Fading Suns: d20 Roleplaying Game Rulebook

From:  Holistic Design
Reviewed by:  Ron McClung

Fading Suns: d20 Roleplaying Game Rulebook is a Role Playing Game Core Book from Holistic Design.

I have already expressed my passion for this game setting in my review of the Fading Suns Role Playing Game Core Rulebook, but simply said, this is my favorite setting of all time.  Every aspect of it fascinates me, and there are so many facets to it.

However, when I tried playing the Victory Point system, I struggled with it.  I tried and tried to make the system work with my style of running and the style of my players.  However, it simply didn’t fit.  The system seemed (to us) “anti-character” as one of my players put it.  The system seemed to work against the player and not for the player.  My players complained about how useless their characters felt in the game.  They felt quite inadequate no matter how simple the task.  They did not like the black-jack style of dice mechanic – role under but not too to high.  It seem counter intuitive to many.

I admit that my style of running is a little more cinematic and heroic.  I don’t like to quibble over the most simple tasks when peace in the galaxy is at hand.  I want my PCs to be effective and feel like the have accomplished something because the character they created – concept and numbers together – are effective and have a role to play in the campaign I have created.  My players and I did not get that feeling out of the Victory Point system.  I was on the verge of moth-balling my Fading Suns stuff entirely.

From page #5:
“It’s not easy to think straight with a gun pointed at your head.”

Then along came the d20 version of Fading Suns, and I took a long deep breath of relief.  I was already a big fan of d20 from d20 Star Wars.  As far as I am concerned, d20 saved Fading Suns.  Or at least that is what I thought at the time.

Content:  For the most part, this book is a reprint of the text from the original rulebook.  The only things that are different are the rules, of course.  When the book deviates into the d20 content, it changes font.  This book all but requires at least the 3.0 version of the D&D core rulebook, because it does not include essential information like character generation basics (ability score table) or the level progression chart.  Also note that this was released before 3.5 version of d20.  However, with a little work, it can be worked into 3.5.

After a short introduction, the book takes you into Chapter One: The Universe which is basically word for word the text from the original Victory Point rule book.

Chapter Two: Characters is the start of the d20 content, with the conversion of all the core races to d20 and the character generation system. Each race is converted, followed by the classes available in the game setting which include Beastfriend, Brother Battle, Knight, Knave, Soldier, Theurgist, Psychic and a few others.  What people will notice right away is that the core three faction-related classes – Priest, Guilder and Noble – are basically the same structure.  Each have their factional bonus ability at 1st level and then bonus feats at specific levels afterwards.  Some would say it is not very imaginative, but really that leaves a lot of customization open to the player.

The other classes are more traditional, with specific special abilities at certain levels.  The biggest and perhaps most controversial change was the occult classes – Theurgist and Psychic.  Nothing like the spell casters of D&D, the occult classes are a little more structured and limited in what they can do.  However, once you get into the powers, you see that they are not so limited.

Another additional option they supply for characters is the Armor Class Bonus based on Level.  Because the setting can be a little more deadly than your traditional fantasy setting, the game supplies an option for an AC bonus at every 3rd level.

Chapter Three: Skills does two things – it modifies existing 3e Skills and adds a few new skills.  The skill modification is simply to add sci-fi related setting stuff, like a variety of Craft subskills as well as Knowledge subskills.  It adds several new skills – Academia, Arts, Drive, Occultcraft, Starship Gunnery, Use Artifact, and Use Think Machine.  In some cases, like Arts, I had to ask why, because in this case, Knowledge or Perform skills should have covered that.

Chapter Four: Feats is where the designer tried to be innovative but fell a little bit short.  Along with the base feats in d20, a character can choose from a variety of feats that are setting specific in this chapter.  It introduces a new feat type called a Social Feat, which primarily deals with social titles and networks of the game. There is a serious intrigue side of this game setting, and these feats attempt to enhance that.

Unfortunately, I found that it is hard to build mechanics around intrigue.  I love intrigue in a game, probably more so than my players.  The Social feats try to add more mechanics to the social aspects of the game when it really does not need it.  There are some very cool feats in there, but some are simply too clunky.  I liked the idea of the Social feats, and in fact went through the old Victory Point books and found more Benefits and Blessing I could use to make more, but I kept them as simple as I could.  I suppose this is the nature of d20 in general.

Chapter Five: Equipment takes some of the equipment from the original book and converts it to d20.  The disappointment in this was that Cybernetics were all but left out.  There were a few items converted but there was a whole system of creating a cybernetic device that was left out.  Also, a big disappointment to many was the Starship combat, which was given a short treatment but not enough to satisfy most people.

Also, there were several game mechanics related to modern weapons that should have been compiled into a Combat chapter rather than placed sporadically throughout the weapons sections, like autofire and shield mechanics.

Chapter Six: Occult Powers is the area that is the most controversial and where, for some, the biggest disappointments come.  For me, I found that some of these powers were simply broken.  Those that are used to the long spell lists of D&D will be disappointed because of the lack of variety, but I do not mind that.  This actually helps the system in that it makes it easy to create house rules and rules tweaks to fix some of the problems. The problem is that you have to know about them ahead of time before your players exploit them.

Both Psychic and Theurgists powers are explained in this chapter, the author leaving Antinomy for future books (which they do later in Aliens & Deviltry sourcebook).  Psychics have Paths and Theurgist have Rites.  Each Path or Rite has 3 or 4 levels of degrees.  The occultist classes are leveled out so that the character will learn at least 4 Paths or Rites.  The limiting factor to either is Wyrd points, but as I found out, it is not all that limiting.  Perhaps I gave out too many as rewards or maybe my Wyrd Point house rule allowed to many but the GM needs to keep tabs on the number of Wyrd points each occult player has.

The interesting factor in either case is the down side of occult powers.  In the case of Psychic Powers it is Urge, and for Theurgists it is Hubris.  These are great concepts but hard mechanics to enforce in game.  Once a player starts down that path, it’s hard to get them back.  However, it does have great plot device potential and, if treated right, can be something of a power-gaming limiter.  Overall, I liked this conversion.

The Chapter Seven: Gamemastering is far shorter than I would have liked.  It converts some of the NPCs and creatures from the core book, but it needed to do more.  Many other d20 core books supply base stats for a low level, mid level and high level NPCs.  While running this, I needed that.

The Appendix: Planets section gives a short list and descriptions of each of the major worlds in the setting, which is a direct copy from the Victory Point system core book.

In conclusion, I ran this game for over 2 years.  My characters made it to 12th level (or somewhere around there).  I feel that I have enough experience to comment on how it plays.  I love the setting and I loved the potential it had, but I ran into too many problems with this conversion.  Many times, it simply felt like D&D in space because I was using creatures out of the Monster Manuel and dungeon maps from some D&D adventures.  There was just not enough, in my opinion.

I feel that this was put out simply to cash in on the d20 craze back when it was hot.  I do not feel that Holistic Design (HDI) gave it due focus and simply wanted to rope in some other gamers who were not attracted to the original system.  Although I do feel that the game setting deserves to be played, I do not feel that HDI put enough work into this rules set to give it justice.  And because I really do feel that the original game system is not entirely sound, the setting remains lost in a sea of poor rule mechanics design.

This book gives a good foundation for any d20 fan to play in this setting but it needs some tweaking, especially in the Occult area.  Perhaps the whole occult system could be thrown out, but coming up with an alternative that is balanced is hard. I would only recommend this book to someone that is comfortable enough with d20 to recognize the imbalances and is able to customize the game to make it work.

I think they would have been better off waiting for d20 Modern/d20 Future.  A conversion to that system is long overdue and probably would have fixed some of the problems.

The Day After Ragnarok

The Day After Ragnarok
From:  Atomic Overmind Press
Reviewed by:  Ron McClung

The Day After Ragnarok is a new Savage Worlds RPG Setting Book from Atomic Overmind Press.

The Day After Ragnarok is an interesting setting book that takes the absurdity of the mythological occurrences of Ragnarok and makes them happen in a world torn by World War II.  It takes the question we all like to ask … “what if …?” … to an extreme.

Setting:  My knowledge of the Ragnarok myth is sketchy at best, but with a little research I was able to get the idea.  Most gamers are very familiar with it because it is one of the cornerstones of mythology on which we base most fantasy worlds.  In short, it is a series of events according to Norse mythology that marks the end of the world.

The Day After Ragnarok (TDaR) is a world after a series of events that started in the twilight of World War II.   The Nazis, dabbling in the occult and mythology, found the proper ritual to bring about Ragnarok.  However, as one can imagine, it did not turn out the way they thought it would.

From page # 1:
“Welcome to the world at the end of the world. The skies are shrouded with burning, oily smoke, the Earth groans under a poisoned corpse, and the only way out may be deeper into the belly of the beast. It’s a world nearly killed by the death of wonder, although far from all the wonders are dead. Put the “grim” back in “grime” and see the world outside the smeared Perspex windscreen.”

In mid-1945, the howl of Garm was heard and the moon turned blood red.  The huge head of the Midgard serpent rose from the Arabian Sea.  However, old world mythology was met with American ingenuity.  Truman rammed an atom bomb right up the serpents nostrils.

The results were a mixed bag.  Yes, the nuke obliterated the brain of the colossal beast, but this also brought what is referenced in the book as Serpentfall.  With the head the size of a medium-sized country, the serpent tumbled across three continents, crushing everything in its path.  The world map quite literally has an immense snake laying the British Isles, middle and eastern Europe, and across Africa with its head pulverizing Egypt.  All of Egypt.

This fall also created tsunamis that annihilated the east cost of the US, radioactive venom clouds that poisoned most of the rest of the US mutating man and beast alike, and earthquakes that awoke giants in Eastern Europe and Western Russia.  The world fell asunder when the howls of Garn were heard, and what remains is an apocalyptic world of strange tech, mutants, and supernatural pulp fiction heroes.

From  page # 1:
“ See it smolder. See it burn. See if you can save it.”

Content:  The 130-page PDF contains all you need to play in this world except the core system rules, of course.  Those can be found in the core Savage World rulebooks.

After a brief introduction that gives you the general idea of the setting concept, the book takes you into creating a hero for the setting.  It supplies a number of character concept ideas, including Arcane Scholar, Barbarian, Oilman, and Outlaw.  It also supplies a guideline for forming your character role in the party as well as addition professions for the Professional Edges in the main Savage World rule book.

What this game falls a little short in is the area of nationality.  It does touch on characters originating from what is left of the US and the British Commonwealth, but there could be so much more.   Many games do this though, so I can not blame them.  In a game like this, nationality would play a big role.  I just see this as a lost opportunity to differentiate characters even further.  That’s a big thing for me.

There are 5 new Hindrances including Blank Stare, Holy Roller and Snakebit.  Following this are several setting-specific Edges.  These include Background Edges such as Arcane Background for Magic, Miracles, Psionics, and something called Ophi-tech.  Also included are Professional Edges like Airman, Rhodes Scholar, Soldier, and something called a Speleo-Herptologist.

The Gear section is very comprehensive.  It covers all the primary essentials for a hero to have in the late 40s and early 50s.  The use of historical clip art of some equipment enhances the feel and atmosphere of the game setting.  Following this is the section on Ophi- Tech.  This is expanded on later.

The section titled The World After Ragnarok is a comprehensive overview of the world after Serpentfall.  What I am impressed with in this portion is the brevity but also the completeness.  The author gives you a lot but not too much.  From the Drowned Coast and Poisoned Lands of the former US to the lands that were southern Egypt and the Sudan, now called Ras al-Thuban (the Head of the Serpent); from the politically active jungles of Latin America to the cold mysteries of the Stalin regime in the Soviet Union; the world is a place jam-packed with adventure and intrigue.  Soviets are the main “bad guy,” but no one should discount the Nazis as they were never entirely defeated.

What I like most about this section are the sporadic Savage Shortlists throughout the text.  These are short lists like Top Five places to be Attacked By Pirates, Top Five Places to Find A Remote Castle Ruled by a Madman, or Top Five places To Stomp Nazis.  These are brilliant little nuggets of ideas for adventure locations and help inspire you to jump right into the game setting.

The remainder of the book is a plethora of information for a game master to run a game in this brilliant setting.  Born of Venom and Ice is a chapter containing nothing but stats of bad guys – NPCs and creatures alike.  From the mundane policeman and common thug to the more exotic cultists and elite soldier, the non-player characters are quite abundant.  When they are not enough, the game master has creatures like chimeras,  ghouls, death-worms, giant alligators and front giants to choose from.

Adventures in the Serpent’s Shadow is a chapter that gives the game master a variety of ideas for campaigns in the setting.  It first provides four campaign types and an outline of adventure seeds for each.  Then it contains an Adventure Generator that allows the game master to create adventures with the roll of the dice.  This plays true to the core philosophy of Savage Worlds itself in that it makes it easy to quickly sit down and start up a game. This is followed by a few samples that were rolled up with this generator system.

Ending the book are two very nice things.  The Appendix supplies the GM a series of very handy encounter tables in case you can not come up with something for your characters to fight.  It ends with a very complete index, which always gains bonus points from me.

There are several key concepts in the game that give the game its overall feel and uniqueness.  First, the appearance of a gargantuan serpent alone showed the world of burgeoning modern science that the impossible can exist and defy all logic and science.  This opened a door that none thought possible.  Also, the death of a snake through a nuclear blast caused side effects that no one saw coming.  And finally, the sheer immensity of a dead snake laying across multiple continents has given people access to things no one thought existed.

In addition, the coming of Ragnarok has brought into this world Magic, Miracles and Psionics.  Magic is tricky and dangerous.  Miracles are possible through many different faiths.  Soviet experimentation into psychic powers has created psionically capable people, although the rules do not recommend characters take on this role.

Another addition is Speleo-Herptology, the study of the Midgard Serpent corpse and its secrets.  Literally it translates to “serpent cavers.”  They explore the immense corpse of the Serpent; as it is so huge, climbing between its scales is like exploring great caves.

Also, Ophi-tech is a very unique concept presented in TDaR.  It is biological and chemical technology derived directly from things found within the Midgard Serpent’s corpse.  These include Ablative Metabolic Suit (a type of protective suit made of Serpent-skin),  Crotaline Drops (eyes drops that allow one to see in the dark) and Ophiline (refined Serpent oil – a replacement to petroleum oil).

System & Rules:  As mentioned, the setting adds several Hindrances and Edges.  Also mentioned was the fact that it expands the Professional Edge to setting-specific professions.  The mechanics that the book adds are primarily optional rules like the rules for Serpent Taint and the rules for Ophi-tech malfunctions and the possible consequences.

Layout:  Simply put – it is awesome.  The book is very well laid out and well edited.  The art is very good, from the filler art at the start of each chapter to the character art for the NPCs.

In conclusion, this game has a lot of appeal.  Not surprisingly, it is written by multi-Origin and Ennie Award winner Kenneth Hite.  This is a well written and thorough setting book with a lot in it.  It is imaginative, different, and at the same time has enough familiarity that one can grasp the basic pulp fiction aspects of the game.  Reading his words in the Inspiration section at the back of the book, he pieces together several disparate and unrelated ideas to bring together a brilliant and vivid world that drives you to want to play in it.  Great job!

The Day After Ragnarok
From:
Atomic Overmind Press
Type of Game:
Role playing game, setting book
Written by:
Kenneth Hite
Contributing Authors:
Hal Mangold
Cover Art by:
Jeff Himmelman
Additional Art by:
Mike Perry & Nathan Furman
Number of Pages:
130
Game Components Included:
Full RPG setting book
Game Components
Not Included:
Savage World core rulebook
Retail Price: $12.95
ISBN: 0-9816792-2-6
Website:
www.atomicovermind.com