Kickstopper: Harlem Hardbound

Despite the occasional temper tantrum by his more obnoxious defenders, the fact that H.P. Lovecraft was an enormous racist is pretty generally accepted. (If you need convincing, this game by Zoe Quinn – a vocally enthusiastic Call of Cthulhu referee – ought to cover most of the bases.) If you dig into his biography, you’ll also know that he ended up having a severe dislike of New York, and whilst that might in part have arisen from his life in New York being pretty miserable (due to a near-total failure to find paying work combined with the collapse of his marriage), his dislike of the town got quite tightly intertwined with his racism. The Horror At Red Hook – a story Lovecraft himself considered to be one of his worst – pretty much exists to scream about how scary it is that immigrants are… just kind of living their lives and practising their culture over there.

Foe a good long while the standard response by Call of Cthulhu designers and referees has been to appreciate what they can about Lovecraft but put the racism aside when it comes to bringing his works to life in their games. Harlem Unbound, however, takes a different approach – using the racism of Lovecraft’s era to take a journey deep into the New York scene which he hated, to find what cosmic horror might look like from the perspective of its residents, and in particular its black residents.

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign

The Harlem Unbound Kickstarter campaign is the first Kickstarter undertaken by Darker Hue Studios, a small press RPG publisher helmed by Chris Spivey. An African American war veteran, Spivey’s declared purpose in founding Darker Hue is to promote diversity within gaming; as he asks in his official bio on the Darker Hue website, “Why is it that in worlds filled with aliens, foreign landscapes, and fictional universes, the primary antagonists are predominantly hetero white males? And why, when I sit down to game with a new group, do people look at me with that oh-man-does-this-guy-even-know-how-to-game look?”

The answer to those questions are, to be honest, there to uncover if you do your research, but they don’t leave geekdom covered in glory; by providing a platform for diverse voices, Darker Hue intends to make a difference, and by specifically producing a Lovecraftian horror supplement called Harlem Unbound Darker Hue demonstrates its willingness to address the elephant in the room. Over 600 backers contributed a total of $38,698 to see this happen; that isn’t epic as far as Call of Cthulhu-related Kickstarters go, but it’s no slouch either – eyeballing it, I’d say it’s about what you would expect for a new publisher with not much of a prior publishing history putting out a licensed Call of Cthulhu product.

What Level I Backed At

Langston Hughes: Receive a hard cover sourcebook, a digital copy of the sourcebook, and your name will be listed on the book’s Acknowledgements page. This backer level includes all digital stretch goal items and allows physical add-on items.

Delivering the Goods

Delivery was estimated for July 2017, with the Kickstarter funding period in January 2017. That six month turnaround was always a little ambitious, and as it turned out I ended up getting my book in December 2017 – a bit of a delay, but not one I would consider absurd on a project as ambitious as this one. It certainly helped that electronic backer copies ended up coming out in June 2017, which was slightly later than the planned PDF release date but still very close to it; at least then the backers had the knowledge that a finished product had been written and any delays could be ascribed to the well-known stumbling blocks that can come about in the process of taking a PDF and making a hardcover book out of it. Regular updates from Darker Hue kept everyone in the loop nicely.

Reviewing the Swag

Harlem Unbound largely does what it says in the front cover – namely, it offers an in-depth look at Harlem as it existed from the Harlem Renaissance of 1919-ish to the 1930s, with an eye to highlighting interesting stuff for the purposes of Lovecraftian investigations. The book is dual-statted for Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu, the latter thanks to Pelgrane putting out an open gaming licence for the GUMSHOE system.

This is a downright excellent concept for a supplement. It’s an interesting place at a time that coincides with the classic periods of Call/Trail play, and a history which has largely been overlooked. The intellectual and political flowering of Harlem at the time also stands as a compelling and necessary counterpoint to Lovecraft’s depiction of ethnicity-based enclaves in New York – one of the most offensive and unfortunate intrusions of his racist views into his fiction.

It’s a great help that Spivey, as primary author, clearly has a lot of enthusiasm for the subject matter. (In particular, his own experience as a military veteran has evidently made him interested in the Harlemites who signed on to the US Army during World War I and the experiences they had overseas, subjected to an extent of segregation by the US authorities which shocked even the not-exactly-innocent European colonial powers, amd how they fared when they came home.)

