Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Conspiracy of Shadows (getting to be final...)

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. But 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 they can spend to improve rolls, sort of like action points or karma, etc)

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 Descriptors 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 (a good thing). 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, described as "Mundane" 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 generally like a higher chance of success, but that's perhaps just me. It's easy to tweak, anyway, so no big deal.

While characters are fairly simple, combat is actually somewhat complex. Not super-complex, but somewhat more complicated than I'm used to. (Yes, I run d20 a lot, but I tend to ignore most of the rules for that)

It still uses the same basic skill rolls, but instead of characters being able to do one action or so around, they can do as many as they want, as long as they have enough "endurance points" to do them. Endurance points refresh somewhat each round, but only somewhat, so there is a lot of strategy here in how to best use them.

Besides the basic attack maneuever, there are several special moves (most games probably have special cases for some of these, so in a way it's nice how CoS standardizes them). Charge, attack the person's weapon (in a few different ways),Grapple, Counter. There's only about 12 of them, so not a lot to remember, but the character sheet summarizes them and their Endurance Point cost.

The summary on the character sheet could be a bit better, it really needs to also give the mechanical effects in addition to just a description. For instance, "Charge" just says on the summary "Charge into the Foe to Deal More Damage". But a more helpful sentence would be "Charge (-4 to defense roll) into the Foe To Deal More Damage (+4 to damage roll/+ Mount's Fortitude if Mounted)". Obviously, that's longer, but would still fit and save some looking up into the book.

It's actually quite a clever system, but seems a bit out of place. Feels more suited for a swashbuckling or martial arts game.

I guess technically it uses "hit points", except they are called "Vitality Levels" and it's more like Shadowrun than D&D. Everyone gets 10 plus a few extra according to their Fortitude attribute (and never go higher. But the closer they get to zero, the more their wounds start affecting them.

I would have liked an example of combat. I'm a little fuzzy on how some of the things work.

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. (I had quite a shock the other day when I saw on yahoo the headline "Meet the Fockers star poses nude in Playboy". That actually could a plot seed for a real world modern day game).

Same for conspiracies. The only one I'm a part of is one to bring back the '70s, and other than some fashion and hairstyles (and John Travolta in the early 90s), we haven't been too successful.

I think I would have liked a table or something to roll up a conspiracy/evil horror. To at least give the brain a jolt for ideas, if not come up with them outright.

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 noticeably 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, at least to my eye.

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.

It's a good game with some rough edges in the presentation. And maybe a bit of an identity crisis. If it wants to be more than just a fantasy version of Call of Cthulhu (and it does, I believe), then I think the example conspiracy should have been less Lovecraftian. Some areas are also perhaps a bit on the bare-bones side, though this seems to have been a deliberate design choice, and there is excellent online support over at the official website for it.

Sample Character

Fortitude - 2 (Gets sick easily, but always recovers)
Reflex - 3 (Reacts better when he doesn't think)
Knowledge - 4 (Reads quickly)
Temperament - 2 (Good at inadvertantly offending people)

Endurance Points: 6
Vitality Levels: 12

Academics - 4 (Has read a lot of books, so knows a little about something)
Archery - 1 (Often hits himself in the foot)
Brawling - 3 (Kicks like a mule)