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Saturday, 11 April 2015

Extracurricular Esoteric Endeavours

East Texas University offers all of the prestige and amenities of a twenty-first century educational establishment with the balmy climate of Southern USA and the charm of small town America. Located just outside of the town of Pinebox, it also offers encounters with ghosts, lycanthropes, vampires, witches, and spirits as well as an esoteric library, but of course, none of this makes the academic curriculum or the university prospectus. So when it comes to exorcising their room-mate possessed by an angry spirit, hunting a lupine stalker on campus, or thwarting a sorority coven hell-bent on getting good grades without studying, then the average freshman is on his own.

This is the setting for East Texas University, a setting and campaign supplement for use with Savage Worlds published by 12 to Midnight through Pinnacle Entertainment Group. Funded via Kickstarter and coming as a slightly undersized ninety-six page hardback, this is a horror and supernatural campaign setting in which the player characters are freshman at East Texas University discovering that there is much more to the world than they had previous imagined—much more! East Texas University comes with everything necessary to run a campaign, but the Kickstarter campaign also funded a plot point campaign, Degrees of Horror, available separately and designed to take the players from Freshman to Seniors through four years of college and four years of extracurricular occult activity!

East Texas University nicely uses the mechanics of Savage Worlds to model the progress of a student through college life. This starts with it mapping the character ranks in Savage Worlds to the academic years of American student academia, so Novice equates to Freshman, Seasoned to Sophomore, Veteran to Junior, and Heroic to Senior. Where a student has to pass exams to advance academically, in East Texas University he also has to pass them to advance in  terms of Experience Points, that is, he cannot expend Experience Points until he passes his exams. Typically this will be in the student’s Major, a subject of study that can be anything from Agriculture and Anthropology to Science and Speech & Communications, but whatever it is, it should be reflected by a skill. Similarly, a student should also have a Minor, but can have two Majors if he thinks that he can cope.

A student’s ability to pass exams is measured by his Academics secondary attribute, which like the Charisma attribute has a default value of zero. It can be modified by various new Edges and Hindrances, such as Test Taker or A.D.H.D. Failing an exam gets the student into some difficulties, but passing it will gain him certain random benefits, such as learning something, making a new friend, or gaining Administrative Privilege. Other Edges and Hindrances cover everything from Local Favourite and Devout to Annoying Room-mate and Party Animal. East Texas University being a supernatural setting means that a number of appropriate Edges and Hindrances are given in addition to the mundane ones. They include Demon Slayer, Faithful, Aura Reader, and I See Dead People, and what is interesting about them is that most are only available when a student has advanced a Rank or two—both in terms of academic year and character experience. Thus player characters grow into the more outré aspects of the setting, rather than turn up and be able to fight evil straight after the freshmen's faire.

Further mechanics enable the Dean—the GM in East Texas University—to create fraternities and sororities and their primary function, whilst rules cover student allowances, gear and vehicles—the latter including a table of glitches for that second hand car, and extra-curricular activities. Even the extra-curricular activities can grant some benefits, for example, Gaming grants a +2 bonus to myth, lore, and supernatural Common Knowledge rolls whilst Party Hardy increases the student’s Charisma by by +2 and grants him the Connections Edge, but at a penalty to his Academics attribute. This is all is backed up with a quick guide to American collegiate life and structure for those of us who are not American.

Our sample character is a scholarship student who is having to count the pennies in order to get by, including sharing a dorm room and taking a part time job at the local supermarket stacking shelves. This is currently affecting her studies, but not too badly. Sometimes she gets weird feelings about places and people, but so far that is all that she thinks that they are. Her extracurricular activities means that she has little time for a social life, not helped by her overbearing room-mate.

Adrienne Carter
Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d8, Spirit d6, Strength d4, Vigour d6
Skills: Driving d4, Investigation d6, Knowledge (Computer Science) d4, Knowledge (Journalism) d6, Knowledge (Literature) d6, Notice d6, Persuasion d6, Repair d4, Streetwise d4, Swimming d4
Charisma: 0 Academics: +2 (+1)
Pace: 6” Parry: 2 Toughness: 5 Bennies: 3
Hindrances: Annoying Roommate (Big Mouth), Poverty, Second Fiddle
Edges: Multi-Tasker, Psychically Sensitive, Test Taker
Major: Journalism Minor: Literature
Extracurricular Activities: Part Time Job, Student Organisation (Newspaper)

From haunted dormitories and details about law enforcement on the university grounds, in the town, and the county to desolate strip of woods known as The Burn and the best bookshop in town, the setting’s gazetteer covers not just the campus of East Texas University, but also the town of Pinebox and the surrounding county.  It is divided across two sections, one for the players, the other for the Dean. He is also given the write-ups and descriptions of numerous NPCs, as well as notable supernatural creatures, the selection of the latter having a particular focus on demons and ghosts. These combined with the Adventure , Party, High Weirdness, and Research Adventure Generator tables, should give the Dean plenty with which to create adventures of his own. Of the tables, the Research Adventure and Party Generator tables feel like they will get used up fairly quickly, but the Dean will probably get plenty of mileage out of the others. Several sample adventure outlines created using the tables are included.

Now where another RPG might simply offer magic and spells, East Texas University only gives Ritual Magic—and that is a good thing. Spells or rituals need to be researched, they need components, and they need time. They cannot be cast just off the cuff and even learning the new Ritualism skill takes time as it cannot be purchased at the start of a campaign. It is also dangerous, a table being provided for potential side effects when the casting goes wrong. Worse, there is also the danger that any ritual might turn out to be black magic, and typically any spell that harms another person is, and casting it has the potential to corrupt a player character. Besides supporting the rules for ritual and black magic, several new powers are also included.

As well done as East Texas University is, it is missing two or three things. The first of these is a map of the surrounding county. There are maps of both the university campus and the town of Pinebox, but not of the county, which is odd given that the gazetteer describes the nearby towns and places of note. Second, there is no discussion of the events and things that occur over the course of each semester, something that would be useful for those of who did not attend an American college. Third, there is no discussion of quite where Pinebox and thus the university, is in relation to the bigger towns and cities, which does leave the setting slightly isolated.  That said, the supplement does much to capture the feel of Texas, what with the list of phrases and slang and so on.Despite these issues, East Texas University is a nicely presented, well written book.

It should be made clear what East Texas University is not and that is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG. Now there is nothing to stop a group taking the rules in this supplement and making it so, but it would need some effort upon the part of the GM. After all, there is a Demon Slayer Edge already included. All it would take to set up this kind of game would be some adjustment.

Hunting monsters in RPGs is always challenging, but in East Texas University it is made more so because of the constraints placed on the player characters. Of course most of these will be academic in nature, but there are also social activities to distract the potential monster hunters, as well as social conventions that prevent them from running around armed for werewolfbear. Yet they are also occult and supernatural in nature, because the player characters arrive completely unaware of the town’s occult secrets and grow into the role of monster hunters, perhaps gaining supernatural abilities in the process. This is nicely modelled by the fact that the majority of them, along with magic, are unavailable at character creation. The design of magic in East Texas University also points to less pulpy tone and less flashy feel to the setting, one that feels more grounded than other monster hunting games—and that is due to the constraints placed on the player characters as part of the setting.

Overall, East Texas University is a pleasing and concise package. If you wanted to run a horror game set in the academic halls and small town of America, then this supplement is very good choice.