Spivey also very eloquently communicates the black American experience of institutionalised societal racism as it was at the time, and as it all too often still is today. The supplement works on the assumption that all PCs and NPCs in a Harlem-focused campaign are going to be black unless specifically stated otherwise, and to support this Spivey gives some pointers on how players who are not black may approach this. Some advice is stuff which really should be obvious, but which I suspect reflects common enough problems that it needs to be overtly stated, like “don’t do a stereotypically ‘black’ voice”, whilst other advice may well make you realise aspects of how black people experience American culture which hadn’t occurred to you.

It would be a mistake to regard Spivey as some sort of appointed ambassador of black America to geek culture who can personally give you permission to play such characters on behalf of all people of colour. You shouldn’t assume that just because you follow the advice in this book your depiction of black characters won’t somehow end up racist anyway. Certainly, as a pasty white English child of the 1980s I’m not brilliantly placed to judge how authentic this book is at depicting the experience of people of a different race living on a different continent about a century away. Nonetheless, Spivey’s advice challenges you to not just present a racially homogeneous range of NPCs but to actually engage with these subjects, and creates a cogent argument that doing so enriches our gaming experiences. Spivey goes so far as to suggest optional rules to represent societal racism in the era, though he does emphasise that these are optional in nature and you can just leave them out and drink in the flavour of Harlem in the era.

Between this and the in-depth look at the neighbourhood, this has the makings of an excellent sourcebook. This original release of it, however, has certain issues. The Kickstarter money has clearly gone on giving it striking art and chunky hardcover binding, which makes it an attractive product on the outside, but the layout and formatting on the inside is plain and functional.

This would be less of an issue in a book where the text was uncluttered and straightforward, but there’s a snag here – the dual-statting makes the text quite untidy in places. Early on in the book it mentions that GUMSHOE-specific details would be printed in red, which would be good if red were used solely for that purpose and if that were consistently applied to the GUMSHOE stuff, but unfortunately neither of these things are the case. Furthermore, the mass transplanting of material from the GUMSHOE SRD is both unnecessary and acts as a serious burden on the flow of the text which is unhelpful.

I don’t want to be too harsh here – this is Darker Hue’s first product and it’s an ambitious one too. Precisely because they are that ambitious, though, they’ve ended up running before they learned to walk in terms of layout and presentation. Producing a product of this size is a big job; producing a product of this size and making it easy to navigate and find what you want in it is even harder.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that the essays on the Harlem Renaissance and portraying black characters are deeply fascinating reads, to the point where even if the book itself would be a pain to make use of in actual play it remains of profound and enduring interest – its nomination for the Diana Jones Award is well-deserved. I hope future products Darker Hue get the formatting and layout polished up because the material here doesn’t deserve to be overlooked to this extent. Even if Harlem is not going to be a central focal point of your Call of Cthulhu campaign, there’s no getting around the fact that it remains an absolutely iconic 1920s location, and any visit your characters make to the neighborhood will be greatly enhanced by the information provided here.

Name, DNA, and Fingerprints

Well, the supplement has ended up being added to the special collections of multiple museums, as well as being nominated for the prestigious Diana Jones Award, so I’m pretty pleased with having my name associated with it.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

I’d say I got this one Just Right; the hardcover book, once you set aside some interior layout issues, really is a nice piece of work and I’m glad to own it, but I don’t feel much need for any of the extra add-ons like the GM screen offered to higher tiers.

Would Back Again?

Given the brisk efficiency with which the PDF came out, and the clear communication over the process of manufacturing the hardback, I’d feel entirely comfortable backing projects by Spivey or Darker Hue in future.

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Tomes of Realms

In both 1st and 2nd edition, some of the most absolutely beloved supplements for WFRP have been big, thick explorations of the unique metaphysic of the Warhammer world. It’s that cosmology, after all, which gives rise to the conventional religions of the setting, the ways of magic, and the forces of Chaos – all three, in fact, are manifestations of the Warp, just as they are in Warhammer 40,000 or Age of Sigmar. A close look at these supplements therefore seems in order if we’re going to hope for suitable sequels for 4th edition.

