Off My Shelf

RPGs Off My Shelf – February

Thursday, February 3rd, 2005

Its been a little bit. Life has a habit of getting in the way of my internet life. I know I am not the only one, but it still annoys the hell out of me. So, time to get back into the swing of things. This month, I am working on one of the other major roleplaying game genres – horror. Let me be up front, I normally really dislike horror rpgs. I have yet to see horror treated in the same manner in rpgs as novels or movies – those two mediums pick up the feelings that horror creates so much better than most roleplaying games. While I think rpgs are the ideal medium for Sci-fi and fantasy, not so for horror. For my money, there are very few quality horror rpgs out there, but here are few that I’ve found that are worth your time.

However, the good horror rpgs' I mean the really good ones, knock my socks off and rank as some of the best rpgs ever produced. The key to being one of the great rpgs is twofold: 1) the rpg has to have a great setting, and 2) the rpg has to lend itself to some great gamemastering. Now, as a setting junkie, we’ll address this first. The best horror rpgs are going to be the ones with the great settings. The second part of my criteria is much harder for me to articulate since the game needs to lend itself to a good gamemaster using the rpg and forming it into something creepy' something scary. Rules, setting, mood, and, most importantly, a good gamemaster are the things that make an rpg lend itself to good gamemastering (a bit circular, I admit).

So, with a concentration on my first criteria, but with an eye towards my second let’s get to the meat-and-potatoes of this article:
My Top Five Horror rpg settings
Honorable mention:

Nightmares of Mine (I.C.E)- not actually a setting, and just barely an rpg supplement, this book is absolutely invaluable to a horror gamemaster. Ken Hite hits a homerun in his analysis of the horror genre and advice on how to treat it with respect in horror rpgs. Buy this book if you run (or want to run) a horror rpg.

Kult 3rd ed. (Paradox Entertainment)- Three incarnations and still going strong. It takes a heavy dose of Gnosticism and the creepy parts of Christianity to create a nifty dystopic otherworld. Think Hellraiser and you are not far off.

Wraith (White Wolf): Someone else said it better than I ever could: Wraith I the greatest game no one plays. While it has some wonderfully creepy ideas, the mechanics and weird setting hurt the playabilty of the game.

Obsidian (Apophis Consortium): So close, yet so very far.

5. All Flesh Must be Eaten (Eden Studios). The zombie survival rpg. Anytime you think of a game that will feature zombies heavily, this is the game that should be at the top of most lists. AFMBE is a toolbox game, everything you want or need to run the game is in the core book. Right from the start AFMBE presents a lot of options for creating zombies and the book is that much stronger for all those options. I am a fan of zombie flicks, and it took me a while to finally admit AFMBE is the game for zombies- but it really is. Eden did a great job with the game.

The Unisystem engine for AFMBE is quite solid and there are a lot of people who think the Unisystem engine is second-to-none. Part of the reason AFMBE is such a good game is how seamlessly it works with the Eden engine. From tense escape sequences to full fledged firefights, Unisystem handles the possibilities of AFMBE well.

The art in AFMBE is great. I am under the understanding that AFMBE was co-imagined with Christopher Shy, and his stellar artwork is all over AFMBE (including the cover). Interspersed with some solid pencil work, the feel that AFMBE conveys is quite appropriate for the genre. The writing is pretty mechanical, with the occasional additions for color. All-in-all, AFMBE does a fine job in creating the basics for games with zombies.

My problem with AFMBE is that it is too general. There are options for settings (some of which are great, others are uninspiring) but nothing that reallt defines AFMBE as a great horror game. The addition of some really off-the wall options (while useful), and some really kitsch settings hurt the ability to really create a creepy atmosphere. As a toolbox AFMBE has no equal, as a horror rpg it has potential, but is left behind.

The current in-print version of AFMBE is the 2nd edition. Either edition is okay though- the tweaks to 2nd edition are nice but not a deal-breaker. The supplements are all solid with one exception. I would avoid the Book of Archetypes 2 (it is too repetitive and uncreative when compared to the 1st).

