So a while back the Bundle of Holding did a bundle dedicated to the One-Roll Engine, a system devised by Greg Stolze and deployed in a number of games. Already owning some later One-Roll Engine games (I had REIGN in hard copy and the free Nemesis on my hard drive), I thought it was an apt time to pick up the collection to get an overview of the system’s development, and because some of us were considering a GODLIKE or Wild Talents campaign. In retrospect, neither of those took off, but the books were interesting enough that I thought I’d review both the bundle offerings and my existing One-Roll collection here.
Although we didn’t go for it in the end, the big thing GODLIKE offers that Wild Talent doesn’t is a firm setting focus. Not only is the assumed setting World War II with superheroes, but in addition it assumes a very specific level of “superhero” – more down-to-Earth than either the four-colour comics style or even cinematic superheroes, to a certain extent Dan is right on point when he suggests that the game is more about “powerful psychics in World War II” rather than “superheroes in World War II”.
That said, this is necessary to limit the impact of Talents (as the game refers to supers) on the course of the war. The background section provides a detailed timeline of the war highlighting both important mundane events and small ways here and there in which the Talents mildly changed a few things but didn’t outright change the overall course of the war. It’s important to have this background available so that you can start off at a particular point in the war and have it resemble IC the state the war was in in real life. Even if you are playing a cinematic or four-colour campaign in which you are absolutely down with the heroes flying to Berlin and turning Hitler into vapour in the first session, you’re still going to need to assume that the existence of Talents hasn’t previously made any wild divergences in world history, otherwise you’re not playing a World War II game anymore, you’re playing in a completely alternative war in a completely alternative timeline.
Of course, this does raise the question of why Talents didn’t change the course of history if you are playing in a cinematic or four-colour mode, but this is easy to handwave – because the source of Talents’ powers is unknown and not understood in GODLIKE (unlike in Wild Talents where you can go into great detail about the origin of your powers), you can just say that as of the start of the campaign whatever phenomenon caused the initial emergence of Talents has become incrementally more powerful, putting the Talents into hyperdrive.
Reading the book I keep getting the impression that Dennis Detwiller and Greg Stolze kept wanting to use the term “Triumph of the Will” for a section header concerning the use of powers but held off on grounds of good taste. This feels a bit like needless self-restraint; given how power use is governed by the Will stat and given that the Nazis exhibited the first Talents in this timeline, Nietzschean ideas about the Will and the overman (and the weird ways the Nazis misconstrued those ideas) are inherently structurally implied. This comes out most in the way that when two Talents try to directly use their Talents on each other (rather than, say, using a super-strength power to toss a truck at an opposing Talent – since there your power is affecting the truck, not the targeted Talent) you have to have a bidding contest of Will points to see who gets their way. This in its turn makes Talent-vs-Talent fights feel a bit like Dragonball Z gurning matches, but that isn’t necessarily such a bad thing.
Will to Power
As you might have guessed from the Neitzsche-derived title, this is the major adversaries book for GODLIKE. It also does a bit of housekeeping in terms of providing handy extra bits and pieces of useful system stuff, like additional powers and other character creation options, aircraft rules for when your superhero wants to punch an ME-262 (Prince of Turbojet!!!) out of the sky.
The main thrust, though, is a fat dose of Nazis and setting detail. The book offers a complete rundown of the history of the Nazi regime’s interactions with superhumans, from the propaganda of the 1936 Olympics to the collapse of the regime. Full details are given of the institutional apparatus set up to study Talents, the atrocities committed by those institutions, and what the Allies knew and when they knew it. A healthy loadout of Nazi Talents is provided to act as antagonists, as are details on the structure of the SS and stats for generic members and the equipment available to them. (There’s also a stirring sidebar on why wanting to play an SS officer as a protagonist makes you a shitheel.)
Overall, Will to Power succeeds at making me believe in GODLIKE‘s not-so-alternate history (in which World War II unfolded more or less on schedule, except there were superheroes there too) to an extent the core book didn’t, and thus leaves me with greater enthusiasm for the game as a result.
Black Devils Brigade
A superpowered special forces campaign set on the Italian front, culminating in the fall of Rome to the Allies. Highly scripted and railroaded in between combat sections, and as such very much not to my taste.