Continue reading “Tomes of Realms”

The Utilitarian Supplements of WFRP 2nd Edition

The 2nd edition of WFRP had a nice, healthy supplement line, with various types of product there. Some of these were lavish treatments of major aspects of the Warhammer world’s cosmology. Some of these were focused supplements based on various human nations or non-human cultures of the setting. Still others were perhaps less sexy than these items, but at the same time had a seriously utilitarian bent to them which made running or playing WFRP all that much easier. This article is dedicated to the latter.

Continue reading “The Utilitarian Supplements of WFRP 2nd Edition”

Freak, C’est Sick

As well as existing within the setting of Werewolf: the Apocalypse as a gleeful self-parody of White Wolf, the Black Dog Game Factory actually existed as an imprint of White Wolf, through which they published material which they wanted to flag as being No Seriously This Is For Mature Audiences Only. Ironically, though, Black Dog didn’t produce that much for Werewolf itself. The sole book they put out for it was Freak Legion, a players’ guide to creating and playing fomori.

Fomori in Werewolf are seriously messed up. They’re people who have been infected, corrupted, and eventually entirely possessed by Banes – Wyrm-spirits born out of human suffering – and have become physically mutated as a result. Many of them end up working for Pentex, the evil corporation that acts like a Captain Planet villain that’s the main face of the Wyrm in the mortal world; sometimes that’s because they got corrupted through involvement with some Pentex plot, sometimes that’s because Pentex tracked them down, sometimes that’s because their Bane nudged them into joining Pentex. Either way, most of them end up working on Pentex First Teams – the special forces squads Pentex uses for fighting werewoofles.

There are three components that nudge Freak Legion into Black Dog territory. The first is the body horror intrinsic in the fomori concept. The second is the human misery involved in their creation. The third, and by far the greatest, is the gleefully flippant attitude with which the book handles the other two factors. This might be billed as being for Mature Readers Only, but you only have to read the description of the Savage Genitalia mutation (it’s exactly like it sounds, only even worse if you combine it with other mutations as they suggest) to realise you are dealing with Immature Writers Only.

Now, of course it could be that the authors were playing up to the gruesome, purilely sexist, and gleefully violent tendencies they’d ascribed to Black Dog in the setting material – but then again, wasn’t Black Dog a parody of White Wolf themselves? There’s an extent to which it feels like this is a slippage of the mask of cultured sophistication that White Wolf like to adopt. In the cartoon nonsense of Freak Legion we see a dissolution of 1990s White Wolf’s pretences to high art and clever handling of serious issues to reveal the violence-happy edgelord dorks underneath. At its worst it yields insufferable nonsense like Savage Genitalia; at its best there’s a fresh, exciting edge to it which might not be especially intellectual, but certainly seems to offer more of a clue to White Wolf’s original popularity than any stab at high art.

Long-Term Scenarios In Ars Magica

Ars Magica is notable as being the RPG where reading books and undertaking extended crafting projects in downtime is given as much attention (and can potentially be as much fun) as actual adventuring. Savvy referees, of course, realise that the downtime action can feed into the adventuring and vice versa; being savvy publishers, Atlas Games have realised that whereas traditional RPGs call for traditional adventure scenarios, Ars Magica calls for scenarios based not just around immediate short-term adventures but also long-term projects and events. In this article, I’m going to be reviewing three collections which offer a range of such long-term scenarios.

Hermetic Projects

This is essentially a compilation of extended examples of the sort of projects that can be accomplished using the main Order of Hermes magic system as presented in the core book; whilst additional options based on information on other supplements are presented here and there, it is entirely possible to accomplish any of the goals presented here – a covenant built inside an active volcano, a new Tower of Babel, a living corpse, a magic zoo, and more – simply using the core magic rules and the occasional bit of lateral thinking. Where it gets into quasi-scenario territory is in the scope of these projects; we’re not talking something you can knock out in one season by yourself here, but substantial works that would probably require amassing an awful lot of support to get through.

New spells and magic items to support the projects in question or with broader utility are presented, as are a range of considerations when putting such major works into effect and complications that the referee might throw at the players when they attempt these acts.