4. Orpheus (White Wolf). I really, really like Orpheus. It was developed by one of most favorite personalities in the rpg industry, Lucien Soulban. Mr Soulban has been the creative force behind some of the best rpg supplements in existence (Vimary for Tribe 8 and Montreal by Night to name two). When I heard he was going to be at the helm of the 6-book limited run of the Orpheus line, I could not have thought of anyone better for the job. Much to my delight, Mr. Soulban did an excellent job with Orpheus.

Orpheus is a full game line, setting, and epic adventure wrapped up in a tidy 6-book set (the core book and five supplements). The game’s setting almost begs for some great games to be run. Basically, you play operatives for a private company (the Orpheus Group) that hunt ghosts. The thing that makes Orpheus stay in business is the fact that its operatives can project their souls into the spirit world- ensuring their “ghostbusting” lends results. Of course, this is a White Wolf game, so you as PCs you get all sorts of nifty powers to go along with projecting your soul.

The successor to the Wraith line (see above), Orpheus was, in my opinion, a successful way of making Wraith playable. Much of the backstory and metaplot of the Wraith line carry over into Orpheus, slowly bleeding over into a truly marvelous campaign. As the campaign unfolds over the five supplements, new powers, new character options, new enemies, and new revelations are revealed- making the Orpheus line fit together seamlessly. Because the supplements work so well together and help create a full campaign that progresses over time, Orpheus is arguably the best use of metaplot used in an rpg. Quite useful, especially for a horror rpg.

Orpheus is at times Creepy, mysterious, and tense. The art is largely quite good, some of the best art in a White Wolf line, ever. More importantly, the art reflects the text quite closely (something I really appreciate)- helping create an idea of what the horrors of Orpheus look like. A nice touch, really. The text is filled with lots of color entries, balancing the art to help add even more description to the world.

The place where Orpheus trips up as a horror rpg is in the non-horror elements that creep in to most of the supplements. Some of the creatures that are introduced are patently not scary or creepy- but simply silly. Also, as the plot progresses Orpheus moves away from its horror roots to be a bit more of an action-adventure game- which hurts the mood set by earlier books. Understand, this is the goal of the Orpheus line- to grow and change with the metaplot. However, taken as a whole, Orpheus loses too much of its horror roots to be ranked as one of the top three horror prgs.

3. Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium and various publishers). The father of all horror rpgs. HP Lovecraft was as much surrealist as horror writer, and the two aspects of his writing work remarkably well together- not only in his rendition of the Dreamlands, but in creating creatures that man was not supposed to know. Many of the tropes and core assumptions found in subsequent horror rpgs first started with Call of Cthulhu. There are reams and reams of discussion on Call of Cthulhu and HP Lovecraft’s work, so I will refrain from going to deep into the relative merits of the game. Rest assured, it is a nifty setting that works exceptionally well with the BRP (Basic Roleplaying) system.

Call of Cthulhu is a great setting that, unfortunately, has not aged well. Cthulhu is no longer scary in my mind. Unfortunately, through no real fault of Call of Cthulhu, the Mythos just isn’t mysterious anymore. Part of what makes the mythos great as antagonists is the mystery that surrounds them- they are supposed to be unknowable- beyond the understanding of normal men. However, to get the feeling of mystery and awe that Call of Cthulhu elicited over a decade ago, you have to start moving beyond the mythos as defined by Lovecraft or start anew with a new setting (as we will see below). CoC is a victim of its own success.

Don’t get me wrong, CoC can still be run as a scary rpg, but it takes a lot of work on the part of the GM and a savvy group to help move beyond what they already know and assume about the mythos to get really scared by a game. The key is having a really good gamemaster that understands the themes behind Lovecraft’s work- however; a gamemaster of that skill could make any horror game scary. In CoC’s case a good gameaster is more necessary than most other games- and so it gets the third spot.

2. Delta Green (Pagan Publishing). Delta Green is Call of Cthulhu, updated and made sexy (“sexy” like in the smoldering eyes of a goth chick who you know is nothing but trouble). Delta Green is widely regarded as one of the best rpgs on the market, and deservedly so. DG takes the tropes and themes of CoC and uses them to take the mythos into new and exciting (and mysterious) directions. The end result is a new game that brings the tense and terrifying atmosphere of Call of Cthulhu back. Still based on the standard (if uninspiring) BRP system, the real gem of this game is the setting.