Wild Talents largely offers the same system as GODLIKE (with various tune-ups, improvements, and clarifications), but goes really broad with the setting, effectively providing a setting-agnostic set of superhero rules and a really carefully thought-through set of essays about superhero setting design, the sort of decisions you need to make in the process, and how to arrive at the type of setting you want. There’s also an extensive appendix providing a very detailed timeline on the direction the GODLIKE universe goes in after World War II, which diverges from our history with increasing severity as time progresses (as you’d expect would happen when you get further and further away from the divergence point of “superhumans show up” in 1936).
There’s a Wild Talents Essential Edition which cuts the timeline and all the setting creation essays to just provide you with the system, which would doubtless be a useful little thing to have in actual play circumstances (especially since it’s in a handy compact size for ease of transport). At the same time, I would say that the full-fat version of Wild Talents is very much worth getting for anyone intending to run a superhero game, even if you don’t care for the One Roll Engine, simply because of the truly excellent discussion of setting creation here. It’s very much a discussion oriented towards gaming purposes, but much of it could equally apply to anyone wanting to cook up a homebrewed superhero setting for any other purposes as well.
My main beef with it is the art. Arc Dream clearly went above and beyond with the presentation here, and seem proud of doing so… but they used 3D Poser-style art, which has dated poorly and I suspect didn’t look especially good even at the time. I realise art budgets can add a lot of expense to the process of making a game, but then they are also very proud of having taken a stack of preorders to fund the game, so if they were in a position to do that why not budget to do the art properly, and avoid this risible uncanny valley shit? (There’s some especially unfortunate boobs here and there in the artwork too, rendered with sufficient detail to look fetishistic and with a sufficient lack of realism to look disturbing.)
This Favored Land
Allan Goodall wrote this supplement vividly describing an American Civil War setting for Wild Talents. The death of Edgar Allan Poe unleashes a psychic wave that unlocks Gifts in receptive people across America. Years later, when Union and Confederate forces are fighting for the future of the continent, the Gifted are drawn into the conflict.
It’s all meticulously researched and presented, and the suggested tweaks to the Wild Talents powers system helps you create heroes whose powers feel in keeping with a gothic, Spiritualism-infused 19th Century aesthetic. At the same time, it bugs me that Goodall seems so comfortable with PCs being on the Confederate side. As far as I am concerned, this is no different from playing a Nazi in GODLIKE – and if that isn’t OK there, playing a supporter of Dixie and a stooge of the plantation owners really shouldn’t be OK here.
This variant setting by Stolze and Ken Hite is set in an alternate history in which physically enhanced mutants and sorcerers trafficing with perilous spirits are your main supernatural heroes and villains. With the proliferation of hitherto-suppressed magical knowledge on the Internet putting magic at the hands of anyone who goes looking for it, and food additives activating mutant powers at an unprecedented rate, the world is rapidly running out of control.
The centrepiece of the supplement is really the flavourful system for summoning and interacting with spirits, but it’s also notable for offering a range of colourful factions. As a nice touch, these organisations have REIGN-style faction stats, offering a nice basis to judge interfactional conflict.
Beyond that, the supplement offers the usual high standard of occult nonsense that you would expect from the authors. A nice thing is how most of the factions could be spun as helpful or harmful depending on your preferences, and the setting is reasonably open to a wide range of different interpretations based on the preferences of your gaming table.
Penned by Stolze alone, this supplement resembles Stolze thinking aloud in a really obnoxious, infuriating authorial voice. (Imagine a mashup of the cloying over-friendliness which was in vogue in many Forge games and the snotty attitude of early White Wolf.) On top of that, it isn’t wholeheartedly committed to being a Wild Talents supplement in the first place: a self-contained rules system, Smear of Destiny, which Stolze claims is especially well-suited to addressing the setting’s specific questions. (Then why make it a Wild Talents supplement at all if you think that’s an inferior way to run it, Greg?)
The basic premise is that it’s a near-future setting where the social stresses we see today have been cranked up to 11, politics is a blood-strewn battlefield, and you can get superpowers on the cheap by buying a bespoke biotechnological module.
It’s a fairly grimy, low-power game which doesn’t seem especially interested in Wild Talents‘ usual approach to superheroes. (I didn’t spot any references to the various measures of morality or setting mutability or high weirdness that the core book spends a lot of time discussing, for instance.) You get a single power, based on a single modification and designed with a strict budget and limitations, and that’s your lot. The dystopian future described here is certainly exciting, but I struggle to get into it – it seems a little too ready to go beyond pessimism too often into glib cynicism, offering a future which sucks because everyone and everything sucks and any attempt to do good just makes everything worse.