At first sight, the supplement seems to be of rather narrow, niche interest, but it’s actually a bit more diverse than that; not only is a godsend if your PCs actually choose to undertake a project similar to one of those offered up here, but there’s also enough information given which can be readily adapted if they try to do something broadly similar. On top of that, it’s great as a source of ideas for projects that NPCs can be working on if your own Covenant isn’t interested, which helps create the impression that magi in other Covenants do stuff other than lounge around reading books.

Transforming Mythic Europe

This is sort of a broader take on Hermetic Projects. Whereas the former supplement was focused mostly on very specific projects, this involves undertakings which may have magical, political, and other dimensions involved with each in their own way create profound changes in the Mythic Europe setting and associated changes in the Order’s relationship to it.

It’s a convention of the setting that the Order by and large doesn’t actually do that much to transform Mythic Europe – the Code of Hermes is specifically set up to discourage intervention to explain why the setting looks as much like real-world history as it does. It’s also a tacit assumption of most campaigns that PCs will either directly flout this law or find one way or another to justify breaking it, so it’s nice to have a supplement which offers some guidelines on how to go about managing projects involving long-term, major changes.

The book offers three different major twists that PCs could conceivably add to the setting – convincing the Order to integrate into medieval society as a Fourth Estate alongside the clergy, nobility, and peasantry, rather than the aloof recluses they are typically presented as being, constructing an island nation of magi, and providing magic to the mundanes to such an extend that it effectively becomes a sort of technological revolution. Some of this entails convincing the Order to accept radical changes to its ways, some of it entails careful persuasion of mortal society to accept what is happening; the chapters go into detail about how to accomplish this as well as how to execute any relevant magical and supernatural feats necessary to pull off the job. The authors seem to be broadly aware that different campaigns will set mildly different baselines when it comes to the Order’s insistence on non-interference, and also notes how different Tribunals set the bar differently in canon, which is also useful.

What’s really neat about the book is how it sneakily ends up offering a set of alternate setting concepts for Ars Magica; by simply assuming the outlined steps in the relevant chapter have already happened, you can already get a fairly good idea of what the setting would look like if the Order of Hermes really were an integrated part of society, or really did have its own island nation where it could do what it wanted, or really did act as the catalyst to produce a far more high-magic society than that envisaged in the core setting. This makes it a great example about how a line offering such apparently specific and narrow suggestions for scenarios can also actually be a really handy supplement of more general use; even if you don’t want to play through the process of raising the Island of the Magi, having it already be a thing in your campaign could be a lot of fun.

Dies Irae

This offers a brace of truly apocalyptic scenarios – a set of extremely different crises which bring Mythic Europe to the brink, and perhaps over it.

This didn’t really grab me as much as I thought it would. For one thing, it doesn’t include the actual, Biblical end of days – the closest you get is something which has some very minor parallels but is radically different in nature from what goes on there. Apparently David Chart (who stepped down as Ars Magica line editor with the release of this book, 5th edition being more or less complete at this point) felt that you couldn’t do Revelations in a way which kept the PCs involved – but at the same time I would argue that Revelations is so weird and allegorical that you absolutely could spin it in such a way that the PCs could meaningfully intervene.

The lack of the Biblical Apocalypse is a specific symptom of what I consider to be a wider problem, which is that the four disasters in this book are all tied to the Realm of Magic. It’s almost like when they were brainstorming which scenarios to include that they forgot that Faerie, the Infernal, and the Divine even existed, and then their efforts to include those Realms in the scenarios in question are a bit half-assed.

Now, some people like that, arguing that having the world-ending climax of a game based around magic focusing on the Realm of Magic is thematically appropriate. They do have a point, but I would argue that the distinctive thing about Ars Magica is not the magic taken in isolation – it’s the magic framed in the context of a medieval worldview and inserted into real-world history. The faeries, demons, and angels are all important to that, and yet God and the Devil are near-irrelevant to all the scenarios presented. Given that each scenario would seem to throw the entire Biblical timetable out of whack, you’d think that both God and Satan would intervene here if they’re going to intervene at all, and yet… nothing.