In Delta Green you play a government agent (or other suitably well established PC) that is slowly confronting the mythos. Delta Green is a disgraced secret branch of the U.S, government that is now part of a grand conspiracy that fights the mythos. Delta Green is a loose alliance of likeminded individuals (of which the PCs form a cell) that have seen things that should not be and whose lives have changed as a result. Delta Green is about mystery and discovery, and the ultimate costs for those discoveries. There are malevolent intelligences at work against Earth, and the PCs are the unwitting vanguard that fights against those intelligences.

The genius behind Delta Green is that it gives the characters the mundane tools to defeat the mythos- and it falls to the PCs to discover that those tools are still inadequate. Minor aspects of the mythos are emphasized in DG, giving the mythos a bit of a different feel' different enough to make it new and cryptic. Moreover, there are new aspects to the mythos that are introduced, and are done in such a way as to blend with the existing mythos wonderfully. The key is that the writers (some of the best in the business) understand the background to the Lovecraftian mythos and can extrapolate the horror inherent in that background.

Delta Green’s setting is spectacular. If it is the setting that really makes a horror rpg scary, you simply cannot go wrong with Delta Green. The only reason this is not number one is that I think my number one choice holds to the horror genre a bit more firmly- not straying into possible action/adventure as can potentially happen with Delta Green.

1. Little Fears (Key 2). This is my favorite horror rpg, bar none. Jason Blair, the man behind Key 2 is one of my favorite writers/developers along with Lucien Soulban- and part of the reason I like both of them is my unending respect for how they handle the horror genre. With Little Fears Mr. Blair created the definitive horror rpg, staying firmly within the genre while creating a wonderfully evocative setting and suitably colorful system to complement the setting. Little Fears is amazing stuff.

In LF you are a child no older than 12. You face a frightening world, literally. The fears f your childhood are real, and they have a very malevolent reason for wanting your child PC dead (or tortured, or whatever). Shadows are things to be avoided. Under the bed the breathing you thought was the wind is actually the creature’s breath your mom told you does not exist. The closet is' well, lets not even talk about the closet. As a child, you stand alone. In LF your PC is under-equipped, under-trained (obviously), and with none of the resources of society to help you in your desperate fight. Now that is a horror setting.

One of the big things that makes Little Fears my favorite horror rpg is the gaming system. Basically, it is a rules light system that relies more on description and imagination to help drive task resolution. The character sheet is suitably simple but also help create the right atmosphere of isolation and helplessness (honestly, I can’t think of another character sheet that helps promote the feel of the game better than the little two page character sheet in the back of LF).

The writing in LF is suitably creepy and disturbing. The art is overall pretty good, and again, follows the text pretty closely. Little Fears is one of the few games I really consider a product that should only be used by mature gamers- simply for the disturbing themes it promotes. Little fears has all the elements of a great horror rpg- good art, great and descriptive writing, a suitable system, and an amazingly horrific setting.

Get a good GM, turn off the lights, and play a game or two for Little Fears. You will be part of those rare games that you end up bragging about at conventions.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to pop over to the forums and voice your opinion.

Thanks, and see you in a bit.

Chris Gunning

RPGs Off My Shelf – September

Wednesday, September 8th, 2004

Well, its official, “Off My Shelf” is now a series- at least, if you count two issues as a “series.” This week I want to get into a topic near and dear to a lot of roleplayers out there, D2. The D2 engine, highlighted in Dungeons and Dragons 3/3.5 edition has been nothing short of a movement. Good or ill, a lot of the rpg content produced in the last 4 years or so are lumped into two broad groups; D2 and non-D2. While I know there are a lot of people that really resent D2 for either poor mechanics or adopting a Microsoft type of business model, the simple fact to me is that a lot of quality rpg content would never have seen print if not for D2. Admittedly, it takes a little bit of work to make it through the D2 signal to noise ratio- but the gems, when you find them, are very worth it. So, this month’s review article is all about those rpg diamonds in the D2 rough.

Because D2 lends itself to fantasy settings, expect to see a focus on fantasy this time around. While D2 does have some nice entries in the non-fantasy genre, it is the fantasy settings that really stand out in terms of D2 quality.

