Review: Heaven and Earth, Third Edition
Once in a while, you come across an rpg that is worth more than just one read. Heaven and Earth, 3rd edition is just such an rpg. I’ve had the fortune to get access to a pre-release copy of the newest version of Heaven and Earth, 3rd edition and from my two initial read throughs, I can honestly say I am looking forward to the full release! This game is worth checking out, if only because it breaks free of a number of the typical assumptions other rpgs make.
Some of you may remember a television show from the mid-9’s called American Gothic. The story was about a small town out in South Carolina where weird things seemed to be the norm. Specifically, the story revolved around the Sheriff of the town who had connections to Hell and with a young and innocent kid who was the focus of much of the Sheriff’s machinations. All told, it was a great series that focused on a subtle battle between good and evil in a setting so innocuous it became compelling. I think very highly of American Gothic. Much to my happiness, I think I have found an rpg equivalent to the American Gothic series!
Heaven and Earth, 3rd edition is set in a small town called Potter’s Lake. The town is a lot like Mayberry R.F.D except that it serves as a sort of spiritual magnet for the weird. The thing is, the people of Potter’s Lake as a whole don’t seem to realize that there home is also a haven for the bizarre. They go on living their lives despite the large number of missing persons reports, spontaneous psionic manifestations, and a very healthy and robust series of hauntings. Basically, Potter’s Lake is a town where the creepy little rumors that circulate through the pre-teen crowd are all true.
Let me start by saying that Heaven and Earth touches on a lot of my favorite aspects of a well written setting. I am a sucker for settings that go for detail rather than generics. Heaven and Earth, 3rd edition takes the time to set up Potter’s Lake as a living and breathing setting, going so far as to not only detail the various locales of interest but also to give bios and backgrounds of 25 of the more intriguing people of the town. I like this kind of detail – a lot. It makes the job of the GM a whole lot easier and makes the environment for the PCs significantly more compelling.
Players of Heaven and Earth, 3rd edition create normal characters. That’s right. The game strongly suggests that exceptional or weird characters are not the default type of PC (as opposed to just about every other rpg on the market). Instead, the game provides character creation rules to help build normal PCs – doctors, park rangers, mechanics, school bus driver, etc. The key to divergence in PC generation from most other rpgs, is that the weirdness of Potter’s Lake is wonderfully juxtaposed by the mundane PCs. As the PCs grow and advance they get a chance to uncover the various secrets of Potter’s Lake, and with some good roleplaying, become just as odd as the rest of the town. This is another aspect of the game I really enjoyed.
Heaven and Earth is the first RPG that I know of that encourages normal starting characters with the implied promise that the setting and gaming will be interesting enough to keep the players motivated. Considering the compelling back story to Potter’s Lake, I have no doubt about this promise!
The back story to Heaven and Earth is one of its biggest strengths. Potter’s lake is weird. Its inhabitants are weird. However, there is a reason for all the weirdness, and it is a good one! Basically, all the oddities of Potter’s Lake link back in one way or another to the big secret behind the town – the secret that the entire game is based on. During my first read I was a little worried that the game wouldn’t justify why the weirdness seemed to make a home in Potter’s Lake, but my fear ultimately proved unfounded. Without ruining the mystery behind Potter’s Lake, let us suffice to say that it is becoming a pivotal battleground for the future of humanity!
And the best part? Heaven and Earth, 3rd edition assumes that the players are going to find out about the secret of Potter’s Lake. Instead of hiding the back story from the GM or the players, the game is built around the idea that, in time, the PCs will uncover the secret and work with it to their own ends. The most interesting parts of a lot of rpgs are their hidden secrets, and too often those secrets are withheld from the GM or remain undiscovered by the players.
The mechanics to Heaven and Earth, 3rd edition are pretty simple and encompass about 1 pages including combat. Basically, the harder a thing is to do the smaller the die type your PC has access to. Something easy will get a D2, while something damn near impossible will get a D4. There are of course modifiers for a character’s experience with the task based on the individual PC’s stats. There is also a nice little fate mechanic called “Destiny.” By expending one point of Destiny a character can re-roll a failed attempt, or with two points of spent Destiny, automatically pass a check. Two points of Destiny, while expensive, can be extremely useful for those situations where you are only rolling a D4. All in all, the mechanics of Heaven and Earth, 3rd edition walk a fine line between rules-lite and rules-heavy. There is a certain emphasis away from combat, so combat-wombles may want to stay clear (though, it should also be noted that the setting is not very combat friendly either).
Heaven and Earth, 3rd edition, while focusing on mundane starting PCs, does have rules for all sorts of supernatural events and creatures. Inside there are rules for spirits, mages (which operate metaphysically a lot like White Wolf’s Mage: The Ascension in that belief and will can warp reality), the Gifted (Heaven and Earth’s take on psionics), the Goetia (ancient spirits connected to some aspect of reality), Secret Societies, Angels, and Demons. There is a lot for Heaven and Earth to cover, and it does so quite well with specialized rules for each creature.
The big problem is that I really wanted to see the same loving attention to detail that was paid to the setting carried over to the creatures and spirits that live there as well. Unfortunately, clocking in at almost 13 pages there just was not enough room. However, it does whet my appetite to see what supplements will be coming out from Abstract Nova – if only to further define these creatures and their complex relationships with the people of Potter’s Lake.
Something else I really dug about Heaven and Earth, 3rd edition are the writers. Lucien Soulban, my all time favorite rpg writer, helped work on this version- a nice surprise for me when I leafed through the credits. Also credited are Lee Foster, Michelle Lyons, James, Maliszewski, and John R Phython. I am familiar with Lyons and Maliszewski (as well as Soulban) who are experienced rpg authors. Their background shows through in the enjoyable and entertaining style of the book’s writing. The prose and style of the writing is quite good, and the language is very accessible.
The art of Heaven and Earth, 3rd edition is above average, but not spectacular. I did appreciate that all the NPCs received their own portraits, obviously drawn by artists familiar with the text. In each case, the NPC’s picture reflects their occupation and general description, helping to bring the character to life visually. In fact, throughout the book the art largely reflects the writing specific to the page which is something I always appreciate. The art is solid and in a few cases like the NPC portraits mentioned above, really helps to bring the text to life. The cover is very pretty, but I noticed that the person featured on the cover has his eyes pointing in two different directions. While I think the funky eyes are intentional (the rest of the picture is very clean and symmetrical when it needs to be – leading me to think the artist would not have neglected the focus of the picture’s eyes) they get to me. I just do not dig on the two directions of the guy’s eyes – they make me go a little bit cross-eyed myself!
In the end, I was very pleased with Heaven and Earth, 3rd edition. It definitely seems to have been worth all three iterations. I liked this game a good deal, and encourage anyone that is looking for a little twist to their roleplaying experience to look into it. All the elements are there to make a game with Heaven and Earth a very enjoyable and refreshingly different experience.
I highly suggest looking for Heaven and Earth when it comes out in September.