This is exacerbated by the fact that two of these Magical apocalypses are riffs on Norse myth – you get a Fimbulwinter scenario and a Ragnarok scenario. Not only should these really be combined for the purposes of Norse myth, but the side order of “lulz, turns out that cosmologically speaking you should have been paying way more attention to Norse paganism instead of Christianity” is irritating. They’re also the only world-shattering scenarios to arise from groups outside of the Order of Hermes, Atlas overlooking an amazing potential scenario – the long-running standoff in Spain and Outremer between the Order of Hermes and the Order of Suleiman igniting into an all-out no-holds-barred magical war which threatens to shatter the very pillars of creation.

As far as the other two concepts go, neither appeals. One relies on the designers arbitrarily declaring “Surprise! This particular House in the Order was secretly a doomsday cult all along!” – right down to retconning the House’s writeup in Houses of Hermes to make it work – which is just unbelievably obnoxious. (Their plan is also apparently inspired by a Legend of Zelda game.) Another involves a weird magical plague, which seems to miss the opportunity to play with some exciting real history. (Why go for a magical plague when the Black Death was apocalyptic enough in its own right?)

To the book’s credit they do go above and beyond when it comes to detailing potential ways the world can be transformed by these scenarios, to allow play to continue in a radically transformed world. On the other hand, this really cuts to the heart of the thing: anyone who, likes me, leans harder on the “history” side of the “magic meets history” premise of Ars Magica is not likely to want to play in a world where magic has eliminated history entirely – and are more likely to be excited by the prospect of inserting the Order of Hermes into real historical events than they are by magical apocalypses of an entirely ahistorical nature. (By comparison, the alternate societies depicted in Transforming Mythic Europe retain enough connection to actual history, to my eyes at least, that they feel like perfectly cromulent variant takes on Ars Magica, whereas the postapocalyptic scenarios on offer here feel like they go outside the bounds of what I want out of Ars Magica altogether.)

Apocryphal Pick-and-Mix

The publication history of WFRP 1st edition materials is pretty wrinkled – a range of products that had been put out under Games Workshop or Flame Publications saw reprints under Hogshead Publishing, but others weren’t – Hogshead opting instead to skim off the cream, leave some perhaps less-than-stellar material behind, and cobble the best bits together in various Apocrypha collections, although ultimately only two were published.

Apocrypha Now!

Largely cobbled together out of little articles here and there – some from the pages of White Dwarf magazine, others from previous WFRP releases like The Restless Dead – Apocrypha Now! incorporates useful commentary on and expansion of the 1st edition rules, deeper pointers on roleplaying nonhumans along with some juicy Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling-specific careers (and details on playing Gnomes), and a brace of locations you can drag and drop into your campaign as the situation demands. (This includes two nicely fleshed-out adventures centred on nights at an inn – Night of Blood and A Rough Night at the Three Feathers – which had previously been reprinted in The Restless Dead, though the versions given here thankfully lack the unnecessary clutter of the pointers on how to integrate them into the Enemy Within campaign, or the token effort to turn them into episodes in a campaign spuriously stringing all the adventures in The Restless Dead together.)

Apocrypha 2: Chart of Darkness

Split between original articles (like some nice in-depth looks at funerary traditions and crime and punishment in the Empire) and reprinted material, this 2000 collection is much in the same vein as the previous one. Between this and the previous one you more or less get all the material worth reprinting from The Restless Dead (without, like I said, the unnecessary clutter of trying to tie them all together into one campaign or The Enemy Within), plus more besides.

The FATE and the FUDGE-ious

The RPG industry needs the RPG hobby more than the hobby needs the industry – and perhaps one of the best examples of this is how a major commercial success in the industry, in the form of Evil Hat’s FATE engine, began first as a hobbyist variant of FUDGE, one of the earliest RPGs to be designed in part as a collaborative process between hobbyists on the Internet.