My biases up front; I like deep settings with lots of supplements. I am a collector more than I am a player (much to my chagrin), so rpgs with lots of high quality books are more of an asset to me than single “core” books. Right or wrong, I see lots of supplements as a sign of a healthy line. And with lots of supplements come lots and lots of ideas, most of which, I assume, help flesh out the world. I also like settings that twist standard assumptions into new ways. As you can tell from my July article (Sci-Fi Settings) I not only dig in-depth settings but also setting innovation and quality production values.

(A bit of a disclaimer: due to the open gaming nature of D2 this article looks at D2 and OGL products together as one family)

So, knowing all that, here are this month’s rankings.

My Top Five D2 settings.

Honorable mention:

Iron Kingdoms (Privateer Press)- While a great game, I helped write parts of the setting and so I remove it from contention.

Oathbound; Domains of the Forge – A setting specifically designed to handle characters from various worlds. A bit like Planescpae meets Fraggle Rock meets the Running Man (no joke). There are a lot of goofy elements and some occasional bad editing gaffes that keep it just off my top 5.

Eberron (WotC)- nifty setting that still needs more definition before I can rank. The core book is great, but the quality of the supplements has yet to be decided.

Warcraft (Sword and Sorcery)- a quality translation of the wonderful CRPG. The key to this line is that the supplements are getting better (not worse as is the norm) as the line continues.

5. Forgotten Realms (WotC). This is the quintessential D2 kitchen-sink game. It has taken me a number of years to come around to really enjoying Forgotten Realms. Originally I played in Ansalon (Dragonlance) and for a long time Forgotten realms lacked the luster of Dragonlance. However, with D2 and the reproduction of Forgotten Realms as the flagship setting of Wizards of the Coast, I ended up buying the core book and have never regretted the purchase. 3/3.5E Forgotten Realms has some absolutely spectacular plot elements highlighted by a series of books that are, arguably, the highest quality rpg products on the market. In all honesty, the 3E Forgotten Realms books are beautiful and the art is extremely evocative.

While kitchen-sink setting are usually not my preferred settings, 3E Forgotten realms does everything just right to get me to really want to play in Faerun. The introduction of the Shades (elite Shadow corrupted humans) and the Kir-Lanan (anti-divine gargoyles) were two small additions that really caught my attention. The fleshing out of the Thayans to more than simple evil magic users has also helped make Faerun a much more interesting and compelling setting. All told, there is a lot of interesting plotlines presented in the core 3E Forgotten realms book- so much so and of such a quality that I can overlook all the craziness thrown in to really focus on the interesting aspects.

4. Conan (Mongoose Publishing). Who doesn’t dig Conan? This is a largely faithful translation of the original Robert Howard stories into the D2 mechanic. Usually, I am very skeptical of Mongoose. They really seem to rush their products and end up with some inferior products. Case in point, is the first edition of Conan (Hyborean edition). Riddled with errata, the game was seriously hampered in playability. However, Mongoose immediately made good on their promise to remedy the situation and, in time, released a new edition (Atlantean edition) with cleaned up rules and text. All that said, Conan D2 is a nifty setting.

There are some fundamental changes to the D2 mechanic as presented in the PHB, but still, Conan D2 is at its heart, a 3E game. Conan takes sword and sorcery, distills it down into its core elements and then rebuilds according to Howard’s compelling setting. It is a world of Barbarian kings, eldritch and sometimes uncontrollable magic, and of adventure. There is a rawness to Conan that is reflected very well in the D2 game that I really enjoy. Strikes against Conan are the original problems with errata as well as it being a licensed setting- in the end, while it is a worthy addition to the Conan body of work- my preferences lean towards original settings.

3. Scarred Lands (Sword and Sorcery Games). This is a very compelling setting that a lot of people have missed. The body of work so far is impressive, and while some of the books could do with a re-write (rather than a simple edit) the vast majority of what is out there for Scarred Lands is really interesting and fun. The Scarred Lands take some of the best parts of the Forgotten Realms, like the conflict between the Gods, and really highlights those elements. Scarred Lands as a setting, is interesting because of the way it was created. Rather than trying to force an existing idea of a setting into the D2 mould (such as with Conan) the designers looked at the core mechanics of 3E and designed a world that helped make sense of those mechanics. Thus, alignment makes a lot of sense in Scarred Lands. Similarly, the various classes each fit very nicely into the Scarred Lands setting- something that just about every other setting fails to do. Druids, Paladins and Monks, normally an afterthought in D2 settings, each play integral roles in the Scarred Lands. I really like the integration of the classes.

