Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Bulldogs! (75% or so done)

Bulldogs! is a d20 based Science Fiction RPG from Galileo Games, a very small RPG publisher. It originally came out in about April of 2004, I believe. Maybe a bit earlier. I first heard of it in the ads forum here (which more people should read, by the way).

When I saw the post about Bulldogs!, 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 (or 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 things went awry (my TV went kaput) and I had to use the money I was going to buy Bulldogs (and some other RPGs) to replace it. I did have enough for one new book and was thinking about getting Bulldogs!, but I went with d20 Future, mostly because it supposedly had Star Frontiers as a setting in it, and is something I am a huge fan of. Ultimately though, while it had some Star Frontiers material in d20 Future, it was very small and not really Star Frontiers in terms of "feel".

Getting to my point, Bulldogs! is indeed quite different from the other d20 SF RPGs I have. The feel is very much like the original Star Frontiers, which was exactly what I was hoping for from d20 Future, but didn't get. 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. Also, there are a lot of megacorporations, or Pan-Galactic Corporations. Again, similar to Star Frontiers (or Traveller).

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 (and reprints) 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.

They are sort of grouped into 2 groups of 4, one group of land based classes and one group of space based classes. Obviously, the space based classes are most useful on starships, but they are reasonably effective all-around (unlike say, the classes in Traveller 20).

The classes are all pretty much what they sound like. The only one that really needs explanation is the Space Pirate, which not unlike a Fighter/Rogue multi-class (and in fact, the text mentions it's sort of a combination of the two). But is different enough to justify its existance.

There's only a handful of prestige classes: The Assassin (basically the D&D one minus the magic), the Mata Hari (a seductive spy), Secret Agent and Infocity Acolyte (which is sort of a hacker)

Skills are largely the same as normal d20, though it adds the obvious new skills for a futuristic games: Pilot, Systems (for computers), Astrogate.

Bulldogs! takes the Star Wars approach to aliens - there are a whole bunch of different types of them, too many to count. 10 are included in the book, and there is a system to generate new ones with abilities that are balanced. The aliens are a mix of near human, humanoid, and some that are just plain alien.

I've always thought aliens should be alien. One of my favorite Science Fiction series is "Sector General" by the late James White. It's not exactly the deepest SF around, it's sort of like "Emergency!" only set in space - about a space hospital and an ambulance starship. They answer space emergency calls and often find weird, undiscovered species.

Rarely do you find weird aliens like in those books. Usually they are just like the ones on Star Trek - people with funny objects or fruit glued to their foreheads, or are animal-people of some sort.

Bulldogs! does indeed have some of those, but also has some of the truly alien sort. For instance, there is the Dolom, which is sort of a 3 legged , 3 armed, 3 eyed, er, thing. They remind me a lot of the Hudlar from the Sector General series. Another thing is sort of like a one eyed slug. And perhaps inspired by the classic "Hoka!", there is a race of teddy bears. Only these are amoral (if not evil) Teddy bears, not really impressionable ones. (Their background story is that their race was genetically engineered, but turned out to have been flawed, and overthrew their makers, which is plausible.)

But more importantly, the alien race creation rules make it easy to come up with very strange, very alien, aliens.

Basically, it divies up special abilities or advantages (and disadvantages) into 3 categories, I, II, and III. A standard race gets 5 points, and something from category I costs 1 point, II 2 points, III 3 points.

There's a ton of gear, about 50 pages of the book is devoted to it. One of the most extensive lists of equipment I've seen in a SF game.

All sorts of ranged weapons. Gyrojets, projectiles, flechettes, lasers, blasters, disruptors, gauss/rail guns. Tons of melee weapons, too. There are no tech levels or anything, the culture in the Bulldogs! galaxy is fairly homogenous

If you've seen a weapon in a movie or another SF game, then it probably has an analog here, if not by name then by function.

One of the cooler things about the book, is that there are a number of companies that make gear. Each company has specific qualities that affect the stuff (mostly weapons) that they make. Some companies make good weapons, some make lousy (but cheap) ones.

Starships take up about 30 pages of the book, including 8 pages of rules on creating them. It's a fairly simple process, but fairly flexible, too.

Combat is essentially the same as the d20 system, with starships having hit points and hardness, and ships weapons doing damage (quite a lot, in larger weapons case).

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 -.