In keeping with the history of these systems, I like to make a point of spelling out their names in full; FUDGE is of course the Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine, whilst FATE is FUDGE Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment, or more properly Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment. In both cases, their publishers have tried to put the genie back in the bottle by retconning away the acronyms, but attempting to revise or cover up history is the act of a fundamentally dishonest person so I’m not going to perpetuate it here. (Plus the more irritating sort of fans – and, for that matter, designers – get really entertainingly fussy about how it’s “Fate, not FATE” these days. Pro Tip: If you wanted to push that line maybe you should make it clearer on the logo, gang,)

Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine

The Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine originated on Usenet – Steffan O’Sullivan, its main designer, finally stepping up to co-ordinate the “let’s all design a game together” project that newsgroup users had regularly floated but hadn’t yet followed through on. An initial statement of basic principles came out in 1992, and then the main Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine quickly coalesced around it; though later book releases via Grey Ghost Press would tack on additional worked examples and the like, the core principles of the Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine were more or less filled out in 1993.

These principles included a prototype of open gaming: in order to ensure the game’s survival was not reliant on any one participant (always a risk in Internet-based projects), the rules were released with a licence allowing their reproduction and propagation on a non-profit basis. (It’s later been fully OGL’d.)

The Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine is not, however, a product ready to pick up and play straight out of the box. Rather than pinning down a whole lot of details in the core rules, with the result that the assumptions made there carry over to particular genre or setting implementations, O’Sullivan and his collaborators instead present extremely broad basic principles but leave a lot to be defined. For instance, the basic concepts of an attribute – a score rating a property that everyone in the setting possesses – or a skill (a score ranking expertise in an ability or knowledge base that have to be learned), or a gift (a special ability not numerically ranked), or a fault (a drawback or character flaw) – are introduced, but there is not a set list of attributes, skills, gifts or flaws.

Instead, the assumption is that the referee will define these for the purposes of their particular game – deciding what attributes are in play, what skills are available, and so on. You even have the idea of spendable Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine points being available for players to use, but only suggestions for what they may actually do rather than hard and fast rules.

The main thing the core Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine offers in terms of something that is actually pinned down and defined is a die-rolling mechanic and a means of translating numerical scores to verbal descriptions (the latter mostly being a means of translating a prose character description into Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine stats). That dice mechanic is the idea of rolling 4DF to generate a number from -4 to +4, a DF of course denoting a Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine die with two blank faces, two faces offering a +, and two faces presenting a -. Roll the dice, add stat and skill, compare to difficulty and you’re done.

What the Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine offers, then, is a resolution mechanic and guidance on how attributes and skills and the like interface with that, and an expectation that you’ll do the work of adapting that to get a finished game out of it. For those who like the idea of a “toolkit”-style generic RPG system but who find that most offerings in this vein are too rules-heavy, it’s a great prospect, but others may prefer looking to more specific implementations of the system where more of the ground work has been done for you. Implementations such as Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment

Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment Accelerated Edition

FAE, AKA FATE Accelerated Edition, AKA FUDGE Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment Accelerated Edition, AKA Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment Accelerated Edition is the cheap and cheerful, free to download, $5 booklet version of Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment. It’s meant to provide a) a nice, easy introduction to the game and b) an iteration of the system which you can pick up and play really quickly (a factor which also nicely serves a), since the less of a barrier you put between a beginner picking up the book and beginning play the more likely it is said beginner will actually attempt to play the game).

In principle, having such a product is a really good idea. In practice, the booklet infuriates me. Part of it is that it absolutely stinks of being spoken down to. It’s not just that the text is simplistic and written in a kid-friendly way – that’s just a good idea for this sort of product – so much it reads like a babysitter or especially patronising teacher talking down to you, rather than like a peer addressing you.

That’s a big problem – beginners hate being spoken to like they are kids, and kids themselves can detect when they are being patronised and will be quickly turned off by it. This lapse in presentation even extends to the artwork – it’s not terrible, but it’s hardly good (I’d put it on the level of “promising DeviantArt illustrator”), and when you look at it next to the artwork gracing the cover and pages of the Core System (which the Accelerated Edition is likely to be sold next to in game stores) it’s pretty obvious that the Accelerated Edition was done on the cheap.

That’s not an impression you ever want to give; the D&D Basic Set never looked like a cheap, tatty second-class product in the same way that the Accelerated Edition is clearly a second-class, low-standards product when compared to the Core System. That was part of the secret of its success – and even then, you had a substantial number of kids skipping the Basic Set to AD&D entirely because they wanted to go directly to the “grown-up” version. Indeed, the decline and fall of basic D&D under TSR can largely be tagged to the extent to which AD&D was clearly the premier, flagship line, and basic D&D was increasingly the second-class neglected younger sibling.