Scarred Lands as a whole is an interesting place to adventure. A land recently ravaged by a war between the gods and their followers, the world is still trying to recover. This is post-apocalyptic fantasy at its best, where the heroes do what they do because the designers made sure to emphasize that the world really needs heroes. The Scarred Lands is very big (4 full continents and counting) and there is a lot of room for adventuring to be had- certainly a plus for any role-player.

The downsides are few but important. There are a number of edits and errata many of the books need. Similarly, like I mentioned above, a couple of the books are simply not very good and hurt the playability of the setting. Still, the overall quality of the setting outweighs much of these problems (indeed, it is that much fun IMO).

2. Rokugan (Alderac Entertainment). I loved the original Legend of the 5 Rings but really hated the 2nd edition and I stopped paying any attention to the setting as 1st edition was left behind. Then, Rokugan came along as part of the redesigned D2 Oriental Adventures and I was a very happy boy. D2 and Rokugan mesh quite nicely. The new classes all fit the pseudo-Japanese style of Rokugan and I really dig the inclusion of the Courtier as a core class (showcasing that D2 is not only about hack-and-slash). Even more appealing is the Samurai core class, the Daisho ability really makes them the highlight of the setting while not quite overpowering fighters as a useful combat class.

Rokugan is a lot like Japan of the warring states era (Sengokujidai), except in this world, you have magic and the gods playing their role. Populated by a handful of Great Clans under the direction of the Emperor, the world is a constant flow of shifting alliances, border skirmishes and political intrigue. Humans are the primary race, with all other races marginalized. No quick synopsis of Rokugan would be complete without mentioning the Shadowlands – a corrupted land to the southwest where a broken and vengeful god plots his revenge against humanity.

The supplements have all been extremely useful. The “Way of” books have done a nice job of covering the various and disparate aspects of Rokugani society and the “Secrets of X” books did something that the previous Clan books did not- help define the landed regions of Rokugan as well as give a little more definition as to what life in the Clans is like. Overall, Rokugan is a very deep setting, with complex alliances and plotlines that all but scream to be role played. This is a setting where the characters can become bigger than life because the world almost begs them to develop into deadly Ninja, honorable Samurai, crafty Courtiers, and mysterious Gaijin.

Rokugan has some of the most interesting and detailed NPCs around. Where other settings are set around compelling wars, conflicts or regions, it is the personalities behind the NPCs of Rokugan that really give the setting shape. I once heard that the original developer saw the whole plot unfold before his mind’s eye because of his vision of one of the core NPCs, Bayushi Kachiko.

The downside to Rokugan is the same as its biggest asset; the involved world. The body of Rokugan info, from the original 1E and 2E games and from the constantly evolving Collectable Card Game. Simply put, if not played with an eye to consistency, the world can potentially overwhelm the GM or the players. Still, recognizing that the world of Rokugan grows and changes just as the characters do helps put the style of play into context- and if you take the time to get into the world, it ends up being very rewarding.

1. Midnight (Fantasy Flight Games). This setting is head and shoulders above the rest, IMO. I have a penchant for dark and gritty settings, and they do not get any darker or grittier than Midnight. The best description of Midnight is Middle earth if Sauron won. That one line description alone creates all sorts of interesting roleplaying opportunities- add to that a very well thought out world, nifty classes, some fun new mechanics, and you get my favorite D2 setting.

The default playing style is a group of PC freedom fighters- fighting the good fight in an unconventional way against the forces of darkness that seemingly stand on the verge of victory. Everything else aside, the oppressive setting immediately creates some difficult questions- such as where the term freedom fighter vs. terrorist diverges. Also inherent in the setting are questions such as who is an enemy or potential ally and if victory is really an attainable goal against such a powerful evil. All told, it is these difficult and complex questions that really make Midnight shine.

