Grok?! is not a retroclone like Old School Essentials or Labyrinth Lord, nor is it a microclone like Knave or Into the Odd, although it is heavily inspired by both as well as Numenera, Savage Worlds, Shadow of the Demon Lord, Technoir, and Troika!, amongst others. The simplicity of the mechanics suggest that Grok?! is a microclone, but the player-facing mechanics, use of advantage and disadvantage (at a cost), capacity to bring elements of the setting into play with description-based modifiers, and narration of Player Character actions push it away towards more storytelling style of play.
A Player Character in Grok?! is simply defined. He has three Attribute dice, one each for Physical, Mental, and Social, ranging between a four-sided and a twelve-sided die. He has a word or phrase each for his Personality, Motivation, Background, Trouble, and Appearance Traits, plus an outfit and four Assets. Bar the outfit, which the player—or Actor as Grok?! terms them—is free to decide on his own, everything is determined with a roll of a few dice. The creation process takes a few minutes at most.
Physical d6 Mental d6 Social d10
Motivation: Create strife
Background: Paranormal Inquisitor
Outfit: Inquisitor’s Ruby Lame Trouser Suit
Assets: X-Ray Monocle, Telekinetic Glove, Auto-Inflatable Airship, Spell of Mind Melding
Mechanically in Grok?!, to have his character undertake an action, his Actor declares his Intention, narrates the Action, and determines the Outcome with the roll of an appropriate Attribute die. If the result is between one and four, the Outcome is ‘No, and…’ something bad happens; between five and nine, then ‘Yes’ as intended; and ten or more, then ‘Yes, and…’ and good happens. Grok?! employs the Advantage and Disadvantage mechanic as standard, each one which comes into play—up to five Advantages and five Disadvantages, with the two types cancelling each other out—must be based on an Aspect. Aspects can be the character’s Traits, Assets, or from the environment or situation the character is in. Advantages and Disadvantages are also acquired through Effort. However, applying Effort comes at a cost. This is a Condition appropriate to the action, and when acquired, it fills one of the character’s Resource Slots, of which he has seven. Conditions can also be acquired by failing actions.
Normally, Resource Slots are filled with the character’s Assets, but as they are filled Conditions, the character can carry fewer and fewer Assets, to the point where he acquires the Incapacitation Condition and is unable to act. Beyond that, if the character gains further Conditions, they reduce the appropriate Attribute die step by step, until if educed to below a four-sided die, the character is dead. The die-rolling is, of course, all Actor-facing, so the Director never rolls a die.
Grok?! uses the same mechanics for combat, the aim being to apply a Condition to an opponent if attacking and avoiding if being attacked. The rules for combat are underwritten in comparison to other roleplaying games, the roleplaying game talking about dealing with threats rather than adversaries. For some players some adjustment may be required to switch to narratively driven combat.
However, Grok?! does acknowledge this possible difficulty by including optional rules for Health Points and weapon effectiveness, as well as rules for handling wealth in a less abstract fashion and the use of the exploding die for characters with low Attributes. The Director, as the Game Master is known in Grok?!, is also given tables for creating Director Characters and one line scenario prompts, such as “An Angry Tree is Teaching Musical Masterpiece in a Derelict Spaceship”.
Planet Grok is described as world in part rent and in part shattered by a cataclysm caused by the failure of hyper advanced technology. Most of its inhabitants are divided between four castes—Celestials who reside in the giant Simulacrum which surrounds the planet, Islanders who live on the microcosms that float above the planet’s surface, Vagabonds who travel its surface exploring and trading, and Underlings who survived in the underground shelters despite many of their number being warped into monstrosities. The realms for each of the castes—the A.I. controlled Simulacrum of the Celestials, the haphazard wanderings of the Islanders’ floating Isles, the Wastelands travelled across by the Vagabonds, and the tunnels, caves, bunkers, research facilities, and chasms of the Underworld are all given a page each, which includes two tables for creating encounters.
Physically, Grok?! is stunning. The layout is bright and breezy, but the artwork is amazingly good, capturing the weirdness of the broken world, whether is the three-eyed, beaked and spike-tailed camel-like camel on the front cover, the fecund fungi, the broken canal city menaced by a tentacled monster who eyes cry black ichor, the shattered land amidst which a warrior swathed in a cloak surveys the chaos and a floating island, or a scythe-wielding Plague Doctor-like figure rides a be winged jet bike down a street. The artwork is truly excellent and hopefully future releases will feature more of it.
However, as good as the artwork is—and it is very, very good—it is also Grok?!’s curse. It is not difficult to imagine so many of the Kickstarter backers being enticed by the artwork with the promise of the roleplaying game’s weird post-gonzo apocalyptic setting and being disappointed at the lack of background or a scenario or a starting point for play or anything beyond an overview. There are a lot of prompts in terms of the tables for creating Director Characters and encounters, but that leaves a lot of work for the Director to undertake to bring world of Planet Grok to life. For some Game Masters that may not be an issue, but for others…? Ultimately, Grok?! is more mechanics than Planet Grok and the prospective Director and her players will have to wait to get more of the latter than the former.