Aside from being patronising and being graced with sloppy art, the prose of Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment Accelerated Edition ends up falling between two stools. On the one hand, it wants to carefully and clearly introduce you to all these concepts… but on the other hand, the severely limited page count forces it to truncate all those explanations massively, to the point where somehow it manages to incorporate just enough of its slow, patient, explain-like-I’m-five cadence to make me feel patronised but at the same time junks enough text to make the explanations actually quite hard to follow.

That’s a shame, because the Accelerated Edition deviates from the Core System in quite an interesting way which deserves to be unpacked further and with more clarity. See, whereas the Core System incorporates skills as per the Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine baseline but goes without attributes, the Accelerated Edition junks skills and essentially uses things called Approaches, which are effectively like Attributes in that they are scores everyone possesses. The main difference between Accelerated Edition-style Approaches and the sort of attributes you get in other RPGs is that they don’t so much describe a personal quality as a strategy for problem solving – so, for instance, you don’t have Intelligence to represent your intrinsic brain power, but you do have Clever to represent how good you are at devising and implementing smartarse schemes.

I suspect that in actual play this would get quite old in a long-term game – most games would devolve into players looking for some way to justify doing what they do in a Clever or Forceful or Flashy or Quick or whatever way corresponds to their highest Approach score – but for the purposes of playing simple characters who reliably and repeatedly fall back on the same limited set of approaches to problem-solving it’s not so bad. In general, Approaches as a concept are a good idea. It would be an even better idea to have a fuller explanation of them in the Core System or System Toolkit (rather than the somewhat terse treatments they get there) to allow people who prefer them to use it in that context if they wish. The problem about presenting them in the Accelerated Edition is that they are not part of the default Core System, and I consider that a problem.

With any such beginner product, whether you’re looking at the D&D Basic Set or the Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment Accelerated Edition, the idea is that you want to provide a nice, smooth on-ramp which will get people hooked on your system and keen to buy other products. Back in the day, kids who started on the D&D Basic Set wanted to graduate to the Expert Set or to AD&D; you can expect that beginners who start on the Accelerated Edition will sooner or later want to graduate to the Core System (and given the way the Accelerated Edition talks down to you I suspect that point will come sooner rather than later, if they get the impression that the Core System is the one which isn’t patronising).

Having that serious disconnect between the two in terms of the use of Approaches instead of Skills isn’t much of a speed bump, but it is still a speed bump, and if there’s one thing you absolutely want in the transition between your introductory product and your full-fat product it’s zero speed bumps, or at least zero speed bumps of such a nature where you could have avoided them if you wanted.

In short, the Accelerated Edition is not the best introduction to Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment; at most, it’s a particular implementation of the system which just about fits the “quickstart” criterion, but I suspect a lot of people (especially if they are carrying conceptual baggage from other games that doesn’t apply here) will struggle with it. It could work nicely and smooth in the hands of a group who have already got to grips with Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment, but if you already have a handle on the system you don’t need an introductory product to begin with.

Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment Core System

The Core System, conversely, is a marvellously executed introduction to the system. It’s not a grossly overinflated book by any means – it’s a comparatively slim volume compared to the monster rulebooks that have been put out for the likes of Spirit of the Century or The Dresden Files, two previous RPGs run on earlier iterations of Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment. However, it does give itself enough space to allow the prose to breathe, which in turn means that the designers can do a far better job of unpacking and explaining concepts to the reader – which they by and large manage to do so without sounding like patronising teenagers trying to convey a concept to an impatient five year old.

In fact, the Core System book is remarkably clear. There’s a very brief shortlist of game rulebooks I would be happy to just hand over to a group of beginners and expect them to be able to run a satisfying game for themselves straight out of it without any further help from experienced gamers, and the Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment Core System rulebook is one of them.

The Core System makes a number of small changes from baseline Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine principles – there’s tweaks to the scale connecting adjectives to numbers, for instance, and attributes are not used at all in favour of exclusively using skills – but for the most part it runs on the familiar 4DF-plus-modifiers principle. The keynote difference is in Aspects and in the associated point economy.

