meet from the series, from Rimmer to Nicey Ackerman, along with some generic stats for space corps officers, GELFs, and others. This is useful for providing instant non-player characters, but also for some insight into how to create characters. For example, the list of character traits for Lister match Rimmer's intolerences, an ideal recipe for comedy.

Finally we get a scenario generator and a sample scenario. The scenarios generator is well thought out, and involves playing mix and match with the situations and personalities form the series. Plenty of ideas to be had here. The sample scenarios "The Red Dwarf Shuffle" should be fun to run, and has the feeling of the series about it. Without too many spoilers,it involves what could be termed "Extreme Golfing" on a GELF planet.

Overall: I have mixed feelings about Red Dwarf as a RPG. It's well written and the setting information and game advice are comprehensive and entertaining. It has a good take on how to make roleplaying in the Red Dwarf universe possible, and good advice on how to go about it. It's just that the rules are a little uninspiring. In the end though, the play's the thing, and whatever system you use, the Red Dwarf universe is going to be a fun place to play.

Review : Tribe 8 PLayers Handbook

By Marc A. Vezina et al, Dream Pod 9, £12.99 / $22.95

The post apocalyptic player's guide

Tribe 8 is a great setting. It's a post apocalyptic fantasy/horror set in the ruins of Canada. Dream based shamanistic magic, horrific creatures which capture and enslave humanity, tribal societies clawing their way through the dead cities of the world before and a ragtag group of outcasts who may just change the world. Tribe 8's got it all.

One of its problems however, is that the main book had a lot of setting material shown via character monologues. This made it somewhat difficult to use as a casual reference, or a player aid. Much to their credit, Dream Pod 9 have realised this and produced a players handbook to distil the setting information for easy access for players.

The book itself is a slim volume with a nice cover and a well layed out interior. The sidebars that are scattered throughout the second chapter are a good example of the use of layout. They contain a good deal of information about the 7 Tribes, the Z'Bri, and the Fallen Outlooks, in a very compact way. The artwork is of high quality, of the decayed pseudo-manga style the game line is famous for. I did notice that quite a few pictures were lifted from the original book, but since this material is mainly a repackaging, that's hardly surprising.

Chapter 1 is a basic introduction, explaining why the book was written, and how it can be used. It also goes into some detail on how Tribe 8 can be played, and what your characters should actually do. This chapter sets up the aims and objectives of both the game and the book, and so is ideal reading for anybody who may be confused about either.

Chapter 2 is a rundown on the Tribe 8 background. This includes everything a player needs to know about the setting. The history of the tribes, and the structure of tribal life. Information on becoming one of the fallen, an how this affects a character. There are also sections on religion and spirituality, crime and punishment and the trading that goes on in the bazaar. The chapter is a nice compact rundown, and should set any player straight on how the game world works. As mentioned above, the chapter is full of useful sidebars

In chapter 3 we get a look at character development. This starts off by providing some basic archetypes for new players to develop concepts from. These are probably very familiar to anybody who has played a certain fantasy game before: barbarian, bard, fighter, druid, thief, cleric and mage. I'm not convinced this is a good idea for any experienced roleplayer, but if you're coming to the game from D20 (see later), or you're a new player in need of a starting point, then they're probably quite useful. I can't help but feel they do a disservice to the quality of the setting though.

The next section covers character backgrounds, and gives some tables of background ideas with suggested perks and flaws. Again, these are more useful to those who don't have a strong idea of the character they want to play, but reading them certainly helps inspire you.

Next we get a rundown of the various outlooks amongst the fallen: The Doomsayers, Herites, Jackers and Lightbringers. This is an excellent section, giving details of the major outlooks and more importantly how to approach playing them. Everything is succinct and to the point, covering core ideology, who joins the groups, what they do, internal and external politics and some handy tips for playing each type. The chapter rounds off with a look at the mechanics of character creation.

Chapter 4 covers equipment and the economy of the setting. The equipment section covers encumbrance and the typical weapons and armour used by the fallen, useful but ultimately dull information. The economy section is the star of the chapter, this gives a nice overview of the barter economy, including a section on who wants what, and a handy example. This is followed by a table of items and their typical barter values. Oddly, while there's a full breakdown of armour, there's no table of weapons... (This is fixed in the errata)

Chapter 5 looks at combat in more detail, covering the typical tactics of the different groups in the setting, mass combat and some maneuvers that make combat more interesting. If you like your combat abstract, then this section won't hold much for you. If however, you have an interest in the more tactical aspect of systems then this will probably be required reading.

In chapter 6 we learn more about synthesis, the magic of the Tribe 8 setting. The chapter has a rundown of the various eminences (spiritual affinities) and how they can be used with synthesis to affect the world. Again, the explanations are brief and to the point, and cover the system very much from a players point of view. There are brief notes on other magical systems like aspects (more specific powers), technosmithing (for the keepers, another group in the setting), ritual synthesis and dreaming. But these are not covered in as much detail.

The final chapter takes a look at using the Tribe 8 system with Open Gaming Licence. The chapter is quite large (30 pages out of 128) and does a good job of converting Tribe 8's setting to the OGL system. How useful this will be depends on your rules preference. Personally I don't think it's is particularly suited to Tribe 8, but then again if you like D20, and it suits your play style, then this material will be ideal.

Overall: This book has an aim, to make Tribe 8 more accessible to players. It succeeds at this admirably. The condensed material is very handy for existing Tribe 8 players in need of a reference, or for players who are new to the system and need to find their feet. The OGL material will make the book more useful to D20 players looking for a very different setting. If you play Tribe 8, or just want to dip into the background, then this is a very useful book.