To its credit, Midnight goes beyond these implied questions to help develop the world in a very fascinating way. Even without Izrador (the dark God) and the forces of Shadow, are the conflicts between the various races and cultures. In the core book alone we get a lot of information of the peoples of Midnight, providing a good deal of useful tidbits to help make a number of different types of characters (including, naturally, evil ones). Beyond the core book are a host of solid supplements. One thing that I really like about Midnight is that FFG has focused on creating a regular series of low cost but useful supplements. Most Midnight supplements hover around $16 and focus on things like Midnight specific monsters, magic, locations, and heroes. The art is pretty good throughout the line and very consistent, a big plus in my book. Oh, and one of the supplements is a boxed set- how cool is that?

The new mechanics in Midnight are second to none. Magic is pretty radically changed in the setting, fitting in nicely with the desperate feeling that should be core aspects of any heroic campaign. To help offset the nastiness of the setting, PC heroes have access to “bloodlines,” s sort of destiny mechanic (such as “steelborn” and “beast friend”) that grants bonuses as the character advances. Bloodlines not only help grant useful and setting appropriate bonuses, but also help further define a Player’s character from other characters of the same class. Nifty.

The only issues I have with Midnight are that the bindings of some of the core books were pretty poor. I take good care of my books, but still had to send my copy of the Core book to Fantasy Flight to get a replacement (and like Mongoose, FFG was more than prompt in helping me get a new replacement copy). I also feel that the signature adventure “Crown of Shadow” is pretty weak- especially for a setting that is popping at the seams with great campaign ideas.

All in all though, Fantasy Flight has a winner on their hands. I cannot recommend Midnight highly enough.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to pop over to the forums and voice your opinion.

Thanks, and see you next month.

Chris Gunning

Chris Gunning writes copy for the “one thousand monkeys, one thousand typewriters” website, where they accept open submissions and provide publication resources for artists and writers in the fantasy, science fiction, and role-playing genres. His site can be found at:

RPGs Off My Shelf – July

Saturday, August 21st, 2004

Welcome to the inaugural column of what I hope becomes a regular event. This is “Off My Shelf” and is my opportunity to look back at the best and worst role playing games I have come across in my nearly 2 years of gaming. In that time, I have collected a nice size rpg collection, large enough for me to feel comfortable to list off my favorites (and least favorites) of the rpgs that I have come across in my experience as both a Game Master and a player.

The goal of this column is not to review the rpgs I discuss here since I have no doubt that they all have been reviewed before. No, instead with “Off My Shelf” I would like to take the opportunity to compare and contrast what parts of the rpgs I like and dislike and hopefully encourage discussion as well as encourage gamers who are unfamiliar with the rpgs in question to take the time and check them out. If you are a sports fan, you may be familiar with's “Power Rankings.” If so, you have a pretty good idea of what I am looking to do with “Off My Shelf.”

As this column grows and progresses, you will get a feeling for who I am. With any luck, this will be more than a self-masturbatory project and will involve some discussion as to what I missed, what I ranked incorrectly, and generally helps prompt some lively discussion on the better qualities of the better rpgs out there. So, to help avoid making this a pointless narcissistic exercise, I strongly encourage anyone that agrees or disagrees with me to post their thoughts on the 1km1kt rpg forums. So, please, if you have any comments, feel free to share them.

So, rather than blather on, let me start this month with one of my all-time favorite rpg genre:

Honorable mention:

  • Stardrive (TSR) – solid and fun kitchen sink game.
  • Fading Suns – Similar in feel to Dune, but with aliens and arbitrary splats that I don't like much.
  • Traveler (SJGames) – the grand-daddy of sci-fi rpgs that I still buy loyally. The GURPS presentation is the best, IMO.

My Top Five Sci-Fi rpg settings

5. SLA Industries (Nightfall/Hogshead) – SLA Industries is a very dark rpg put together by a bunch of Brits. All in all, it is everything, in my opinion, that Warhammer 4K should have been. It is gothic, brooding, powerful, and generally oppressive. However, I take all those qualities as a good thing. SLA Industries challenges the players to come up with some nasty characters- equal part Rifts and Vampire. The game also fully embraces powergaming as a core aspect and instead of letting that style of play overwhelm the setting, SLA Industries is able to ensure that as bad ass as your character may be, there is assuredly at least a couple others out there just a little bit more bad ass.