Aspects are essentially like Gifts or Faults in Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine, in that they don’t have a numerical rating directly connected to them and they describe something significant about whatever it is they are applied to – whether that’s a character, a setting, a specific location or whatever. As well as establishing these facts in the fiction, Aspects are also available to be invoked for situational bonuses or to be “compelled” to impose a penalty on someone by spending Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment points accordingly; invokes cost points, whilst compels provide points to the PC thus inconvenienced. The bonus or penalty is a flat +2 or -2 to the die roll, or the option to reroll; unless you’ve rolled extremely poorly it’s almost always better to take the +2 bonus, because that both elevates the minimum result you can get and the maximum result and represents a chunky enough bonus on the 4DF bell curve to be decidedly worth it.

Much of what is novel and exciting about Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment follows on from developing the Aspect idea, to the point where it’s been swiped by various other designers for otherwise-unrelated systems – the idea of compels comes up in the GM intrusions in Mahna Mahna, for instance. There’ve been a range of implementations of Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment over the years, but the Core System is a pretty decent iteration of it and I have no especially major complaints concerning it save for how GM compels work. (It’s particularly good at communicating what sort of game the system is especially well-suited to, rather than pretending that the system is equally useful for everything.)

See, in the rules as written you can accept the compel and take a Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment point, or spend a point to refuse it. The problem I have with it is that, since you’re already incentivised by the point to accept the compel, there’s no particular reason to refuse a compel unless on an OOC level you don’t think it would be fun – and I don’t see why people should have to pay in an in-game currency to make an out-of-character expression of misgivings about a particular plot development.

I tend to feel that if you took out the “spend a point to refuse” rule then it’d make things run substantially smoother. It means the player whose PCs’ Aspects are being leaned on can refuse even if they are shit out of points, and it eliminates any umming and aahing along the lines of “I don’t actually think this will be any fun, but I am low on points, eeeeh….”, so you can make the decision purely on whether the new complication sounds enjoyable and move on.

On top of that, the book could probably do with a bit more discussion on judging the magnitude of the complication you throw in from a compel. If one of the PCs has to spend a Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment point in the process of resolving the complication, then the party is no better off than they were before it happened (and if the person who spent the point is the PC whose Aspect gave rise to the complication, then literally nothing has changed). If they had to spend two points, then the complication may as well have been refused, and if they had to spend three or more points then the complication has largely left them worse off.

Now, of course that’s an exclusively game-mechanical look at the situation – it’s possible that in the fiction the complication ended up opening the door to getting some sort of additional in-character advantage which was all worth it in the end. But it isn’t necessarily obvious to design complications like that – nor is it necessarily obvious that a string of harsh complications can get the PCs into a points hole. (It can get especially vicious if the GM establishes early on in a campaign that their complications are harsh – that’ll nudge people into refusing them more often, making it harder to prove later on that you’ve eased up.) Additional discussion on this point could have been extremely useful.

Still, these are small nitpicks in what is basically a very nice generic system for traditional RPG play, especially if you want to run the sort of game where high realism and fine detail isn’t so important and big, broad qualities that can be expressed snappily as Aspects rule the roost.

Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment System Toolkit

This, along with the two volumes of Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment Worlds, represents the “bonus material” for the Core System. The various Worlds are pocket settings exemplifying various ways of warping and twisting the Core System, none of which really jump out at me but which may be worth it if you are absolutely stuck for setting ideas; by comparison, the System Toolkit looks under the hood of Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment and suggests ways of expanding or modifying it for particular purposes, as well as offering additional discussion to help you understand why things are the way they are. Especially welcome is the nice thick chapter on designing magic systems, which through worked examples and general principles is a big help in providing such material.

The booklet is capped off with a discussion of the particular problems of running pessimistic cosmic horror-type stuff with Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment, since that’s a genre which tends to fly in the face of most of the baseline assumptions of the system; whilst I think the little tweaks it suggests represent sufficient drift that you may as well just use a system designed from the ground up for that purpose instead, it’s nice that they’ve considered how to do it and it may be useful for those wanting to run a more horror-themed interlude in an otherwise baseline Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment campaign.