Friday, September 29, 2017

Review follow-ups: Blades in the Dark (the back half) and Life and Death, Zarth Edition (for the Crypts and Things system)

I've been trying to make a dent in my backlog of quality RPG content without purchasing more.  So far, it's an exercise in willpower, but the alternative is the pathetic existence of a digital hoarder.  My role-playing backlog is the equivalent of a crawlspace full of unread issues of National Geographic.  It's nowhere near as messy, but I have nothing to show for it.

He probably actually read these

Anyway, I just caught up on two interesting projects that, for different reasons, return me to past reviews.  I recently completed my entire read-through of John Harper's Blades in the Dark; when I wrote my pre-review, I had only completed a read-through of the mechanics.  

I still haven't played the damn thing, but who knows when that will happen?  I want to review the rest of the text while we're still alive.

As for Life and Death, Zarth Edition, which is a recent conversion of one of the author's (Newt Newport) older adventures to his most recent rule-set i.e. Crypts and Things. I previously reviewed C&T very favorably, and this new adventure is worthy of the system.

First up: Blades in the Dark, part II:

It's Mr. Subtlety again

My prior review of Blades covered the mechanics and the general sensibility of the play style.  The rest of the text expands a great deal more of the latter material, as well as describing the game's setting - the arcane steampunk criminal underworld (yes, just like Dishonored).

I give Mr. Harper a lot of credit for his restraint with this material.  There is a very instructive example of play at the table, which shows how the mechanics can be used to adjudicate situations.  The sense is that Blades wants your table to develop its own distinctive style of play, and doesn't need to force The One True Way down your throat.

Stylishly suicidal

This is a very good thing.  Personally, I'd be inclined to run the game a little more traditionally than the game seems to urge, but one gets the sense that that's OK.  I like the fact that you could use the same ruleset to run combat blow-by-blow, or via a single roll.  And you could conceivably do both in the same session, and it would feel organic.

Likewise, the setting is drawn purely through broad strokes.  Everything from city districts to NPCs and gangs of note is described in a paragraph or two.  There's a couple pages of flavor text about the refining of leviathan (i.e. demon whale) blood into a usable energy source.  That kind of dressing is very welcome in the small doses, and that's what we see here.

Nothing in the second half of the book really changes my general feelings about Blades in the Dark, which are guardedly positive.  But it reinforces the positive.  This is a game that wants the GM and players to come up with lots of cool stuff on the fly, and it does a very good job of position itself for that.  Like, if that's what you want to do, this is how to do it.

And finally: Life and Death, Zarth Edition:

Cover: Dead Pot Country by Jon Hodgson.
A Ghoul Queen looks on while a group of adventurers fight against a Bone Gardener

As I said, I really liked Crypts and Things, and I was clamoring for more.  The lone adventure that was published for that system, Blood of the Dragon, left me a little unsatisfied.  Bryce was a big fan, but for me, it seemed to lack a certain focus and culmination.

Life and Death, fortunately, delivers everything that I was looking for.  And more, if that doesn't sound too cliched.  L&D is really a series of adventures that takes place in a novel setting named The Shattered Lands.

The Shattered Lands are unpleasant

Newport has described this setting as "fantasy post-apocalyptic," and that seems like a fair label.  There was once a powerful kingdom called The Lion Empire, and its emperor ascended to heaven, and then all the gods vanished after cursing mankind.  The entire world is sketched through five cities that eke out an existence in blasted lands.

Like everything else C&T, L&D is simultaneously grim and lurid.  Although this isn't the Continent of Terror, it has a lot in common with that house setting.  The gods have gone away leaving mankind cursed.  Life is cheap - literally, in the form of slavery - and mankind is bedeviled by necromancy and demons.  Check and check.

He can't even use the mop and bucket like that

This is almost ironic, since Life and Death started out as an adventure-thingie for D101's other RPG, OpenQuest.  It works perfectly in the context of Crypts and Things, so that's just as well.  It also makes me interested in what other content that Newt has produced for that system.

L&D has a loose conversational style that almost seems embarrassed to be a series of adventures.  Newport shows a clear preference for sandbox play over railroading, and one gets the sense he's afraid that L&D could become the latter.  He takes pains to explain that there are multiple hooks that the GM can provide for each adventure, and the players should not be restricted from deviating from expectations.

He shouldn't worry.  Life and Death has a very nice and open flow.  Some real platonic ideals of adventure design are achieved here.  The descriptions, for instance.

I am very memorable!

Those descriptions really pop and deliver that grimy old-school Appendix N vibe.  Newport says he's shooting for Clark Ashton Smith and George Romero, but there's plenty of Howard and even Vance to be found, as far as I'm concerned.  There's a lot of necromancy and undeath in these adventures (imagine that) and it's very well-conveyed.  The creepiness is underlined by a sense of tragedy - these zombies were once people.

But brevity is king with this product.  L&D really knows what's easy for the GM to come up with at the table and what he needs to run the adventure.  A few pages summarize the entire setting through a very manageable timeline and a collection of archetypes that belong to the five cities.  NPCs have actual bullet points that nicely summarize their goals and motives in two to four lines of text.

The two types of swordsmen: blonde and brunette

It even dispenses almost entirely with numerically-keyed maps.  This is no dungeon crawl, nor is it a tactical miniature game.  Floors of buildings are described in general terms.  These are just a hair more detailed than the notes a GM might create for his homebrew campaign.  Somehow this adventure manages to leave at least half the usual material on the floor without losing a single step.

So if it's not a dungeon crawl, what is it?  Well, it has that homebrew feel of not being a particular thing.  There are factions and encounters meant to be purely social, and there are a few encounters that would almost certainly lead to combat, and then there is most of it, which lies in between.  The final adventure, which is really the bulk of the material, has at least six major factions.  The text gives a lot of good advice about how these situations could play out, but there's a lot of space for PCs to take things in surprising directions.

I think those are rhino-riding Puritans, but I could be wrong

In short, I love this adventure-setting-thingie.  It reminds me a lot of Scourge of the Demon Wolf, which is a compliment to both works.  It can go so many directions.  The situations encourage creative player decisions, responsive GM'ing and open-ended results.  Top shelf!

By the way, do you notice all the cool art I've been posting throughout this portion of the review?  That's the work of David M. Wright, and his work also graced the original C&T rulebook.  I really like his black-and-white style, eschewing grays over darkly-inked fine detail.  As is proven again and again, high quality art in a role-playing games can do a great job of communicating the atmosphere that they are trying to create.

That wraps this one up.  It's fun to read cool things!  I hope to soon have some actual game sessions to write up.  My players have been suffering from a spate of RLEs - Real Life Events.  I'm trying to be understanding.  But it's hard.

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