The only real problem with the book is really just a nitpick of mine. A few times it mentions space is really cold, and has rules for it being really cold. While it is cold, space is actually a near vaccuum, and so works kinda like a giant thermos - you don't lose much heat, since nothing carries it away, other than what you radiate as energy. A fairly common misperception. (Really, the only realistic space game/supplement is the one for Cyberpunk 2020, so no biggie.)

I own almost every d20 Science Fiction game on the market, and this is as good as any of them, far better than most. It's amazing that it came from such a small company, the production quality is better than that of anything not from Wizards of the Coast. (It might not beat Mongoose's art, but it does beat their editing.)

Unfortunately, it does probably suffer by being late to the show. And from the near release of d20 Future. Still, much of the book can be adapted to d20 Future quite easily - the setting, the races (and the rules for creating them), the equipment, the prestige classes (with a bit of tweaking).

Monday, January 17, 2005

Conspiracy of Shadows (semi-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, and thus, truly scary. Or at least leave your players guessing.

It's essentially a complete roleplaying game in one 120 page book. About half rules (the game is rules-light, obviously, for that to work), and about half the book is devoted to the background setting.

It's a "fantasy" game, that is, it's not set on Earth, but a different, more magical world (but not overly magical). 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). So I guess really, it's centered on Eastern Europe.

It's really a matter of taste when it comes to settings. Some like this, because it's easy to jump into, while others prefer a more alien setting. But in this case, whatever you like, the setting is very intricately laid out and noticeably different than the typical fantasy setting.
The downside to the detail is that while the gist of the world is indeed easy to pick up, players will probably need to read the setting section a few times to learn the details.

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.

There are also two minor attributes related to what the character does for a living (or what social class he was born into), Resources and Relationships. This is rated from 1 to 6 like everything else, and also depends on culture.

The non-crunchy character development extends beyond Descriptors, each character is required to have a "Drive" and "Passion". Passion is basically what motivates a character in life. Drive is basically what motivates the character to investigate and fight the forces of evil.

Also, beyond just individual character creation, each character is part of a secret "cell". This has to be designed as well, essentially by a point based system based on the characters combined resource and relationship ranks. Pretty simple, it's rated on the same 1 to 6 scale in different categories like "Allies", "Real Estate", "Library", "Contacts". The design of it is a cooperative venture between the players and the GM.

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 stat-wise, 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. But as I said, it is meant to be a fantasy game, not just horror, so this is probably a good thing, overall.

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 game is fantasy, so there are some rules for magic, but they aren't the typical fantasy sort. Basically, horror or occult based fantasy on the one hand, but characters can also have psychic powers, called "Witchblood" powers. No fireballs or magic carpets or anything. More like the Exorcist or a Stephen King novel.

The last section of the book is on GMing. I think if this book has a weakness, this is it. I think the game is probably aimed at people who know what they are doing. 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. (Actually, I'm not sure if there is a worm god in Cthulhu, per se. I thought there was one because of Ludwig Prinn's De Vermiis Mysteriis, but I can't seem to remember which one that was about).

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. There is a 2 page index, but it's a bit sparse. When I tried to look some things up, like "Passion" and "Drive", they weren't in it.

The art is basically be two different artists - one is actually pretty normal looking and is by Pat Loboyko, some of which is very good. The other art (which is most of the art in 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 probably 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), which seems very out of place.

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.

I haven't used the rules enough to make a final verdict (and frankly, after the last Rams game, I'm not in the mood for any more horror), but in a quick test drive, they seem to work very well. Quite frankly, I tend to dislike learning new rules systems, as I mostly either just run d20 or d6 games and convert a new game to one of those (usually D6), but these rules I like a lot.

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.

Even if it's not your cup of tea, it's also got a lot of nice things you might want to borrow for your other games. The Descriptors, most notably - that's an absolutely brilliant idea, I think.

So, I'm giving it a 5 for substance, 3 for style (mostly because of the editing quirks and typos, if not for that it would be a 4). Definitely worth a look

Sample Character (write up of me, sorta)

Cover: Bum
Social Class: Peasant Land Owner (Resource Rank 3, Relationship Rank 2)

Fortitude - 2 (Gets sick easily)
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 an alpaca)
Folklore - 5 (Adept in faerie lore)
Larceny - 3 (Difficult to notice)
Melee - 2 (Handy with a club)
Medicine - 2 (Good at cleaning wounds)

* Who released an album named that as well.