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Friday, 8 September 2017

Free RPG Day 2017: Familiars of Terra – Dissonant Notes

Now in its tenth year, Saturday, June 17th was Free RPG Day and with it came an array of new and interesting little releases. Invariably these are tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quickstart. The scenarios are of course for existing games, but whilst the quickstarts may likewise also be for existing games, many are for forthcoming games, giving gamers a chance to experience a new game or setting before they are released. One such title is Familiars of Terra – Dissonant Notes, published by Angry Hamster Publishing.

Familiars of Terra is set in a world not unlike our own, perhaps a few decades ahead and not long after a nasty war which left areas of badlands to be scavenged or avoided. What marks it out as being particularly different is that everyone has a familiar or animal companion who bonds with them and grows with them. A Familiar cares for and helps its human companion, but for certain heroic humans—known as Seekers—Familiars will not only grow and bond with them, but also evolve. So, a snake companion might grow wings and an electrical strike, whilst a cat might gain size to rival that of a leopard or lion. This is a setting inspired by the Pokémon video games and animated television series and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

Players in Familiars of Terra play not one, but two characters. One is a Seeker, the other is his Familiar. Both are defined by five attributes—Agility, Awareness, Charm, Might, and Wit, plus Health. The five attributes range between five and ten for humans, slightly lower for Familiars. Humans have traits like Nerdy (Music) and Acrobatic, a mix of skills and advantages, whilst Familiars have both combat manoeuvres and traits. Combat manoeuvres grant advantages in fights, like Bleed, which inflicts extra damage, and Shield, which blocks all damage. Each combat manoeuvre has a limited number of uses in each battle. A Familiar’s traits tend to be more fantastic than those of his human, so they might be ‘Hover’, ‘Quills’, ‘Blue’ (has blue skin and fur and can freeze an object with its icy breath once per session), and so on.

The mechanics of Familiars of Terra are simple enough. Each player requires his own deck of playing cards minus the Jokers. Each time a Seeker or a Familiar wants to take an action, his player draws a card and if it is equal to or lower than the value of the attribute, then they succeed. The Game Master can adjust the attribute value up and down depending upon the difficulty of the task. Combat is equally as simple, each player having a hand of cards that he can discard and redraw if he has a bad hand, though this is at the loss of a turn. On his turn, a player selects a card and reveals it simultaneously—usually with the Game Master—and the winner inflicting one point of damage on an opponent. Combat manoeuvres add greatly to combat, giving more options and adding a dynamism to the action.

In addition, a Seeker and his Familiar has Familiar Points. These are awarded for inventive and descriptive play and enable a Familiar to draw two cards for an action and choose one, to discard and draw cards in combat without losing a turn, to play an extra card for an action or in combat, and to declare combat manoeuvres at the end of a round rather than in order of Agility.

The scenario included in Familiars of Terra – Dissonant Notes is the eponymous ‘Dissonant Notes’. Designed for three to five players, it takes place in the town of Rockingchair where the Seekers and their Familiars are attending Wenlii, a local music festival. Unfortunately, half way through the event there is a stampede and several people and their familiars get hurt. The Seekers and their Familiars have the chance to intervene and save some of those caught up in the stampede, but not stop it. Their bravery and intervention identifies them as Seekers to the Wenlii organisers who hire them to find out why the stampede occurred and to prevent it from happening again. The investigation will see the Seekers and their Familiars looking round the rest of the festival, dealing with rival bands, negotiating with the police, and more, all before solving the mystery. It is a decent scenario and should give the Seekers and in particular, the Familiars, plenty of opportunity for investigation, interaction, and combat.

Familiars of Terra – Dissonant Notes is generally well presented and well written, if somewhat plain. Certainly, illustrations of the provided Familiars would have been a nice addition, but the main problem is that the Seekers do feel somewhat bland in comparison to their Familiars. This is not helped by the fact that some traits are repeated between different Seekers, meaning that they are not really very different at all. A nice touch is that the scenario does include a short glossary, which explains some of its more obscure terms.

Familiars of Terra – Dissonant Notes nicely does what it sets out to do and what a good quickstart should. This is present the setting, the mechanics, and a scenario as efficiently as it can in the space available. The mechanics are simple and playing both Seeker and Familiar provides opportunity to roleplay. Familiars of Terra – Dissonant Notes is a solid quickstart and should provide a good session’s worth of game play.