I really like the tone and feel of SLA Industries and I really like how it encourages players to play badasses in the same way Exalted does the same for fantasy players. The editing is a bit sloppy and the sentence structure can get awkward at times keeping this as my number 5. I also feel like the powergaming aspect of the game does get a bit too much at times- a little restraint on some parts of the setting would have been welcome. Even with my problems, the presentation is solid and the world is fascinating.

Anyone interested in SLA Industries should be forewarned that there is a hidden backstory to the game that has been the core of some very nasty flamewars on the net. I like the backstory, but think the SLA Industires settings stands on its own merit without the beackstory. A little searching on the world wide web will turn up the backstory, and it is, indeed, nifty, but it has been the source for all sorts of consternation on the part of GMs, players, and the designer. You have been warned.

4. Jovian Chronicles (Dream Pod 9) – Jovian Chronicles (JC) is a skillful blending of hard sci-fi and mecha with just enough pulpy goodness to make sure the setting encourages gameplay a lot like the Gundam episodes that inspired the game. I like the feel of JC and I really like the larger-than-life mecha. In fact, JC has some of the best presented vehicles of any Sci-fi rpg and considering the genre, this is a major asset to the rpg. JC is supported well with a number of supplements that cover the different planets and vehicles of the setting. I respect JC for being a game that avoids dealing with FTL drives, and instead recognizes that the solar system can certainly be big enough to encourage all sorts of adventures. Plus, the politics of JC is quite juicy; a cold war between Jupiter and Earth looms and the inner planets play off one another to gain advantage. Venus is especially appealing to me, a hyper-modern militarized Japanese-like society- it plays a delicate game working with and against the Earth Imperialists.

The detractions of the Jovian Chronicles setting are the imbalanced presentation of the setting. As the supplements were developed (basically from SolaPol onwards) there was a shift in the Earth-as-simple-and-direct-bad-guys to Earth-as-potentially-misunderstood-and-not-as-bad-imperialists. There is also some really horrid numbers editing in the mechanical catalogs (vehicle books) that make the utility of some of the ships are bit harder to utilize- taking away from the setting as a whole. Still, the presentation and the sheer fun of the setting override the downsides.

3. Transhuman Space (Steve Jackson Games) – I am so very fond of this setting. When I first heard about it I thought it was an intriguing idea that would probably not translate well into a setting. Boy, was I wrong. Transhuman Space (THS) is all about taking the modern world and fast-forwarding it. The designer, David Pulver, seems to have taken all the really interesting bits from Popular Science and mixed them together into a setting. Technology is at believable levels, social and political development make sense (and, in some cases, do not make much sense- which, I think, is very appropriate), and the general presentation of one possible future for mankind is riveting reading. Transhuman Space does not pull any punches- rather, it seeks to explore the weird technology and society of the future. Philosophy, memetics and religion play major roles in THS- something I think is handled by the game quite well. I am also quite fond of the presentation of Artificial Intelligences and Ghosts/Emulations as potential PCs. All in all, Transhuman Space is the setting for those of us that like our sci-fi hard. An absolutely amazing setting.

While I am trying to stick to the merits of a setting independent of anything else, I must say that the art in the core THS book by Christopher Shy is both appropriate and evocative. THS is quite surreal at times, but just recognizable as to make it playable- and Shy's art complements that feel perfectly.

My minor problems with THS are the goofiness that plays into the setting (I really dislike humor that I can label 'goofy'). There are some really weird and humorous things inserted into the setting that I feel breaks the continuity of the setting. Sure, it helps lighten the mood of an otherwise very (VERY) serious rpg, but humor in rpgs needs to be very thoughtful and well done- and the occasional bits of humor in THS feels more like an afterthought or shallow parody of the modern era- neither of which I feel took a lot of time to think up and detract from the hyper-evolved setting of THS. Luckily, these spates of humor are few and far between and are pretty easy to ignore.

2. Blue Planet (Biohazard/Fantasy Flight Games) – I will forever be indebted to Fantasy Flight Games for taking the steps to make sure Blue Planet received the support it deserved after the untimely demise of Biohazard games. Blue Planet is another relatively hard Sci-fi game (see a pattern?) that focuses in depth on the development of a single planet (in this case Poseidon). I particularly like how Blue Planet does not seek to provide us with a whole grocery list of planets and star systems, and instead works to make their fictional setting as compelling as it can be. Like my admiration of JC for staying within the Solar System, I like Blue Planet even better for taking the philosophy of setting development one step further. Poseidon is one of the (if not the) most thoughtfully well developed single planet in rpg history.

