Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Bulldogs (first bits)

When I first saw a post about Bulldogs! over in the Ads section, I said to the author, "I already have half a dozen science-fiction d20 RPGs, what does Bulldogs! do that those don't"? I probably came off as a bit of a jerk, but I didn't mean to be like that, I just have a tact deficiency (and in d20 terms, a really low charisma score).

Still, I did have a basic point, there are a number of SF d20 RPGs, not to mention this summer's release of D20 Future. I don't exactly remember what his answer was, but I remember it impressed me. So I put Bulldogs! near the top of my want list. But for a variety of reasons, I never got around to buying it (TV exploded, dogs got sick, computer became elderly).

Bulldogs! is indeed quite different from the other d20 SF RPGs I have. The feel is very much like the original Star Frontiers. Sort of a two fisted (or 3 fisted, given the Dralasites) science fiction game, full of action and adventure. But where Star Frontiers frankly didn't make much sense, this is coherently put together.

It's set in a small galaxy, far far away. (But apparently not a long time ago). There are no humans per se, but there is a race that is essentially human, Arsurbans, but somewhat more colorful (they can also be red, green, or blue skinned). The Galaxy is dominated by two empires. One run by a bunch of Snake people, one run by beings that are suspiciously similar to Drow, but without hair.

In between the two empires is a neutral zone, called "The Frontier". This was set up between the two empires because they realized that they were too evenly matched, and an all out war between the two would result in no empires. Half of a galaxy is better than none of a galaxy.

So, it's set up as something of a cold war situation. The Neutral Zone between the two is actually about the size of either empire, but is not united as a whole, but made up of little planets and governments.

It uses the basic d20 rules, that is, essentially the D&D rules. Which is something of a double edged sword, especially these days. Many people prefer the d20 Modern/d20 Future rules for modern day/space games. This is one of those d20 books that is almost complete - pretty much everything is explained but character generation/advancement. So if you know d20 reasonably well, you really don't actually need the PHB with you.

It essentially re-uses 2 of the existing D&D PC classes, the Fighter and Rogue (most d20 based games do the same thing), as well as the non-spell casting NPC classes for NPCs, while introducing 6 new PC classes. The Space Pirate, the Space Pilot, the Bounty Hunter, the Medic, the Engineer, and the Gunner.

The layout is very nice. Better than the vast majority of RPG books I own. The only complaint is that perhaps the outer margin is too big. Usually companies do this to pad the book's page count and so to allow them to charge more. However, in that case, the opposite seems to be true - the book is priced far below what it should be (216 pages with some color for $25? That's almost crazy cheap these days)

The art is somewhat retro looking, but I liked it quite a bit. The illustration for each race is in full color, which is really nice.

It's got a nice index, and it's got the chapter name in the outer margins. So it's an absolute breeze. The editing is also excellent, I think I noticed only 1 problem, and that was a superfluous -.

Basically, I have only one problem with the book, and it's one of those things that bugs me. One several occasions, it says that space is cold, and goes into how this cold affects things in space, on a couple occasions with fairly detailed rules. But while space is cold, you don't actually notice, because space is also empty.

See, cold is really just the absence of heat. On Earth, you lose heat when it's cold outside because of the air (or if you are really unlucky, water). The air/wind touchs your body and warms up slighty, and cools down your body. Basically it carries away the heat.

But in space, there's literally nothing to carry away the heat. The only heat you get rid of is actually what you radiate, which really isn't that much. Actually, retaining too much heat is more of a problem in space than losing too much.

Conspiracy of Shadows (first scratchings)

The horror role-playing game genre has long been dominated by one game, Call of Cthulhu (okay, you could also throw in Vampire, but that's more angst than horror). While CoC is a very good game, it perhaps hasn't aged well, and suffers from perhaps the biggest flaw of all - the Cthulhu mythos is too familiar to be scary. You damn near expect Cthulhu to show up on a box of breakfast cereal along with Count Chockula and Frankenberry and Michael Jackson.

Conspiracy of Shadows from Bob Goat Press (available through Indie Press Revolution) is a horror RPG that makes a strong attempt at fixing the Crunchthulhu cereal problem, making the horror truly unknown.

About half the book is devoted to the background setting. Basically, it's dark ages Eastern Europe, except it's not. I think the best comparison would be how Robert Howard based his world on various real world cultures, but just changed names around a little.

There are pluses and minuses involved with this. On the one hand, you do get a gist from the name what sort of place it is. On the other, it can drive people crazy, because parallel cultural evolution probably wouldn't really happen. I mean, it's really close to Eastern Europe, with Poles, Russians, Slavs, and even Huns. The Western most part of the world in this seems to essentially be France (or the French).

It's really a matter of taste. But in this case, whatever you like, the setting is very intricately laid out

Characters are fairly simple, in terms of stats, with 4 attributes and 14 very broadly defined skills. Each has a value of 1 to 6. But they are fairly complex in terms of character development, which each skill and attribute also requiring a special "Descriptor" or little note about that. I found this to a clever little way of making characters stand out and to help breathe life into them. They also provide a bonus (or penalty) to that skill/attribute in certain cirumstances. If a character takes a penalty, they get a bonus to what is called the Destiny Pool (which is sort of like action points)

The attributes are Fortitude, Reflex, Knowledge, and Temperament. Fortitude and Knowledge are obvious enough, but Reflex also includes "Perception" and such in addition to reflexes/dexterity. Which makes sense - part of reacting to something is noticing it in the first place. Temperament encompases the character's personality and things like strength of will. One of the example Desciptors for it is "Knows how to talk to sailors", which gave me a bit of a chuckle.

The game mechanics are 2d6 based, and remind me a lot of Classic Traveller. The core mechanic consists of rolling 2d6, adding the skill level and associated attribute (both range from 1 to 6) and comparing to a target number - if it's higher than the target number, it succeeds.

The target numbers start at 12, "Mundance" and go up in stages of 3 all the way up to 30, "Supernatural". These seem a bit high to me - the skill levels are actually very close to the D6 system, but they make sense there, since you roll a whole bunch of d6s, not just 2D6.

I'm not sure if that's quite to my liking. Usually I think skills should have a higher chances of success - I mean, a guy with a 3 in a skill and attribute (average) would fail at a "Mundane" (which is the easiest on the chart) half the time. That's lower than I like. Though it's very very easy to tweak.

The last section of the book is on GMing. I think if this book has a weakness, this is it. There's a very short selection on creating a conspiracy. While well written and useful, only one sample "Conspiracy" is provide, and honestly, it's kind of Cthulhu-ish. Not the Squid God himself, thankfully, but one of the other ones, a Worm God.

While I understand that part of the point of the game is to come up with your own conspiracy, so you players won't know what's going on, for some of us that is hard to do. I mean, when I think horror, I think Barbra Streisand. It's hard for me to come up with anything that doesn't involve her.

The books is laid out fairly well, if oddly - the section on the setting comes first, with all the rules in the second half. And it explains character creation before it goes into how the core mechanic works.

There are a number of typos in the paragraph headers. And speaking of headers, it would have been nice if they had used a different font or at least a different size of font for the different types of headers. There are only 6 chapters in the, so each one is broken down into several parts, but it's hard to tell which ones are major breaks and which one are minor, because they all use the same font and size.

The art is basically be two different artists - one is actually pretty normal looking and is by Pat Loboyko. The other art (which is most of the art i the book) is somewhat odd looking at first glance, completely two tone (black and white) and was done by the author. I think some people will really like this style of art, while some will really hate it. And most people will fall in the "meh" category.

Me, I tend to like photo-realistic stuff, or at least realish, but really don't care much, so I'm in the "meh" category. Some pieces I really liked, like the one on the character sheet. Some I really don't. I think the style is most effective when there is simply a lot of solid contingous black and some few bits of solid white, it makes the image look clean and the contrast makes a big impression on the brain. But some are actually comprised of little bits of black and little bits of white. Like for people in chain mail. That looks somewhat cluttered. And in some cases, some of the designs for coats and such ended up looking like Confederate soldiers (from the US Civil War).

But you get a lot of it. And I think everyone would agree that it not only fits the style of the game well, it helps sets the mood in the mind of the reader.