It’s evident that Stolze is working to a very specific personal vision here, except he is quite clumsy about expressing it. There’s a whole sidebar where he talks about how his playtesters urged him to provide a clear single-page breakdown of basic genre and setting assumptions, because they didn’t feel like they had a handle on it and trying to absorb it by reading the entire supplement was difficult. Stolze then goes on to explain how the setting isn’t quite a traditional superhero setting, or a traditional cyberpunk setting, or a traditional post-apocalyptic setting. Having explained what eCollapse isn’t, he then closes the sidebar without actually having given any clear indication of what it is.
I’m not saying high-concept RPGs can’t work – but I am saying that if you can’t succinctly explain the concept you’re in trouble. Such is eCollapse. It’s Stolze running off his leash and up his own arse, as he is wont to do when unsupervised by publishers or collaborators.
It’s got more of that horrible Poser art too.
This is Stolze and Detwiller fiddling about with system stuff. Specifically, they mash together the One Roll Engine with the madness meters from Unknown Armies and some sparse pointers on how to run Mythosy stuff with it. With the new Delta Green RPG adding the Madness Meter to a tweaked Call of Cthulhu system, Nemesis feels rather redundant unless your group are such hardcore ORE fans that they’d refuse to play Call or Trail of Cthulhu or Unknown Armies unless you did it under the ORE – and I sincerely doubt there are many people at all who are that passionate about it.
This is a small handbook containing the REIGN system, stripped of both extensive examples and much of the setting-specific material from the original core book. Added are details on making your own magical schools and esoteric techniques, as well as fun tools for randomly creating spells and monsters. If you’re the sort to find the REIGN default setting’s eccentricities infuriating, it may be a better starting point, though you may still find use in the original core as a storehouse of magical schools and esoteric techniques you can divorce from their original setting context.
The main REIGN core book includes much more in the way of explanation of underlying matters of game philosophy, as well as details on the default setting. The former is great because whilst you may find Stolze’s tastes clash hard with your own, the book at least gives you scope to figure out where this is the case and how you can adapt the game to better suit your ends.
The setting-specific information is more of a mixed bag. By far the best stuff here are the fleshed-out magic system (featuring magical schools that transform their practitioners as they increase their mastery) and the esoteric techniques – the latter being special uses of a skill you can learn. However, the actual setting details do nothing for me, especially since they tend to fail to hit the sweet spot but regularly land on one side or the other of it. Too much of the setting simply offers bland genericness, whilst too many of the other setting details are ostentatiously weird for weird’s sake without adding up to a cohesive tone or atmosphere. Say what you will about Glorantha, but there’s a particularly “Gloranthan” style to it, whereas you can’t really say the same about the twin continents of Heluso and Milonda here.
Some of these weirdnesses would never really come up in the course of play (like how the two continents are shaped like two naked people cuddling, with the ocean being their bathtub), whilst others would seem to make things needlessly complicated (like how the sea is at 90 degrees to the land and gravity gets all weird when you step onto the docks). One factor which people seem to latch onto a lot is the fact that all men in the setting ride sidesaddle, and therefore only women ride cavalry, because they believe that riding with your leg over the saddle causes infertility in men (presumably through crushing and/or jostling of the balls).
This last factor sticks out like a sore thumb because it’s simply ludicrous. Now, I can see the point of wanting to define something as being culturally “women’s work” which falls well outside traditionalist Western expectations of what that is, but at the same time ascribing the same superstition to all cultures seems weird in and of itself. On top of that, there seems to be a major assumption here – namely, that you wouldn’t get men who decide that infertility is a price worth paying for riding cavalry, or that you wouldn’t get trans women who specifically go into the cavalry because they identify as women and therefore see nothing wrong with riding a horse as a woman would.
I can absolutely imagine a situation where a culture that had a surplus of horses and a deficit of riders would bring in male cavalry despite the cultural taboo. (It’d make a good concept for a penal legion, for instance, or as a military command for officers who have badly lost face.) I can also see how such individuals could then go on to sire children (because it’s made extremely clear that this is just a superstition, it isn’t actually true unless the referee decides it is true), at which point you’d expect the superstition to start to erode pretty seriously.
(For that matter, the implied tech level is loose enough that I begin to wonder whether charioteers wouldn’t be more important than cavalry anyway in some theatres of war, and I have only rarely run into situations in an RPG where the fact that someone was a cavalry warrior was of crucial social or cultural importance, so this rebalancing of gender norms seems extremely situational anyway.)
Thing is, I can see what Stolze wanted to do here – he wanted to create a setting where there are gender norms, rather than going for a gender-blind society, but at the same time make the gender norms different from the ones players would be familiar with to avoid ploughing the same old traditionalist furrow. Fine. However, making a single tweak to gender norms isn’t how you do that – to accomplish that you need to really radically reconstruct them from the top down. That requires a level of worldbuilding rigour which, given how paper-thin much of the setting feels, I suspect isn’t actually Stolze’s strong point (at least when it comes to fantasy settings, rather than settings where he can take the real world as a starting point and then riff on that).
The main thrust of REIGN, however, is not its setting – it’s the Company rules, which allow you to stat out cohesive groups, factions, cults, guilds, nations, conspiracies, gangs and so on in ORE terms and resolve actions taken by them and conflicts between them – naturally, with the actions of the PCs adding a certain extra weight one way or the other. This is a godsend for anyone wanting to run a campaign focusing on the interrelationships between such groups, particularly if you want the groups in question to not sit still whilst the PCs act and want to avoid resolving their activities via GM fiat; in particular, unexpected results of inter-group conflict could provide great opportunities for PC involvement even if the PCs aren’t operating a Company of their own.
The First Year of Our REIGN
When it came to expanding REIGN, Stolze released supplements on what he called the “Ransom Model”, a sort of precursor to the crowdfunding fad with less risk on the funders’ part – he’d write a supplement, then set a “ransom” for it to be released, and then solicit donations: once the donations hit the point where the ransom was met, the supplement would be released as a free download for all to enjoy. This model meant that he could keep writing supplements with reasonable confidence until such time as it seemed like the supplements were struggling to hit the ransom, as well as using the speed of funding to judge what people wanted in terms of supplements, and the most he was risking was the time involved in writing a supplement which never made ransom.
The First Year, as the title implies, collects the first year’s worth of supplements Stolze wrote, the material re-edited to flow a little more cohesively. It’s got a chunk of setting details of little interest to me and some much more interesting crunch goodies, the guidance on designing new magical schools and spells perhaps being the most valuable.
This is another superhuman-themed game, but it’s sufficiently distant from Wild Talents in execution that it is its own standalone thing. (It’s refreshingly brief too, at under 200 pages.) The idea is that in this setting superhuman powers arise from people being inhabited by demons or angels.
Your classic square-jawed do-gooder superheroes, for instance, have angels inside them and have happily bought into the angelic code of conduct. Those aren’t your player characters, though; your PCs are inhabited by demons. Your PCs are also smart enough to realise where their powers come from and not kid themselves into thinking any good can come from their use (people like that become edgelordy grim and gritty-style superheroes like Punisher or the Frank Miller version of Batman). They also aren’t morally vacuous enough to really embrace their demonic companion’s values – those people tend to end up becoming powerful forces of evil working in the shadows or in plain sight, and are genuinely vile.
So you know the demon’s not going to be happy with you being a goody-two-shoes, but equally you don’t want to be genuinely evil. The alternative is to be eeeeeeeevil – naughty enough to appease your demon, but in as silly and overblown enough a way to limit those who get seriously hurt and giving those angel-ridden meatheads a sporting chance of stopping you. Congratulations – you’re a classic supervillain.
Better Angels basically mashes up the One Roll Engine with the personality mechanics of Pendragon and the Shadowguide mechanic of Wraith: the Oblivion. All of your stats and skills are based off personality traits and exist in balance with each other, just like Pendragon, so the nicer a person you are the better you are at resolving things kindly whilst the more of a dickhead you are the easier it is to succeed at dodgy stuff. The demon inhabiting you is controlled by one of the other players around the table, and they’re going to be urging you to take the low road as much as possible. (If you get evil enough, your demon can drag you down to Hell; if you raise your goody-two-shoes stats enough you have a shot at exorcising your demon. Neither of these endgame options are mandatory, but they are fun to have.) The particularly delicious twist is that because your superpowers come from your demon, the more you use them the more freedom your demon has to act.
This is all presented in a nice, clear style which quickly and easily communicates the concept, and in particular gives great advice in how to do the playing-each-other’s-demons thing without it all ending in tears. It’s a delightful game concept, deftly executed, and a welcome reminder of how valuable a game designer Greg Stolze is; sure, sometimes he gets self-indulgent and makes an eCollapse, but when his experiments work and the stars align he produces instant classics like this.