Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Bromance & Monsters

While we await the arrival of the Smallville Roleplaying Game from Margaret Weis Productions here in the UK – which when it arrives means that there will be two official RPGs available in which you could play Superman – I will review the publisher’s most recent title to hit our shelves. The Supernatural Rolepaying Game is based on the Supernatural television series in which two brothers, Dean and Sam Winchester, hunt demons and monsters in search of their missing father John, who taught them to hunt the supernatural. The series might be described as Buffy the Vampire Slayer with blokes and demons instead of vampires, but Supernatural is much more of a road trip, the brothers moving across small town America from town to town. The other main difference lies in the horrors that the brothers encounter. There are demons of course, but the others are primarily ghosts, spirits, and other inhuman creatures based on urban legends. The combination of these creatures and the road trip format – the travelling done via Dean’s signature 1976 Chevrolet Impala to a soundtrack of American rock music – lend the series and thus the RPG an episodic structure in which the player characters, or rather Hunters travel America in search of the supernatural.

Since this is a game from Margaret Weis Productions, Supernatural Rolepaying Game uses the publisher’s house mechanics, CORTEX System Role Playing Game, which defines its Attributes, Skills, and Traits – Assets and Complications (or advantages and disadvantages), for characters, monsters, and vehicles by die type: two, four, six, eight, ten, and twelve-sided dice, with a rating of d6 being considered as average. Attributes –Agility, Strength, Vitality, Alertness, Intelligence, and Willpower; and Traits; and Assets and Complications such as “Two-Handed Fighting” and “Superstitious” are rated by a single die type, while others like “Natural Linguist” and “Amnesia” vary in die type according to their effectiveness. Skills work slightly differently in that above a d6 rating a character must specialise and so gets a higher die type.

Character or Hunter creation is relatively straight forward. Players receive points to spend on their characters’ attributes and skills, with tougher starting characters who have had some experience with the supernatural receiving not only more points for attributes and skills, but points to spend on Traits too. The number of points spent on Assets and Complications have to balance, so a Rookie with no points of spend on Traits starts even more penalised if he wants Assets.

The sample character is a Rookie version of a Call of Cthulhu investigator that I have used before – and indeed will appear as one of the pre-generated investigators in the forthcoming Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion. Henry Brinded is an ex-US Army officer who served with the artillery in the First Gulf War. He resigned his commission and left the army suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and partial deafness. In the intervening years he went back to school and studied ancient languages and theology, but the stress meant that he could not progress beyond a Masters Degree. These days he likes to live quietly in the antiquarian bookshop he runs, painting when not reading, and reading when not painting.

Henry Brinded
Agi: d6 Str: d6 Vit: d6
Ale: d6 Int: d10 Wil: d8
Init: d6+d6 LP: 14 End: 14 Resist: d6+d6
Plot Points: 6
Traits: Cool Under Fight d2, Higher Education d4, Natural Linguist (Arabic, Hebrew & Latin) d6; Allergy (Hayfever) d2, Dull Sense (Hearing) d4, Dull Sense (Sight) d2, Straight and Narrow d4
Skills: Artistry d6, Painting d8; Boating d2; Craft d6, Book Restoration d8; Discipline d4; Guns d4; Heavy Weapons d6, Field Artillery d8; Influence d4; Knowledge d6, History d8, Linguistics d10, Religion d8; Lore d2; Perception d4; Unarmed Combat d4

The Cortex System is quite a straight forward set of mechanics. For most occasions a player will just roll and total the results of a skill die and an attribute die to beat a target. For example, Brinded above would roll one ten-sided and one eight-sided dice – the first for his Intelligence attribute and the second for his Knowledge and History speciality. Extra dice can be rolled and added or deducted from the total depending if an Asset or Complication applied. Continuing the example, Brinded could roll and add the Highly Educated die if he was researching something that he learned at university, but roll and deduct the Dull Sense (Shortsighted) die if he had to conduct some research without his spectacles.

Although Complications make achieving an aim in the game more difficult, the advantage of bringing them into and roleplaying them in play is that they award the character with more Plot Points. As you would expect, these can be used by a player to improve a roll as well as to add a story element, for example to create a previous relationship with an NPC. The Supernatural Rolepaying Game adds another wrinkle to Complications though. One of the main foes faced by the hunters will be demons who often appear as columns of smoke. When a demon – and the occasional powerful ghost – attempts to possess a victim, it exploits his greatest weakness represented in game terms by his Complication with the highest die value which is added to the difficulty to resist the possession attempt. Of course, it goes without saying that this is a very bad thing.

Of course the point of the Supernatural Rolepaying Game is hunting evil, and that means monsters. The game only lists seven types of monsters: Demons, Ghosts, Shapeshifters, Shtriga, Vampires, Wendigo and Zombies. Most of these will be familiar, but the Shtriga is a witch-like creature that feeds of life essence and is hard to detect. While just seven types of monster are covered and discussed, they are done so in depth and each type is accompanied by at least one example. The creatures that appear most often in the series receive the most examples. So there are full write-ups of two Demons – the series’ big bad, Achashversosh, and another demon, Meg Masters; and three full write-ups of different ghosts – Timothy Timberlake (Death Echo), Constance Welch (Woman in White), and Dr. H.H. Holmes (Undead Serial Killer). Fans will recognise some of these from the series such as Dr. H.H. Holmes, whose inclusion highlights the series’ use of figures out of urban folklore.

Given how detailed these monsters are, a GM should get plenty of mileage out of these foes. Of course, these seven are never going to be enough, so there is already a supplement available devoted to monsters, Supernatural Guide to the Hunted. In addition, most modern horror RPGs have their own monster books, and of those I can suggest that Pelgrane Press’ Book of Unremitting Horror; White Wolf’s World of Darkness supplements such as Ghost Stories and Mysterious Places; and Eden Studio’s Atlas of the Walking Dead – if you want zombies! – as being worth a Supernatural Rolepaying Game GM’s time.

In addition to running monsters, there is advice aplenty for the GM on running a game. It starts off with what makes the horror in Supernatural different to traditional horror. Simply that its horror is “horror-adventure,” a sub-genre in which the heroes can and do fight back. What this means is that most foes that the hunters will encounter appear on their own and will be enough of a challenge for them. In turn it examines the key elements of the series beyond the horror – hope, family, and humour; looks at how hunts are conducted; and explores campaign and adventure construction. There is also advice on handling and portraying the NPCs as well as tips on refereeing a horror in general. Over all, the GM’s section is very well done.

Beyond the advice and the discussion of the monsters, the GM also receives support in the form of a mundane bestiary, a list of ordinary folk, and a list of ordinary locations which might be found anywhere in small town America. Besides their stats, motivations and descriptions are given for each of the ordinary folk, enough to help a GM portray them. The locations are of more interest, each one being described by day and by night as well as having a sample background. For example, the abandoned coal mine has a “legend” about three miners having been sealed in the mine after a tunnel collapse. Essentially, each of the backgrounds is a hook around which a plot or hunt could be based.

While the GM receives plenty of support and advice, the player will have to take his cue from the television series itself. Beyond the introduction to the series and its accompanying guide to monsters throughout the USA, there is little support for the player. The rules lack an example of character generation, which would have been useful for someone coming to the book after watching the series. There are character sheets for the four main characters from the series, but no example of the generation process. Worse still, the book lacks a scenario. After all, a scenario would have showcased how a hunt could be constructed and run. True, the book provides plenty of hooks with the location backgrounds, but a scenario would have been better. A nice touch is the inclusion of a discography of rock music by which to hunt...

Physically, the Supernatural Rolepaying Game is nice looking, if slim, hardback. Done in full colour, it is illustrated throughout with stills from the series, and its journal style layout echoes the journal kept by the characters in the series. This is most prominent in the use of post-it notes as sidebars, which are usually written in the character of one of the Winchester brothers.

Overall, the CORTEX System Role Playing Game fits the feel of the series, being straight forward and gritty, but still with room for some heroics. The advice for the GM is good and the monsters are nicely described, and at this point, I would say how the book feels complete and ready to roll. It does not, and all for the lack of a scenario. I view the lack of a scenario as a major omission as it showcases how the game is meant to work, especially for anyone new to roleplaying, which might be the case since this is a game based on a popular television series. For anyone coming to the Supernatural Rolepaying Game this, this lack is going to be a problem. For the more experienced gamer, this will be not a problem.

So putting aside the issue of the lack of a scenario, the Supernatural Rolepaying Game is a solid treatment of its source. It does hard, muscular monster hunting, and it does it well.