Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Shadow of Yesteryear

The Shadow of Yesterday

The Shadow of Yesterday is a new-ish RPG from the rather presidential sounding Clinton R. Nixon and Anvilwerks, available from Indie Press Revolution. It's a fantasy game, but a more "pulpy" sort than something like D&D or Exalted

Quite honestly, this is a tricky review for me to write. For one, as most of the game is available free on the web, people can pretty much judge for themselves, you don't need me to do it for you. For another, it seems to be a "trendy" game. At least on I'm to trendy what Donald Trump is to hair. Lastly, the inspirations for this game largely seem to games that I strongly dislike. Heroquest, Riddle of Steel, The Dying Earth, Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Unisystem, and my most hated RPG of all time (surpassing even Gurps), Fudge.

Still, given all that, I'm quite impressed with this. While I honestly would never run this game or play it, it's just not to my taste (much like the above games aren't), it's very cleverly designed and the premise of the setting is strong.

The core mechanic is pretty simple. Roll 2d6 and add the relevent ability (What are generally called skills (ie, knowing how to do things, ie, Athletics, Stealth, Fighting, making things, etc) in most games are called "Abilities" in this). Where it gets a bit more complicated is that it has a quality mechanic, for every 2 points over 9 (the minimum needed for a success), the result is one quality or success level higher. And there are possibly penalty and bonus dice that can factor in as well.

What are generally called "Atributes" or "Stats" (ie, how strong or how smart a character is) in most games are Pools in this. V

One of the neat aspects of the rules are "Keys". Essentially they are goals a character has, and when the character accomplishes them. (I've been actually thinking of doing something like this in the games I run since the Sims 2 came out - it has a similar system.)

The setting is sort of post-apocalypse fantasy. The world was very nearly destroyed by a magical comet brought on by the over use of magic (sort of). But total catasptrophe was narrowly avoided, and so civilization is on the comeback.

The best part of the setting I thought was the three races, Goblins, Humans, and Elves, and how they are related to each other. Essentially they are differently "evolved" versions of each other. Not real evolution, but sort of spiritual evolution. That is, the goblins are very much creatures of the flesh, ruled mostly by their baser needs and desires. But if they can overcome this , they can become human. Similarly, elves are humans that have sort of acheived a spiritual enlightenment, when they have discovered their true self and the true nature of the world.

It reminded me of Kierkegaard's 3 stages of man (yes, I once read "Philosophy for Dummies") - the aesthetic stage, which would be the goblin, the ethical stage, which is sort of like the human, and the religious stage, which would be the elf. Not exactly, as he was a Christian existentialist, and his final stage mostly regarded faith, while this is more Bhuddist-like, it's pretty close.

Still, while I love the concept, I think that Goblins come off far cuter than they should probably be. I mean, look at the cover of the book. That little thing on the left of the cover of the book is the example Goblin PC. He's adorable. He makes Ewoks and Care Bears look like something Mr. T's cat coughed up. And the caption for him in the book is "Oliphant just wants to be loved". If the book were a TV show, you would hear the audience saying "Awwwwwww".

I also liked the only real non-human race, "Ratkin". They are essentially rats that have evolved into sentient humanoids. One of my favorite fantasy series (the Garrett novels by Glen Cook) features something very similar.

The cultural aspects of the setting seem to be a mish-mash of real world cultures, jumbled up next to each other. For instance, you have a bunch of Maori/Polynesian like people next to a Celtics/Pictish culture. And there seem to be a couple different southeast asian cultures that I'm not sure exactly are which, other than vaguely (and I'm really going more by the art than anything else in those cases. One seems Viet Namese, the other Indian or maybe Cambodian)

So the setting is fairly different than the usual fantasy setting, though perhaps a bit less cohesive

The layout is really nice. As I think I mentioned, it's one of those smaller books, 5"x9". Each page not only has the chapter name on it, but a brief description of what is on that page. Not only does that make it very easy to find things, it makes it a breeze to get into the book. You can get a feel of the game just by reading the top bar of each page.

The author also has a very nice writing style, and clearly explains things, giving detailed examples and giving the reasoning behind various mechanics. I've always found that if you explain to people the reason why of something, not just how, they learn faster, and feel more satisfied. So this was pretty nice, I thought.

The art is a mixed bag, literally. I would say it's all pretty good, but each artist has style that is completely different from the other artists in the book. The cover artist, Jennifer Rodgers has a comic book art style (line drawings, anyway); Keith Senkowski has a very abstract style, minimalistic (2 color) style; Andrew Navarro has a realistic looking style (with some anime tinges); and James West has what can only be described as a comic style, reminding me of Tom Wham.

Thus while all of the art is good, it gives the book a jumbled feel. And a couple of pieces are odd. For instance, one really really looks like Elvis in his heavier, Vegas days, only with a sword instead of a mic. Both in terms of what he's wearing, and the move he is making. Also, the cover piece, while nice, has a woman wearing a garter belt and stocking, which I really have to doubt would be practical adventuring gear.

While you can get the game for free and print it out, the amazing job they did with the layout is a really good reason to buy the print version. It's also got the artwork nicely integrated into the text, which helps set the mood.

The only real downside to the game that I see is that while it's rule light-ish, it's not all that simple. I also think having "priorities" is even more restrictive for character development than classes, because in most class based games, characters can multi-class. In this, as near as I can tell, abilities are apparently fixed at either A, B, or C, meaning that the fighter type will always have trouble learning non-fighting stuff. (And vice-versa). I think the game would be improved if the whole ability rating thing were dropped

And since the setting is bare-bones, the GM will have to do a lot of work fleshing it out. Honestly, as a GM, I always thought if I had to do that, I might as well come up with my own world, since that's that fun part. Part of the advantage of using someone else's world is hopefully they have done a lot of the grunt work.