The development of the ecology in Blue Planet and the interactions between native and Earth species are stories just waiting to be told. The technology is all sufficiently advanced while still recognizable to present any tech-head with the gadgets and gears to have a blast. The mysteries behind the aborigines are presented in such a way as to make it clear that potential players are to avoid that information while still being readily accessible to Game masters. The presentation of cetaceans and genetically altered humans is great and worth a look alone (Ancient Echoes is one of my all time favorite rpg supplements). All in all, a great setting that gets into the nitty-gritty of what makes an alien world interesting.

The only reason Blue Planet is not number one is my predilection for space opera. Otherwise, Blue Planet has just about everything a gamer could want.

1. Heavy Gear 2nd edition (Dream Pod 9) – Dream Pod 9 really does put out some quality settings. While the support can be haphazard in quality, the ideas behind the settings are second-to-none, and in my opinion, Heavy Gear is the pinnacle of merging fun ideas, mecha, science, space travel, politics, and space opera into a single compelling setting. The default setting, both pre- and post- advancement of the metaplot (which I will not spoil), is just dripping with campaign ideas.

Heavy Gear has, arguably, the best support of any sci-fi rpg out there (except for maybe Traveller). The thing that really gets me jazzed about Heavy Gear is the consistently interesting and coherent setting that is put together through the supplements. Not only do we have a very detailed core world in Terra Nova, but we also have the benefit of getting some detailed support for Caprice (a great setting in and of itself) and then some nice general support for a number of the other planets involved in the Heavy Gear setting. Heavy Gear creates a setting worthy of some great campaigns and is admirably established to handle all types of adventures- from military, to political, to criminal investigation, to exploration, to espionage, to just-about-whatever. Heavy Gear also presents an interesting political atmosphere that encompasses multiple factions on Terra Nova as well as a complicated web of alliances and enemies throughout the other colonies and Earth. I really like the political atmosphere of Heavy Gear.

The presentation of the technology is absolutely wonderful, with options for the military minded who dig on field variants of established vehicles, to people less interested in tech and happy to work with general stats for “generic 9mm Gyroc Pistol.” The high quality of Dream Pod 9's ability to translate science and mechanics into an interesting vehicle (highlighted by the Heavy Gears themselves) really shines through in the setting. And the Gears? They are probably the coolest and most believable mecha I have encountered.

I also enjoy the consistently high quality of the supplements. Each supplement dissects different parts of the Heavy gear universe and does so in such a way as to make each sub-section worthy of attention and campaign ideas. There is a lot to work through in the Heavy Gear body of work, but it is all worthwhile and each part helps craft a compelling larger picture of multiple worlds locked together in their respective destinies. In Heavy Gear, the sum of the overall picture is much larger than the component (and high quality) supplements.

I will say that Heavy Gear does have some problems, most of which involve the metaplot, but these metaplot generated quirks often work out to a better setting. Most notably, the advancement of the metaplot started before all the nations of Terra Nove were detailed- normally this would drive me nuts. However, the advancement of the plot made it so the last nation detailed, the Eastern Sun Emirates, is presented in a more fascinating situation than if it had been detailed solely before the metaplot was advanced. Additionally, the metaplot helped ensure we got to other planets- and thus, what helped move Heavy Gear into a game that both detailed a core world (Terra Nova- the default setting) as well as a web of other interesting planets. So, to Heavy Gear's credit, what would normally be a negative helps push the setting forward into better supplements.

For what it is worth, I am not as fond of Heavy Gear 3rd ed (linked to SilCore)- the support for the setting has been lackluster. If you want a spectacular sci-fi setting that gives you options and encourages some nifty gaming, then go find yourself a copy of Heavy Gear 2nd edition- I seriously doubt you will be disappointed.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to pop over to the forums and voice your opinion.

Thanks, and see you next month.

Chris Gunning
Chris Gunning writes copy for the “one thousand monkeys, one thousand typewriters” website, where they accept open submissions and provide publication resources for artists and writers in the fantasy, science fiction, and role-playing genres. His site can be found at: