OGL Horror (take 4, I think)
At long last, I finally got OGL Horror, which ends a six month odyssey for me.* I was interested in this because I am looking for a modern d20 horror game that wasn't based on Call of Cthulhu. I like CoC, but the Cthulhu Mythos have jumped the shark, even more than that phrase has, plus I wanted something more broad in focus. Something that could be used to simulate things like Bureau 13, Friday the 13th: The Series, Poltergeist: The Legacy, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and even things like the various Hammer movies.
d20 Modern itself has been something of a turnoff to me, because at first I didn't like the class system used in it (though I now like it, seeing various alternatives that have worked poorly), but also because it feels too much like D&D in modern times. Urban Arcana, with it's gnoll pimps and D&D style magic system didn't help.
So, I was hoping OGL Horror would be at the worst, d20 Modern tweaked a bit for horror (similar to how OGL Cybernet was d20 Modern tweaked for Cyberpunk), with the silly fantasy gnoll pimp stuff removed.
To a certain extent, that is the case.
"I created your body just as I created your mind."
Much like how d20 Modern has an Occupation and then Base Class (or Hero Type), this has a Occupation and Base Class. Occupation is exactly the same as in d20 Modern, but instead of the 6 Hero Types (Strong Hero, Fast Hero, etc, each keyed to one attribute), there are only 4 classes: "Combatant", "Scholar", "Investigator", and "Ordinary People".
To a certain extent, this combination is a bit less flexible than d20 Modern, but it does pretty much fit the genre.
For instance, Kolchak (of Night Stalker fame) was a reporter, so he would be an Investigator. Mickey and Ryan of Friday the 13th: The Series would be Ordinary People, while Jack would be a Scholar. I actually never have watched Poltergeist the Legacy with the sound on (usually I just put it on because later seasons have this really cute blonde), but I get the impression they are mostly scholars or ordinary people.
It's not perfect, since the vast majority of people are simply shoved into a category called "Ordinary People". But at least they are accounted for, unlike d20 Modern itself. The only real quibble I have, is I think there should have been two sorts of investigator. Ones like police, FBI and such, who also have weapons training and access to vast databases of information, and reporters and amateur investigators, who mostly have to learn stuff by talking to people or use things like the internet.
There's actually not a huge difference between 3 of the classes. The combatant has a +1 to his base attack bonus every level, while everyone else gets the worst progression (+1 every other level). Instead of special abilities every other level (called "talents"), like in d20 Modern or other games, characters just get feats, which tend to be less powerful. There are some minor differences in saves and skill points, and of course, class skills.
So in d20 terms, this is actually somewhere between how Call of Cthulhu d20 and d20 Modern handles classes. As mentioned, it does seems to work pretty well, and you can simulate police type investigators by simply having characters alternate between "Investigator" and "Combatant".
Skills pretty much work exactly the same as in normal d20, and this pretty much reprints the d20 Modern skill list word for word.
For those not familiar with d20, basically, skills are ranked from 0 to 22 or so, and to see if your character succeeds at a skill, you roll a d20 and add the result to the skill rank, plus attribute modifier (each skill is keyed to an attribute), plus misc. modifiers, and see if the result is greater than a target number, or difficulty class. 5 for easy, 10 normal, 15 hardish, 20 tricky, etc. For tasks where you can take your time, you can simply assume you rolled a 10, or in some cases, a 20 (this is called "Take 10" and "Take 20")
Each skill gets explained pretty thoroughly, with some target difficulthy class numbers. The skill system is probably the best part of d20. Simple, but fairly realistic, and the semi-diceless method elimates the need to roll for easy tasks.
There are two things that work similar to skills, but not quite. Attack Progression, and Save Progressions. Both are resolved the same way as skills (roll a d20, add all the bonuses and compare to a target number or Difficulty Class), but are determined by a character's class and level (plus the apropriate attribute modifier).
"And then he picked up an oil can and threw it at me, almost knocked out my teeth!"
Combat works more or less like how combat in normal d20 works, or d20 modern. Basically, the same way the skill system works. The attack rolls a d20, adds his attack bonus, and if greater than the difficulty class (which is the defense value or armor class of what he's attacking), it's a hit. Damage is then rolled, and subtracted from the target's hit points.
Except I was shocked to notice that there was no massive damage threshold. At all! What's a massive damage threshold you say (for those not familiar with d20)?
In systems where hit points inflate, one of the many common complaints is that high level characters can do crazy things that normal people can't, get shot point blank, jump off cliffs, stick their heads in lion's mouths, etc, because even with a high damage total rolled, they'll still have plenty of hit points left.
d20 solves this by having a "Massive Damage Threshold". If a character takes more hit points of damage in a single attack (or round) than this, then they have a chance of simply dying on the spot. They basically have to make a Fortitude save. What this number is set at goes a long way to determining how cinematic a game is.
D&D sets this number at 50 hit points. So you can have fighters fall off cliffs and be okay. Call of Cthulhu d20 set it very low, at 10 hit points. This made just about any blow dangerous, especially gunshots, which can normally do 10 hit points a shot. d20 Modern sets it equal to the Constitution of the character, which is a pretty good compromise.
You can also tweak the difficulty of the fortitude save, by either fixing it at a given difficulty class, or having it equal a fraction of the damge (half damage is typical, full damage is gritty).
There's a whole lot of options available. But this book completely omits this rule, period. I was really shocked. I mean, it's such an essential rule, especially for the genre. I expected a fairly novel way of handling, or a discussion on how to simulate different types of horror by setting it at different levels. But instead, nothing.
This is almost a book breaker. I mean, for me personally, it's not that big a deal, I own well over a 100 d20 books, including several core rulebooks. I know the rules pretty well, and having been running a d20 game on and off for the last few years. But for someone new to the d20 system, well, it makes this book almost unusable. At least for the horror genre. Because it makes all the cliches about hit points true.
"And I told him that's crazy!"
OGL Horror handles it by two basic mechanics, "Fear Saves" and "Shock Points"
Fear saves are basically just will saves, but different situations get different modifiers, and so get their own name. There are 3 sorts of fear saves. Fear, Panic, and Madness. "Fear" probably should have been called "Dread", to reduce confusion and be more accurate, it's the fear of going into spooky places, like a Haunted House or Michael Jackson's bedroom. Panic would be seeing something scary coming at you, like a ghost or a werewolf or Michael Jackson without his nose. Madness is more akin seeing something so awful, learning a terrible secret, or seeing something so bizzare, it drives you bonkers. Like a really grisly crime scene, finding out your parents are really brother and sister, or watching that Clint Eastwood-Lee Marvin musical.
Magic, Psychic Powers, and Faith
"I don't wanna hear another one of your rational explanations!"
There are all considered to be optional.
Magic and Psychic powers actually work suspiciously similar to Call of Cthulhu d20 (which is a good thing, as those are nice rules, and you can't copyright rules, just the specific text).
Spells basically work by making a skill check. There are no spell points, but they cause temporary ability drain (that is, a character's ability scores are reduced temporarily). Which ability varies from spell to spell. The spells in the book are not particularly flashy, but there are guidelines to convert spells from the regular d20 spell system (aka, D&D's fire & forget system).
Psychic abilities are also similar to the Call of Cthulhu d20 method, that is, psychic powers are gained by taking feats. In that, it was somewhat balanced by the characters getting few feats. In this, characters get quite several feats, so they could stock up on psychic powers if they want. So, balance is basically up to GM fiat.
That didn't bother me all that much, but I was disappointed in the selection of Psychic feats. Rather than being "realistic" ones (that is, duplicating supposed real world psychic powers), they tend to be more cinematic, fairly flashy. Things like "Pyrokinesis". Which does fit Stephen King's Firestarter pretty well, but it seems to be at the expense of things like psychometry (basically, getting impressions from objects people have touched or owned), which is probably the most useful skill for occult/horror investigations.
Faith is kinda of weird. Basically, it's almost a religious version of "Lets make a deal". The player "bets" God (or whoever he worships), saying in effect, if I make a prayer check, you'll do this for me, if I fail, then you can screw me over somehow.
Honestly, I found this to be very bizzare, both metaphysically and mechanically. It also goes against the very notion of faith, I thought. There's a quote I always liked, "I will not serve God like a laborer, in expectation of my wages.". You don't believe in a religion to get goodies from it, you believe in it because you believe in it. "True devotion is for itself; not to desire heaven, or to fear hell."
Game mechanically it's bad because the negative effects can be very vague, and in some cases, could affect the players as a whole.
"You're one of us!"
Organizations have always played a fairly large role in the horror genre, whether they are groups fighting against the darkness, or for it.
Bureau 13. The Legacy. SAVE. The Men in Black (Tommy Lee Jones/Will Smith variety). That paper in the show on the Sci-Fi channel that got cancelled after one season a couple of years ago. The O.S.I.R. from Psi-Factor (which apparently was based on a real organization, but in reality, was just 2 guys and a van).
The Hellfire Club. The Rotary Club. Various vampire clans. The Illuminati.
And of course, there's things like MUFON, CUFON, CSISCOP, various Fortean societies, etc.
So, this book has rules to address all of those things. Basically, organizations are treated very similar to characters.
This is actually very clever. Very very clever.
"Experience the door to your mind, no matter how bizarre. You create your own brave new world."
The author of this book is apparently a long time Call of Cthulhu GM (or "Keeper").
"Who the hell do you think you're dealing with? Some old slut on 42nd street?"
"In case you didn't happen to notice this, I'm one hell of a gorgeous chick."
Appearance wise, this is probably the ugliest of the 3 OGL books I own (which are the first three OGL books, period). The cover is really dark - I never realized that was supposed to be a cheerleader on the cover of it until I actually held it in my hands. From the smallish pictures I've seen on their website, I thought it was a Scottish guy with a kilt and a mustache! Usually there is a slight line where the mouth region hits the cheeks, but it's overly pronounced in this picture, which to me, looked like a mustache when it was very tiny. Full size it doesn't look so bad. That's really funny. Though now that I think of it, it could be a reference to the actress that plays Buffy: The Vampire Slayer - she always looked to me like she has a mustache, at least sometimes.
The interior art is generally good, but is also generally pretty dark. So color is rarely taken advantage of. There are a couple of nice landscapes by the artist whose work I liked so much in OGL Ancients, the one who uses a symbol that crashes the RPG.net review database. But in this book, his stuff is very pixelated, like it was scanned in badly.
"This is what I've been waiting for, all my life... I'm going... I'm really going... I'm finally taking a step..."
So, is this worth buying? Well, that really depends. The rules for characters are a bit better for horror than d20 Modern, being somewhat less cinematic and more realistic. The equipment, wealth rules, and some monsters are pretty much the same as d20 Modern (some tweaks and a few additions).
But the section on campaigns and running horror games is very good, and I really like the organization rules. On the downside (and this ia a major one), there is no massive damage rule, greatly reducing the deadliness of the game.
If you don't have d20 Modern, and want something to run horror games with, then this is a decent choice. It's not quite the definitive OGL/d20 Horror game I would have liked, but pretty close, and the compatibility with d20 Modern is pretty high, so you could presumably use things like the Menance Manual and the gun books without any conversion at all. It also should work well with RPGObjects excellent looking "Blood & Relics" occult/conspiracy campaign book and some of their other d20 Modern stuff. There's somewhat more suitable source material if you are into PDFs, there's several products from 12 to 6, including "Bloodlines", which apparently is d20 Modern based, but uses the OGL Horror magic rules, and the upcoming "Lost Destinations"
If you want to have psychic characters, I also strongly suggest getting the "Fright Night: Haunted House" supplement from Hogshead. While it's not d20 Modern based, it has a much better depiction of real world (and horror genre) psychic powers, I think. (Actually, you could also simply use the rules from Call of Cthulhu d20 as well)
I really would have liked more monsters, and I'm not sure I like how classes only go up to 10th level (though this is tied to how classes work in d20 Modern). To a certain extent, the type face is a larger than the one used in OGL Ancients, so I imagine that actually could have been a lot more room for more monsters and such.
On the other hand, if you have d20 Modern, then there probably is no pressing need to buy this. Some nice stuff, but probably not worth the cover price.
Still, I'm fairly happy with it. Probably happier than the grade it gets, as I mentioned, others might find it lacking if they don't have any other d20 resources.
* Basically, I bought it on ebay from an ebay store in early January as a "pre-order", sent them a money order, and never heard from them for a month. Til I got a payment reminder notice. At which point I filed a missing money order claim, and sent them a new one. Never received anything. So I filled another missing claim, thinking this seller was playing games with me. In the mean time, I buy one from FRPGames, which is an honest dealer. But later I found out that the original seller on ebay deposited my 2nd money order in March, and simply never bothered to ship me anything. (And since it's several months after the fact, I don't even have the limp satisfaction of leaving negative feedback, which is worthless anyway). So I basically paid for this book twice. Plus $10 worth of money orders and money order inquiry fees. I mention this mostly in the interest of reviewer bias (though also a bit to vent), I might be more picky, having paid around $80 for this book. And as a lesson, stick with reliable sellers, like FRPGames, Noble Knight, or the store here. I've been ripped off 4 times on eBay this year - all from sellers that had 99% or better feedback, too. I guess I had that poor luck to be that 1%.